Monday, March 1, 2010

Watch out for 'Tea Party terrorists' -- like Paine and Thoreau

You'd think that, after a couple of centuries of major American figures describing government as, at most, something to be tolerated, political pundits would have made their peace with the idea that skepticism toward state power has a core place in American political life. If your toes tingle at the thought of more coercive programs, laws, politicians and bureaucrats, you're the (very) odd duck, not the folks with anti-government views. And yet, we still get the likes of Frank Rich throwing high-profile hissy fits because "the unhinged and sometimes armed anti-government right that was thought to have vaporized after its Oklahoma apotheosis is making a comeback," as heralded by ... Andrew Joseph Stack III's Kamikaze-style airborne attack on the Internal Revenue Service building in Austin, Texas?

For those not in the know, Stack, like many people, had a bone to pick with the I.R.S. and with the federal government. But the manifesto he left behind also accused drug and insurance companies of "murdering tens of thousands of people a year," charged that poor people get to die for the mistakes of the wealthy, and quoted Karl Marx. Anti-government Stack was, but his ideology, such as it was, doesn't appear to have been coherently right-wing or left-wing so much as ticked-off and populist.

Rich does appear to be aware that Stack isn't a very logical stick with which to beat the Tea Party movement that has him and his government-cheerleading chums so knicker-twisted. At least, he concedes "it would be both glib and inaccurate to call him a card-carrying Tea Partier or a 'Tea Party terrorist.' But he did leave behind a manifesto whose frothing anti-government, anti-tax rage overlaps with some of those marching under the Tea Party banner."

Nice how Rich works that gratuitious "Tea Party terrorist" bit in there, eh? But even as he smears his political opponents as guilty by distant and tortured association, he manages to overlook the fact that the anti-government sentiment he so regrets is neither a wholly owned subsidiary of the Tea Party movement and the Right, nor an aberration coughed up every decade or two by by unenlightened neanderthals briefly emerging from the philosophical swamps.

Frank Rich is a well-educated man with an Internet connection paid for by a respected news organization that has a vast historical archive of its own, so it's impossible to believe that the New York Times scribbler is unaware that Thomas Paine wrote in one of the more popular political tracts of the revolutionary period that "government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one." Nor can we believe he's unaware that James Madison hedged on Paine's sentiments only to the extent that he wrote, "It has been said that all Government is an evil. It would be more proper to say that the necessity of any Government is a misfortune." And certainly he knows about Thomas Jefferson's warning that "[t]he natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground."

And Rich must surely be aware that he's skipping over a bit of context when he drops the overworked Joe Stack connection to shriek in shock that "[t]he Tea Partiers want to eliminate most government agencies, starting with the Fed and the I.R.S., and end spending on entitlement programs. They are not to be confused with the Party of No holding forth in Washington -- a party that, after all, is now positioning itself as a defender of Medicare spending. What we are talking about here is the Party of No Government at All." Surely, if only in high school, he read Henry David Thoreau's open hostility to the power of the state:
I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe--"That government is best which governs not at all"...
The United States of America was founded on anti-government sentiment. The shapers of its institutions and many of its major thinkers have always clearly viewed the state as something like the equivalent of a portable kerosene heater in a Wisconsin winter -- you might need the damned thing, but be very careful.

True, the fact that the heart and soul of American political history is thoroughly skeptical of government power doesn't mean that Madison and Jefferson were right and that Rich is wrong. Maybe he and his buddies are correct and we should stop worrying and learn to love big, well-armed institutions that claim a monopoly on the use of force and slaughtered 262,000,000 people over the course of the 20th century alone. (It's for the children, don't you know?)

But history shows that anti-government sentiment is in the mainstream of American political life, and Rich and his buddies are the out-liers. No shrieking effort to paint skeptics of state power as kamikaze terrorists -- shoe-horning Joe Stack in with Thomas Paine and Henry David Thoreau -- can change that fact.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Boldly going where people have already screwed up before

I've been involved with Web publications for just about as long as there has been a commercial presence on the World Wide Web. I was an associate editor on the launch of ZDNet on the Web in 1994 (we hand-coded the HTML for those pages). My new media experience goes back a bit further, since earlier I was an associate editor on ZDNet's presence on the old Prodigy online service.

After that, I was senior editor on the launch of the New York Daily News online. I was editorial director of a dot-com during the gold-rush days. I was one of the original "guides" for The Mining Company/ ...

I'm sort of like a Zelig of the online world -- present at some pretty cool happenings, without actually making much of an impact myself. If you squint, you can just make out my face in the corner of the yellowing photo there...

I cite my history here, because I've been writing for The Examiner for a year and a half now, and I'm ...what? ... perplexed to see a company act, at this late date, as if it's inventing the business of publishing on the Web -- and in the process, making stupid mistakes that proved nearly disastrous for other companies a decade ago.

As I write, articles published by The Examiner aren't being picked up by Google News, and apparently not by regular Google Search either. That's for a good reason -- after an encouraging start, The Examiner has been publishing pretty much any crap by any warm body with access to a computer, devoid of quality control, in an effort to maximize page views and ad revenue for the short term. There's a lot of good material in there, too, but there's a flood of junk. Google apparently got tired of junk -- some of it plagiarized -- jamming its search results and has, at least temporarily, bounced The Examiner. This isn't precipitous -- the publisher has been on the equivalent of super-secret probation with Google for a while now.

The queered relationship comes after The Examiner has pretty much worn out its welcome at most of the social media sites, like Digg and Reddit, because examiners were pumping their pieces and those of their co-workers. 

But we've been down this path before. In the late '90s, The Mining Company gained a miserable reputation for hiring guides with little vetting, and exercising essentially no quality control over the content they produced. Guides were also urged to go out and manipulate their rankings on the search engines of the day (remember Altavista? Lycos? Infoseek?), many of which allowed results to be voted up or down.

