Things I’d like to see in the media: closer merging of news and entertainment #auspol

Image representing Rupert Murdoch as depicted ...

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It is an oft heard complaint that there is too much overlap between news and entertainment.  It is not uncommon in Australia for news programs to promote reality television programs or to report on soap opera plot developments.  It is frequently opined that we treat politics like it’s a football match, that we turn politicians into celebrities by making them perform like dancing monkeys on prime time TV, and that we sacrifice intelligent, sober political analysis for clickbait.

People misdiagnose the problem.  These are examples of where news is sacrificed in the name of entertainment. It’s not really an ‘overlap’; it’s one dominating the other.

On the other hand, merging news platforms with entertainment platforms — entirely possible given recent technological developments — would improve the quality of our news output and the diet of people who regularly consume the news.  If done properly, it would also improve the quality and quantity of Australian made entertainment.  It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s more than possible.

I’ll admit that this is the idea which makes me seem most like a supervillain…

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So free your love. Hear me, I’m coming… Why opinion writing matters #MediaWatch #auspol #ausmedia

Monday night’s Media Watch ran another of its ‘special’ episodes where it tries to explore a particular issue relating to journalism in more depth.  Unfortunately, both the time constraints and the limitations of the current host tend to cripple the show’s ability to really nut out the issues in sufficient depth.  In an interesting exploration of the phrase ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp’, Media Watch really wants to achieve something amazing, but has neither reach nor grasp.

Which is a shame.

In an episode filled with unchallenged assumptions, one stood out to me in particular because it’s quickly becoming the dominant ideology in discussions about the media.

 And even as their numbers dwindle, more and more senior journalists appear to be spending time analysing and opining, rather than digging and reporting. […] Laurie Oakes is hoping – vainly, perhaps – that the mainstream media will see that fact-based reporting, not endless opining, is what it can do better than the blogosphere. But he, and I, both fear that it may be too late. [Souce: Media Watch, 22 April 2013]

In the comments of the transcript, one comment echoes this ‘fear that it might be too late’:

The media doesn’t have any interest in reporting facts. I’m sick to death of listening to journalists opinions. I want the facts. As a result, I now look for my news and facts outside of the usual news outlets. [Source: ‘Jason’ 23 Apr 2013 8:12:40am]

As a person interested in theory, I worry when people start to divide the world into ‘fact’ and ‘opinion’.  Facts, it seems, are independent of the observer and, as such, are the correct material for newspapers and journalism.  But we know that the world doesn’t work like this.

Take the discussion about live exports.  People were extremely passionate about the subject and had radically different ideas about what was at stake.  In the middle of this was an internal-ABC paroxysm about whether the ‘correct’ word for the building where animals are killed was ‘slaughterhouse‘ or ‘abattoir‘.  Both words denote the same thing (broadly), but one has the word slaughter in it.  Is it neutral to use a word which does not include that connotation?  Is it neutral to use a word which does?

In January, Australians celebrate ‘Australia Day’ which marks… settlement? colonisation? invasion?  Which is the neutral word?

More than the prevalence of opinion (to which we’ll return in a moment), I’m worried about the pretence of ‘neutrality’.  Time for some Zizek!

In his review of Zero Dark Thirty, Zizek noted the director’s claim that it was supposed to be a neutral account of the events leading up to bin Laden’s… death?  killing?  murder?

One doesn’t need to be a moralist, or naive about the urgencies of fighting terrorist attacks, to think that torturing a human being is in itself something so profoundly shattering that to depict it neutrally – ie to neutralise this shattering dimension – is already a kind of endorsement.

Imagine a documentary that depicted the Holocaust in a cool, disinterested way as a big industrial-logistic operation, focusing on the technical problems involved (transport, disposal of the bodies, preventing panic among the prisoners to be gassed). Such a film would either embody a deeply immoral fascination with its topic, or it would count on the obscene neutrality of its style to engender dismay and horror in spectators. Where is Bigelow here?

