Category: Media

Do the Media Bear Responsibility for Uninformed Voters?

I don’t know why my mind wants to wander tonight into the mine field that is the interminable debate over whether the media have an obligation to provide what society “needs” rather than focusing only on what it “wants”. But there you have it.

Economics suggest that TV, movies, newspapers, magazines and Internet sites broadly “should” provide only that which they believe will sell. They are market-driven businesses. With the exception of TV, they are largely unregulated enterprises, at least insofar as the content they choose to disseminate is concerned.

But it seems to me to be at least defensible to take the position that being a publisher in the world of media carries with it a certain sense of responsibility for doing one’s part to create the well-informed electorate without which democracy cannot survive, let alone thrive. Absent a social conscience, media companies will tend to purvey to an inattentive and disinterested public only that which will suck more dollars out of their pockets.

‘Nudging’ is a Good Idea Daily Beast Should Continue to Develop and Others Adopt

One of the big problems with the way most people find and consume news today is that it too often ends up backing us into an echo chamber. We find and hear only news about subjects we are already interested in that express opinions with which we already agree. On TV, this is epitomized by Fox News and MSNBC, which take hard right and left (respectively) perspectives on the news, focus a lot on politics (particularly MSNBC, which at one point had the slogan, “THE Place for Politics”), and tend to the news style known as the screed when it comes to contrasting opinions on things about which it believes its viewers care.

echo-chamberBut the problem is even more insidious on Internet news feeds, even those which have at least a patina of objectivity. If you follow news only on Salon or Slate or Daily Beast or even Huffington Post, you will find yourself being fed a steady diet of pretty carefully screened opinions on things that assume a lot about you as a consumer. Those assumptions are probably right. But switch your news to (or supplement it with) more eclectic sources like Google News or some other relatively opinion-free aggregators, one of the major national daily newspapers’ sites,or perhaps even a collection of site with different agendas, and you still find yourself ghettoized, at least potentially.

That’s because the Internet features the ability to pre-filter news by topic and source in ways that guarantee you won’t accidentally pollute your perspective on a subject by allowing a contrasting viewpoint to enter your awareness. This personalization technology is a two-edged sword: while it allows you to ignore extremes in news (like feeds from Fox and MSNBC, e.g.), it also allows you to ignore perhaps more responsible voices of the right and left to which exposure might well be valuable to you as a citizen and voter.

The Daily Beast — a news outlet with liberal founders that seems to me to trend more to the right — has just implemented a new technology it calls “nudging.” Using this process, as Nieman Labs describes it:

Red and blue nudge boxes pop up increasingly as readers more actively use the site, offering suggestions to readers. “We may say: ‘You’ve read a lot of politics stories, maybe it’s time for an entertainment story?’ Or, “You’ve read a lot of stories by this writer, do you want to follow him?’” says Dyer. It’s the data readers generate (+1 for reading more than half of a story, -1 for “skipping”) that fuel the kind of individuated nudges readers get.

This is a baby step in an interesting direction that is sure to generate some controversy. It is a manifestation of the long-debated question of whether it is the news media’s job to give you the news it thinks you need to know and understand or should it confine itself to providing information in which you are interested? Going back to Thomas Jefferson, true leaders of our democratic society have had a fundamental belief that only a well-informed electorate could effectively hang onto and manage a real democracy. As Jefferson said, “”. . . whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.” On that basis, a strong argument can be made that the news media need to provide accurate and objective information (as opposed to analysis) about what is going on in the world around us. But in the information-wants-to-be-free model of the Internet, freedom to choose what you’ll see or read and when you’ll experience it are entirely in your control. Ignorance, willful or otherwise, is as dangerous in our society as criminal conduct, perhaps moreso because it affects far more people for far longer.

The first news outlet that ventures into the field of “Here’s something you should read. You can bypass it if you like, but we’re going to remind you that you’re doing so.” is going to score some major publicity and visibility. And, undoubtedly, not a little scorn.

