Sunday, February 24, 2013

Poniewozik on Tesla and N Y Times / If the TIMES can be Shamed, can the Chronicle of Higher Education be Shamed over its Protection of Brodhead and Delbanco???

This is James Poniewozik's followup to his "Charged Debate. A Tesla review sparks a battle between data and news" in TIME magazine 4 March 2013, p. 64.
Tuned In

Dead Tree Alert: The Charged Debate Between Tesla and the Times

In my print TIME column this week, I take a look at the throwdown over the past week between the Tesla electric car company and the New York Times over a bad review, and what it might mean for the future of p.r. spats between companies and the outlets that cover them. . . .

I wanted to get under the hood of the media thing here, and what struck me about the ruckus (the Times reviewer took an ill-fated test drive that ended with the Tesla shut down on a flatbed, and Musk wrote a data-filled blog post contending the writer, John M. Broder, essentially sabotaged the test) was how different it was from your typical corporate p.r. response.

First, there was the fact that the blog post existed at all. In the digital age, everyone buys ink by the barrel now, and Tesla was essentially able to act in this like its own media company: first Musk blasted the review on Twitter, then he put up a long post full of data monitored from the Times drive—some of which directly refuted claims in the review, some of which didn’t, but all of which created at least the surface impression that Tesla had made an ironclad objective case, because it was data. Once, Tesla might have had to try to pitch a more sympathetic story to a rival paper. Now, companies are media companies too, for good or ill—ill, for instance, in the case of Jeep and Burger King, whose Twitter accounts got hacked this week.

The second thing that struck me was that Tesla’s response didn’t feel like standard corporate crisis p.r. at all. It felt like a political rapid-response operation from a campaign. The first rule of those, in the post Swift Boat era, is that you hit back hard and fast: Musk tweeted a day after the review’s publication that it was “fake.” There was an attack, not just against Broder’s facts, but against his motives: he was “working hard” to make the Tesla fail, purportedly because he had an agenda against the electric car. There was the mobilization of a fervent fanbase: Tesla owners, or sympathetic non-owners, flooded every Times posting (and plenty of third-party ones) with comments, many of them asserting that Broder was in the pocket of oil companies.

Not every corporate crisis lends itself to this kind of response, of course. Tesla was positioned both with data on hand and a vocal base of support. There were no telemetry logs Carnival could have released to get over its poop-cruise debacle. And in the long term I don’t know if Tesla helped itself or not. In the short term, CNN and CNBC, among others, did successful, high-profile re-drives of the Times route this week, with much more attention than they otherwise would have gotten.
In that sense, anyway, the squeaky wheel got the grease this time.

Read more:

This is a protest against one paragraph in the 11 February 2013 CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION
Premium Link
By David Wescott
"More than a decade after the publication of his career-defining Melville volumes, Hershel Parker strikes back at his critics in a genre-bending new work."

This teaser in the CHRONICLE OF EDUCATION contains a term I had not encountered before, although Google shows that it is now common--"genre-bending." I certainly intended MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE to be genre-bending--part autobiography of biographer and biography of biography, part history of the denial of scholarship by New Critics and New Historicists and NYC "Intellectuals," part demonstration of ways of doing biographical research, and part (in the endnotes) a conference with other biographers on biographical methods.  So the CHE teaser works for me, except that "strikes back at his critics" minimizes the book.

Very curiously, the CHRONICLE article, as I point out in my "mealy-mouthed" post, DOES NOT EXPLAIN WHY I STRIKE BACK, or what I had to strike back at. Three reviewers of the second volume of my biography, including Richard H. Brodhead and Andrew Delbanco, said I merely surmised the existence of Melville's lost books, THE ISLE OF THE CROSS and POEMS. Brodhead said I alone in my "black hole" had surmised the existence of POEMS. Delbanco said because I was so irresponsible in imagining lost books I had to be used with caution throughout the 2 volumes. Of course, 3 years later in his own book he casually mentioned the existence of both lost books.

Wescott blurs, in fact hides, what I defended myself against. Being lied about in ways that shake your credibility is very different from objecting to someone's calling your prose inept or pointing out that you misspell a name or two. Being lied about as Brodhead and Delbanco leaves you discredited in print and on the Internet whatever defense you can make. And being lied about leads others to slander you, as Alan Helms did when he quoted Delbanco for his proof that I was a "slippery fish" with evidence.

How invested in hiding the truth is the CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION?

My "mealy-mouthed post":

On Being Mealy Mouthed:

Evert Duyckinck’s diary, end of January 1860:

Herman Melville called for some volumes of the Essayists to take with him to his winter reading at Pittsfield. Says the mealy mouthed habit of writing of human nature of the present day would not tolerate the plain speaking of Johnson, for instance, in the Rambler—who does not hesitate to use the word malignity!”

