Media are not merely observers in the story of democracy’s demise; they are players. Media require coverage. Who will cover media? Not media. Then no one.
The New York Times and The Washington Post eliminated their ombudsmen long since. With the death of David Carr and the departure of his short-lived and inconsequential successors, with the retirement of Margaret Sullivan, and now with the cancellation of Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources on CNN, there is no one covering media as a story for the public. Yes, there are pontificators aplenty — present company included — and there is inside-baseball coverage for media people from the likes of the Columbia Journalism Review. But who is holding media to account for its impact on the political process for the public? No one.
This is a shameful abrogation of responsibility by our field, journalism.
I have been shouting — even on MSNBC’s air — that we must cover the impact of Murdoch’s Fox News on public discourse. I begged MSNBC to create a feature: We watch Fox News so you don’t have to. I wrote an executive there a proposal, never answered. So I arranged funding of an alum of the Newmark J-School, Juliet Jeske, to start Decoding Fox News on Twitter and Substack. (Someone in media should hire her to continue this important work.)
Fox News is only part of the story. The impact The Times and The Post have on political discourse — hell, on political outcomes — deserves coverage, criticism, and accountability. The impact of polling, bisecting America into simplistic and combative binaries, requires research. The slow death of local news must be studied. The entrance of pink-slime and evangelical news needs to be watched.
Now more than ever, media are a story media should cover. But media — so eager to criticize everyone else — are frightened of criticism themselves.
Were I to summon the spirit of David Carr, I wonder whether he would nominate Stelter as his legitimate successor as media columnist of The Times. I wonder whether anyone would have the freedom Carr and Sullivan had there to question the ways of journalism. I wonder whether any editor or producer or network executive will ever again display the cajones to critique their own.
Media are not objective, impartial, neutral, distant observers on society. Media — as in any other circumstance, media otherwise would love to convince you — have impact. If only media gave themselves a fraction of the attention that they give to so-called social media these days. If only media listened to media scholars and their research. If only media were open to criticism.
But no, media use their power and privilege to to turn spotlight on others, no longer themselves. That is wrong.
As the UK gets ready to regulate harmful (including legal but harmful) speech online, the appointed regulator, Ofcom, released its annual survey of users. It’s informative to see just how concerned UK citizens seem to be about the internet. Not terribly.
First, a list of potential “harms” encountered.
Let’s look at these. Scams (27%). Yes, We get those through every possible medium: phone, mail, and net. Misinformation (22%). Well, that requires definition. “Generally offensive or ‘bad’ language” (21%). Oh, that is so broad; it is in the ear of the beholder; and — even without a First Amendment — does government want to be in the position of policing “bad” language? Unwelcome friend requests (20%). Sounds like a bad cocktail party; one may easily walk away. Content encouraging gambling (16%). Gambling is legal in the UK and promoted by many newspapers, which profit from it.
The sixth and seventh complaints are ones worthy of attention and are mostly native to online: trolling (15%) and discriminatory content (11%). Other categories worthy of attention include objectification of women, bullying, unwanted sexual messages, and content about body image (each 8%).
Now how concerned are these users about their complaints? 15% are “really bothered.”
What did the complainers do about it? 30% scrolled past, 20% reported it, 20% unfollowed whoever posted the offending content, 18% did nothing, 11% closed the app or site…
That’s the complaint side of the report. It does not alarm me about the extent of online harm users are reporting to their regulator.
To its credit, Ofcom also asked about the benefits of the net for its citizens. These results are striking.
“Being online has an overall positive effect on my mental health.” Only 14% disagreed; two and a half times more users agreed that the net is good for their mental health.
Oh, but isn’t the net addictive and taking over our lives? To this statement — “I feel I have a good balance between my online and offline life — a solid majority of 74% agree; only 9% do not.
“I can share my opinions and have a voice.” I consider this a critical difference between the net and mass media. 44% agree; only 17% disagree; a third don’t share an opinion about sharing their opinions.
“I feel more free to be myself online.” A third agree; almost a fifth disagree; half, being British, shrug.
Many people see the net less as a means of self-expression and more as a useful helpmate. “Accessing goods and services online is more convenient for me.” A whopping 83% agree; a mere 3% disagree.
Rather than being imprisoned by the desires of algorithms, it seems people see themselves as individuals following their own desires. “It gives me space to pursue my hobbies and interests.” Almost two-thirds — 63% agree — while 11% do not.
So far, as I read the survey, people feel predominantly positive about their use of the net and they do not seem terribly concerned about their complaints. The reason for a regulator to step in would be if users thought themselves incapable of handling problems there. Ah, but UK internet users do not paint themselves as desperate. To the contrary, they are confident: 79% call themselves very or fairly confident as internet users; not so much, 8%.