Without a shadow of a doubt, she is on the side of the normalisation of torture. When Maya, the film’s heroine, first witnesses waterboarding, she is a little shocked, but she quickly learns the ropes; later in the film she coldly blackmails a high-level Arab prisoner with, “If you don’t talk to us, we will deliver you to Israel”. Her fanatical pursuit of Bin Laden helps to neutralise ordinary moral qualms. Much more ominous is her partner, a young, bearded CIA agent who masters perfectly the art of passing glibly from torture to friendliness once the victim is broken (lighting his cigarette and sharing jokes). There is something deeply disturbing in how, later, he changes from a torturer in jeans to a well-dressed Washington bureaucrat. This is normalisation at its purest and most efficient – there is a little unease, more about the hurt sensitivity than about ethics, but the job has to be done. This awareness of the torturer’s hurt sensitivity as the (main) human cost of torture ensures that the film is not cheap rightwing propaganda: the psychological complexity is depicted so that liberals can enjoy the film without feeling guilty. This is why Zero Dark Thirty is much worse than 24, where at least Jack Bauer breaks down at the series finale. [Source: Zizek, ‘Zero Dark Thirty: Hollywood’s gift to American power’ The Guardian]

Zero Dark Thirty is a really good case study in ‘neutrality’ as a way to obscure the ideology of the author.  Watching this film, you get the impression that torture was useful in the hunting down of bin Laden even though no particular point of the film outright makes the claim.  When confronted with the allegation, the director was able to hide behind the air of neutrality: ‘Oh, I’m not really saying anything or pushing a particular message.  I’m being neutral.’

Journalism should not go down this path.  Journalists and editors are just like directors, they make decisions about what goes into the news and, equally as importantly, make decisions about what is not covered.  When we, the ordinary public ask, ‘Why did you cover this story in this way, and why didn’t you cover that story?’ the answer is not ‘We objectively presented the facts!’ but ‘We made decisions about what we thought was important based on our own judgement.’

In this respect, I wish journalists were a little bit more human.  Instead of hiding behind the phony veil of objectivity, I wish we could get a better understanding of how they view the world first so that we can see the perspective from which they’re writing.  Alas, we’re never going to get that because of journalists’ pretension of professionalism.  Objective and impartial…

Don’t get me wrong.  Worse than trying to be objective and denying subjectivity is the greater evil: being extremely partial and pretending to be objective.  Going holus bolus after particular political parties, &c., &c., &c., in the ‘news’ is flatly unprofessional.  It was unprofessional when Murdoch’s media empire backed Gough in the 1970s and it’s equally unprofessional today.  All of that said, I wrote in New Matilda that the attacks on News Ltd weren’t always entirely justified and still agree with that position:

It’s like watching the hyenas maul Scar at the end of The Lion King. Sure, Scar wasn’t exactly the hero of the story, but did he deserve to be torn to shreds? [Source: Fletcher, ‘Has News Ltd Actually Done Anything Wrong?‘ New Matilda]

So, just to reiterate: outright bias masquerading as objectivity is a Bad Thing, but feigning objectivity without admitting subjectivity is also a Bad Thing.

What I argue now is that the same principle can be applied to opinion writing.  Further, good opinion writing is absolutely essential to a well-functioning democracy.

The difficulty in making this argument is that we are much more familiar with bad opinion writing than we are with good opinion writing.  From both sides of politics, we are more familiar with the asinine restatement of partisan party lines as opinion than we are with opinion writers who are able to put into words those ideas that we’re struggling to express.

Forget journalism for a moment and turn to applied ethics.  Everybody has ethical intuitions.  Everybody has a vague idea of what they think is morally good and morally bad.  The point of applied ethics (and ethicists) is not to be some decider who determines whether some act is good or bad, or even some pontiff who tells people how to think about ethics.  The point is to give language to people’s intuitions and to challenge those intuitions.

Opinion writing — good opinion writing — fits into a similar framework.  The point of opinion writing is not to just express the opinion of the author (every halfwit with an internet connexion can do that) but to give language to people’s intuitions about debates and to challenge those intuitions.

It therefore becomes almost a trivial matter of showing why good opinion writing would not be an expression of outright bias pretending to be objective but, instead, would be more like good journalism simpliciter — presenting a balanced and fair account of an argument without pretending that the account was objective.

