In the wake of Jill Abramson’s abrupt dismissal as executive editor of the New York Times, Politico’s Mike Allen suggests people owe his colleague Dylan Byers an apology:
WOULD ANYONE LIKE TO APOLOGIZE to Dylan Byers for attacking his April 2013 story, "Turbulence at The Times," as sexist? In retrospect, it's clear that it was reporting (and even understating) the reality.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I stand by my criticism of Byers’ article, and find it laughable that anyone would suggest that Abramson’s firing negates the central complaints lodged against it.
Byers’ article was about alleged problems with Abramson’s “temperament,” yet it began and ended with anecdotes about two separate instances of Dean Baquet (then the Times’ managing editor and now Abramson’s replacement) punching newsroom walls in anger. In the opening anecdote, Baquet “burst out of Abramson’s office, slammed his hand against a wall and stormed out of the newsroom” and didn’t return for the rest of the day, skipping a daily editors’ meeting. Here’s how Byers concludes the opening anecdote:
[O]nce the story had made the rounds, it wasn’t Baquet the staffers were griping about. It was Abramson.
That tells you everything you need to know about Byers’ piece: From his reporting, he learned that some Times staffers didn’t like Abramson’s temperament and said she was “difficult to work with.” He also learned that Baquet had on multiple occasions punched newsroom walls in anger. And yet he chose to write an article about Jill Abramson’s alleged temperament problems, without addressing in any way the sexist double-standard that leads people to describe a woman as temperamental and difficult while they “fondly” recall examples of a man punching a wall.
That was the problem with Byers’ article: Nobody thought he made up his sources (though some, myself included, wondered how representative they were of the newsroom as a whole.) Instead, people criticized him for not recognizing that a key part of the story, if not the central focus, was the extent to which sexist attitudes played a role in the criticisms of Abramson he was hearing. (See examples here, here, here, here and here.)
In short, the criticism of Byers was that he failed to recognize and address the strong possibility of sexist attitudes driving complaints about Abramson, and that this kind of failure helps perpetuate those sexist attitudes (and likely demonstrates them.)
That hasn’t been undermined by this week’s news. (It’s hard to imagine how it even could be.) Just the opposite, in fact. While we don’t (and won’t) know the “true” or “full” story behind Abramson’s tenure and its sudden end, this week’s developments actually reinforce the critique that Byers missed a glaring question of sexist attitudes and double-standards.
At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference yesterday, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) told a story intended to illustrate the evils of free school lunches for poor children:
“The left is making a big mistake here. What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul. The American people want more than that. This reminds me of a story I heard from Eloise Anderson. She serves in the cabinet of my buddy, Governor Scott Walker. She once met a young boy from a very poor family, and every day at school, he would get a free lunch from a government program. He told Eloise he didn’t want a free lunch. He wanted his own lunch, one in a brown-paper bag just like the other kids. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown-paper bag had someone who cared for him. This is what the left does not understand.” Now, there are a couple obvious problems with Ryan's worldview.
The first is the implication that a kid without a brown-paper bag lunch doesn't have anyone who cares for him. But parents too poor to feed their children can still care about them. Money and affection are not the same thing.
Second, taking away a poor kid's lunch doesn't do anything to fill his soul or ensure he has a loving family. It just leaves her hungry and hurts her ability to learn, making it harder for her to escape poverty. As MSNBC's Ned Resnikoff explains, Ryan's anecdote accidentally makes the case for a guaranteed minimum income, rather than for the let-them-eat-cake policies Ryan prefers.
So, it wasn't the most successful anecdote you'll ever encounter. But the fun's just getting started: As it turns out, the story isn't true. Not the way Ryan told it, anyway.
The kid in question never spoke to Eloise Anderson, Secretary of Wisconsin's Department of Children and Families. Instead, his story was told in a book titled “The Invisible Thread,” by Laura Schroff. A spokesperson for Anderson says she misspoke when she re-told the story during a July 31, 2013 congressional hearing, and that she actually "was referring to a television interview which she had seen with Maurice Mazyck," the now-grown boy.
The actual story is quite different from the Ryan/Anderson version. It doesn't involve a child saying he didn't want a free lunch, or talking about a school lunch program in any way. In the actual story, Schroff encounters Mazyck, a panhandling 11-year-old whose mother was in jail, and offers to make him a lunch he can pick up on his way to school each day. Mazyck asks her to put the lunch in a paper bag "because when I see kids come to school with their lunch in a paper bag, that means someone cares about them."
So what does the now-grown Maurice Mazyck think about school lunch programs? The Washington Post notes "Schroff and Mazyck are partnering with a group called No Kid Hungry to help end childhood hunger in the United States. One key part of the program is connecting hungry kids with federal programs such as school lunches and food stamps."
Now, one last little wrinkle. One of Paul Ryan's early mentors was then-Congressman Jack Kemp, another supply-side alchemist with an undeserved reputation for intellectual prowess.
As the Republican Party's vice presidential nominee in 1996, Kemp repeatedly told the story of a conversation he supposedly had with a young child in a Chicago public housing project. "I was in Chicago at a public housing community. I asked a little boy what he wanted to be when he grew up," Kemp would say before expressing dismay at the child's conditional reply: "He said, 'Mr. Kemp, if I grow up...'" In fact, Kemp had never spoken to the child, whose story had appeared in a book.
