Lessons from #Bernie2016 and the 2012 Celtics

The science is in: we love to root for the underdog. When people we like accomplish things few thought they were capable of, it makes us much more giddy than if we had seen it coming. How else do you explain Rocky V earning $120 a million at the box office and Buster Douglas getting his own video game?

New England’s own Bernie Sanders and the Boston Celtics are no strangers to the underdog role. Interestingly, Sanders’ bid for the presidency is peculiarly homologous to the Celtics’ improbable run to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs. Now that the Independent Senator from Vermont conceded defeat and suspended his campaign, let’s take a look at some of those similarities.

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Both Sanders and the Celtics ran into imposing juggernauts of their respective fields. Hillary Clinton — a former Secretary of State, former Senator from New York, the First Lady during the 1990s economic boom, a millionaire several times over, and one of the most famous people in the world — was being talked about as the presumptive Democratic nominee long before the Sanders campaign was even a concept. A CNN poll taken a month after Bernie announced his candidacy shows just how far behind he was in the beginning: he polled at 10 percent — a far cry from Clinton’s 60 percent, and even Vice President Joe Biden’s 14 percent. As we all know, Biden never even entered the race!

The Celtics’ situation wasn’t much better. Heart conditions cost key bench players Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox their seasons, and former All-Star Jermaine O’Neal and impactful second-year man Avery Bradley also suffered season-ending injuries. As if their decimated roster weren’t enough, they had to get through “The Heatles,” an impossibly stacked “super team” that boasted three of the top five picks of the historically great 2003 NBA Draft: a three-time MVP universally recognized as the best basketball player of his generation (LeBron James), the 2006 Finals MVP and 2009 scoring leader (Dwyane Wade), and a 27 year-old seven-time All-Star (Chris Bosh).

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It should come as no surprise that pundits didn’t give the New Englanders much of a chance. The New York Times politely called the Sanders campaign a “long shot,” and some media outlets even went as far as declaring his candidacy “symbolic.” Just as basketball analysts thought the Celtics would be lucky to win a game or two against the Heat, political analyst Noam Chomsky opined that Sanders’ most likely triumphs would be to “press the Dems a little in a progressive direction” and to become “a thorn in the side of the Clinton machine.”

If they were truly that hopeless, why did so many people support them? Perhaps the major differences between them and their opponents made them more relatable to the average person. Hillary and the Heat were respectively derided as “corporate” and “Hollywood,” while Bernie was hailed as a populist who genuinely cared about working people and the Celtics as an unselfish, hard-working team that stayed away from the limelight. The feeling that they might have been operating within the confines of a rigged system determined to see them lose could have also created sympathizers. Remember how the Wyoming, New York, and California primaries provoked the ire of Berners everywhere? How about the alleged favoritism of the officials in the Heat-Celtics series? Not even Rocky had to deal with that kind of adversity.

Despite their comparable uphill battles, the most significant parallels between #Bernie2016 and the 2012 Celtics were their results. A team whose first two scoring options were a 36 year-old with a balky right knee and a fourteen-year veteran with a sprained MCL had no business beating LeBron and D-Wade three times in a row. Similarly, no one could have envisioned a self-identified socialist winning 22 states in a United States presidential primary.

The Celtics inspired aging weekend warriors everywhere to confidently challenge cocky young ballers, and Sanders emboldened American youth to participate in the political process like no other candidate before him. Even if you’re not the biggest hoop head or political junkie, only good things can come from following the precedent set forth by Bernie and the Celtics!

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You’ve got a friend in me (or do you?)

Last weekend, I saw the critically acclaimed movie “The End of the Tour.” Starring Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel, the film is about the few days in 1996 that Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky spent with writer David Foster Wallace, whom he was interviewing for a story to be published in the magazine. Aside from being a superbly acted, scripted, and directed film, its existencial and philosophical discussions are guaranteed to make anyone think. However, what really made me think was the way the journalistic profession was depicted on screen.

For starters, I was surprised at how unglamorous the Rolling Stone office was; it looked exactly like the office of the small newspaper I used to work for in Puerto Rico. Aesthetics aside, the film also touches upon classic issues in journalistic ethics. When Lipsky goes to his editor to try to convince him to write about David Foster Wallace, it’s clear that he greatly admires the novelist’s work, perhaps even envies him. His wide-eyed enthusiasm about the writer is not disimilar to that of a teenager and his favorite rock band. When Lipsky finally meets Wallace, however, he changes. He has a job to do, and he doesn’t let himself get too close on a personal level. This was surprising to see, because from the way the character was presented in the early moments of the film, I figured that he would stubbornly seek Wallace’s approval at every turn, or even try to befriend him.