Why is good opinion writing as I’ve described important?  We assume that everybody is equally capable of putting together a coherent argument.  ‘Opinions are like arseholes,’ I’ve been told, ‘Everybody has one.’  But it’s not actually true.  Some people have much better opinions than other people.  Some people are much better at expressing their opinions than others.  Some people have opinions that would never occur to other people — for example, as a straight white guy, my perspective on the world is very different from a homosexual, a person of colour, or a woman (see, for example, the recent atheism debate where a white guy straight up told me that there was no problem of gender in pop-atheism and that I should STFU for claiming such a thing).

When we live in a Republic of Reasons, it is important that people have the tools necessary to discuss and debate their reasons with others.  Good opinion writing provides that tool.

And we see the outcome of our modern landscape of poor opinion writers.  Tony Abbott puts up a sign with some potentially inaccurate words; people freak out about those words, vandalise the sign, and then completely forget to analyse the policy.  Meanwhile, millions of voters have their bellyfeel instincts about both border control and asylum seeker activists confirmed.  We have protests filled with people of both political tribes who can barely mumble out what they believe.  Meetings of the WTO and G20 are bombarded by people screaming ‘Something something globalisation something something.’  We see crowds gathered at Parliament House with ‘Ditch the Witch’ signs.  You could replace all journalists with objective robots who dutifully conveyed information in some value-neutral way (i.e. with magic) and you’d still see this depressing obliteration of public discourse.  Why?  Because people don’t have good quality resources for forming opinions.

So let’s get back to Media Watch.  Jonathan Holmes and Laurie Oakes fear ‘endless opining’.  They shouldn’t.  The current batch of opinion writing is not unlike a sewer gushing out into the wilderness and we should fear that the rivers will never again run clean, but we shouldn’t fear opining itself.  What we should be doing is looking for ways to improve the content of our opinion columns.  We should look for ways to promote diversity in columnists for one, and to promote quality for another.

But we already know why this won’t happen: the market.  When it’s more profitable to pump out blogs and columns by trolls (leftwing and rightwing) who can draft up linkbaiting garbage with very little research, you’re going to tap that resource dry before you start to look for well-researched opinion pieces which (shock, horror) will be expensive.

I have a dream that, one day, I’ll be able to read the opinion pages of an e-newspaper which won’t be flooded with ‘comedians’, ex-politicians or their staffers, or think tank miscreants.  I suspect I’ll be dreaming for a long time to come.

Trolling a city with @feed_the_chooks and @MylesPeterson #canberra #auspol

Linkbaaaaaaait.

I have now lived in Canberra for half a decade in several different houses.  Always northside.  Always northside.

A few months ago, notorious weirdo, Myles Peterson, wrote an article in the Courier Mail trolling Canberra.

Cashing in on the torrents of taxpayer cash flowing on to Canberra’s gold-paved streets, local retailers and supermarkets charge prices found only in South Yarra and Vaucluse. Low-paid Canberrans have been steadily priced out of the city. Students cannot afford to rent anywhere, often taking drastic measures just to put a roof over their head. Many visiting undergraduates flee long before completing first year.

Savvy former public servants have taken the exploitation to absurd, some would argue corrupt, levels. Government-owned land is selectively released to cartels of ex-bureaucrats, who then make out like bandits on-selling postage stamp-sized blocks to Canberra’s housing-desperate underclasses.

Links to the article swept around the Canberran networks along with the ‘corporate’ memory of who Myles Peterson was and why he was so notorious.  From the point of view of the Courier Mail, the article was a success: the page views must have skyrocketed.  People outside of Canberra would have read it and responded with outrage when it confirmed everything they secretly believed about Canberra.  People inside Canberra reacted with bemusement: several different people made quips about golden cocaine and cocaine gold, not having enough change on them for coffee due to all the hookers and blow, and being mindful of not scuffing the freshly gold-plated road.

Today’s trolling article in The Age by Martin McKenzie-Murray inspired a different response.  Without the absurdity of Peterson’s article, the response inside the circle has been hostility.  The article merely contends that Canberra is a bit less packed than Melbourne and Sydney.

On the day I moved to Canberra I was taken to the top of Mount Ainslie. From there you can view The Plan – the sight lines, the Parliamentary Triangle, the geometric symmetry. From there you could also see the empty boulevards and feel the crisp air. That cool wind didn’t just come from the Brindabella Ranges. There was a chilling vibe. Here was the ”unreality” of Canberra that Keating had described.

