A Call for Cooperation Against Fake News

We — John Borthwick and Jeff Jarvis — want to offer constructive suggestions for what the platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Google, Instagram, Snapchat, WeChat, Apple News, and others — as well as publishers and users can do now and in the future to grapple with fake news and build better experiences online and more civil and informed discussion in society.

Key to our suggestions is sharing more information to help users make better-informed decisions in their conversations: signals of credibility and authority from Facebook to users, from media to Facebook, and from users to Facebook. Collaboration between the platforms and publishers is critical. In this post we focus on Facebook, Twitter, and Google search. Two reasons: First simplicity. Second: today these platforms matter the most.

We do not believe that the platforms should be put in the position of judging what is fake or real, true or false as censors for all. We worry about creating blacklists. And we worry that circular discussions about what is fake and what is truth and whose truth is more truthy masks the fact that there are things that can be done today. We start from the view that almost all of what we do online is valuable and enjoyable but there are always things we can do to improve the experience and act more responsibly.

In that spirit, we offer these tangible suggestions for action and seek your ideas.

  1. Make it easier for users to report fake news, hate speech, harassment, and bots. Facebook does allow users to flag fake news but the function is buried so deep in a menu maze that it’s impossible to find; bring it to the surface. Twitter just added new means to mute harassment but we think it would also be beneficial if users can report false and suspicious accounts and the service can feed back that data in some form to other users (e.g., “20 of your friends have muted this account” or “this account tweets 500 times a day”). The same would be helpful for Twitter search, Google News, Google search, Bing search, and other platforms and other platforms.
  2. Create a system for media to send metadata about their fact-checking, debunking, confirmation, and reporting on stories and memes to the platforms. It happens now: Mouse over fake news on Facebook and there’s a chance the related content that pops up below can include a news site or Snopes reporting that the item is false. Please systematize this: Give trusted media sources and fact-checking agencies a path to report their findings so that Facebook and other social platforms can surface this information to users when they read these items and — more importantly — as they consider sharing them. The Trust Project is working on getting media to generate such signals. Thus we can cut off at least some viral lies at the pass. The platforms need to give users better information and media need to help them. Obviously, the platforms can use such data from both users and media to inform their standards, ranking, and other algorithmic decisions in displaying results to users.
  3. Expand systems of verified sources. As we said, we don’t endorse blacklists or whitelists of sites and sources (though when lists of sites are compiled to support a service — as with Google News — we urge responsible, informed selection). But it would be good if users could know the creator of a post has been online for only three hours with 35 followers or if this is a site with a known brand and proven track record. Twitter verifies users. We ask whether Twitter, Facebook, Google, et al could consider means to verify sources as well so users know the Denver Post is well-established while the Denver Guardian was just established.
  4. Make the brands of those sources more visible to users. Media have long worried that the net commoditizes their news such that users learn about events “on Facebook” or “on Twitter” instead of “from the Washington Post.” We urge the platforms, all of them, to more prominently display media brands so users can know and judge the source — for good or bad — when they read and share. Obviously, this also helps the publishers as they struggle to be recognized online.
  5. Track back to original sources of news items and memes. We would like to see these technology platforms use their considerable computing power to help track back and find the source of news items, photos and video, and memes. For example, one of us saw an almost-all-blue mapwith 225K likes that was being passed around as evidence that millennials voted for Clinton when, in fact, at its origin the map was labeled as the results of a single, liberal site’s small online poll. It would not be difficult for any platform to find all instances of that graphic and pinpoint where it began. The source matters! Similarly, when memes are born and bred, it would be useful to know whether one or another started at a site with a certain frog as an avatar. While this is technically complicated its far less complicated than the facial recognition that social platforms have today.
  6. Address the echo-chamber problem with recommendations from outside users’ conversational spheres. We understand why Facebook, Twitter, and others surface so-called trending news: not only to display a heat map but also to bring serendipity to users, to show them what their feeds might not. We think there are other, perhaps better, ways to do this. Why not be explicit about the filter-bubble problem and present users with recommended items, accounts, and sources that do *not* usually appear in their feeds, so The Nation reader sees a much-talked-about column from the National Review, so a Clinton voter can begin — just begin — to connect with and perhaps better understand the worldview of Trump voter? Users will opt in or out but let’s give them the chance to choose.
  7. Recognize the role of autocomplete in search requests to spread impressions without substance. Type “George Soros is…” into a Google search box and you’re made to wonder whether he’s dead. He’s not. We well understand the bind the platforms are in: They are merely reflecting what people are asking and searching for. Google has been threatened with suits over what that data reveals. We know it is impossible and undesirable to consider editing autocomplete results. However, it would be useful to investigate whether even in autocomplete, more information could be surfaced to the user (e.g., “George Soros is dead” is followed by an asterisk and a link to its debunking). These are the kinds of constructive discussions we would like to see, rather than just volleys of complaint.