This scenario brings up a dilemma that I’ve encountered many times while interviewing people: how friendly should I be? I am very sociable by nature, and sometimes it’s difficult for me to not try to establish some sort of human connection with the person I’m talking to. I addressed this issue with my Enterprise Reporting professor last semester, former Boston Globe reporter and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Kurkjian. He told me that even though I was a “nice guy with a friendly face,” that I could not be afraid of getting under someone’s skin with a question I had to ask. This does not mean that I have to be rude, but being overtly friendly is not conducive to getting the type of responses you want. This is also addressed in the movie when Lipsky’s editor insists that he ask Wallace about his alleged heroin addiction – a subject that he had been avoiding so far, perhaps out of respect for Wallace.

A few days ago, The New Yorker published a marvelous piece on the way the film presents the journalistic profession. I was glad to see that it described some of the things Lipsky did as “creepy,” because I felt the same way as I saw his character rummaging through Wallace’s bathroom drawer and casually flirting with his female friends. However, what I liked most about the article was its description of “the curious artificial intimacy that can arise in the process of interviewing, at length, the subject of a magazine profile.” Like I said before, this is an issue that I still struggle with. It’s important for journalists to know the difference between being someone’s friend and being friendly, as well as the difference between being rude and being assertive. I’m happy that such a successful movie is shining a light on these complicated yet fascinating themes.

Final Paper: The media’s coverage of Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Somali author and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a polarizing figure in modern American politics. Championed by some as a defender of secular, liberal, and feminist values and derided by others as an intolerant bigot, her criticism of Islam has ignited controversy on many occasions.

While she does have ardent supporters, a simple Google search shows that the most pervasive opinion of Hirsi Ali is a negative one. Articles published in Time, Salon, Slate, The GuardianAlterNet, and The New York Times have strongly criticized her and her views. This is somewhat perplexing due to their reputations (warranted or not) as left-leaning publications. One would think that they would side with a person who risks her life to support traditional liberal values: human rights, gender equality, freedom of speech and secular policies. The problem is that most news outlets and journalists are not aware of what she truly stands for.

In her latest book (“Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now“), Hirsi Ali cites numerous verses in the Qu’ran that advocate violence, but whenever she is interviewed, no one seems willing to acknowledge the fact that these texts are riddled with outrageous barbarism. More often than not, journalists seem more interested in debating or judging her than in actually listening to what she has to say.

If I were interviewing her, I would ask her why does she believe that religion itself (instead of the perversion of religion) is the problem, but in all honesty, this question should not even need to be asked. Hirsi Ali addresses the issue directly in “Heretic”:

If the Qu’ran or the hadith urges the believer to kill infidels (“slay them wherever ye catch them” [2:191]) or to behead them (when ye meet the Unbelievers [in fight], smite at their necks; At length, when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly [on them]” [47:4])—or to whip adulterers and stone them to death (Sahih Muslim 17:4192), then we can not be wholly surprised when fundamentalists do precisely those things. Those who say that the butchers of Islamic State are misinterpreting these verses have a problem. The Qu’ran itself explicitly urges pitilessness.

One of her harshest critics is The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur, who called her as a “neocon maniac” who says that “we are in a military war with Islam.” Uygur’s wide reach as an online news host and political commentator means that has the power to influence other people, and such misrepresentations are disingenuous at best, and criminal at worst. This is part of the reason why Ali cannot go anywhere without a large security team – people who are too willing to put labels on her and disregard her message . Humans do this constantly, but journalists are supposed to adhere to a code of ethics that obliges them to minimize harm to other people. Using a platform as wide as The Young Turks to smear a person (who already lives her life under constant death threats) just because you don’t agree with her views (or what you think her views are) is therefore an extremely unethical way of behaving.

This is even more problematic when one actually reads her books and articles. Hirsi Ali believes that Muslims “must critically evaluate their sacred texts in order to reform their religion.” The types of reforms that she advocates are strictly ideological, but the mainstream media seems hellbent on presenting her as a violent radical ironically similar to the ones she’s trying to stop.

In Heretic, she states:

For years, we have spent trillions on waging wars against “terror” and “extremism” that would have been much better spent protecting Muslim dissidents and giving them the necessary platforms and resources to counter the vast networks of Islamic centers, madrassas, and mosques which has been largely responsible for spreading the most noxious forms of Islamic fundamentalism…We have not bothered to develop an effective counternarrative because from the outset have denied that Islamic extremism is in any way related to Islam. We persist in focusing on the violence and not the ideas that give rise to it…We cannot fight an ideology solely with air strikes and drones or even boosts on the ground. We need to fight it with ideas—with better ideas, with positive ideas.

