My Facebook op-ed

Aftenposten asked me to adapt my Medium post about the Facebook napalm photo incident as an op-ed. Here it is in Norwegian. Here is the English text:

Text:

Facebook needs an editor — to stop Facebook from editing.

An editor might save Facebook from making embarrassing and offensive judgments about what will offend, such as its decision last week requiring writer Tom Egeland, Aftenposten editor Espen Egil Hansen, then Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg to take down a photo of great journalistic meaning and historic importance: Nick Ut’s image of Vietnamese girl Kim Phúc running from a 1972 napalm attack after tearing off her burning clothes. Only after Hansen wrote an eloquent, forceful, and front-page letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg did the service relent.

Facebook’s reflexive decision to take down the photo is a perfect example of what I would call algorithmic thinking, the mindset that dominates the kingdom that software built, Silicon Valley. Facebook’s technologists, from top down, want to formulate rules and then enable algorithms to enforce those rules. That’s not only efficient (who can afford the staff to make these decisions with more than a billion people posting every day?) but they also believe it’s fair, equally enforced for all. As they like to say in Silicon Valley, it scales.

The rule that informed the algorithm in this case was clear: If a photo portrays a child (check) who is naked (check) then the photo is rejected. The motive behind that rule could not be more virtuous: eliminating the distribution of child pornography. But in this case, of course, the naked girl did not constitute child pornography. No, the pornography here is a tool of war, which is what Ut’s photo so profoundly portrays.

Technology scales but life does not and that is a problem Facebook of all companies should recognize, for Facebook is the post-mass company. Mass media treat everyone the same because that’s what Gutenberg’s invention demands; the technology of printing scales by forcing media to publish the exact same product for thousands unto millions of readers. Facebook, on the other hand, does not treat us all alike. Like Google, it is a personal services company that gives every user a unique service, no two pages ever the same. The problem with algorithmic thinking, paradoxically, is that it continues the mass mindset, treating everyone who posts and what they post exactly the same, under a rule meant to govern every circumstance.

The solution to Facebook’s dilemma is to insert human judgment into its processes. Hansen is right that editors cannot live with Zuckerberg and company as master editor. Facebook would be wise to recognize this. It should treat editors of respected, quality news organizations differently and give them the license to make decisions. Facebook might want to consider giving editors an allocation of attention they can use to better inform their users. It should allow an editor of Hansen’s stature to violate a rule for a reason. I am not arguing for a class system, treating editors better than the masses. I am arguing only that recognizing signals of trust, authority, credibility, and quality will improve Facebook’s recommendations and service.

When there is disagreement , and there will be, Facebook needs a process in place — a person: an editor — who can negotiate on the company’s behalf. The outsider needn’t always win; this is still Facebook’s service, brand, and company and in the end it has the right to decide what it distributes just as much as Hansen has the right to decide what appears in these pages. That is not censorship; it is editing. But the outsider should at least be heard: in short, respected.

If Facebook would hire an editor, would that not be the definitive proof that Facebook is what my colleagues in media insist it is: media? We in media tend to look at the world, Godlike, in our own image. We see something that has text and images (we insist on calling that content ) with advertising (we call that our revenue) and we say it is media, under the egocentric belief that everyone wants to be like us.

Mark Zuckerberg dissents. He says Facebook is not media. I agree with him. Facebook is something else, something new: a platform to connect people, anyone to anyone, so they may do what they want. The text and images we see on Facebook’s pages (though, of course, it’s really just one endless page) is not content. It is conversation. It is sharing. Content as media people think of it is allowed in but only as a tool, a token people use in their conversations. Media are guests there.

Every time we in media insist on squeezing Facebook into our institutional pigeonhole, we miss the trees for the forest: We don’t see that Facebook is a place for people — people we need to develop relationships with and learn to serve in new ways. That, I argue, is what will save journalism and media from extinction: getting to know the needs of people as individuals and members of communities and serving them with greater relevance and value as a result. Facebook could help us learn that.

An editor inside Facebook could explain Facebook’s worldview to journalists and explain journalism’s ethics, standards, and principles to Facebook’s engineers. For its part, Facebook still refuses to fully recognize the role it plays in helping to inform society and the responsibility — like it or not — that now rests on its shoulders. What are the principles under which Facebook operates? It is up to Mark Zuckerberg to decide those principles but an editor — and an advisory board of editors — could help inform his thinking. Does Facebook want to play its role in helping to better inform the public or just let the chips fall where they may (a question journalists also need to grapple with as we decide whether we measure our worth by our audience or by our impact)? Does Facebook want to enable smart people — not just editors  but authors and prime ministers and citizens— to use its platform to make brave statements about justice? Does Facebook want to have a culture in which intelligence — human intelligence — wins over algorithms? I think it does.

So Facebook should build procedures and hire people who can help make that possible. An editor inside Facebook could sit at the table with the technologists, product, and PR people to set policies that will benefit the users and the company. An editor could help inform its products so that Facebook does a better job of enlightening its users, even fact-checking users when they are about to share the latest rumor or meme that has already been proven false through journalists’ fact-checking. An editor inside Facebook could help Facebook help the journalism survive by informing the news industry’s strategy, teaching us how we must go to our readers rather than continuing to make our readers come to us.

But an editor inside Facebook should not hire journalists, create content, or build a newsroom. That would be a conflict of interest, not to mention a bad business decision. No, an editor inside Facebook would merely help make a better, smarter Facebook for us all.

Who should do that job? Based on his wise letter to Mark Zuckerberg, I nominate Mr. Hansen.

15 years later

Fifteen years later, the one odd vestige of that day that still affects me is that my emotions are left vulnerable. It reveals itself in the most ridiculous moments: an obvious tear-jerking moment in a movie, a TV show, someone talking. In these manipulative moments, my emotions are too easily manipulated. I can’t help but feel it well up. I realize what is happening and why and I tamp it back down. But this is how I am reminded when I least expect to be.

