The 2008 Presidential Campaign in Brief

13 Nov

November 10, 2007: One of the first scandals to break out during the campaign was about planted questions in Hillary’s town hall meetings. “They asked me if I would ask the senator a question. I said, ‘Sure, you know,'” Gallo-Chasanoff told CNN. “He showed me in his binder, he had a piece of paper that had typed out questions on it. And the top one was planned specifically for a college student. It said ‘college student.'” ‘A video on MSNBC shows Gallo-Chasanoff reading the question word for word, and then winking when she was done.’ ABC News

November 10, 2007: “I love my wife and my five sons and their five wives. Wait a second. Let me clarify that. They each have one.” Mitt Romney (Economist gave this quip the title – Best Freudian slip; ABCNews.com)

December 12, 2007: In kindergarten, Senator Obama wrote an essay titled ‘I Want to Become President.’ “Iis Darmawan, 63, Senator Obama’s kindergarten teacher, remembers him as an exceptionally tall and curly haired child who quickly picked up the local language and had sharp math skills. He wrote an essay titled, ‘I Want To Become President,’ the teacher said.”
From: Clinton campaign’s press release.

December 13, 2007: “It’ll be, ‘When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?'” Shaheen on Obama
Bill Shaheen (husband of NH Senator-elect Jeanne Shaheen; national co-chairman of Clinton’s campaign at that point)

February 24, 2008: Bill Clinton speaking about Hillary’s inability to win caucus states – “the caucuses aren’t good for her. They disproportionately favor upper-income voters who, who, don’t really need a president but feel like they need a change.” Audacity of Hopelessness by Frank Rich

March 8, 2008: “She is a monster, too – that is off the record – she is stooping to anything,” Samantha Power; Obama’s foreign policy adviser.

March 10, 2008: Hillary Clinton chief spokesman Howard Wolfson declared Monday that Clinton does not consider Obama qualified to be vice president.

March 11, 2008: “I will not be discriminated against because I’m white.” Geraldine Ferraro

“If we can’t trust Mitt Romney on Ronald Reagan, how can we trust him to lead America?”
From John McCain’s attack ad on Romney

“The Clintons will be there when they need you,” said a Carter friend. (Maureen Dowd, NY Times)

May 3, 2008: When asked, at the Republican presidential primary debate at Simi Valley, whether any of the candidates did not believe in evolution, three candidates – Tancredo, Brownback, and Huckabee – raised their hands.

May 9, 2008: “Senator Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again.” (Hillary Clinton, Interview with USA Today)

Google News - Clinton Accuses Obama
Google News Archives timeline graph of citations of 'Clinton Accuses Obama' between August 2007 and August 2008

August 21, 2008: “I think – I’ll have my staff get to you. It’s condominiums where – I’ll have them get to you.” (John McCain unsure about the number of houses he owns.)

A special tribute to Palin:

September 24, 2008: “As Putin rears his head and comes into the airspace of the United States of America, where– where do they go? It’s Alaska. It’s just right over the border. (Interview with Katie Couric, CBS News)

In defense of Palin, she never said that she could see Russia from her house. (Time)

September 25, 2008: Couric: And when it comes to establishing your worldview, I was curious, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand the world?
Palin: I’ve read most of them, again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media.
Couric: What, specifically?
Palin: Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me all these years.
Couric: Can you name a few?
Palin: I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news, too.
CBS News

October 1, 2008: “Well, let’s see. There’s — of course — in the great history of America rulings there have been rulings.” Sarah Palin (When asked by Couric to name a Supreme Court decision, other than Roe vs. Wade, that she disagreed with; CBS News)

News Coverage of Sarah Palin

12 Nov
News Coverage of Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden
News Coverage of Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden
Ratio of News stories by day covering Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden
Ratio of News stories by day covering Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden
Coverage of Sarah Palin's interview with Gibson, Couric, and Tina Fey's impersonation on SNL
Coverage of Sarah Palin's interview with Gibson, Couric, and Tina Fey's impersonation on SNL
Ratio of stories citing John McCain that also cited Sarah Palin vis-a-vis Ratio of stories citing Barack Obama that also mentioned Joe Biden
Ratio of stories citing John McCain that also cited Sarah Palin vis-a-vis Ratio of stories citing Barack Obama that also mentioned Joe Biden
Palin's coverage: MSNBC and Fox
Palin's coverage: MSNBC and Fox

Difference in Coverage of Clinton and Obama

12 Mar

The following tables tally up the articles that mention “Barack Obama” or “Hillary Clinton” in their body or title. The results show that both New York Times and Washington Post cover Obama at much lower rates than “US Newspaper and Wires.”

The differences are particularly significant given that most articles follow the “horse race” format, and hence mention both Obama and Clinton.

  WP Clinton* WP Obama* NYT Clinton* NYT Obama* LN Obama* LN Clinton*
Apr-07 85 81 98 113 3479 2324
May-07 110 87 110 93 3309 2373
Jun-07 122 101 112 78 3425 2874
Jul-07 142 104 104 82 3820 3276
Aug-07 119 109 103 76 4070 3201
Sep-07 152 115 160 94 4088 3649
Oct-07 171 108 159 95 4813 4742
Nov-07 174 111 164 108 4391 4445
Dec-07 195 169 194 164 6134 4774
Jan-08 342 354 357 335 15276 10540
Feb-08 315 330 409 436 18857 11658
  LN Ratio WP Ratio NYT Ratio
Apr-07 1.50 0.95 1.15
May-07 1.39 0.79 0.85
Jun-07 1.19 0.83 0.70
Jul-07 1.17 0.73 0.79
Aug-07 1.27 0.92 0.74
Sep-07 1.12 0.76 0.59
Oct-07 1.01 0.63 0.60
Nov-07 0.99 0.64 0.66
Dec-07 1.28 0.87 0.85
Jan-08 1.45 1.04 0.94
Feb-08 1.62 1.05 1.07
Avg. 1.27 0.81 0.78

*Article count from LexisNexis Power Search with search term “Barack Obama” and “Hillary Clinton” respectively. The source field was constrained to “New York Times”, “Washington Post”, and “US Newspaper and Wires” respectively.

The Hubris of Journalists

18 Jan

Nick Bryant, a correspondent covering Australian elections for the BBC, wrote the following in one of his blog posts,

“My name is Nick and I fear I am in danger of becoming an Australian political junkie. I find myself boring friends with the swings needed to win obscure marginals, which, up until six weeks ago, I never knew existed. My mind is cluttered with useless information, like how the South Australian seat of Makin is named after a post-war Australian ambassador to Washington.

Had you asked me 18 months ago, I would have hazarded a guess that Eden-Monaro was a type of Dutch cheese. Now I can quote the land mass of this all-important bellwether seat.”

While Nick Bryant did a reasonable job of reporting on the Australian elections, it is debatable whether journalists can start filing in-depth analytically rich reports on a country days after landing in a country about which they know next to nothing.

Another reporter, Kevin Connolly, from the BBC – this time covering the US elections wrote,

“On your first days in a new assignment as a reporter, you work hard – sometimes a little too hard – to look for clues that will help you to decode life in your new adopted home.

When we changed planes in Chicago midway through my never-ending New Year’s Eve, I found myself lingering in the self-help section of the bookstore, puzzled by the sort of advice for which Americans are prepared to pay. I now own copies of God Wants You To Be Rich and You’re Broke Because You Want to Be. “

There is a danger that journalists new to the country will weigh idiosyncratic details about the country they notice disproportionately in their analysis and reporting.

Good reporting is seen as a tough-minded commitment to pursuing the truth. It is seen as a skill that surpasses bounds of geography and culture. And certainly, there are elements of it that remain constant throughout. However, lack of a deeper understanding of the country, and culture can severely jeopardize not only “ability to contextualize events and issues, but also “objective” elements of reporting. The ability to contextualize is of particular importance for the apathetic ill-informed home country readership.

The foreign reporting standards have dropped precipitously as the length of foreign tours has dropped precipitously over the last many years to now average between one and three years. Reports from foreign journalists nowadays often take the quality of a tourist blog with substandard reports about preconceived notions that need validation. In this age of the Internet, I am in fact unsure of the need for foreign journalists. Liaisons with prominent news organizations within the country should be pursued to produce reports.

While the problem of under-qualified reporters is the most prominent in foreign reporting, it is not limited to it. Greenhorns reporting on politics often times carry the open-eyed celebrity wonderment about the political figures they report on.

And the News is…An ‘Out of Control’ General, Freedom, Democracy, and Strawberry Tarts

4 Nov

On a slow news day, Western journalists took to telling the world about how ‘Pakistan’s Musharraf’—it was nice of them to put the possessive noun as it is not always clear—had declared an emergency. In doing so, they paid as much attention to a third-world dictator enacting the Martial law, as they have in some time. The calamitous event was reported with the usual combination of scant detail, high impact graphics, half-baked, and sometimes skipping the oven altogether, analysis, all topped with alarmist rhetorical flourishes.

The news day actually started a day earlier with reporting about speculation, and government warnings against the speculated action. The US, proudly and staunchly backing Musharraf at least since the day after that calamitous day in 2001, warned the dictator ‘against Martial law’ (San Jose Mercury News). When the threat of declaring martial law grew, the ‘world grew concerned’ (Guardian) simultaneously. And when a ‘desperate Musharraf’ (Trend Information, Azerbaijan!) declared an emergency, it left the US in a ‘tizzy’ (Calcutta Telegraph), as it ‘reel[ed]’ (AFP) under the blow. The US immediately took umbrage and issued a ‘condemnation’. The ‘world’, not to be left behind, ’roundly condemned’ (Deutsche Welle, Germany), ‘slammed’ (Earthtimes, UK), and ‘rapped’ (The Province, Canada) General Sahib. Rice went further, for she wanted ‘Pakistan to evolve as a democracy’, and appealed for a return to the ‘constitutional course’ (Bloomberg) even as the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” in the US constitution was being debated on to see if ‘coercively inducing a drowning sensation’ met that criteria. All this condemnation must have left Musharraf chagrined.

It was a ‘Sad day for Pakistan’ (The Daily Star, Bangladesh) when an ‘out of control’ (Nation Multimedia, Thailand) Musharraf chose to launch a ‘coup within a coup’ and put Pakistan under his ‘iron fist’ (The Standard, Hong Kong). The wordsmiths at Hindustan Times online division, which doubles as a soft porn website, found time to craft the smart-aleck headline “Under General Anesthesia” to describe the events of ‘Black Saturday’ (Malaysia Sun).

On that ‘black’ day, Western journalist’s thoughts didn’t stay long with people in Pakistan, as reporting on martial law gave way to more pertinent matters like ‘threat of nuclear weapons falling into wrong hands’, and ‘War on Terror.’

After all, the concerns of the media are solely determined by what (and how) they can best pander conditional on what is available. The Pavlovian reactions to international crises, the cues media uses to determine when to cry fire and when to cheer, are all rather simplistic—Democracy is good, autocrats are bad. Forget then that sometimes ‘enlightened moderation’ is the best alternative. Ignore too that nothing has changed substantively in Pakistani politics—control still rests with the General for it was only a ‘coup within a coup.’ Banish any thoughts that Benazir ran a regime true to her name, only if in levels of corruption.

I misstate my point for people who know little don’t need to deliberately ignore. They simply write. Till a new story appears and fuels a new news cycle, provides more cause for alarm, and more time to run ads.

It appears that Pakistan has had its day in the sun. The New York Times is not waiting with baited breath. There is a cell phone jammer in the market that can stop the person sitting next to you from yammering while you try to read about Paris Hilton. It is the Number 1 story on the New York Times website. Yeah, she is back.

Vague Apprehensions

18 Jul

“There is a possibility of a terrorist attack.” Or, “There is a heightened possibility of a terrorist attack.”

