The Spiegel Scandal and the Seduction of Storytelling

“Everyone who writes knows the seduction of the narrative.”
— Bernhard Pörksen in Die Zeit

The German journalism world is grappling with the implications of a shocking scandal at Der Spiegel: An award-winning, 33-year-old reporter — no, a fabulist and a fraud — named Claas Relotius made up article after article with stunning and audacious contempt for truth, as this fact-checking of his account of the rural American psyche makes clear.

German journalists are questioning Der Spiegel’s process and Relotius’ own psyche (he told his editors that he was motivated by a fear of failure) — as occurred in comparable American scandals of Jayson Blair at The New York Times and Janet Cooke at The Washington Post. But the Germans are digging deeper into the essence of journalism, questioning the perils of the seduction of the narrative form; the misplaced rewards inherent in professional awards; the risk to credibility for the institution in the time of “f*ke news;” the need for investigative self-examination in media; and more.

As best as ubiquitous paywalls and my very, very bad (sehr, sehr schlecht) German will allow [and I do hope my German friends will correct me where I’m wrong], I want to look at what the German journalists are talking about to see what lessons there are for journalists everywhere.

The perils of the story and storyteller

“A beautiful lie.” That is the headline on the essay in Zeit Online quoted above, in which Pörksen, a professor of media studies, discusses the form of the story: “What shows up here is called the narrative distortion, story bias. You have the story in your head, you know what sound readers or colleagues want to hear. And you deliver what works.” And it worked. Relotius was so well-known for his style that his magazine had a label for it: “the Relotius sound.”

In journalism, the story too often becomes a self-fulfilling creation. Early in my career at the Chicago Tribune, I watched a managing editor write a headline — complete with victim and drama — and then direct his investigative task force to go get that story. I worry when I sit in journalism classes and hear talk of getting quotes to fill in “my story,” with the emphasis on the reporter’s control of the narrative. I dislike that our process too often starts — in newsroom and classroom — with pitching a story people will want to read.

This has long been my heresy. Back in 2011, I was questioning the article as the atomic unit of journalism in a time when we were playing instead with flows and streams: journalism as process; the article deconstructed. That roiled storytellers.

The Spiegel affair cuts deeper into our presumptions and makes us ask whether our compulsion to make news compelling (yes, entertaining) leads us astray. In various of the German reactions I read, some wondered whether we should in essence make news duller: just the facts, mein Herr. “At last, don’t we need a new objectivity, a return to stricter form,” Pörksen asks, “or instead an absolute and open declaration of subjectivity, which identifies specific description as purely personal perception?” Do we need to admit that journalism is not a mirror to the world (“Spiegel” means mirror) — adhering to the Prime Directive of noninterference — but instead by its work is an actor in the world? (Internet platforms are grappling with exactly this conundrum as they cope with compensating for manipulation while grasping for neutrality.)

The real problem, of course, is that we have let our means of production determine our mission rather than the other way around (something I’ve heard Jay Rosen reflect upon often). I hear journalists say their primary role is as storytellers. No. I hear them say their task is to fill a product — a newspaper or magazine or show. No. Our job is to inform the public conversation. And now that we can hear people talking and join in with them, I’ve updated my definition of journalism to this: to convene communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation. This means our first job is not to write but to listen to that conversation so we can find what it needs to function. Then we report. Then we write — or convene or teach or use other forms now available to us. First listener, not storyteller. This is the thinking behind the new degree in Social Journalism we started at the Newmark J-School.

These lessons are not easily taught, for the addiction to storytelling as art — vs. journalism as service — is fierce. Journalist and media critic Stefan Niggemeier illustrates this challenge neatly in his critique of Spiegel editor-in-chief Ulrich Fichtner’s mea culpa for the fall of Relotius. “The harm begins in the first sentence,” Niggemeier says, then quoting Fichtner’s lede: “Just before the end of his career, splendor and misery came together in the life of Claas Relotius.” Thus Fichtner makes the story of the storymaker into a lovely story itself; he can’t help himself. His prose gets yet purpler when he writes of Relotius’ subjects, his characters: “…they are not human beings of flesh and blood, they live only on paper, and their creator is called Claas Relotius. Sometimes he lets them sing, sometimes cry, sometimes pray.”