Like The Examiner (and plenty of other modern publications), The Mining Company compensated writers according to traffic. And as with The Examiner, the emphasis came to be on quantity rather than quality in an effort to drive traffic and maximize revenue.

But when a brand gets a lousy reputation, people stop dropping by ...

That tactic made a certain sense in the context of the late '90s, when many dot-coms were in it for short-term venture capital and had little intention of building a long-term presence. That dot-com where I was the editorial director was one such operation, and it was a running joke in-house that the only business plan was to find new investors.

After a few years, the re-named decided to take a long-term approach and cleaned up its act. There were several brutal purges of guides -- I think the first one dumped 40% of the topics and their writers. And greater editorial control was instituted over content (along with some other, problematic, policies -- but that's another issue).

But The Examiner is owned by an established company: Clarity Media. Presumably, Clarity, which also controls two print newspapers also called Examiner, doesn't plan to stuff its pockets with ad revenue and abandon its offices and its name. Driving the brand into the ground makes no sense under the circumstances since it's not a fly-by-night operation.

So it seems like The Examiner is staggering along in the poorly placed footsteps of its predecessors not, as part of a well-thought-out business strategy, but from sheer failure to learn from the past. In the end, if the project is to continue, the company will have to purge bad writers, implement some quality control and rebuild its reputation and relationships.

I hope it does so, because The Examiner's approach is an interesting one. I like the idea of a low-overhead platform for targeted journalists and opinionators. It has real potential. Provided, that is, that the project looks to long-term viability.

For now, I'm still writing for The Examiner -- until somebody in the Denver office stumbles on this blog post, that is. But if you know anybody who might be interested in a slightly used writer/editor/blogger (who was there when it all started, I'm tellin' ya), don't be afraid to drop me a line.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Considering its enemies, can Fox News be all bad?

In the early years of the United States, "newspapers were really the only source of news for American voters and they were typically operated by one of the two major party organizations" says an academic study of the period. Democratic-Republican newspapers warned that George Washington would make "a bold push for the American throne” and mocked John Adams as “blind, bald, crippled, toothless, [and] querulous.” Federalist papers countered that their opponents were "frog-eating, man-eating, blood drinking cannibals." So when Newsweek's Jacob Weisberg whines that "[t]he Australian-British-continental model of politicized media that Murdoch has applied at Fox is un-American," we know that he's not just a little off-base -- he's completely full of crap. In fact, we may want to celebrate the very things that have the White House's David Axelrod complaining that Fox is "not really a news station" and has his collegue Anita Dunn frothing that the overtly conservative outlet presents "opinion journalism masquerading as news."

From the 18th, through the 19th and well into the 20th centuries, American newspapers weren't just partisan -- they were dominant political players. Jeffrey L. Pasley, professor of political science at University of Missouri-Columbia and author of The Tyranny of Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic, notes:

Since American political parties lacked any permanent institutional structures before the 1850s, party newspapers and their editors came to embody and run the parties as no other institutions or actors could. Even after national party committees were created and national party newspapers were done away with during the Civil War era, newspaper-based politics remained the rule in many locales (especially the South and Midwest) into the early twentieth century, as shown by the fact that both major party presidential candidates in 1920 were party newspaper editors from Ohio.

The modern period of what we're assured is "objective" news coverage is an aberration that has lasted just a few decades. Really, the heyday of news-reporting without any (overt) point of view seems to occupy that period between the contraction of the newspaper industry and the rise of alternative media, including talk radio, cable and the Internet. In the 1890s, New York City had 19 daily newspapers. One way for these newspapers to differentiate themselves was by point of view. Of the top-notch papers, for many years, the New York Times was more liberal, the New York Herald-Tribune more conservative. Once that crowd of newspapers was whittled down to three by economic shifts and strikes, it was easy for the Times, like the last remaining newspaper in so many cities, to peddle its high-minded elitism as neutral coverage, and too bad if you didn't like it.

It's worth noting, though, that the two remaining New York City tabloids continued to distinguish themselves by politics, with the Daily News tilting left through most of those years, and the Post leaning right.

Heavily regulated broadcast media, subject to the fairness doctrine and limited to two (later, three) real networks, presented whatever didn't offend the FCC as journalistic true faith, with Walter Cronkite as its prophet.

And that gray, dull state of affairs lasted until people once again had alternatives to turn to, in the form of un-muzzled radio hosts, cable stations and Websites. And turn they did, fleeing from the old journalistic warhorses to outlets once again offering partisan takes on the news. Basically, "objective journalism" seems to be a saleable product only when the customers have no alternatives.

Not only has that product proven not particularly palatable to the public, there's a legitimate question to be raised over the value -- or even possibility -- of "objective" journalism. Was the like-it-or-lump-it coverage of the late 20th century really so devoid of bias? Or was it so steeped in a single attitude that its practitioners couldn't tell the difference anymore? After all, the choice of which stories to cover and which policy experts to quote are themselves expressions of judgements that are rarely devoid of bias. Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel was likely doing no more than telling a hard truth last year when he said:

"[T]his notion that journalism is objective, or must be objective is something that has always bothered me – because the notion about objectivity is in some ways a fantasy. I don’t know that there is as such a thing as objectivity."

And we have to keep coming back to the fact that, no matter what people tell pollsters, they seem to prefer news with a point of view. Not only is Fox News successful, but so are its counterparts. Few people watched MSNBC until it positioned itself as a liberal alternative to Fox and found a reason to exist.

Meanwhile, newspapers espousing objectivity, many of them the last print dailies in their communities, continue to hemorrhage readership.

Which may be good news across the board. Partisanship has its flaws -- Fox News was largely unwatchable unless you were a committed neoconservative during the long, dark Bush years. But MSNBC quickly found its footing as an antagonist of the powers-that-be. Now the positions are reversed and Olbermann and company often act as official mouthpieces while Fox discovers renewed relevance in afflicting the powerful.