  8. Recognize how the design choices can surface information that might be better left under the rock. We hesitate to suggest doing this, but if you dare to search Google for the Daily Stormer, the extended listing for the site at the moment we write this includes a prominent link to “Jewish Problem: Jew Jake Tapper Triggered by Mention of Black …” Is that beneficial, revealing the true nature of the site? Or is that deeper information better revealed by getting quicker to the next listing in the search results: Wikipedia explaining that “The Daily Stormer is an American neo-Nazi and white supremacist news and commentary website. It is part of the alt-right movement …”? These design decisions have consequences.
  9. Create reference sites to enable users to investigate memes and dog whistles. G’bless Snopes; it is the cure for that email your uncle sends that has been forward a hundred times. Bless also Google for making it easy to search to learn the meanings of Pepe the frog and Wikipedia for building entries to explain the origins. We wonder whether it would be useful for one of these services or a media organization to also build a constantly updated directory of ugly memes and dog whistles to help those users — even if few — who will look into what is happening so they can pass it on. Such a resource would also help media and platforms recognize and understand the hidden meanings and secret codes their platforms are being used to spread.
  10. Establish the means to subscribe to and distribute corrections and updates. We would love it if we could edit a mistaken tweet. We understand the difficulty of that, once tweets have flown the nest to apps and firehoses elsewhere. But imagine you share a post you later find out to be false and then imagine if you could at least append a link to the tweet in the archive. Better yet, imagine if you could send a followup message that alerts people who shared your tweet, Facebook post, or Instagram image to the fact that you were mistaken. Ever since the dawn of blogging, we’ve wished for such a means to subscribe to and send updates, corrections, and alerts around what we’ve posted. It is critical that Twitter as well as the other platforms do everything they can to enable responsible users who want to correct their mistakes to do so.
  11. Media must learn and use the lesson of memes to spread facts over lies. Love ’em or hate ’em, meme-maker Occupy Democrats racked up 100 to 300 million impressions a week on Facebook, according to its cofounder, by providing users with the social tokens to use in their own conversations, the thing they share because it speaks for them. Traditional media should learn a lesson from this: that they must adapt to their new reality and bring their journalism — their facts, fact-checking, reporting, explanation, and context — to the public where the public is, in a form and voice that is appropriate to the context and use of each platform. Media cannot continue to focus only on their old business model, driving traffic back to their websites (that notion sounds more obsolete by the day). So, yes, we will argue that, say, Nick Kristof should take some of his important reporting, facts, arguments, and criticisms and try to communicate them not only in columns (which, yes, he should continue!) but also with memes, videos, photos, and the wealth of new tools we now have to communicate with and inform the public.
  12. Stop funding fake news. Google and Facebook have taken steps in the right direction to pull advertising and thus financial support (and motivation) for fake-news sites. Bing, Apple, and programmatic advertising platforms must follow suit. Publishers, meanwhile, should consider more carefully the consequences of promoting content — and sharing in revenue — from dubious sources distributed by the likes of Taboola and Outbrain.
  13. Support white-hat media hacking. The platforms should open themselves up to help from developers to address the problems we outline here. Look at what a group of students did in the midst of the fake-news brouhaha to meet the key goals we endorse: bringing more information to users about the sources of what they read and share. (Github here.) We urge the platforms to open up APIs and provide other help to developers and we urge funders to support work to improve not only the quality of discourse online but the quality of civic discourse and debate in society.
  14. Hire editors. We strongly urge the platforms to hire high-level journalists inside their organizations not to create content, not to edit, not to compete with the editors outside but instead to bring a sense of public responsibility to their companies and products; to inform and improve those products; to explain journalism to the technologists and technology to the journalists; to enable collaboration with news organizations such as we describe here; and foremost to help improve the experience for users. This is not a business-development function: deal-making. Nor is this a PR function: messaging. This sensibility and experience needs to be embedded in the core function in every one of these platform companies: product.
  15. Collaborate in an organization to support the cause of truth; research and develop solutions; and educate platforms, media companies, and the public. This is ongoing work that won’t be done with a new feature or option or tweak in an algo. This is important work. We urge that the platforms, media companies, and universities band together to continue it in an organization similar to but distinct from and collaborating with the First Draft Coalition, which concentrates on improving news, and the Trust Project, which seeks to gather more signals of authority around news. Similarly, the Coral Project works on improving comments on news sites. We also see the need to work on improving the quality of conversation where it occurs, on platforms and on the web. This would be an independent center for discussion and work around all that we suggest here. Think of it as the Informed Conversation Project.