Oh, according to everyone writing about him, Relotius could write. SaysAnnette Ramelsberger in the Süddeutsche Zeitung: “He wrote stories that were larger than life, bigger and more beautiful than life, with perfect protagonists, with dramaturgy a director could not have made better. His writing had the pull of a novel. That’s exactly what they were: stories from a storyteller posing as a journalist.”

Niggemeier quotes Fichtner’s explanation of the cause: “Anyone who has such material as a reporter, anyone who has a talent for drama, can spin gold out of it like in a fairy tale. Relotius has the talent. He invents the material.” So Niggemeier says Fichtner sees the problem as the material — the falsified facts — rather than the form, the storytelling, “the spinning and exaggeration of this craft by journalists and their prizes.”

The perils of prizes and self-congratulation

Relotius has already returned his four awards from the German Reporter Forum and some are questioning the value of such awards. That is another long-held heresy of mine: that our Pulitzers are bad for American journalism as they motivate us to impress each other, more than to serve the public. Of course, that’s not always the case, just too often it is.

“What happens when an industry is characterized by its vanity?” asks a headline in the trade publication Meedia, admitting it freaks out at the profession’s “rampant prize-giving fever.” Meedia says a portal for journalism prizes — its existence says much — counts more than 700 trophies awaiting winner.

The larger problem here is that our measurements of success are royally fucked up. On the business side, we value volume for volume’s sake — circulation, audience, pageviews, clicks, CPM — which, as I like to say, inevitably leads to cats and Kardashians and ultimately to clickbait made flesh, Donald Trump. On the editorial side, we value attention to us — most read, most clicked, most emailed, time spent. All of these metrics are mediacentric, egocentric. Our measures of success should instead be set by the public against its needs and goals. If anyone’s going to give journalism prizes, let it be the communities we serve.

As for the artful, rich, perfect story that is made to win awards: Leave it behind. Says Holger Stark in Die Zeit: “The Relotius affair is not the end of reportage. But the artform of flawless, over-perfumed reportage, which deceives readers and pretends it can tell the fate of the world in one person with the figure of the omniscient-authoritative narrator, which pops and smokes and sparks — that cinematic artform must now, at last come to an end…”

A failure of fact-checking

Der Spiegel’s fact-checking process is renowned — like The New Yorker’s still or like Time Inc.’s back in the day — so how could it fail? In this time of dis- and misinformation, fact-checkers are our last, best defenders of the truth.

Monika Bauerlein, a German journalist and now CEO of Mother Jones, who in her youth was inspired by Der Spiegel’s investigative reporting (“I do what I do today because of them”), laments that Spiegel’s 60 fact-checkers simply did not do as good a job as Mother Jones’, which number only a fifth as many. Bauerlein says it so happens that a story that helped alert Spiegel to Relotius’ fraud was one of MoJo’s own.

I point you again to the wonderful job of fact-checking of Relotius’ “report” from Fergus Falls, Minnesota, by two people who live there. Any amount of real fact-checking in Der Spiegel would have revealed the fraud. So why didn’t it work? Perhaps because…

Indeed. In another piece, Niggemeier says Der Spiegel’s fabled Dok — documentation (research or fact-checking) department — too often relied on the credibility of the reporter. He says these systems are built to pick up the error of the busy reporter who’s sloppy or hurried or merely human, not the work of a fraud. This is an indicator of a closed system that verifies trust by trusting itself.

As an aside, I have been part of a process by an organization outside the U.S. that is trying to set standards for trust in journalism and I’ve been dispirited that in this effort, there is no opening to listen to the public and its concerns (‘Why don’t you trust us?”), to test its standards with the public (“Would this help you trust us?”), and even to enshrine in those standards the need to hear the public (“We begin by listening to you”). So an untrusted institution thinks it builds trust by systematizing the processes that made it untrusted in the first place? Garg!

To be clear: Facts are the essence of journalism. Fact-checking is vital. I’ve been arguing that in J-schools, we need to do more to teach as a skill verification of both facts and of what people are saying in social media. But in the end, we must remember that facts themselves are a system that can be manipulated. See Kellyanne Conway’s inadvertent epiphany about alternative facts. Then see danah boyd’s brilliant SXSW EDU talk about news literacy and the real problem: warring epistemologies.