Fantastic Interview with Jon Stewart

I highly recommend you take the time to read this excellent New York Magazine interview with news comic Jon Stewart. It’s interview at its best with a guy who has a very clear idea who he is and what he’s doing and why it’s important for now.

My favorite pull quote:

So am I disappointed in Obama, am I disappointed in the Congress? Honestly, I think I’m just in shock. I think I’m a little stunned that we can’t do better than this, because I know we can. I’m a little stunned that Republicans continue to, if it’s not their ball, refuse to play. I’m a little stunned that Democrats, given their opportunities, haven’t been able to be more effective.

That is so reflective, well-stated that I wish I’d said that.

Stewart’s an icon who refuses to rest on his laurels.


YouTube Considering Commercial-Free Subscriptions?

There are news reports today that YouTube is considering offering ad-free subscription channels as a new way of generating revenue. There is at least one situation in which I would gladly pay for such a subscription, with the proviso that they share the revenue stream with the content provider.

YoUTube LogoI do a lot of meditating. I have found YouTube to be a rich source of very well-done meditations of all kinds. On my spiritual community Web site, One Mind Fellowship, I post some of my favorites. I also write and record meditations (though I have not [yet] begun uploading to YouTube because the graphical end always stops me cold). The most aggravating “feature” of YouTube is that at the start and end of meditations, I’m often blasted with loud, raucous ads that are inappropriate to the purpose I have for watching the underlying videos. It is frankly annoying. So much so that I have recently begun to seek out other video channels for free meditations which don’t incorporate inappropriate advertising.

So if YouTube offered me a noise-free subscription service that I could pay for based on channels or keywords or some other way that would keep the cost down and let me choose the videos I wished to see ad-free, I’d be all over it. Maybe the solution is to use one of those “see an ad or do something to prevent it” things (I don’t know what to call them). One day recently, e.g., I was on a news site. The article I wanted to read was behind something of a paywall but when I had finished reading the lead (which was free), I was asked to do one of three things: agree to watch an ad, answer a short survey, or pay 99 cents for a day pass to access the site content. I like that a lot. I wish more sites would do that. It is a slight interruption in the flow of content but if handled well — as it was here — I could support that idea across the whole Internet. Maybe there’s a business opportunity there?


Washington’s Offensive Team Name Can Be Dealt With Easily

The Los Angeles Times ran an editorial last week suggesting that the FCC is not the right government agency to be dealing with the widespread disgust in the nation at the Washington NFL team’s name and mascot. The op-ed piece was in reaction to a complaint filed by an activist who wants the FCC to refuse to renew the operating license of a radio station that is the flagship of the Washington team’s radio network.

Buried in the editorial was the perfect solution to this entire problem.

Some sports announcers have said they will no longer use the team name during broadcasts, and some newspapers have announced that they’ll refer to the team simply as “Washington.”

redskins_protestExactly. The media can shut this whole thing down in a matter of months simply by declining to refer to the team by its nickname. It’s hardly necessary for the media to use the team nickname — or even a contraction of it — to provide full coverage of the team and its performance. If it became common practice, the club would be forced to re-examine its entrenched position on this ludicrous issue.

I’m only a lonely blogger and I’ve probably not mentioned the Washington football team more than a handful of times in my life, so nobody really cares, but I’m going to do this as well.

On Daily Kos, Don’t Criticize Democrats or Try to Improve the Party or Mention Third Parties

As I have left the Democratic Party’s fold, I now leave Daily Kos. I’ve been a paid subscriber for some time, a fairly frequent commenter, and a faithful reader of their daily digest. I’ve signed many of their petitions. But I made a big mistake when I signed up for the site in not recognizing that it is decidedly not a progressive site. It is a Democratic Party site.

