Posts from October 16, 2004

Write-in Tony Blair

Write-in Tony Blair

: The interfering Guardian is getting Brits to write Ohio voters to vote for Kerry (considering the readership, I’ll bet that’s their choice). Go to their site; get a name; and ask them to write in Tony Blair.

Keeping media and government apart

Keeping media and government apart

: What is the proper relationship of government to media?


Media is speech and speech must be protected from government interference. That is why we have the First Amendment. Today, everyone’s speech is media, so everyone and all media must be protected.

Every time government tries to regulate speech in any way, it’s trouble. It’s unconstitutional. It’s wrong.

We, the people regulate media by deciding whether or not to listen to it or pay for it or believe it. Attention and credibility are how the market regulates media in a free society.

But all this is colliding in new and unexpected ways today thanks to the growth of citizens’ media — the explosion of the privileged class of media — and to the advent of a new culture of transparency — the open-source society. Old government controls of speech, always wrong, are wrong in new ways. We are witnessing collisions in a number of recent events, including:

: : :

: The Sinclair broadcasting flap, in which a TV company orders its stations to air an anti-Kerry show in an effort to influence the election.

Some elected officials tried to get the FCC to stop Sinclair, making pompous noise about public airwaves and public interest and all that. FCC Chairman Michael Powell — with whom I’ve disagreed frequently lately — did the right thing and said no. That doesn’t mean I like what Sinclair is doing. But if I don’t like it, I don’t watch it. I don’t want government to stop it.

Ernie Miller says the problem with even considering government control in this case is that we are trying to regulate one form of speech, broadcast:

Call me crazy, but if most other media is free to publish whatever it wants (something we call freedom of the press), shouldn’t our first question be why broadcast gets treated so differently? Why isn’t there freedom of the press for broadcast?

Basically, because broadcast is a government-licensed gatekeeper. Imagine if we had a Federal Newspaper Commission that decided who was allowed to publish newspapers in a particular city. Suddenly, we would have calls for a “fairness doctrine” for newspapers and other government regulation of newspaper content.

Jay Rosen says Sinclair is not a media empire with a political opinion but a political empire with a media outlet. They own media in an effort to influence the country.

These days, anybody can create media to try to gain influence: You can distribute a weblog or a podcast and your individual effort may not be as big as the Sinclair empire but this medium as a whole is now challenging that medium. So if you can create an anti-Kerry or anti-Bush web site, why shouldn’t you be able to create an anti-Kerry or anti-Bush TV show or empire?

Oh, I know, you’ll say it’s because we all own the airwaves. Well, we all own the internet, too. And spectrum is no longer scarce. Only 11 percent of Americans get TV through rabbit ears. Today, there is no distinction between broadcast TV and cable or satellite TV. And very soon there will also be no distinction between all that and internet-delivered TV. It’s all just spectrum. We need to fix how we license broadcast spectrum but still, it’s all just spectrum.

So tear down the FCC first. Then tear down the broadcast towers. And tear down the distinctions, while you’re at it. We don’t need them.

: : :

Now look at this from a very different perspective:

: The Judith Miller flap, in which a New York Times reporter is found in contempt for not revealing sources.

Miller happens to be a really rotten poster girl for the cause of shield laws for journalists and their confidential sources because (a) her reporting is tarnished, (b) so many from both political perspectives can’t stand her, and (c) this case involves a crime regarding the outing of a CIA operative. I anticipated all those objections when I wrote the post below; still, the objections played back even louder in the comments and other blogs.

But let’s not lose sight of a bigger principle here — and, interestingly, how that principle is clashing with a new and spreading value in our society:

It’s about the value of secrecy vs. the value of transparency.

The belief in the value of shield laws covering reporters and their confidential sources is really about the value of uncovering secrets in government. But it’s also about being able to keep one’s identity secret in that process. And it’s about separating government from media — and journalism and speech — so that the press and the people can keep watch on their government. The assumption here is that in some cases, if a source can’t keep his or her identity confidential, he or she will not risk revealing information to reporters — information that the people should know. The irony, then, is that it takes secrets to uncover secrets. Is that a bargain worth making? Journalists believe it is. So do I.

But that clashes with the culture of transparency. Oh, that culture certainly believes that government should be open and transparent; like journalism, it abhors government secrecy. But that culture does not trust those who would not identify themselves and be open, including sources of information about government. I buy that, too. I have said often on this weblog that I put less credence in people who won’t put their names on their comments or weblogs. They don’t have the courage of their convictions, the balls of their blogs.

But I still think it is necessary in a democratic society to keep a watch on government — for how else can we, the people, manage our government? Investigation of government on behalf of the people is still one of journalism’s missions. And shielding confidential sources — used when absolutely necessary (and these days, yes, confidentiality is overused and abused) — is still a necessary tool of that mission.

