Posts about journalism

Rethinking TV news, Part I: What’s broken, what’s possible

ron burgandy breaking news

Most TV news sucks. But I don’t want to dwell on that.

I’d like to see TV news be reinvented, yet I’m astounded so little innovation is occurring in the medium. That could be because TV news is in better financial shape than print (for now). It could be because in a highly competitive market, no one wants to leave the pack and risk failure trying something new. Still, network TV’s audience is lurching toward the grave; cable news is struggling; and Pew says that for the once-indomitable local TV news, “future demographics do not bode well.” Like newspapers and magazines before them, broadcasters need to change, to take advantage of opportunities to work in new ways, to fend off the digital competitors who are sure to grasp the chance to disrupt, and simply to improve.

TV news is stuck holding onto its orthodoxy of inanity. It wastes resources trying to fool us with stand-ups at sites where news occurred 12 hours before and where there is nothing left to witness or report. It repeats much, saying little. It adores fires that affect few. It goes overboard on weather. It gives us BREAKING NEWS that isn’t breaking at all but is long over, predictable, obvious, or trivial. It gullibly and dutifully flacks for PR events created just for TV. It presents complex issues with false and simplistic balance. It speaks in the voice of plastic people. It stages reality (no that guy in the b-roll isn’t really typing on his laptop). It has little sense of the utility of what it presents. And did I mention its pyromania?

But I don’t want to dwell on that.

I want to dwell on what TV could do well, on its strengths and opportunities. TV can summarize, sometimes too well perhaps, but delivering a quick overview of what’s happening is a useful function of news. It can curate, bringing together divergent reports and viewpoints. It can explain a complex topic and doesn’t have to dumb it down. It can demonstrate. It can convene the public to action. It can collaborate, having witnesses share what they are seeing and what they know. It can discuss and doesn’t have to shout. It can give voice to countless new perspectives now that everyone has a camera on laptop or phone. It can humanize without cynically patronizing or manufacturing a personality.

There are sprouts of innovation in television (folks I know working in video online object to it being called television but I say they should co-opt the word, the medium, and the form). That innovation is generally not coming from other media companies, for newspapers and magazines have made the mistake of aping broadcast TV when they should exploring new directions. And the innovation that is occurring doesn’t take the form of incremental adjustment to the familiar form of TV news. Instead, true innovation is unrecognizable as television. On one end of the spectrum, there’s the six-second self-parody of viral video shallowness that is Vine as news. On the other, there’s the TWiT Network (of which I am a part), where we geeks can yammer on about single topics — Google, security, Android — for devoted if small audiences for two hours.

When Katie Couric announced that she’d be moving to Yahoo and NPR’s Weekend Edition asked me to yammer about it, I took the opportunity to push my own agenda and wish that Couric and Marissa Mayer would reinvent TV news because they’re both smart; Couric knows the form so well she knows what to break; Mayer is a disruptive innovator; and Yahoo needs to be something *new* not merely something changed.

And so then I started asking some folks what they’d suggest. I asked TWiT’s founder, Leo Laporte, and after more than 10 minutes’ discussion on two shows — hey, we have all the time in the world — he said that instead of giving us the news — we already get that — he’d want to see Couric give us rich interviews with newsmakers. I like that. When Katie was on Howard Stern’s show weeks ago, I called in to ask about him having a pure interview show on TV, since he has had a remarkable run of amazing interviews lately. Besides Charlie Rose, who really does that on TV?

I asked Michael Rosenblum about reinventing TV news. He has reinvented his share of newsrooms, converting the old three-person crews to so-called one-man bands, teaching people how to tell stories with video and without the silly conventions of stand-ups, establishing shots, b-roll, and cotton-candy scripts. He told me about returning from the UK, where he taught a few dozen journalists at the Independent and Evening Standard how to gather video news with their iPhones. If they can do it, anybody can.

I asked Shane Smith, founder of Vice, which just announced the start of a new news channel in 2014 (below), and he talked about the net’s ability to bring many new voices into the news.