Yes, of course, we need fact-checking. But in this age, facts are insufficient. We need education. We need a new Enlightenment. That requires a wiser journalism.

Fake news, fake reporter

What hurts so much about this case is, of course, its moment in time. Just as journalism is being attacked in the United States from the top of government as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people” and as it is being attacked in Germany as die Lügenpresse (a revived Nazi slur meaning the lying press), here comes a scandal brimming with journalistic lies.

Not surprisingly, the conservative boulevard (that is, tabloid in spirit if not in size) newspaper Bild, reveled in poking at the liberal Der Spiegel, remolding Trump’s phrase to call Relotius, in English, the “fake reporter.” Bild’s so-called columnist (his columns are barely longer than tweets) Franz Josef Wagner accused Spiegel “of printing lies for years.” And Trump’s own ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, jumped at the opportunity to slam journalists anywhere, having the temerity to demand an investigation into Der Spiegel for anti-American bias. The magazine apologized for the lies, not any bias. As Niggemeier points out, Spiegel is apologizing to everyone now. The magazine apologized to readers, fellow journalists, prize juries, journalism schools, business partners, customers, and the family founder of its founder, Rudolf Augstein. “Seriously?” Niggemeier exclaims. “To the Augstein family? Should you then not seek forgiveness from Gutenberg’s descendants — after all, Relotius’ articles have been printed on paper!”

Such is the weakened, defensive state of Der Spiegel and journalism now.

Investigate thyself

Had it not been for the diligence of one of Relotius’ Spiegel colleagues, Juan Moreno, the fraudster might still be quoting unicorns. Working alongside Relotius on a story, Moreno’s spidey sense prickled and he tried to alert his editors. They all but threatened Moreno with firing if his allegations did not pan out. Dogged, as a reporter should be, Moreno took a trip to the U.S. and, without the company’s approval, found some of Relotius’ sources, who all said they’d never been interviewed. After risking his own job, Moreno is now a hero.

In Die Zeit, Prof. Pörksen says Moreno engaged in something too rare in Germany (and I’d say anywhere): investigative media reporting. If the Spiegel affair leads to the birth of such an undertaking, Pörksen says, then perhaps it would not have been suffered in vain. Perhaps. I wrote just yesterday that journalists should be demanding of themselves what they are demanding of Facebook and Silicon Valley: transparency, ethical self-examination, criticism of the moral hazards of our business models and metrics, and honesty about our loss in trust.

Out of obvious necessity, Germany has made a skill out of blunt self-examination. As they have done with their history, I hope they do with their journalism and I hope we can learn from them. In the age of America’s Trump, the United Kingdom’s Brexit, Germany’s AfD, Russia’s Putin, France’s gilets jaunes, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, the Philippines’ Duterte, Turkey’s Erdoğan, Hungry’s Orbán, Venezuela’s Maduro, Saudi Arabia’s MBS, China’s Xi — and on and on — we can agree that we need journalism more than ever and journalism needs to be tougher on itself and more accountable to its public than ever.

Says Ramelsberger in the Süddeutsche: “We can learn from all this. First of all: Journalists are not artists, they are mostly ordinary craftsmen. Second, they must serve the truth and not their own glory. Third, they have a task. They are the … so-called garbage collectors of the fact world who document, question, and doubt. From this come no articles that glitter on all sides like disco balls. But the reputation of journalism and the mission it has in society helps the solid story more than stories that are too good to be true.”

Oh, I hear some saying, but because of the internet, we have fewer resources and so doing good work becomes only harder; we can’t afford fact-checking and investigation and wisdom. No. This is why we must prioritize our work with our mission. Give up the fluffiest of our fluff. Stop copying each other just to churn out our own page views. End our quest for the perfect compelling, attention-grabbing, prize-winning narrative. Put our resources behind the job that matters: doing our part to assure a civil, informed, and productive public conversation.

Facebook. Sigh.

