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Archive for the 'Journalism' Category

Friday, December 19th, 2014

The Strange Journey of John McAfee via The Best American Magazine Writing 2014

Best American Magazine Writing 2014

“[McAfee] greets me wearing a pistol strapped across his bare chest. Guards patrol the beach in front of us. He tells me that he’s now living with five women who ap­pear to be between the ages of seventeen and twenty; each has her own bungalow on the property.”—Joshua Davis

One of the strangest and most compelling stories in The Best American Magazine Writing 2014*, edited by Sid Holt, is “Dangerous” by Joshua Davis. Published in Wired, the story recounts software mogul John McAfee’s rise and subsequent encampment in Belize after fleeing the United States. Below in an excerpt and recordings of Davis’s conversations with McAfee.

*Use the coupon code HOLBES and Save 30% on The Best American Magazine Writing 2014.

[John McAfee] started McAfee Associates out of his 700-square-foot home in Santa Clara. His business plan: Create an antivirus pro­gram and give it away on electronic bulletin boards. McAfee didn’t expect users to pay. His real aim was to get them to think the software was so necessary that they would install it on their computers at work. They did. Within five years, half of the For­tune 100 companies were running it, and they felt compelled to pay a license fee. By 1990, McAfee was making $5 million a year with very little overhead or investment.

His success was due in part to his ability to spread his own paranoia, the fear that there was always somebody about to at­tack. Soon after launching his company, he bought a twenty ­seven-foot Winnebago, loaded it with computers, and announced that he had formed the first “antivirus paramedic unit.” When he got a call from someone experiencing computer problems in the San Jose area, he drove to the site and searched for “virus resi­due.” Like a good door-to-door salesman, there was a kernel of truth to his pitch, but he amplified and embellished the facts to sell his product. The RV therefore was not just an RV; it was “the first specially customized unit to wage effective, on-the-spot coun­terattacks in the virus war.”

It was great publicity, executed with drama and sly wit. By the end of 1988, he was on The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour telling the country that viruses were causing so much damage, some com­panies were “near collapse from financial loss.” He underscored the danger with his 1989 book, Computer Viruses, Worms, Data Diddlers, Killer Programs, and Other Threats to Your System. “The reality is so alarming that it would be very difficult to exagger­ate,” he wrote. “Even if no new viruses are ever created, there are already enough circulating to cause a growing problem as they reproduce. A major disaster seems inevitable.”

In 1992 McAfee told almost every major news network and newspaper that the recently discovered Michelangelo virus was a huge threat; he believed it could destroy as many as 5 million computers around the world. Sales of his software spiked, but in the end only tens of thousands of infections were reported. Though McAfee was roundly criticized for his proclamation, the criticism worked in his favor, as he explained in an e-mail in 2000 to a computer-security blogger: “My business increased tenfold in the two months following the stories and six months later our revenues were 50 times greater and we had captured the lion’s share of the anti-virus market.”

This ability to infect others with his own paranoia made McAfee a wealthy man. In October 1992 his company debuted on Nasdaq, and his shares were suddenly worth $80 million….

***

In August, McAfee and I meet for a final in-person interview at his villa on Ambergris Caye. He greets me wearing a pistol strapped across his bare chest. Guards patrol the beach in front of us. He tells me that he’s now living with five women who ap­pear to be between the ages of seventeen and twenty; each has her own bungalow on the property. Emshwiller is here, though McAfee’s attention is focused on the other women.

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Thursday, December 18th, 2014

The Best Business Writing 2014 on The NFL’s Questionable Business Practices

The Best Business Writing 2014

As a business the National Football League continues to make a lot of money. However, as revealed in The Best Business Writing 2014, edited by Dean Starkman, Martha Hamilton, and Ryan Chittum how the NFL does business is deeply troubling. This year’s anthology includes two stories about some of football’s recent travails and its more deceptive practices.

The first is a transcript from a Frontline story “League of Denial” that examines how the NFL reacted or did not react to the football concussion crisis. The excerpt and clip tell the tragic story of Mike Webster, a former all-pro center for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The second, “How the NFL Fleeces Taypayers”, by Gregg Easterbrook from The Atlantic examines how the league, which has been able to receive non-profit status, has built its multi-billion-dollar empire on the largesse of politicians and taxpayers (see excerpt following the transcript).

A clip from “League of Denial”:

Narrator: Nearly broke, homeless, and losing his mind, Web­ster decided football had hurt him, and the NFL was going to pay for it. In 1997, he went to see a lawyer.

Bob Fitzsimmons, Webster’s attorney: The thing that struck me the most was how intelligent Mike was, and the problem was that he just couldn’t continue those thought patterns for longer than a thirty-second period, or a minute or two minutes. He would just go off on the tangents at that point. It was pretty obvious, actually, the first interview that he had some type of cognitive impairment.

Narrator: Attorney Bob Fitzsimmons drew up a disability claim against the NFL.

Steve Fainaru: He began to assemble a case with Webster to basically say that Webster had suffered brain damage as a re­sult of his seventeen-year career in the NFL.

Narrator: Fitzsimmons pulled together Webster’s complicated medical history.