I haven't put a great deal of thought into the precise order of this list, particularly past the first 15 or so entries. A week from now, might I be inclined to put Gravity at number 20 rather than 30 and Frances Ha at 28 instead of 22? Sure. I'm certain the first three are my top three (though I keep flipping the order around) and even more certain that the last entry belongs in the last spot, but beyond that don't read too much into ordinal rankings.
Numerical ratings are explained at the end of this post. Entries that end in * have been added since initial posting.
All Is Lost: 9/10
An excellent, thoroughly captivating film that trusts and respects its audience. The broad concept -- someone trapped, alone, in a life-threatening situation -- lends itself to two obvious recent comparisons: 2010's 127 Hours and 2013's Gravity, both of which recieved the Best Picture Oscar nominations All is Lost was denied. That's a shame: All is Lost is the best of the three, and it isn't at all close.
127 Hours was pretty bad. Watching a guy trapped, alone, and facing possible death should’ve been a captivating and gut-wrenching experience, but because Danny Boyle made it - as is his habit - like a Mountain Dew commercial, full of punched colors and quick cuts and flashbacks and hyper energy where there should be thoughtful quiet, it just didn’t work -- not as a serious drama, anyway. If it was a bit more exciting, it might've been a decent action movie. Like 127 Hours, Gravity is a pretty film that has won undeserved praise for depth. Matt Zoller Seitz writes: "For all its stunning exteriors, it's really concerned with emotional interiors, and it goes about exploring them with simplicity and directness, letting the actors's faces and voices carry the burden of meaning." If only that were so. Instead, viewers are given a relentless patter of (often terrible) dialogue that obscures rather than highlighting the emptiness and dispair the charecters face. Again: A decent action-adventure movie, but that's about it.
Despite the broad plot similarities, All is Lost couldn't be more different. It's a delicate and sublte film. There's no clunky paint-by-numbers backstory tacked on to the beginning, no endless dialogue spelling everything out, no heavy-handed score or emotionally manipulative flashbacks. There are very nearly no spoken words at all. Instead there's just the simple story of a man on a small broken boat in a large ocean, magnificantly acted and beautifully shot. Robert Redford doesn't babble to himself about everything he's thinking and feeling; he just shows us. It's a far more impressive acting performance than Bullock's, but more importantly it allows time and space for the viewer to engage emotionally and intellectually. Redford's charecter faces potential death, and that brings introspection about the fragility of life, mistakes made, opportunities missed. But that introspection isn't just happening on screen; the film deftly leads the audience to it as well. The difference between Gravity and All is Lost is the difference between someone saying "I'm scared I might die" and someone asking you "What would you regret most if you knew you might die tomorrow?"
It's a great film. It's not the soul-crushing pit of dispair you probably fear. You should see it.
All is Lost is Writer/Director J.C. Chandor's second film; his first, Margin Call, should've won the Best Picture Oscar in 2012, but wasn't nominated. All is Lost should've gotten Picture and Directing nominations, and the fact that Robert Redford wasn't nominated for Lead Actor is deeply absurd.
Director Spike Jonze's best-known work is probably a Beastie Boys video, and Her is about a guy dating his cell phone, so some skepticism is understandable.
But Her is a remarkable movie: Warm and sensitive and thoughtful and charming and subtle. Jonze wisely avoids the distracting trappings of most movies set in the future: There are no hovercars or android housekeepers. This is a film about the future of relationships -- our relationships with each other, with the technology that plays an ever-larger role in our lives, and with ourselves -- not about the future of robotics. Maybe the year's best film. Should've recieved Oscar nominations for Directing and Lead Actor.
Blue Jasmine: 8.5/10
Woody Allen is, what, three decades into the “he isn’t what he used to be” phase of his career? And yet how many directors have made three films as good as Match Point, Vicky Christina Barcelona and Blue Jasmine in the last 10 years? Not many. And how many of them have a fourth as good as Midnight in Paris? So: He’s still pretty good. I can’t think of the last Allen film that rested so heavily on the performance of a single actor as Blue Jasmine. Cate Blanchett carried an excellent film with a tremendous performance. She's my choice for the year's best actress.
12 Years A Slave: 8/10
In the months since seeing 12 Years A Slave, I’ve come to the conclusion that while I don’t think it’s the year’s best film, I’d be perfectly happy to see it win the Best Picture Oscar. This despite my general view that the award should go to the year’s best film, not to the year’s best popular film or the year’s best feel-good drama or any of the other twisted rationales people end up offering in support of a film they know is not really the year’s greatest artistic achievement. (Which is not to say I think the Best Picture should always go to a highbrow drama: I thought, for example, that The Fellowship of the Ring should’ve won in 2002.)
But 12 Years is very good, and it’s very important, and that’s a potent combination. Not important in the fake-important way of recent movies like last year’s Lincoln. Lincoln challenged no one. It told us nothing we didn’t already know -- nothing we needed to know, anyway. Abe Lincoln was great, the legislative process is messy: Got it. That should be the case for 12 Years as well: Slavery was awful, to the point that attempts to describe its awfulness are doomed to fall short. But haven’t we all known that since, say, fourth grade at the latest? No, as it turns out, we have not.