Partisan journalists of the past and present don't just excite their audiences, they also bring hammers and tongs to their scrutiny of government officials of opposing viewpoints. Given the vast powers exercised by governments to destroy lives, wage war and crush liberty, the least we can do is hope that the watchdogs dogging their steps have every incentive to uncover misconduct and scandal -- something a bit more invigorating than a priest-like devotion to the profession. We knew that Keith Olbermann would tell us about any misstep by the Bush administration because he despised President Bush; we can be equally assured that Glenn Beck will eagerly reveal President Obama's screw-ups for the same reason.

So give us more of that partisan journalism -- from every perspective. It's effective, it's exciting, and it's a hell of a lot more American than the dull pabulum that Jacob Weisberg wants to spoon down our throats.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Will Barry soar to the tops of the pops?

Well, OK, perhaps it's a little early to ponder President Barack Obama's likely assessment by historians of the future. But it's certainly not too early to point out that he's well on his way to high regard according to the usual blood-and-brutality standards set by most scholars -- but that he's vying for a very low rank according to an intriguing rating system that grades presidents according to the service they do in maintaining peace, prosperity and liberty.

Earlier this year, for Presidents Day, C-Span released the most recent scorecard judging the nation's former chief executives on their leadership. These rankings have become a semi-regular event, during which historians are polled on their subjective assessments of the relative merits of the presidents. Not surpisingly, they reveal more about historians than they do about the men they rate. Tellingly, the top of the list almost always features the same names. Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt featured prominently this year, as they do in almost all such exercises.

I say almost all, because there are a few dissident voices playing this game. The latest such contrarian ratings come from Ivan Eland, Director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute, and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.

It's not fair to say that Eland's rankings turn the usual results upside down -- but they come pretty close. At the top of Eland's list is John Tyler, who comes in at number 35 on the C-Span list. Pulling the worst rank on Eland's list is Woodrow Wilson, who finished in ninth place for C-Span.

How could the results be so wildly at odds?

Easy -- Eland uses very different criteria than those used by most historians when ranking the presidents.

As the title of his book suggests, Eland rates the presidents according to their ability to preserve and defend peace, prosperity and liberty. Specifically, as Eland puts it, "this analysis gives presidents credit for avoiding wars and conducting only necessary wars of self-defense." In terms of prosperity, Eland judges presidents not just by prevailing conditions while they were in office, but for the effects of their policies after they left -- presidents who artificially pumped up the economy and left a shambles for their successors get dinged. When it comes to liberty, the author looks at deeds more than words. "Presidents often claim that they are preserving liberty while, at the same time, they are taking actions to subvert it. Only genuine acts promoting economic freedom (deregulation) and political liberty will be counted in the plus column in this analysis."

Since bad presidents have frequently done their worst damage while expanding their authority at the expense of the other branches of government -- and in defiance of constitutional strictures -- Eland also looks at the extent to which they resisted the urge to illegitimately expand the power of the presidency to the near-monarchical clout it wields today.

C-Span, on the other hand, asked historians to rate presidents (PDF) on "Public Persuasion," "Crisis Leadership," "Economic Management," "Moral Authority," "International Relations," "Administrative Skills," "Relations with Congress," "Vision/Setting An Agenda," "Pursued Equal Justice for All," and "Performance Within the Context of His Times."

But it was considered inappropriate for presidents to appeal directly to the public until the twentieth century, automatically hobbling earlier officials in the rankings. "Crisis Leadership" and "Economic Management" inherently put at a disadvantage presidents who manage to avert crises and who believe they have no business managing the economy at all.

Most telling is that, of the five top-rated presidents in the C-Span list -- Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, FDR, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman -- three presided over wars (and Theodore Roosevelt was overtly bellicose -- only George Washington seemed to have any taste for peace, and even he suppressed a tax revolt with troops and seized Indian lands). While the C-Span scholars celebrate these presidents' wartime leadership, Eland holds them to account for being unable or unwilling to avert bloody conflict.

Of those presidents, Lincoln and FDR get severely down-graded by Eland for civil liberties violations directly related to their war efforts, showing that much of what makes a president great or poor goes hand-in-hand.

Overall, most historians clearly prefer those presidents who leave the biggest mark on history -- in terms of blood, brutality and expensive monuments to themselves.

But the presidents who serve us best, as Eland points out, are those who quietly pass through office by using diplomacy, self-restraint and established channels to prevent crises, avert conflict, preserve our liberty and otherwise give us every reason to tend to our own affairs without worrying about political goings-on.

Ultimately, Tyler ranks so highly in Eland's list because of quiet actions like ending the Second Seminole War, slashing the size of the army by one-third, peacefully settling a boundary dispute with Canada, declining to send troops to suppress a minor rebellion in Rhode Island, maintaining sound money and controlling federal spending -- all while battling his own activist Whig party. That's not splashy stuff -- but it's the necessary basis for allowing people to raise families, build businesses and plan for the future.

Woodrow Wilson, on the other hand, ranked last on Eland's list for pushing America into an unnecessary war, criminalizing dissent, jailing political opponents and seizing private businesses. Those actions won him high rank among the C-Span historians.

So, how will President Barack Obama fare in the future? It's early yet, but based on his record, so far, of massive spending, continuing military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, expanding the role of government in the economy, and building on the authority and secrecy of the presidency, it's safe to predict that most historians will view him with fondness. They like the imperial presidency. He's unlikely to place very high on the Peace, Prosperity and Liberty index, however.

Of course, there's room for agreement even among scholars using very different criteria. Both Eland and C-Span ranked the last president -- George W. Bush -- at number 36, very near the bottom.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Black protester is a ... white racist?