Nearly 100 years before, the city’s planner had wanted nothing less from his design than a revolution in our consciousness. Griffin described his plan for Canberra as ”[the best opportunity] so far afforded for an expression of the democratic civic ideal and for all that means in accessibility, freedom … and splendour”.

But what was splendid in the vision was sterile in the living. Griffin had designed a city that pre-empted the primacy of the car, which was both prophetic and pathetic. Instead of a tightly knit centre, six (now seven) small districts emerged, separated by vast space and ill-connected by public transport. Between these centres lies mandated green space, which is pretty for tourists but pushes locals apart, limits land availability and drives up property prices.

I use the word ‘hostility’, but it is less than that.  It’s more: ‘And what would you know?’

Canberra-bashing is easy and fun.  My younger sibling is a cabinet maker.  I am in awe of his ability to craft things.  It’s like an art and he’s good at it.  He lives in rural Victoria in a house he bought and is in the process of renovating.  He doesn’t understand the property market, but he thinks he can make some money through the renovations.  He gets his news from breakfast commercial television.  He struggles with reading, preferring to get audio books.

When I last saw him — and despite the family rule that people get into political conversations with me at their own peril — he decided to tell me that he thought the carbon tax was rubbish and that it would ruin the economy.  When I asked him to explain the carbon tax, he couldn’t.  When I walked him through the concept of externalities, he would agree that he shouldn’t have to pay for companies to pollute but then couldn’t link that idea to increasing the cost of pollution.

As a way out of the conversation, he bagged Canberra with the usual remark: ‘You guys just don’t understand what it’s like to live in the real world.’

Peterson’s and McKenzie-Murray’s articles use this same trope: Canberra is distant, unnatural, and a burden.  My brother was echoing this: he does a real job by building something but I don’t have a real job because it’s technical and theoretical.

Owen Dixon didn’t want to have a fixed location for the High Court in Canberra.  He felt that the Court should be as close to the people as possible (individual citizens being the primary unit of the legal system).  Parliament House was built in Canberra in order to separate it from individual States (States being the primary unit of the Commonwealth; not the people).  But the public service (and the swarm of people who shadow the public service) has always been the most distant.  Public servants are servants to the Minister.  Advisers are advisers to decision-makers.  Administrators are administering organisations.  The unreality arises from the abstraction, and Australians tend to distrust the thinkers.

The media is not interested in the hive of activity in Canberra, and so the public that it’s meant to serve never get to look in on the world.  Instead, they see it represented in satire, invective, and controversy.  For that reason, articles like those are troll-bait to confirm the prejudices of the Real World while trying to provoke some kind of reaction from the ivory city.

Quickpost: A plea to #Insiders – no more Piers #auspol

This morning’s episode of Insiders on ABC was flatly embarrassing.  I don’t say this as a crybaby lefty who always whines that the ABC is far too right wing and has been infiltrated by right wing spies.  I say this as a conservative who is genuinely interested in good political debate where people from both sides of the political ‘divide’ contribute to meaningful dialogue.

The concept behind Insiders has been under some scrutiny this year after New York Uuniversity academic, Jay Rosen, said:

I then mentioned the ABC’s Sunday morning program, The Insiders. And I asked Leigh Sales if it was true that the insiders were, on that program, the journalists. She said: “That is right.” I said: “That’s remarkable.” She… well, she changed the subject. And let me add right away that Leigh Sales is one of the most intelligent journalists I have ever had the pleasure to meet.

So this is my theme tonight: how did we get to the point where it seems entirely natural for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to describe political journalists appearing on its air as “the insiders?” Don’t you think that’s a little strange? I do. Promoting journalists as insiders in front of the outsiders, the viewers, the electorate… this is a clue to what’s broken about political coverage in the US and Australia. Here’s how I would summarise it: things are out of alignment. Journalists are identifying with the wrong people. Therefore the kind of work they are doing is not as useful as we need it to be. [Source: ‘Why political coverage is broken‘, The Drum]

Insiders has tacitly declared that it has no interest in changing the context of its show.  The best people, it thinks, to analyse the news are the people who are part of the news production cycle: political correspondents and columnists.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s inherently a terrible thing.  Rosen’s argument relies on a particular view of what people want the media to do: namely, to be a vital part of the democracy machine.  I don’t share that view.  I want good opinion writers who can digest the huge amount of information on a topic and present it as an argument which will challenge my views.