Shortly after seeing 12 Years A Slave I encountered a Richard Cohen column about his recent viewing of the film. For those of you fortunate enough to be unaware of Richard Cohen’s existence, he’s an ostensibly liberal columnist for the Washington Post who loves torture, downplays the drugging and rape of a teenage girl, belittled Iraq war skeptics as “fools or frenchmen” and has reliably awful views about race in America. He is, in short, precisely the kind of conservative old white guy that large corporations like the Washington Post love to pass off as liberals in order to constrain the debate over public policy to the right half of the political spectrum. Anyway, Richard Cohen -- who declared his opposition to affirmative action a few years ago with the well-off white man’s certainty that “everyone knows” race “has become supremely irrelevant” -- saw 12 Years a Slave and learned that slavery was bad. I’m not kidding. Richard Cohen, who has for decades been paid to write a column about politics for the Washington Post, only just learned a few months ago -- by watching a movie -- that slavery was bad. Prior to seeing 12 Years, Cohen had been under the lifelong impression that slavery was “a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks.”
If Richard Cohen has lived for more than 70 years in America, earning a Masters degree from Columbia along the way, and writing for the Washington Post for nearly five full decades, without ever once learning that there was nothing benign about slavery, we obviously have a problem.
Enough Said: 8/10
Nicole Holofcener never disappoints. Nor does Catherine Keener. And, of course: James Gandolfini. I can’t help thinking that if Holofcener's first name was Ned instead of Nicole she’d have multiple Academy Award nominations by now. Enough Said deserved one for Original Screenplay, and in a relatively weak year for acting nominees I'm a bit surprised the Academy didn't give Gandolfini a posthumous supporting nod.
Inside Llewyn Davis: 8/10
The Coen Brothers' best since No Country For Old Men.
A very good movie -- the pacing, acting, and cinematography are all very good -- but a slight disappointment, as it wasn't quite on par with Alexander Payne's best work (Election, Sideways, The Descendants.) Maybe because it's the first Payne film he didn't write?
Dallas Buyers Club: 7.5/10
Jared Leto's portrayal of a transgender woman has drawn criticism for being "heavy-handed and stereotypical," among other things. My initial reaction upon seeing Dallas Buyers Club was that it was the rare film aimed at a mass audience that gave significant screen time to a transgender character, and did so in a way that invited audience empathy. That's Dallas Buyers Club in a nutshell: There are legitimate, thoughtful, important criticisms to be made of its handling of its subject -- but, on the other hand, how many pop culture works have you seen that address the inability of people who were dying of AIDS in the 1980s and '90s to get the medical care they needed?
Sound City: 7/10
Dave Grohl’s film is better than a documentary made by a musician about a mixing board (and, ok, a recording studio - but the mixing board is the film’s heart) has any right to be. It’s also better than my praise makes it sound. Grohl’s enthusiasm is infectious, and the Paul McCartney scene is, by itself, worth the rental fee. See it.
Muscle Shoals: 7/10
Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers
And they've been known to pick a song or two
Lord they get me off so much
They pick me up when I'm feeling blue
Now how about you?
-- Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Sweet Home Alabama"
Meanwhile in North Alabama, Wilson Pickett comes to town
To record that sweet soul music, to get that Muscle Shoals sound
Meanwhile in North Alabama, Aretha Franklin comes to town
To record that sweet soul music, to get that Muscle Shoals sound
— Drive-By Truckers, "Ronnie and Neil"
Twenty Feet From Stardom: 7/10
Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Wonder talking about Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer? Yes, please.
Dirty Wars: 7/10
Documentary about Jeremy Scahill's reporting on America's covert military activities in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. See it.
Fruitvale Station: 7/10
Heartbreaking and infuriating.
The Grandmaster: 7/10
Beautifully-shot and engaging martial arts drama.
Warm Bodies: 7/10
The surprise of the year. Totally fun and charming zombie rom-com.
Drinking Buddies: 7/10
Another very pleasant surprise.
Gripping thriller deserving of its Cinematography Oscar nomination.
Stories We Tell 6.5/10
Sarah Polley's documentary about, basically, Sarah Polley. It's self-indulgent and unduly impressed with its own story, but interesting anyway.
The Way Way Back: 6.5/10
Cookie-cutter quasi-indie awkward adolescence flick. Go into it with moderate expectations and it's perfectly enjoyable -- if nothing else, Allison Janey and Sam Rockwell make it watchable. Expect more and you'll be disappointed. Steve Carrell's convincing portrayal of a guy who's basically a jerk seems to have surprised many, but he flashed this skill from time to time on The Office. To me he's much better in a role like this than in much of his overly broad comedic work.
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom: 6.5/10
Pretty good. Not great. It's a biopic; it's exactly what you probably expect.
Cutie And The Boxer: 6/10
We saw an exhibit of work by Ushio & Noriko Shinohara at the Smith College art museum last spring; I wish I'd seen this engaging documentary first.
American Hustle: 6/10
Amy Adams is great. Can we all agree on that and stop acting surprised by it? She was great in Junebug, she was great in Doubt, she was great in The Fighter, she was great in The Master. She's great, and she choses great roles. She's a totally legitimate Lead Actress nominee -- I have her second to Blanchett among the year's best performances -- and that shouldn't be even a little bit surprising.
Other than Adams, American Hustle is ... fine, I guess. She's the best thing about it, by far, and it doesn't deserve most of its Oscar nominations. There just isn't much there there, and the nagging feeling that you've seen a half-dozen better versions of this movie limits its entertainment value.
Frances Ha: 6/10
I think I might be underrating this. It's been seven months or so since I've seen it; I really should start writing these blurbs immediately after viewing.