I'm a cynical bastard, but even I am thrown for a loop by MSNBC's white-facing of a black protester so that he can be presented as evidence of an armed, white, racist reaction to the election of Barack Obama as president.

If you're curious, the catalyst for MSNBC's hyperventilating fears of racism is Chris, seen below. I don't think he's a good candidate for a white hood.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Uncle Sugar to the rescue (of our beleaguered newspapers)

There's an old saying that "he who takes the king's coin becomes the king's man." Those words are worth remembering as journalists rend their clothing over the death throes of many of the nation's newspapers, activist groups call for the government to rescue the dead-tree press as a crucial prop for preserving democracy, and opportunistic politicians respond with schemes to put the nation's broadsheets and tabloids on government-funded life support. When journalists are dependent on coins tossed their way by the political class, just which way do you think their stories will lean?

The problem is that people just aren't reading newspapers. Readership plunged last year, again. And with subscription dollars and advertising following readers out the door, more newspapers went bankrupt, closed their doors or went online-only in response. In keeping with the times, some folks think the solution is to have Uncle Sam break out the checkbook.

Some of the calls for subsidized journalism are outright ironic. Free Press, a "media reform" advocacy organization, complains that "[t]he takeover of our country's media outlets by a small handful of giant conglomerates puts too much power and influence in too few hands. That's bad for our democracy, which depends on our ability to access diverse sources of news, information and opinion."

Even if you buy the argument that media ownership is more concentrated now than in the past (a tough sell in the world-spanning Internet age to those of us who remember when "the press" meant a couple of network TV affiliates and the local newspaper), it's difficult to see how making the press dependent on a single benefactor -- the government -- would improve matters. But that's what the organization advocates in a recent report (PDF), in the form of state-regulated non-profit status, government subsidies and even direct employment of journalists by the government.

Along these lines, Senator Ben Cardin, of Maryland, has introduced the Newspaper Revitalization Act, with an eye to allowing newspapers to function as educational non-profits, so long as they "contain local, national, and international news stories of interest to the general public and the distribution of such newspaper is necessary or valuable in achieving an educational purpose" and "the preparation of the material contained in such newspaper follows methods generally accepted as educational in character." Oh, and newspapers with non-profit status would be barred from endorsing candidates.

But those caveats provide a hint of problems with the plan. Imagine lawyer-fueled arguments over the meaning of "of interest to the general public" and "generally accepted as educational in character." Even Free Press concedes that the scheme has First Amendment problems and might not stand up in court. Report authors Victor Pickard, Josh Stearns and Craig Aaron also allow that the plan raises concerns about "newsrooms currying favor with their benefactors."

But if non-profit status raises the possibility of favor-currying, how about direct ownership of media by local governments, government subsidies, or government employment of journalists?

This isn't exactly uncharted territory -- even within the United States. The New Deal-era Federal Writers Project, so praised in the Free Press report, employed journalists to document the America of the time and (not incidentally) to put to work in government employment writers who might otherwise be disaffected. An article in 49th Parallel: An Interdisciplinary Journal of North American Studies says the FWP can be described "perhaps most aptly, as a politicized documentary of the times with a social democratic slant." Of the guidebooks produced by the project, author Michael Dittman writes, "To further their hegemonic ends, the FWP could not have chosen a better propaganda tool."

But the propaganda effort didn't stop there. Writing of the same era, Nicholas John Cull, David Holbrook Culbert, David Welch point out in Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present:

Murals (intended for post offices and other public buildings) were commissioned as Works Progress Administration (WPA) relief work. They were painted in an American socialist realist style ...

The Federal Theater Project adapted topics favorable to the New Deal in a series of "Living Newspaper" productions. For example, Power defended the socialist content of the TVA and openly advocated public control of utilities.

FDR was by no means the only U.S. president to use propaganda to further his goals, but since his example is so approvingly cited by modern advocates of government-subsidized media, it's worth examining the results.

Of course, independent media can curry favor with advertisers and investors, too, just as subsidized media caters to the government. But advertisers and investors tend to be a diverse bunch, with different and sometimes opposing interests. And they don't all have their fingers in all of the pies. Setting the state up as every journalist's sugar daddy is sure to create a situation where politicians have an awful lot of say over what is published.

Considering the power wielded by those politicians, and the investigative eyes we should all hope are fastened on them, that's an unhealthy prospect.

Such fears won't stop old-line fans of cheap paper and smeary ink from fretting over the declining fortunes of warhorses like the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. But those publications are stumbling because they can't attract customers even as many Websites created in recent years (and the online editions of old newspapers) are enjoying booming readership. If the old-timers don't see the connection, maybe their successors will.

In The Joplin Globe, Jessica Shreindl, a college newspaper editor and (presumably) journalist of the future recently wrote:

And even if a government buyout, err, bailout of the newspaper industry wasn’t eerie, its necessity is hard to argue. The hard truth of the free market is that industries either adapt or they die. Contrary to the “death of democracy doom-and-gloomers,” information and news sources are not on the decline. Online readership is up. With the click of a mouse readers are deciding what the news is.

The industry will be fine, it may consolidate, but it will be fine. There will always be news gatherers so long as people desire to know what’s going on in their communities and the world around them.

Newspapers arose out of people’s ingenuity and need-to-know; not by some legislature’s stroke of the pen. They will continue to do just fine without Uncle Sam.

She's right. People who gather information have always found a way to cater to people who want to consume information. Just because one crop of aging providers can't figure out how to change with the times and keep customers happy (or make money from online customers) doesn't mean the whole business should be turned over to the people most deserving of scrutiny.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

'Parasitic' new media beats old media to the punch

Last week, I covered the arrest of three independent journalists in Jones County, Mississippi, who appear to have been scooped up for the non-crime of photographing police during a traffic stop. The first "old media" story on the arrests appeared today, in the Laurel Leader-Call. In related news, over the weekend, the Christian Science Monitor reported that bloggers "outnumbered national reporters by a good margin" in the press box at the National Rifle Association convention in Phoenix, Arizona. Even as fans of ink-stained fingers and bloated, institutional journalism bemoan the rise of individualistic and often partisan new media journalists, the old pros they defend barely seem to be making the effort -- and when they do get off their duffs, they often do a poor job.