These statements are often interpreted as, “There is a high (or very high) probability of a terrorist attack.” These are not sensible interpretations. Of course, news media do plenty to encourage such interpretations. Footage of prior attacks, police sirens, SWAT teams, helicopters, all encourage the sense of dread, which likely encourages such interpretations. On the flip side, few news reports spend any length of time on elucidating the probability of winning the ‘Megamillion Jackpot.’

Like the news media, in everyday life, people also tend to speak in terms of possibilities than probabilities. And often enough possibilities are used to denote high probabilities. And often enough incorrectly so. Sometimes because individuals are mistakenly convinced that probabilities are actually higher (most people often do not remember numbers, replacing them with impressionistic accounts consistent with imagery or their own biases) and sometimes because people are interested in heightening the drama.

Speaking in terms of possibilities also allows one the advantage of never being technically wrong, while all the time encouraging incorrect interpretations. It allows people to casually exaggerate the threat of crime, or indeed any threat they feel like exaggerating. And it allows people to underestimate the frequency of things they would rather deny: for instance, dangers of driving faster than the speed limit, or when drunk, or both. The same benefits are afforded to strategic elite actors. It allows policymakers to sound logically coherent without being so. And to sell less rational courses of action.

By possibility, we mean that something that has a chance of occurring. It doesn’t give us information as to how probable the scenario is. A little information or thinking on probabilities that can go a long way. So aim for precision. Vagueness can be a cover for insidious reasoning (including your own). Avoidable vagueness ought to be avoided.

The Democratic Idea of Knowledge

3 Jul

In their misguided battle against ‘global warming’, the phrase, “science is not a democracy” has become a favorite with conservative pundits.

Well, I am co-opting their slogan to initiate discussion about something else—the future of knowledge.

Let us imagine that Google’s model of site ranking trumps all others. The Google model relies on the fact that if an information source is reliable, people will “vote” for it with a link. So more the number of links to the site, higher the ranking.

There are serious issues with this “democratic” model of ranking information. One falsehood linked again and again can give it the same credence as a fact. This theory is just an extension of the corner-shop gossip analogy with one substantive difference – in a linked online world, the effects are not localized but global. The model is troubling especially given that more acerbic, vituperative articles very likely get linked more than the dry, measured pieces. To drive home the point, let me etch out a particularly troublesome outcome – a world where all the knowledge is hijacked by zealots of either persuasion.

The democratic idea of knowledge rests upon the twin facts that information choices are diverse enough on the Internet to allow people to choice of source that has the most accurate information and that people who see the source with “right information” will know it is the “right information” and will be involved enough to “vote” with their links to the site. The paradigm just ignores one key thing -Internet, counterintuitively, doesn’t allow many choices. Ahem…

Hegemony is not only a problem with the mass-communication world but also with the Internet model. We are right now emerging from decades of a communication model dominated by mass-media where only a few outlets controlled the majority of the information. From this relatively oligarchical model, we are moving to a “distributed” model. The key problem with this distributed model is firstly that it is not really distributed. It is, in fact, narrower – a vast majority of the people look for information using just three tools – Google, Yahoo, and MSN. While these search engines spit out millions of results to our queries, studies show that most people never get beyond the first page. In this media market, the information hierarchy is in fact even more entrenched.

The other key issue that is at the heart of the problem of determining the veracity of information on the Internet is the relative anonymity of the Internet. The pedigree of knowledge is an important part in establishing the veracity of a piece of information and the relative anonymity of the Internet has raised concerns about the veracity of the information on it.

So, in all the Internet poses unique challenges for the existence and acceptance of “real” knowledge.

Reporting Politicking: Horse-Race Coverage of Politics

29 Jun

The phrase horse race journalism is often used to describe how the media covers the elections. But it can also be used to describe how it covers issues. And then perhaps ‘horse race’ is a misnomer. A more appropriate label would be ‘football game’ style of coverage, given that it is heavy on analysis of strategy.

Reporting today is focused on analyzing the strategy of teams (parties), which are understood chiefly through its celebrity players (political leaders), engaged in a highly complex game. News coverage on domestic politics today involves extensive coverage of the process of how decisions are made (and not made), the innumerable stories on the power dynamics between the Legislative branch and the Executive, or between the leaders of the parties, while little attention is paid to chart the impact of the policies. Whereas we see extensive coverage and analysis of alleged ‘missteps’, we hear little about the substantive topic of interest – issues at the heart of it.

There is now a virtual army of pundits, each appropriately fitted with meager intellect, large ego, and partisan affiliation, that dissects every political move and its impact on the public perception of a particular leader or of political parties. Be it the reporting about the ‘immigration bill’ or “Iraq’, there is now an abundance of reports that talk about ‘Bush’s loss’ or ‘Rove strategies’ or the ‘lame duck president’. Indeed strategy is an intrinsic part of politics and dictates what is possible and what isn’t, but reporting on strategic aspects shouldn’t come at the expense of reporting on issues.

Causes

Driven partially by celebrity style coverage that puts individuals at the center rather than issues, serious reporters have mistakenly taken on the view that it is important to devote substantial energy on reporting on PR and strategy aspect of how decisions are made and how they will influence some person or organization.

Part of this style of reporting has to do with how news organization chooses to organize and how they prioritize. There is a ‘White House,’ and there are generally a few reporting from the bowels of Congress, but aside from a regular crime beat, there are few reporters assigned to analyzing issues. The analysis is either left to polemicists or hacks.

Certainly, a substantial part of the reason has to do with reporters who haven’t thought through what is worth reporting what isn’t. There is this bizarre idea that news is current, that if the news is a day old, then it is stale and unworthy. What the heck is the utility of this news either way for poorly informed citizens of a democracy? I understand why news about the weather has to be reasonably fresh, and why some business news has to be fresh, but why does anything else have to be delivered within five seconds of it happening? This harks back to the comments I have made about the marginal (more likely no) utility of breaking news. The point though is broader – lack of a theory of news – aside from race to earn the most money – has seriously compromised not only the overall coverage, which is more Paris Hilton than substantive news topics, but also the coverage that is given to ‘serious’ topics.

Interview with Eric Berlin

10 May

This is the third article in a multi-part series devoted to understanding some of the ethical aspects that dog blogging sites. The series will end with an analysis of Blogcritics.org and blogs in general. Prior two articles –

Can you tell me about your current role in BC and how you came to be involved with it?

Well, I am the Executive Producer at Blogcritics. I take the position to mean doing whatever it takes to move the site forward and take it to the next place, wherever that next place happens to be.

I had been writing a sort of e-magazine by the name, Dumpster Bust, in 2003 and 2004 and I would distribute it to friends and fans via an e-mail list. Then in November 2004, I started an eponymous blog. It had just been a month since I had started the blog when I discovered Blogcritics.org.

It was an extraordinary moment — I’ll never forget it. I simply couldn’t get over how great it was to have a community where writers from all over the world could congregate and write about pop culture and politics and everything in between and chat and argue and laugh and hang out.

I got pretty involved, pretty active right away, and became an editor a few months later I think.

It was apparent to me from the very beginning what an enormous value that BC offers to both writers and readers. As a writer, I noticed that my own writing was improving, that I was reaching a much larger audience than I ever could have on my own, that I could access free review materials, and most of all, I was making connections and even friendships with great, interesting, wonderful people from all over the world.

I became an Executive Producer somewhere around the late summer of 2005 and moved into helping provide editorial oversight, though over time my role has evolved to mostly take on business development and public relations.

Tell me a little more about your decision to blog under real name plus what do you do for your “real” job?

I use my name because I want to present who I really am, “expose” my writing and the person behind it.

It’s a little strange being that “naked” before the world sometimes, but that’s a decision all writers much make

My “real” job is producing websites for a company in Los Angeles. I do try to keep the two roles separate to an extent, though you can, of course, infer that there’s tremendous crossover in terms of what I have the privilege of learning and experiencing each day.

Blogcritics is a passion and a job that has to fit into the cracks of my regular life, but that’s something that millions of fellow bloggers out there are also contending with. It’s a balance thing. Relatively few can pull a full-time wage from blogging so it’s an activity born of passion and devotion and even obsession for most!

You do a full-time job and still take time to volunteer.

I think that people — including the 1,700 “writer-bloggers” of Blogcritics, our passionate readers and commenters, our most involved site users, and most of all our hardworking and dedicated and monumentally talented editorial staff members (which includes many of the site’s best writers!) — put in so much effort because they are passionate about the site and our community and want to see it grow and prosper and do well.

That’s certainly what drove me and what still makes me eager to get up in the morning, flip on the computer (it’s usually on all night, actually!) and see what’s happened since my last visit.

By the way, I am now one of the three co-owners of Blogcritics.org so my position is no longer strictly a volunteer position.

In your response, I think you were also alluding to the fact that the success of BC and the volunteerism that we see on it is due to its symbiotic nature.

Yes, BC is symbiotic — I like to use the somewhat cheesy term “people power” — Blogcritics is a grassroots success story (we’ve never had a dime of investment) literally powered by its membership.

So our “sinister cabal of superior writers” help one another to succeed, producing stories and work that is good and beneficial to the Internet community.

BC has an open commenting policy and an open attitude towards accepting new writers. I am sure there must have been plenty of behind the scenes discussions about it. Tell me a little about the process of deciding about policies around BC.

Open commenting has been around since I joined the site in 2004, and it really falls under the umbrella of creating a wide-open community that is open to multiple viewpoints and that has as low a barrier to entry as possible.

Because of the increased menace of spam, we may one day have to require membership for commenters, but for now, we can maintain this arrangement as we always have.

Tell me a little more about the vision you have for BC.

Whew… that’s a big one! Blogcritics is in a very exciting phase right now in that we’re expanding into a suite of sites that we call the BC Network.

Desicritics, our first network site, is now a year old and is thriving as a platform for people who live in and are passionate about the Desi world.

Now we are looking to create specialty “niche” sites that can capture a new audience that isn’t necessarily into the more magazine-style format that BC presents

GlossLip has now launched under the direction of Dawn Olsen and is a fantastic place to check all things celebrity and gossip, subjects in which there is an insatiable audience for new stuff, and particularly when it’s done with style and attitude and savvy, which basically sum up everything that Dawn is about.

We’ve also just within the last few weeks launched BC Forums into private beta and will very very soon go wider with it. Just in testing, we’ve seen the explosive potential of this area — which provides yet another way for our community to communicate, interact, joke around, or just hang out.

So that’s really the vision right there — providing new ways for our audience and potential audience to learn, interact, and communicate, creating cutting-edge content-community networks online

Eric, I was talking to the other Eric – Olsen- recently and he was telling me of he quickly realized that he would have to assume responsibility if the site had to go anywhere. There are always key actors in a grass root organization. In a way, I am questioning how grass root is a grassroots organization? You are creating a media company from bottom up and I am interested in understanding how norms and policies are decided and who are the key players

Yes, Blogcritics is as grassroots as it gets — most people don’t realize this!

The only full-time employee is the founder and publisher Eric Olsen, so he is the “man at the helm” for emergencies, troubleshooting, fire patrol, you name it!

Phillip Winn is our technical director and lives outside of Dallas. I live in Pasadena California and EO lives outside of Cleveland.

And our editors live around the world — several key editors live in the UK which is great because it gives us “wide coverage” in terms of the unending 24-hour production cycle.

So it’s all virtual, all grassroots, all people working together to create something that’s never been done before. That’s the thing that’s important remember: Blogcritics is singular in so many ways.

That’s why it was named as part of the AlwaysOn 100 in the trendsetter’s category, I believe and that’s what makes BC so fascinating.

Now Eric, a harder question! Do you see this as a model for running media organizations? Even mainstream ones? What the advantages to it? And what are the problems? Is this a model for a more accountable media?

Well — I see your questions as taking on a few different issues. Let me start with the first one.

I do see virtual organizations and small teams of founders working closely together as the present and future of software development. The barrier to entry is so much lower than it has ever been, which is a huge boon to the Internet industry and people who simply dig the Internet and technology.