Iron Man 3: 6/10
Better than the second, by far; worse than the first, by far.
The Hobbit: 6/10
Better than last year’s installment. Still, I wish this wasn’t happening, or that I could resist watching.
Disappointing. Too many things tied up too neatly, too quickly and with too little effort. Not just at the end: Throughout the movie, obstacles seem to arise, only to be quickly dispensed with by fiat rather than resolved. Entertaining enough anyway. Judi Dench is good. I know: Shocking, right?
Sunlight Jr: 6/10
Someday Naomi Watts will win an Oscar. It won’t be - and should’t be - for Sunlight Jr, which is far from her best work, but still worth seeing. Watts and Matt Dillon are good; the script is just good enough.
This Is The End: 6/10
Funny, but kind of went off the rails in the third act.
Behind the Candelabra: 6/10
I had basically no interest in Liberace; had this been made by almost any other director, I wouldn't have bothered. But I'm generally fond of Steven Soderbergh's work ... this was fine. See it if you're interested; it's worth your time. Skip it if you aren't; you won't be missing anything essential.
Captain Philips: 6/10
I expected this to be the worst Best Picture nominee. Instead, it was 100 minutes worth of reasonably engaging thriller stretched out to 134 minutes. Nothing special, but much less awful than expected. The post-rescue scene was over-acted in a transparent bit of Oscar-bait that, fortunately, was not rewarded.
See All is Lost entry for the difference between Gravity and a great movie. A few loose ends: Bullock is good, not great. Mostly I wished she'd just shut up for a minute so the audience could feel something; instead, she narrated every thought that crossed her charecter's mind. The blame for that choice presumably lies primarily with the director, but it still diminishes the quality of the role and the performance. But it's a weak year for acting nominees, and I'm not certain there are five more worthy Lead Actress nominees (which is crazy and depressing.) But it'll be pretty ridiculous if she wins. Gravity's cinematography is often gorgeous, but 3D is still more of a distraction than enhancement; there were times when I felt like I was watching the movie on an old CRT computer monitor with some wrinkled plastic wrap spread over it. And other times when the film was visually stunning. Does that average out to a worthy Oscar nomination for cinematography? Yeah, I guess.
Olympus Has Fallen: 6/10
In the mood for a mindless action movie? Here you go. I understand this is generally considered the worse of the White-House-under-attack-movies-of-2013. It isn’t. It’s the better of the two.
The Lifeguard: 5/10
Wife & I recently entered the "watch anything with Kristen Bell in it" stage of our new Veronica Mars obsession. Bell is good; the movie is ... not awful.
Exactly what you expect.
Touchy Feely: 5/10
Rosemarie DeWitt, Ellen Page, Allison Janey, Ron Livingston ... what's not to like? The script, mostly. Given the limited titles available on Netflix streaming, you could do worse.
Stuck in Love: 5/10
See entry for The Lifeguard RE: Kristen Bell. And the entry for Touchy Feely RE: Netflix.
Before Midnight: 5/10
Critics love these films, and it’s easy to see why: There’s a lot that’s impressive here, starting with the long, unbroken, dialogue-heavy shots. But I’ve never liked them much, and I finally realized why: That dialogue. Or, I guess, the characters speaking it. The movies rest on Jesse and Celine, and I do not like them. Not in the way that I do not like Breaking Bad’s Hank: That’s a good, believable character; I dislike him as a person, not as a character. Jesse and Celine, though … I don’t like them, and I don’t believe them, either. I dislike them both as people and characters. They strike me less as real people in (and out and back in) love than as what Mike Newhouse, the trying-too-hard-aspiring-intellectual in Dazed and Confused, probably imagines real people in love to be like. Anyway: There’s enough here that it’s a good film, and if I liked the characters it’d probably be a 7 or even an 8. As it is I'm tempted to give it a 2.
The To Do List: 5/10
Not very good, but Aubrey Plaza comes through for a few laughs.
White House Down: 4/10
If you see only one 2013 movie about an assault on the White House, see the other one.
The East: 4/10
Bad writing, often delivered badly. And a grating false equivalence - Sure, polluting corporations that destroy the planet for profit are bad, but radical environmentalists are just as bad! - as the central theme.
Side Effects: 4/10
Is there a class in film school where Lionel Hutz, the incompetent lawyer from the Simpsons, fills aspiring screenwriters with misconceptions about how double jeopardy works? I’m no lawyer, not even an incompetent one, but Side Effects’ application of the Fifth Amendment seems nearly as bad as that inflicted on audiences by the Ashley Judd vehicle 'Double Jeopardy' (1999). That’s the lowlight of a plot that just falls apart in the second half as characters make distractingly and unbelievably dumb decisions. I’m generally in the tank for Soderbergh, and I’m no stickler for true-to-life details in fiction -- I think we’ve fetishized that a bit too much in recent years (does it really matter if Breaking Bad presents a scientifically accurate explanation for Walt’s blue meth?) But this is just bad filmmaking.
Dead Man Down: 4/10
Like most Collin Farrell movies, I barely remember seeing this. Noomi Rapace was pretty good, I think?
The Bling Ring: 4/10
For about 20 minutes, this seemed like it could be a good, interesting movie. Then it wasn't. The end.
Movie 43: 4/10
A few funny moments. Many more that aren't.
The Wolf of Wall Street: 2/10
Just completely awful. Maybe I'll elaborate eventually but I'm already over 2,500 words and I'd kind of like to forget this movie ever happened.