I was hardly the first online outlet to cover the arrest of the Motorhome Diaries trio of libertarian journalists. That honor falls to one of the arrestees -- Jason Talley -- who reported the incident via Twitter even as the handcuffs headed in his direction and just moments before he was pepper-sprayed.

Free Keene, a New Hampshire-based online publication, had the story soon thereafter, spurred on by Talley's tweets, and with more information gathered by direct contact with the Jones County authorities. Many others followed -- so many, that by the time I did a follow up story the day after the arrests, the Jones County jail was referring phone inquiries about the case to the sheriff's department, and the sheriff's department was sending them back to the jail. It was a crude circle-the-wagons strategy by overwhelmed local officials.

By this time the closest thing to old media coverage of the arrests were reports in my Examiner column, Reason's Website, and the Western Standard (an online-only Webzine descended from a Canadian conservative magazine).

The old media arrived on the case this morning, five days after the arrests, with a poorly written story in the the Laurel Leader-Call, which covers Jones County, Mississippi. That report was apparently based entirely on a brief interview with the local sheriff and a glance at the Motorhome Diaries Website. It essentially transcribed the sheriff's dubious claim that the whole unpleasantness could have been avoided if these fellows had just produced indentification. (And what about the photography dispute again?) And don't you know, the arrestees had "an agenda"?

Yet the new media, we are assured by defenders of the old guard, exists merely to suck the life's blood from the professionals who do all the hard work. "Bloggery is forming itself into big, institutionalised aggregators such as The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast, and remains utterly parasitic on the mainstream media it affects to despise," Bryan Appleyard of the Times of London assures us.

"Parasitic?" How then to explain the thick ranks of bloggers discovered by the Christian Science Monitor at the NRA convention in Phoenix? And what about the hundreds of bloggers credentialed last summer at the Republican and Democratic conventions?

Said the Monitor, the large new media presence at the NRA gathering "presents a stunning affirmation of the rise of a mix of both partisan and fiercely independent and sometimes downright cranky 'New Media,' marking its growing power to not only cover breaking news, but set the tone for political policy — and, in the case of Second Amendment rights, even the direction of the NRA itself."

If these new-media types don't always produce prose for the ages, they are at least capable of showing up to do original reporting. And, really, it's not that hard to exceed the standard set by the Leader-Call.

If new media journalists vary as much in quality as their old-media competitors, they do have two advantages: immediacy and enthusiasm. It's virtually impossible to beat the speed with which Jason Talley's initial tweets from the scene were picked up, expanded upon and developed into stories. It's also impossible to beat the brief blog posts, some time-stamped just a minute apart, from the floor of the various national gatherings that have credentialed bloggers. Yes, that's hardly time for talking heads to analyze events and tell the public what they ought to think about what's going on, but it's raw information that seems to resonate with a wide audience.

As for enthusiasm ... The bloggers on the floor of the party gatherings and the NRA conventions, and the bloggers and independent journalists who covered the Jones County arrests, are almost all partisans. Bloggers at the NRA convention are overwhelmingly gun enthusiasts, passionate about the right to bear arms and willing to dig deep into any perceived threat to the same. Likewise for the liberal bloggers at the DNC and their conservative counterparts at the GOP convention. The bloggers and assorted journalists who built on Talley's initial tweets and overwhelmed the Jones County authorities are almost all libertarians or fellow travelers who see their news coverage as an exercise in activism meant to energize an audience and make converts.

As the Monitor reported from Phoenix, "just as lefty bloggers got the word out about the promise of Barack Obama during last year’s election, the rightosphere is pulling out its big guns, too. And in few places is the keyboard jockey scene as fast-growing or as influential as the world of firearms and Second Amendment rights."

New media isn't drawing ahead of the old form because of parasitism or favorable copyright laws (an eye-roll-inducing argument published in the Washington Post). It's succeeding because technology gives it the advantage of immediacy and because of the passion that comes with partisanship.

Yes, I know -- the media is supposed to be "objective." But that's a recent, peculiarly North American conceit that doesn't seem to satisfy anybody. How many debates have you participated in about the ideological leanings of supposedly "objective" news organizations?

It wasn't always this way. Newspapers in this country used to wear their leanings on their sleeves. The Quincy Herald-Whig, of Quincy, Illinois, is a newspaper old enough to boast its affiliation with a political party that disappeared 150 years ago.

That's still the case in most countries. When World Press-Review compiles news coverage from around the world, it usually includes the political leanings of the source. That means the Mail & Guardian of Johannesburg gets labeled "liberal," the Globe and Mail of Toronto, "centrist," and the Chosun Ilbo of Seoul, "conservative."

So it's possible for a news source to be reasonably credible without pretending to be devoid of prejudice. And those prejudices can be important, because they form a connection to an audience on a range of values and beliefs that lie at the core of many people's world view. Journalists who share their audience's values are likely to share their opinion of which stories are worth covering -- and to appeal to that audience with such coverage.

Yes, that means partisan media outlets give up the idea of appealing to everybody. But "objective" operations that lose readership with each passing year have given up that aspiration anyway.

This isn't to say that old media has nothing to offer. Editorial standards and fact-checking practices were long in the making and are worth preserving. But the once-lively newspapers that developed those professional benchmarks have devolved into bloated, slow institutions that hemorrhage audience to more-nimble, more-partisan competitors.

And they are, sometimes, just a tad parasitic themselves (just ask Maureen Dowd).