I’m not sure if it’s the model for “mainstream ones” — I think it depends on the particular circumstances but certainly it’s there as an option.

At the same time, there’s really no replacing in-person day-to-day contact. As to your other question about a more accountable media, I think you’re talking about the role of the blogosphere in making the mainstream media and other institutions more accountable?

I believe so but I am also interested in talking about ownership and editorial policy decisions that are decided differently than they are today. BC is creating a new type of socially owned media company and do you think media itself can be reorganized via this principle and what kind of issues do you see around it.

Well, I think media, in general, is in a state of great flux with the role of traditional media companies declining in some ways and changing rapidly to deal with changing times while new and online media companies are gaining audience and credibility and dealing with the many issues that come along with that accountability and responsibility.

Take for example Mike Arrington at TechCrunch — he’s an interesting case in that he outright declares that he’s not a journalist while reviewing start-ups and tech companies, issuing opinions, and so on, all while openly investing in many of these companies, reviewing competitors, etc.

We’ve really arrived at a new place!

It seems blogosphere itself is going under reorganization as media companies poach top bloggers and buy more electronic media assets. Do you see a more corporatized blogosphere in a few years time?

I see a blogosphere that is maturing and dealing with issues that come with it, pretty similar to what I mention in terms of the greater online media community. I see the blogosphere and traditional media companies, which are online, incorporating elements of one another.

Yeah,.. WP, NYT, BBC – all have blogs…

Yes, I’ve recently covered how companies like Reuters and The Economist are incorporating blogs into their online offerings.

My overarching theory on all of this boils down to a term I call “hybrid social media,” which I think is the future of news online.

I have covered some of the issues you raise in the article, Netscape Is the Future of News.

Very briefly, hybrid social news posits a future in which news will incorporate three main forms of content: original content produced by the online media company publishing the site, social news content driven by user submissions and user voting, and administrator or editor-selected content, which includes editor-selected pieces from all over the Internet, including those submitted by the general audience.

Blogcritics.org has always tried to combat that trend by forming an open platform where competing ideas and ideologies and values can co-exist together under a big tent of sorts. That said, a lot of our stories revolve around popular culture so can, therefore, escape some of the combativeness found in the arena of politics.

Though of course, we do have a politics area that can get rowdy at times but generally does very nicely in bringing in a vast array of news stories, thoughts, and opinions.

Interview with Christopher Rose

8 May

The following interview with Christopher Rose was conducted via email a few months ago. The interview is part of a series that will end up in an article that provides history and analysis of Blogcritics.org

How did you come to be involved with Blogcritics.org?

I just surfed in one day and was drawn in by the way the site is so open and accepting to all kinds of people. I made a few comments and then, nervously as I was a fairly novice blogger, applied to join. Afer a few months, I was offered the role of Comments Editor, which I mostly love.

Can you tell us a little bit more about your role in BC and how it has grown?

Well, after becoming Comments Editor, I also started contributing ideas, some well received, about how we could develop the key qualities of the site into other areas. Hopefully, some of this will start to become more apparent over the course of this year as we look to develop some more sites.

You are part of three major projects aside from BC. Tell us a little more about those projects and how you juggle your responsibilities.

Well, I don’t know how major they are but I love the potential the web offers to develop new ideas quickly and economically. In addition to my own three blogs, I love the idea of citizen journalism and have developed a repeatable model of how such sites can be launched and made interesting, relevant and profitable very quickly and this is something I’d like to develop more fully. I am also developing an entirely original idea which has the (modest) twins aims of making people’s dreams come true and ploughing a lot of money into micro-credit financing projects to help the world’s poorest people to help themselves. I think the micro-finance model is very strong due to its inherent sustainability and that it doesn’t create welfare dependency but actually empowers people to help themselves. The project just needs a little work on the payment system and a little legal clarification to be fully actualized but I need to find solutions to those two issues so if anybody reading this would like to help, I’d be very grateful!. I also work as the Managing Editor for the Niner Niner family of blogs, which perfectly complements the work I do for Blogcritics. I am also developing four hopefully major new online projects, two for Blogcritics and two of my own. Taking on a bit more than I can handle is possibly one of my signature habits but I like to be busy – and life is for living, right!

Ethics, Normative Standards, Policy Making and Blogcritics

At the heart of your decision to blog under your real name is an ethical question that surrounds online media outlets – the issue of accountability. Of course, there are real people behind these ‘false’ online identities and they often are accountable but somehow the cost-free nature of leaving even the most borderline crazy comment or article under an assumed identity does probably sabotage perhaps reasoned commentary? What are your thoughts on the issue?

I think it’s mostly a question of personal preference. I have several online identities, of which the most well known is Alienboy. It’s a name I started using for online gaming which was reinforced by the fact that I live in Spain, so I am indeed literally an alien boy! I have a semi-dormant-due-to-lack-of-time blog called Alienboy’s World and when I first joined Blogcritics I carried on using that ID for a while. I then decided that the character of Alienboy just didn’t seem right for Blogcritics and reverted to using my full name. Alienboy still has a lot of plans for new sites that will be developed down the road aways but these are temporarily on hold. I don’t see the identity issue as an ethical question unless people abuse it by pretending to be other people, which is obviously totally unacceptable. As to sabotaging reasoned commentary, that’s actually a more complicated issue. Freedom of speech is obviously a major concern and ought to be protected but if people abuse that by making deliberately insulting or offensive remarks then I think there is a case for careful and restrained editing. It’s an incredibly fine line that calls for some serious and careful judgment before hitting the delete key and an issue that I try to keep in the core of my thinking at all times. In the end, I just do the best I can and hope that will be acceptable but it is impossible to please all the conflicting points of view all the time.

Can you elaborate on how are norms created within a new media organization? The kind of decisions that you had to take, along with rest of the BC community, about the nature, editorial policy and style, commenting policy etc. of BC.

Well, when an organization forms, obviously the decisions are taken by the people who start it up. The three people that own and maintain Blogcritics are mostly incredibly open to input and tolerant of a very broad range of views and I think that is an important part of what BC is about. It would have been a much less interesting proposition if “The Troika” had tried to imprint their own very diverse views onto the site and wisely they have largely avoided that. On the other hand, they’re all so very busy with stuff that it can be a bit hard to find out what they’re up to. I hope to be able to help bridge that gap and enhance the level of communication between us all over the coming months.

Blogcritics is trying to create the norms of running a media organization on the fly. The key policy decisions – open commenting, open attitude towards accepting new writers, etc. – tell me about the behind the scenes struggle that has gone on around them and the kind of ethical questions that you have had to deal with to come to this place.

Well, those policies were in place before I joined so I can’t shed much light on those early days but I feel they were absolutely crucial decisions. Dogma and other rigid belief systems are absolutely the enemy of all humankind and I very much doubt that I would have become involved with the site if it limited itself in that kind of way.

In your role as a Comments Editor – you probably have to had to deal with ad hominem attacks, spam and other conflagrations with people using all sort of sophisticated ways to get their message across. Tell me a little more about the challenges and how you deal with them while maintaining a free open commenting policy.

There is a perpetual and natural conflict between freedom of speech and the need to maintain the site’s neutrality, open door policy, and simple readability. It’s obviously important to foster an atmosphere of mutual respect and try to maintain some basic level of good manners or simple common civility. On the other hand, to simply not allow any kind of personal remark would render the site sterile and stifling. Wisely, the site uses guidelines rather than rigid rules, which is much more time consuming to manage but I believe that is well worth the extra time and effort involved.

How do you deal with people who post multiple comments under different names? Should this practice be frowned upon and why?

It’s not actually that common. There are a few who like to do that for dramatic effect, which is fine. When it is done to create a false sense of support for somebody’s point of view, that is basically just lying and is not tolerated. The worst is when people pretend to be other already known characters in order to create false content and is also not tolerated.

What kind of policy decisions do you think are integral to how you see BC? As in what kind of policies can you not see BC without, if any?

I just think that as long as BC maintains its open door policy and avoids becoming controlled by dogma, it will remain the fascinating multi-faceted jewel it is.

From the policy decisions of BC to how do you look at the role of a Critic? Is there merit in everybody being a critic kind of model? It certainly seems like a competitive market of ideas. What do you see are the positives and negatives of blogosphere?

There is information and there is the interpretation of information. Making sense of the ever-increasing complexity of the world we live in is a vital part of contemporary life. There are many often conflicting takes on all that on Blogcritics and that dialectic struggle is part of what makes it so special.

Blogosphere is widely credited with making mainstream media more accountable. Do you see that as its job? If not, then what do you see are the roles of the blogosphere?

It’s both more complicated and simpler than that. There’s been a huge flattening of society worldwide, although obviously different parts of the world are at different points in that process, which has been going on for at least fifty years now. A lot of the old school mainstream media have imitated the blogosphere by adding comments space to their websites for example. That’s a step in the right direction but until they value it as highly as sites like Blogcritics do, it often seems like a token measure rather than really getting the point. However, to answer your original question, it’s certainly not the blogosphere’s job to make the MSM do anything. They will either come to understand the nature of the new world order we live in and adapt to it or they will fade away into history.

Blogcritics has grown exponentially over the past three years from a small fringe Internet outpost to a relatively decent size media outlet. Tell me about some of the key inflection points in this journey – as you see them.

The two key points for me have been 1. the incredibly smart decision by the founders to accept all (legal) points of view on the site and not limit the Blogcritics space on any cultural or ideological grounds and 2. the later introduction of having all articles edited rather than self-published. This has been crucial in establishing a massively popular, well-written non-dogmatic site. The fact that the whole operation, editors and writers alike, is entirely voluntary is pretty impressive too. We really do work hard to help the writers improve their writing ability and bring their work to as wide an audience as possible.

Perhaps this current place is not the final resting place of this ongoing change. Tell me about your vision of Blogcritics.org for the future?

I think the main site can carry on as it is. I would like to see all the fantastic content by a diverse range of great writers put to better use. I think the simple fact that we have around 1,700 (and rapidly growing) writers offers a lot of potential for the rapid creation of other more focused sites in the future. I have a few ideas for the kinds of sites we could develop; sites that would offer compelling content around specific themes and those conversations are ongoing. I don’t really know what other ideas the troika may be considering…

It seems blogosphere itself is going under reorganization – as media companies poach top bloggers and buy more electronic media assets. Do you see a more corporatized blogosphere in a few years time?

Probably both yes and no! Unless a company understands the interactive essence of the online world, its attempts to operate on the web will be compromised. For example, trying to prevent employees from expressing their views is symptomatic of the old way of doing things. It’s been well documented that companies that empower their workers and include their feedback in the company’s development have a competitive edge over those businesses that try to run an old-school centralized command and control structure which sees workers as nothing more than cogs in a machine. I believe in transparency and that carries through all levels of a business in a particularly powerful way that transforms everything it touches, to the mutual benefit of all. A corporatized blogosphere that seeks to control what is said will always be inferior to one that allows true free expression.

Marginal value of ‘Breaking News’

12 Mar

Media organizations spend millions of dollars each year trying to arrange for the logistics of providing ‘breaking news’. They send overzealous reporters, and camera crew to far off counties (and countries -though not as often in US), pay for live satellite uplink, and pay for numerous other little logistical details to make ‘live news’. They do so primarily to compete and to out do each other but when queried may regale you with mythical benefits of providing the death of a soldier in Iraq a few minutes early to a chronically bored, apathetic US citizen. The fact is that there is little or no value whatsoever for a citizen of breaking news for a large range of events. Breaking news is provided primarily as a way to introduce drama into the news cast and done so in a style to exaggerate the importance of the miniscule and the irrelevant.

The more insidious element of breaking news is that repeated news stories about marginal events, which most breaking news events are – for example a small bomb blast in Iraq, a murder in some small town in Michigan, provide little or no information to a citizen consumer about the relative gravity of the event or its relative importance. In doing so they make a citizen consumer think either that all news (and issues) is peripheral or that these minor events are of critical importance. Either way, they do a disservice to the society at large.