Vice was smart enough to hire Tim Pool the guy who broadcast Occupy Wall Street live for 21 hours straight. Pool’s not sure what to call himself — a mobile journalist, a social journalist. Take a look at how he covered protests in Turkey, where he was the first journalist so far as he knows to broadcast live using Google Glass — the true eyewitness.

A few weeks ago, Pool came to my class and then sat in my office and so I asked him about the future of TV news. Speculating together — having nothing to do with Vice’s future plans — he didn’t start talking about video. He started talking about people — witnesses and commentators and how to find the best of them and connect them — and about technology and about user interfaces. There I started to hear the beginnings of a new vision for TV and news in which video is just one tool to use.

So how would you reinvent TV news? What advice would you give Katie Couric? What advice would you give the next Tim Pool? At CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center, I’d like to embark on projects to rethink the form of TV news, its relationship with the public, and its business models. What would you like to see us do? Try not to dwell on mocking the form and its weaknesses — Ron Burgundy has done enough of that for a lifetime (plus a sequel). Try instead to imagine you are a young (reincarnated) William Paley with all these tools and all these possibilities at hand. What do you invent? In Part II, I’ll add my own wishes and speculation.

Pat Ryan

Former People editors Dick Stolley, Lanny Jones, Jim Gaines, and Pat Ryan at a reunion; photo by Robin Platzer

Former People editors Dick Stolley, Lanny Jones, Jim Gaines, and Pat Ryan at a reunion; photo by Robin Platzer

I just learned of the death of Pat Ryan, former managing editor (that is, editor-in-chief anywhere other than Time Inc.) of People and Life magazines. Pat was my mentor and protector. I owe her my career.

Pat hired me at People. She made me the first TV critic there. She encouraged me to submit an idea I had for a magazine called Entertainment Weekly. And she saved me from the sins of synergy. A few personal tales of mine in memory of Pat….

They never hired newspaper people at Time Inc., I was told. We weren’t slick enough. But I got a week’s tryout there as a writer. Each morning, I got a file of reporter’s notes — 30 pages or more — and piles of clips with instructions to turn it into 120 pithily packed — it’s there that I learned one could throw in more material between dashes — and almost always alliterative lines of copy. I did that the first morning and asked for the next assignment but was told there wasn’t anything. Same thing happened the next morning and the next: five days, five stories. At the end, Pat hired me. As I left, an old hand at the magazine, Cranston Jones (there were no Bob Joneses at Time Inc., only a Cranston and a Landon at People), took me aside and balled me out: “Don’t you ever do that again.” I had no idea what “that” meant until I arrived and attended my first writers’ meeting under Pat. “People, people,” she said after first instructing the women on staff not to follow her into the ladies room with story pitches, “we have to get better. You all should be trying to write one story a week.” Aha.

I had moved to New York and People from San Francisco and the Examiner (“What,” my editor there, Jim Willse, said upon hearing the news, “got tired of journalism did you?”). I quickly missed California and looked to move back. The L.A. Times talked to me about becoming TV critic but couldn’t get the job approved so they offered me L.A. Olympics arts correspondent. I never would have taken that. I don’t do folk dances. But my good friend and senior editor Peter Travers, unbeknownst to me, went to Pat telling her the way to keep me was to make me TV critic. And so she did.

I remember the day Pat got the latest cover sales report and screamed down the hall at me: “TV’s dead, Jarvis! It’s dead!” You see, her predecessors at People had an easy go of it picking covers: Put a Top 10 show on the cover and it’d sell. But under Pat’s watch and my tenure covering TV, choice exploded with cable boxes and newfangled VCRs, audience fragmented, and not everybody watched Dynasty anymore. That’s when People expanded to covering the events in the stars’ lives: births, deaths (there was a time when I said we should have renamed the magazine Dead People), diseases, affairs — bodily fluids journalism. That’s when flacks realized that they had the power to sell magazines by granting access to their stars and so the balance of power shifted and Pat had to deal with press agents trying to negotiate approval of writers, quotes, and covers (she never budged).

mel gibson coverThat’s also when Pat brilliantly invented new franchises. I’d like to think I was in the cover billing meeting when she stared at a picture of blue-eyed Mel Gibson with no idea about what to say about another vacuous hunk and finally, in wry desperation, she said, “Oh, why don’t we just call him the sexiest man alive.” Eureka.