I’d rather like to inveigh against Facebook right now as it would be convenient, given that ever since I raised money for my school from the company, it keeps sinking deeper in a tub of hot, boiling bile in every media story and political pronouncement about its screwups. Last week’s New York Times story about Facebook sharing data with other companies seemed to present a nice opportunity to thus bolster my bona fides. But then not so much.

The most appalling revelation in The Times story was that Facebook “gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages.” I was horrified when I read that and was ready to raise the hammer. But then I read Facebook’s response.

Specifically, we made it possible for people to message their friends what music they were listening to in Spotify or watching on Netflix directly from the Spotify or Netflix apps….

In order for you to write a message to a Facebook friend from within Spotify, for instance, we needed to give Spotify “write access.” For you to be able to read messages back, we needed Spotify to have “read access.” “Delete access” meant that if you deleted a message from within Spotify, it would also delete from Facebook. No third party was reading your private messages, or writing messages to your friends without your permission. Many news stories imply we were shipping over private messages to partners, which is not correct.

And I read other background, including from Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former head of security, who has been an honest broker in these discussions:

And there’s James Ball, a respected London journalist — ex Guardian and BuzzFeed — who is writing a critical book about the internet:

In short: Of course, Netflix and Spotify had to be given the ability to send, receive, and delete messages as that was the only way the messaging feature could work for users. Thus in its story The Times comes off like a member of Congress grandstanding at a hearing, willfully misunderstanding basic internet functionality. Its report begins on a note of sensationalism. And not until way down in the article does The Times fess up that it similarly received a key to Facebook data. So this turns out not to be the ideal opening for inveighing. But I won’t pass up the opportunity.

The moral net

I’ve had a piece in the metaphorical typewriter for many months trying to figure out how to write about the moral responsibility of technology (and media) companies. It has given me an unprecedented case of writer’s block as I still don’t know how to attack the challenge. I interviewed a bunch of people I respect, beginning with my friend and mentor Jay Rosen, who said that we don’t even have agreement on the terms of the discussion. I concur. People seem to assume there are easy answers to the questions facing the platforms, but when the choices gets specific — free speech vs. control, authority vs. diversity, civility as censorship — the answers no longer look so easy.

None of this is to say that Facebook is not fucking up. It is. But its fuckups are not so much of the kind The Times, The Guardian, cable news, and others in media dream of in their dystopias: grand theft user data! first-degree privacy murder! malignant corporate cynicism! war on democracy! No, Facebook’s fuckups are cultural in the company — as in the Valley — which is to say they are more complex and might go deeper.

For example, I was most appalled recently when Facebook — with three Jewish executives at the head — hired a PR company to play into the anti-Semitic meme of attacking George Soros because he criticized Facebook. What the hell were they thinking? Why didn’t they think?

This case, I think, revealed the company’s hubristic opacity, the belief that it could and should get away with something in secret. I’m sure I needn’t point out the irony of a company celebrating publicness being so — to understate the case — taciturn. Facebook must learn transparency, starting with openness about its past sins. I’ve been saying the company needs to perform an audit of its past performance and clear the decks once and for all. But transparency is not just about confession. Transparency should be about pride and value. From the top, Facebook needs to infuse its culture with the idea that everything everyone does should shine in the light of public scrutiny. The company has to learn that secrecy is neither a cloak nor a competitive advantage (hell, who are its competitors anyway?) but a severe liability.

Facebook and its leaders are often accused of cynicism. I have a different diagnosis. I think they are infected with latent and lazy optimism. I do believe that they believe a connected world is a better world — and I agree with that. But Facebook, like its neighbors in Silicon Valley, harbored too much faith in mankind and — apart from spam— did not anticipate how it would be manipulated and thus did not guard against that and protect the public from it. I often hear Facebook accused of leaving trolling and disinformation online because it makes money from those pageviews. Nonsense. Shitstorms are bad for business. I think it’s the opposite: Facebook and the other platforms have not calculated the full cost of finding and compensating for manipulation, fraud, and general assholery. And in some fairness to them, we as a society have not yet agreed on what we want the platforms to do, for I often hear people say — in the same breath or paragraph — that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube must clean up their messes … but also that no one trusts them to make these judgments. What’s a platform to do?

