Go Back In Time

Thanks to the magic of Facebook’s timelines it’s trivial to see what we were up to at just about any arbitrary date in our past. Timelines also give companies, and particularly periodicals, an incredibly useful new tool. The Atlantic’s timeline might be the most stunning example of this: Jared Keller, The Atlantic’s social media editor, has been studiously populating the timeline with some of their most memorable pieces dating all the way back to 1857. The New Yorker’s, too, poses a great threat to your free time. Sadly, The Feature wasn’t founded in 1857, but we’ve been here since 2008, and now our timeline collects the most popular articles and essays that we’ve posted in that time. Therein lies surprises, and independent exploration is encouraged, but by way of introduction, here’s what our Timeline says we were enjoying this time last year:

If Eagleman’s body bears no marks of his childhood accident, his mind has been deeply imprinted by it. He is a man obsessed by time. As the head of a lab at Baylor, Eagleman has spent the past decade tracing the neural and psychological circuitry of the brain’s biological clocks. He has had the good fortune to arrive in his field at the same time as fMRI scanners, which allow neuroscientists to observe the brain at work, in the act of thinking. But his best results have often come through more inventive means: video games, optical illusions, physical challenges. Eagleman has a talent for testing the untestable, for taking seemingly sophomoric notions and using them to nail down the slippery stuff of consciousness. “There are an infinite number of boring things to do in science,” he told me. “But we live these short life spans. Why not do the thing that’s the coolest thing in the world to do?”

To smuggle facts into or out of North Korea is to risk imprisonment and even execution. Yet today, aided by a half-dozen stealthy media organizations outside the country, citizen-journalists are using technologies new and old to break the regime’s iron grip on information. Will the truth set a nation free?

There are few people who can claim direct knowledge of the ocean floor, at least before the invention of the spill-cam, last year’s strangely compulsive live feed of the oil billowing out of BP’s blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico. But for Samantha Joye it was familiar terrain. The intersection of oil, gas and marine life in the Mississippi Canyon has preoccupied the University of Georgia scientist for years. So one year after an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig, about 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana, killed 11 men and disgorged more than 4m barrels of crude, Joye could be forgiven for denying the official version of the BP oil disaster that life is returning to normal in the Gulf.

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Reading List: John Jeremiah Sullivan

In my time running this website I’ve discovered, rediscovered, and otherwise enjoyed the works of various writers I might not have in other circumstances. Among my favourite discoveries this year was John Jeremiah Sullivan, who I’ll leave it to James Wood to introduce, from his review of Sullivan’s latest collection of essays, Pulphead:

He seems to have in abundance the storyteller’s gifts: he is a fierce noticer, is undauntedly curious, is porous to gossip, and has a memory of childlike tenacity. Anecdotes fly off the wheels of his larger narratives. In a touching piece about the near-death of his brother (who electrocuted himself with a microphone while playing with his band, the Moviegoers, in a garage in Lexington, Kentucky), Sullivan mentions, in passing, “Captain Clarence Jones, the fireman and paramedic who brought Worth back to life, strangely with two hundred joules of pure electric shock (and who later responded to my grandmother’s effusive thanks by giving all the credit to the Lord).” Any reporter can be specific about the two hundred joules. But the detail about Captain Jones giving all the credit to the Lord, while a small thing, suggests a writer interested in human stories, watching, remembering, and sticking around long enough to be generally hospitable to otherness.

You can buy Pulphead from Amazon right now, but in the meantime I’ve collected some of my favourite John Jeremiah Sullivan essays here, in no particular order, for your enjoyment.

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The Feature’s 2011 Highlights

Here are The Feature’s highlights of the year. This list is comprised of my favourites and reader favourites, selected from articles posted here in 2011 (limited to those originally published in 2011). Open this post in your browser to make use of the Read Later button accompanying each link.

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Weekend Reading List

There is no theme to today’s reading list. Instead it’s a compendium of mostly unrelated articles and essays from the last week or so that you might have missed, or that I haven’t posted for various reasons. Consider these my weekend reading recommendations.

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Reading List: The Phone-Hacking Scandal

All hell broke loose in the British press last week when Rupert Murdoch revealed he’d be shutting down the News of the World in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. Since then, an avalanche of inquiries, conjecture, and gleeful ribbing. Even as the last ever edition of the News of the World — an inappropriately rose-tinted edition — sells record copies, the true reach of the scandal is still unknown, and the fate of the now-unemployed News of the World staff is as much in the balance as that of Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch. This story will go down as one of the decade’s biggest, and here I’ve collected some of the more unmissable and informative pieces on the scandal from the past week or so.

Phone-hacking scandal: is this the tipping point for Murdoch’s empire?

This longform piece in Sunday’s Observer is a great, thorough overview of the scandal to date and all of its known players.

As the story switched last week from hacked celebrities to vulnerable members of the public, the mood noticeably shifted. In the City, BSkyB’s shares took a pounding as Ofcom, the media regulator, said it would consider whether News Corporation would make a “fit and proper” owner of BSkyB. By the end of the week the shares were down nearly 12%, wiping £1.8bn off BSkyB’s market value as hedge funds bet the deal would be bogged down for months to come.

The fit and proper person test applies to any owner of a TV station in the UK. The regulator indicated it would invoke the test only if a director of BSkyB were to be charged with criminal offences, such as phone hacking.

But other legal concerns are brewing. There is speculation that illegal acts by company executives in London could potentially be prosecuted in America under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act which is aimed at stopping US firms from engaging in bribery abroad.

What The Papers Won’t Say

Peter Oborne writes about Murdoch’s relationships with British politicians and how they helped him keep a lid on a lot of the scandal.

