Tag Archives: media

You Can’t Find the Truth

Remember Jack Nicholson’s infamous dialogue from A Few Good Men? You know when Tom Cruise is grilling him on the witness stand and says, “I want the truth” and Nicholson’s reply is, “You can’t handle the truth!” That’s what pops to mind when reading this article titled The rise of the American conspiracy theory at The Week, expect instead of “You can’t handle the truth” it’s “You can’t find the truth.”

The article is basically about modern politics and how over the past generation there’s been a concerted effort by political conservatives to destroy the credibility of liberal institutions that were the gatekeepers of what we can call capital-t “Truth.” You know, institutions like the liberal media, the liberal government, the liberal faculty at fill-in-the-blank university, etc. Unfortunately instead of acting as a counterbalance to the liberal biases of those institutions – and yes they often were biased – or insisting on more objectivity, they simply cut them off at the knees. In essence they threw the objective baby out with the liberal bathwater.  Let’s let the article’s author describe what’s resulted:

Now how about this: We know that greenhouse gases are producing destabilizing changes in the Earth’s climate. And that human beings evolved from other species over millions of years. And that Barack Obama is a Christian. And that Hillary Clinton had nothing to do with the death of Vince Foster.

Large numbers of Americans deny those and many other assertions. Why? Because the trustworthiness of the authorities that make the claims has been under direct and continuous attack for the past several decades — and because the internet has given a voice to every kook who makes a contrary assertion. What we’re left with is a chaos of competing claims, none of which has the authority to dispel the others as untrue.

That sounds like a recipe for relativism — and it is, but only (metaphorically speaking) for a moment, as a preparatory stage toward a new form of absolutism. Confronted by the destabilizing swirl of contradictory assertions, many people end up latching onto whichever source of information confirms the beliefs they held before opening their web browser. Instead of relativistic skepticism they’re left with some of the most impenetrable dogmas ever affirmed.

One of the reasons it’s been so troubling to see traditional media implode the way it has is that we’ve lost the whole concept of the Fourth Estate. Of course there was always bias in the media, but there was also a great deal of effort put into trying to be as objective as possible. There was pride taken in holding the powers-that-be accountable no matter which party they belonged to. Unfortunately in order for a media outlet to be successful these days it has to pick a side, to be affiliated with one of the teams, and thus lose any chance of being considered an objective source of information.

And that’s just the media. When all institutions are undermined, when facts are successfully slain by articles of faith, we lose a most critical element of a functioning society – the belief that our institutions, as flawed as they might be, are in place to promote the common good. That in general our institutions can be trusted to eventually do what is right and best for our society.  Unfortunately our current political environment has killed that belief. As the author says:

This is what happens when the principle of democratic egalitarianism is applied to questions of knowledge and truth — when instead of working to reform institutions devoted to upholding norms of objectivity and verifiable evidence, critics turn them into a target for destruction altogether, transforming public life into an epistemological free-for-all in the process.

That things have degraded so badly is troubling. But it’s nowhere near as troubling as the realization that we haven’t got the foggiest clue how to reverse the damage.

 

 

Making the Media His Biotches

This article about how Donald Trump is controlling the media came to my attention via a friend on Facebook as you can see below:

TrumpMedia

I particularly like David Boyd’s comment that it  “Helps that they’re such willing bitches.” It’s understandable that the media want to cover Trump – after all he is the phenomenon of this political season – and I understand that they are competing for ‘share of mind’ of an increasingly diminished audience of news watchers, but when do they finally say, “You know what, this a-hole’s been able to run an incredibly inexpensive campaign because we give him so much free air time” and then cut HIM off. He truly needs them far more than they need him, so why keep feeding the troll?

Could it be that they’re desperate to prove they’re still needed, still the Fourth Estate, still an essential part of the democratic process? Maybe they’re finally realizing that what they thought was simply a nightmare they would wake up is reality – that most people don’t read, watch or listen to them anymore. They’ve got Facebook and so does Trump, so no one thinks they need the media anymore. Sadly, they’re probably right and wrong at the same time.

The Basic Report

Do you read The Week? It’s a great publication because it does something vitally important – it provides on overview of issues of the week and incorporates excerpts from news sources from around the world in the process.