And then there are the photos I cannot bear to look at. The worst for me — I can barely type the words — is the falling man photo. It brings back the images I wrote about once in my news report of the events and never speak of again.

I haven’t yet been able to bear the idea of going to the 9/11 museum. I don’t much like going to the memorial, which is beautiful, yes, but it is a hole in our city and souls.

On this morning at this moment, as I type this, hearing the bell that marks the minute when the second plane hit the south tower brings back the feeling of the heat I felt on the other side of the impact and then I cry.

We said we would never forget. It is not easy to remember.

* * *

Here is the story I wrote for the Star-Ledger the afternoon of the attacks.

Here is my oral history of my experience on 9/11, recorded (badly) a few days after the event.

Here is a meditation I delivered on the jahreszeit of 9/11 in my church, when I read the Kaddish.

Here are the tweets I posted remembering each moment as it passed ten years later.

Dear Mark Zuckerberg

Dear Mark Zuckerberg

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Facebook needs an editor — to stop Facebook from editing. It needs someone to save Facebook from itself by bringing principles to the discussion of rules.

There is actually nothing new in this latest episode: Facebook sends another takedown notice over a picture with nudity. What is new is that Facebook wants to take down an iconic photo of great journalistic meaning and historic importance and that Facebook did this to a leading editor, Espen Egil Hansen, editor-in-chief of Aftenposten, who answered forcefully:

The media have a responsibility to consider publication in every single case. This may be a heavy responsibility. Each editor must weigh the pros and cons. This right and duty, which all editors in the world have, should not be undermined by algorithms encoded in your office in California…. Editors cannot live with you, Mark, as a master editor.

Facebook has found itself — or put itself — in other tight spots lately, most recently the trending topics mess, in which it hired and then fired human editors to fix a screwy product.

In each case, my friends in media point their fingers, saying that Facebook is media and thus needs to operate under media’s rules, which my media friends help set. Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook is not media.

On this point, I will agree with Zuckerberg (though this isn’t going to get him off the hook). As I’ve said before, we in media tend to look at the world, Godlike, in our own image. We see something that has text and images (we insist on calling that content ) with advertising (we call that our revenue) and we say it is media, under the egocentric belief that everyone wants to be like us.

No, Facebook is something else, something new: a platform to connect people, anyone to anyone, so they may do whatever they want. The text and images we see on Facebook’s pages (though, of course, it’s really just one endless page, a different page for every single user) is not content. It is conversation. It is sharing. Content as we media people think of it is allowed in but only as a tool, a token people use in their conversations. We are guests there.

Every time we in media insist on squeezing Facebook into our institutional pigeonhole, we miss the trees for the forest: We miss understanding that Facebook is a place for people, people we need to develop relationships with and learn to serve in new ways. It’s not a place for content.

For its part, Facebook still refuses to acknowledge the role it has in helping to inform society and the responsibility — like it or not — that now rests on its shoulders. I’ve written about that here and so I’ll spare you the big picture again. Instead, in these two cases, I’ll try to illustrate how an editor — an executive with an editorial worldview — could help advise the company: its principles, its processes, its relationships, and its technology.

The problem at work here is algorithmic thinking. Facebook’s technologists, top down, want to formulate a rule and then enable an algorithm to enforce that rule. That’s not only efficient (who needs editors and customer-service people?) but they also believe it’s fair, equally enforced for all. It scales.Except life doesn’t scale and that’s a problem Facebook of all companies should recognize as it is the post-mass-media company, the company that does not treat us all alike; like Google, it is a personal-services company that gives every user a unique service and experience. The problem with algorithmic thinking, paradoxically, is that it continues a mass mindset.

In the case of Aftenposten and the Vietnam napalm photo, Hansen is quite right that editors cannot live with Mark et al as master editor. Facebook would be wise to recognize this. It should treat editors of respected, quality news organizations differently and give them the license to make decisions. Here I argued that Facebook might want to consider giving editors an allocation of attention they can use to better inform their users. In this current case, the editor can decide to post something that might violate a rule for a reason; that’s what editors do. I’m not arguing for a class system, treating editors better. I’m arguing that recognizing signals of trust, authority, credibility will improve Facebook’s recommendation and service. (As a search company, Google understands those signals better and this is the basis of the Trust Project Google is helping support.)

When there is disagreement , and there will be, Facebook needs a process in place — a person: an editor — who can negotiate on the company’s behalf. The outside editor needn’t always win; this is still Facebook’s service, brand, and company. But the outside editor should be heard: in short, respected.

These decisions are being made now on two levels: The rule in the algorithm spots a picture of a naked person (check) who is a child (check!) and kills it (because naked child equals child porn). The rule can’t know better. The algorithm should be aiding a human court of appeal who understand when the rule is wrong. On the second level, the rule is informed by the company’s brand protection: “We can’t ever allow a naked child to appear here.” We all get that. But there is a third level Facebook must have in house, another voice at the table when technology, PR, and product come together: a voice of principle.

What are the principles under which Facebook operates? Facebook should decide but an editor — and an advisory board of editors — could help inform those principles. Does Facebook want to play its role in helping to better inform the public or just let the chips fall where they may (something journalists also need to grapple with)? Does it want to enable smart people — not just editors — to make brave statements about justice? Does it want to have a culture in which intelligence — human intelligence — rules? I think it does. So build procedures and hire people who can help make that possible.

Now to the other case, trending topics . You and Facebook might remind me that here Facebook did hire people and that didn’t help; it got them in hot water when those human beings were accused of having human biases and the world was shocked!