I should have learned my lesson a few months ago when I posted something favorable to the Green Party. But I didn’t. I posted a piece today (which I’m reproducing on this blog) designed less to advocate the Green Party than to advocate that Bernie Sanders and any Progressive who wanted to save the Democrats from yet another neoliberal has-been named Hillary Clinton should run on the Green ticket. My point was that previous candidates such as Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich who have run as Democrats in an effort to yank the party back from the Right where it is wallowing with decreasing distinction from the Republicans, ought to run as Greens to send a clearer electoral message to the Democrats.

My post was slammed by 56 commenters, not one of whom agreed with me, several of whom suggested I delete it (which I did) and most of whom pointed out that the Daily Kos is a Democratic Party blog, not a progressive issues one.

So be it. I canceled my subscription (which had several more months to run), I’ve unsubscribed to their daily digest, I will ignore any request to sign their petitions, and they can just disappear as far as I’m concerned. They are too insular and intolerant to deserve another second of my time or attention.

Good-bye, Daily Kos, and good riddance.


BBC Reporters to Stop Interviewing Anti-Science Fringers

BBC_logoAccording to this piece on, reporters at the BBC are being instructed not to seek out climate change deniers and other anti-science Fringie McFringers (as Rachel Maddow hilariously calls them) to provide “balance” to news coverage.

I think I just fell back in love with the BBC.

As a retired journalist, I have, over the past many years, become increasingly disenchanted with my former profession. In an effort to be “objective” and “balanced”, more and more news outlets have been giving equal time to outlandish, preposterous and simply false propaganda on a broad variety of issues. This has applied not only in the field of science coverage but also in reporting on topics like homosexuality, equal marriage, race, religion, and others too numerous to mention.

It is not, e.g., “fair and balanced” coverage to treat as equally qualified experts someone whose  viewpoint on homosexuality, e.g., is that it can be “treated” as if it were a disease or counseled away as if it were a choice. Those are completely debunked myths that do not deserve any coverage, let along equal coverage with accurate, scientific viewpoints.

The job of a real journalist includes filtering through stories to find the actual facts behind a story. Where actual, qualified, legitimate scientists and experts disagree, then balance might dictate that all views be aired. Even then, one of the facts of the story is that a huge majority of experts agree on one viewpoint.

This whole notion of objective reporting has been decimated by editors and publishers less interested in journalism than in propaganda, ratings and circulation. Since when, e.g., did it become legitimate news when one contestant gets voted off a reality show island, or when a fictional character in a show like “Breaking Bad” or “Downton Abbey” gets arrested or elected? Yet “news” stories about such obvious non-events appear on the pages of our nation’s newspapers and on news Web sites and on broadcast media all the time today. It’s all crap, people! Not a shred of news in the entire pile of bull dung. \

My friend and fellow retired journalist Tony Seton periodically sends to his list a story that simply reports the headlines above the fold on a particular day’s issue of some of our nation’s once great newspapers like the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the LA Times. It is sickening to read. There are days when not a single legitimate story appears prominently on the front page. These are not “slow news days”. These are Stupid Editor Days.

So, kudos to the BBC. I’m going to start reading and watching your coverage as one of my main daily news stops and if I run into an occasional (or regular) paywall, I’ll pay the freight. Maybe the simple ideas that reporters and editors need to act as curators of legitimate content will catch on.


Internet Didn’t Invent Bubbles and Echo Chambers But News Media Capitalized On Them

One thing that’s both fascinating and confusing about the Internets is the ability of each of us to create an online world entirely built of our own interests and desires, to the exclusion of other worlds that are equally vibrant.

Thus spake Catharine P. Taylor recently on Social Media Insider.

I don’t know why Ms. Taylor finds this obvious observation either fascinating or confusing.

For many, many years prior to the emergence of the Internet, people tended to congregate and socialize with people whose viewpoints they agreed with and to shun those whose ideas were different…or at least to avoid discussing those different ideas in social settings. The old adage that, “Birds of a feather stick together,” alongside the etiquette reminder never to discuss politics or religion in polite company both attest to that. And they both go back a long way before the Internet.