N/A: Didn't Finish
I’m not sure this would’ve been bad, but it just didn’t hold our attention at all so we bailed after 15 minutes.
The first ten or so minutes primarily consist of Blake Lively doing an improbably bad job of delivering the worst-written narration you can imagine. (Actual Sample Dialogue: "I have orgasms; he has war-gasms." I swear I am not making this up.) I have no idea why anyone thought this was a good idea — or what happens next. We hit eject in what may have been our best movie-related decision of the year.
N/A: Haven't Seen Yet
Films I haven't seen yet but probably will: The Act of Killing, Adore, After Tiller, Beware of Mr. Baker, The Citizen, Inequality for All, The Punk Singer, The Square.
What am I missing?
My major award preferences, not confined to Oscar nominees
Best Picture: All is Lost, Her, Blue Jasmine, 12 Years A Slave
Lead Actor: Robert Redford (All is Lost), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave), Joaquin Phoenix (Her),
Lead Actress: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Supporting Actor: I don't have any real preferences here. Like I said: Kind of a weak acting year. As long as the Oscar doesn't go to Bradley Cooper or Jonah Hill -- two actors I like, but who I don't think deserve awards for these roles -- I won't be too upset.
Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong'o (12 years A Slave)
Directing: J C Chandor (All is Lost), Spike Jonze (Her), Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine), Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave)
Writing: Spike Jonze (Her), Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine), Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said)
Cinematography: All is Lost, Her, Prisoners, The Grandmaster, Gravity
10: A truly extraordinary, Annie Hall-level film. I don’t see many 10s.
9: An excellent movie that I’m happy to see win major awards. Most years, the 1-3 best films I see will be 9s.
8: A very good film and a legitimate Best Picture nominee (in a 10-nominee field) but not something I think should win.
7: Usually a good, well-made movie of modest ambition, or ambitious, generally good movie with significant flaws.
6: An adequately enjoyable time-waster but not worth going out of your way to see.
5: Worth watching on a long flight, but that’s about it.
4: A bad movie, to be avoided even on long flights.
3: An awful movie with absolutely no redeeming qualities. May involve Keanu Reeves or time travel.
2: An awful movie that has pretensions of greatness and depth.
1: Vanilla Sky.
One of the most basic ways in which the nation’s news media fail you is by regularly speculating about the likely political impact of a given situation rather than giving you the information you need to reach an informed opinion of the underlying issues. That is to say: By telling you what they think you will think, rather than giving you factual information about which you should think.
There is no merit to this approach whatsoever. It’s the journalism equivalent of feeding your children Kit Kat bars and RC Cola for dinner. It gives us none of what we need and too much of what we don’t.
Here’s as clear an example as you’ll ever see: In 2011, Washington Post political reporter Chris Cillizza praised Texas Governor Rick Perry for giving a “a very strong answer on the death penalty” during a Republican presidential primary debate. Cillizza had nothing substantive to say about Perry’s death penalty comments, he just asserted that Perry’s answer was likely to be politically effective. This despite the fact that by the time of the debate, it had long been established that Perry had likely condemned an innocent man to death. (More on the case in today’s New York Times.)
So, in writing about Rick Perry talking about the death penalty, Chris Cillizza had a choice. He could tell his readers that scientific evidence indicated that Rick Perry had almost certainly put an innocent man to death -- information that is undeniably useful to a voter assessing Perry’s fitness for office. Or Cillizza could simply tell readers that Perry’s comments about the death penalty were “very strong” -- a guess at the political efficacy of Perry’s comments that does nothing to help readers assess Perry’s fitness for office.
Cillizza chose the second option -- the one that withheld important information from his readers, giving them utterly useless prognostication instead. He gave them a Kit Kat bar. It’s a feckless approach to journalism that treats questions of life and death as some sort of parlor game in which all that matters is the timbre of a candidate’s voice.
Members of Congress are better off than their constituents, and the New York Times is on it!
Unfortunately, in a spectacular case of missing the forest for a piece of tin foil in the opposite direction of the forest, the Times’ front-page (!) thousand-word exposé “Perks Ease Way in Health Plans for Lawmakers” blows the lid off of (wait for it…) “a special toll-free telephone number — a ‘dedicated congressional health insurance plan assistance line.’”
I know. I’m sorry. I should have warned you to sit down first. Take a minute, try to pull yourself together. Maybe have some water. Better? Good.
So, anyway, New York Times reporter Robert Pear -- if you aren’t familiar with him, he’s the kind of reporter who calls Paul Ryan a “respected voice on fiscal issues” and quadruples the cost of health insurance reform -- purports to tell a pretty simple story: Members of Congress are out of touch with their constituents’ needs, in part because of the laws they pass that benefit them more than their constituents. That basic story is true -- but the version Pear tells is absolute nonsense.
Let’s back up a bit.
Members of Congress are out of touch with their constituents because they are far, far wealthier than their constituents. The average member of the House of Representatives has a net worth of nearly $7 million. The average Senator? Nearly $12 million. And the typical household they represent? $57,000. That’s why members of Congress are out of touch with their constituents, not some 1-800 number they can call to find out how much their deductible is.