Interestingly, the old media isn't necessarily doomed -- if it adapts to the new environment. The Christian Science Monitor, which reported on the blogger presence in Phoenix, was once a daily newspaper that now publishes almost exclusively on the Web.


Thursday, April 2, 2009

Politicians without their smiley faces

I'm a late arrival to the independent video journalism of Jan Helfeld, but his exchange with Rep. Pete Stark is absolutely remarkable. It's eye-opening not just for Stark's idiotic insistence that national debt is a measure of nationals wealth (the deeper in the red, the more loaded we are), but also for Helfer's ability to strip away the false mask of geniality that cloaks most politicians' encounters with the press. Stark comes off as arrogant, condescending and abusive.

It's revealing when a government official threatens to throw an interviewer out the window.

By the way, Helfeld has had remarkable success in gaining access to prominent people and asking them tougher questions than they're accustomed to hearing from mainstream reporters.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The vast whatever-wing conspiracy

Back in the 1990s, I attended a few meetings of the Fabiani Society in New York City. It was (and still may be) a regular gathering, ironically named after Mark Fabiani, the Clinton-administration official who coined the term "vast right-wing conspiracy" as well as a riff on Fabian socialists. As such, it attracted folks who considered themselves right-of-center in Big Apple terms, or were at least willing to be seen with those sorts of folks. That meant everybody from gay, dope-smoking libertarians to Wall Street Journal editorial-page types to Manhattan Institute staffers.

New York City's "Right" is a weird place, including folks who would be considered fairly lefty other places, anti-state types who wandered in for the drinks, Giuliani-ish law-and-order types glaring at the anti-state types, and aristocratic Tories dressed for a nice dinner circa 1890.

That's probably about as well organized as the "vast right-wing conspiracy" ever got, though repeated efforts have been made over the years to support libertarian journalists, conservative academics, and bloggers who are willing to say nice things about limited government and low taxes (hi, guys!).

Those efforts have certainly been inclusive, since they've invited me along to a few.

Maybe the Left has been doing a better job of it all these years, even while pointing fingers at everybody else. They've certainly been quieter -- at least, until recently. From Politico:
For the past two years, several hundred left-leaning bloggers, political reporters, magazine writers, policy wonks and academics have talked stories and compared notes in an off-the-record online meeting space called JournoList. ...

One byproduct of that secrecy: For all its high-profile membership — which includes Nobel Prize-winning columnist Paul Krugman; staffers from Newsweek, POLITICO, Huffington Post, The New Republic, The Nation and The New Yorker; policy wonks, academics and bloggers such as Klein and Matthew Yglesias — JList itself has received almost no attention from the media.
There's nothing necessarily sinister about all of this -- like-minded people have always banded together for support, to share expertise and to use each other as resources. But the secrecy of the group and the inclusion on it of a lot of big-hitter names make JournoList the closest thing to a "vast conspiracy" that has come along so far.

It's just not right-wing.


Monday, February 9, 2009

My appearance on the Jeff Farias show

On February 4, I spent a very enjoyable several minutes chatting with liberal radio host Jeff Farias on his (currently Webcast-only) show carried on the Roots-Up Radio network. We spoke about the perverse effects of unenforceable laws and the growth of the surveillance society. My segment kicks in at about the 59:30 mark.


Monday, January 12, 2009

The much-anticipated demise of the gray lady

Yesterday, Britain's The Guardian produced a navel-gazer about the (mostly self-inflicted) financial wounds of "the gray lady" and its, quite possible, near-future demise. In the course of its pre-mortem on the New York Times, Paul Harris writes the following bit of drivel, demonstrating that the insular journalistic hothouse extends across the Atlantic Ocean.
It is hard to overstate the place that the New York Times holds in American journalism. It is worshipped by media professionals as the home of true, old-fashioned reporting. Many look enviously at its lavishly funded foreign operations, its arts coverage and its investigations unit. Liberal America regards the paper as a bible, while conservatives love to hate it.
In an earlier life, I was (briefly) senior editor for the launch and early days of the online edition of The New York Daily News. The News, like arch-competitor The New York Post, is a rough-around-the-edges, but credible, newspaper whose reporters know their beat, cover the city well, and do so while the news is relevant. Yes, the Post, in particular, takes a lot of grief for its tabloid style, but the two tabloids get the story right more often than not, and they're actually enjoyable to read.

The New York Times ...

reporters used to (and probably still) ask News and Post reporters for direction to some of the city's neighborhoods, because they might as well have been stranded in the Sahara desert if they crossed a bridge.

No, I'm not kidding. That was a running joke among reporters from both the tabloids.

The paper covers Queens like it's Kazakhstan, anything west of the Hudson like it's Alpha Centauri, and serious life-and-death matters of international import primarily from the perspective of their impact on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

If the Times covers a trend, it's a fair bet that it's been over for a year.

Hell. Old-fashioned reporting? Times reporters don't even write comprehensible ledes. Sure, they did swell in their creative writing classes, but just try to figure out where any given story is going without dragging yourself through the whole damned thing.

I'm not saying that the Times is worthless. But if newspapers were dogs, the News and the Post would be tough, street-wise mutts, and the Times would be a fluffy, just-bathed poodle. (Careful, don't spook it or it'll piss on the carpet).

The Times has access to movers and shakers and, no doubt, gets insights on national and international issues that aren't available to most other outlets. It does occasionally interesting analysis, though always -- always -- from within a half-inch of the conventional wisdom as seen by the JFK-to-Dulles power elites. And that access comes largely through the process of giving journalistic hand-jobs to a cultivated segment of the powers-that-be.

If the Times were to pass on, I have to wonder if it might not clear the field for new news operations that are not so ossified, not quite so incestuously connected with the supposed subjects of scrutiny, and, perhaps, just a tad less smug and insular in their cultural and political reference points.