No, Americans (particularly) have long — perhaps always — preferred to insulate themselves as much as possible from news, ideas, and opinions with which they disagreed except for the occasional necessity to argue them with someone with whom one’s relationship was not, perhaps, all that sanguine to begin with.

media_logosWhat has changed is that “back in the day” everyone got their news from common sources, of which there were relatively few. Those sources tended to report a wide variety of news, both out of a sense of journalistic integrity and for commercial reasons: you wanted to cover everyone’s favorite topics so as to draw the largest possible subscriber base.

Today, you can pick your news outlet based not on its objectivity not only in viewpoint but also in selection of news (which I would argue is even more important than viewpoint), but also based specifically on the narrowest possible perspective that coincides with your own experiences and values. The result is that almost all of us are much less well informed than we were less than a generation ago. We of the Left like to poke fun at those people who get all their news from Fox “News” which is demonstrably nothing more than a propaganda outlet for the GOP and the Right. But we are not really any better if we get all of our news from MSNBC, which is somewhat less demonstrably an outlet for the Democrats (because they have drifted too far right) but unarguably brings a distinct Leftist view to its coverage.

It is, as Biblical wisdom has it, much easier for us to see the mote in our goofy Republican uncle’s eye than to see the beam in our own.

But try, as I have, to find a news outlet that is at least reasonably objective in its choice of stories it covers and opinions it offers, without paying for the coverage, and you run into the problem that the only such sources tend to be news aggregators. These outfits don’t do any news evaluation, so their choice of stories by subject is often bizarre, even unfathomable. They are less convenient; every story involves at least two clicks. They don’t always differentiate between free and paid sources, which results in greater inefficiency. Plus, of course, they don’t generally offer coverage of your local area, which means you must also try to fill that void.

It is difficult to expand your horizons outside your narrow circle of interests, friends, and viewpoints on today’s targeted Web and in today’s screeching 24-hour news cycle dominated by the Right but populated by the Left as well. At one time, CNN could be counted on for broad coverage and reasonable objectivity but that has long since ceased to be the case; it’s now Fox Lite.

I don’t have an answer.

My own news fare tends to come from Google News (an aggregator with all the problems I just cited plus a fairly narrow list of stories it bothers with, chosen by criteria I can’t begin to fathom), Al Jazeera (which does a surprisingly objective job of news coverage and whose opinions I mostly agree with but not always) and my local TV and weekly news outlets (the local daily, the Monterey County Herald, having gone to poop in recent years). And yet if I want to understand what’s really going on with a given story, I find myself having to use Google Search and dig into outlets whose objectivity I’m not clear about. A retired journalist friend and I frequently bemoan the demise of great reporting but we can’t come up with a model that will work financially and return us to the Good Old Days. Even what we consider the three great newspapers in America — the New York and Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post — are succumbing more and more to above-the-fold garbage that, five years ago, would not have appeared anywhere in their sacred foolscap.

And now I’m starting to sound like the Old Man I am. So I’m going back into my Grandpa Cave.


Why the Networks Don’t Cover Net Neutrality

Jim Hightower nails this one in his newsletter today.

Network logos for ABC, CBS, and NBCIn pointing out that the recent FCC ruling that threatens to so badly change the Internet that it will literally destroy the Web as we know it, was front-page news everywhere except ABC, CBS and NBC, Hightower identifies the reason. And it’s not a surprise to anyone paying attention to the media scene.

Follow the money. NBC is owned by Comcast, which would reap a fortune by selling fast-lane access, so the conglomerate doesn’t want its news arm notifying the public and stirring up opposition to the FCC action. ABC is owned by Disney, which is eager to purchase preferential passage for all of its many internet offerings. Likewise, CBS owns “Showtime” and multiple sports networks that want to push their internet programming ahead of smaller competitors.

I know there are a lot of things of greater long-term consequence going on in the world. But this is one we have to stop and one we can stop. But we have to make a helluva noise. Close to 105,000 of us have already made our feelings known.

Have you made your comments to the FCC yet? (Click on Proceeding #14-28.)