Does that change in this new world where a confidential source inside government could, rather than going to a reporter, just put up an anonymous web page revealing the secret? (And, by the way, does that mean ISPs now need a shield law?) Perhaps. But there is still a value in society in having journalists whose job it is to watch government. And it does not serve democracy to have government threatening journalists — broadly defined to include you and me — with harassment and jail. There are limits to shield laws and among those limits should be the investigation of crimes and the security of the nation (both of which make the Miller case, again, an imperfect cause celebre). Still, I hold the principle unchanged: watching government is necessary; confidential sources can be a necessary tool in that task; government intimidation of its watchdogs is dangerous.

What does change in this culture of transparency is that confidentiality reduces credibility. We had good reason not to trust Dan Rather’s then-confidential source. We have reason not to trust reporters who rely only on the unnamed. We don’t fully trust those who won’t reveal themselves.

: : :

: And now consider the matter of government regulation of political speech: McCain-Feingold, fairness doctrines, 527 loopholes, contribution limits….

It took me a while, but I have come to realize that this, too, is a matter of free speech. Political speech, of all speech, should not be regulated by politicians.

Political parties and candidates should be regulating their own speech — deciding whose money to take and what messages they endorse — under pressure from suspicious citizens. In fact, in a world without government regulation of political speech, I believe it would become more important for parties and candidates to establish and live by standards themselves. Now, they merely hide behind the technicalities of the latest campaign laws (“I didn’t make that ad; a 527 did”). And I believe the laws skew speech so that, for example, money that might go to a candidate to be spent responsibly now instead goes to a fringe group to be used destructively.

Next, says Matt Stoller, the government will try to regulate political speech on the internet.

: : :

: And, of course, how could I rant at such length without ranting about the FCC and Howard Stern, Janet Jackson’s tit, and Fox’s suggestions of sex.

It is utterly wrong, completely unconstitutional, and fundamentally insulting for the FCC, both parties in Congress, and the White House to think that they should protect us from ourselves and have the ability to fine companies and citizens millions of dollars for uttering even one word. According to the FCC, we are ruined and corrupted by:

1. Fart sounds.

2. Titanium tits.

3. Whipped cream.

4. F words.

Who do they think we all are, their children? And who do they think they are, our parents?

: : :

The principle could not be simpler and the founding fathers could not have said it more directly:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Government must have no role in our speech and by extension our media. It must allow unfettered speech in any medium, including broadcast. It must not use government power and the threat of prison to intimidate and chill speech and investigation of government. It must not use government power and the threat of bankruptcy to control the content of our media. It must not limit political speech. It must let us make free use of our greatest national resource, our spectrum.



: Frank Rich is a Cuisinart columnist missing a blade: He keeps trying to mix things up but leaves them chunky.

Tomorrow’s column is an odd mix of journalistic nostalgia (ah, for the days of All the President’s Men when people didn’t trust government and did trust reporters) … and political paranoia (comparing Nixon and Bush, whose administration is, Rich says, “showing symptoms of a precancerous Watergate syndrome”) … and press paranoia (he says the Judith Miller case is “all the scarier for being only one piece in a pattern of media intimidation that’s been building for months now”) …

Getaloada this bit of bad mixology:

The current White House has been practicing pre-emptive media intimidation to match its policy of pre-emptive war. Its F.C.C. chairman, using Janet Jackson’s breast and Howard Stern’s mouth as pretexts, has sufficiently rattled Viacom, which broadcast both of these entertainers’ infractions against “decency,” that its chairman, the self-described “liberal Democrat” Sumner Redstone, abruptly announced his support for the re-election of George W. Bush last month. “I vote for what’s good for Viacom,” he explained, and he meant it. He took this loyalty oath just days after the “60 Minutes” fiasco prompted a full-fledged political witch hunt on Viacom’s CBS News, another Republican target since the Nixon years.

Well, I hate what the FCC is doing but I doubt that is intimidating Sumner Redestone in the voting booth.

And let’s not forget, Frank, that Dan Rather f’ed up royally — and you’d be wise to both acknowledge that and to be ashamed on behalf of our profession for what that did to the credibility of our craft. I’d say that what happened to Rather was not a “full-fledged political witch hunt” but rather a good dose of fact-checking his ass. And Rather’s detractors and other honest souls would remind you that this was a case of Rather attacking Bush, not the other way around. What a mishmosh.

He then goes on to act as if Disney’s refusal to distribute F 9/11 was the result of White House intimidation. Here, too, I share distaste for Disney but this is offered with absolutely no reporting, no connection, only paranoid conjecture. This is, to put it mildly, shoddy journalism.

At this moment when The Times is trying so hard to stand behind the First Amendment in the Miller case, this kind of sloppy innuendo only weakens The Times’ position.

Of course, Rich goes on to say that Fox and the Murdoch empire are on the other side. He points a single story where he thought a single fact was placed too many paragraphs down. Oh, gawd, let’s not start that analysis of Times stories; that will go on for eternity. Hell, I don’t have enough bits and bandwidth to fisk the entire Rich column.