Keep in mind: Members of Congress routinely advocate policies that benefit wealthy people like themselves at the expense of the vast majority of their constituents. They favor a tax code that privileges investment income over wages; they prefer raising the retirement age to subjecting more of their own income to Social Security taxes, they … well, the list of things members of Congress do that benefit rich people like members of Congress rather than people like their constituents is nearly endless. And the New York Times … let’s just say you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for the Times to run a snarky front-page story about the fact that members of Congress pay a lower percentage of their salary into the Social Security system than their constituents.
So: yes, Members of Congress have better health insurance than many of their constituents. They get paid more, too, and have better parking spaces and more flexible working hours and never have to worry that the guy two cubicles over will drive them crazy by playing Coldplay all day. That’s because members of Congress have better jobs than most of their constituents, and all those things were true before the Affordable Care Act. You wouldn’t know it to read the New York Times, but the ACA didn’t increase the gap between the health insurance enjoyed by members of Congress and the people they represent, it narrowed that gap by bringing health insurance to millions of people who didn’t have it before. The ACA certainly isn’t perfect, but the insurance members of Congress get isn’t among the top 500 problems with it, and it isn’t among the top 500 ways members of Congress are out of touch with their constituents.
Instead, the ACA is a too-rare example of Congress doing something that will help millions of Americans far more than it will help rich people like Members of Congress. That’s how Congress should behave. And when it does, the New York Times -- the official newspaper of the wealthy ruling class -- responds predictably, sneering about “perks” for members of Congress like a “special toll-free telephone number.” It dresses up an attack on a law that helps middle class and poor Americans get health insurance as populist truth-telling about Congressional fat cats. The Times regularly looks the other way as wealthy members of Congress act on behalf of wealthy people like Members of Congress (and, not coincidentally New York Times advertisers, owners, and star reporters) -- but let Congress pass a law helping people get health care, and the Times goes into high dudgeon about an 800 number.
If the New York Times and other news organizations want to dedicate themselves to identifying connections between the privileged economic situation of members of Congress and the policies they support, I’m all for it. But this obsessive finger-wagging at congressional health insurance plans is the opposite of that. It misleads the public about the effect of the ACA on congressional health care (Congress got singled out for negative, not positive, consequences, for no reason other than political grandstanding) and obscures the actual ways Congress acts in its own interests (and, again, those of media companies like the New York Times, their advertisers, and their well-paid decision-making employees) and against those of their constituents. It’s cheap and ugly demagoguery on behalf of wealthy elites with a thin veneer of phony populism slathered on top.
Responding to a statement by Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) that furloughed federal government workers shouldn’t get back pay once the government shutdown ends, Time magazine’s Michael Grunwald asks why Yoho is wrong:
That sentiment -- why pay workers for not working? -- is one I’ve seen a lot over the past ten days, from a wide variety of people. Liberals, conservatives, smart people, intellectually rigorous people. It’s an idea that comes swiftly and naturally to people. And, in this case, it is almost completely without merit.
One way you can tell it is almost completely without merit is the paucity of actual reasoned arguments in support of it. Grunwald, for example, doesn’t really offer any. He goes on to say “I don’t get paying workers not to work” and “The strong arguments being tweeted at me for paying govt workers during shutdown are actually arguments against shutdown. Shutdowns suck!” Actually, they’re arguments that shutdowns suck and that we should pay government workers back pay after they end. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Anyway, that’s it: Grunwald offers no other argument against back pay. (For the record: I count Grunwald among the smart and intellectually rigorous people I’ve seen take this position. If there was a strong argument for his position, I suspect he’d have come up with it.)
But “there aren’t good arguments against it” isn’t a particularly good reason for giving furloughed workers back pay. So:
1) We can afford it more easily than they can, and we caused this
We (and that’s what government is: America, collectively) can afford to pay back pay to furloughed workers much more easily than they can afford to go without a paycheck or three. They’re trying to pay their rent, mortgages, college loans, kids medical bills, grocery bills … they need that money. And despite what you’ve heard, the federal budget deficit is falling, and fast, and it probably shouldn’t be. It’s cheap and easy of for the government to borrow money, and the economy is still struggling, which means that the government borrowing money to pay people who can then buy groceries is a good thing (see #2 below.) Besides, furloughed workers didn’t cause their lack of a paycheck, we did. More specifically, the politicians we elected did in our name. But we hired them (the politicians) and we’re responsible for what they do. I’m not any happier about that than you are.
2) Not paying a million or so people for a few weeks is bad for the economy
Furloughed workers who suddenly go without paychecks aren’t buying groceries, which is bad for their hungry kids, but it’s also bad for their local grocer. And the workers their local grocer lays off as a result. And those workers’ hungry kids. And the grocer they buy groceries from. You see where this is going, right? Grunwald, who (literally) wrote the book on the 2009 stimulus, knows this.
3) Withholding paychecks makes it harder for government to attract and keep good employees
We want our government (remember, that’s us) to have good employees, right?
Grunwald’s response to this point is “didn't govt workers know risk of politics?”
Well, the last federal government shutdown was 17 years ago, and furloughed workers were given back pay when it was over. And the public perception of government jobs as uncommonly stable is one of their primary selling points to job applicants. So, no, there’s no reason to think government workers knew a shutdown was likely and that they wouldn’t get back pay if it occured.