Now some folks in San Francisco have created The Basic Report, which is kind of like The Week, but appears to go a step further by taking the events and explaining how you can best use this info in a cocktail party setting. November, 2014 is Vol 1, Issue 1 and it looks like a great start. Here’s to hoping they stick around.

Numbers

From a recent issue of The Week comes two interesting stats:

Just 30 percent of Americans aged 17 to 24 are eligible to become soldiers, according to the US Army. The remaining 70 percent of young people are either too obese or are disqualified because they have a criminal history or didn’t finish high school. – Stars and Stripes

From 2000 to 2013, advertising revenue for America’s newspapers fell $40 billion — from $63.5 billion to $23 billion, according to a new report by the Brookings Foundation. At the same time, Google’s ad revenue has soared to $57.9 billion. – The Atlantic.com

Times, they are a changin’.

The Importance of Trust

If you want to know why it’s important that we have  strong, trustworthy government and media in our society then all you need to do is look at the developing ebola situation.

Unless you’ve been asleep for the last six months you’ve seen news about the growing ebola epidemic in Africa and the worldwide angst that has ensued as cased have popped up in Europe and the U.S. Here in America the government – the Center for Disease Control in particular – is under intense pressure and scrutiny after they bumbled in their initial response to the first U.S. case in Dallas. Unfortunately those early mistakes have created a scenario in which people who were already skeptical of the government’s competency will now disregard anything the authorities say about the disease. They’ll also be susceptible to overreacting to suppositions or improbable outcomes ginned up by media outlets desperate for their attention. Here’s an example from Fox & Friends:

http://video.foxnews.com/v/3840172448001/purdue-professor-says-ebola-primed-to-go-airborne/?playlist_id=930909787001#sp=show-clips

So while the story isn’t totally irresponsible in that the interviewee and the Fox on air talent repeatedly say that nothing currently indicates the disease can be transmitted through the air, they also say repeatedly that at some point the virus could mutate and become transmittable by air. While the interviewee couldn’t put a number on the probability he also couldn’t call it a zero probability.

You can guess what happens next. People who will look for any reason to discount the government because it’s led by their arch-nemesis President Obama, and that would be the vast majority of Fox’s audience, take to their social media accounts and start sharing the story and saying things like, “We knew that Obama/the CDC was lying about this to keep us from panicking” or “The CDC is so incompetent that they didn’t know that ebola could go airborne.” What makes it even worse is that the clip that Fox & Friends put on their Facebook page is a 22 second excerpt that includes only the pieces of the interview where the expert says it’s possible for the virus to go airborne. Here’s a link to it.

In my mind that’s just plain irresponsible. They have to know full and well that people will be sharing that clip, that it will spread quickly with their viewers, and it will play into their audience’s preconceived notions about the Obama administration and the federal government. That’s par for the course with just about any topic these days, but it’s especially bad when you’re talking about a public health situation.

Back to the government’s side of this equation. They admit they bungled the initial response to this situation. That’s good, because while people might be unhappy, critical, calling for someone’s head to roll, etc. they will at least be working under the assumption that the authorities are being straight with them. Unfortunately the government has not always been straight with the public (think Watergate or any of the other “gates” that have happened over the last 40 years) so there exists a baseline of distrust in the American public that the media outlets exploit to appeal to their audiences. In other words, no matter how transparent the CDC is on this they will have a very hard time getting anyone to trust them. Just take a look at Matt Lauer’s interview with the head of the Department of Health and Human Services to see how even morning TV shows are disinclined to accept the government’s word at face value:

http://www.nbcnews.com/id/32545640

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The really tragic part about all of this is that the public trust has been exploited  to the point that when the American public is confronted by a true crisis they won’t know who to trust.  How will they be able to discern a legitimate threat from a minimal threat that’s been hyped by various media outlets to discredit their favorite target? Hopefully we’ll never have to find out.