Bob Fitzsimmons: So I took the binder of records and got four doctors together, four separate doctors, all asking them, “Does he have a permanent disability that’s cognitive? And is it related to football?”

Narrator: Webster’s final application for disability contained over one hundred pages and the definitive diagnosis of his doctor—football had caused Webster’s dementia. His claim for disability was filed with the National Football League’s re­tirement board.

Steve Fainaru: The Disability Committee is part of the NFL. The head of the Disability Committee is the commissioner himself, so it’s very much a creature of the NFL.

Narrator: From the beginning, the league’s board was skepti­cal, reluctant to give Webster money.

Colin Webster: They were fighting it from the beginning, against just the common sense of, you know, here’s this guy, look at him, you know? He played for nearly twenty years in a brutal and punishing sport, and you know, this is what’s going on with him. Why would you fight that? What possible motive?

Narrator: The league had its own doctor review Webster’s case.

Bob Fitzsimmons: The NFL had not only hired an investigator to look into this, they also hired their own doctor and said, “Hey, we want to evaluate Mike Webster.”

Narrator: Dr. Edward Westbrook examined him.

Mark Fainaru-Wada: Dr. Westbrook concurs with everything that the four other doctors have found and agrees that abso­lutely, there’s no question that Mike Webster’s injuries are football-related and that he appears to be have significant cognitive issues, brain damage, as a result of having played football.

Narrator: The NFL retirement board had no choice. They granted Webster monthly disability payments.

Document: —“has determined that Mr. Webster is currently to­tally and permanently disabled.”

Narrator: And buried in the documents, a stunning admission by the league’s board—football can cause brain disease.

Document: —“indicate that his disability is the result of head injuries he suffered as a football player.”

Bob Fitzsimmons: The NFL acknowledges that repetitive trauma to the head in football, football can cause a permanent dis­abling injury to the brain.

Narrator: The admission would not be made public until years later, when it was discovered by the Fainaru brothers.

Mark Fainaru-Wada: And that was a dramatic admission back in 2000. And in fact, when you talk about that later with Fitzsimmons, he describes that as the sort of proverbial smoking gun.

Narrator: It was now in writing. The NFL’s own retirement board linked playing football and dementia. At the time, it was something the league would not admit publicly. And Webster felt he’d never received the acknowledgment that his years in the NFL had caused his problems.

Pam Webster: Mike would call this his greatest battle. He’d say it was like David and Goliath, over and over, because it was. He was taking on something that was bigger than him. He took on this battle for the right reasons. He was the right per­son to do it. Unfortunately, it cost us everything.

Narrator: Just two years later, in 2002, Mike Webster died.

(more…)

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

The Best American Magazine Writing and the Future of Magazines

The Best American Magazine Writing 2014

The Best American Magazine 2014 includes some of the best writing of the past year. As evident from the book’s contents, while the writing in magazines is perhaps as strong as ever, the magazine industry, as has been well documented, and the concept of what constitutes a magazine is in doubt.

The fate of the magazine as both a business model and a form was the topic of a recent story on Marketplace, which included an interview with Sid Holt, the editor of The Best American Magazine Writing 2014 and the chief executive of the American Society of Magazine Editors:

As the story reported, 2014 saw the launch of 800 new magazines. These new magazines represent a new niche-driven trend in the industry where publications such as Bacon, Eye-lash, or Skinny News are aimed at very specific audiences.

Sid Holt says it is a challenging time for magazines. While magazine audiences are growing online and on other digital platforms, the loss of advertising dollars that were once a mainstay of print has been hard to make up.

“Those digital dimes haven’t replaced those print dollars yet,” he says. But at the same time, he notes, magazines are adapting. In order for a magazine now to be successful it has to carry its shared passion between reader and publisher — be it guinea pigs or eyelashes — across platforms.

“We no longer think of a magazine as this print thing; this print artifact. Although, obviously the print artifact is central,” he says.

The fate of the magazine and what makes magazine writing so distinctive was also the subject of Mark Jannot’s introduction to The Best American Magazine Writing 2014. In the introduction, he considers how particular magazines develop pieces that are not only compelling in their own right but fit the style and ambitions of their publication:

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

Best Business Writing 2014 — Taking on Google, Facebook, and the Ethos of Silicon Valley

The Best Business Writing 2014

The Best Business Writing 2014, edited by Dean Starkman, Martha Hamilton, and Ryan Chittum includes a series of sharp essays on the culture, practice, ethos, and ideology of Silicon Valley. In different ways, Evgeny Morozov, Rebecca Solnit, and Susan Faludi puncture the bubble that surrounds much of our celebration of technology’s impact on society.

In Why We Are Allowed to Hate Silicon Valley, published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Morozov takes a closer look at the intrusive role technology companies such as Google have in our life:

But consider just how weird our current arrangement is. Imagine I told you that the post office could run on a different, innovation-friendly business model. Forget stamps. They cost money—and why pay money when there’s a way to send letters for free? Just think about the world-changing potential: the poor kids in Africa can finally reach you with their pleas for more laptops! So, instead of stamps, we would switch to an advertis­ing-backed system: we’d open every letter that you send, scan its contents, insert a relevant ad, seal it, and then forward it to the recipient.