It took time for HBO to produce some of the best TV in history. When it started inside Time Inc., it was little more than an excuse to rerun movies and show bare breasts and as TV critic, I said so. The then-CEO of HBO would shout up the ladder to muzzle me and Pat would shout back down telling him to fuck off. When I panned one too many Hallmark Hall of Fame treacklefests and Hallmark canceled its advertising (no small amount), she saved me from business-side pressure.

I’ve already told the story of how Pat protected me from the wrath of Editor-in-Chief (there was only one editor-in-chief in all of Time Inc.) Henry Grunwald when I dared give a good review to a show critical of Henry’s mentor, Whitaker Chambers. She risked her job to do the right thing. From her, I learned that all the rule books and industry standards in the world don’t stack up against one brave editor willing to take an ethical stand.

And then there was E.W. That same fragmentation that made picking People covers hell gave me the idea to start a magazine that would concentrate again on products over personalities. Pat encouraged me to submit it and sympathized when Grunwald rejected it. By the time the idea finally showed signs of life, almost six years later, she was editor of Life and the executives at Time Inc. pitted us against each other. Pat wanted to make Life weekly to rejuvenate and save it; I wanted to start E.W., and the 34th floor said only one of us would win. But Pat was always smarter than they were. She quietly sat me down and continued to mentor me. “Jarvis,” she said, “you’re not one of them. You’re an outsider. They’re going to use you to start the magazine because they don’t understand it and then they’ll get rid of you.” She was prescient.

Pat was also not one of them. She was a woman. Time Inc. then was still a patrician — read: sexist — institution that didn’t know how to handle powerful women, especially one who was ambitious enough to rise from Katharine-Gibbs-trained secretary to editor of one rich and one iconic magazine while always remaining gracious, loyal, decent, and clever. They fired Pat in 1989 and wouldn’t even give her the courtesy of a reason.

Pat retired to her beloved Maine with Ray Cave, also the former editor of Sports Illustrated and Time. Apart from taking on a few projects, she left the spotlight that she never much liked. I so regret not visiting to thank her for all she did for me.

Past the page

Watch this video and be astounded by what you can do with questions and answers, orders and actions, curiosities and information in voice using “OK, Google” (or, if you prefer, as I do, “OK, Jarvis”).

Now think about the diminished role of the page and what that will do to media. We publishers found ourselves unbundled online, so we shifted from selling people entire publications to trying to get them to come to just a page — any page — and then another page on the web, lingering long enough to shove one more ad at their eyeballs.

But just as the web disintermediated physical media, voice disintermediates the page. But media still depend on the page as their atomic unit, carrying their content, brand, ownership, and revenue. Now, when you want to know the score of the Jets game — if you dare — you don’t need to go to ESPN and find the page, you just say, “OK, Google. What’s the Jets score?” And the nice lady will tell you the bad news.

Now let’s go farther — because that’s what I live to do. Let’s also disintermediate the device. There’s nothing to say that you need to speak to your device to do this as long as you can get your question to Google in the cloud. So imagine that you carry with you a transponder that broadcasts your identity — it could be a phone or Google Glass or a watch or just a card in your wallet, if you still need a wallet — so that when you walk into a connected room, you can simply say out loud, “OK, Google,” and ask your question and you’ll get an answer from whatever device happens to be listening. You can be in a rental car that knows you’re you and tell Google to add a calendar item or make a phone call or look up a fact and you’ll not have to see a single page. Star Trek didn’t navigate the universe through pages.

So there’s the next kick in the kidneys to old media. There’s another reason to build relationships with people so we can be their agents of information rather than just manufacturers of pages filled with content. Page? Content? What’s that?

CMS as media salvation. Not.

