Posts about Media

Media under microscope

Francis Beckett in The Guardian says that British academics and news professionals sniff at media studies. But the truth is that we need to study media now more than ever for media are in upheaval and it’s a great time to watch.

However genteel the language, what Cambridge has effectively done is stick a flashing neon sign saying “Mickey Mouse subject” over the door of the media studies department in every school, college and university in Britain. . . .

Maybe Feldman has hit on the subtext behind journalists’ contempt for the subject. They are not at all sure they like people responding to the media. Media studies students examine the actions of editors and journalists, and sometimes find them wanting. Media folk, as a class, are not used to being examined. If there is to be examination, they prefer it to be done by their own kind, hence the explosion of “media commentators” in the newspapers, the majority of them former editors.

Guilty.

Is writing the highest form of speech?

The problem with books, I’ve been saying, is that we give them too much respect. Because we treat them as holy objects, we are less likely to change and update the form — and that, sorry to say, leaves books behind as the rest of media must progress. I just read two pieces that speak to the question of whether writing is, indeed, our highest form of speech worthy of such worship.

In the first, blogger Tom Matrullo quotes Socrates. His context, coincidentally, is the silence of Columbia J-school’s Nick Lemann in the conversation he caused. Matrullo blogged:

As the flood of responses and comments to Nicholas Lemann’s “On the Internet, everybody is a millenarian” article in the New Yorker continues to flow, bend, ripple and eddy, one can’t help but notice how Lemann’s piece simply stands there, mute, defunct. Sans capacity to comment, respond, defend, link. It’s Plato’s old distinction in the Phaedrus: blogs are the speaking voice, alive and self-present. Lemann’s article belongs to the world of print, of writing.

Socrates talks about the written word as a lesser form of shared knowledge. He praises conversation, teaching, humanity. Here, he is speaking about the “propriety and impropriety of writing.” He tells of an old god, Theuth, who invented many arts: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, “but his great discovery was the use of letters.” Theuth extolled his creations for the god Thamus, king of Egypt.

But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit.

Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality. . . .

We believe today that when we put ideas in writing, they are thus preserved. But if the paper they are printed on disappears, so do the ideas. That is what I mean when I say that print is where words go to die. If, on the other hand, ideas are spread from person to person, implanted in their own thought, enhanced with questions and conversation, then they live. So the the written word can be a crutch, sometimes a feint. And now here is the Socratic kicker:

Socrates: I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves. . . .

Is there not another kind of word or speech far better than this, and having far greater power — a son of the same family, but lawfully begotten? . . . I mean an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner, which can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when to be silent.

Phaedrus:. You mean the living word of knowledge which has a soul, and of which written word is properly no more than an image?

By George, he’s got it.

Socrates talks about sowing ideas:

Then he will not seriously incline to “write” his thoughts “in water” with pen and ink, sowing words which can neither speak for themselves nor teach the truth adequately to others?

He talks about writing “for the sake of recreation and amusement; he will write them down as memorials to be treasured against the forgetfulness of old age. . . .” Phaedrus calls this a noble pastime and Socrates agrees, then adds:

But nobler far is the serious pursuit of the dialectician, who, finding a congenial soul, by the help of science sows and plants therein words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, and are not unfruitful, but have in them a seed which others brought up in different soils render immortal, making the possessors of it happy to the utmost extent of human happiness.

And his thoughts are only stronger because others may question and challenge them:

But he who thinks that in the written word there is necessarily much which is not serious, and that neither poetry nor prose, spoken or written, is of any great value, if, like the compositions of the rhapsodes, they are only recited in order to be believed, and not with any view to criticism or instruction; and who thinks that even the best of writings are but a reminiscence of what we know, and that only in principles of justice and goodness and nobility taught and communicated orally for the sake of instruction and graven in the soul, which is the true way of writing, is there clearness and perfection and seriousness, and that such principles are a man’s own and his legitimate offspring; — being, in the first place, the word which he finds in his own bosom; secondly, the brethren and descendants and relations of his others; — and who cares for them and no others — this is the right sort of man; and you and I, Phaedrus, would pray that we may become like him.

Who better to endorse conversation than Socrates?

* * *

And then Simon Jenkins in the Guardian writes about the allegedly suffering art of conversation.