            In “A Leviathan Task of Biography” in the Chronicle of Higher Education 11 February 2013 the writer avoids ugly words such as “falsehood” and “lie.” I have no complaints about most of the review, although I wish it had indicated the extent to which my book deals with the “genre of biography,” something Carol Rollyson noticed at once, according to his post in Biographers Organization International. What I want to deal with here is the extreme reluctance of the CHE to face the fact that reviewers can lie about the authors of books they are reviewing. Has this ever happened to any biographer in the world before it happened to me? Has it ever happened to any biographer since?

            In 2002 Richard H. Brodhead lied about me in the New York TIMES, saying that it was merely a surmise of mine that Melville finished a book in 1853 and that I alone in my “black hole” thought that Melville had finished a book called POEMS in 1860. The fact is that scholars had known since 1960, for sure, that Melville had finished a book in mid-1853 and still had possession of it in November.  (I discovered the title, THE ISLE OF THE CROSS, later, in 1987). The fact is that everyone had known all about POEMS since 1922. What Brodhead did was bad, but what Andrew Delbanco did in the NEW REPUBLIC was worse: he not only said only I had surmised the two books, he said I could not be trusted anywhere because I was given to such fantasies. According to Delbanco, my second volume, like the first, “must be used with caution” (34): “He [Parker] is sure that when Melville traveled by slow boat to San Francisco in 1860, he expected to find waiting for him a finished copy of a book of poems that he had entrusted in manuscript to his brother for transmission to his publishers before leaving the East. (Such a book was never published—and it is a surmise that Melville ever wrote it.) . . . . In short, Parker trusts his own intuition completely, and, presenting inferences as facts, he expects his readers to trust it, too.”

            Nothing that Brodhead and Delbanco allege here is true. These are lies. Melville’s letter to the Harpers on 24 November 1853 proves the existence of a work he could not publish “last Spring,” and my AMERICAN LITERATURE article on THE ISLE OF THE CROSS in the March 1990 laid out the evidence for the exact or closely approximate date of Melville’s finishing the book he took to New York City in early June 1853. As far as POEMS goes, the documentation is extensive—letters from Melville and his wife to Evert Duyckinck, for example, as well as Melville’s 12-point memo to his brother Allan on the publishing of POEMS. How can anyone read that memo and question that Melville had finished a collection he called POEMS? And besides that, Jay Leyda found a rejection of the volume by Scribner. What Brodhead and Delbanco say is false. They lied about my work in such a way as to trash my credibility. Delbanco, in particular, went out of his way to say that everything I said had to be used with caution.

            Paula Backscheider says, “For an academic to be accused of ‘making up
things’ . . . is the most serious charge that can be levelled against him or her
and may discredit that person forever.”

            I may die still widely discredited and shamed in print and on the Internet by the false accusations of Brodhead and Delbanco, as well as those later made by Elizabeth Schultz, who echoed their accusations in the COMMON REVIEW.

            Yet the Chronicle of Higher Education cannot say the word “lie,” or address directly my defense in MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE. Here is what the CHE says:
“Parker, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Delaware, found himself at odds with such Melville scholars as Richard Brodhead (who raised questions about Parker's ‘editorial principles’ in The New York Times) and Andrew Delbanco (who, while criticizing Parker's misreading of sex and sin, did declare, in The New York Review of Books, that "Parker's biography is written with love and devotion").  [But this was not the 2002 review of the biography in the NEW REPUBLIC and of course is not a matter that would make me at odds with anyone.] Critics' skepticism centered on two issues: the name of a lost Melville story ("The Isle of the Cross") and the importance of an 1860 manuscript called "Poems." A falling-out followed, and Parker, who felt he had been victimized, drifted away from groups like the Melville Society.”
            See how this blurs the issue, almost as if I had been overly sensitive to reviewers’ pointing out that I used the run-on construction too often or that my adverbs were strained. “Editorial principles”? No: the accusation was that I made up POEMS, which no one else had ever heard of, just me in my “black hole”!  The “name of a lost Melville story”? No: not the NAME of the book but the fact of Melville’s writing it, the fact of its existence.
            The Chronicle of Higher Education apparently could not deal with a fact as ugly as falsehood, it would seem—not when a purveyor of false information is the dean of Yale College, then President of Duke University; not when the purveyor of false information is a chaired professor at Columbia University.
            This part of “A Leviathan Task of Biography” makes me look like an author who is peeved at reviewers’ picking at his inept prose when dealing with the greatness of OMOO and not praising him highly enough for his reading of "The Piazza."
Why do I love Melville? Why, he’s the man who says that “the mealy mouthed habit of writing of human nature of the present day would not tolerate the plain speaking of Johnson, for instance, in the Rambler—who does not hesitate to use the word malignity!”

No comments:

Post a Comment