Well, what about attempts to pull the wool over their eyes by unscrupulous marketers? How confident are they that they can recognize online advertising? 78% are; 7% are not.
But data is/are a problem, everyone agrees, yes? Sure people feel they have lost the ability to manage their personal data online? Not so. A majority — 58% — are confident managing their data; 18% not.
OK, then fake news must be terrorizing citizens. News media say so. How many feel confident judging the truthfulness of online information? 69%; 9% feel otherwise.
But young people are the most vulnerable to online disinformation — that’s why there are so many interventions to teach them news literacy, right? How do young people compare with their elders? 29% of users aged 16–34 are very confident, and it goes downhill from there.
Most people feel pretty strongly about their own abilities online. But when asked about others, well, they need help. Two thirds of users agree with the statement, “Internet users must be protected from seeing inappropriate or offensive content.”
There we see the third-person effect at work. Coined by sociologist W. Phillips Davison in 1983, the third-person effect “predicts that people will tend to overestimate the influence that mass communications have on the attitudes and behavior of others…. Its greatest impact will not be on ‘me’ or ‘you,’ but on ‘them’ — the third persons.” The third-person effect, I argue in my upcoming book, is the basis of so much regulation and censorship of media since Gutenberg. Ofcom and fellow citizens want to protect them from the internet whether they think they need it or not.
All of this would seem to me to auger against the urgent need for Ofcom and the UK government to guard its citizens from the net.
But perhaps, as we hear in a constant media drumbeat, internet companies are negligent of doing anything to address the problems — problems that humans cause — on their platforms. Ofcom reports the moderation activity of the three big companies:
Facebook took down 153 million pieces of content in the third quarter of 2021 alone, 96% found by its algorithms. Is Facebook censoring too much, as America’s right-wing would claim? Only 2% of its decisions are challenged.
I know I’m being sassy here. I am not arguing against all regulation. The net is already regulated. Neither am I defending its current proprietors. I wish for a more distributed web (a la Jack Dorsey’s Bluesky). But keep in mind that a more distributed web will be much harder for regulators to regulate. And a more distributed web will make it more difficult for moral-panicking media to find folk-devil moguls to blame for all our ills.
Interventions in the internet and our newfound freedom of speech online need to be based on empirical evidence of actual harm, clearly defined. This, it would appear, is not that.
After The New York Times published its extensive report on the history of Haiti’s impoverishment at the hands of its overthrown colonial overlords, a robust debate broke out between academic and journalistic Twitter about inadequate citation and sourcing. Journalism must do better.
The gist of it: The Times did include a narrative bibliography in the project, which is unusual. But some academics — including Harvard’s Mary Lewis — said they had helped reporters but were neither quoted nor credited. This thread by Pittsburgh Prof. Keisha Blain brings together other threads; read them all. Many said The Times was derelict in not quoting and citing current research but also in ignoring the seminal work of Eric Williams in his 1944 book, Capitalism and Slavery — columbusing in, of all subjects, Haiti. Joseph Rezek, a BU professor, said the real problem was that The Times acted as if it had discovered something new when much research on the topic came before:
After three days, The Times reported on the citation controversy but some said it still didn’t give credit where it is due. Some journalists — notably Adam Davidson — pleaded for citational slack in telling stories for general audiences, sparking more controversy. I entered in more than once to argue that journalists must practice better discipline of citation, sourcing, and transparency: showing our work.
There are so many lessons here for journalists and journalism students that I think it is important to try to catalog them, to examine the journalistic presumptions and problems at work, and to propose standards.
Don’t blame your tools. First, let me call bullshit on the usual excuses that journalists do not have the space, time, or appropriate CMS frippery to cite sources. We now have the internet, with unlimited space and time. And we have the best possible tool for citation — the link. If any news organization cared, it would take next to no effort to also update tools to accommodate footnotes, endnotes, or notes that are revealed at a user’s option; to compile bibliographies of sources; and to create open repositories for source material. What is standing in the way of responsible citation is not tools but ethical will.
Journalists must always cite their sources. I don’t just mean attributing quotes. Let’s be honest that too often, quotes in stories are a form of extraction: I (the reporter) got you (the expert) to fill in our (the news organization’s) preconceived narrative. Anyone who has ever been interviewed knows the experience of seeing a long conversation reduced to one out-of-context line included to exploit the expert’s reputation and to make the reporter’s point, not the speaker’s.