Sounds crazy? It does. But this is how we have chosen to run our e-mail. In the wake of the NSA scandal and the debacle that is Healthcare.gov, trust in public institutions runs so low that any alternative arrangement—especially the one that would give pub­lic institutions a greater role—seems unthinkable. But this is only part of the problem. What would happen when some of our long cherished and privately run digital infrastructure begins to crum­ble as companies evolve and change their business models?….

Now that our communication networks are in the hands of the private sector, we should avoid making the same mistake with privacy. We shouldn’t reduce this complex problem to market-based solutions. Alas, thanks to Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial zeal, privatization is already creeping in. Privacy is becoming a commodity. How does one get privacy these days? Just ask any hacker: only by studying how the right tools work. Privacy is no longer something to be taken for granted or enjoyed for free: you have to expend some resources to master the tools. Those re­sources could be money, patience, attention—you might even hire a consultant to do all this for you—but the point is that privacy is becoming expensive.

(more…)

Monday, December 15th, 2014

Book Giveaway! Best Business Writing 2014 and Best American Magazine Writing 2014

With the end of the year upon us, we wanted to highlight our two “best of” annuals: The Best Business Writing 2014, edited by Dean Starkman, Martha M. Hamilton, and Ryan Chittum and The Best American Magazine Writing 2014, edited by Sid Holt for the American Society of Magazine Editors.

In addition to featuring these books we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Best Business Writing 2014 and Best American Magazine Writing 2014 to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, December 19 at 1:00 pm.

Friday, November 21st, 2014

George Packer on The New Censorship by Joel Simon

Joel Simon, The New Censorship

In Why the Press is Less Free Today, a recent article in The New Yorker, George Packer discussed some of the key issues and arguments raised in The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom, by Joel Simon.

Packer’s article and Simon’s book come at a time when journalists are increasingly under threat. As Packer writes, between 2002 and 2012, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (C.P.J.), five hundred and six journalists were killed worldwide, as opposed to three hundred and ninety in the previous decade. Packer comments on the seeming contradiction of more journalists being killed at a time when other freedoms seem to be proliferating:

It seems strange to speak of growing censorship in an era when elections are common around the world, private freedoms have expanded even in repressive countries like China, the Internet and social media swamp our brains with indiscriminate information every nanosecond, and anyone with a Twitter account or a Facebook page can be a journalist. But Simon makes a persuasive case that the global trend is toward less, not greater, freedom of the press. “Deluged with data, we are blind to the larger reality,” he writes. “Around the world new systems of control are taking hold. They are stifling the global conversation and impeding the development of policies and solutions based on an informed understanding of the local realities. Repression and violence against journalists is at record levels, and press freedom is in decline.”

(more…)

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

Joel Simon Discusses The New Censorship on The Leonard Lopate Show

Yesterday, Joel Simon, author of The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom appeared on The Leonard Lopate Show to talk about the book and the increasing threats to journalists. Simon warns that these threats are leading to a shortage of the news reports we need to make sense of our globalized world and to fight against human rights abuses, manage conflict, and promote accountability.

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

The Seven Things Obama Can Do to confront the New Censorship

Joel Simon, The New CensorshipThe following post is by Joel Simon, author of The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom:

The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media covers events and trends from an international perspective. But some of the questions I’ve gotten from audience members at recent events have to do with the Obama administration and its policies. Below I will look at what Obama has done so far and what still needs to be done.

1. Advocate for the rights of individual journalists. One the simplest and most effective strategies that the Obama administration can implement is to raise the cases of persecuted journalists in bilateral meetings, public statements, and through diplomatic channels. In fact, the administration has a good record of doing this. Former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciordone repeatedly spoke out about the imprisonment of Turkish journalists, much to the annoyance of the government in Ankara. U.S. officials have also raised the cases of imprisoned Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Van Hai (who was recently released and is now in the United States), the so-called Zone 9 bloggers in Ethiopia, and the Al Jazeera journalists currently imprisoned in Egypt. How’s the administration doing so far in this area? Reasonably well. I would give it a B+.

2. Formulate policies that clearly articulate the balance between U.S. strategic interests and the promotion of human rights. The limitation of advocating on behalf of individual journalists is that the administration has not clearly articulated how far it will push the human rights agenda when it clashes with national security interests. For example, in Turkey, while the embassy and the state department spoke out, President Obama did not, and this was interpreted in Turkey as a signal that U.S. strategic interests would take precedence. The same is true in Ethiopia, which has been a key ally in confronting Islamic militantism in the Horn of Africa; and in Egypt, which despite its unbearable repression is seen as a bulwark against growing regional instability. These countries have effectively resisted U.S. pressure on protecting journalists because they view human rights and press freedom as something that can be negotiated. In other words, the more valuable you are as a strategic ally of the United States the more repression you can get away it. How has Obama done so drawing the line on press freedom violations? I would give him a C.