If Facebook and its league had acted with transparent good faith in enacting their missions — and bad faith in anticipating the behavior of some small segment of malignant mankind — then perhaps when Russian or other manipulation reared its head the platforms would have been on top of the problem and would even have garnered sympathy for being victims of these bad actors. But no. They acted impervious when they weren’t, and that made it easier to yank them down off their high horses. Media — once technoboosters — now treat the platforms, especially Facebook, as malign actors whose every move and motive is to destroy society.

I have argued for a few years now that Facebook should hire an editor to bring a sense of public responsibility to the company and its products. As a journalist, that’s rather conceited, for as I’ll confess shortly, journalists have issues, too. Then perhaps Facebook should hire ethicists or philosophers or clergy or an Obama or two. It needs a strong, empowered, experienced, trusted, demanding, tough force in its executive suite with the authority to make change. While I’m giving unsolicited advice, I will also suggest that when Facebook replaces its outgoing head of coms and policy, Elliot Schrage, it should separate those functions. The head of policy should ask and demand answers to tough questions. The head of PR is hired to avoid tough questions. The tasks don’t go together.

So, yes, I’ll criticize Facebook. But I also believe it’s important for us in journalism to work with Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, et al because they are running the internet of the day; they are the gateways to the public we serve; and they need our help to do the right thing. (That’s why I do what I do in the projects I linked to in the first sentence above.)

Moral exhibitionism

Instead, I see journalists tripping over each other to brag on social media about leaving social media. “I’m deleting Facebook — find me on Instagram,” they proclaim, without irony. “I deleted Facebook” is the new “I don’t own a TV.” This led me to tweet:

People with discernible senses of humor got the gag. One person attacked me for not attacking Facebook. And meanwhile, a few journalists agonized about the choice. A reporter I whose work I greatly respect, Julia Ioffe, was visibly torn, asking:

I responded that Facebook enriches her reporting and that journalists need more — not fewer — ways to listen to the public we serve. She said agreed with that. (I just asked what she decided and Ioffe said she is staying on Facebook.)

Quitting Facebook is often an act of the privileged. (Note that lower income teens are about twice as likely to use Facebook as teens from richer families.) It’s fine for white men like me to get pissy and leave because we have other outlets for our grievances and newsrooms are filled with people who look like us and report on our concerns. Without social media, the nation would not have had #metoo or #blacklivesmatter or most tellingly #livingwhileblack, which reported nothing that African-Americans haven’t experienced but which white editors didn’t report because it wasn’t happening to them. The key reason I celebrate social media is because it gives voice to people who for too long have not been heard. And so it is a mark of privilege to condemn all social media — and the supposed unwashed masses using them — as uncivilized. I find that’s simply not true. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of smart, concerned, witty, constructive people with a wide (which could always be wider) diversity of perspective. I respect them. I learn by listening to them.

When I talked about all this on the latest This Week in Google, I received this tweet in response:

I thanked Jeff and immediately followed him on Facebook.

A moral mirror

These days, too much of the reporting about the internet is done without knowledge of how technology works and without evidence behind the accusations made. I fear this is fueling a moral panic that will lead to legislation and regulation that will affect not just a few Silicon Valley technology companies but everyone on the net. This is why I so appreciate voices like Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, now head of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford, who often meets polemical presumptions about the net — for example, that we are supposedly all hermetically sealed in filter bubbles — with demands for evidence as well as research that dares contradict the pessimistic assertion. This is why I plan to convene a meeting of similarly disciplined researchers to examine how bad — or good — life on the net really is and to ask what yet needs to be asked to learn more.

Dave Winer, a pioneer in helping to create so much of the web we enjoy today (podcasts, RSS, blogging…) is quite critical of the closed systems the platforms create but also was very frustrated with the New York Times story that inspired this post:

Could this be why usually advocacy-allergic news organizations are oddly taking it upon themselves to try to convince people to delete Facebook?

This is also why Dave also had a suggestion for journalists covering technology and for journalism schools:

A bunch of us journo profs jumped on his idea and I hope we all make it happen soon.