We will bring our resources to the task. John Borthwick at Betaworks will help invest in and nurture startups that tackle these problems and opportunities. Jeff Jarvis at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism will play host to meetings where that is helpful and seek support to build the organization we propose above.

We do this mostly to solicit your suggestions to a vital task: better informing our conversations, our elections, and our society. (See another growing list of ideas here.) Pile on. Help out.

Empathetic journalism for the right

empathy-dogs

I’ve said — to the horror of surprisingly few journalists I know — that the mere fact of Donald Trump’s candidacy is evidence of the failure of journalism to perform its prime function: informing the public.

Here I want to ask what we could do about that. I’ll explore ways to better reflect and inform the worldview of the petri dish that bred Trump: the angry, underemployed, conservative, white man. I’ll argue that the answer begins with empathy — empathy not with Trump’s racism, misogyny, and hatred, of course, but with the real lives of at least some of the people who are considering voting for him.

Of course, it’s true — and I want to underscore this — that many unreflected and under-served communities deserve to be addressed ahead of angry white men: African-Americans of many ages and locales, Latinos of many diasporas, the disabled of many needs, LGBTQ people, women, youth. But none of those communities fostered the movement of Trumpism, which — no matter the electoral outcome — will continue to fester after November. They have spawned a civic emergency. The phenomenon must be confronted. Decent Americans of the right need to be better informed, for ignorance breeds hate. The first step to doing that is not lecturing but listening.

I’ll explore four paths: (1) reflecting communities, (2) diversifying media, (3) serving people, and (4) convening communities. My thinking here is greatly influenced by what I have learned from teaching Social Journalism alongside Carrie Brown at CUNY.


Reflect communities: I wrote recently that as an enthusiastic Hillary Clinton supporter, I now know better what it feels like to find myself not reflected in media. I’ll repeat that my experience is, of course, trivial next to that of minorities and under-served communities who should have received more attention for generations. But this moment has helped me better understand how journalism also failed conservatives by not reflecting their worldview, circumstances, needs, and goals. Because media demonstrated that we did not hear, care about, or understand them, they did not trust the rest of what we had to tell them. Because we did not better reflect their lives, we could not help other communities and political leaders understand, empathize with, and grapple with their needs.

In Social Journalism, I have come to call this task externally focused journalism: We tell your story to the rest of society so others can understand and take into account your needs in negotiating policy and politics. That is what journalism has always done and will continue to do. It is helpful. However, externally focused journalism also can be exploitative: the journalist helicopters in to grab a good but random story and then leaves with no assurance of change. This is why I also emphasize the need for internally focused journalism; I will get to that below.

If you want to better understand the rocky soil that fertilized Trump, I recommend reading J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a highly personal tale that also explains the context of declining hope for a large class deep inside America. At the same time, to understand what necessitated #BlackLivesMatter, I recommend Between the World and Me by my former CUNY J-school colleague Ta-Nahisi Coates.

These books are credible, eloquent, and effective because they spring from experience. They demonstrate why American newsrooms must diversify their staffs. But it’s not as if every slice of the nation will be represented in every newsroom. So it is vital that we also teach journalists how to seek out, listen to, and empathize with people who are not like them. That, we’ve learned, is the essence of Social Journalism: taking a caring heart and an anthropologist’s cool eye and ear to observe and listen to a community’s situation so we can improve the connections that community has with others and improve the relationship of the journalist to the community — to say: “I want to understand you.”