There's plenty of room in the world for good news operations that are adaptable and appeal to an audience. If the New York Times can't survive changing circumstances ... well, the world will keep turning.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

MSNBC prepares to slide into Fox's mouthpiece role

Did I or did I not call this one?

Well, I just hope MSNBC is up to the job.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Could Fox News become watchable again?

I was jogging on a treadmill at a hotel in San Diego the other day (I was talked into accompanying my wife to a conference so I could babysit the kid, who she really wanted along) when another apparent conventioneer wandered in for his morning workout. He glanced at MSNBC, playing on the tube, and asked if I minded if he changed the channel. Not thinking, I said, "go ahead."

Of course, he changed it to Fox News.

Oh crap, I thought. I'm in for it now.

But then, a funny thing happened. I found Fox News watchable.

That hasn't happened in a long time. It's not because Fox News is overtly conservative. Much of the media veers to the left, after all, and MSNBC has deliberately positioned itself as an explicitly liberal news channel. I can deal with -- even enjoy -- opinionated news. But Fox News has been the house organ of the Bush administration, and watching it duck and dodge to cover for the White House's abuses and failings has been a bit too much like watching a driver deliberately steer into a ten-car pile-up.


So I've generally avoided Fox News and stuck with other outlets because the opposition press, whatever its biases, is always more interesting than the state's pet.

But Fox News is suddenly watchable. It's actually interesting. Why? Because with a political campaign underway, Fox finds itself in opposition again -- if only to one of the leading presidential candidates. And the candidate Fox opposes is favored to win.

Oh sure, Fox talking heads fawn over McCain and Palin, but that will pass unless extraterrestrials invade and install the senator from Arizona as president-for-life (or undeath, if his appearance before the cameras is any indicator). And then Fox News will be back to where it was the last time it was interesting -- when Bill Clinton was in the White House.

And MSNBC and company will almost certainly take their turns as unwatchable media outlets because their slavish treatment of candidate Barack Obama is likely a taste of their roles-to-come as house organs of the Obama presidency.

In the months ahead, it'll be interesting to watch the slick apparatchiks of Fox (I don't even know their names anymore) rediscover their inner insurgents -- and to see Keith Olbermann discover just how un-fun it is to be a sock puppet.

Fox News watchable. Who'd've thunk?

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Chasing eyeballs on the Internet treadmill

I like the freedom and immediacy of blogging and writing for online publications. I don't have to spend two hours trimming a piece to fit an arbitrary word-count, I can link to sources instead of telling my readers to "trust me," and my pieces appear while readers are still interested, before the topic I'm addressing grows moldy and cold.

Well, theoretically, anyway. What I don't like about writing online is that I actually know how many people are reading my scribblings. Every day, I can see how many page views my pieces have drawn, which pieces are drawing eyeballs and which are sitting amidst rolling tumbleweeds in the great wasteland of nobody-gives-a-damn. For the Examiner, the reports get emailed to me every morning, so there's no escape.

Of course, plenty of my print pieces have gone unread too, but I know that without knowing that. Magazines and newspapers do market surveys from time to time and occasionally tell their writers to punch it up, tone it down or get lost, but that happens every few months at most; ink-stained wretches aren't confronted by their readership -- or lack of the same -- by daily 3 am emails.

Of course, the reports could be helpful if I could find a pattern in them -- common topics that draw readership and others that go un-perused. But I'll be damned if I can make heads-or-tails of the traffic patterns. One week, a couple of embedded videos draw massive traffic while think pieces gather dust. The next week I toss in a couple more videos that go unviewed, and the lengthy analysis I wrote as a labor of love hits with one of the social networks and damn-near overwhelms the server.

Do I get it?

Get what?

Actually, what I get is that I can't second-guess what's going to find an audience. I'll be damned if I know what makes for a popular piece. I'll keep writing what interests me, because that's what keeps me writing. I hope you enjoy reading.

But if you don't ... well .. stick around. I'll probably post a cool video or two in a couple of days.


Freedom just makes Jacob Weisberg sad

Slate editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg thunders that recent headlines are evidence of "global economic meltdown made possible by libertarian ideas." According to Weisberg, author of a pro-Leviathan snoozer called In Defense of Government, "any competent forensic work has to put the libertarian theory of self-regulating financial markets at the scene of the crime." It's a fascinating thesis, hobbled just a bit by the fact that it's completely unmoored from reality.

There's a lot of finger-pointing going on now in an attempt to put the the blame for the financial mess on the Bush administration's policy of business deregulation. As with Weisberg's petulant essay, the finger-pointing tends to be strident, if only to drown out the puzzled protests from economists asking, "What deregulation?"

What deregulation, indeed.

As Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University pointed out in the pages of the New York Times:

THERE is a misconception that President Bush’s years in office have been characterized by a hands-off approach to regulation. In large part, this myth stems from the rhetoric of the president and his appointees, who have emphasized the costly burdens that regulation places on business.

But the reality has been very different: continuing heavy regulation, with a growing loss of accountability and effectiveness. That’s dysfunctional governance, not laissez-faire.

In fact, the Bush administration did take some regulatory action -- it increased the burden of business regulation, particularly in the form of Sarbanes-Oxley, which was an ill-considered reaction to the Enron disaster. Intended to toughen financial reporting requirements, Sarbanes-Oxley so enmeshed many companies in red tape that they took their business -- and their money -- overseas. The International Herald Tribune reported last year:

Two studies have concluded that excessive regulation was making the United States an unattractive place to sell new stocks. One study was conducted by McKinsey for the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, also of New York. The other was done by a group of executives and academics. In particular, the reports single out the Sarbanes- Oxley Act of 2002, the anti-fraud law passed after the debacle at Enron.