What’s more troubling in the case of the Haiti story is what Yasmin Nair calls soft plagiarism: not a direct quote lifted but instead the coopting of ideas, background, context, perspective, and most of all an academic’s research and expertise.
I have sometimes spent an hour or two on the phone with a reporter explaining concepts, context, or history: educating them, with nothing to show for it. Far worse is Siva Vaidhyanathan’s tale of being used and discarded by a PBS series. There are a million such tales.
So, journalists, in your story or in a supplemental bibliography — try it — find a way to cite your sources, all those who, through interviews or literature, gave you the gift of education. To do anything less is intellectual and reportorial theft.
Screw the scoop. The Haiti episode exposes a grave journalistic weakness: the addiction to the scoop, to the idea that everything we report must be new, thus news. That is presumed to be one reason The Times’ Haiti story did not acknowledge much prior research. Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted an explanation: “Simply pitching the story as ‘this happened but many people don’t know about it[’] would likely have meant the piece didn’t get done & certainly that it wouldn’t have gotten all the resources.” She is, as ever, correct. But that indicates something seriously wrong with news organizations’ priorities. Shouldn’t serving what “many people don’t know” be more important than bragging about being the first to know it?
Look, too, at how journalists treat each other, not just academics. Here, NBC reporter Mike Hixenbaugh laments that neither The Times nor The Washington Post credited local Texas reporters with the reporting that led to the devastating report on Southern Baptist evangelical sex abuse.
There is no shame in acknowledging that others came before and in giving them — academics or journalists — recognition for their contributions. The shame is in not doing so.
The story corrupts. The story is not everything. The story is merely one form, one tool to inform the public. Failing to credit sources and experts because doing so would get in the way of the flow of one’s persuasive narrative is no excuse. I have long warned of the seduction of the story, as it grants too much power to the storyteller over the story’s subject. Keeping a narrative going while imparting information and crediting sources is simply our job.
It’s the business model, stupid. So much of this current kerfuffle revolves around the media economy requiring that news organizations to be destinations, to sell subscriptions, or (less and less) to sell attention to advertisers. As Jordan Taylor put it:
In the end, this is not about ethics or credibility but about the fight we’ve been having since the internet entered newsrooms: Journalists and publishers don’t want to link out; they don’t want to give credit; they want to convince themselves and the people they still consider an audience that they are selling a unique, exclusive, valuable commodity called content.
Wrong. Journalism is a service. When we credit our sources and show our work, we enhance our credibility and value. When we exploit and extract the work of academics — particularly academics of color — we extend inequity and injustice. When we value our own journalistic egos over the reputations of our sources and the education of the public, we do harm.
So stop. Find every way you can to cite and credit the sources who make your stories — your articles, your reporting, your informational service — possible. If you do not, you are thieves.
Another thing. I hate it when journalists say academics cannot write well. Yes, it is easy to find academic papers intended for small audiences inside a discipline that use baffling jargon. This writing is not intended for a broad audience. But behind me I have bookshelves filled with wonderfully written books by academics filled with not only engaging narrative but also responsible citation of rich sets of sources. So let’s cut out our intramural sniping about who’s a better writer.
To the contrary, it is vital — urgent — that we bring academics and journalists closer together so that news organizations are exposed to, use, and cite academic research relevant to their reporting. This is one of the reasons why I started an Initiative in Internet Studies at CUNY’s Newmark Journalism School — in full disclosure, funded by Google — to highlight research on internet impact for journalists and policymakers. (The Initiative is also bringing researchers together to discuss their agendas and I’m working to develop an educational program; my colleague Douglas Rushkoff and I just completed teaching a course in (re)Designing the Internet).
Diara J. Townes, who has worked with First Draft and the Aspen Institute and is a graduate of our school, is leading the effort to find, highlight, summarize, and share relevant research on internet impact. Here is the Twitter account where she is sharing research — and please send her more. Here is her Medium site and here you can sign up for her newsletter.
We in journalism mustn’t build walls to exclude academics by ignoring their prior research, by extracting their work without credit, and by mocking their writing (there is plenty to mock in news writing, folks). Instead, in a time when debate is devoid of fact and data, we must come closer together.
Just as I hit “publish” on this post, a colleague sent me a very good piece by Jonathan Katz, a “Haiti-head” — alongside his wife, Claire Payton, who holds a Ph.D. in Haitian history. Katz examines what is new in The Times project. He concludes:
My journalism-school superego says that a more honest thing for them to do would have been to package the story as what it was — a significant but incremental advance in the understanding of a historical event that scholars and Haitians know about and that much of the rest of the world does not.