This doesn’t quite end the laundry list of deleterious effects of breaking news. Focus on breaking news makes sure that most attention is given to an issue when the journalists on the ground typically know the least about the issue. To take this a step further – often times the ‘sources’ for reporting during the initial few minutes of an event are often times ‘official sources’. In doing so the breaking news format legitimizes the official version of the news which then gets corrected a week or a month later in the back pages of a newspaper.

While there is little hope that the contagion of ‘breaking news’ will ever stop (and it stands to believe that web, radio and television will continue to be afflicted by the malaise), it is possible for people to opt for longer better reported articles in good magazines or learn about an issue or an event through Wikipedia, as Chaste in his column for this site suggested earlier.

Interview with Bill Thompson: Fragmented Information

10 Mar

This is the fourth and concluding part of the interview with BBC technology columnist, Mr. Bill Thompson.

part 1, part 2, part 3

This kind of completes two of the major questions that I had. I would now move on to digital literacy and fragmented informational landscape. Google has made facts accessible to people – too accessible, some might say. What Google has done is allowed the people to pick up little facts, disembodied and without the contextual information. It may lead to a consumer who has a very particularistic trajectory of information and opinions. Do you see that as a possibility or does the fundamental interlinked nature of the Internet somehow manages to make information accessible in a more complete way? In a related point do you see that while we are becoming information-rich, we are also simultaneously becoming knowledge poor?

That is such a big question. In fact, I share your concerns. I think there is a real danger – that it’s not even just that there is sort of a surfeit of facts and a lack of knowledge, its that the range of facts which we have available to us becomes defined by what is accessible through Google. And as we know that even Google, or any other search engine, only indexes a small portion of the sum of human knowledge, of the sum of what is available. And we see that this effect also becomes self-reinforcing so that somebody is researching something and they search on Google, find some information, they then reproduce that information and link to its source and it becomes therefore even more dominant, it becomes more likely to be the thing people will find next time they search and as a result alternative points of view, more obscure references, the more complex stuff which is harder to simplify and express drops down the Google ranking and essentially then becomes invisible.

There is much to be said for hard research that takes time, that is careful, that uncovers this sort of deeper information and makes it available to other people. We see in the world of non-fiction publishing, particularly I think with history every year or two we see a radical revisionist biography of some major historical figure based on a close reading of the archives or access to information which was previously unavailable. So all the biographies of Einstein are having to be rewritten at the moment because his letters from the 1950s have just become available and they give us a very different view of the man and particularly of his politics. Now if our view of Einstein was one defined by what Google finds out about Einstein we would know remarkably little. So we need scholars, we need the people who are always going to delve a little more deeply and there is danger in the Google world – it becomes harder to do that and fewer people will even have access to the products of their [careful researcher’s] work because what they write will not itself make it high up the ranking, will not have a sufficient ‘page rank’.

So I actually do think Google and the model of information access which it presents us is one that should be challenged and it should only ever be one part of the system. It is a bit like Wikipedia. I teach a journalism class and I say to my students that Wikipedia may be a good place to start your research but it must never be the place to finish it. Similarly, with Google, anybody who only uses the Google search engine knows too little about the world.

You bring up an important point. Search engine design, and other web usage patterns are increasingly channeling users to a small set of sites with a particular set of knowledge and viewpoints. But hasn’t that always been the case? An epidemiological study of how knowledge has traditionally spread in the world would probably show that at any one time only a small amount of knowledge is available to most people while most other knowledge withers into oblivion. So has Google really fundamentally changed the dynamics?

You are trying to do that to me again and I won’t let you.

This is not a fundamental shift in what it means to be human. None of this is a fundamental shift in what it means to be a human. Things may be faster, we may more access or whatever but we have always had these problems and we have always found solutions to them. And I am not a sort of a millenialist about this; I don’t think this is the end of civilization. I think we face short-term issues and we historically have found a way around them and we will again. That Google’s current dominance is a blip. In a sense – it will go, I don’t know how. Ok, here’s a good way in which Google’s dominance could go. So, at the moment we have worries in the world about H5N1 avian flu mutating into a form which infects humans. Let’s just suppose that this happens and that somebody somewhere writes an obscure academic paper which describes how basically to cure it and how to prevent infection in your household. Well all the people who rely on Google won’t find this paper will die and all the people who go to their library and look up the paper version will live and therefore the Google world will be over. How about that? There is something, perhaps not quite on that scale, something will happen which will force us to question our dependence on Google and that would be a good thing. We shouldn’t ever depend on anyone like that.

You know Mr. Thompson, even libraries have sort of shifted. They are increasingly interested in providing Internet access.

Yeah, it is and it is search rather than structure. And you know the fact is that search tools make it easy to be lazy and we are a lazy species and therefore we will lazy and we will carry on being lazy until we are forced until something bad happens because of our laziness at which point we will mend our ways.

That’s why I had brought up the question of fragmented knowledge earlier. One of my close friends is blind and he generally has to read through the book to reach the information that he wants. He tends to have a much fuller idea of context and the kind of corroboration that he presents is much different from the casual kind of scattered anecdotal argumentation that others present. Of course part of that is a function of he being a conscientious arguer but certainly part of it stems from he not having as many shortcuts to knowledge and actually having a fuller contextual understanding of the topic at hand. The fact is that most users can now parachute in and out of information and Google has helped make it easier.

I don’t think we see what’s really going on. There is a lot more information and there is a lot more to cope with and this superficial skimming is a very effective strategy. Skim reading is something we know how to do, we teach our children how to do, we value in ourselves and indeed in them, and skim surfing is just as valuable. You know I monitor thirty-forty blogs, news sites and stuff like that and when I am doing it, I don’t look too closely at things. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have the ability or the facility to do something which is a lot deeper and a lot more involved.

I have a fifteen-year daughter. She is doing her GCSE exams this year. And I have watched over the last 18 months or so how she has developed her ability to focus, her research skills, her reading around, she is surrounded by a pile of books, she has stopped using the computer as the way to find things quickly because she now needs to know stuff in depth and she is doing all of that. So I suspect that from the outside observing children we seem them in a certain way because we only see part of what they do and we have to look in more detail. It is too easy to have the wrong idea and actually I am a lot more hopeful about this, having seen this with my daughter and I think I will start to see it with my son, who is fourteen at the moment. And again I see his application to the things he cares about and the way he searches. He is a big fan of The Oblivion, the X-Box game, his engagement and the depth of his understanding is immense. So we shouldn’t let the fact that we look at some domain of activity where they are purely superficial let us lose sight of the fact of other areas where it is not superficial at all, where they have developed exactly those skills which would want them to have.

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Bill Thompson’s blog

Interview with Bill Thompson: Copyright Law

8 Mar

This is part III of a four-part interview with Mr. Bill Thompson, noted technology columnist with the BBC.

part 1, part 2

“Copyright is not a Lockean natural right but is a limited right granted to authors in order to further the public interest. This principle is explicitly expressed in the U.S. Constitution, which grants the power to create a system of copyright to Congress in order to further the public interest in “promoting progress in science and the useful arts.” (Miller and Feigenbaum, Yale) UK’s copyright law dates back to Statute of Anne from 1709, which states – “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned.” Both seem to see copyright as something tailored towards the public good. The modern understanding of it has sort of disintegrated into a sort of “right to make as much money as one can”. Am I correct in saying that? Please elaborate your views on the subject.

Copyright started out as an attempt to restrict the ability of publishers of books to control absolutely what they did under contract law and to establish limitations on the period in which a work of fiction or indeed any written work could be exploited by one group of people, and to ensure that after a certain amount of time it was available as part of the public domain to serve the public good. So copyright has always been about taking away any absolute right so that the creator of a work of art, fiction, literature or non-fiction has so that everyone can benefit; take away the absolute right and give away in return monopoly over certain forms of exploitation during which period they are expected to make enough money or gain enough benefit to encourage them to carry on creating.

So the idea is that it is a balance – give the creator enough so that they can create more and encourage them to do that because it is good but make sure that the products of their creative output fall into the public domain so they can be used by everyone for the wider good on the grounds that you can never know in advance who will make the best use of someone else’s creative output and therefore it should be available. So, the fact that the early years of the last century a cartoonist in the United States called Walt Disney drew a mouse based on other people’s ideas is great and Disney and his family have had a lot of time to exploit the value in the mouse but there are other people now who could do a better job with it and they should be allowed to get their hands on the mouse and do cool stuff with it. That’s the idea and that is the principle that is being broken by large corporations who see the economic advantage to themselves in extending the term of copyright, in limiting the freedoms that other people have because they don’t care about the public good, they care about their own good. And legislatures, particularly in the United States but also elsewhere, have been bought off, corruptly or not, and have not been true to the original principles, which is that in the end it should all go into the public domain so that anybody who wants can make use of it and exploit it in creative ways that we cannot yet imagine. In a sense it’s an expression of humility – it’s saying that we cannot know for sure who will be able to do the best with its work and therefore it is the interest of everybody that it should be available to everybody. That was the breakthrough – the insight – of copyright law 300 years ago. We are coming up on the 300th anniversary of the Statute of Anne, the first codified copyright law and I think we should big party for it.

The point is that – the point is most eloquently made not by Larry Lessig, who is good, but by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation and his point is just that copyright is broken and it needs to be rebalanced and we need new and different approach to copyright and in a sense it is the one area of law where we actually do need to start again. I am always an advocate of trying to make old laws work with new technologies. I think that we should be very cautious about making new laws because looking back historically it does like that today’s politicians are more stupid and more corrupt than those of older days and therefore are less likely to make good laws – that just seems to be the case. Correct me if I am wrong. And therefore we should avoid giving them the ability to screw things up. But with copyright, we are forced to. So we have to engage with the political system, we have to make sure that the people who have political power understand the issues and we have to force them to do the right thing. In other areas for example libel laws and all sorts of other aspects of what we do online, in fact, the existing legal framework has proven remarkably robust. There have been problems over jurisdiction and problems over enforcement but the laws themselves have applied pretty well in the networked world and we haven’t needed that many new laws and that is a good thing. Copyright is the one area where we clearly do.

Copyright, if minimally construed, is the right to produce copies. This particular understanding is fabulously unsuited for the Internet era where technology companies like Google have a business model based on making daily copies of content and making it searchable. Book publishers, along with some other content producers, have cried foul. It seems to me that they don’t understand the Internet model, which in a way has changed the whole dynamic of ‘copying’.

I don’t think it has changed the whole dynamic as much as it as exposed another reading of the word copy and made it the dominant reading and so undermined part of the ball. Parliamentary draughtsmen, the people who wrote those laws, were perfectly right in using the word like they did; it is just that we have promoted one particular facet of copy. The fact that we use the word copy to refer to the version that is made in sort of viewing a webpage on a browser – the version that is held in the display memory and all those sorts of things – we could have avoided a lot of this fuss by redefining what the word copy means thirty years ago or fifty years ago or just not using the word copy. It wouldn’t have actually helped the larger issue because the real problem with copyright is not that too many incidental acts on our computer systems, on our network are in principle in breach of copyright, it’s the fact that the existence of the network makes it possible to breach copyright deliberately, almost maliciously.

As we talk I am waiting for the Episode 13 of Series 3 of Battlestar Galactica to download onto my PC via BitTorrent from the United States so I could watch it. Ok! Now that is a complete infringement of copyright.
[I reply jokingly – so I am going to the MPAA.] Feel free, I would welcome their letter. I would delete it once I have watched it and I would buy the DVD once it comes out. But Sky here hasn’t started showing it four months after it was on the Science Fiction channel. Well, I am not going to wait four months to watch something when it is available. I mean that’s just foolish. That exposes holes in copyright law. It also exposes holes in the economic strategy of multinational corporations who run the broadcast industry in the UK and the US because they just don’t understand the market or what people are doing. There are times when you have to stretch the system to demonstrate the absurdity of the old model and that’s what I see myself as doing.