Here the problem is not the algorithm, it is the fundamental conception of the Trending product. It sucks. It spits out crap. An algorithmist might argue that’s the public’s fault: we read crap so it gives us crap — garbage people in, garbage links out. First, just because we read it doesn’t mean we agree with it; we could be discussing what crap it is. Second, the world is filled with a constant share of idiots, bozos, and trolls and a bad algorithm listens to them and these dogs of hell know how to game the algorithm to have more influence on it. But third — the important part — if Facebook is going to recommend links, which Trending does, it should take care to recommend good links. If its algorithm can’t figure out how to do that then kill it. This is a simple matter of quality control. Editors can sometimes help with that, too.

Apology to Mexico

I’m honored that my friends at El Universal in Mexico City published a brief opinion piece I wrote for them apologizing to Mexicans for sending them Donald Trump.

Here’s the English text:

 

To my Mexican friends,

I am sorry as an American that we have sent you Donald Trump. Please know that in the end, he speaks for few Americans — too few, God willing, for him to be elected our President. He is merely an aberration of the moment, a fluke, a freak, a phenomenon we can only hope will never be repeated. But in the meantime, your president invites him and you must suffer his company. I apologize.

The blame for Trump rests on many shoulders. There is, of course, Trump’s adopted political party, the Republicans, who for years has tried to reduce government by blocking its legitimate work. They have become the party of anger, finding scapegoats for every problem — most of all, President Obama but also strangers, namely immigrants and Muslims. They became the party of pessimism, declaring that America is falling into deep decline, even as the Obama Administration made great progress in fixing the problems it inherited: the economy, jobs, and wars, most notably. Thus the Republicans created a breeding ground for Trump, someone who would harness the emotions of a certain slice of America.

News media deserve a large share of the blame for Trump. First, they treated him as a carnival attraction, a funny clown who would attract audiences to their networks and pages. The heads of CNN and CBS rubbed their hands in greedy glee at how good Trump was for their businesses, which are still built on attracting masses with show business, rather than serving citizens with reliable information. My journalistic colleagues didn’t see the danger ahead and so they didn’t warn the public until it was too late, until Trump stood a step from the White House. Media have become his willing accomplices, treating his offensive and insane pronouncements — for example, that a wall blocking Mexico will solve our problems, that Hillary Clinton is a bigot — as serious topics that should be discussed for hours on end rather than disproven, ridiculed, and dismissed with facts and reason.

Journalism also failed badly at reflecting the concerns and problems of Trump’s core: underemployed, angry white men from the center of the nation. If media had done a better job of reporting — and then informing — their worldviews, I wonder whether Trump and his promoters would have found fertile soil for their divisiveness, fear, ignorance, and bigotry. If my party, the Democrats, had done a better job of hearing and addressing their concerns, could they also have blunted Trump’s appeal?

I believe we are seeing the last gasp of the myth of the American melting pot. When I grew up, we were taught to believe in assimilation: that every American would end up sounding if not looking alike. That is the presumption of the mass (though I believe that in the suffering of publishing and broadcasting in the internet age, we are witnessing the death of the mass-media business model and will also witness the end of the idea of the mass). Rule by the majority looks good when the majority looks like you; what Trump’s troops fear is they will soon be in the minority.

Today, living in New York and teaching at its City University, which values diversity, I have learned instead how much richer America is for the many distinct identities and backgrounds that make up this nation. We are, of course, better because Mexican Americans have brought their culture, worldview, heritage, and language to the United States. We are better for having doors, not walls. Though today, many of you might wish you had a wall to keep Trump out.

Americans — myself included — still struggle to learn the lesson of diversity, to see the value that Mexicans, Latin Americans of many nations, and people from all around the world bring to our culture, economy, language, and daily life. In that sense, Trump is the fault of all of us, for we have not quickly enough embraced the value of embracing people we thought of as strangers.

 

 

Apology to Germany

For the record. I did not insult Germans about VR. I was honored that Die Welt asked me to write about VR for a special they were doing. The lede gained something in the translation. I wrote:

Virtual reality will not change the world. But it might help change how we see it.

This was replaced by this subhed:

Deutsche Verbraucher sind laut Umfragen besonders skeptisch, wenn es um virtuelle Eindrücke geht. Liegt das etwa an der Nazi-Zeit? Oder daran, dass schon der Begriff Virtual Reality in die Irre führt?

Which means:

German consumers are particularly skeptical when it comes to virtual reality. Does that have something to do with the Nazi era? Or that is it that the term virtual reality is misleading? 

I have been critical of Germany’s overreaction, in my view, about American technology companies and copyright and privacy. But I purposely did not want to make this another German #technophobia story. Lower down in the piece, I raised the question and cited a few oddities — like the philosopher who found Nazi ideology in Pokemon Go (!) — but said that VR is sweeping Germany as elsewhere. And note that I pinned those oddities on German media.

Not a big deal. But I wanted to be clear, for the record. Here, by the way, is the English text (with German quotes still in German so as not to double-translate):

 

Virtual reality will not change the world. But it might help change how we see it.

Thanks to the internet, we are coming to the end of the Gutenberg Age. His era — not quite six centuries long — was ruled by text: content that filled the containers we call books, magazines, and newspapers. Now the information and entertainment that media provided are available in so many more forms: as databases, applications, visualizations, bot chats, videos, podcasts, memes, online conversations, social connections, education, and so on. Text is not dead. It just has a lot of new company.

Are we also leaving the Kodak Age, thanks to the advent of virtual reality? The printed photograph — like the movie and TV screens that followed — was bound by its two dimensions. But now images are freed to expand past those borders.

“VR” is being used, incorrectly, to include everything that breaks out of film photography’s flat Weltanschauung: 360-degree (and panoramic) photography, 360-degree video, augmented reality, light-field photography, and virtual reality itself (that is, a computer-generated, interactive representation of an environment).