3. Limit surveillance. The staggering revelations made by Edward Snowden blew the lid on NSA program global surveillance, which we now know operates on scale that is difficult comprehend. Much has been made of the implications of surveillance in a domestic context, and the questions regarding the legality of U.S. spying need to be urgently addressed. But it is important to keep in mind that there are no legal restrictions on surveillance outside the United States, and as a former NSA official recently told me, a non-U.S. journalist speaking to a confidential source would make an ideal target for NSA spying. The scope of the NSA surveillance effort not only has a chilling effect on journalists around the world, it normalizes the efforts of country’s like China and Iran that routinely surveil both domestic critics and their perceived international adversaries (including journalists). When it comes to spying on journalists, the U.S. needs to put in place policies that carefully balance intelligence needs with the negative impact they might have on global freedom of expression. How’s the administration doing far? Poorly. I give it a D.

4. Defend the Internet. The Internet was developed by U.S. computer scientists and even though it is now a global system much of the core infrastructure that makes the Internet function is still based in the United States. For the most part, the U.S. has been a responsible global steward, and the administration has actively promoted the “right to connect” as a form of freedom of association. However, the political environment now requires that the U.S. modulate its role in Internet governance as a means of countering challenges from countries like China that seek to put the global Internet at service of state interests. China’s most compelling argument is that the U.S. is exploiting its privileged position to undermine rival powers by pumping in destabilizing information and carrying out massive surveillance. This is why the best way to ensure that the Internet remains a viable, shared global resource is for the U.S. to further internationalize governance. To its credit, the administration has been seeking to do this in the least few years. How is the administration doing on this critical front? Pretty well. I give the administration an A-.

(more…)

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

An Interview with Joel Simon, author of The New Censorship

“This is the most deadly and dangerous time for journalists in decades”—Joel Simon
Joel Simon, The New CensorshipThe following is an interview with Joel Simon, author of The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom. On November 11 at Book Court in Brooklyn, there was a launch for a book and a discussion with Simon and George Packer of The New Yorker. Packer later wrote about a commentary based on the book on Why the Press is Less Free Today. For more on the book you can also read an excerpt from the chapter News of the Future (and the Future of News).

Question: Why did you write this book?

Joel Simon: As always there were a mix of personal and professional reasons. From a professional perspective, I hope to draw attention to the crisis that we are confronting around global free expression. This is the most deadly and dangerous time for journalists in decades, with record numbers being killed and imprisoned. Around the world, according to all available data, press freedom is in decline and the information we depend on makes sense of our globalized world is not flowing as freely as people believe. I hope the book draws attention to this urgent threat, helps readers understand its origins and consequences, and to points toward strategies that can help mitigate the impact.

From a personal perspective, I have always loved to tell stories. This is in large measure why I became a journalist and since my day job is a running an international nonprofit it is not something I generally able to do. I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to take a step back, and consider the big picture, and sit, write, and contemplate.

Q: The book is called The New Censorship. How is this different from the old censorship?

JS: Traditional censorship is based on hierarchies of control. In its most rigid formulation, a country’s political leadership determines what people can know and state directives are executed by actual censors who occupy newsrooms and prevent the publication of prohibited material. In other words, people don’t know what they don’t know. This kind of censorship is anachronism in a globalized, networked world in which even autocratic regimes have to integrate into the international financial and information systems. So unless you want to ban the Internet—something only a handful of countries do these days—you need to find a way to manage information rather than relying on simple repression. In the book, I look at a variety of strategies focusing on new breed of elected autocrats who I dub the “democratators.” I look at the Chinese system for managing the Internet, and also explore the way that terror and criminal groups are using social media to disseminate message of fear and intimidation.

Q: You use this term, global citizen. What do you mean by that?

JS: One of the primary themes I explore in the book is the way that technology has transformed the global information system, including the global media. I use the term global citizen to represent all those who recognize that their interests transcend national boundaries. In order to make informed decisions about matters that affect their lives, global citizens require access to global information. It is true that technology makes it possible to access information from around the world in ways that would have not even been conceivable a few decades ago. But the glut of information blinds us to the huge gaps in our knowledge of global events, gaps produced by pressure from authoritarian governments, murderous violence perpetrated by criminal and terrorist groups, smothering surveillance of our online communication, and clear deficiencies in the media structures. By definition censorship itself transcends national boundaries, since it prevents people from outside the country where the censorship is taking place from accessing information that may be essential for their own lives. One of the primary arguments for press freedom in a national context is that it necessary for good governance and accountability. But there is no effective mechanism to ensure that news and information produces accountability at the global level.

(more…)

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

New Book Tuesday: Best Business Writing, Coney Island, and More!

