Deadspin, I hardly Knew Ye

It was about a month ago that I read on the pages of deadspin.com how corporate assholes had destroyed Sports Illustrated. There are no more journalists at that respected institution, and actually not even any more photographers. Three months ago Sports Illustrated broke a huge story about an athlete, rape, and intimidation. It was a careful, researched piece of journalism.

That will never happen again at SI. The new corporate masters want clickbait but no actual content. Many staffers — the ones involved with journalism or, ironically, illustrating sports — were let go.

One of the journalistic institutions that railed most loudly about the corporate machine silencing the voices of writers was Deadspin. They seriously do not pull their punches there. They will tell you exactly why your favorite team sucks (technically they are a sports outlet), but they will also tell you why mainstream journalists are so lost when covering a man-child president — looking for a plan when there is none, looking for a policy when the man in charge is incapable of formulating one.

But now Deadspin has fallen to the same corporate bullshit. Their media owners tried to impose a mandate that they only cover sports, and the social issues that were directly related, but to stay away from pop culture and politics in particular. The deputy editor said no, and was fired. Much of the staff quit in response.

This is not small.

Over at ESPN, there has been a slow, quiet purge of columnists who dare talk about race and gender inequality in the context of sports. Although management says they have “clarified” their rules about only talking about politics and race when it is directly germane to sports, it’s pretty much impossible to say that Jemele Hill crossed some invisible line. Her essays were always in the context of sport. But that wasn’t what the ESPN bosses really wanted, no matter what they said. The didn’t want anyone rocking the boat.

Deadspin, if you squint at the name just right, looks like it might have been born to mock ESPN. And up until this week, it was a fearless voice. Boat-rockers one and all. But in the last couple of days, in the wake of mass resignations, many recent “political” articles have been replaced by straight-up sports stories. Three years after Colin Kaepernick took a knee, even the “renegade” media outlets have been coerced to the idea that somehow that athlete’s protest was not related to sports — even if it was a protest about something that touched athletes and their communities directly.

To the writes who quit Deadspin, who have put their livelihoods at risk for a matter of principle: I have an underutilized little server in a bunker outside Las Vegas, Nevada. If you want to fire up Rebornspin, I’ll host you no charge.

2

Whither the Sports Columnist?

ESPN.com has completely gone to hell; si.com’s not much better. Grantland has ceased to be. Where does one go to read sports journalism any more? Does it even exist?

Junk Science is Everywhere

You would really expect better from Prevention Magazine

You would really expect better from Prevention Magazine (image lifted from the linked article on io9)

Perhaps you remember the headlines a while back: “Eat Chocolate to Lose Weight!” Every week we learn about a new study that shows that X helps you lose weight. And right there is the first problem:

A study.

Singular. Let’s get something straight right now: A single study has never proven anything, ever. This is a fundamental part of science. When someone makes a discovery, it’s exciting. When enough other people confirm that discovery, it’s knowledge. “A study” is useful to guide future research and to provide fun anecdotes on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”. But that’s all.

Back to the chocolate. The finding that chocolate helped weight loss was discovered in a laboratory study with the proper protocols, and published in a peer-reviewed journal. So, that’s real science, right? Even if it hasn’t been independently reproduced, isn’t it still important health news? You can’t blame the health press for jumping on something as sexy as “chocolate makes you thin”.

But then the people who did the study came forward and told the world that it was all bullshit. They’d done it to prove how easy it is to get junk science into the mainstream. Even they had not imagined how easy it would be.

Let’s start with the scientific study itself. It’s generally considered scientifically significant if the result of the test is less than 5% likely to be the result of random chance. Yep, it’s considered acceptable that one in twenty scientific experiments is incorrect just based on random chance. Madness? Not really, when you consider that all the studies in a field eventually have to work into an interlocking puzzle that forms a bigger picture. The studies that were incorrect either by blind bad luck or poor procedures get weeded out when others cannot reproduce the results.

But what if you test twenty things at the same time? Statistically now you’re very likely to hit a false positive. To quote the article:

Here’s a dirty little science secret: If you measure a large number of things about a small number of people, you are almost guaranteed to get a “statistically significant” result.

In the jargon of the junk-science industry, this is called “p-stacking”. An incredible number of the health claims you read are likely the result of this film-flam.

“But,” you might ask, “aren’t there systems to filter this shit out before it goes mainstream?”