We are said to be losing the art of conversation. It is dying in a hell’s kitchen of mobile phones, BlackBerrys, iPods, emails, soundbites, chatshows and drinks parties. There it joins other civilities regularly pronounced dead, such as well-mannered teenagers, the tomato and the novel. Nowadays no one converses. People shout and text.

He summarizes social historian Stephen Miller from his study Conversation: A History of a Declining Art. “Storytelling, however good, is only half of conversation,” says Jenkins.

Miller starts with Socrates, Plato and Cicero, who first noted that free conversation, because it is transient and uncensorable, is the essence of free speech. It was always a threat to authoritarianism. Hence its fascination for the Enlightenment. To Montaigne it was intellectual callisthenics, the “fruitful and natural exercise of the mind” as opposed to the “languid, feeble motion” of reading. . . .

Historians of culture saw this golden age as destroyed by intrusive innovation. Cheap books and newspapers discouraged talk.

Imagine that: books as barriers. Jenkins then turns this around and you can guess where this is going. Put on your sunglasses and protective gear: a blast of blog, internet, and technological triumphalism is coming:

Miller is not a total pessimist. He quotes Hume, that “the propensity to company and society is strong in all rational creatures”. I think he grossly underrates Hume’s insight. Who would have predicted a quarter century ago that the passive act of watching television would be supplanted by the more active one of electronic interchange. We seem to be in perpetual conversation. The zombie army wandering London’s streets mouthing into space is conversing. The phone is no longer what it was to my parents, the means for some rushed emergency message. It is conversation. And what is a blog but a digital coffee house, lacking only respect for Swift’s maxim that nothing kills conversation like a bore?

And the beauty of this age is that technology and connectivity allow us to bring books and the ideas in them back into the conversation, sharing them, challenging them, teaching and learning from them with links.

Media that melts in your hands

Chris Anderson compiles his regular list of statistics to make a media mogul cry.

Talk of the town

I’m sorely disappointed in Columbia Journalism School Dean Nicholas Lemann’s piece in The New Yorker about “journalism without journalists.”

I would have hoped for something more expansive, imaginative, open, creative, generous, constructive, strategic, and hopeful from the head of one of America’s leading journalism schools — from, indeed, the man hired to bring that school into the future — and from a leading light of American reporting.

Instead, Lemann pits professional journalist v. blogger — as if any more ink need be spilled on that putative battleground — and sets up his easy strawmen to tear them down.

His strawman king: that bloggers believe they will replace journalists. I don’t know a single blogger who says that with a straight face. But that is what professional journalists — fewer and fewer of them, actually — think they hear bloggers say and so they snipe back with very straight and sometimes red faces: ‘Yeah, you and who else?’

His next strawman is that some blogging is not journalism or is bad journalism and thus all blogging is not journalism because it is not performed by journalists. He points to some quaint examples of human speech in blogs — more on those in a moment — and dismisses it because it is not institutional and profound. Well, I can point to lots of allegedly professional journalism — somebody paid for it — in lots of newspapers — like the wee daily near me — and on lots of TV and radio stations in this country that is folksy, chatty, uninformative, badly written, and often utter crap. Does that mean that all professional journalism is crap? Of course not. It’s a lazy argument. And while I’m at it, dare I say that I can dig out lots of Talk of the Town pieces and letters from correspondents over the years in The New Yorker that did little or nothing to inform the nation and were written in a once-anonymous, faux folksiness that tried to simulate the humanity and real life you hear in the excerpts Lemann mocks.

The strawman he presents at the start of his essay is that bloggers think they are all inventing something new and that they are really just descendants of the pamphleteers who spread their words with opinion and agenda at the time of America’s founding, long before modern institutional journalism was invented. Stipulated. Says Lemann:

They were the bloggers and citizen journalists of their day, and their influence was far greater (though their audiences were far smaller) than what anybody on the Internet has yet achieved.

I don’t know a blogger who does not agree with that — at least writer-by-writer, if not regarding the medium as a whole. Bloggers proudly point to the pamphleteers as parents. They don’t say they are new against the history of conversation and publication, information and advocacy. Bloggers say they are new when set against the current conceit of institutional journalism that it is objective and dispassionate and is the steward of truth and trust — a kind of journalism that Lemann himself concedes is relatively new. Says Lemann:

In fact, what the prophets of Internet journalism believe themselves to be fighting against–journalism in the hands of an enthroned few, who speak in a voice of phony, unearned authority to the passive masses–is, as a historical phenomenon, mainly a straw man.