4) Cutting government workers’ pay makes it harder for non-wealthy people to enter public service
This is already a problem in Congress, in particular. Congressional offices rely heavily on unpaid interns and poorly-paid (relative to what they could make in the private sector and to DC’s cost-of-living) staff. This gives young job-seekers from wealthy families an advantage -- they can more easily afford to work for free, or for low salaries, than less affluent peers. And the relatively low pay offered in congressional offices encourages staffers to think about a future job in a lobbying firm, where they’ll make more money for less work. This creates unfortunate incentives that should be obvious. As a result, federal government policymaking is done by under-experienced, over-worked staffers from a narrow socioeconomic background looking to impress future corporate employers. Lowering federal employees’ pay by docking them a few paychecks exacerbates all these problems.
5) It’s the right thing to do
Opponents of back pay seem to think the unfairness of giving furloughed workers back pay is obvious and undeniable.
First of all, anyone who has ever taken vacation or a sick day knows that when those workers get back to work, they’re going to have a backlog of work to get done, so it isn’t as simple as saying “they didn’t do the work, they shouldn’t get paid.” They will do much of the work, they just aren’t allowed to do it now. (Some may get paid overtime while working through that backlog. Many won’t, or won’t get paid for as much of it as they should.)
Second, these aren’t workers who decided not to show up for a few days so they could head to Atlantic City for a few days with their college buddies. They’re people who want to work, but are being forced to not work because of a political stunt. Many of them want to come in and do their jobs anyway, even though they don’t know when they’ll get paid, but they legally cannot. Think about that: They so badly want to work for us that in order to stop them from working without pay there’s a law threatening fines and jail time to keep them from doing so. So let’s not pretend they’re slackers sitting at home demanding to be paid for not working.
A handful of politicians are behaving recklessly and inflicting a great deal of pain upon the country. That’s what’s happening. That’s a lousy reason to inflict more pain on the country, and on individual employees.
Bonus: One Reason Not To Give Workers Back Pay -- And Why It’s Wrong
The only reason I can think of not to give furloughed workers back pay is that it eases the pain of a government shutdown, which makes shutdowns more likely, which is bad because shutdowns are bad. This would be a compelling argument, except that it isn’t.
Denying back pay for federal workers is a remarkably bad way to keep politicians from shutting down the government, particularly given that the politicians responsible are Republicans who hate the federal government. The shutdown disincentives that would actually be effective have long sense been ruled out. The FAA is still running (which means air traffic continues as scheduled), our military is still operational -- the really big, really immediately painful things that would actually prevent politicians from shutting down the government have already been taken off the table. That’s a big part of why we’re ten days into this nonsense. Aspects of a government shutdown that would be immediately intolerable to politically influential people never happened.
So, to sum up: The best reason anyone seems to have for denying furloughed workers back pay is “you don’t work, you don’t get paid.” It’s entirely a symbolic argument. Except the symbolism is wrong. This isn’t a case in which slacker workers would lose pay because of their own unwillingness to work. The symbolism here is: Your jerk of a boss can just decide to screw you over for no reason whatsoever. That may, unfortunately, be true, but let’s not pretend it’s some kind of noble sentiment.
On the other hand, there are strong reasons for giving workers back pay. We can afford it; many of them can’t afford to go without it. It’s better for the economy. It avoids making government a less attractive place to work, which is important to attracting and retaining the quality employees we’d all like government to have. It avoids making it even harder for anyone who isn’t already wealthy to enter public service. It avoids creating extra incentive for current federal workers to focus on lining up a more lucrative private-sector jobs. It mitigates some of the hardship inflicted on people who did nothing to cause it.
OK. Lecture over. Here’s a lyrically-relevant video:
I just installed iOS 7 on my iPhone and began playing around. I’m sure most of the reaction to it in the coming days will focus on the look and feel. But the first thing I noticed is that the Music app is an absolute disaster for people who like music. If your music collection consists of a dozen Greatest Hits albums you bought in college, you’ll probably be fine. Anyone else should stay as far away as possible.
Here’s the first problem: The “Artist” and “Album” views display large thumbnails of album art, which means only four entries are visible per screen. OK, there’s a hint of a fifth if you look closely:
Like I said: Fine if you have a dozen or so albums in your collection. I have about 1,000 artists and 2,000 albums. Scrolling through them just got much, much more difficult. Thanks, Apple!
The second problem is worse. When you tap on an artist, the app takes you to all that artist’s albums (good) … but each album is expanded to show the songs it contains:
So in order to scroll through an artist’s albums, you have to scroll past every song in every album. Again, not a problem for tiny music collections. But if you have several albums by a given artist, it quickly becomes annoying. It took me seven thumb-swipes to scroll through the 21 albums by U2 in my collection. The 300+ Springsteen albums? Essentially un-browsable.
Speaking of which: It took a whopping 22 seconds from tapping on “Bruce Springsteen” to getting a list of Bruce Springsteen albums. That’s 22 seconds of the iPhone just sitting there, seemingly unresponsive. And that’s on an iPhone 5. Now, I have more than 300 Bruce Springsteen albums; that’s obviously not typical. But there’s a noticeable, if slight, lag when tapping on an artist with 15 or 20 albums. And, of course, the artists whose work you have the most of are the very artists you’re going to select most frequently, so those lags aren’t going to be an occasional thing.
All of this adds up to a Music app that is absolutely horrible for people who like music. Just a terrible user experience.