But would a single front-page story with a headline like France Stole Over $500 Million from Haiti In 19th Century, Times Analysis Shows — or maybe In an Impoverished County, a Legacy of Theft — have gotten the magnitude of attention that this reporting has so far? Probably not.
Attention from The Times’ editors? I agree; probably not. But attention from the audience? That’s up to The Times’ editors. Nothing would have stopped The Times from doing just what Katz does here, saying: Here’s a story you probably don’t know; let us tell it to you and then let us tell you some new facts we uncovered in our research. Journalism is never the first-draft of history; that is our worst and most inexcusable hubris. Journalism is always another chapter in history.
What if we concede that the battle against “bad speech” is lost? Disinformation and lies will exist no matter what we do. Those who want such speech will always be able to say it and find it. Murdoch and Musk win. That is just realism.
Then what? Then we turn our attention to finding, amplifying, and supporting quality speech.
A big problem with concentrating so much attention and resource on “bad speech,” especially these last five years, is that it allows — no, encourages — the bad speakers to set the public agenda, which is precisely what they want. They feed on attention. They win. Even when they lose — when they get moderated, or in their terms “censored” and “canceled,” allowing them to play victim — they win. Haven’t we yet learned that?
Another problem is that all speech becomes tarred with the bad speakers’ brush. The internet and its freedoms for all are being tainted, regulated, and rejected in a grandly futile game of Whac-A-Mole against the few, the loud, the stupid. Media’s moral panic against its new competitor, the net, is blaming all our ills on technology (so media accept none of the responsibility for where we are). I hear journalists, regulators, and even academics begin to ask whether there is “too much speech.” What an abhorrent question in an enlightened society.
But the real problem with concentrating on “bad speech” is that no resource is going to good speech: supporting speech that is informed, authoritative, expert, constructive, relevant, useful, creative, artful. Good speech is being ignored, even starved. Then the bad speakers win once more.
What does it mean to concentrate on good speech? At the dawn of print and its new abundance of speech, new institutions were needed to nurture it. In my upcoming book, The Gutenberg Parenthesis (out early next year from Bloomsbury Academic), I tell the story of the first recorded attempt to impose censorship on print, coming only 15 years after Gutenberg’s Bible.
In 1470, Latin grammarian Niccolò Perotti begged Pope Paul II to impose Vatican control on the printing of books. It was a new translation of Pliny that set him off. In his litany of complaint to the pope, he pointed to 22 grammatical errors, which much offended him. Mind you, Perotti had been an optimist about printing. He “hoped that there would soon be such an abundance of books that everyone, however poor and wretched, would have whatever was desired,” wrote John Monfasani. But the first tech backlash was not long in coming, for Perotti’s “hopes have been thoroughly dashed. The printers are turning out so much dross.”
Perotti had a solution. He called upon Pope Paul to appoint a censor. “The easiest arrangement is to have someone or other charged by papal authority to oversee the work, who would both prescribe to the printers regulations governing the printing of books and would appoint some moderately learned man to examine and emend individual formes before printing,” Perotti wrote. “The task calls for intelligence, singular erudition, incredible zeal, and the highest vigilance.”
Note well that what Perotti was asking for was not a censor at all. Instead, he was envisioning the roles of the editor and the publishing house as means to assure and support quality in print. Indeed, the institutions of editor, publisher, critic, and journal were born to do just that. It worked pretty well for a half a millennium.
Come the mechanization and industrialization of print with steam-powered pressed and typesetting machines — the subject of future books I’m working on — the problem arose again. There was plenty of proper complaint about the penny press and yellow press and just crappy press. But at that same time, early in this transformation in 1850, a new institution was born: Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. See its mission in the first page of its first issue:
Rather than trying to eradicate all the new and bad speech suddenly appearing, Harper’s saw the need to support the good, “to place within the reach of the great mass of the American people the unbounded treasures of the Periodical Literature of the present day.”
Magazines — which Ben Franklin and Noah Webster had tried and failed to publish — flourished with new technology, new audiences, and new economics as good speech begat more good speech.
I am not suggesting for a second that we stop moderating content on platforms. Platforms have the right and responsibility to create positive, safe, pleasing, productive — and, yes, profitable — environments for their users.
But it is futile to stay up at night because — in the example of the legendary XKCDcartoon — someone is wrong, stupid, or mean on the internet. People who want to say stupid shit will find their place to do it. Acknowledge that. Stop paying heed to them. Attention is their feed, their fuel, their currency. Starve them of it.
I also am not suggesting that supporting good speech means supporting the incumbent institutions that have failed us. Most are simply not built to purpose for the new abundance of speech; there aren’t enough editors, publishers, and printing presses to cope.