The Best Business Writing 2014Our weekly listing of new titles now available:

The Best Business Writing 2014
Edited by Dean Starkman, Martha M. Hamilton, and Ryan Chittum

A Coney Island Reader: Through Dizzy Gates of Illusion
Edited by Louis J. Parascandola and John Parascandola

Inheriting Dance: An Invitation from Pina
Edited by Marc Wagenbach and The Pina Bausch Foundation

Art/Commerce: The Convergence of Art and Marketing in Contemporary Culture
Maria A. Slowinska

The Intelligible Metropolis: Urban Mentality in Contemporary London Novels
Nora Pleßke

Studying Early and Silent Cinema
Keith Withall

Talk Radio, the Mainstream Press, and Public Opinion in Hong Kong
Francis L. F. Lee

Understanding South Asian Minorities in Hong Kong
John Nguyet Erni and Lisa Yuk-ming Leung

Exploring Lung Fu Shan: A Nature Guide
Lung Fu Shan Environmental Education Centre

Monday, November 17th, 2014

Book Giveaway: The New Censorship, by Joel Simon

This week our featured book is The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom by Joel Simon.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The New Censorship to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, November 21 at 1:00 pm.

“No one understands better than Joel Simon the reasons that press freedom is now in decline nearly everywhere in the world. In The New Censorship, he brings us riveting and powerfully moving accounts from the front lines. For anyone who wants to understand the peril that independent media faces around the world today, this is a distressing, essential piece of work” — Jacob Weisberg, Chairman, The Slate Group

Read an excerpt from the chapter, “News of the Future (and the Future of News)”:

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

To the Point: A New E-book Series from Columbia University Press

To the Point

To the Point, Bruce HoffmanTo the Point, Julia KristevaTo the Point, Peter Piot                 To the Point, Joel SimonTo the Point, Evan Thompson

Columbia University Press is proud to announce the launch of To the Point an exciting new e-book series that extends the scholarship of our authors for a growing global and digital audience. We present standalone chapters from the press’s forthcoming fall season books, with original short-format works to come to the series in the future.

These works serve to introduce our authors’ provocative ideas to new readers in accessible, affordable formats. Featuring works by Bruce Hoffman, Julia Kristeva, Evan Thompson, and others in disciplines ranging from politics and philosophy to food science and social work.

To the Point titles are available for only $1.99 from your favorite e-book vendor.

The first five e-book shorts to be released for sale in the To the Point series are:

* The 7/7 London Underground Bombing: Not So Homegrown, by Bruce Hoffman
A selection from The Evolution of the Global Terrorist Threat: From 9/11 to Osama bin Laden’s Death

* Understanding Through Fiction, by Julia Kristeva
A selection from Teresa, My Love: An Imagined Life of the Saint of Avila

* AIDS as an International Political Issue, by Peter Piot
A selection from AIDS Between Science and Politics

* Informing the Global Citizen, by Joel Simon
A Selection from The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom

* Dying: What Happens When We Die?, by Evan Thompson
A Selection from Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy

Friday, September 5th, 2014

Dean Starkman: Wrecking an Economy Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Dean Starkman, The Watchdog That Didn't Bark

“We know the banks are eager to put the scandal of the financial crisis behind them. What’s disturbing is that, in the name of deference, convenience, or something darker, the Justice Department is letting them do just that.”—Dean Starkman

In his book The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism, Dean Starkman charts the history of the financial press culminating in an analysis of the failure of mainstream journalism to cover the events and trends leading up to the 2008 financial crisis.

In a sense, he argues that the financial press abandoned its roots in investigative journalism and let mortgage lenders, banks, and Wall Street off the hook. Recently, in the New Republic, Starkman suggests that the government is doing the same after the fact. Despite some settlements paid out by the likes of J.P. Morgan and Citigroup, the Justice Department “has permitted the banks, for a price, to bury their sins.” Starkman writes:

It bears saying one more time: It’s a disgrace that the Justice Department has failed to bring a single criminal charge against any Wall Street or mortgage executive of consequence for their roles in wrecking the economy, despite having managed to make arrests in the comparatively piddling schemes of Enron and the Savings & Loan flimflam. (The latter resulted in more than 800 convictions, including those of many top executives.) These settlements are wan consolation. The sums being surrendered, for starters, are large only until compared with the $13 trillion or so the public lost in the financial crash—or, for that matter, with the banks’ own coffers. (Citi’s pure profit in the two years before the wipeout was more than triple its penalty.) Not to mention that the money won’t be paid by any parties actually responsible, but by the banks’ current shareholders, who pretty much had nothing to do with the misdeeds in question. And the bulk of the settlements will be tax deductible. For destroying trillions in wealth and thousands of jobs, banks will get a write-off.

(more…)

Monday, May 19th, 2014

Mitchell Stephens on Why Wisdom is the Key to the Future of Journalism

“We need journalists who … are experts, who are specialists, who are really capable of adding insight and wisdom to the news. I think we’re beginning to get there. A lot of that is happening online.”—Mitchell Stephens

Beyond News, Mitchell StephensIn a recent interview with The American Prospect, Mitchell Stephens discussed his new book Beyond News: The Future of Journalism. Stephens argues that journalism needs to move away from an emphasis on “objective” journalism and instead privilege analysis and what he considers “wisdom”:

Q: You say “wisdom journalism” is the key to journalism’s future. What is “wisdom journalism”?