As a literate conservative who wants high quality dialogue, this means most of my news comes from left wing sources.  There are very few right wing writers that I enjoy.

Insiders tries to present balance in the same way that the rest of the media tries to present balance: three white guys arguing, moderated by another white guy.

In order to get that argument, you need people who hold quite different opinions to come to the conversation.  All too frequently, this means getting the people with the opinions but not getting the people who can turn those opinions into a conversation.

What’s the difference?  Take the podcast that I’m in.  We have three white guys (but no white guy moderator): two are partisan left wing (one more centrist than the other), one is non-partisan right wing.  Even though we have very different perspectives, the conversation is usually good because we can critique each other’s ideas.

Piers Ackerman demonstrated this morning that he is incapable of critiquing the ideas of others.  After interrupting with mostly incoherent interjections, here’s this morning’s conversation about the Energy White Paper.

Piers Ackerman: ‘I thought the word “bullshit” was the one that Labor got so offended by when Tony Abbott said it to Nicola Roxon.

[…]

Malcolm Farr: What do you think about the content of what he had to say?

Piers Ackerman: Combet?  I think he’s a joke.

Does Ackerman not understand the definition of the word ‘content’?

As I see it, the problem is that there are very few right wing commentators in Australia who aren’t just trolling for attention.  Ackerman’s performance this morning showed that he was more interested in maximising his air time at the expense of a sensible conversation about politics.

At the end of the day, having commentators like Ackerman (and, previously, Andrew Bolt) on the show seemed more like the ABC trying to trivialise and ridicule right wingers than include them in mainstream political conversation.  News Ltd papers use Ackerman and Bolt (and the myriad of others) for linkbait.  They say outrageous things and all the lefties click on the links just for the experience of being outraged.  The left is the profitable target audience for Ackerman and Bolt.  After all, not many rednecks who hold those views are picking up the newspaper…

More from Ackerman:

Ackerman: In the last month, in this country, the only appeal to the extremists has come from Julia Gillard with her ridiculous misogynist speech in Parliament, and that was a shrieking cry for the endorsement from a group of radical activists — feminists — we haven’t seen since the bloody seventies.

If Ackerman isn’t contributing to the conversation — which he isn’t — he shouldn’t be given air time.  Not only does it trash the conversation, but it presents the image to the audience that all right wingers are fringe lunatics who think Cory Bernardi’s speech on marriage equality —

There are even some creepy people out there—and I say ‘creepy’ deliberately—who are unfortunately afforded a great deal more respect than I believe they deserve. These creepy people say it is okay to have consensual sexual relations between humans and animals. Will that be a future step? In the future will we say, ‘These two creatures love each other and maybe they should be able to be joined in a union.’ It is extraordinary that these sorts of suggestions are put forward in the public sphere and are not howled down right at the very start. We can talk about people like Professor Peter Singer who was, I think, a founder of the Greens or who wrote a book about the Greens. Professor Singer has appeared on Q & A on the ABC, the national broadcaster. He has endorsed such ideas as these. I reject them. I think that these things are the next step.

— is less offensive than the Prime Minister’s acclaimed speech (which, although it had an unfortunate context, resonated with the genuine experiences of women across the western world).

Insiders got rid of Glenn Milne.  Bolt went on to his own television show on a different channel.  For the sake of Australian conservatives, it’s time to get rid of Ackerman.

We’re leaving now, so all aboard… Why would newspapers report a Twitter scandal?

Each Saturday, I walk into Civic in order to buy my stack of newspapers: Canberra Times, Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian.  Each Saturday, I end up with a mound of sections which I won’t read either because I’m thoroughly disinterested (Drive, for example) or because it is a billion times more efficient to source the information online (My Career, classified, &c.).

Newspapers have the advantage of being able to provide a calm, reflective, stable version of the news.  Where online media outlets scramble to be ‘first’, giving a few details as they trickle in from various sources, newspapers can provide the richer, fuller, broader story.  This is the trade-off we make with newspapers: the news is at least six hours old, but it’s deep and fulsome news.

I find it increasingly difficult to make that argument with a straight face.  While this might have been the case a few years ago, the quality of the news in newspapers has deteriorated.  There have been a number of stories which literally did not make any sense unless you’d been aware of the background online.

