The Atlantic’s business vertical, Quartz, decided to take a look at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in January, as it neared its 70th birthday. I think the writer, Leo Mirani, did a good job of amassing a lot of historical material and winding it together with comments from me. And, as you know, I don’t go around praising journalists for no reason, even if they’re smart enough to write nicely about me. Another way to know Mirani’s a good one: The Quartz piece ran ahead of the Bulletin’s announcement on January 22 that its Doomsday Clock would move forward to a very scary three minutes to midnight. That announcement generated tens of thousands of tweets and retweets and some 2,000 news articles, going out toward a potential audience that was in the neighborhood of half a billion readers/viewers. But Mirani was first, and I bet his piece was accessed for background purposes a lot, all around the world.
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I’m sharing this Texas Tribune post in hopes my various journalism-professor friends will also share it, so baby journalists across the land encounter the real-life example of how acronyms ruin stories, and why journalists need to step out of their enclosed little worlds and remember that no one is assigned to read what they write. Here’s the headline of the story:
House Committee Pushes CPRIT Reforms.
Of course, we all know what CPRIT means, right? But that’s not the extent of the sin. The story below the headline uses the CPRIT acronym 11 times in 454 words. Not to mention two uses of CTNeT. The story looks like ants are crawling through it. Capitalized, poisonous, illiterate, unidentified ants that don’t want you to read … one … word … further.
ADDENDUM: The Texas Tribune has updated this story with information on testimony before a legislative committee, adding four CPRITs and three CTNeTs and possibly setting a new world record for acronym misuse by a digital nonprofit news enterprise.
In the early 2000s, I had the joy/honor of working with Ron Russell, a writer who’d come out of the Los Angeles Times to work in the alternative weekly world. Ron was a consummate pro and a genuine bulldog. He’d chased the Catholic Church pedophile coverup in Los Angeles before he worked for me in San Francisco; there, he did many a wonderful (meaning horrifying) story about the church’s refusal to own up to its past and treat the victims of priestly pedophilia with the decency they deserved. I will not reveal what Ron told me about the situation in Los Angeles — the writer/editor relationship being roughly equivalent to penitent/priest — but I can tell you that in my not very humble opinion, God will need to make a new, lowest level of hell for Los
Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony to reside in. Read this. Try not to vomit.
In the second of a three-part series in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, leading world experts look at the possibility that France — which gets three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear power — might phase out of its commercial nuclear sector. The cultural angle is, in my opinion, the most interesting. The primary obstacle to a French nuclear exit, it seems, may well be France’s national notion that being a world power is inherently linked to its civilian and military nuclear efforts. The whole package. My intro.
I’ve been remiss about posting on this blog but think there’s a reason to post now. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has just come out with a special issue, titled “The German Nuclear Exit,” that is both important and good reading. Yes, I edited it. But I’d say it’s good, even if I had nothing to do with it. The Germans have exited nuclear power and gone hard for renewables, and the preliminary results are promising, to say the least.
Here’s my intro, from the issue, with links to the articles. I think you’ll get the gist from here:
The German nuclear exit: Introduction
Shortly after the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in 2011, the German government abruptly reversed its policy on nuclear energy, deciding to phase out the country’s nuclear industry entirely by 2022. Despite the seriousness of the situation in Japan, the German decision—which shuttered eight reactors almost immediately and set staggered deadlines for nine remaining nuclear plants to close—was met with no small amount of international incredulity. Among other things, the phase-out was widely criticized as an exercise in panic politics, and, as Alex Glaser writes in this special issue of the Bulletin—“The German nuclear exit”—the news headlines were sometimes vitriolic. (The business website Forbes.com probably won top honors in the hyperbole sweepstakes with this nuanced take: “Germany—Insane or Just Plain Stupid?”) Outside Germany, major media outlets continue to question the wisdom of the phase-out, often with emphasis on its climate change implications. At a time when greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced, the critics wonder: How could any country casually give up such a huge investment in emission-free energy?