Well… yes, but those systems are pretty much broken. First off, science is a discourse, and all new ideas have to run a gauntlet of “peer review”. Ideally, the peers may not agree with the conclusions, but you damn well better dot your i’s and cross your t’s. If you take shortcuts in your process, your peers will keep you out of the journals. In the major journals, the reviewers take their work really seriously.

But now there are journals that, for a price will publish whatever twaddle you wish to sell. While they claim to be peer-reviewed, the peers seem only to be reviewing whether your check clears, and have little interest in the scientific validity of your study.

Academia may not be fooled, but the fifth estate certainly is. Journalists who are trusted to sort through the garbage and bring important health information to their readers instead just blare the sexiest headlines. In some cases, the online comments by the readers of those articles ask the questions the so-called journalist should have asked before even running the story.

In the chocolate scam, they recognized another important fact: if the press release is actually written as an article fit for a magazine, even fewer questions are asked. It’s jut cut, paste, and print.

The press is making hay selling junk science to you and me. We trust them to vet the information they bring us, and they are doing a terrible job. It’s not just health science, but that’s where most of the crap seems to be flying these days.

So if what passes for journalism these days won’t ask the hard questions, we have to. Don’t change your diet because of “a study”. Even honest studies are found to be false later on, and damn few of the health articles we read are based on honest studies. (That “damn few” assertion is totally baseless. I have no statistics to back it up. But you were right there with me, weren’t you?)

For your homework assignment, I’d like you to Stop And Think when you see something on Facebook, especially in the health industry. Maybe do five minutes of research on the people making the claim. Then CALL THEM ON IT. Say, “Hey! I call Junk Science on you!”

Get double-serious when you read the shit in magazines. Let’s publicly shame the so-called journalists who dump this stuff out without asking the hard questions first. Demand footnotes. Check sources. Someone has to teach those bozos their jobs.

2

I want to ask Peter Jennings a question

I came up with a question tonight, a question about freedom and responsibility – specifically, about the freedom of the press and the responsibility of the press. Most of this episode will be devoted to why I want to ask Peter Jennings this question. Precious little will be about the question itself. The question has nothing to do with 9/11, but my singling out of Peter Jennings is entirely about that day.

I had been watching football the night before. Ed McCaffery, the indestructible wide receiver for the Denver Broncos, had had his leg shattered. He was the guy that could take any hit and still catch the ball. I don’t remember whether he held on that time as his leg was being smashed into a kajillion pieces. If he caught it, and I think he did, he would have been an american legend. But that was 9/10.

Most mornings I wake up to the radio. I wake slowly. I fade in and out as the stories fill me. That morning I heard about a plane hitting the world trade center. That woke me up. I thought about the B-26(?) that had once hit the Empire State Building. Then I heard that another plane had hit the other tower. The radio reports I heard said the second plane had been a smaller one, but that didn’t matter. Two planes meant intent. I went into the other room and turned on the TV.

It was the same on every channel. Smoke billowing from the towers. Replays of a 767 smashing into the south tower from every angle. Flames billowing. Somewhere in those flames were people. People who, like me, thought of terrorism as a far-away thing. I sat on my comfy chair and watched in horror. As I did so, I found another outrage. Every station had across the bottom of the screen a graphic. They all featured a cross-hair, and said something like “America Under Attack” or “Attack On America”. The major news outlets were competing to brand the tragedy even as it happened.

There was only one exception. Peter Jennings sat at his desk, his tie a little off and his voice a little hoarse, and there were no exploitative graphics. I may be wrong, but I think the anchor still has control over that kind of thing when it really matters. Whether it was Peter or his boss, that news organization showed far more class that day than any other. So it was when the south tower fell I was listening to Peter as he saw it the same time I did. “Oh my God,” he said, or something like that, maybe one of those three words, but his voice caught and it was real and it was the full tragedy.

That day he stood in front of all with courage and compassion, without taking shelter behind slogans and marketing gimmicks. Since then I have afforded Peter Jennings with a degree of credibility I deny the rest of the breathless “journalists” of today. He could say a lot of things I disagree with, and he has, but I will never forget that day.

So that’s why Peter Jennings. I think he’s a journalist. I don’t think there are many others who make the national scene and remain journalists. So now, after that big emotional gush, I will leave you with the question, a hard intellectual nugget that you have to diagram before you digest. But it’s an important question to me.

So, Peter: Responsible journalists try hard to not tell lies. They check the veracity of the statements given them. If the president were to release a statement that research showed to be untrue, would you a) not print the story, or, b) print a story saying the president had lied?

I’m talking to a responsible journalist here, so “run the lie, it’ll sell papers” is not an option.