Some of these legacy institutions are outright abrogating their responsibility: See The New York Times believing that the defense of democracy is partisan advocacy. Says the new editor of The Times: “I honestly think that if we become a partisan organization exclusively focused on threats to democracy, and we give up our coverage of the issues, the social, political, and cultural divides that are animating participation in politics in America, we will lose the battle to be independent.” No one is suggesting this as either/or. I give up.
Instead, supporting good speech means finding the speech that has always been there but unheard and unrepresented in the incumbent institutions of mass media. Until and unless Musk actually buys and ruins Twitter, it is a wealth of communities and creativity, of lived perspectives, of expertise, of deliberative dialogue — you just have to be willing to see it. Read André Brock, Jr.’s Distributed Blackness to see what is possible and worth fighting for.
Supporting good speech means helping speakers with education, not to aspire to what came before but to use the tools of language, technology, collaboration, and art to express themselves and create in new ways, to invent new forms and genres.
Supporting good speech means bringing attention to their work. This is why I keep pointing to Jack Dorsey’s Blue Sky as a framework to acknowledge that the speech layer of the net is already commodified and that the opportunity lies in building services to discover and share good speech: a new Harper’s for a new age built to scale and purpose. I hope for editors and entrepreneurs who will build services to find for me the people worth hearing.
Supporting good speech means investing in it. Millions have been poured into tamping down disinformation and good. I helped redirect some of those funds. We needed to learn. I don’t regret or criticize those efforts. But now we need to shift resources to nurturing quality and invention. As one small example, see how Reddit is going to fund experiments by its users.
We need to understand “bad speech” as the new spam and treat it with similar disdain, tools, and dismissal. There’ll always be spam and I’m grateful that Google, et al, invest in trying to stay no more than one foot behind them. We need to do likewise with those who would manipulate the public conversation for more than greedy ends: to spread their hate and bile and authoritarian racism and bigotry. Yes, stay vigilant. Yes, moderate their shit. Yes, thwart them at every turn. But also take them off the stage. Turn off the spotlight on them.
Turn the spotlight onto the countless smart, informed, creative people dying to be seen and heard. Support good speech.
It is likely a mistake to think aloud here on Twitter but I will confess I am unsure what to think about US/NATO involvement in a no-fly zone over Ukraine. I am gun-shy, literally, after my errors regarding Iraq. But…
How can we allow this democracy to be destroyed by fascism? Generals on TV say we must do more but then stop short of specifying what “more” is. Ukraine is asking for help to establish a no-fly zone as Russia bombards their country. So that is the question.
The reflexive answer is that we will defend NATO lands. So we will not defend Finland? Sweden? Any nation in the world not in NATO? Because Russia has nuclear weapons? That turns into quite a broad license for Putin.
The presumption seems to be that once we engage in protecting Ukraine, Putin has license to escalate to nukes. He might anyway. Then what? Is *that* the line? Ironically, then, the nuclear argument is its own form of escalation, almost daring him to use them or do everything but.
I know this is a helluva lot easier for me to say safely in America. I acknowledge again that thinking the US needed to support the democratic aspirations of the people of Iraq was dangerously naive of me. I am sobered by the perils at hand. But…
I am also aware that the Bush/Neocon/LindseyGraham extension of that reasoning would be to instigate regime change in Russia. No, I am not saying that! But Russia is instigating regime change in Ukraine. Do they not deserve protection?
We have a moral question to address: What is our obligation to Ukraine? What is the line? War crimes are being committed before our eyes: targeting civilians, using cluster bombs. Will we stand by to see Ukraine as Chechnya? Where is our line?
I have no interest in entering war. Even with the difficult exit from Afghanistan, I am gratified that Biden has taken America off the battlefield for the first time in decades.
I ask all this because I am interested in others’ perspectives. If this thread turns into a shouting mess, I’ll delete it. But if you, too, are trying to grapple with these questions, I’d like to hear others’ thoughts.
I grew up with the Vietnam War on TV. It made me anti-war, a young pacifist. Perhaps best if I’d stuck with that rather than accepting the idea of human rights & democratic aspiration in Afghanistan, then Iraq. Surviving 9/11 at the WTC affected me, I will confess.
Now we watch the Ukrainian war up close on social media, not through the mediator of TV but hearing directly from the civilians being targeted. This forces us to examine our own moral stands.
That poll does at least show people are questioning where their lines are: aid v. no-fly v. troops. We — Biden — must be careful of being swept away from a tide of public outrage and empathy. But we also must be open to debating. Thus this thread.
I do not have a conclusion. I, of course, recognize the gravity of approaching a point of no return. I also dread the regret of not doing enough.