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Cross-posting from Medium, for my archives…

It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of the CMS when it comes to the question of who’s going to win the online-publishing wars.— Felix Salmon

Salmon thus accomplishes the almost impossible, writing an ode to the content management system as he argues that Vox Media, Business Insider, Gawker Media, Buzzfeed, Aol, Glam, and this very medium, Medium, are fighting for dominance with CMSes as their weapons of mass disruption.

Note that at the same moment, Forbes is licensing its CMS and Talking Points Memo celebrates the birth of its CMS. A few days ago, I found myself in an email conversation with a few fellow FONers in which they extolled the strategic advantage of the great CMS.

I will dare to disagree. My reasons….

First, I’ve seen this play before. When CMSes entered American newspapers, I watched first-hand as many wasted millions each developing their own systems because they each thought they were (intone this word as Church Lady) special. But they weren’t. They all put on their pants and and set type like everybody else.

The mid-’70s CMS at the Chicago Tribune was such a disaster that the paper dispatched its Pulitzer-proud reporting task force to investigate how it got so messed up. I witnessed similar knicker-knotting at Hearst and Time Inc. That rabbit hole finally got plugged with the arrival of the Macintosh as a standard publishing platform (my wife set up one of the first big installations when we started Entertainment Weekly in 1990, saving us about $3 million a year and making an enemy of the Time Inc. CMS department).

News people have long been terrible at technology. Now there is a movement afoot to fix that by trying to breed the unicorn hack-hacker (I’m on the side that doesn’t believe every journalist must code) and to concentrate effort on building the perfect — the special — CMS.

The fundamental problem I have is that a CMS is an extension of editorial ego. It’s all about us, about our content, about how we want to make it, how we want to present it to you, how we organize it, how we make money on it, how we protect it.

What we should be doing instead is turning our attention outward, from the content we make (surely after 600 years, we know how to do that) to our relationship with the public we serve and the ecosystems in which we operate.

Indeed some of the systems created by the companies listed above begin to do that. At Buzzfeed, founder Jonah Peretti sees content as a means of connecting people in conversation and his system is built for sharing. Nick Denton at Gawker is using his CMS to flip comments over content. Ev Williams here at Medium wants to enable collaboration — readers helping writers and writers gathering together around ideas.

Salmon is impressed with what Samir Arora has built at Glam and here we strongly agree. Glam is less about making content than making networks. That is the essence of CEO Arora’s vision. That is how Glam grew to be a top-10 net property not through owning and manufacturing content but through serving networks — and not just with technology but importantly with revenue (i.e., ad sales).

Arora’s latest invention, Foodie, is not about making or managing content at all. It is about serving readers by aggregating tempting content (I want these muffins) and serving creators (wherever they are, using whatever system they use) by sending them traffic, also known as people. Arora showed me Foodie and as if often the case with his inspirations, it took me time to digest the implications. Arora told me Glam is “an ecosystem platform.” Chew on that.

Even as much as I’m impressed with these advances, I will still argue that no one has yet taken the next, biggest, and most important step, moving past the idea of managing content to enabling relationships. I’ve been saying this for sometime:

Content is that which fills something. Service is that which accomplishes something. Content starts with the desires of creators to make things. Service start with the needs of clients to achieve outcomes.

Service is built on relevance. Relevance comes via relationships: knowing enough about someone so you can learn how to serve them better, more effectively, more efficiently, with less noise, greater value.

Google understands that. Media do not.

Google, thanks to Waze, intuits where I live and work. My own local newspaper does not know that!

Google serves me with ever-more-exacting relevance, anticipating my needs before I do (telling me exactly how long it will take to get home this afternoon). My local newspaper gives me the same stuff it gives everyone else in exactly the same way.

Google treats me as an individual. Media treat me as a member of a mass.

The key skill that we in media are missing is not how to manage content but how to build relationships.

I’m not suggesting now that every newspaper turn around and stop building CMSes and start boning up on CRM (customer relationship management). No, the tools to build profiles of customers already exist — most media companies I know use Salesforce already to manage relationships with advertisers, why not with readers? The tools for targeting what is served to users already exist — most media companies use them, again, to serve advertising, but why not content?