The US and EU copyright regimes differ in some marked ways. Similarly, Australian copyright law is different in its statute of limitations that is much smaller than the US. Post Internet, we do really need a common international framework for copyright.

But we do. We have that. We have the World Trade Organization, we have WIPO – the World Intellectual Property Organization, we have the Berne (convention signatories). There is an international framework for copyright. It’s as broken as anything else. We need a new Berne, we need to go back to Switzerland and renegotiate what copyright means on a global level but there is that framework but it’s been caught out by technology.

Databases are given legal protection in EU via its database directive while similar privileges haven’t been granted in US. What do you make of this effort to give copyright to databases?

That’s just a European absurdity which we will realize was a mistake and eventually change. You have a database copyright in the European Union and in some other countries though not in the United States and it is clearly a mistake. There is growing awareness that something needs to be done about it because it’s not necessary to offer such protection. The idea that you get automatic protection for taking other people’s data and structuring it in a certain way has limited economic flexibility and has damaged competitiveness.

There is always a problem you see that as new technologies emerge to suggest new rights to go with them and this was the case where [we drafted something into] a law before wiser counsels could prevail.

Gowers report recently received a fair bit of attention. The report, I believe, had this wonderful recommendation for handling patent applications. It talked about putting up patent applications online and having an open commenting period. You in fact wrote about the report in your recent column. Can you talk a little more about the report?

Gowers report was commissioned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, who is a senior government minister, basically second only to Tony Blair and indeed Gordon Brown hopes to be Prime Minister within the next few months. Because of the way British politics works he can probably manage that without ever getting elected because he would just become party leader and therefore automatically the Prime Minister because the Labor Party is the dominant party in the government.

Brown commissioned a man called Andrew Gowers, who had at that point just been fired from being the editor of the Financial Times, to carry out this report. Andrew is a nice man but many of us doubted his ability to resist the Copyright lobby, to resist the pressures, to write something which would make industry happy, but he surprised us all, partly thanks to the excellent team of people he had working for him at the Treasury in the UK. He came up with a report that wasn’t radical but was sensible and what we do best in British politics is sensible because people can behind sensible. He said some things which were well argued, didn’t give in to the vested interests and didn’t give the music industry what they wanted.

Unfortunately, the Gowers Report is just that – it is a report, it is a series of recommendations which then goes into the government machine and has then to be acted on. It doesn’t do anything itself. We have a political issue here which is that when Gordon Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer commissioned the report, he believed that by the time it was published he would be Prime Minister, he believed by then Tony Blair would have gone and he would then be in a position to take this report and say I commissioned this report when I was Chancellor and it is absolutely fantastic, now I am Prime Minister and I am going to make it happen. Unfortunately, Tony Blair has refused to go and so Gordon Brown has received the report as a Chancellor and has no real power to deliver on it. And so the question is when Gordon does become Prime Minister – will it be his priorities – probably not, will the world have changed- probably, will he have been leaned on so effectively by the very wealthy music and movie industry so that he will actually dilute some of its recommendations –well tragically probably yes. So the timing is all wrong. The opportunity that Gowers presented was for Gordon Brown to say – this is great let’s just do it. Now we are going to have to wait – eight months – and [in that time] things would have changed and there will be a lot else for Gordon Brown to do. So for those of us who think that the recommendations are good are trying to keep the pressure on and keep track of what is happening, have the right conversations and make sure that when Gordon does become Prime Minister, because it looks fairly likely that he will, that he is reminded of his at the right time in the right way so that it can then turn into real change.

The other thing to remember is that a lot of changes that are proposed, a lot of recommendations are proposed, are actually international recommendations. So there are things that will have to happen at a European level or at a global level and so to some extent it is a call for British ministers, for British representatives, for British commissioners at Europe, for British delegates at WIPO to behave in a different way but it will take some time before we know that’s being successful. The report advocates engagement at a global level. It then needs to happen.

Interview with Bill Thompson: The Political Economy of the Internet

6 Mar

This is part 2 of the interview with Bill Thompson, technology columnist with the BBC. part 1

When I look at the Internet, there is this wonderful sense of volunteerism. It is incredible to see the kind of things that have come out of recent technology like the open source movement, and Wikipedia. Even Internet companies seem to have adopted sort of socially nurturing missions. How did these norms of volunteerism get created? Has technology merely enabled these norms? Or are we witnessing something entirely new here?

If you look at common space peer production, as Yochai Benkler calls it, what motivates people is exactly the same question as what motivates altruism. Because what we have with contributions to open source projects like Linux or positive contributions to Wikipedia, is what would seem to be on surface just pure altruistic behavior. So we can ask the same questions. What do people get in return? And do they have to get something in return?

Pekka Himanen in the Hacker Ethic, I think, nailed what people get in return— the social value you get from that, the sense of self-worth, the rewards that you are looking for, all of that makes perfect sense to me. I don’t think we need to ask any more questions about that. You get stuff back from contributing to the Linux kernel or putting something up on SourceForge. The stuff you get back is the same sort of stuff you get back from being a good active citizen. It is the same stuff as you get back from say recycling your trash.

The question as to whether something new is emerging, whether what’s happening online, because it allows for distributed participation – because the product of the online activity is say, certainly in the case of open source, a tool which can then itself be used elsewhere, or in the case of Wikipedia, a new approach to collating knowledge. Whether something completely new or radical is coming out of there still remains to be seen. I am quite skeptical about that. I am quite skeptical of brand new emergent properties of network behavior because we remain still the same physical and psychological human beings. I am not one of those people who believes that singularity is coming, that they are about to transcend the limitations of the corporeal body and that some magical breakthrough in humanity is going to happen thanks to the Internet and new biomedical procedures. I don’t think we are on the verge of that change.

I think that Internet as a collaborative environment might emphasize what it is to work together and change what it means to be a good citizen, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter the debate.

But the kind of interactions that we see today wouldn’t have happened if it were not for the Internet. For example, the fact that I am talking to you today is, I believe, sufficiently radical.

But has it changed anything fundamentally? Ok, it has allowed us to find each other but there was in the 13th century medieval Europe a very rich and complicated network of traveling scholars, who would travel from university or monastery to share each other’s ideas, they would exchange text. It was on a smaller scale, it was much slower, and it was at a lower level but was it fundamentally different to what we are doing in the blogosphere or with communications like this? Just because there is more of it doesn’t mean it is automatically different.

Let me move on here to a related but different topic. I imagine that the techniques which have been developed around this distributed model be applied to a variety of different places. For example, lessons from open source movement can be applied to how we do research. Can lessons of the Internet be applied elsewhere? Certainly, alternative forms of decision making are emerging within companies. Is Internet creating entirely new decision models and economies?

That’s quite a big question. There’s a sort of boring answer to it which is just that more and more organizations and more and more areas of human activity are reaching that third stage in their adoption of information and communication technologies. The first stage is where you just computerize your existing practices. The second stage is where you tinker with things and perhaps redefine certain structures. But the third stage is where you think ok these technologies are here so lets design our organizational processes, structures and functions around the affordances of the technology, which is a very hard thing to do but something which more and more places are doing. So just as in the 1830s and 1840s, organizations built themselves around the capabilities of steam systems and technologies and in the 1920s they built themselves around the new availability of the telephone, so now, in the West certainly, it is reasonable to assume that the network is there, and the things it makes possible it will continue to make possible. So you start to build structures, workflow and practices, businesses and indeed whole sectors of the economy around what the net does. In that sense, it is changing lots of things. As I said, I think that’s a boring insight. That’s what happens! We develop new technologies and we come to rely on them. It’s happened for the past five thousand years. So while it may be a new one but it’s the same pattern. Joseph Schumpeter got it right in the 1930s talking about waves of ‘Creative Destruction’ and everybody is now talking about that in the media but fundamentally there is nothing different going on there.

There is a more interesting aspect of that. Are some of the outputs of the more technological areas—the open source movement and things like that—creating wholly new possibilities for human creative and economic expression? And, they might be. I don’t think we know yet. I think it’s too early to tell. We have seen the basis of the Western economy and hence of the global economy move online (become digital) over the past twenty years. As Marx would put it the economic base has shifted. We are seeing the superstructures move now to reflect that. The idea of economic determinism is not right at every point in history but certainly, the world we live in now is a post-capitalist world. We still use the word Capitalism to describe it but in fact, the economy works in a slightly different way and we are going to need a new word for it. In that world – we have a new economic base – we will find new ways of being. And we will start to see the impact in art and culture, in forms of religious expression. You know we haven’t yet seen a technologically based region and it is about time we saw something emerge where the core presets rely on the technology.

Are we really post-Capitalist as you put it? I would still argue that Capitalism still trumps. The usage patterns of websites etc. still largely reflect the ‘old economy’. More importantly, I would argue that the promise of Information Age has long been swallowed by the quicksand of Capital.

When I say post-Capitalist, I don’t mean it’s not capitalist. If you look at the move from the feudal economy to Capitalism, the accumulation of capital became important. It still remains very important. It is still what drives things. The rich get more, the powerful remain more powerful and indeed those who have good creative ideas get appropriated by the system. We are seeing it happen already with the online video world where now if you create a cool 30-second video, your goal is to monetize that asset and basically you put it on Youtube and try to advertise it – you become part of the system and that this continues to happen. Just in parenthesis, the idea is that we are post-Capitalist not in that we are replacing Capitalism but it’s a different form of Capitalism—it is Uber Capitalism, it is Networked Capitalism. We need a new word for what we can do now. It doesn’t mean that those with capital don’t dominate because they do and they will continue for some time, I imagine.

In that sense that the network had some sort of democratizing influence is misguided. It hasn’t. It has enabled much greater participation. It may well make it possible for more people to benefit from their creativity in a modest way but I don’t think it will do anything to challenge the fundamental split between the owners of capital, those who invest their money and that counts as their work, and the wage slaves, the proletariat, those who have to do stuff every day in order to carry on and earn enough money to live. I don’t think it will change that at all.

Your comments are just spot on. There is an astute understanding of the political economy of the net especially at a time when one constantly hears of the wondrous impact of the Internet to revolutionize everything from Democracy to Economy.

Yeah. The network is a product of an advanced Capitalist economy largely driven by the economic and political interests of the United States although that balance is starting to shift. We see what is happening – particularly India and China are starting to have some influence, not very strong at the moment but growing, on the evolution of the network. But again India and China are trying to find their own ways of be industrial capitalist economies. They are not really trying to find their ways to be something completely different.

The digital economy, as you pointed out, still largely reflects the ‘real’ world underneath it. Things will change and are changing in some crucial fundamental ways but the virtual world is anchored to the real world. One facet of that real world is the acute gender imbalance in the IT industry. What are your thoughts on the issue?

There have been massive advances, particularly in Europe and the United States, [which] are I think two [places] in which over the past 100 years we have accepted and indeed believe that differences [in treatment] between men and women, which existed in many other societies, were just wrong. The differences which are currently enforced on billions of women around the world by their religions should be overcome. This was a historical era. There is no real difference [between genders]; the gender differential is unjust. Social justice requires equality. But it’s [gender equality] a very recent idea, it’s a very recent innovation and one of the last places where it has made an impact is within the education system so that fifty years ago the education system would push the men towards science and technology and women towards art and domestic skills. I think we are just living through the consequences of that in that sort of adults that we have today, in the people of my age now. When I was in school the girls would be glided away from the sciences and as a result technology and engineering were to a large extent male preserves and we are still correcting that historical injustice.

Now, what’s interesting though is that whilst we see that difference between those who build and create the machines, and at the engineering level, we are seeing it much less and less at the user level. So now the demographics of Internet use, computer use, laptop use, mobile phone use and all those sorts of things, certainly within the West, reflect the general population. Over the last ten years I have watched Internet use equalize, certainly here in the UK between men and women, and indeed what research has been done about how computers are used in the household makes it very clear that the computer has now become another household device that is as likely to be used by or controlled by the women or girls in the house as by the boys. So I think at the user level where the technology pushes through into our daily life that distinction isn’t there anymore. It’s at the programmer level where we see fewer women programmers and fewer women web designers. There are still a lot of them out there, friends of mine, male and female who are just as equally good and astute and capable at coding and developing and all those things but we still do see fewer. And I think it’s just a general societal imbalance that has yet to be corrected.