Who To Trust

One of the real problems we have in the Information Era is that so much information is just, well, wrong. Back in the pre-Internet dark ages we used to be able to easily identify the folks who distributed craziness as news, and just as importantly, the people who accepted that craziness at face value. We simply looked around us while in line at the grocery store and if we saw someone reading the National Enquirer, or one of the other tabloids, and he wasn’t laughing then we knew that was someone who shouldn’t be trusted to walk and chew gum simultaneously. Now things have gotten a little more complicated.

Case in point is how a blogger/nut-job could post a completely unfounded story related to the Ferguson, MO protests and in short order it morphed into a story on a national “news” network (Fox):

In short order Hoft’s story spread throughout the right-wing blogosphere. The right-wing media machine was cranking up. Early in the afternoon of Aug. 19, the right-wing libertarian site Before It’s News cited Mark Dice’s YouTube report, which in turn cited Hoft’s story…

Soon the story had been picked up by pretty much all of the right-wing noise machine, including Matt Drudge, Breitbart, Right Wing News, the Washington Times and the New York Post.

Now that the story had broken into the wild and had been reported by numerous sources — all citing Jim Hoft’s original report as well as each other — Fox News decided it had enough cover to report on Hoft’s bogus story.

They ran the story every half-hour with a flashing “ALERT ALERT” image at the bottom of the screen and cited , yep, Jim Hoft’s report.

Say what you will about the “mainstream media” at least back in the day there was an effort made to be a reputable news source and to prove to readers/viewers/listeners that the news being reported was accurate and had been confirmed by multiple primary sources. There was actually angst about using unnamed sources, and it was done only when absolutely necessary. Were the news outlets perfect? No, but for the most part you could expect that behind whatever editorial slant an outlet might have they were at least supported by verifiable facts. Unfortunately those days seem to be gone.

This is not just a national story. Right here in the Piedmont Triad there’s an increasing level of concern about one local newspaper’s lack of diligence in policing its Letters to the Editor for at least a modicum of accuracy, and quite frankly the quickening demise of local newspapers is more frightening than anything because they have traditionally been the only source of coverage of local governments. Without them who’s going to be the Fourth Estate?

All this brings to mind something my kids learned when they were doing research projects in school. Times had changed from when I was in school. In my day we had to go to the library to review books, encyclopedias, magazines and articles on microfiche (if you’re under the age of 35 look that up and be amazed) for our research. You could be pretty confident your sources were solid because a librarian had vetted those materials, but still we were taught to use multiple sources to support our thesis. Then the internet happened and all of the sudden kids had the ability to do research from the comfort of their own homes, but without the protection of a librarian vetting their sources. So guess what? A big part of their lesson was in learning how to identify good sources of information, and subsequent to that, verifying that information by finding multiple sources. I’m thinking that should become a required course of study in our society, because without it our populace will be led around by its noses by a bunch of charlatans. It’s already happening and it will only get worse.

 

Here’s What You Should Know

A good suggestion for news organizations from Jeff Jarvis:

So the opportunity: If I ran a news organization, I would start a regular feature called, Here’s what you should know about what you’re hearing elsewhere.

Last week, that would have included nuggets such as these:

* You may have heard on CNN that an arrest was made. But you should know that no official confirmation has been made so you should doubt that, even if the report is repeated by the likes of the Associated Press.

* You may have heard reports repeated from police scanners about, for example, the remaining suspect vowing not to be taken alive. But you should know that police scanners are just people with microphones; they do not constitute official or confirmed police reports. Indeed, it may be important for those using police radio to repeat rumor or speculation — even from fake Twitter accounts created an hour ago — for they are the ones who need to verify whether these reports are true. Better safe than sorry is their motto…

* You may have heard reports that there were more bombs. But you should know that we cannot track where these reports started and we have no official confirmation so you should not take those reports as credible. We are calling the police to find out whether they are true and we will let you know as soon as we know.


 

Reportero

Watching the documentary Reportero it's hard to compare the folks at Zeta with just about any media outlet in the US and not come away believing that the US media outlets are filled with vapid wusses who take for granted their First Amendment protection and that they ply their trade in a place where doing their job rarely leads to physical harm. To be fair it would be hard not to look like a wuss in comparison to the Zeta folks, but many of our outlets give the impression they'd be out of their league in a junior high journalism competition.