At the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, where I teach, we believe we need to start our students not with VR but with 360-degree photography and video. We will push them to think and see outside the single path between the lens and the subject: straight-on, static, one-way. We want our students to ask when it could be useful for the public to see what is happening to either side or even behind them. How does that peripheral view impart added information or perspective?

As with every shiny new gadget that tempts us media folk, 360-degree media are being misused. There is no point in bringing a 360-degree camera to an interview, for when do you want to turn around and look the other way when talking with a person? Augmented reality is being used to make two-dimensional printed pages look three-dimensional; I frankly don’t see much point.

The first good and obvious use of 360-degree media is to put the viewer in the middle of a scene. Recently, news outlets used 360-degrees to put viewers in the middle of the balloon drop at the end of each American political convention or in an Olympic arena in Rio. They have used these cameras to give us a daredevil’s you-are-there perspective. All that is fine. But once you’ve seen one dangerous fall off a cliff, haven’t you seen them all?

I hear much talk that VR brings empathy to media, putting the viewer in the body of a story’s subject to enhance the viewer’s understanding. True. The Guardian took viewers into a six-by-nine-foot solitary confinement prison cell, a frightening experience. Bild took users to a battle in Iraq. I’ve stood in a virtual setting in which an angry man was pointing a gun at a woman just the other side of me; it is unnerving. I’ve even heard the empathy argument used to justify VR porn.

Making 360-degree video requires much expertise and expense: Multiple cameras sit in tricky rigs that can warp with heat and ruin the end result. Complex software is used to stitch all this video into one scene or to animate action. Virtual reality requires even more difficult software. And watching VR still requires a hassle: donning a cheap or expensive headset and looking like a fool while avoiding puking. Since the equipment is so expensive and difficult, I wonder whether we’ll soon see VR cafés just as, not long ago, we went to internet cafés to get online.

All that is why I am more enthused about using relatively inexpensive 360-degree cameras like the Samsung Gear 360 or Ricoh Theta S (or shooting panoramas on a phone). The best way to reach an audience of scale today is to post 360-degree photos on Facebook or video on YouTube.

The shiny new panoramic camera that has me most excited these days doesn’t even shoot 360 degrees around, only 150 degrees. The Mevo video camera captures a wider angle than regular video cameras, which simulates having multiple cameras as in a TV studio. It is controlled entirely on an iPhone or iPad: Click on someone’s face and that’s the closeup; move a box on the screen to shift the closeup. It’s the first camera written to Facebook Live standards. I’ve been using it to make my own podcasts. When I showed this small, $400 device to a newspaper owner, he ordered his staff to stop building their TV studio and control room.

Pokémon Go got me jazzed anew about the opportunities of augmented reality or AR. Years ago, a Dutch company called Layar showed the possibilities of adding information to what the camera on a phone saw (“This restaurant has great steaks” or “George Washington slept there”) but they were early. Now Pokémon shows how we could augment what a user sees in public with history or news about a location, restaurant reviews, ads and bargains, or annotations left by other users.

Ah, but leave it to German media to worry about the implications of a new technology and its application. In Bild, Franz Josef Wagner complained: “Aber die Nerds, die Millionen Pokémon-Süchtigen, sollten nicht nach Monstern suchen. Sie sollten die Wirklichkeit suchen.”

More amazingly (or amusingly), in Die Zeit, philosopher Slavoj Žižek discerned Nazi philosophy in Pokémon Go: “Und hat Hitler den Deutschen nicht das Fantasiebild seiner nationalsozialistischen Ideologie beschert, durch dessen Raster sie überall ein besonderes Pokémon – ‘den Juden’ – auftauchen sahen, das sie mit einer Antwort auf die Frage versorgte, wogegen man zu kämpfen habe?”

VR wariness is not just German media’s fault. An international survey by the firm GfK found German consumers the most skeptical about the value of a virtual experience. Nonetheless, especially in gaming, VR is also storming Germany.

Yes, there are issues to be grappled with in VR and its related technologies: When you shoot 360-degree photos and video, do the people behind the camera realize they are being captured? We have already seen that people watching virtual reality experiences have a heightened sense of reality. But I don’t buy the fear that people will withdraw into their VR headsets and experiences; it’s just another way to look at images.

VR et al might just give us another way to experience what other people experience — that is why both Facebook and Google are investing heavily in the medium, so we all can more fully share our lives. But fear not: just as text lives on after the Gutenberg age, reality will still exist after virtual reality.

 

 

 

The News and its New Silent Majority: Clinton Supporters

hillary hat

This election, I’ve been trying an experiment, judging journalism from a different perspective, from the outside, as a member of a community and a partisan. I don’t like what I’m learning about my profession.

We journalists tend to separate ourselves from the public we serve. We call ourselves objective, to distinguish us from the opinionated masses and to enable us to rise above their fray. We fancy ourselves observers, not actors, in the dramas we chronicle. I’ve argued that we must end that separation and learn to empathize with the needs and goals of the communities we serve, even considering ourselves members of those communities. Thus, social journalism. But in this argument, the journalist is still the journalist.

Then I found myself in a position to look at the field not as a journalist but as an involved participant in a community. That community: Hillary Clinton supporters.

I haven’t been a reporter or editor in years. I have been a loudly opinionated blogger since 2001, transparent about my political views and votes. I made it clear eight years ago that I voted for Clinton and then for Barack Obama. So there’s no surprise in telling you that I would vote for Clinton now. But this time, I decided to become politically involved. I bought my Hillary hat, went to a few campaign events, contributed to the campaign, made my support abundantly clear on social media, and a week ago volunteered at the Clinton office in West Philly, registering voters, driving others doing the same, and briefly canvassing a neighborhood so I could talk with voters. These are things journalists have never been allowed to do. Some people tell me every day on Twitter that I should not be allowed to do these things now. I disagree.