Interview with Bill Thompson: The Future

5 Mar

While technology has become an important part of our social, economic and political life, most analysis about technology remains woefully inadequate, limited to singing paeans about Apple and Google, and occasional rote articles about security and privacy issues. It is to this news market full of haberdasher opining that Mr. Bill Thompson brings his considerable intellect and analytical skills every week for his column on technology for the BBC.

To those unfamiliar with his articles, Mr. Bill Thompson is a respected technology guru and a distinguished commentator on technology and copyright issues for the BBC. Mr. Thompson’s calm moderated erudition of technology comes from his extensive experience in the IT industry in varying capacities and a childhood without computers. “I was born in 1960. So I grew up before there were computers around. Indeed, I never touched one at school.” It was not until his third year at Cambridge University when he was running experiments in Psychology that he first touched a computer. He says that in many ways his first experiences with computers formed his mindset about computers. And that view—computers are there to perform a useful function—has stayed with him for over 25 years.

Mr. Thompson went on to get a Master’s level diploma in Computer Science from Cambridge University in 1983. After graduating from Cambridge, he joined a small computer firm and then quit it to join Acorn Computers Limited, creators of the successful BBC Micro, as a database consultant. He left the enterprise because “they wanted to promote me” and joined as a courseware developer with Instruction Set. After a stint with PIPEX, he found himself running Guardian’s New Media division a decade or so ago when the Internet was still in its infancy. After working for a few years managing Guardian’s online site, Mr. Thompson left to pursue writing and commenting full time. It is in the field of writing and providing astute analysis on technology-related issues that Mr. Thompson finds himself today.

I interviewed Mr. Thompson via Skype about a month ago. The interview covered a wide range of issues. Given the diversity of issues covered I have chosen to put an edited transcript of the interview rather than an essay styled thematic story. Here’s an edited (both style and content) transcript of the interview.

The technology opinion marketplace seems to be split between technology evangelists and Luddites. Your writing, on the other hand, manifests a broad range of experience; it reflects moderated enthusiasm about what computers can do. I find it an astute and yet optimistic account.

I am fundamentally optimistic about the possibilities of this technology that we have invented to both make the world a better place and to help us recover from some of the mistakes of the past and make better decisions as a species, not just as a society, in the future. It informs my writing. It informs as well the things that I am interested in and the areas that I want to explore.

Our relationship with machines was once fraught with incomprehension and fear. Machines epitomized the large mechanized state and its dominance over the natural world. There was a spate of movies somewhere in the 70s when refrigerators and microwaves rose up to attack us. Over the past decade or so, our relationship has transformed to such a degree that not only do we rely on fairly sophisticated machines to do our daily chores, but we also look at machines as a way to achieve utopian ideals. Fred Turner, professor of Communication at Stanford, in “From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism” traces this rise of digital utopianism to American counterculture. How do you think the relationship evolved?

The way you phrase the question leads me to think that perhaps it was the exaggerated claims of Artificial Intelligence community that led people to worry that computers would reach the point at which they would take over. And the complete failure of AI to deliver on any its promises has led us to a more phlegmatic and accepting attitude, which is that these are just machines; we don’t know how to make them clever enough to threaten us, and therefore we can just get on with using them.

The fact is known that Skynet is not going to launch nuclear weapons at us in a Terminator world and so we can then focus on the fact that the essential humanity of the Terminator itself, certainly in the second and third movies, is a source of redemption. We can actually feel positive about the machines instead of negative about them.

When you have a computer that is around, that crashes constantly, that is infected with viruses and malware, that doesn’t do what is supposed to do and stuff like that, you are not afraid of it. You are irritated by it. And you treat it as you would a recalcitrant child that you might love and care for and that has some value but is certainly not something that is going to threaten you. And then we can use the machines. That then actually allows us to focus on what you call the Utopian or altruistic aspects. It allows us to focus on machines in a much broader context, which recognizes that human agency is behind it.

The dystopian stories rely on machines getting out of control but in fact, we live in a world in which the machines are being used negatively by people, by governments, by corporations, and by individuals. The failure to have AI allows us to accept that – to reject the systems they have built without rejecting the machines themselves.

And for those who actually believe that information and communication technologies are quite positive – (it allows us) to focus on what could be done for good instead of just dismissing all of the technology as being bad. It allows us to take a much more complex and nuanced point of view.

You make an excellent point. I see where you are coming from.

In a sense, it is where I am coming from and which is—I am a liberal humanist atheist. I believe we make this world and we have the potential to make it better, and the technologies we invent should be part of that process.

Just as I am politically socialist, I believe in equality of opportunity and social justice and all those things [similarly] I have a humanist approach to technology which is that what we have made we can make ‘do good’ for us.

Media Effects

26 Feb

Context in news has been missing for a long time. For instance, crime news, a staple of local news, almost never includes a discussion of the larger socioeconomic factors. Disconcertingly, even these abysmal standards are slipping.

A big part of the problem is that mass media (television) lends itself very well to dramatic imagery and sound effects. A visual medium hustling for advertiser dollars is not likely to be good at focusing on the dull numerical facts. Perhaps it’s not just dullness of facts that prevents media from showing context but also a deliberate strategy to “frame” news in a way that doesn’t put any pressure on the citizen to act to demand action from government or local authorities. The subtext of crime stories is that all crime is due to bad people and who can prevent the evil within; bad people only listen to authority. Television’s coverage of news not only changed how news was covered there but also had a critical impact on how news was covered in print. For example, the print cycles hastened for magazines from a month to a week, newspaper story lengths dropped etc.

Clearly diminishing context is not the only ailment that mass media brought to the coverage of news. Improvements in technology have not only brought us perennial coverage of news, albeit sometimes the same news, but also ‘live’ coverage of news. These, in turn, have contributed to the diminishing marginal value of news (more on this in next column), and a renewed impetus for newspapers and journalists to get their first rather than get it right. Given that the heaviest coverage of a news story in mass media happens when journalists have the least clear idea about the ‘truth’ (which generally emerges through careful research and interviews with key players over the longer time), the dissemination patterns are catastrophically skewed towards presenting bad quality information quickly.

The theories which my above anecdotal argument dovetails are akin to ‘medium is the message’ and that the ‘popular medium influences coverage in other forms of media’. To fully understand a medium’s impact one must account for the fact that medium not only affects presentation but also stipulates the resources needed (in broadcast medium – a lot), distribution structure (to lots of people), organizational structures within news organizations, self-selection of reporters, managers, and editors (camera hungry bimbos or hard-nosed journalists or teenage bloggers), content of the message (what is covered and not covered, how it is covered), the economic landscape of other media organizations etc.

Given the possibility of significant multifaceted effects, it is useful to chart out how our day’s new media – the Internet – will change news media.

‘New Media’

There are three main characteristics of ‘new media’ – most popular ‘new media’ assets are controlled by ‘old media’ organizations, for example prime media assets like NYTimes.com or BBC.com are controlled by old bigwigs, the ‘new media’ departments are generally run by younger people or/and people with comparatively less experience in professional journalism, and ad-based rather than subscription-based monetization, which is same as the economic model for mass media.

The new media effects

There has been a ‘virtual’ explosion of sites (includes blogs) devoted to politics and news over the past decade prompted by the lowering of the threshold for publishing. Aside from the small positive effect stemming from the factual criticism by bloggers that have made the media companies more cautious of what they write and how they write, the impact of the glut of politics and news sites has been largely negative. Rapid rise in number of people publishing has led to increased competition, resulting in hustle for revenue, market share, and imperatives for controlling costs, and perceived increase in diversity of stories resulting in perceived sense of lower responsibility for writing a balanced context-rich story given that other ‘angles’ will be covered by someone else.

Increasingly competitive market and proliferation and popularity of nearly free user-generated content have resulted in companies less willing to support quality investigative journalism that is resource intensive. News organizations have also resorted increasingly to third-rate punditry which is much cheaper to produce. These trends were already present in the competitive cable news market but have merely been magnified by the emergence of these new sites.

Responsibility in the era of information glut

On the content side, journalists and news organizations increasingly feel that they don’t have to write a well-rounded piece because they are covering only a speck of the spectrum. Reporting tends to be ever more context-free, and ever more fragmented. The misguided idea behind this trend is that given the informational options that a viewer or reader has, s/he can build a comprehensive idea of the entire story by reading multiple stories from multiple sources. Of course, media and readership don’t work like this and certainly not in the US.

The second worrying trend is that the role of editor as a guide to what is important has been sacrificed to the role of the public at large and strategic groups at large. The proliferation of top ten lists in newspapers and other link referral and aggregation sites like Digg have helped drive visibility of few articles, generally fluff – a cursory glance at these lists should be enough to prove this contention- beyond their importance.

The most insidious part of the rise of mass media is that it has somehow validated infinite subjectivity as a valid model for covering news. The dominant opinion that pervades in the ‘new media’ is that it is a normative good to allow everybody to participate and that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. What we have gotten is a proliferation of absolutely bunk analysis and increasingly readers are getting subsumed in this with little or no idea of what is going on anymore. We read and see more yet we know less. Partly it’s because we see more of the same thing, and partly because reading ten stories about a topic doesn’t tell us exactly how to weigh each of those things and construct a bigger picture.

There are a few solutions that I would like to propose for the kind of problems that we are seeing. Firstly, new media must develop clear standards for ethical discourse that highlights objective information instead of inane opinionating. Secondly, new media firms should start investigating how to bring the editor back as a guide to the common reader. Thirdly, we need investigative journalists and foreign bureaus with a larger understanding of the ‘bigger picture’. We need them to provide context to the small stories media covers endlessly, which I would argue the media can stop doing. Lastly as my friend Chaste mentioned in his column – get journalists trained in statistics. Don’t let journalists mindlessly adorn their stories around with pretty but inaccurate numbers.

Interview with Glenn Frankel: Foreign Reporting and Technology

20 Jan

Part 5 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


Let’s talk a little more about the challenges of foreign reporting. I feel that some journalists like Ryszard Kapuscinski have done wonderful reporting from Africa while most others have failed to bring out the complexities while reporting on other countries. Can you talk a little more about what journalists can do in this regard?

That’s part of what you had asked me before. I think its really important that over the course of three or four-year tour of duty in Africa or the Middle East to give a well-rounded body of work that captures both the complexities of the region and gives readers some sense that something else is going on besides conflict. I love Kapuscinski’s work, and some of my colleagues have done great work, but sometimes I am critical of them and myself because we make it sound like it’s one big war. In the Middle East as well, the Israeli society and the Palestinian society are complex, interesting creatures. There are a lot of things going on, and I always found that some of the most interesting stories are about events and forces at work within each society rather than the constant struggle between them. We can’t understand that struggle unless you understand the forces at work within each society, especially in the Israeli society. Both sides get shortchanged by this kind of parachute phenomenon. We write about the war and we leave, and we write about the conflict, but we never write about the actors, the two societies at work. In Africa as well.

One way to do that is to constantly be thinking about the counter story if you will. The conventional wisdom, if you will, or the story that confirms everyone’s deepest prejudice – conflict Africa, Africa at war, Africa can’t feed itself –it is really quite lovely to find once in a while where people are being fed quite well and to write about why that is, what works. So I remember writing about – this is long ago, far away – Zimbabwe in 1984 when it was the breadbasket of Southern Africa – it had an enormously successful agricultural system and just writing a long piece which ran on the front page of the Washington Post about how that worked and how they were exporting 2 million tones of grain to other parts of Southern Africa. Partly it was the function of the weather, but mostly it was the function of a successful process. Not only did they paid farmers a decent amount for their product, a decent rail system, and a warehouse system so you could actually take maize and corn and transport it, get it off the farm and on to a market. And how American dumping of our maize was potentially damaging to that system, our cheap corn, given in the name of our policy for providing food to hungry people. Those are more complex, rich stories that contradict the conventional wisdom.