For those of you without the patience to watch the video here's the description from the documentary's webpage:  Reportero follows a veteran reporter and his colleagues at Zeta, a Tijuana-based independent newsweekly, as they stubbornly ply their trade in one of the deadliest places in the world for members of the media. In Mexico, more than 50 journalists have been slain or have vanished since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderón came to power and launched a government offensive against the country's powerful drug cartels and organized crime. As the drug war intensifies and the risks to journalists become greater, will the free press be silenced? 

Too bad we can't trade Fox, MSNBC, NYT, WaPo etc. for them. We'd come out way ahead.

Watch Reportero on PBS. See more from POV.

 

How You Say It

Something interesting has happened over in Greensboro. There's a fellow there named George Hartzman who has become pretty well known to the Greensboro City Council for his comments from the floor during council meetings (check out this for just a taste). He's also well known in the online community for writing in such an incomprehensible manner that you suspect he knows what he's talking about, but you're hard-pressed to figure out what it is. He does it in his own blog posts and in comments on other peoples' blogs or sites.

If there's ever been an argument that how you say/something is as important as what you say/write, I think we've found it in Mr. Hartzman. That became clear when his story was told on the blog of Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi. That caught the attention of everyone in Greensboro, and in particular it caught the attention of the reporters who have talked with Hartzman over the years. Check out these comments from Ed Cone's blog post about Taibbi's piece on Hartzman:

Greensboro News & Record reporter Joe Killian:

Definitely give Taibbi his due.

As someone who has talked to George about a lot of things he wanted me to write about — some of which I did, some of which I didn't — I can tell you that getting him to explain himself in a way that is understandable, finding a narrative through-line, making sense of it all and then boiling it down to something people can easily understand on first reading — all while avoiding libel — is not easy.

Taibbi seems to have done the smart thing and used some of the more relatable, human stuff for this blog post. That's not the stuff George is usually trying to get people to write about — or it's a very small part. Taibbi's larger piece in the latest issue of Rolling Stone is also well worth reading for a broader look.

Yes! Weekly editor Brian Clarey:

Hartzman's story hinges on the secret bailouts Taibbi uncovered in this month's RS, which thwarted his short bets against the market on behalf of his clients.
Still and all, very good coverage of what Hartzman has been screaming about for months.
I feel like we at YES! Weekly have a bit of egg on our faces — though we do not pretend to provide exhaustive business and financial coverage, and have no one on staff with the kind of expertise necessary to make sense of this crazy stuff.
That being said, I'm probably gonna write something about it for next week. I doubt I'm alone.
Congrats George. Enjoy your moment. It's been a long time coming, and paid for with great sacrifice.

Economist, contributor to the Triad Business Journal and frequent online commenter Andrew Brod:

When I read Taibbi's column, my first thought was, "So that's what George has been trying to tell us for months."

Hartzman's story is reminiscent of Chicken Little. He squawked so often and in such a strident and often incomprehensible manner on so many issues that the locals started to tune him out even when he had a compelling story to tell. It became easy to dismiss what he was saying, to shrug your shoulders and just say "There goes George again off on one of his rants…"

To be fair to the local reporters it's pretty easy to see how they wouldn't need or want to cover Hartzman's story, and how it was more likely that Taibbi would get at the heart of the matter. First of all he wasn't burdened by any preconceived notions of Hartzman. Second he was covering an area that's really become his beat – the economic crapstorm created by the too-big-to-fail banks and their treatment by the government – and Hartzman's story fit nicely into that narrative (something Killian points out in the comments on Ed Cone's blog). 

Now that Hartzman's story has gone big-time there's some hope that it will be heard, but given his approach to addressing the city council I'm not sure anyone will want him to testify before Congress unless of course Taibbi's there to translate.

Finally, a sad little side story based on some other comments at Cone's blog – the challenge faced by local media in covering big-picture stories like this and how they affect people like Hartzman:

Killian - Brian:

I wouldn't be too hard on yourself. If you could give Jordan a month or so to concentrate on just this story with the resources Taibbi has, I'm sure he could have gotten the job done.

Hartzman's story fit nicely into a much larger and more complicated national story he was working on for what looks like a very long time.

That's not egg on your faces. That a reality about modern local media and the allocation of resources.