If that’s not a far cry from the policies of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama (who despite his fondness for drone strikes, no one would ever describe as a neoconservative), I don’t know what it is. Sadly, when Obama refuses to acknowledge the troublesome aspects of ancient religious texts by insisting that violent acts are only committed by those who corrupt the tenets of their faith instead of adhering to them, Hirsi Ali’s unapologetic straight-forwardness is seen by many as nothing more than unchecked hostility.

If whoever is interviewing Hirsi Ali wants to make sure that the viewers and/or readers understand her message, he or she needs to make this abundantly clear from the beginning. A journalist never judges; he or she informs. There are multiple ways of doing this, but aside from the obvious (reading her books would be a good start), the best one would be to just let her speak for herself. This approach guarantees a better outcome for all: the journalist would gain credibility by being impartial, Hirsi Ali would be given a fair chance to articulate her views, and the audience would get to hear the ideas straight from the source.

This final point is an important one, because one key aspect of journalism is presenting the facts and giving news consumers the opportunity to formulate their own opinions. It is worth noting that these opinions are unrelated to the facts; that is, someone might not agree with Hirsi Ali’s perspective, but he or she will have a better idea of what she really thinks if the journalist doesn’t inject his or her own opinions about her and her views during the interview.

We all know that journalists need to minimize harm. In a world rife with Islamic fundamentalism, the possibility of offending the wrong people is a reality that those who cover these topics confront every day. However, it seems that some journalists take this fear of of offending others to a dangerous extreme. Giving too much importance to not angering other people might interfere with your main responsibility as a journalist: informing the people in a truthful and fair way. It is not our job to sugarcoat inconvenient truths, and it is definitely not our job to attack those who have the courage to express them.

Spoiler Alert!

While surfing the web yesterday, I decided to look up reviews of my favorite movie of all-time, Before Sunset. I’ve read more about that film than anyone I know, but since I love it so much, I can never get enough. This led me to a piece that came out in The Daily Telegraph in 2004, the same year that the film was released.

From the first paragraph, I was drawn in to the article. Not only because of my obvious affinity towards its subject, but because of how well-written it is. However, as I kept reading, something started to bother me. It had way too many details about what happens in the movie. I couldn’t help but thinking that if someone who has not seen it yet ends up reading it, he or she will miss out on the surprising developments of the film and it will ruin their entire viewing experience. I found it criminal that the “review” gave away what happens in literally the last 10 minutes of the movie – as I watched the film for the first time, I had no idea what would happen, and I could not take my eyes off the screen for a second or let my mind wander because of how captivating it was.

Shockingly, that’s not even the worst part about this whole ordeal. The last line of this article just drove me insane: “Before Sunset opens on Friday.” The movie had not even come out when this was published! As I read the review, I thought, “maybe it’s not that bad, because most people who read reviews like this have already seen the movie,” but no! In this case, no one had seen it yet!

This made me think about the ethical guidelines of writing film reviews. I reviewed films for the newspaper I worked for, and I always struggled with how much of the movie I would give away. As a reviewer, you obviously have to talk about some scenes and characters, but my rule of thumb was to never give away surprises. Basically, if it was an important plot development that was not in the trailers, it was off-limits. This might seem like a minor issue to some, but as a film buff, I take it very seriously. Aside from the viewing public, producers (as well as actors and directors) should also be taken into consideration when writing reviews. These people have invested their time, energy, and/or money into a product whose main selling point is the fact that no one knows exactly what they are getting when they pay for it. If you take away the element of the unknown, the product loses most of its value.

Because it’s an opinion-based genre, I’m well aware that coming up with a universal set of ethical guidelines for film reviews is a challenging (if not impossible) endeavor. Nevertheless, journalists’ main purpose is to serve the public interest, and in my opinion, this includes allowing them to enjoy the magic and mystery of cinema to the fullest extent possible.

Operation “Correct that error” (continued)

On my first stab at trying to get a news organization to correct a mistake, I intented to have ESPN revise and update their article about basketball player Josh Smith. After commenting on the story (as well as tweeting and emailing ESPN), I never received a response. I knew I’d have to focus my energy elsewhere, and luckily, I found the perfect article to do so.

On August 6, The Guardian published a story about a new initiative to improve literacy by a Colombian cultural institute: a highly creative endeavor that consists of correcting spelling mistakes found on tattoos. Ironically, there was a very obvious misspelling of the Spanish word “fácil” (easy) in the article. The original text read:

One tattoo which has become notorious on the internet reads: “La Vida No es Fasil” (Life Isn’t Easy) emblazoned on a young man’s chest. The correct spelling is “facil”.