I think it is really really valuable as a foreign correspondent to think about ways of subverting the conventional wisdom, so you tell your readers about something surprising – I mean what is journalism telling among other things – telling them things that they don’t know, surprising them, making them think twice about the world we live in and about their own role and you do that by being critical of the conventional wisdom. ‘Wait a minute – is this really true and if it’s not what’s my role here.’

One of the great things about being a journalist is that you should be able to be constantly self-critical and the critical analysis that you provide to the world around you, you also apply to your own work and to the work of your many dear colleagues and trying to figure out what are we missing here. Journalism, I think still fundamentally rewards that kind of enterprise, that kind of critical analysis. I think there is still room – whether its Seymour Hersh writing about the Iraq war or others I think it still really rewards people who can climb their way out of the conventional wisdom and surprise you and shock you or stun you in some way. That’s the great correcting mechanism in journalism if there is one.

What challenges and opportunities do blogs and social media present?

I have no problem with that. My fear is that because of the technology, because dead tree edition is in trouble—and I don’t mind if dead trees themselves are in trouble—that’s ok if we move away from the newspaper form. My fear is that our big newsrooms and our big newsgathering operations are also shrinking. It should be a vast marketplace with many forms of journalism. The blogosphere can be out there counting angels on a pin. That’s fine as long as we can keep the whole thing thriving, including the kind of thing that I am talking about.

Interview with Glenn Frankel: Reporting on Emotional Issues

20 Jan

Part 4 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


Since we have just broached the Middle East, what are the special challenges for reporting from there. What are the challenges in reporting around highly emotive issues more generally?

Where do you begin? If we are talking about Israel and Palestine, we are talking about two national movements, with their own histories, their own set of grievances and their own interpretation of their history and the relationship to each other and how they have treated each other over now 100 years. Plus, the national histories go back way before that. So what you have is an armed struggle between two national movements. And inevitably those two movements are going to – because it is an ongoing war – mobilize every fact and every tool and every potential weapon as part of that struggle. And the press, the media simply becomes another stage, if you will, another battleground in that struggle.

And I think we have to be constantly aware of the fact that we are – we walk in their trying to be neutral observers, trying to capture truth as best as we can – we are constantly being told to not be neutral observers, constantly being pulled in one direction or another, intimidated, coerced, seduced, and if we don’t fulfill the demands of each side then we are under attack – sometimes physical attack, oftentimes emotional, verbal -all of that. So, you have to go in there with an understanding, or you learn over time, just who you are and who they are and what they want from you and they are not going to be satisfied with your neutral best, even-handed approach. That’s not gonna work for them. They are going to be part of your audience but you are not really working for them, and you are not writing for them. You are writing for the world, if you will, especially now. So, your obligations are first and foremost are to the readers, to your customers – whatever you want to call them and to the truth as best as you can discover.

And so I have very little patience with journalists who fall victims to one side or the other if you will or who eventually take on the coloration of one side or the other. It is easy to do, there is plenty of justification you could have for doing it but it’s not what I see my role as. There is certainly room for journalists who become advocates, who become highly critical. Take someone like Robert Fisk, a correspondent for The Independent. I have great admiration for Robert Fisk’s for this courage, for his enterprise, and for his writing ability. I consider Bob to be a strong advocate of a certain point of view. And there is a role for him and a role for people for people like him and a role for people who are very supportive of the state of Israel; I don’t see my role and the role of Washington Post to be similar to that. I think we play a very different role. I think in a way – it’s in some ways harder, and in some ways easier. What Bob does per se, the personal courage of Bob, the risks he takes, the beliefs he has – I don’t question them at all. I don’t agree with the journalism because it’s not the kind of journalism I am seeking to practice. I think that he belongs on one side of the spectrum; he is valuable and useful for people to read. What we do, try to do is something very different.

Its really hard to do, because the struggle, the constant demands on you from people who have real grievances – I mean you know it is hard to find a family on either side of the divide from those national movements who haven’t had a direct personal loss at this point, who haven’t lost a family member, whose lives haven’t been affected in some horrible way by this struggle. Its very much a war of populations. Its not just governments fighting each other and enlisting people in the army and going off to a battlefield and fighting, it is a war which takes place within the civilian populations of both communities, both national movements. So, it becomes, even more, person and intimate. It is an inter-communal war where everyone is a soldier whether they want to be or not. Trotsky once said that you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. This kind of war allows no one to be a neutral observer. You can be a shop keeper in Ramallah and simply want to do business every day – you are not allowed to do that in this war because the Israeli army will come and shut you down because you are in middle on an unrest zone or Palestinian kids will come back at you and make you open up, your child trying to go to school on a given day could be shot, school can be closed, so many things could go wrong and then its your kid out there throwing rocks at a tank and your kid rebelling against you as well as the Israeli occupier. So many things happen. So many lives have been lost.

My job as a journalist is to try to understand all of that, to get within that process, and to meet these people and to write about them in a world they live in with empathy and understanding and at the same time to stand outside of it and to be critical of both sides and their inability to get beyond this and to find a way out of this.

It’s a beautiful job in a sense because I could be one day in a family’s home in Nablus talking about their dead son, who was killed by Israeli soldiers, and who he was and what happened and how they feel about him, and I could be at Tel Aviv next day at the ministry of defense talking to Yitzhak Rabin about how he sees the situation in Nablus and what he thinks he is trying to do. No one else is allowed to move between those two poles. No one else but a journalist can see all the things or can see both sides in that way, and there are times when of course both sides try to prevent our access to both sides. In Iraq, it is impossible to do what I have just described because the physical threat is so huge. In Israel and Palestine, at times it has been very very difficult because the army may seal off Nablus or the Palestinian authority police won’t let you in within an area. Lots of things can happen to prevent that access. But our job is to go to both those places and to talk to all those people and to process and understand what we are hearing, and to understand both the delusions, if you will, and the assumptions and the limited knowledge both sides are working under about each other and to present the best we can to our readers.

Some people have pointed to the distinction between being balanced and being accurate. They see a journalist’s responsibility towards being accurate and not particularly towards being balanced. Tell me a little more about your thoughts on the issue.

I don’t agree with a notion that there is a contradiction or an inherent conflict between being fair and even-handed and being accurate. When I talk about being fair and even-handed, it’s not a ‘on the one hand and on the other hand’ kind of journalism. I think inherent in our assumptions and the way we write stories, a good journalist conveys the truth as best he or she can.

The even-handedness involves being fair, understanding the assumptions that both sides are making, their motives, their imperatives, their personal constituencies – why is prime minister of Israel making a certain decision at some point, what are the political reasons behind that, what are his own constituents demanding of him? Understanding the internal dynamic of why he may make a decision is not the same thing as apologizing for him.

I think that the heart of accuracy is to be even-handed and to be fair and at the same time telling the truth as best as we could find it. The fact that you give everyone a chance to explain themselves in a story doesn’t mean that the story isn’t clear about whats going on. If a massacre occurs, if Israeli army guns down six or eight Palestinian women standing outside a mosque where they are protecting or putting their bodies in front of Hamas fighters, which happened a couple of weeks ago in Gaza. Reporting on that – telling the truth about who opened fire, and how it was done and the fact these people are dead and what people is Gaza feel about that. Going back to the army and figuring out what were the rules of engagement, who did that. Reporting as best as we can – reporting the Israeli apology but at the same time reporting the rules of engagement and whether this was about the individual initiative of the soldiers – I think all of that is important and all of that speaks to the truth of the situation.

It’s our obligation to report the whole thing; to see the whole complex picture of what went on. That doesn’t take away from the horror of what happened. I think in some the explaining of how it happened and to allow both sides to explain that does not say – we don’t know what the truth is, on the one hand, one the other hand. That’s not what that kind of reporting does. That kind of reporting brings you insight into how that kind of thing can happen. I think its the most valuable reporting we do and I don’t think – I think you can be very critical and provide your readers with a real understanding so that they can make their own judgment about it. Your story will guide them to a judgment.

I always thought it was most important in covering a conflict to make sure each side understood the price of what they were doing. If you are in Israel and you say that it is really important to the hold the West Bank, there is no way we can give that up. We are killing two Palestinian kids a day right now, and we are doing damage to our own army. I always felt that the journalist’s role was to make sure that everyone, our readers, understood what the price was, understood what this number 2 a day consisted of – who those people were – that they had families that they had fathers and mothers, that they were out there doing whatever they were doing, what their motives were. I felt that our role to make sure everybody understands the price and consequences of their actions. If you can do that, you have done a lot. I really believe deeply that it’s both.

Interview with Glenn Frankel: Principles of Good Journalism

19 Jan

Part 3 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glenn Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


People can be fairly clever in coming up with justifications for why they did what they did. Can empathy come in the way of critically looking at the choices made by people? How do you provide both an empathetic and a critical account?

I think you have to do both. First of all, journalism to me is a fairly large spectrum of things which ranges from the sort of very aggressive — move in there and find out wrongdoing and attack it — sort of Seymour Hersh approach to people who are writing perhaps more nuanced account — lets get into the mindset of people making decisions, trying to figure out why did the things they things. The best journalists can do that and do it critically– both be critical at the same time and give a full rounded portrait. To people who inevitably end up crossing the line and writing very sympathetically about the people who made terrible decisions.

I think the very best journalists find a way to do both and to not lose their critical edge. I am thinking, it may not be an appropriate example, but we can take someone like [not clear] writing in the 1960s about somebody like Joe DiMaggio, the greatest sports star. [not clear] writes this wonderful piece for Esquire about DiMaggio which both I think summons up both the grace and charisma of DiMaggio but at the same time when you walk away from the piece, you have a very very critical understanding of his illusions, of the damage he has done, and of his total inability to say understand women in his life, and the way he seeks to dominate, manipulate and control everyone around him. To me that’s a work of art — it almost surpasses journalism, but it is an act of journalism. That kind of piece, you know, is a model of being able to both understand someone’s mindset and why they do the things they do but at the same time delivers to the readers a portrait that also is unmistakably critical and powerful. Now that’s clearly the ultimate. I can’t do that, and I don’t expect most journalists to be able to do that, but I do expect people to be both tough and fair. That’s not too much to ask.

You can tell — to apply it to much recent example — when you look at say some of the people who wrote about the Iraq war, the run-up to the Iraq war — the obvious suspects like Judith Miller of the New York Times. I hate to mention Judy in such a way because she becomes a scapegoat but nonetheless that sort of rather uncritical recitation of the material that your sources provide you – you know I think we have to be able to do more than that. I think if you contrast some of the thinks Judy was writing at the time say with Bart Gelman of the Washington Post wrote, you can see the difference. And you can see kind of being a little more careful, a little more critical, a little more that step of asking yourself about the sources. That’s part of what good journalism is about. Always kind of asking yourself about the sources, double-checking — that’s part of what good journalism is about. Not falling captive to your sources or to a particular perspective, checking it again, being critical, I think that’s something that journalists can and have to practice on a daily basis.

Having singled out Judy, it’s also a process that involves editors because that’s what editors are for. Reporters often go in certain directions and believe they have come across something quite unique and sometimes they have, but it’s the function of the editors to ask those questions to reporters that things have been covered. So, I think our failure, as collective failure to the run-up of the war, was not just the failure of the reporting, but it was mostly a failure of the editing. This gets us into a whole different subject. I really believe strongly that good journalists could do both and that empathy is not the enemy of truth.

How do you make the informational landscape, the moral topography of the choices available to somebody, accessible to the readers? How can the journalist go about doing this?