I have my reasons:

First, #ImWithHer. Full stop. I want to be clear that I am enthusiastic about Clinton’s candidacy. I am not voting for her as the lesser of evils. I am not just voting against Donald Trump. I am not voting for her in spite of all the reasons media give not to do so. I am voting for Hillary Clinton because I respect and trust her intelligence, experience, policies, and good will. I tweeted 25 reasons (and counting) #WhyImWithHer.

Other community members’ reasons #WhyImWithHer at Clinton’s West Philly campaign office

Second, I am voting against Trump and actively opposing him because I see a moral imperative to do so. As Jay Rosen said in my dotNYC podcast, Trump’s candidacy approaches a civic emergency. As Univision’s Jorge Ramos said in Time: “It doesn’t matter who you are — a journalist, a politician or a voter — we’ll all be judged by how we responded to Donald Trump…. And neutrality is not an option.” This is my generation’s “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” Still, I’m not hiding behind any Trump exception to the journalistic canon, arguing that this year is special. If Clinton were running against a reasonable, human, patriotic, unbigoted, smart, articulate, decent, mature, experienced opponent, I’d still be her passionate, open supporter.

My third reason — a fringe benefit of sorts — is that I’ve wanted a better understanding of journalism from the public’s perspective and I finally saw I could not do that unless the coverage mattered to me, unless I took it personally. I also realized that this meant I could no longer claim to be standing removed, as the disinterested critic. Some years ago, when I spoke on a panel at the Online News Association, an editor came to the mic complaining about my use of the term “citizen journalism.” She cried (choking back real tears): “I’m a citizen, too.” Then act like a citizen, I said; be a part of your community. Many years later, I decided to take my advice.

As I consume the news in my role as a citizen, not media critic or journalist, I find myself constantly aggravated — not just by Fox News but also by CNN and the Associated Press, often by MSNBC and NPR, and occasionally by The New York Times and The Washington Post. My lessons so far from this:


Journalism is a lousy mirror.

I don’t see myself in any of the coverage of the campaign. All I ever hear from media is that nobody likes or trusts the one candidate who has an 89 percent chance of winning the presidency. In media, I never hear from voters like me who are enthusiastic supporters. I never see reporters wading among eager backers at Clinton rallies to ask them how much they like her and why. I don’t even hear her surrogates (what a ridiculous beltway/TV invention that is, by the way) asked about their support of Clinton, only their defense of her. In media, I never hear echoes of the voices I heard last week when I met people on the porches of West Philly, who told me their families were all in to vote for Hillary. (Only when I continued the conversation did they also agree we must defeat Trump. Like me, they are voting for, not against. )

I’ve been able to use Twitter to call journalists on this failing. When The Post’s Post’s Chris Cillizza labeled Clinton a “deeply flawed” candidate on CNN once too often, I tweeted a challenge and, to his credit, Cillizza answered. He said polls show that two-thirds of Americans don’t trust her. But compared to whom? Four-fifths of Americans don’t trust journalists. When media keep hammering again and again how untrusted Clinton is, couldn’t that become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

This is why the great James Carey despised the reductionist impact of public opinion polls on democracy and the press:

[P]ublic opinion no longer refers to opinions being expressed in public and then recorded in the press. Public opinion is formed by the press and modeled by the public opinion industry and the apparatus of polling. Today, to get ahead of the story, polling (the word, interestingly enough, from the old synonym for voting) is an attempt to simulate public opinion in order to prevent an authentic public opinion from forming. With the rise of the polling industry our entire understanding of the public went into eclipse.

This is also why I am fascinated by the death of the mass-media business model, the consequent death of the idea of the mass, and the impact this has on institutions — the press, government, politics, advertising, brands, schools— which depend on speaking to and swaying the mass. The mass is dead. Long live communities.

My community of Hillary Clinton supporters is unheard and unseen. But that’s by no means the best example of journalism’s faulty mirror. Because of this election, we now know that the media has done a terrible job of reflecting the concerns and goals of underemployed, angry white men in the heartland. If media had done a better job of reporting — and then informing — their worldviews, would there have been an opening for them to be recruited by Trump and the forces of the so-called alt right?

Far more important than either of those examples, of course, is the experience of minorities in this country: African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, too often women, and too many others who are unseen in media. A few weeks ago, I spoke with a journalist planning to write about how the internet is destroying the truth. The unsaid assumption in his thesis is that we used to have the truth, when the truth came from media. But whose truth was that? The truth presented by mass media was but one view of the world and did not reflect so many diverse worldviews because the people making it were — and still are — not diverse. That is one reason why so many do not trust journalists. (Note that people trust presidents more.)

In this election, I am not a mass. I am not a poll number. I am not a color on a map. Neither am I a journalist. I am a member of a community I cannot see and hear in media. I am frustrated.


The news chases squirrels, calls them rabid, and shoots them.

Every damned day, news organizations scan the horizon for any distraction they could call a scandal — squirrel! — and, finding none, they just dredge up yesterday’s road kill and repeat it all again, over and over, asking the same questions that are so obvious as to be rhetorical but that nonetheless fill hours of airtime.

Is Hillary Clinton a bigot because Donald Trump says so? they ask. Did TV’s anchors even consider what an insult that is to the 91 percent of African American voters who support her vs. 1 percent for Trump? Can’t our commentators see Trump’s trick: that he projects onto Clinton every failing of his own? He is crooked, so he calls her crooked; he is unhinged, so he calls her unhinged; he is a bigot so he first calls her a bigot. But the press treats each new attack as news to be debated. Seriously?