The German decision to pursue a nuclear-free future was, however, anything but precipitous or unmindful of climate change. Because of a combination of historical and political factors, Germany has in fact been retreating from the nuclear sector for decades— and from its beginnings, the nuclear phase-out was intimately tied to what is known as the Energiewende, an aggressive, comprehensive turnabout in policy that aims for a national energy portfolio dominated by renewables. For “The German nuclear exit,” the Bulletin asked leading experts to explore the phase-out and Energiewende along historical, political, economic, environmental, and legal dimensions and, in so doing, to give some assessment of the progress made (and likely to be made) toward a nuclear-free, renewables-heavy energy supply. What these authors report is not of course uniform or entirely positive, but they do seem to converge on a theme: In part because the nuclear phase-out and Energiewende are based on serious long-term planning and broad political consensus, the German energy experiment has met with promising early success.
In his overview article, “From Brokdorf to Fukushima: The long journey to nuclear phase-out,” Glaser, a Princeton researcher and member of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, sets the historical context for the shutdown, reviewing the massive, civil-war-like confrontations between anti-nuclear demonstrators and police that started in the 1970s, and notes that, “because of these and subsequent developments—including the 1986 Chernobyl accident—by the 1990s, no one in German political life seriously entertained the idea of new reactor construction.”
Freie Universität Berlin politics professor Miranda Schreurs’s essay, “The politics of phase-out,” offers a surprising explanation for continuing popular support for the phase-out across the German political spectrum: The shift to renewable energy sources that accompanies the phase-out has brought financial benefits to farmers, investors, and small- and medium-sized businesses.
Marshaling a wide range of observed data and predictive economic models, Felix Matthes, research coordinator at the Institute for Applied Ecology in Berlin, reaches another unexpected conclusion: The nuclear phase-out is likely to have only a small and temporary effect on electricity prices and the overall German economy.
The phase-out also seems unlikely to come with a huge legal bill. As University of Kassel legal experts Alexander Rossnagel and Anja Hentschel explain in “The legalities of a nuclear shutdown,” during early negotiations, the government shaped the phase-out so it gave utilities time to recoup their investments in nuclear power plants, thereby undercutting their ability to successfully sue later for damages.
And Lutz Mez, co-founder of Freie Universität Berlin’s Environmental Policy Research Center, presents what may be the most startling finding of all. TheEnergiewende that is being pursued in parallel with the German nuclear exit has reached a climate change milestone, Mez writes: “It has actually decoupled energy from economic growth, with the country’s energy supply and carbon-dioxide emissions dropping from 1990 to 2011, even as its gross domestic product rose by 36 percent.”
“The German nuclear exit” is the first in a three-part Bulletin series that will also look at the implications of potential phase-outs of civilian nuclear power in France and the United States. The expert essays that make up this installment of the series are hardly one-sided; they are full of acknowledgements of the difficulties Germany faces as it ends its nuclear power era and strives to reach aggressive greenhouse gas-emissions targets. But the articles make clear that the nuclear phase-out and accompanying Energiewende are not—international media characterizations notwithstanding—capricious political reactions; in fact, they are carefully planned national initiatives that are based on a rational calculation that they will ultimately benefit Germany environmentally and financially. Glaser may sum up the global import of the German energy experiment best when he writes: “Germany’s nuclear phase-out could provide a proof-of-concept, demonstrating the political and technical feasibility of abandoning a controversial high-risk technology. Germany’s nuclear phase-out, successful or not, is likely to become a game changer for nuclear energy worldwide.”
If you’re the type who wonders why self-serving flapdoodle is winning the climate change public-opinion contest, I think you’ll enjoy reading through a roundtable that just finished up over at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Princeton’s Rob Socolow (of climate change wedges fame), Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), and former marine biologist turned provocative Hollywood filmmaker Randy Olson have had a varied conversation that makes one overarching point: It’s harder than one might think to counter distortion of science in the public arena.