What’s really stunning about this is that a lot of people came to the Apple ecosystem via the iPod and iTunes. I’m one of them. And over the last few years, Apple has steadily been making the user experience more and more miserable for people who like music. iTunes is a bloated, glitchy, terrible trainwreck of a program that -- when it works at all -- seems to make it harder to do what you want with your music with each new update. Mobile device hard drive space has stagnated at a level too small to house large collections. And the Music app in iOS 7 is the clearest indication yet that Apple just does not give a damn about people who have more than a couple hundred songs in their library. Which is bizarre, given that selling music is a pretty big part of Apple’s business.
The iPod and iTunes brought me into the Apple ecosystem years ago. It seems increasingly obvious than what will end up driving me away is the escalating awfulness of Apple’s music apps on both OS X and iOS.
UPDATE: I’ve tried several third-party music apps looking for a replacement for Apple’s built-in app. Thanks to everyone who suggested alternatives in the comments and on Twitter … none of which were quite right. But I may have finally found something that will work: Audyssey.
Audyssey is marketed primarily as providing “professional audio technologies to optimize your music for your headphones” -- you can tell the app what headphones you’re using, and it will optimize audio playback to fit them. I haven’t spent any time playing around with that feature, so I can’t comment on its efficacy. But as a way of browsing and playing my iPhone’s music library, it’s far better than Apple’s app. Browsing by artist displays 10 artists per screen, more than twice as many as you see in the Apple app:
Browsing by Album shows 8 albums per screen, again more than twice as many as you get in the Apple app. Selecting an Artist containing 20-25 albums results in no noticeable lag. (There is about a 2-3 second lag when I select Bruce Springsteen, which is mildly irritating, but far better than the 22 seconds Apple’s own app requires to bring up a list of albums.) Most importantly: Once you select an artist, you get a list of albums by that artist -- and only the albums, not every song each album contains. This allows you to easily browse through artists for whom you may have large collections. Want to see what songs are on an album? Just tap the album name, and you’ll go to a new screen. Perfect. Simple. Exactly the way things should work. (For my purposes. YMMV.)
Audyssey gives you immediate access to all of the songs on your iPhone (including iTunes Match files that are stored in the cloud but not locally), with all the basic controls -- play/pause/repeat/shuffle/forward/back/etc. Album art & basic controls appear on your phone’s lock screen when appropriate. You have full access to your iTunes playlists. If there’s a way to add songs to playlists or create playlists within the app, I haven’t found it. That doesn’t bother me at all -- I rarely if ever create playlists on my mobile devices.
The one flaw that I’ve encountered is that if a song is in the cloud but not stored on the device itself, Audyssey can stream the song -- but can’t do so in the background, so if you close the app while such a song is playing, it will pause. That’s annoying, but won’t affect you at all unless you use iTunes Match. And if you’re planning on listening to several songs that are stored in the iTunes Match cloud (a whole album or playlist, for example) you can always use the built-in Apple Music app to download the songs first, then play them in Audyssey. Or, of course, you could just play them in the Apple app -- Audyssey is fine as a music player, but then so is the Apple app. Where Audyssey really shines is in browsing your library. I’ve only been playing with it for a few minutes, so it may turn out to be buggy (its responsiveness even when browsing a pretty large library is a good sign on that front) or to have some drawback I haven’t yet encountered, but for now it will be my default music player.
UPDATE 2: Another problem: Once you select an artist, that artist’s albums are not sorted alphabetically. They’re sorted, as best as I can tell, by release date. So if you have, say, 20 Rolling Stones albums and want to listen to Some Girls, not only do you have to scroll through every song contained on every album that is listed before Some Girls before you get to the album you want, but you also can’t speed the process along by swiping as quickly as you can until you get to albums beginning with “S.”
Instead, you have to remember that Some Girls came out in 1978, so it’s between It’s Only Rock n Roll (1974) and Emotional Rescue (1980). Unless of course you have something from Black and Blue (1976), which you probably don’t -- but, really, who can remember? So, yeah, Some Girls will be listed after It’s Only Rock n Roll, and 3-4 albums after Sticky Fingers (1971). Right where you’d expect it -- assuming, of course, that you happen to remember the chronology of album releases by every artist in your entire music library.
Unless, that is, you don’t have release date metadata included for every song and every album in your library (and who does?) in which case the album you’re looking for is … who the hell knows, really?
Oh, and the whole chronological order thing only works if all your albums have release-date metadata (unlikely) and if the release date metadata reflects the album’s original release date (hilariously implausible.) For example: Let It Bleed was originally released in 1969, but on my phone the Music app lists it after Flashpoint (originally released in 1991) because my copy of Let It Bleed is apparently a re-issue from 2005. And Flashpoint is listed after Stripped, originally released in 1995, for similar reasons. And so on. As a result, the albums are listed in no real order whatsoever. You’re just going to have to scroll through the whole mess song by song.
In short: This is a terrible app. Just awful.
UPDATE 3: I’ve used Picky a bit in recent weeks; it’s a strong alternative to the stock Music app. Looks good, doesn’t have Music’s glaring flaws, includes some interesting filter options -- you can filter your Artists view to exclude Artists for whom you have few songs, for example -- and a great “Picklist” feature that lets you quickly specify a subset of a selected album for playback. There’s a little bit more of a lag when loading a large list (an Artist with a very large number of albums, for example, or the Songs view) than I’d like, but overall it’s a very good app and the developer seems to be actively updating it.
The views expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect the views of any person or entity other than the author, and should never be assumed to do so. They may occasionally fail to properly reflect the views of the author, for that matter.