As an example of such journalism, I commend to you New York Times religion reporter Laurie Goodstein’s recent story: Torn Over Donald Trump and Cut Off by Culture Wars, Evangelicals Despair. As Slate says, it is written with gentle empathy. I don’t agree with the stands against gay marriage taken by the people in the story. I don’t need to. Thanks to Goodstein’s story, I can at least understand their world a bit better. Assignment editors should have been devoting journalistic resource to just such stories during this election, and to reporting on the issues that matter to many communities across this land. That would have given us all a better understanding of what is at stake in the political struggle over the nation’s future. It would have been a better use of resource than predicting the horse race day after day.

To see how true to life Goodstein’s story was, I called one of her sources, Pastor Ryan Jorgenson, who emphasized to me that her reporting and the story were effective and empathetic. He had only three additional observations: First, his parishioners noted that the Times headline — “Evangelicals Despair” — is oxymornic; if you understand evangelicals, they said, you would know that because of their faith they do not despair. Second, though Jorgenson said the photographer shot the life of the church, the photo editor in New York selected only photos that reflected the headline — despair. Third, though he was glad that the story quoted him saying Jesus’ name, Jorgenson was disappointed though unsurprised that it did not quote scripture as the best explanation of evangelical thinking. (“We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair.” 2 Corinthians 4:8.) When was the last time you saw the Bible — or the Koran — quoted in media? Note well that it is the structure of news organizations — namely, editing — that can separate the journalism from the community it would cover. Our processes interfere with empathy.

When this election is over and when we enter into a post mortem for the truth, we need to examine how existing media can better reflect the many diverse communities that make up America: their lives, worldviews, concerns, needs, goals. But that will take us only so far.


Diversify media: Not only must newsrooms be diversified but the landscape of media should be diversified. There is not enough — there is almost no — major conservative media that is responsible, fact-based, and journalistic. We in liberal media — and, yes, for God’s sake, let us be honest enough to confess that media are liberal — left a vacuum that was readily and eagerly filled by the far and alt right, by political movements masquerading as media: Fox News, Breitbart, Drudge, et al. Fox News just turned 20 years old; see what it has done to civil discourse and democracy in a generation.

The closest thing the right has to a responsible major media outlet is the Wall Street Journal but it’s still a business newspaper, its coverage is locked behind a pay wall for the well to do (not many Trump voters), and it is owned by the proprietor of Fox News and the New York Post. No, it won’t do.

So I have an odd suggestion: liberal media and liberal funders should invest in responsible conservative news outlets staffed by journalists and commentators who share a conservative worldview: an intelligent and reasonable Fox News, a right-of-center New York Times, an American Telegraph, and a civil and honest Rush Limbaugh.

The idea of “balance” in any one media outlet has turned out to be as deceiving and bankrupt as the idea of “objectivity” — indeed, worse, for false balance is used to justify friction and fighting on the air and the damaging, uninformative scourge of the “surrogate” in this election. After helping tomanufacture the Trump phenomenon, CNN actually believes hiring Corey Lewandowski provides balance. That’s not about informing the public. That’s not about journalism. That’s about producing entertainment.

No, there needs to be balance in the ecosystem of news: different perspectives, experiences, and worldviews represented and served by their own outlets. What enables each of these entities to work legitimately under the banner of journalism? Intellectual honesty: the willingness to share uncomfortable truths; an ethic built on facts; a mission to inform.

Yes, I had hoped that blogs, my beloved blogs, would provide an outlet for such diversity of viewpoint. To an extent, they have and I still celebrate that. But this, too, is not nearly enough.

Keep in mind that if reasonable people do not start media to serve reasonable conservatives, the market will be dominated not just by the present noxious media movements but soon possibly by one even worse: The Trump News Channel. Beware!

Why bother? you ask. Surely I don’t think that we are going to be able to turn all of Trump’s 40-odd million voters into informed, reasonable neighbors who now see the error of his ways. No, I don’t. But if we could better inform a quarter, a tenth of them, imagine the benefit. When decent and smart conservatives set about the task of detrumpification and rebuilding their party and movement from the ashes, where can they turn? Today, all they have is a news hell. That is what we have left them. We have a responsibility to serve them.