I know I’ll get scorned for this, but I say Clinton’s email scandal isn’t a scandal. It was a mistake. Yes, I believe that she never knowingly sent classified information. Of course, she didn’t. In any case, where her email sat is less important than every issue facing the American electorate.

I’ll get trolled for this, too, but the Clinton Foundation story isn’t a scandaleither. The Foundation does good work, and as James Carville says, someone will be going to hell for cutting off that good work. The Associated Press’ recent effort to find its scrap of squirrel meat in this story was an appalling example of journalism corrupted by the hunt for traffic. It is fine and necessary to ask the questions the AP asked but then, finding no quid pro quo, no smoking gun, why still report the innuendo of the question? I am utterly unconvinced by AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll’s defense of it. Of course, Secretary Clinton met with Melinda Gates and Muhammad Yunus; people line up to meet both of them every year at Davos because they are important people who do important work and, like the Clintons, they both raise and donate funds and find partners to help meet their worthy goals. That’s how the world works. I’d have thought world-wise journalists would be wiser about that. Amazing how they can turn off their sophistication when convenient.

The problems with chasing these squirrels:

  1. Balance: These faux scandals become tokens in journalists’ well-documented insistence on finding balance. Let’s spend one block of our show talking about how Donald Trump demonizes Mexicans and Muslims and — because we need something to “balance” that — let’s spend the next block repeating the same, year-old allegations about Hillary’s damned emails. The hunt for balance is especially cynical this year, as any attempt to give balanced coverage to an unbalanced candidate can only mislead.
  2. Savvy: Journalists use these stories and their impact to try to feed their political savvy, as Jay Rosen has pointed out for years. They want to sound like — no, they want to be — insiders who can predict every political outcome. I’ve been particularly struck this season how both commentators and reporters talk about what a candidate “should” do to win. When was that the reporter’s job, to advise on political strategy for politicians? Do they want to declare themselves partisans? Then they need to declare sides.
  3. Distraction: The real problem, of course, is that these squirrels keep journalism from doing its real job, which is to say….

Journalism does not inform.

If journalism as a whole had done its job informing the electorate in the U.K., I believe there would not have been Brexit. If journalism had informed and educated the American electorate, I am confident there would have been no room for Trump to spread his virus of ignorance, lies, and bigotry. It is patently clear that journalism is doing a terrible job informing the public. Judge the results.

This is what depresses me most and makes me realize more than ever that we must rethink and reinvent the very core of journalism, its relationship with the public, its forms, and its business models. For it’s the business model that makes Les Moonves at CBS and Jeff Zucker at CNN rub their greedy little hands in glee at the audience and revenue the Trump Circus brings them. It’s the business model that has newsrooms chasing rabid squirrels and outrageous Trumpisms to get more volume, less value. It’s the form of journalism — the scoop, the exclu, the provocative TV yelling match, the savvy political roundtable— that brings out our worst in political opportunism and sensationalism, leaving no room for substance. And because we in journalism separate ourselves from the public we serve — sitting above them, in judgment — we try to argue that it’s not our fault if they’re not informed. Because of that separation, we cannot credibly contend that we know what the public’s concerns are; we’re not good at listening. And because of that separation, we still expect people to come to us for the news, when we should be going to them wherever they are.

Imagine if even a fraction of the time we see wasted on cable news were devoted to educating the public about the issues and realities of immigration, refugees, criminal justice, the economy, infrastructure, education, health care costs, entitlement costs, security, the environment, taxes, jobs…. When was the last time you saw TV news do that? How much of any news organization’s work is devoted to doing this, to informing the electorate? Shouldn’t we ask before assigning every story and booking every TV discussion: How will this help the public better decide how to vote?

Journalism is failing the nation. This election is the proof.


Since I’ve declared myself a member of the community of Clinton supporters, I also have standing to criticize the campaign. If the campaign were run more as a grass-roots effort — à la Dean, Obama, Sanders — then it would be easier for the journalists to find and report on the enthusiasm I have seen myself. I can now speak from first-hand experience about how difficult it is to get involved in the campaign in person and online.

If the candidate did a better job addressing the damned email story from the start, maybe — maybe — we wouldn’t be bombarded with it every day.

If the foundation and family were more aggressive in sharing news of what the foundation does then it would be less of a target for squirrel hunters and more of a character statement in her favor.

If the candidate gave more interviews, there’d be less whining among the journalists about her not having a press conference (not that press conferences ever do a great job of informing; interviews are better because they allow for followup).

And — this is going to sound trivial but I mean it — if the campaign didn’t take a full month to ship the Clinton-Kaine bumperstickers, then we’d be seeing them on more cars and it would be more apparent to the journalists that there is a community of Clinton supporters out here.


As I was writing this, I spoke with one of my deans and he pointed out that all my complaints have been the fodder of academic critics of journalism for decades. They are outsiders. It has helped me to be the outsider so I could judge journalism as a user. That these problems continue and perhaps get worse as news companies get more desperate (“We need more traffic! Throw more squirrels on the fire! We need to save money! Fire more reporters!”) is only cause for deeper professional angst.

What could save journalism from uselessness and society from the consequent stupidity and ruin? We bloggers thought we would topple the gatekeepers. Blogs did allow more voices to be heard and social media did enable debate. Then again, blogs led in a straight line to Breitbart and Twitter to Trump and we know where those lines crossed. And as I noted in my Gawker death notice last week, the death of the mass-media business model might mean the death of blogs, too.

What stops me from quitting and sustaining myself on road kill or PR? My students. I tell them they must reinvent journalism. When I spoke with our incoming class last week, I came away inspired by their innovation (in a design exercise, none of them invented a magazine or a web-site filled with long-form writing) and their aspirations (I will once again quote the definition of journalism from student Kate Ryan: “It is a means to inform the public and, in doing so, cultivate an educated, empathetic, and engaged society”).