Well, this is tough because you inevitably oversimplify things to an extent. Just the act of putting something in the story, you are leaving out. Part of the art of journalism is what you don’t put in. In fact, I think most of the choices you make — first you make them into deciding what you are going to pursue and what you don’t choose to pursue; of all the human activity we could be writing about. So the first really important question is what don’t we go after? And then of course in gathering material you always leave out a lot of things, any good journalist will tell you that they are leaving 90% or more of what they find out. You actually make a lot of choices, and it is in those choices that I would argue that in those choices that subjective individual values really emerge. There are so many different kinds of stories and ways of storytelling. We find out today, and we have to have it in the newspaper by tomorrow, and that can be very valuable and very important.

The place I have always strived to get to is to go back to those stories and to tell longer narratives that involve storytelling and that involve characters, explaining to readers who people are. It is a very character-driven form of journalism and it has its flaws because when you look at history — there are forces at work and there are individuals at work, and the balance between those and who is really in the driver’s seat is something that we have all studied for and debated and will continue to debate for a long long time. Character driven journalism that uses characters to summon dilemmas and choices that were made. I am thinking of a recent good model – Karen DeYoung’s new book on Colin Powell called Soldier. It comes way after the fact so it’s only one kind of journalism — the kind of re-exploration. Karen gets to have 5 or 6 interviews with Powell.

Her portrait of Colin is both empathetic and understanding his motive, who he was, where he came from and how important the military was for him, how important it was for him to be an autonomous individual yet also feeling his responsibility was to support his leader. And, she captures that very well and at the same time she captures what a huge mistake Powell made and how he feels about that. He feels betrayed on the one hand, which she captures as well; the fact that he wasn’t willing to take a more activist aggressive stance when he realized things were going badly — to blow the whistle on it if you will — ‘I can’t do this anymore. I am quitting, protesting, whatever.’ I think in the way a very very good journalist does, Karen both helps you understand what Powell is thinking, what he was trying to do, how he was trying to work within the administration to be a moral force if you will or force for moderation and how he failed.

This gets me to the thing that I think I have focused on most of all – beyond the breaking of news and in production of all the information that we deliver day after day in newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times, I really feel that if we get 50% of it correct on that first day, we are doing very well because we are reporting on limited information, limited sources, under deadline with people constantly either lying to us consciously or unconsciously with information that they don’t themselves really understand and we are struggling to produce the subject for the next day. We are writing history on the fly. I don’t think there is any getting around that. There is no way – maybe we can improve it to 55% at times or 60%, but there is no way we are going to get much beyond that because of the nature of the enterprise.

Let me interject here. In a way, I feel that newspapers overstate their case all the time. They don’t let the readers in on the fact that they don’t know certain things or the constraints that they are working under.

I think you are absolutely right. You can almost put a box in every story—by the way, keep in the mind that we hope that half of this is true. We are coming at it again tomorrow, and we will try to do better on this particular story as we move along. First, we are going to tell you that we have won the war and tomorrow we are going to tell you that it turns out that we didn’t win the war. There is getting around it when you come out every day. It is a human enterprise.

It puts enormous pressure, enormous responsibility on us to go back at things, to revisit anything important. In my career – you always learn so much more when you go back the second time or the third time – so many things you assumed or thought you knew turned out to be wrong. A classic example of my time in Israel during the first Palestinian uprising when a young woman, a Jewish settler was killed in a small Palestinian village, called Beita. She was the first Jewish Israeli to be killed in the first uprising. So long ago and such a naive almost seems like a golden era compared to how many people have died since. Anyway, the circumstance of her death was so complex, and I went back last year or earlier this year and reread my first-day story, and it says she had been stoned to death by Palestinian villagers because that’s what the army had announced and that was totally wrong. It turned out she had been accidentally been killed by her own bodyguard. We got that story wrong the first day, and we got it a little better the second day, the army itself was investigating- whether in good faith or not. It took a week later when I went back to -had to sneak in through the army’s cordon – they had cordoned off the area- we weren’t allowed in. Two of us eventually made our way through — snuck our way in — interviewed the villagers, interviewed some of the Jewish settlers who were with her that day, got some materials from the army investigators as that came out and gradually pieced together a much much more accurate account of what had happened, and the sort of sequence of events that had led to the tragedy or disaster. It was very close to the truth, to the full truth about a week later. I looked at it and appalled at what we all wrote the first day, and I am very very proud of what I wrote a week later.

I think that’s all you can do in a sense—own up to the flaws, to the flaws of the process. There are both personal flaws, lack of skepticism at times. We can load our stories with phrases that say — “according to preliminary report”, “we had no way to being able to verify this,” “according to unconfirmed information because we weren’t allowed to interview witnesses at the time” — all those things can go in there, have to go in there but they don’t really mitigate enough of what we are saying. We have to be willing and able to go back to thing and to admit that we are mortal, that we are flawed, that the information that we provide is only as good as what our sources are giving us at that time, and to go back at it again and again, and to be as transparent and honest about the process as we can be.

And you are right—newspapers tend to speak in this magisterial, almost divine voice that claims omniscience when it is, in fact, it is a very flawed and hesitant process that we go through. I think we have come a long way over the years and admitted that and been more open about that. Certainly, that has been one of the advantages of having a blogosphere and to have everyone be a media critic. One of the real advantages of that is that it has made us more careful and it has made us a little more honest about, and a little more open about the process we go through. And surprise, surprise it’s a human flawed complicated and often subjective process.

It seems like European news organizations like the BBC are a little more careful about attribution and more conscientious in providing context. Do you think this is the case? How do you compare it to NY Times and Washington Post?

Yeah, I don’t really agree with you. First of all let’s separate out the British press—The Guardian, The Times of London, and those from the BBC. Those I would argue strongly are less careful in attributing that the Washington Post or the NY Times.

The BBC, compared to any other broadcast outlet, is head and shoulders above. Certainly, compared to certainly any American broadcast outlet, BBC is an absolutely marvelous news institution and the online version, which is what I see these days – I just got back from living in the UK for almost four years – and I admire BBC enormously.

They are thorough, they stick with things, and they cover a much broader range of countries than the New York Times or the Washington Post. They have an extensive staff. If we had a license fee and the zillions of dollars floating in from the government — we would be more extensive also. We are private institutions.

Nonetheless, I don’t agree that their attribution or their general accuracy exceeds ours. I just don’t buy it. They are good, they are careful, they may at times be a little more cautious but when I see what they write about events in America or covering the Middle East, Israel, and Palestine. I think they have a rather, at times the BBC has a sort of a London media elite set of assumptions – certainly about Israel and Palestine – that shines through their copy in ways and in their reportage –which can be skewed. Please keep that in context. I love BBC, and I think they do a wonderful job but no, I would defend us and the New York Times in terms of the quality and things that you talk about.

Interview with Glenn Frankel: Early Professional Experiences

19 Jan

Part 2 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


How was it working for a small newspaper? How did you learn the ropes of going about say finding and investigating a story?

There is nothing like a small newspaper in a small community because it really is the laboratory where you can begin to do things and where when you make mistakes, they are generally small ones – they don’t have a huge impact. At the same time, you really learn very quickly that accuracy is crucial, that you were accountable for what you were writing not only to the small group of people around you at the paper but to people you were writing about because they were reading you intensely. Even in this little weekly in Chesterfield County – its called the Chesterfield news journal, I was covering the board of supervisors, which is the county government which met weekly. Everyone read this little journal intensely, and if you screwed something up, they were on top of it and if you were critical, they knew it, and they quickly took your measure as to how they felt about you. So, you were accountable to them in a way – not so much to write things that weren’t true, to skew what you were writing to please them – more that you had to be accurate and you had to be careful.

I had fairly long hair, not very good clothes. I was making a $1.65/hour on this job, and I couldn’t afford a wardrobe or even a car that started very well. (Chuckles) I was driving a Volkswagen van that had to sit on a hill to push it to start it. There are not many hills in Chesterfield County. It was always an adventure to get that thing going. But it really was a good place to sort of learn the basics.

Because I had no training as a journalist, because I had never taken a course, never written a word for a newspaper, I really had to start from scratch and there wasn’t much help at the Chesterfield News Journal and I have to add that at least for the first year, there wasn’t much help at The Richmond Mercury, the place where I worked next, a weekly newspaper in Richmond, Virginia. Both of the newspapers no longer exist. I found that I had to teach myself by and large in this first stretch.

Fortunately Richmond, Virginia is on the outskirts of the Washington Post circulation area. So for 25 cents or 50 cents a day, I could get what turned out to be a very practical useful textbook guide to modern daily journalism, the daily Washington Post. I pored over it, read it thoroughly. Really for the first time, I read the newspaper thoroughly every day. I had been a newspaper reader, war fairly knowledgeable about governmental affairs and things like that, I certainly wasn’t an ignorant person, I was well educated, but I had a lot to learn. I would sort of simply look at the way Washington Post approached stories, both in terms of how they were written and the different forms. It’s not hard; it’s not brain surgery to figure out various forms of stories. What was in the second paragraph, how did the first paragraph work, I would just analyze it for that but also for attitude and the Post then was a very muscular cheeky newspaper. Some days it was not terribly well edited, some days it almost bizarre in parts but many days, it was really quite exciting to read and in this time of Watergate, especially exciting. I used that as my text. So, developing an approach to how you did the reporting very much came from that and from my own understanding of what a reporter’s role was – I felt I was there to uncover things, to find out things.

Lord Northcliffe, the old British press manager once said, ‘News is what they don’t what you to know, everything else is advertising.’ The direct quote is “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress, all the rest is advertising.” That’s not all news is but its certainly a good starting point and certainly coming out of Columbia University in the 1960s with everything that had happened over Vietnam and everything else; certainly, my attitude and my approach was aggressive, critical, looking for the problem. That type of newspaper approach fit well with what I wanted to do. So what I had to learn over time was to be -Yes, it was important to have had edge and that sort of critical attitude but at the same time to be open to new experiences, to not make too many presumptions about what a story was, to be able to be open to the experience of reporting and actually talking to people, getting out, realizing that the truth, as best as I could determine, was more complex, had more shades of grey than the sort of black and white that I had wanted to think. That only occurred over time, and it was a very long and painful process.

Did journalism change you as a person? It seems that you came to appreciate the subtleties more. Please talk a little more about how what impact did journalism have on you and how you changed over time.

Yeah, Everyone matures over time and hopefully becomes a little more sophisticated or a little more understanding, a little more aware of your own mortality and therefore a little more forgiving, a little more aware of your own personality flaws and therefore more understanding of other people’s. That doesn’t just apply to journalists but applies for all of us, and I think that process occurred with me.

I think you become a better journalist as you understand that the world is not a simple place. And there is a fine balance between in keeping a code and an edge in the sense of – ‘Lets get on that, lets get to the bottom of that, and lets be really relentless in pursuing a particular subject’, and at the same time understanding the sort of human frailties that go into a situation or developing empathy in other words. I don’t think we are automatically empathetic creatures. I think that’s an acquired quality over the course of time.

For me, the best journalism has always been about the most complex subjects and about getting to the bottom of things that are not simple either in terms of the information involved or the morality involved. Developing a taste for that and realizing that the sort of gotcha stories, where you do an expose’ – well that’s immensely satisfying in some ways, it is even more satisfying to write about complex mechanisms and people and the reasons why people do the things they do and figuring out of the motives.

I have always been more interested in the perpetrators than the victims – whether that’s the people who ran government in Virginia and who had a rather successful oligarchy of power – ‘Who they were, what they were thinking and what they told themselves about the decisions they made’ – or whether it was in South Africa – people in the Afrikaans league who were running the government back in the days of apartheid, or whether the Israeli establishment leaders – ‘What information were they getting? What were they telling themselves or how did they justify doing things that to me seemed unjustifiable, in some ways kind of evil?’

Saying its evil doesn’t get you all that far. In the end, it wasn’t as interesting to me as figuring out who these people were, what they told themselves, what they told their children about what they were doing and how they were justifying. That to me was fascinating, and it still is.