Serve people: What does journalism serving people mean? It doesn’t mean talking to or about them. That is externally focused journalism. Journalism as service means helping people improve their lives and communities by serving their information needs so they can solve their problems and meet their goals. That is internally focused journalism.

For the sake of example, let’s take one adjective from my earlier characterization of Trump’s angry, underemployed, conservative, white, male constituency. Take “underemployed.” How could journalism better serve people — any people — who need jobs?

In the old days, we in the news business exploited unemployment by charging high rates to advertise jobs. We considered this a good because it supported journalism. But once my friend Craig Newmark came along as — in his description — a philanthropist of classified ads and more importantly once the net killed the middleman, newspapers’ jobs classified business (which could earn any one metro paper in the U.S. upwards of $30 to $50 million a year) collapsed.

Now I would suggest that a news operation should create a data base ofevery job available — for free. Let’s not just post short, uninformative ads (which said so little because we charged so much). No, collect data about every job and every job requirement: what skills are needed and what prior jobs people held to prepare them for posts like these. Let’s create a matching service that collects job-seekers’ skills and qualifications. Let’s create a service that helps the unemployed see what skills they need to get jobs. Let’s consider creating online education to help people build skills; that is one way we can make money.

Do media have the power to solve unemployment? No, of course not. But we can help. That should be our goal always: to contribute to solutions. The real benefit of doing this is that we can build trust. We can show that we do have the interests of the underemployed at heart. Then perhaps we can begin to have discussions with them based on facts over emotions. They might listen when we show them that their competition for work may not be immigrants but technology. We can have an informed discussion about the jobs that would be lost if foreign trade were curtailed. Maybe then they’d be more informed and less prey to the fear-mongering, bigoted, xenophobic likes of Trump, Breitbart, and Drudge.


Convene communities: At a news editors’ convention in Philadelphia a few weeks ago, I helped run an exercise in so-called human-centered design. After listening to some folks from gentrifying neighborhoods in the city, the editors in the room could clearly see something that was missing: conversation among the communities there. They could also clearly see the need and opportunity: convening those communities into dialogue.

Let’s say that we have diverse newsrooms that do a better job of reflecting communities’ concerns. Let’s say we have a more diverse media ecosystem that better serves many communities. Let’s say that media outlets do a better job of serving their communities and building trusted relationships with them. All this does only so much good if communities become more isolated.

Our next job in media is to convene communities into conversation. I’ve learned this in our Social Journalism classes at CUNY, where our students have taught me that serving a community also means connecting that community with others.

Thus media should convene and inform conversations among whites and blacks, young African-American men and police, immigrants and the native-born, evangelicals and liberals, consumers and corporations, left and right.

A week ago on Meet the Press, Chuck Todd teased a conversation between Michael Moore and Glenn Beck. Oh, no, I thought: here comes the ultimate cable-news war segment, the return of Crossfire — war! But no, it was the opposite. The segment was thoughtful, even peaceful. Michael Moore lamented the large swaths of America who believe they are unheard (see above). Then Glenn Beck appeared — separately — saying he didn’t necessarily want a record of agreeing with the prior guest he would not name, but he did agree with Michael Moore about the frustration of the unheard Americans. Watch. Here we saw a moment of bridge-building. That, too, is a responsible media’s job.


I’m pursuing this because I’m suffering an existential crisis as a journalist, ashamed of the role my profession and industry have played as Trump’s publicity agents, worried about the record-low measures of trust in American journalism, and most of all deeply disappointed by the only measure of journalism’s impact that matters: whether the public is informed.

We must begin by confessing the problem — and indeed the emergency. I recently attended two journalism conferences — one for the old newspaper industry, the other for the newer digital news industry — and neither tore open the agenda to grapple with this civic and journalistic emergency. In media, I see many specimens of its denial of responsibility.

I do not think we can just make incremental fixes to our old ways — a little more investigation, a little less sexism, a tad more intelligence, another dash of honesty (finally calling lies lies). We must fundamentally reinvent journalism: its relationship with the communities it serves, the forms it takes, the business models that support it.