We should at least begin by giving people reasons to reveal themselves to us because we give them value in return. We should understand how to build profiles around that knowledge and act on it for the benefit of users — and also for our benefit with higher value advertising or commerce. That is all doable today. Off the shelf.

But that is just the start. Next, we should take inspiration from Doc Searls’ VRM (vendor relationship management) movement, figuring out how the public should manage us so we can serve them better. We should learn by example from Waze, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, Craigslist, Facebook, et al and explore the value of offering platforms to communities so they can do what they want and need to do (“elegant organization,” Mark Zuckerberg calls that), with us adding journalistic value to the flow of information that now can exist without us.

If you have media ambitions and want to build an application, build something that is useful to the public, not us. No one in the public will value us because of the CMS we made. They couldn’t and shouldn’t give a damn.

What we have to advance is not our technical skills but our culture: our social skills.

Maybe news is just more efficient

I wonder whether Andrew Kohut got his analysis of Pew Research’s latest survey of news consumption — as my West Virginia father would say — bassackwards.

Pew finds again that young people are spending less time with news — 46 minutes per day for millenials (ages 18-31) vs. 84 minutes for the so-called silent generation (ages 67-84 … though my 80+-tear-old parents are far from silent). That’s only a little over half as much time. This leads Kohut to predict a “perilous future for news.” Conventional wisdom would certainly agree. I have too, arguing for sometime that one of our biggest problems in news is declining engagement.

But what if instead Pew’s survey indicates that for young people news is simply more efficient? They don’t have to block out time to sift through a newspaper to find what matters to them and more time sitting, passively watching an hour or more of local and national TV news to get a one-size-fits-all summary that could be more efficiently delivered online: more meat, less bun.

Now I know that the public spending less time with news as currently configured is injurious to our egos and business models. But those models are based on the mass media equation of audience attention and time equaling exposure to more ads. See my argument with Google chief economist Hal Varian over just this point last week: Attention worked as a model when we in mass media operated by the myth that all readers or viewers saw all ads so we could charge all advertisers for all of them. In those good old days, more people giving us more time (in truth, only a proxy for attention) could be monetized through CPM mass advertising, whose price we controlled through our ownership of the scare resources of production and distribution. Great while it lasted. But abundance kills that model.

Thus Pew’s latest survey makes me think we are still chasing the wrong horse. Instead of seeking an engaged audience — that’s a metric better suited for movies and prime-time TV — we in news should be seeking an informed public, using new tools to make them better informed with greater relevance and more efficiency. Instead of measuring our success by how much more time we can get them to spend with us, we should measure it by how much less time they need to spend with us to reach their own goals.

I always tell my students that where they see a problem, they should look for the opportunity in it. Journalists tend to find problems and stop there, complaining. Engineers find problems and seek solutions. If the problem is that young people spend less time with news, where is the opportunity in that? I say it is in helping anyone of any age spend even less time, getting more information more efficiently.

So let’s look at this issue entrepreneurially and invent a new service: News Pal.

News Pal requires knowing you and what you want. Google should be good at this but, surprisingly, Google News has left that opportunity for others to grab. It feeds me the same Google News everyone else gets. If I want to get something more relevant, it makes me go through the effort of manipulating sliders for various categories and adding keywords. That is so 1998, so My Yahoo, which is better under Marissa Mayer but which still requires me to make my own predictive personalization decisions. Some 15 years ago, I filled out that Yahoo form … and never returned. Four years ago, when still at Google, Mayer dreamed of a hyperpersonal news stream, but neither Google nor Yahoo has yet built it.

I want News Pal to be an emergent system that watches what I watch in news and feeds me accordingly with no effort on my part. If it sees that I watch news about Android, it should prioritize Android news. If it sees that I stop caring about Android after I buy a phone, it should stop caring for me. If it sees that I never read sports, it shouldn’t give me football stories. If it knows where I live and work, it should give me relevant news for those locations. Of course, this system should also give me the news that everyone will want to know, feeding me reports on the Kenyan mall attack even if I haven’t shown an attraction to Kenyan news. Editors recognize those breakthrough stories. So does Google News’ algorithm.