I immediately tweeted at The Guardian to let them know about the mistake – but received no response – and the article remained unchanged. A couple of days later, I followed up by sending an e-mail to their editorial staff, as well as the writer of the piece, Sibylla Brodzinksy. I explained to her that I was a graduate journalism student at Northeastern University (as well as a Spanish language purist and proud Puerto Rican) and let her know about “Operation Correct that Error.” To my delight, she responded quickly and graciously, and she also linked me to the corrected version of the article. Therefore, I am happy to say that my undertaking of “Operation Correct that Error” was a complete success!

Opinions and the Internet

While chatting with a friend last night, he let me know that he had started a new workout routine. He seemed quite thrilled – he’s following popular trainer Marc Fitt’s regimen and he thinks that it will pay off. I had never heard of Marc Fitt before, so I did some research and immediately stumbled upon this, an article that debates whether he is a “natural bodybuilder” or yet another athlete who has used anabolic steroids to enhance his performance and/or appearance.

Although the site that published the article isn’t a journalistic one, it made me think about the ethics of speculating on an individual’s private life in a public forum. Apparently, Fitt himself was not thrilled with the article’s ultimate conclusion that he is most likely “on the juice,” so he wrote a letter to the page to clear his name. The editors at nattyornot.com were kind enough to post said letter on the aforementioned article, therefore upholding the journalistic standard of fairness. By giving their own opinions and allowing Fitt to express his, they give the reader a better opportunity to come to his or her own conclusions.

Still, it made me think about a few things. What if someone is unaware that websites like these are writing potentially untrue stories about them? Is this “fair” or ethical to discuss people’s lives so openly? Does it make it all right to make allegations about someone if you explicitly state that it is only an opinion that is not based on facts or evidence? Should the ethical standards that we expect professional news organizations to uphold apply to any random website or social media platform? The age of the Internet and social media has made all these questions more difficult to answer.

My Personal Ethics Guidelines, Version 2.0

After analyzing different approaches to ethics during the past couple of weeks (including rules-based thinking, Aristotle’s Golden Mean, and The Golden Rule), I’ve only strengthened my conviction that an ends-based approach to ethics is the appropriate one for me. Ends-based thinking minimizes harm, as it sets out to provide the best possible outcome for the largest number of people. It doesn’t tie itself down to established rules –  instead, it is malleable and adaptable, so it is free from the danger of becoming outdated or impractical.

Also, I stand by my original choice of the New York Times’ Standards and Ethics. Fairness, integrity, and truth were values that I upheld long before I decided to study journalism; they were instilled upon me by my parents and grandparents from the moment I was born. In fact, for much of my teenage years, my peers gave me the nickname “La verdad” (The Truth) because I could always be counted on to give an honest assessment of any situation, regardless of how uncomfortable the facts were.

As far as journalism goes, I believe that truth is the most important value of all. We are in the business of informing the masses, and the only way to do that is by telling the truth; otherwise, we are only deceiving them. I even go one step further: honesty is the most valuable virtue of all. I recently read a book by neuroscientist Sam Harris on the harmful effects of lying, and I can’t recommend it enough to anyone who wants a better understanding of why honesty is so important.

Similarly, I always try to be fair in everything that I do. Whether it’s as a reporter covering a story or as a regular person finding himself in difficult situations, I try to take into account different opinions and do my best to present a level playing field in which every party has the opportunity to be heard. This is not to be confused with being “objective” just for the sake of objectivity, because giving two opposing factions equal credit could lead to false equivalencies. Simply put, sometimes one side is completely in the wrong, and that’s where my ends-based approach comes in: I disregard any so-called “rules” that might lead to me giving both voices the same amount of respect. Some might scream, “but that isn’t fair!”, to which I reply that it is 100% fair to the people at large. I’m in the business of reporting the truth, and if someone is lying, being “fair” to that person would actually maximize harm and end up being the opposite of fair!

Finally, integrity is not to be disregarded. I see this not so much as a value that you decide to have, but as something that you acquire over time. I can choose to tell the truth, but it is only after I’ve proven my honesty time and time again that others will recognize that I am a man of integrity. This is extremely important for journalists, because if your readers feel that you’ve deceived them in any way (intentional or not), they’ll stop trusting you. You’ll gain a reputation of being someone who lacks integrity, and anything you do after that will be rightfully looked at with a healthy amount of skepticism. Thankfully, it’s extremely easy to prevent this. Just by telling the truth and being fair at all times, others will recognize your integrity, and they’ll be on your side for the long run.