Both studies point to figures that show initial public offerings are migrating to Hong Kong and London, where underwriters charge half of what they do in the United States. If IPOs flee, the thinking goes, trading, investment and jobs will follow.

When money leaves the country, financial firms are just a bit less flush, a little less stable -- and that matters when times get tough.

But those are paper regulations. Did they have any teeth under President Bush? Have there been, over the past eight years, actual offices and warm bodies to make sure that companies adhere to red tape, for good or ill?

As a matter of fact, the answer is a big, fat, "yes." A study performed by Melinda Warren of Washington University in St. Louis's Weidenbaum Center and Susan Dudley of George Mason University's Mercatus Center, found a 42% real increase in federal regulatory spending just between 2001 and 2005. By this year, according to a follow-up study from the same organizations, that had turned into a 65% increase in regulatory spending.

Deregulation? Really?

So if regulations and regulatory enforcement increased, and that resulted in some capital fleeing the country, who was to blame?

Well, the answer is, no doubt, one we'll be pursuing for years to come. But the culprit may be ... well ... standing in the shadows behind folks like Weisberg. Professor Tyler Cowen, quoted above, fingered ineffective regulation along with a loss of accountability under President Bush, which could only have made the administration's heavy-handed regulation worse. But he continues in his Times piece:

It would be unfair, however, to blame the Republicans alone for these regulatory failures. The Democrats have a long history of uncritically favoring expansion of homeownership, which contributed to the excesses at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the humbled mortgage giants. ...

As late as this spring, Congressional Democrats were pushing for weaker capital requirements for the mortgage agencies. The regulatory reality was that few politicians were willing to exchange short-term economic gains — namely, higher rates of homeownership — for protection against longer-term financial risks.

Jacob Weisberg is no dummy. He knows that there has been no deregulation over the last eight years. He knows that there has been, in fact, increased regulation and enthusiastic enforcement of the same. And, at the same time, politicians substituted political preferences for sound business practice through the medium of government sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These are policies Weisberg favors. But the financial crash came anyway. So rather than reconsider the expanded state interference in economic life that he has long favored, he tries to place the blame on advocates of smaller government, who haven't been near the reins of power in recent memory.

Frankly, this is like a tribal witch doctor blaming western medicine for the epidemic that wipes out his village after his fathful flock exclusively relied on rattles and chicken bones to maintain good health.

This matters, because government intrusion into human life in all areas, whether business, sex, gambling, marriage, guns, abortion or the funny substances you favor to take the edge off a long workday, all tend to produce nasty unintended consequences. People like Weisberg then try to deflect the blame for those nasty side effects from the policies they favor to people who have long warned against such state interference in people's lives. If Weisberg and company are successful in their attempts to place blame for the witch doctors' errors on the physicians, we get another round of intrusions with new unintended consequences and ...

And so it continues.

So, when you hear apologists for greater state involvement in your life like Jacob Weisberg screaming that the problem is that you have too much freedom, take a peek around to see just which poorly thought out big-government programs might actually be at the center of the mess.

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Friday, August 1, 2008

Confound journalists; deviate from the script

Reason's Kerry Howley offers an interesting insight onto the workings of the press by way of a panel discussion on donating ova for cash.

The panel discussion is just the set-up (although it deals with an interesting subject). The payoff is that, because Howley steadfastly refuses to regret or be traumatized by her experience, journalists find her useless.
I spent my allotted time explaining that my emotional response does not seem to conform to the acceptable cultural script. Reporters call and ask “How painful was it?” and “Do you regret it now?” It wasn’t painful, I reply, I’m quite happy to have had the experience. Awkward silence. They ask whether I know someone else they can talk to. I’m never quoted.

The reason, of course, is that many journalists have already written their stories about contentious subjects before they save the first word to a file; they're only looking for pithy quotes to fill in the blanks. Quotes that don't fit in those blanks, and tidbits that contradict the theses of the pre-written stories, are discarded.

When journalists do react to Howley -- or, more to the point, when Huffington Post writer, Melissa Lafsky, reacts to the participants in the above-mentioned panel, it's with a howl of rage that they deviated from the approved script.

But when it came to the messy internal aspects -- whether or not it felt exploitative to sell a piece of their genetic material, whether or not it was humiliating, frightening, or painful to manipulate their bodies with constant drugs and surgeries, whether or not it bothered them to produce genetic offspring that they'd never know or raise -- there was nary a word. ...

[I]t sure would have been comforting if at least one of these brilliant, self-possessed women had admitted, "Yeah, I've been conflicted. I've had strong feelings, and sometimes I wonder if I did the right thing. But I chose it, and that was my choice, so if I burst into tears at the memory of the pain, or the thought that my child could be walking around the world never knowing me, well, I deal with it. And I find a way to laugh."

Howley does a better take-down of Lafsky's presumption than I ever could, and that's not the point of my post. Let me just add that I think a key part of the maturation process is coming to understand that other people are independent creatures who experience life in ways that we don't, and who have different feelings, values and reactions. Some people just never make it to that point of development.

Lafsky's reaction is one of the more self-unaware examples of predetermined outcomes that I've seen one the part of a journalist. Note that one of the tags on her post about women's reactions to egg donation is "Rape." Having already determined that this particular medical procedure is a physical and spiritual violation, she sets out like a legislative whip to browbeat strays into line. The "right" position is the party position, so let's not hear any dissent.

Bus if bias plays a part in the process of tailoring data to fit pre-written stories, so, I suspect, does laziness. It's much easier to rewrite the same received wisdom over and over again than to approach a subject from a new direction. That's especially true if you're just plodding through your day at a media job and don't especially relish the thought of the Melissa Lafskys of the world descending on you like a visitation from the Inquisition for some heretical thought.

Unless you're especially motivated, it's easier, by far, to erase nonconforming interview notes and go looking for subjects who better fit the script.