Where to we start? Not with story ideas and pitches, not by assigning a reporter to a new beat, not by allocating space in a paper to more stories — all the things we used to do. I would start by sending a team made up of the smartest and most open-minded people from editorial, technology-design-data, and business (because this needs to be sustainable) to spend time with the community they will serve. I’d give them strict instructions: Listen. Observe. Don’t talk. Don’t test your ideas. Don’t interview them to get quotes. Just watch and listen. Learn about their problems and goals. Find out how they try to accomplish those goals now and what frustrates them. Ask what they believe they need to know. Listen for where they’re confused, wrong, worried, and curious. Empathize. Don’t come back until you can give me insights about their lives and needs. Bring me evidence of what you find out. Then build a new journalism around them.

If we can do this — better informing and building trust even with Trump’s community — we can do the same for any community.

How Trump’s mere existence delegitimizes Clinton’s candidacy and presidency — and what we must do about that

I can hear it now, starting on Nov. 9:

Hillary Clinton isn’t really the President. She got elected only because she ran against Donald Trump, the worst candidate in history. She didn’t destroy him; he destroyed himself. Nobody wanted to vote for her. They had to vote for her.

This is a direct extension of the media narrative we hear now about Clinton: that no one trusts her, no one likes her. That is a media lie, a manipulation, and the result of lazy journalism: When was the last time you heard the voices of the millions of enthusiastic Clinton voters reflected in media? This is how media will be accessories to the Trump, alt right, and GOP crime of attempting to delegitimize another American Presidency.

Media already began the process by abnormalizing Clinton. You’ve heard this:

Yes, Donald Trump is a misogynist and has admitted committing sexual assault and he is a bigot who has attacked Mexicans as rapists and murderers and Muslims as terrorists and he has defamed African-American communities as hells ruled by crime and drug-dealing. But in our next segment, we will tell you for the thousandth time about Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Yes, Donald Trump’s foundation is a sham that he uses to settle his personal debts and enrich his ego, and he defaults on his promises to charities and causes. But when we come back, we will cast aspersions on Hillary and Bill Clinton’s foundation, even though we have no journalistic evidence of wrongdoing, even though the Clinton foundation does immense good work saving lives and helping people, and even though we in media won’t tell you about all that good work.

Because balance.

Of course, at the same time, media normalized Donald Trump, giving him attention that was wildly disproportionate to his popularity at the beginning of the campaign — making his campaign a reality — and later refusing to call ignorant ignorant and evil evil. NPR won’t call Trump a liar because that is a “volatile” word. Media fell over itself praising The New York Times for calling his lies lies; why did we not expect that all along? Media knew he was a misogynist, a sexist pig, yet they had to wait for the Clinton campaign to do their reporting for them to break into their narrative with incidents that told the story. Media have seen his racism again and again but refuse to call him a bigot. That, too, would be too volatile.

So in their effort to find balance — as Jay Rosen points out, in their effort to cope with the asymmetry of this campaign (and years of political imbalance leading up to this) — media raised up Donald Trump to the nearest definition of normal they could muster and they pulled Hillary Clinton down to as near as his level of mistrust and mendacity as they could get away with because that serves the dynamics that drive their business: conflict and suspense.

And along the way, I keep hearing media doing the democratically irresponsible: suppressing voter turnout by predicting it. (That supports their narrative: Nobody trust, likes, or cares.) And now leaders of the GOP are giving their own reprehensible civics lesson: At last, at long last, some of them are repudiating Donald Trump — not because he has been a racist to Latinos, Muslims, and African-Americans, not because he is a misogynist, not because he lies, not because he is ignorant, not because he is dangerous, but because he finally crossed the White Woman Line. Yet those same politicians now legitimize the idea of not voting for President. That also delegitimizes the victor, Hillary Clinton. You’ll hear this, too:

Well, we didn’t vote for her. We didn’t have anyone to vote for. So we’re not going to work with her. We’re going to continue what we’ve done for a generation: only working against her, only blocking anything she proposes to do. For we will never let her win, not the White House, not a single battle, not so much as a bill.