Clarey - Exactly, Joe.

I just don't have the resources to commit to something like this, though I sure wish I did. I haven't spent a month on a story in years.

Killian - You and me both.

In today's media environment would anyone have the attention span to pull off a Watergate?

Update 1/14/2013 – the editor of the Greensboro News & Record chimes in on the Hartzman story:

Perhaps understandably, Hartzman doesn’t see him-self as naive or a rube. I don’t think he’s either. Still, he is hard to understand.

But he’s also madden-ingly difficult to keep on topic, as when quizzing him about details of his case. Talking to him is like wrestling with a big, wildly flopping snake.

Taibbi describes him as “easygoing,” which is accurate only if you’d use that adjective to describe a locomotive gone off the rails.

Also, Don Quixote-like, Hartzman tilts at lots of big ideas, often with more belief than evidence.

He’s always pressing some case of underhanded dealings by local government, often at a local blog, where he writes in a strangely staccato manner that resembles free verse without the grace of real poetry.

He duns government with public records requests, and he tries to sell local reporters and editors on the merits of what he’s pursuing.

Occasionally he’s right. More often, he’s not provably so.

The inevitable result is rolled eyes from journal-ists, probably more often than he deserves but not altogether without justification.

Perhaps, for local journalists, Hartzman is the boy who cried wolf too many times.

An Ink-Stained Wretch Laments

The Carrboro Citizen is shutting down its presses and its publisher, Robert Dickson, wonders aloud what the future holds for newspapers:

The problem is that professional journalism costs money, and that we have all gotten way too comfortable with getting our news for free. Journalists don’t make much money (just ask the Citizen staff), but they’ve still got to eat.

Newspapers have done this to themselves though, and pulling back from the brink is proving to be painful. The siren song of Internet advertising cash has not made up for the lost revenue from print editions. So, what do you know, newspapers across the land are deciding to charge for their online content. Gee, what a concept…

I’ve heard a neighbor tell me how easy it is to defeat the pay wall at The New York Times. The best $3.75 I spend every week is on that newspaper, and I can’t imagine a day without it. What’s our world going to be like when the Grey Lady goes down because readers won’t pay for content? Or The Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post or The News & Observer?

The republic will be on the rocks, that’s what will happen. We can have all the instant information we want, but we have to be able to trust it to make reasonable decisions…

So what does this have to do with the demise of The Carrboro Citizen? My pondering has led me to the belief that one future of hyperlocal news outlets, at least in the style of The Citizen, is as nonprofit entities.

It’s likely too much to ask of small local businesses to provide sufficient advertising revenue to sustain the necessary news coverage for a community like ours. A locally owned and operated nonprofit, however, could supplement ad sales with reader support and maybe a few grants, and come up with a sustainable model for local long-form journalism.

Who knows how we'll get our news in the future? Last night the country suffered through the first of three Presidential debates scheduled for this election season, and many of us tracked it by monitoring Twitter or Facebook. Who could have predicted even fifteen years ago that we'd be getting real-time "news" in 140 characters or less on a smart phone?

But that's news in the most shallow of senses, and does not answer the question of how/where we'll get the lcoal in-depth stories that have traditionally been the province of newspapers. Quite frankly the issue isn't the delivery system – paper vs. digital – but the ability for the people producing the stories to make a living doing it. 

The idea of creating a non-profit to house a local news operation is a good one, and for at least one more reason than Mr. Dickson mentioned: a non-profit is not owned by any one person and answers to a board of directors. Unlike a publicly owned company it isn't driven by the need to meet quarterly profit projections, and unlike a privately owned company it doesn't have to meet an owner's financial expectations or needs. Sure there will be people who exert more control on the organization than others, but there are mechanisms built into a non-profit corporation's structure that help prevent it going off the rails and losing focus on its mission. In fact, maybe its most important aspect is that its core mission moves from creating profit for its owners to serving its community's information needs. 

A non-profit structure wouldn't be a panacea, but if the objective is to create an institution that serves a community's information needs then it's probably a better fit than just about any other at this point in time. There's nothing wrong with for-profit newspapers, but as Mr. Dickson points out their days may be numbered.