Does our political journalism inform and cultivate an educated, empathetic, engaged society? It fails on all counts, wouldn’t you agree? Could it ever do all that? Ever the optimist, I will say yes. It must. But we have to throw out our well-worn reflexes and assumptions and start over. Do we need to destroy the news to save it? People think that’s what I’ve been saying for years, but I wasn’t. Until now.

We must create a journalism that mirrors the many and diverse communities and concerns in societies and convenes these communities in dialog so they can foster empathy and understanding. We must create a journalism that educates the public about the issues that matter to each other (so we must start by asking them what matters, not assuming we know). We must create a journalism that does not reduce people to numbers and colors but instead invites them into a substantive, intelligent, fruitful, and civil discussion as individuals and members of communities, not a mass. We have so many new tools to do all that. That’s what I tell my students; they are our last, best hope.

In the meantime, be forewarned: I’ll keep tweeting my support for Clinton and my disgust at Trump. I’ll put my new bumper sticker on the car and wear my Hillary hat. But I won’t go this far:

 https://www.momentaryink.com/product/im-with-her-red/


https://www.momentaryink.com/product/im-with-her-red/

 

Specimens of Old Journalism

Here is AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll defending what I believe were a seriously flawed story and tweet about some of Clinton Foundation donors Hillary Clinton happened to meet with while Secretary of State.

I bring this clip to you because it contains — as my friend Jay Rosen would say — specimens for study, two specimens revealing the difficulty classical journalism has adapting to a new media ecosystem today.

CNN Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter recounts the difficulties the AP had getting Clinton’s meeting records and then asks his audience: “Did they just want to show they had done the work, did they just want to show they had found something, even if it didn’t amount to much?”
Carroll’s answer: “We didn’t say it amounted to the end of the world. We said this is an important and interesting thing that people should know about.”

Editors love to tout news judgment as a key value that journalists add to the flow of information in society. What is the AP’s news judgment here? How important is this story? Somewhere between interesting and the end of the world: You decide.

Stelter shows Carroll how Donald Trump & Co. were exploiting especially the AP’s deceptive tweet promoting this story.

Her answer: “All of us can’t be held responsible for the way that everybody thinks about and responds to and talks about the coverage…. Our responsibility is to give them fair and balanced and rock-solid reporting and let them agree with it, disagree with it, talk about it, think what they might about it.”

Right there is a specimen of a common old journalistic belief: We just report the facts; we have no view; we don’t have a role in what those facts mean or do. I call this the Wernher von Braun Rule:

Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.

Carroll also says: “I think the issue with conflict of interest is not the actual quid pro quo. It’s the proximity. It’s the impression that people have of maybe they got the meeting because they donated, maybe they didn’t.”

In other words, the AP found no evidence of quid pro quo, no smoking gun, nothing here that was wrong, no rock-solid reason to cast aspersions, no real conclusion. But they went with the story anyway because of the impression people might have — an impression the AP’s story gives them. Yet remember that Carroll says she “can’t be held responsible for the way that everybody thinks about and responds to” this story. Does not compute.

We most certainly need to look at the impact our work has, not only in how interested parties exploit it, not only in how the public interprets it, but also in how effective it is in performing our key job: informing the public. Was the public better informed after this story? Did this story give people the information they needed to decide how to vote for President? I would say no. As Stelter said, the AP took what it could get with its Freedom of Information request and tried to make an article out of it. Because that’s what we do. We make articles.
That leads us to our second specimen: the tweet and Carroll’s discussion of it.

The key problem here is that the AP is discussing only 154 meetings out of more than 1,700 Clinton held as Secretary of State, according to her campaign manager. Thus the AP’s math — that 85 of the 154 meetings, or more than half, were with foundation donors — is wrong, deceptive, and irresponsible. The real proportion is more like 5 percent.

On Reliable Sources, Carroll says the tweet linked to the full story. I can’t find anything to click on in that tweet, can you?

When Stelter challenges her about the tweet’s accuracy, Carroll says: “I would say that we’re a lot better at breaking stories and covering news and gathering video and taking photos than we are at tweets. This one could have used some more precision.”

Does that mean you regret it? Stelter asks.

“No, if we felt it was wrong we would have taken it down…. I think it was sloppy. Maybe going forward we would need to work on more on our precision on our tweets.”

Thus she is saying that sloppy imprecision is good enough for Twitter. Nail that to the museum wall.

Stelter confronts her with another tweet that ignores Donald Trump’s exploitation of a tragedy for his political ends:

“It was clumsy,” Carroll admits. “We’re better at news-gathering than we are at promotion.”
In Carroll’s view, then, Twitter is merely an advertising vehicle, a means of promoting the AP’s real work: articles. She does not see it — or, one presumes, the rest of social media — as another form of reporting, another means of informing the public.

What have we learned about classical journalism in this age? We see that classical journalists think it is their job to make good stories. I would argue that our job is to inform the public. Classical journalists say their work ends when they produce their stories — they aren’t responsible for what comes next. I say we should always ask why we are are reporting what we are reporting and what our impact will be. At least at the AP, classical journalists say they want to get readers to their stories. I say it is our job to take journalism — reporting, investigation, facts, context, explanation, impact — to the public, wherever they are, in whatever form necessary. Even on Twitter.

Kathleen Carroll is stepping down as the AP’s editor soon. I honestly feel sympathy for her having to end her tenure with this, trying to defend old journalism in a new world.

On Twitter — where I don’t just promote my articles, I have informative conversations — Raju Narisetti responded to my tweet containing one of Carroll’s quotes on CNN with this:

I agree. But this also should make the AP ask what kind of executive editor it needs next, an editor who can rethink what the Associated Press’ job is in an age when we can inform each other (we are becoming our own wire service), when the AP can inform people in so many new ways, when bad actors can use the AP’s reporting for their ends, when the standards of journalism — bringing facts, correction, understanding, context, investigation and other classical journalistic values — are more needed than ever.