And this weekend we had the final kick in the guts from the newspapers: vast coverage of Weiner’s weiner.

Why, in the name of all that is holy and sane, would we look to a newspaper to tell us about something trivial that happened online?  It’s so batshit insane that my face contorted when I read it.  Why would this be here?  Why is the internet infecting my newspapers?

The idea of newspapers as a journal of record is antiquated.  There are two reasons to read a newspaper.

The first is long-form investigative journalism.  All the short ‘factoid’ articles about who said what and what’s doing who have been outclassed by the internet.  Buying articles from other sources has been a staple part of the newspaper diet since at least the 1930s.  Now, a lot of the stories are just collations of online material: press releases, social media stunts, &c.  While it’s cheap, it’s clogging up space for investigative journalism which is far more likely to attract readers into buying papers (or pay-walled content, if managed properly).

The second is high quality opinion and analysis.  I would gladly pay my eight dollars a week in return for reasoned and logical debate.  Far too often, we’re getting the self-important waffling of people who can barely string together sentences.  In the Sydney Morning Herald two weeks ago, Lenore Taylor wrote a piece that was painful to read.  It wasn’t because the ideas were stupid, but because it was riddled with tortured prose, run-on sentences, and paragraphs which had nothing to do with the argument.  I half suspected Amanda Vanstone was ghostwriting for her.

When I talk to people about this issue, people say that they want unbiased reporting of facts.  I disagree.  While brute facts might be unbiased, the sheer process of putting them into language causes bias.  People from both the left and the right wings of politics read factual material and claim bias against them.  The way to avoid this is to have analysis from both ‘sides’ of the debate, calming and rationally discussing agreed facts.  This would work in Australia, if not for one thing:

We don’t have a non-partisan right wing.

There are very few conservatives left in Australia.  We’ve been strangled out of the debate by neo-cons who, come hell or high water, back the Coalition.  It doesn’t matter what the Coalition says, neo-cons think they’re correct.  It also doesn’t matter who’s leading the Coalition: when Turnbull was leading the meta-party, there was significantly less vitriol spewing out about global warming being a sham.  Why?  Because the right wing media was echoing Turnbull’s talking points of the day.

More left wing papers, on the other hand, are less likely to be partisan (although they routinely give free passes to the Greens).  Left wing papers are more likely to criticise both the ALP and the Coalition, while right wing papers are less likely to criticise the Coalition.

Newspapers should get their noses out of Twitter scandal sludge and hours-old ‘news’, and get back into the game of reasoned, rational argument.  For that to happen, we’ve got to find right wing voices which are more than echoes of Coalition scaremongering.  Good luck.

I’m not fit to touch the hem of your garment… but Greg Barns is still worse

Think what you like about his Republican viewsas infantile as they are — is there anybody with a basic command of reason who supports his views regarding Kristy Fraser-Kirk?

Long story short: Kristy Fraser-Kirk was allegedly sexually harassed by Mark McInnes, the then CEO of David Jones.  She’s suing both Mark McInnes and David Jones.  The curious part of the story is that she’s seeking punitive damages (which are more commonly granted in the US to serve a ‘lesson’ to other would-be miscreants).

She is seeking punitive damages of 5 per cent of the profit generated by David Jones from 2003 to 2010 and 5 per cent of Mr McInnes’s salary.  — Source.

Not unreasonable by any stretch of the imagination.  Claims based on a percentage make a lot of sense: if you’re suing a wealthy party, the amount they’re going to understand as punitive is going to be proportional to their income.  Fining me $1,000 is a pain in the arse but loose change for Croesus.  Given the size of David Jones and the salary of Mark McInnes, the total of the two amounts is $37 million.

Notice how each part of that follows naturally from the part before it?  Wealthy defendant → percentage of earnings → total equal to $37 million.

In Greg Barns world, this doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

So how is it then that lawyers for a young woman who alleges sexual harassment against the boss of the company that employs her, argue that she should receive a payout of $37 million?  — Barnes.

Actually, I’m being unfair.  The natural reasoning probably does make sense to Barns but Barns is probably unaware of the details.  In fairness, he’s probably skimmed the details and is outraged that a woman who was sexually harassed could possibly be awarded compensation for it. Continue reading