But he is a strawman of your making.

The next strawman is me: I am held up as an example of unrestrained blog snarkiness and for that he found quite the juicy tossed tomato, a snitfit I had in 2003 when The New York Times’ John Markoff trotted out his own strawman (one I’d thought to be extinct by now) about blogs being the next CB radio. Markoff also said that he didn’t need a blog because The Times is a blog. I fisked that interview with Markoff and looking back — this came out two weeks after the first Bloggercon — I have to say I still enjoy it. Lemann didn’t even quote my nastiest line: “You know, institutions worry about letting reporters blog without editing but they don’t worry about letting a jackass like this out without a leash.” Opinionated, blunt voices scare big-J Journalists. But we don’t always yell. Only when provoked.

And finally, if there’s any hay left, there’s Lemann’s belief that journalism’s standards were set by the professionals. I’d say they are still being set by the public who have always decided every day whom to believe and whom to trust — only now, we get to hear their decision process.

So Lemann continues to paint this as a fight: bloggers v. journalists. He continues to try to define journalists as the professionals, to define the act by the person who performs it (and, implicitly, the training he has) rather than by the act itself. He continues to try to limit journalism to journalists, wanting in his last line for reporters (note, he didn’t say reporting) to move to citizens’ journalism.

I so wish I had seen him instead imagine the possibilities for news when journalists and bloggers join to work together in a network made possible by the internet. I wish he had seen journalism expanded way past the walls of newsrooms and j-schools to gather and share more information for an informed society. I wish he had used his lofty perch to see beyond the horizon to a new future for journalism and the students he — and I — are teaching now.

But no. Pity.

(more…)

Timette

Ana Marie Cox is now Washington editor for Time.com. When she arrived at Wonkette, she said she was unemployable because she was such an opinionated loner. So I don’t know whether this job qualifies as making it or selling out.

Unbroadcasting

BBC Director General Mark Thompson announces his big reorganization for “360-degree, multiplatform content creation,” dismantling walls between broadcast and digital. This is not at all unlike newspaper newsrooms merging with online newsrooms; the media doesn’t define the content anymore. “Much of what we call new media,” Thompson said, “is really present media.”

Note in this chart from the Guardian how future media and technology — Ashley Highfield’s domain — wraps around everything else. Note also how they are not separate blobs for journalism on TV and journalism online. It’s all journalism.

Here‘s how the BBC used to look.

This is a big cultural change for the BBC — and any media organization. Different tribes are being thrown in together and told they’d better get along to survive on the island. So Thompson lectures his staff:

I want to end with a different thought. New structures can be part of the answer but we know that – no matter how pretty they look on the chart! – they can never be a complete solution. Behaviours and values are vital too. Some of the biggest problems we face – the often poor and sometimes really bitter relationships between commissioning and in-house production for instance – are often blamed on structure but actually come down to the way we treat and respect each other and the extent to which we’re prepared to act as partners rather than rivals. In a converging 360 world, this isn’t just a question of being nice, it’s a question of survival. . . .

Now [if] this doesn’t sound like your kind of place, then it’s time for you to decide if the BBC is right for you. People – and I include senior managers and leaders in this – people who ignore the BBC Values and who would rather fight old battles or just sit on their hands won’t prosper anymore. They won’t get bonuses, they won’t get promoted, and if they won’t or can’t change their ways, we’ll ask them to go. Life’s too short and the challenges we face are too big for all of that.

Give that speech in every newspaper in America.

Note that Thompson’s reorganization tackles the inward network. I think the bigger challenge and opportunity is the outward network: the relationship with content and creators elsewhere.

I’m including this in the Guardian column I’m writing now; so more on this later.

Updike Redux

Book legend Joni Evans eloquently answers John Updike’s bar-the-door screed about the digital world:

Updike does not have to join the revolution. Digitization is optional. The Internet operates in the world of Also, Either/Or, Not One Way. Updike’s intentions of privacy and intimacy are safe; his copyright thoroughly protects his choice to remain nonenhanced, nondigitized, nonhyperlinked and nonsearchable.