Mitchell Stephens: There was 150-year period—a century and a half, give or take a decade—in which it was possible to make a big business out of selling news. That’s the era into which all of us were born and many of us spent a good part of our careers as journalists. We developed certain assumptions based on that economic fact. But now that the economics have shifted, we must re-evaluate and learn to live in an era in which it may no longer be possible to make a good living just by selling news. News may go back to what it once was, which is something that people exchange for free. Journalists may have to go back to what they once were, which is people who led in wisdom, who led in insight, who led in intelligence to account for what was and is going on.

My argument is that we need journalists who, unlike the characterization of journalism in the 20th century, who are experts, who are specialists, who are really capable of adding insight and wisdom to the news. I think we’re beginning to get there. A lot of that is happening online.

Q: Rather than simply inform, you argue that journalism’s goal should be to transform how we think, to lead “wiser citizens and therefore wiser politics.”

MS: Right. For a long time, journalism didn’t aspire high enough as a profession or craft. I think the mere transcription of facts, of quotations, which has been a lot of journalism during this century-and-a-half period, is just not enough. It’s done some wonderful things: It brought down a president of the United States; it exposed various kinds of corrupt behavior. There have been incredible exposés that have happened just because someone dug up and put down the facts. That’s valuable for sure. But I also sense that we need now is for journalists to explain significance and what we can learn from events, not just what someone said today or this morning.

Q: Sites like Wonk Blog and Vox offer general information along with explanations of complex issues. Do you see sites like Vox as the future?

MS: I have a somewhat complicated relationship with Vox.com. It has two of my favorite young, contemporary journalists on it—Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein. They’re brilliant, and provide precisely the sort of insight I’m looking for. I’ve been a regular reader of the both of them.

On the other hand, their favorite word is “explanation.” Obviously, explanation is a happy thing and they have all these “note cards” to provide background to their stories. I tweeted, “Is one of our best journalists doing journalism for dummies?” That’s overly harsh, clearly. But my concern is that there’s an element of condescension. It’s sort of “Oh, we have to make sure you understand the background and if we don’t give it to you may not understand.” Sure, there’s a lot I don’t understand and a lot people don’t understand. But we’re pretty good at teaching ourselves nowadays. I’m not sure the best thing the Ezra Kleins and Matt Yglesiases of the world can do for us now is to spoon-feed us background. I want them ahead of the news, in the really complicated stuff. I want them providing insight more than explanation. With that caveat, both those guys and the people who work with them are great examples of the wisdom journalism I’m calling for.

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Dean Starkman on Financial Journalism and the Disappearance of Investigative Reporting

Dean Starkman, author of The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism, was recently interviewed on All Things Considered on changing trends in news and what it might mean for the future of journalism.

Starkman argues that despite the amount of data now available to journalists and readers, stories are still being missed. While some smaller news outlets did spot and focus on shifts in financial markets, many of the major financial news organizations either ignored it. Rather than investing in investigative reporting, they were only listening to insiders with a vested interest in not shedding light on problems in the financial markets. Here’s an excerpt from his interview:

When you think about the financial crisis, it wasn’t like there was an absence of data. These are reporters working on the streets of Roanoke and the streets of Pittsburgh. This story was something that had to be reported from the bottom up. The quality of these transactions under which these mortgages were made, that was only gettable through basically ground-up reporting, talking to people who were outside the system.

Starkman also recently appeared on Yahoo! Finance to discuss The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: (more…)

Friday, February 7th, 2014

Beyond News and Ezra Klein’s New Venture

The following post is by Mitchell Stephens, author of the forthcoming Beyond News: The Future of Journalism:

“The century-and-a-half-long period in human history when it was possible to make a big business out of selling news … was an anomaly, and it is now ending.”—Mitchell Stephens

Beyond News: The Future of JournalismEzra Klein has long been complaining that, as he put it in 2011, “the news business is biased toward, well, news.” So it was no surprise when Klein explained recently that the new “publication” he is launching would go beyond presenting “new information”—i.e. news.

Deemphasizing news reporting does not qualify as an outrageous approach to quality journalism in 2014. Indeed, there are definite signs that the American journalist’s obsession with merely recounting what happened yesterday is lessening—even at traditional “news organizations.” “Hard news,” the public editor of the New York Times recently conceded, is now sometimes “hard to find” on that newspaper’s front page.

My forthcoming book, Beyond News: The Future of Journalism, makes the case that, with news now so widely available and so often free, such a move away from news is inevitable. And this applies to the best journalists with legacy publications and newscasts as well as the best new, online journalists. The century-and-a-half-long period in human history when it was possible to make a big business out of selling news, the book maintains, was an anomaly, and it is now ending.

The Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, is discomfited by this switch away from simply reporting the news: “In my view,” she writes, “The Times’ most prominently displayed stories sometimes go too far in the direction of interpretation, analysis and elaborate writing. The reasonable reader, with only his coffee for assistance, might well wish that the important nugget of news would appear in the second paragraph instead of the seventh.” Most traditional journalists—despite what has been happening to their front pages, newscasts and home pages—would probably agree with Sullivan that stories need to continue to emphasize an account of what happened.

