Monday, May 29, 2006

Lewis Carroll And The Wall Street Journal

On May 20, 2006, a Wall Street Journal editorial reflected on the government's post-Enron regulatory activities:

"One conclusion is how exceptional those scandals have turned out to be. Far from revealing some larger cultural rot, the corruption was serious but limited to a handful of companies. Prosecutors and regulators used the political opening created by the Enron collapse to hunt for malfeasance far and wide, but the news is how little they found."

On May 27, the newspaper commented on the illegal practice of backdating stock option grants to build in or increase profits for senior executives:

"The number of companies doing this isn't clear, though the SEC is investigating at least 20 and prosecutors have launched criminal probes into a half-dozen...."

Newspapers and Romance

I just read yet another mawkish elegy to daily newspapers which, as usual, blamed the demise of a centuries-old tradition on their owners’ insistence that at least a smudge of black ink show up on the books.

David Carr is the latest in the string,. His piece for the New York Times typifies the lot. He wonders what kind of newspaper his young, talented colleague will find when he returns to the Philadelphia Inquirer from a two-month summer vacation. Carr answers by observation: “While we had our own version of The Conversation, a lucky pigeon in front of us found a lone chip in a foil bag, but it was quickly lost amid a crush of others rushing in for a taste.”

Like the other mourners, Carr conjures up halcyon days when newspapers such as the Inquirer were paragons of a money-be-damned business, “a sprawling enterprise with bureaus all over the world and a sniper’s mentality on the news….” Few newspapers ever operated that way and I hope most journalists reject the image of themselves as people who sneak around and kill in cold blood.

Carr’s piece is the latest in a long string of tales filled with the drama of deadlines, and anecdotes about the revered editor who bucked corrupt officials or the raffish columnist who drank more often than he wrote, all expounded to make themselves feel more important and to impress the uninitiated.

They all reference in some way a belief that newspaper owners have turned their priorities around 180 degrees to favor profits over journalism. Some publishers once placed a higher premium on quality news coverage than they do today, but to contend profits weren’t their overriding concern is naive.

In one way or another, Carr and his fellow mourners all equate the decline of their newspapers with a demise of quality journalism itself. That is not true and only serves to damage their credibility as observers of the world. There are two obvious conclusions to be drawn and newspaper types don’t want to see them.

The first is simple. Newspapers cost a great deal of money to produce. They are labor intensive in all respects, take a long time to manufacture, and must be delivered by hand, one at a time. Electronic media are as inexpensive as a $600 computer and deliver the news instantly (and constantly refreshed) to tens of thousands of people.

The second conclusion is offered by the readers themselves. Newspaper circulation overall is shrinking because people are tired of the medium. By the time they pick up their morning newspaper they have seen and heard far more about the Indonesian earthquake, the primary election results or the verdict in the Enron trial than they can process. And they know about these events from the same sources used by newspapers.

There is nothing to prevent Carr’s young friend from carving out an excellent career in journalism and benefiting society with his trenchant analysis and observations. The young journalist’s work will also be seen and appreciated by far more people and internationally. His output, though, will be expressed in pixels, not ink. And, no, he won’t have to scramble for crumbs, either.

People being people, though, Carr’s friend will eventually conjure up nostalgic sighs about the good old days when “we had to work with laptops that couldn’t send a story faster than 128 KBps upstream and cell phones with only four hours of talk time.” Whether that will be seen as romantic to anyone remains to be seen.

Friday, May 12, 2006

No Democracy in the UK

Whenever the UK is held up as as a democracy, consider this item from the AP that records a decision by an appointed legislative body:

"Britain's House of Lords has rejected a bill to allow doctors to prescribe lethal drug doses to terminally ill patients, reflecting opposition among the public, government and church - to assisted suicide. The vote ends any chance of its passage, as the proposal will not proceed to the lawmaking House of Commons. "

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Plagirism Graduate Seminar

The Raytheon Company board today reduced the 2006 compensation package of its chief executive, William H. Swanson, who admitted to lifting portions of his book, "Swanson's Unwritten Rules of Management," from other texts.

New York Times

Unlike the teenage Harvard student who lifted chunks of her novel from others, Bill Swanson hs no hope of redemption.

The only reason for Bill to steal from columnist Dave Barry and other authors is that he thought he was smarter than everyone else, which means he holds everyone who purchased his book in contempt. (See Nov. 21, 2005 post, Email Stupidity.)

Bill said he was sorry. The Raytheon board nicked him for about $1 million yet announced it still had "full confidence" in his abilities. I say bring in the auditors and the Sarbanes-Oxley governance consultants.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Plagiarism 101

Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan turns out to be a literary kleptomaniac instead of a chick lit version of Joyce Maynard, the last adolescent to make a big splash on the writing scene.

Her publisher has canceled her two-book deal and is building a bonfire out of her offending novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. The newspaper where she worked as an intern is picking apart her stories. And if anyone at Harvard has common sense (arguable by some people) an overworked grad student is running all of her college essays and term papers through every database known to humankind.

Viswanathan comes from an educated, upscale family that undoubtedly expected great things from her. They signed her $500,000 book deal because she was only 17 when some creature called a "book packager" offered the contract. So, here was a bright, talented kid not only working hard to get into an elite university, but told to sit down, write a novel, and make a lot of money. Which, of course,would help her get into Harvard.

Viswanathan says she's sorry. She says she read all of the copied books several times, so it's possible she unconsciously picked up the language. But she remains baffled about the extent of the plagiarism. She wants to return to Harvard.

Harvard has very active psychological counseling programs, (given the school is full of Kaavyas) so, in return for allowing a confessed plagiarist to return to The Yard, the school should require she make the student health center her her home-away-from-home.

Why? The teen lit darling doesn't realize she's a thief -- as in people who steal from others for personal gain. She not only ripped off the hard work and creativity of other writers, she stole money, including her advance and the bucks it cost her publishers, Little-Brown, to print, distribute, market, recall and destroy her ersatz prose.

And, she seems to think that saying "sorry" makes it all OK and she can now just move on with her life and fulfill her dreams. I, too, am "sorry," Kaavya, but you have become divorced from reality. If pathological denial isn't an accepted mental disease, it should be.