I’m not going to recount their generally brilliant essays; you can read them here. (To comprehend the conversation as a whole, I suggest starting at the bottom and reading up, as the essays are posted in reverse chronological order, i.e. most recent first.) I do think it worthwhile to restate a point I’ve made previously. I could reword it here, but I kind of like what I wrote before:
I do believe that the large environmental nonprofits — the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, Audubon and others — need to take some of their huge income streams and devote significant chunks of money directly to the task of making climate change uncool and stupid, in the way that cigarette smoking has been made dumb and unhip. Congress won’t aggressively act on climate change until public attitudes strongly support action. The ability of advertising — funny, smart, hip, multi-platform advertising — to change attitudes, and particularly political attitudes, has been proven, over and over again. … It’s time for the environmental lobby to pull money out of Washington and put it into a major, long-term, brilliant ad campaign focused on the most conceited, mean, greedy and uncool kid in school: Carlyle Dioxide.
The fossil fuel energy entities that have been pushing the idea that the science of climate change is horribly uncertain — perhaps even fraudulent — use expert communicators (often politicians) and expert means (slick ad campaigns and a full-court media press) to get their message across to the public. There is a full-fledged public relations campaign afoot, and it has persuaded many Americans that climate change is a mirage ginned up by pointy-headed academics and other crafty liberals to further the twin goals of undermining The Free Enterprise System and Ayn Rand’s reputation.
To explain the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real, caused by humans, and a major threat to the planet, we have had … Al Gore and a bunch of scientists who are, by and large, unskilled in communicating with a general public. By all mean, let’s work to improve the communication skills of scientists. But let’s remember something: Scientists are and should be primarily creators of knowledge. Conveying that knowledge accurately to the general public is the job of others, including the media, of course, but also the advocacy groups that supposedly believe in the science underlies their causes.
I don’t know how much more of a caricature Stephen Bloom can make of himself. This professor at the University of Iowa writes an Atlantic piece that waxes slightly sarcastic about his adopted home state. The rubes of Iowa complain, sometimes in crude ways that verge on anti-Semitism, as rubes across America are wont to do when their cherished misconceptions are challenged. Professor Bloom starts expressing fear for his life (even though he’s not in Iowa) in a way that lets Jim Romenesko depants him without unhooking a belt or pulling down a zipper. And now he’s in “an undisclosed location,” comparing his journalistically courageous self to Jack London, James Agee, H.L. Menken, Grant Riceland, Marvel Cooke, Jim Murray, cartoonist Paul Conrad, Tom Wolfe, Mike Royko, and Hunter S. Thompson–and then in the next breath saying he’s “nowhere even close to any of these titans.”
Which is undeniably true. The level of self-parody is ably illustrated in this paragraph:
“When [the negative feedback] involves my family I feel absolutely horrible, and when my wife had to get that [lampshade] phone call, I felt like vomiting. But I knew as a journalist, stepping into writing this provocative post, that there would be problems. …That’s the nature of the business.”
If you want to read more of his self-pitying, grandiloquent, and purple prose, go here.
I worked for a long time in daily newspapers and understand the pressures of delivering an account of something one knows little about in a very short time. I also understand the basic frightened stupidity of your average assistant city editor, who will always lead the news in the direction of appeasing the powers that be. But this story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune is a journalistic travesty, even by the low standards of the Times-Picayune.
Let’s track back a bit. Here are the basics of a previous post of mine about my brother-in-law, Folwell Dunbar (conflict alert: yes, he’s my brother-in-law), caught in the act of serving the public interest:
You could put this one in the “no good deed goes unpunished” file, or simply roll your eyes, sigh and mutter “Louisiana” on the exhale. If you read my last post, you know my brother in law, Folwell Dunbar, is a public-interest hero. While working at the Louisiana state agency that regulates charter schools, Folwell reported being offered a $20,000 bribe by someone apparently connected to Abramson Science and Technology Charter School in New Orleans, which he was in the process of auditing. Folwell turned down the bribe and did exactly what a good public servant should do — he wrote a report documenting the offer, and he reported the attempted bribe to the police. During the audit, he found the school had been grossly mismanaged and recommended that the state board of education take away its charter.