But what is good for John Updike is not necessarily good for the millions of authors the current system has locked out. Creativity does not flourish when books can’t find publishers or when audiences cannot be sustained. Those authors whose works remain unpublished, out of print, out of stock or out of date will be the ones to march in the digital revolution. Updike is a large, elite fish in a small pond. The digital pond is primarily for other species — smaller, less recognized, exotic fish that need the oxygen this new world provides.

Who needs critics?

Scott Collins, TV writer for the LA Times, reports that as newspapers are cutting their budgets, fewer and fewer are sending TV critics to the networks’ junkets.

At long last.

I had a nice chat with Collins about this on Friday and in his story, he’s right to say that I’m callously unsympathetic to the whining critics now on house arrest, far away from the press conferences and parties at the Ritz.

When I was a critic for People and TV Guide, I never went to the junkets. They seemed absurd: just press releases in 3-D. I believed it was the job of a critic to criticize. I said that the only that that separated me from the audience was that I got the tapes first, I couldn’t fast-forward through them, and I had to explain my opinion. It was not my job to buddy up to the stars and get insipid lockerroom quotes.

And today, as newspapers’ budgets shrink, as they close foreign bureaus, the last thing they need is more network flackery they can get from the PR Newswire instead.

Add to that the changing nature of TV; it’s not about three or even 30 or 300 networks anymore and it’s not about programmers’ schedules. It’s about an endless stream — a river, an ocean — of video of all kinds from all times and all sources. The old role of the critic, telling you what’s on TV tonight, is absurdly out-of-date.

And add to that the fact that everybody’s a critic today. This isn’t just about going to see the compiled opinions of the world converted into personalized data — ‘people who like Superman also like….’ It’s also about conversation. The Times reported last week that producers of shows are going to Television Without Pity to respond to debates among viewers about characters they love on shows they feel passionate about. They demonstrate that a show is not owned just by its authors but also by its audience. And these debates can (but don’t have to) influence those shows.

Art becomes interactive.

So I have little sympathy with the mewling critics who complain to Collins that they’re missing out on the expense-account trips with drinks and shwag. Philadelphia Inquirer critic Gail Shister blurbs even the junket: “TCA is the Super Bowl of television coverage. Anybody who’s anybody is there and accessible.” Oh, yes, and the White House pressroom is where real news happens. Wake up and smell the free lunch.

I have even less sympathy for Shister and other critics whining about having to do something other than just write their columns from on high:

She’s resisted bosses’ entreaties to write a blog because, she said, she’d prefer to focus on her print column, which runs four times a week. But the noise from the Internet is permeating even her hermetically sealed cubicle. “Technology has compressed the whole notion of journalistic time,” she lamented. “The day of a scoop being a scoop for 24 hours is long gone.”

The day of the scoop is over. And the day of investing in a platform for one critic’s ego is long gone, as well.

If critics want to get together, it would be a better use of their time — and perhaps their bosses’ T&E — to reimagine the role of the critic, a discussion that has started — and, unfortunately, stopped — on this Arts Journal blog and continues regularly in the visionary thinking of critic Terry Teachout and in the work of my future CUNY colleague András Szántó. Maybe we should play host to such a discussion at CUNY. Anybody game?

As in other, weightier realms of journalism, I say that critics will act more as moderators, helping us not only find the good stuff but also sparking discussion. Yes, the critics will have opinions about not only quality but also about meaning; they will set culture in context as the good ones always have. But they can’t watch it all anymore. And they’re not the only ones with opinions and perspective. Now the culture can speak as well. So the greater challenge is to create a structure for that discussion, to make sense of it.

And this changes not only criticism, it also changes the art.

No, I say we’re never going to get to the day — long predicted — when we’ll all want to make our own endings to novels and movies. There is, by God, a role for authorship. But then again, a TV series isn’t like a film or a book (at least until books become more fluid); a TV series continues, it lives. If a show is successful, it is because the people formerly known as its audience feel as if they, too, own it; it works when it comes to life and becomes part of their lives. And so perhaps it is wise to include them in the process of creation. I don’t mean to rule by focus group, poll, or galvanic skin response. But if you are open to the people who love what you do, if you let them contribute, they will. So in that sense, even creators become critics and moderators and even the audience becomes creative.

Yes, it is time to reimagine criticism in a future without network tote bags.