Sorry, Nick

I remember clearly, in Gawker’s early days, when my old friend Nick Denton insisted that what his new blog was producing was not journalism. He didn’t want to come speak at a journalism school. He refused to hire journalists, as they’d already been ruined for Gawker’s work.

But yesterday, in his eulogy for the devil baby he birthed, Nick draped Gawker’s casket in the flag of Journalism, waving the words journalist, journalism, and even journalismism 27 times.

Sorry, Nick, but maybe you were right the first time.

Don’t worry: I’m not about to launch into a J-schoolmarm scold about about Gawker violating journalism’s ten thousand commandments. No, I’m going to use this as a teachable moment to ask: WTF is journalism now? After Gawker. On the internet. In the age of Trump.

I had the honor of spending last week with our impressive incoming class at the CUNY J-school, trying to help them put journalism — their coming months of classes and their careers thereafter — in the context of history, business, and our role in society. I asked them each to begin by defining journalism. We discussed many thoughtful insights, including the idea that journalism exists to “cultivate an educated, empathetic, and engaged society.” We also discussed one definition that might as well have been Nick’s in his remembrance: that it is the journalist’s job to disrupt the status quo and bring down powerful institutions or people. That is certainly a common view in the profession.

Once having done our jobs afflicting the comfortable, do we ever ask, “What then?” Is it journalism’s job just to expose and destroy? Or to build and improve? Should we ask the same question of the net today: Is it the purpose of blogs and now social media to upend? Or to progress? Why are we here? Why do we bother?

In her more excellent elegy to Gawker, its founding editor, Elizabeth Spiers, saw in Gawker’s life the larger story of blogs: “Blogging gave us everything we love — and hate — about the web,” said the headline. Right. We had freedom and attitude and reported to no one. In our existence and our worldview, we were the anti-institutions. Elizabeth writes:

We hoped blogs would democratize media and allow people to make real connections via the Web. We feared that power would accrue to a handful of sites or writers; that this small group of people would talk among themselves and exclude others; that eventually, inevitably, what we considered an art (sort of) would be degraded by commerce.
Yes, basically all the bad things came true.

Now I wonder whether the death of Gawker — not to mention the departure of Arianna Huffington from Huffington Post — signals the super nova of blogs and everything we held dear and every ill we caused. I don’t say this from atop a pedestal. In my day, I was down in the blogging trenches, snarking along with the rest of them. I had my share of feuds and fits. You could say I damned near brought Dell down. That all seemed like fun until it wasn’t. Now I long not for the return of the gatekeeper institutions, only for a path to civility.

What hath we wrought? Did blogs and their commercial, psychotic apotheosis, Gawker, open the door for the armies of trolls that have taken over social media? Did we cause Breitbart or can we blame that on Fox News and Roger Ailes? Should we blame Gawker for Trumpism and Twitter? In Advertising Age, Simon Domenco damned near does:

There was something downright proto-Trumpian about Gawker as it shifted from afflict-the-comfortable snark to take-no-prisoners drive-bys. In fact, these days, when Donald Trump really loses it and gets personal and goes absolutely nuclear on his targets — particularly when he attacks the family members of his targets — it’s hard for me not to think of the tone and tactics of Gawker at its worst.

It is often lamented that the Arab Spring proved good at tearing down old regimes but not at building new ones. Is that what journalism, news, and media have become? Are we simply too early in this process of disruption and destruction to expect more? Or is that precisely our problem: We expect too little. I return to my student Kate Ryan’s high aspiration for journalism:

It is a means to inform the public and, in doing so, cultivate an educated, empathetic, and engaged society.

Gawker did not have that ambition. In this election, cable news does not have that ambition. How much of journalism does? As I think about trying to save journalism, I ask first what we are trying to save. The answer can’t be snark, gossip, meaningless blather, and cruel destruction. We must be of value in people’s lives, helping them improve their communities and society. Or why bother? Therein lies the only hope of finding a new business model for journalism: raising it up, being of value.

In Gawker, we also saw the implosion — the symbolic last gasp — of the mass-media business model, in which Reach Rules, forcing us to do anything (and I mean anything) to get more page views, more traffic, for more ads and more pennies.

We know precisely where that leads: to the day when Gawker outed a private and married media executive being blackmailed by a gay escort. Gawker’s editors did that just because they could. They had freedom, remember? Freedom was Gawker’s ultimate value. But on that day, Nick finally found his limit and killed that reprehensible piece. His editors quit in protest, claiming freedom of speech. No, boys, freedom of speech does not mean that you have to publish everything you could publish. Freedom of speech also protects the right and necessity to edit responsibly. One of those editors, Max Read, wasn’t exactly contrite in his less-good obit for Gawker:

It would be nice to say that I struggled with the ethics of publishing the story, or that, even better, my maniacal and sociopathic boss pressured me into publishing it. But there was very little question in my mind: It seemed so naturally a Gawker story that I assigned it immediately. . . . I had gone out on the limb because I liked it out there. I liked being the villain, the critic, the bomb-thrower. If one of my bombs went off in my face, it was only my fault.

Gawker no longer brought down the powerful. Gawker became the power to be brought down. Enter Peter Thiel.

So now we come to the real lesson in Gawker’s death. Nick would have us believe that (sorry for the spoiler): “Gawker’s demise turns out to be the ultimate Gawker story. It shows how things work.”

Sorry, Nick, but the real moral to this story is banal, prosaic, obvious, and trite. Gawker’s editors and Gawker’s destroyer, Thiel, each teach us the exact same lesson:

Power corrupts.