The state did nothing for a year, but then the New Orleans Times-Picayune dug up Folwell’s report via a public records request and wrote a story about it. Suddenly, the state decided it was time to suspend the school and investigate its performance.
But because this is Louisiana, Folwell did not receive the award or promotion he deserved for doing his job well and ethically and bringing a problem to light in the proper way, so it could be dealt with. Instead, a few days after the original Times-Picayne report (which, by the way, Folwell had no role in inspiring), he was fired with no real explanation.
Now, because the state education department has written a posterior-covering report, the Times-Picayune has written a story parroting the official, ridiculous line that Folwell was the problem, somehow. Here’s the unquestioning, clueless bottom line, as recounted by the Times-Picayune:
The [state education department has] tentative plans to transform its charter office, known as the Office of Parental Options, into more of a policing arm rather than a means of providing support for schools. In fact, that process began shortly after the Abramson case hit the news, when the department fired Folwell Dunbar, who served in the charter office as an academic adviser. Responsibility fell to Dunbar for both investigating the accusations against Abramson and helping the school improve, state records show. In its report … the department makes clear that it will look to draw more of a line between those roles. Without mentioning Dunbar by name, the report says, “The previous field staff position, which focused on academic support of charter schools, will transition to a charter monitoring role.” Instead of an academic adviser, the department plans to hire a “school accountability and oversight manager.”
This story is not just a journalistic travesty — and yes, I’m calling out the so-called reporter, Andrew Vanacore, directly on this — it’s a public dis-service. Any reporter worth his journalistic salt would question, just a bit, the premise here. A state employee reports a bribe offer from someone connected to a substandard charter school and recommends that the school be closed; just as he should, the employee reports the bribe offer to law enforcement. This response qualifies for “heroic” status, especially in Louisiana, where whistleblowers are an endangered species. After reporting on Folwell’s heroism just two months ago, the Times-Picayune now has decided, because state officials who are attempting to cover up their failure to deal with a problematic school issue a report blaming the messenger,to fall right in with the official, incredible line. Yes, the whistleblower who reported wrong-doing was the problem. An ephemeral shuffling of the bureaucratic chairs will solve everything. Pigs will fly any day now.
The problem here isn’t some unfortunate overlap of regulatory roles. The problem is that someone connected to a bad charter school tried to bribe an honest state employee — and now the state wants to scapegoat that employee for doing exactly what a decent public servant ought to have done. Shame on the Times-Picayune, and on Vanacore.
Let me repeat it here, so there’s no misunderstanding: Folwell Dunbar is my wife’s brother. I have a conflict of interest as I write this post, because I think I know Folwell pretty well, and I think he’s more honest than the longest day of the year is long. But it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t know him from Adam Sandler. This Times-Picayune “report” is baseless smooching of the powers-that-be, and it includes holes an M1 tank could drive through. Why did it take state education officials a year to respond to Folwell’s report saying the charter school should be closed? Why did they respond only after his report was made public, through no effort of his own? Why didn’t the state education department report the attempted bribe to the FBI? Is the FBI investigating this situation?
When you come across an article with the headline, “Deep-sea Squid Mate Indiscriminately,” and then, reading into it, find this wonderful bit of sexy description…
In the deep sea, scientists suspect that squid courtship involves little romance and lots of pirate warfare. When males spot a passing female, they smear them with sperm-laden globs called spermatophores, using obscenely long organs. Once plopped down, the spermatophores likely burst open, releasing clingy sperm pouches that then glom onto the female’s torso and tentacles.
…well, what’re you going to do? Go with it, of course.
When you have someone who wants to build a nuclear reactor in his kitchen, you just go with him. Even if he’s Swedish. Especially if he’s Swedish.