I also want News Pal to cut through the worsening clutter of repetition. Look at the tech blog landscape, where the slightest morsel of news or rumor replicates like The Andromeda Strain, mutating as it gets farther from the source. Google and Google News have made efforts in recent years to seek more signals of authority and originality of reporting as did the startup where I was a partner, Daylife. But they and others can do much more. They all have made the mistake of trying to analyze media as news sources. The real winner will also use Twitter, Google+, Facebook, YouTube, et al to find original sources in a larger information ecosystem: difficult but doable.

Cir.ca is a worthy News Pal competitor, for it offers two bits of value I want. It cuts up articles into constituent elements and so, if you’ve already seen an element of a story, it doesn’t waste your time giving it to you again. It also enables you to follow a story as it happens — not predicting a tag of interest as required by Google News and My Yahoo.

In the net, my News Pal would give me greater relevance because it knows me, higher quality because it knows news sources, and greater efficiency because it reduces the noise in news. It would take the advice of Medium founder Ev Williams — who has twice changed media, thus changed the world (and earned a billion-plus bucks via Blogger and Twitter) — adding effiency. Wired summarized its interview with him:

The bottom line, Williams said, is that the internet is “a giant machine designed to give people what they want.” It’s not a utopia. It’s not magical. It’s simply an engine of convenience. Those who can tune that engine well — who solve basic human problems with greater speed and simplicity than those who came before — will profit immensely….

There’s an organizing principle that explains what thrives on the internet and could potentially predict what will thrive in the future: Convenience.

“The internet makes human desires more easily attainable. In other words, it offers convenience,” he said. “Convenience on the internet is basically achieved by two things: speed, and cognitive ease.” In other words, people don’t want to wait, and they don’t want to think — and the internet should respond to that. “If you study what the really big things on the internet are, you realize they are masters at making things fast and not making people think.”

Or waste time, as news makes us do now. That is the lesson from so-called millennials in Pew’s study: They are more efficient with their news.

What about the business model? News Pal would gain my loyalty — and, ironically, my attention — making the switching cost away from it high. If it really builds my hyperpersonal news stream — including such streams as my email — it could compete with Google and Twitter. It would gather valuable signals about me and my interest that it could exploit with higher value advertising and commerce and data. News Pal itself would be quite efficient, depending on smart algorithms.

I remember sitting in a meeting with Yahoo founder Jerry Yang many years ago when he said it was his job to get you want you needed as quickly as possible. The quicker your visit to Yahoo, he said then, the better its service. That changed, of course, when Yahoo adopted the mass-media advertising model built around attention and impressions, loading it up with content. Yahoo could have been News Pal if it had followed Yang’s vision of efficiency over drag. Therein lies the real lesson of Pew’s latest survey, I think.

Efficiency isn’t the enemy of news. It should be the goal.

Viral bullshit as the new classifieds

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A very well-done post about viral bullshit on Gawker (et al) by Mathew Ingram really comes down to this: Journalism used to be subsidized by classifieds and fluff, now it is built atop viral bullshit. The argument: Sure, we serve crap — or cats — but that’s what brings in the traffic for the good stuff.

Quoting Gawker’s editor in chief, John Cook: “Part of our job is to make sure we’re writing about things that people are talking about on the internet, and the incentive structure of this company is organized to make sure that we are on top of things that are going viral… we are tasked both with extending the legacy of what Gawker has always been — ruthless honesty — and be reliably and speedily on top of internet culture all while getting a shit-ton of traffic. Those goals are sometimes in tension.”

Of course, that is a bankrupt model, for soon it becomes impossible to find the diamond in the sewage: the one decent, worthwhile, true report buried amid native advertising, viral bullshit, trolls’ comments, breaking rumors, and staff’s snark. Soon, the brand’s value is nil — but, hey, the traffic is humongous. And the advertisers still pay because we gave them a home for their bullshit and the faint though fraudulent promise that we can make them viral, too.