I disagree. That “nugget of news”—some number of people were killed this morning, the president said yesterday—will now be available all over the Web. Our best journalism organizations, like the New York Times or the one Ezra Klein is trying to create, should not, obviously, ignore the details on what happened, but they ought to aspire to a journalism that goes significantly beyond just jotting down what someone—a police chief or a president—said. They need to go beyond what Reuters’ financial blogger Felix Salmon calls “commodity news.” Salmon dismisses such press-conference, big-event, hang-out-with-the-pack stories as: “low-hanging fruit in terms of journalistic effort.”

My new book is a call for more interpretation, analysis and thoughtful writing—more insight. It notes that the journalism out of which the United States was born—the journalism of Ben Franklin, John Dickinson and Thomas Paine—was highly opinionated and conspicuously lacking in nuggets of news. The book celebrates the work of the men and women who have been this country’s most insightful journalists and who, not coincidentally, also been among its most consequential journalists. They include: Lincoln Steffens, the young Walter Lippmann, Dorothy Thompson, Edward R. Murrow, Rachel Carson, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe and, yes, the young Ezra Klein.

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Friday, January 24th, 2014

Dean Starkman Debates Whether the Business Press Failed the Public Trust

Recently, Columbia Journalism Review and Public Business, organized a panel Has the Business Press Failed the Public Trust?. Among the panelists were Dean Starkman, author of The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism

The discussion, which also included Larry Ingrassia, (New York Times); Felix Salmon (Reuters); Suzanne Kapner (Wall Street Journal) and Jeff Horwitz (American Banker) focused on the the distinction between reporting for investors and the general public, the the press’s ability to shape public debate, and the role of non-business reporters in covering business scoops. As evident in the video below of the event, the discussion often turned heated and revealed some of the challenges journalists face in covering business and financial news and underscored some of the arguments made in Dean Starkman’s book.

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Dean Starkman on How and Why the Business Press Failed

Dean Starkman, The Watchdog That Didn't Bark

In The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism, Dean Starkman argues that the business press missed the biggest story of the new century. More specifically,the mainstream business press failed to cover and convey to the public the looming dangers that would profoundly shake up the financial system in 2007.

The following is an excerpt from the opening of the book. A fuller excerpt can be found on the Columbia Journalism Review site.

The US business press failed to investigate and hold accountable Wall Street banks and major mortgage lenders in the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008. That’s why the crisis came as such a shock to the public and to the press itself.

And that’s the news about the news.

The watchdog didn’t bark. What happened? How could an entire journalism subculture, understood to be sophisticated and plugged in, miss the central story occurring on its beat? And why was it that some journalists, mostly outside the mainstream, were able to produce work that in fact did reflect the radical changes overtaking the financial system while the vast majority in the mainstream did not?

This book is about journalism watchdogs and what happens when they don’t bark. What happens is the public is left in the dark about, and powerless against, complex problems that overtake important national institutions. Few need reminders, even today, of the costs of the crisis: 10 million Americans uprooted by foreclosure with even more still threatened, 23 million unemployed or underemployed, whole communities set back a generation, shocking bailouts for the perpetrators, political polarization here and instability abroad. And so on and so forth.

Was the brewing crisis really such a secret? Was it all so complex as to be beyond the capacity of conventional journalism and, through it, the public, to understand? Was it all so hidden? In fact, the answer to all those questions is “no.” The problem—distorted incentives corrupting the financial industry—was plain, but not to Wall Street executives, traders, rating agencies, analysts, quants, or other financial insiders. It was plain to the outsiders: state regulators, plaintiffs’ lawyers, community groups, defrauded mortgage borrowers, and, mostly, to former employees of financial institutions, the whistleblowers, who were, in fact, blowing the whistle. A few reporters actually talked to them, understood the metastasizing problem, and wrote about it. Unfortunately, they didn’t work for the mainstream business press.

In the aftermath of the Lehman bankruptcy of September 2008, a great fight broke out over the causes of the crisis—a fight that’s more or less resolved at this point. While of course it’s complicated, Wall Street and the mortgage lenders stand front and center in the dock. Meanwhile, a smaller fight broke out over the business press’ role. After all, its central beat—the one over which it claims particular mastery—is the same one that suddenly melted down, to the shock of one and all. For business reporters, the crisis was more than a surprise. There was even something uncanny about it. A generation of professionals had, in effect, grown up with this set of Wall Street firms and had put them on the covers of Fortune and Forbes, the front page of The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and the rest, scores of times. The firms were so familiar, the press had even given them anthropomorphized personalities over the years: Morgan Stanley, the white-shoe wasp firm; Merrill Lynch, the scrappy Irish-Catholic firm, often considered the dumb one; Goldman, the elite Jewish firm; Lehman, the scrappy Jewish firm; Bear Stearns, the naughty one, etc. Love them or hate them, there they were, blessed by accounting firms, rating agencies, and regulators, gleaming towers of power. Until one day, they weren’t.

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Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Interview with Dean Starkman, author of “The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark”

Dean Starkman, The Watchdog That Didn't Bark

“Journalism can be the antidote to corruption…. It gives the public a fighting chance to understand complex problems when powerful institutions betray their trust and act against the public interest. It can be a clarifying force, without which democracy in a complex age just can’t work.”—Dean Starkman

The following is an interview with Dean Starkman, author of The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism

Question: Why did you write this book?