In normal circumstances, such troubling and persistent failures of prime-ministerial judgment would be meat and drink to an opposition leader. But until this week, Ed Miliband had made the pragmatic decision to ignore the phone-hacking story — explaining privately to confidants that he had no choice because the alternative would be ‘three years of hell’ at the hands of the Murdoch press. His recent, panicked call for Brooks’s resignation only serves to highlight his silence on the scandal hitherto.

Anybody There?

Archie Bland, the Independent’s foreign editor, in CJR going long on why the British press went to increasingly inexcusable lengths to ignore the story.

But to this day, there has been no such savaging. As responsibility for the sins of News International, the British print arm of Murdoch’s global media empire News Corporation, has edged further and further up the food chain, the vast majority of the British press have done their utmost to look the other way. That careful silence allowed the company’s initial defense—that wrongdoing was confined to a couple of bad apples—to stand for years longer than it should have. And it left many key questions unanswered: among them, whether the so-called phone hacking was still going on, whether it took place at other publications, and whether Rebekah Brooks, now chief executive of News International, had sanctioned the practice in her time as editor. Today the taint of scandal is getting ever closer to Brooks. If a crop of pending lawsuits from hacking victims successfully pins responsibility on her and her fellow senior managers, News Corporation’s already considerable legal exposure could balloon to many millions of pounds.

The explanations of that silence—and of its consequences—tell us something just as disturbing about Britain’s media as the phone hacking itself. And they suggest that the feral behavior on show at the annual awards jamboree was only the tip of the iceberg.

Rebekah Brooks: A ruthless, charming super-schmoozer

The Guardian have a short, revealing profile of Rebekah Brooks and her career to date.

"Andy Coulson often joked that the essence of tabloid journalism is turning someone over one day, and them ringing to thank you the next," recalls one ex-Sun staffer, who worked under both editors. "Rebekah Brooks is the ultimate exponent of that art."

On the evening of November 2, 2005, the day that David Blunkett had been forced to resign from government for the second time in a year, the former minister travelled to the Sun’s offices in Wapping to share a drink with the paper’s editor. The Sun, the previous year, had been the paper that named Kimberley Quinn, the Spectator’s publisher, as Blunkett’s lover.

But if such a talent can explain Brooks’s meteoric rise, it does not explain the extraordinary tenacity with which she has clung to her job as News International chief – even while James Murdoch was forced to acknowledge “repeated wrongdoing” at the News of the World, admitted NI executives had misled parliament and abolished the biggest selling newspaper in the country. Can it really be the case, as Friday’s Independent put it, that the News of the World has been “sacrificed to save one woman”? And if so, why?

Murdoch’s malign influence must die with the News of the World

Also in the Guardian this weekend was this powerful op-ed calling for an end to Rupert Murdoch’s “malign influence.”

Over 40 years, Murdoch convinced the establishment that he can make or break political reputations and grant or take away electoral success. In doing so, he has come close to gelding parliament, damaging the rights of citizens and undermining democracy. It is legitimate to ask how a naturalised American, domiciled in New York, born in Australia, and who pays next to no UK tax, holds so much sway. What right exactly did this man have to exert such influence over our political life? Freedom of information requests reveal that he spoke to prime minister Tony Blair three times in the 10 days that led up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. This was a perversion of our politics, orchestrated by a man whose power the establishment failed to check. Then they had to live with the demeaning consequences.

And what did Britain get in return for gifting this man the back keys to political power? (Literally in Murdoch’s case, as he swept into Downing Street days after last year’s election and then left by the back door). In return, a swaggering, bullying, crassly ineffective News International treated British citizens with contempt by hacking their phones and treated the media, police and politicians investigating the affair with wilful disdain and barely concealed threats. Let this never happen again on our watch.

Do Britain’s Strict Press Laws Actually Encourage Bad Behavior?

Bradford Plumer has a theory: Britain’s libel laws — which are some of the strictest in existence, but expensive to pursue — are actually encouraging the press to behave badly.

Granted, there’s always the possibility that, if Britain’s libel laws were repealed, the British press could become even more reckless. But I have another theory. There’s a classic economic study that involved parents and daycare. Many parents were late in coming to pick up their kids, so the daycare decided to start fining parents for being late. What happened next, unexpectedly, is that more parents started showing up late. It seemed as if once they could simply pay a fine for tardiness, they didn’t have to worry about guilt or propriety—they were free to come late. Is it possible that, in much the same way, Britain’s strict and oft-used libel laws mean that the papers can just pay the fine and see irresponsible reporting as a transactional affair?

The fall of the house of Murdoch

Jonathan Schell says the wider consequences of the phone-hacking scandal will depend on how governments and citizens assess News Corporation. They’re in the business of entertainment, not journalism, and they peddle in right-wing propaganda.

This is News Corporation’s main face in the US, in the form of Fox News, whose hallmark has been relentless propagation of right-wing ideology. Whereas political propaganda had once been the domain of governments and political parties, Fox News is formally independent of both - though it overwhelmingly serves the interests of America’s Republican Party.

In Britain, News Corporation has been creating a sort of state unto itself by corrupting the police, assuming police powers of surveillance, and intimidating politicians into looking the other way. In the US, it has behaved similarly, using corporate media power to breathe life into a stand-alone political organisation, the Tea Party.

This was the first of what I hope to be a recurring feature. If I missed anything great on this list, or you have an idea or a submission for a future list, do get in touch.

Give Me Something To Read Best of 2010

This was my first full year at the helm of Give Me Something To Read, and to mark it, I’ve compiled this list of the best articles and essays I posted through 2010 (limited to those that were actually published in 2010). Best, obviously, is subjective, and what this list comprises is a selection of my favourites and reader favourites (as judged by the number of notes they got on Tumblr). Enjoy! (Hint: Open this in your browser, each link has a read later button next to it.)

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