I think a new business model emerges from the swamp: the news outlet that tries, at least, to deliver the truth. That’s what all journalism fancies itself to be, of course, but the field would suffer in an audit of how much of that claim is true. I’m biased, but I’d say the Guardian is one outlet that is trying to live by that goal, though many will quickly point out that it won’t live if it can’t also have a goal of making profit.

At my journalism school, I was having a discussion about an unrelated matter the other day and as I railed on about a certain faux-news outlet that appeared to be all offal, a colleague smiled and said, “I love it, Jarvis, when *you* launch into a conservative rant about journalism.” Yes, I’m known as the guy who wants to open up media to the world to hear more voices and the cacophony of democracy, to equip anyone to commit an act of journalism, to confess our fallibility and admit that news is always in beta.

But I have long believed that the real job of journalism is to add value to what a community knows — real value in the form of confirmation and debunking and context and explanation and most of all *reporting* to ask the questions and get the answers — the facts — that aren’t already in the flow. The journalist’s and journalism organization’s ability to do that depends on trust over traffic.

In the earlier days of the web, I’ve argued that many made the mistake of thinking of the net as a medium and so whenever they saw a comment or mistake from a civilian, they thought the entire enterprise had been ruined as if The New York Times had published porn. No, I said, don’t expect the web to be a medium that’s published and packaged and polished. It’s just another streetcorner. At Broadway and 40th, you might overhear an idiot or see a drooler but you don’t propose to reject all New York because of that.

Too many would-be journalistic outlets today are making the mistake of thinking that they want to *be* the web, to hitch onto every speeding meme, riding it to … where? I think we can see where: to the oblivion where memes go to fizzle and die. Journalists would make a fatal mistake to think that they are viruses when what they should be are the leukocytes that kill them.

Protecting journalism v journalists

The Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton draws attention to the knottier issues around a proposed federal shield law for journalists and urges critics to be included in the debate about whether it is better to have a constitutional or merely a legislative protection.

I believe a shield law that protects job descriptions is fatally flawed. At a Knight event in Washington last week, investigative journalist Scott Armstrong argued strongly that the government will slice out exceptions to protecting national-security reporters. “More cases are emerging because it’s never been easier to leak or investigate leaks,” Newton writes. “Reacting to a new generation of digital whistleblowers, like Chelsea Manning, Armstrong said this administration began to treat all leaks ‘as if they were espionage cases.’ There have been seven leak cases under the Obama administration, and only four in all of history before; Savage called challenging informants the ‘new norm.’”

I worry that by requiring the journalist to work for a news organization or freelance for them or be a journalism student, many will be left out. But arguing to add more categories of people to the definition isn’t the answer.

The answer is to protect not the journalist but the act of journalism: that is, revealing information that is in the public interest.

Oh, yes, I know that would then include Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake, and Daniel Ellsberg — none of whom would qualify under the proposed law but every one of whom has revealed information of vital public interest, fueling the debate that democracy should welcome.

Until we are ready to stand behind that broad principle of information in the public interest as our definition of journalism, then I come to see that I stand with the shield-law critics Newton cites. For we do have a shield. It is the First Amendment. Asking Congress to modify and limit it is short-sighted and too much an act of self-interest by journalistic organizations eager to be protected themselves.

Let’s remember that ultimately, it’s not the journalists we are seeking to protect but the sources of that information. Now that those sources can share directly with the public, with or without journalists as mediators, then we must protect them as journalistic actors.

What are you thinking, Mr. President?

I wrote this for the Guardian, where the discussion is quite lively, approaching 1,500 comments. I’m posting it here a few days later for the purposes of my own archive.

What are you thinking, Mr. President?

Is this really the legacy you want for yourself: the chief executive who trampled rights, destroyed privacy, heightened secrecy, ruined trust, and worst of all did not defend but instead detoured around so many of the fundamental principles on which this country is founded?

And I voted for you. I’ll confess you were a second choice. I supported Hillary Clinton first. I said at the time that your rhetoric about change was empty and that I feared you would be another Jimmy Carter: aggressively ineffectual.

Never did I imagine that you would instead become another Richard Nixon: imperial, secretive, vindictive, untrustworthy, inexplicable.