This is why it is critical that we defeat not only Donald Trump but also the party that put him where he is and the politicians who were his accessories. Every politician who supported him — no matter whether that support is now withdrawn — has the stench of Trump and the alt right on them and that cannot be washed away with a press release and a tweet. The party that fertilized the fetid ground that spawned Trump with its years of insurgent obstruction must be held to account for not caring to defend Latinos, Muslims, and blacks, let alone our military— and responsible government — but only white women.

We do need balance in a democracy or else there can be no dialog and legitimacy of negotiated compromise. We need for conservatives to be represented in the political process and heard in media. We need a new conservative movement to rise from the ashes of the fire that not just Trump but a generation of GOP leaders and right-wing media set. We on the left should support the rebuilding of a responsible, loyal opposition. I am writing another post with a call to build responsible conservative media as well, to fill the vacuum that liberal — yes, liberal — media left, which was exploited by political movements masquerading as media: Fox News (now 20 years ago — everything I lament here is the fruit of their labor) and its foster children Breitbart and Drudge.

Consider this: In losing, Trump and the disgusting movement behind him will win. Their goal is to bring down institutions and they have already succeeded. They have destroyed the Republican Party. They will continue to delegitimize the Democratic Party and its victory. They will thus delegitimize government. They have lowered the quality of political discourse in this country to their level. Yes, they have won.

That is why it is so vital that we take back our victory from them. That is why I am going to Pennsylvania every chance I get to register voters. That is why you must vote and push every sane and civilized family member, friend, neighbor, and coworker to vote. That is why every fellow Hillary Clinton supporter out there must loudly proclaim her or his support. That is why we must defeat every politician who cynically supported Trump — whether or not they then cynically withdrew that support. That is why we must recapture the American dream from the Trump nightmare.

My friend Rafat Ali — an immigrant, an entrepreneur, an American citizen, a voter — just posted this quote by Bertolt Brecht from The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941):

“Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

Rejoice in her victory. But do not allow the bastard’s fathers to snatch victory from their defeat.

‘Change’ is bullshit

I ended up voting for Barack Obama, but while he was in a race against Hillary Clinton his campaign slogan drove me to distraction. “Change we can believe in.” What change exactly?

This morning Joe Scarborough said the first debate of this campaign didn’t alter the situation in this election. He said this is still a race of the experienced candidate against the change candidate. Now Donald Trump=change.

Clinton is forever boxed into the position of running against “change.” Now it is not only Trump but also, ironically, Obama who corners her there because she wisely wants to run on and continue Obama’s legacy with his coalition; she can’t change too much. Still, she can address this problem by cataloging the changes she will make; there are many.

But “change” is the wrong word. “Change” is bullshit. “Change” is an empty word, a vague promise. Obama promised “change” and it was a vessel into which his supporters poured their dreams. The most progressive among them were disappointed in the early years of his administration because he did not quickly accomplish all they had wished for. I was not disappointed, for I had more realistic expectations of change.

The proper word is not “change” but “progress.” But that word has its own set of expectations and cooties thanks to the far left and right, respectively. So call it “improvement.” Hillary Clinton will work to improve health care,college costs, infrastructure, criminal justice, mental health, national security, the environment, taxation, campaign finance, the status of womenand minorities….

Donald Trump does not promise change. He promises regression, returning to some squandered glory of the hegemony his supporters have lost because of change they could not control, change they resent, change that shares what they think of as their jobs, power, and birthright with others, with outsiders. Trump is not promising to change. He is promising to stop change.

Of course, change is occurring without the intervention of any candidate. Change is the constant. Change brings us choices: opportunities and perils. That is what a leader must concern herself with.

Clinton is a realist. She is experienced. She has policies and plans. All those proper qualifications for the highest office in the land become handicaps in a media environment that values instead slogans, performance, conflict, entertainment, and personality over substance. “Make American great again.”

After Scarborough spoke this morning, Chuck Todd complained that after last night’s debate voters don’t know much more about the candidates’ policies. First, that’s wrong. Clinton tried to cram specific policy proposals into her few uninterrupted minutes and for the rest she gave her web address; plenty there. Trump refused to and could not be pushed to be specific about the plans he does not have. If voters do not know what each candidate will do and is capable of doing the fault lies at the feet of the media. It is our job to inform the public. The public is ill-informed. Donald Trump’s presence on that stage last night is the evidence. He promises nothing but change. And we let him get away with it.

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.