Much ado about nothing, indeed

Much ado about nothing, indeed

: CBS Marketwatch’s Frank Barnako — until now blogsmart — posts a blogdumb column item with a pathetically inept analysis from Hitwise of blogs’ size and influence:

Excuse me for asking. But why has MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann started a blog about politics? Almost no one reads them.

These opinion-laden, e-journals draw only fleeting notice from Web surfers. But they have captured the interest of thousands of reporters who have written about bloggers and their supposed impact on the Bush-Kerry campaign. Google News, today, returned almost 4,000 citations for a search using “blog” as the keyword.

“The audience reach of even the largest of the political blogs is tiny compared to other major political news sources,” said Max Kalehoff, a spokesman for HitWise, a Web traffic measurement and analysis company. In a recent week, traffic to was almost 650 percent greater than that of the most popular such blog.

HitWise’s rankings of half a dozen blogs tell a very quiet story. The most popular site,, accounts for.0051 percent of Internet visits each day. (HitWise only reports the percentage of visits to sites/categories versus all Internet visits, or market share, Kalehoff said.) was second with .0027 percent. Even the profane and popular, profiled in The New York Times, Time and the Washington Post, limps in with .0011 percent.

Did this jerk Kalehoff ever attend a stats class? Hell, did he make it out of sixth grade math?

Comparing a blog to the total traffic of the Washington Post is absurdly stupid and misleading; it’s number fraud. The Washington Post is among the top news sites online (ranked two above my own company here). Choosing that site as the basis of comparison for single blog sites is loading the deck with dynamite. I’ll bet if you compared the blogs this twit names with individual columnists on The Post — which would be a far more logical comparison, would it? — these blogs would win over most of the old guys. And I can (but won’t) name many national magazine and local newspaper sites that don’t get the traffic and audience of these bloggers.

To measure a blog’s traffic against all the traffic for the entire Internet is absurdly idiotic. You know what? If you measured the Washington Post’s readership against all reading in a day, it wouldn’t blip either.

Furthermore, it’s a mistaken, mass-media, old-media analysis to look only at the top of the power-law curve for what’s successful in new media. In old media, only the top guys could afford to own the printing presses and broadcast towers. In citizens’ media, anybody can (and will) publish. The mass medium is death. The mass of niches has taken over media. So this alleged analyis shows a shocking ignorance of the new dynamics of media from a company that is allegedly measuring it (and charging customers for that service and analysis).

In addition, this is a medium of influencers. And so, it doesn’t necessarily matter if some blogs have a large number of readers if they have the right readers. Yes, there are blogs that are read in the White House and in Congress and in major media organizations; their influence is disproporational to their circulation. I can name many print publications that are just like that; they, too, would look small next to the Washington Post but that doesn’t prove squat.

: See, too, this story saying that 20 percent of newspaper readers read blogs. That’s a huge number for such a new medium.

Ad notes

Ad notes

: Damn, I wish Ad Age would put up its content so I could at least quote it. The last two issues had some interesting stuff:

: Starcom, a smart and big agency, wants more accountability data from magazines about reader engagement.

For “connectivity,” Starcom asks magazines to show how publications provide the right environment for marketers to connect with their target. The agency looks for alignment of context, contact, and content, according to a consumer magazine executive who’s familiar with ACE.

To measure “engagement,” Starcom asks magazines to show that “readers regularly interact with your publication and internalize its information,” the executive said.

Well, now, doesn’t that sound like a perfect prescription for the value of citizens’ media… We provide context at a very personal level, contact that is provable, and relevant content and we demonstrate that our “readers” interact with our “publications”: look at the comments, look at the links.

: Out of last weekend’s Association of National Advertisers’ confab in Florida, came a dawning realization among advertisers that they aren’t in control anymore and neither are media companies. Consumers are.

“The consumer is the official programmers,” Yahoo CEO Terry Semel told the group. Well, yeah. See:

Jarvis’ First Law: Give the people control of media, they will use it.

The corollary: Don’t give the people control of media, and you will lose.

Yes, control is what media is all about — has been since the invention of the remote control and on through the cable box, the VCR, the TiVo, and now media-creation tools. It hit TV first thanks to those electronic devices. It hit print media next, thanks to citizens’ media. And now it’s hitting advertising.

And it’s fascinating to see the industry grapple with this. Grabble, they did, at the ANA as some advertisers embraced this idea of consumer control — “Truly the consumer wants to be in control and we want to put them in control,” said Roger Adams of GM — while others resist. Again, I wish I could link to and quote from the AdAge stories (hint, hint).

: The new populism in advertising is reflected in an ironic way in eBay’s new campaign. Says AdAge:

Following a rash of news stories about the potential for fraud, eBay is shifting strategies with a new campaign centered on one of its cultural tenants: “People are good.”

Yes, we are.