I do care about security. I survived the attack on the World Trade Center and I believe 9/11 was allowed to occur through a failure of intelligence. I thank TSA agents for searching me: applause for security theater. I defend government’s necessary secrets. By the way, I also defend Obamacare. I should be an easy ally. But your exercise of power appalls me. When I wrote about your credibility deficit in the Guardian, I was shocked that among the commenters at that great international voice of liberalism, next to no one defended you. Even on our side of the political divide, I am far from alone in urgently wondering what you are doing.

As a journalist, I am frightened by your vengeful attacks on whistleblowers — Manning, Assange, Snowden, and the rest — and the impact in turn on journalism and its tasks of keeping a watchful eye on you and helping to assure an informed citizenry.

As a citizen, I am disgusted by the systematic evasion of oversight you have supported through the FISA courts; by the use of ports as lawless zones where your agents can harass anyone; by your failure on your promise to close Guantanamo, and this list could go on.

As an American often abroad, I am embarrassed by the damage you have caused to our reputation and to others’ trust in us. I find myself apologizing for what you are doing to citizens of other nations, dismissing the idea that they have rights to privacy because they are “foreign.”

As an internet user, I am most fearful of the impact of your wanton destruction of privacy and the resulting collapse of trust in the net and what that will do to the freedom we have enjoyed in it as well as the business and jobs that are being built atop it.

And as a Democrat, I worry that you are losing us the next election, handing an issue to the Republicans that should have been ours: protecting the rights of citizens against the overreach of the security state.

Surely you can see this. But you keep doubling down, becoming only more dogged in your defense of secrecy and your guardians of it. I don’t understand.

The only way I could possibly grant you the benefit of doubt is to think that there is some ominous fact about our security that only you and your circle know and can’t breath or the jig will be up. But I don’t believe that anymore than I believe a James Bond movie or an Oliver Stone conspiracy theory. You can’t argue that Armageddon is on the way and that al Qaeda is on the run at the same time.

No, I think it is this: Secrecy corrupts. Absolute secrecy corrupts absolutely. You have been seduced by the idea that your authority rests in your secrets and your power to hold them. Every attack on that power, every questioning of it only makes you draw in tighter, receding into your vault with the key you think your office grants you. You are descending into a dark hole of your own digging.

But you know better, don’t you? In a democracy, secrecy is not the foundation of authority; that is the basis of dictatorships. Principles and their defense is what underpins your office.

First among those principles is the defense of our freedom. Security is only a subset of that, for if we are not secure we are not free. Freedom demands the confidence that we are not under attack, yes, but also that we are not being surveilled without our knowledge and consent. The balance, which we are supposedly debating, must go to freedom.

Transparency is another principle you promised to uphold but have trammeled instead. The only way to assure trust in your actions is if they are overseen by open courts, by informed legislators, by an uninhibited press, and most importantly by an informed citizenry.

As political and media attention turn away from you, you have an opportunity to rise again to the level of principles, to prove that your rhetoric about change was not empty after all, to rebuild your already ill-fated legacy, to do what is expected of you and your office.

You could decide to operate on the principle that our privacy is protected in any medium — not just in our first-class letters but in our emails and chats and calls — unless under specific and due warrant.

You could decide to end what will be known as the Obama Collect it All doctrine and make the art of intelligence focus rather than reach.

You could decide to respect the efforts of whistleblowers as courageous practitioners of civil disobedience who are sacrificing much in their efforts to protect lives and democracy. If they are the Martin Luther Kings of our age, then call off Bull Connor‘s digital dogs and fire hoses, will you?

You could decide to impress us with the transparency you still can bring to government, so that the institution you run becomes open by default rather than by force, as it is now, under you.

You could decide to support a free press and stop efforts — here and, using your influence, with our friends in the UK — to restrain their work.

You could decide that whether they are visiting our land or talking with our citizens by email or phone, foreigners are not to be distrusted by default.

You could try to reverse the damage you have done to the internet and its potential by upholding its principles of openness and freedom.

You could. Will you?