Dean Starkman: The short answer is, the financial crisis. Among business reporters, there were basically two broad responses among to the crisis: one group felt that it was a terrible catastrophe and should not be allowed to happen again. The other felt that it was more than that: just unacceptable, beyond the pale. I fall into the latter camp. Really, everyone understands that this was an epic event. But too few of my colleagues, I fear, have really internalized the dimensions of the disaster, the breadth of the corruption, the completeness of the regulatory collapse. This was one of those once-a-century moments when the system cracks open and allowed us all a long look inside and it’s important that this moment not be lost. For me, it all adds up to a story that needs probing from all angles, now and for many years to come. The fact that this disaster was entirely man-made, and occurred on the most high-profile of business-press beats—finance—made scrutiny of the media’s role all the more urgent from my point of view.

Q: But why you?

DS: Besides my journalistic credentials, which can be found here, it was and is actually my job to review and write about business news. I started running the Columbia Journalism Review’s business desk, The Audit, in the spring of 2007—an innocent time in retrospect. As many recall, the debt markets began cracking open not long after that and soon it dawned on us that the U.S. financial system—the envy of the world, powerful beyond imagination, festooned with brand names, blessed by armies of lawyers, accountants, raters, regulators, the crème of our elite educational system—might be a mirage. The crisis had a big impact on my worldview. In essence, it confirmed it.

Q: How so?

DS: In two ways. I spent the first 15 years or so of my career as an investigative reporter at regional papers, then made the transition to being a business reporter at The Wall Street Journal. I always felt an investigative reporter was something of a mini-expert on subcultures—of the police department, the court system, the state house, etc.—whose job it was to learn its mores and idioms, to figure out whether the culture was healthy or not, and to report back to the wider world on how things were going there. When I arrived at the paper, I didn’t know exactly what to expect but it soon became apparent that I had joined a different journalism subculture from the one I had known at regional papers. The Journal was unique in many ways, but it was also certainly part of, if not, the leader of, this business-press subculture, which had its own particular view of what a “story” was—that is, what got into the paper, what we today call “content.”

Admittedly, I wasn’t hired as an investigative reporter. Even so, the boundaries—invisible and unspoken yet real enough—struck me as arbitrary and, to my tastes, narrow. Also, they were fungible. They moved over time. In my view, they narrowed. In any case, coming from outside the culture, I spent a lot of time trying to decode it—where did these ideas about business news come from, and how did we decide these were the right ones—and part of that decoding formed the basis for this book.

Q: And the second way?

DS: The second way involves the idea of corruption. I cringe in way to use that word because it has a shrill tenor and yet I saw enough of it in Rhode Island to understand that it actually does happen, at the highest levels, and that its effects are immensely damaging. Unlike the muckrakers, I’m not sure it’s about good or evil on the part of individuals, although there’s that. But normally all it involves is power imbalance or perverse incentives, or both, leading a state where normal regulation, oversight, and law enforcement are subsumed. A great reporter and friend, John Sullivan, had a theory that 10 percent of the people can always be counted on to do the right thing, and 10 percent will always do the wrong thing, but 80 percent will go with the flow. That’s how corruption happens, and how it can become systemic, as it did in the mortgage industry.

The sense that the deck is stacked, that contracts are rigged, or that tax authorities or police act at the behest of a corrupt mayor, undermines the public’s faith in the system itself. Corruption actually threatens democracy. And it was clear to me at the time, just as it was clear to some of the journalists profiled in Watchdog, that the financial system had crossed a line from competition to recklessness and into corruption.

The crisis confirmed that view and reinforced the dangers of corruption to markets and to democracy itself. Clearly, ours was badly shaken, and the subsequent effects in Europe drive the point home even further.

Q: What’s all that got to do with journalism?

DS: Journalism can be the antidote to corruption. It certainly has been in the past, as I demonstrate in Watchdog. But even if it isn’t, it gives the public a fighting chance to understand complex problems when powerful institutions betray their trust and act against the public interest. It can be a clarifying force, without which democracy in a complex age just can’t work. If that sounds like I’m waving a flag with big “J” on it, well, so be it. The great Walter Lippmann despaired of democracy working in a far-flung industrial power and believed elites should be left alone to solve complex problems. I think we’ve learned that doesn’t work. So this is what we’re left with.

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

Book Giveaway! Win a Free Copy of “The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism,” by Dean Starkman

“Journalism was complicit in the predation and corruption that brought down world financial markets and wrecked the lives of millions…. Dean Starkman is the author we have been waiting for to tell this story. He not only puts forward a keen, subtle, and fair account of the journalistic default, he names names.” — Todd Gitlin

The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism, Dean Starkman

This week we will be featuring The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism, by Dean Starkman, on twitter, facebook, and the Columbia University Press blog, .

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism to a lucky winner.

To enter our Book Giveaway, simply e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select one winner on Friday, January 24 at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

You can also read an excerpt from The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism posted on the Columbia Journalism Review site.