But there’s more journalists need to do. As we in news and media attack the platforms and their every misstep — and there are many — we need to turn the mirror on ourselvesIt was news media that polarized the nation into camps of red v. blue, white v. black, 1 percent v. 99 percent long before Facebook was born. It was our business model in media that favored confrontation over resolution. It was our business model in advertising that valued volume, attention, page views, and eyeballs — the business model that then corrupted the internet. It was our failure to inform the public that enabled people to vote against their self-interest for Trump or Brexit. We bear much responsibility for the horrid mess we are in today.

So as we demand transparency of Facebook I ask that we demand it of ourselvesAs we expect ethical self-examination in Silicon Valley, we should do likewise in journalism. As we criticize the skewed priorities and moral hazards of technology’s business model, let us also recognize the pitfalls of our own — and that includes not just clickbait advertising but also paywalls and patronage (which will redline journalism for the privileged). Let us also be honest with ourselves about why trust in journalism is at historic lows and why people chose to leave the destinations we built for them, instead preferring to talk among themselves on social media. Let he who should live in a glass house — and expects everyone else to live in glass houses — think before throwing stones.

I’m neither defending nor condemning Facebook and the other platforms. My eyes are wide open about their faults — and also ours. They and the internet they are helping to build are our new reality and it is our mutual responsibility to build a better net and a better future together. These are difficult, nuanced problems and opportunities.

There is no Trump without Murdoch

In the video above you will see New York Mayor Bill de Blasio trying to school CNN senior media correspondent Brian Stelter in the most important and most undercovered story in media today, a story that’s right under his nose: the ruinous impact of Fox News and Rupert Murdoch on American democracy. You’ll then see Stelter dismiss the critique in a fit of misplaced journalistic both-sideism.

Without Murdoch — without Fox News nationally and the New York Post locally — “we would be a more unified country,” de Blasio tells Stelter. “There would be less overt hate. There would be less appeal to racial division…. They put race front and center and they try to stir the most negative impulses in this country. There is no Donald Trump without News Corp.”

Stelter: “You’d rather not have Fox News or the New York Post exist?”

de Blasio: “I’m saying because they exist we’ve been changed for the worse.”

Stelter: “But isn’t that like saying they’re fake news or an enemy of the people?”

Jarvis: Sigh. No. He is criticizing Murdoch particularly. He’s not criticizing all of media. He’s not trying to send the public into battle against them. He’s not trying to kill them. He’s saying News Corp does a bad job. He’s saying they harm the nation. He’s right. Listen to him.

Stelter a little later: “Politicians make lousy media critics. Why do you feel it’s your role to be calling out a newspaper?”

de Blasio: “Because I think it’s not happening enough…. When it comes to News Corp., they have a political mission and we have to be able to talk about it.”

Stelter: “But singling out News Corp., it’s like Trump singling out CNN. Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Jarvis: Scream. No, News Corp. is singular. That is the point de Blasio is trying to make as he compares them to CNN, the other networks, The New York Times, and The Washington Post: “One of these things is not like the others.” There is nothing like News Corp. in this country or in recent history. We’re not talking about that and we should be. When I say “we” I don’t just mean the nation, I specifically mean us in journalism and media and I very much mean media reporters and critics — that is de Blasio’s further critique. This is not a matter of balance, of symmetry, of two wrongs. The behavior of Fox News and of the right is asymmetrical. That is the key lesson of the election of 2016. If we do not start there, we are nowhere.

Now I’ll grant a few caveats: The rest of media are liberal and don’t admit it and that’s much of the reason they’re not trusted by half the nation. de Blasio also brings baggage when it comes to criticizing local media that criticize him. Because I teach at the City University of New York, I suppose I’m employee of the mayor’s. And I’ve been a fan of Stelter’s since he was in college. But I think Stelter is wrong to dismiss de Blasio’s critique because de Blasio is a politician, not a media critic. Indeed, we in media need to listen to voices other than our own.

de Blasio also brings caveats of his own. He supports the First Amendment. He supports free speech. He supports the press. He likes apple pie. (I’m guessing.) But that’s not good enough for Stelter, who accuses de Blasio of criticizing News Corp. because he wants to run for president. That is reportorial cynicism in action: ascribing cynicism to the motive of anyone you interview so you can seem to be tough on them rather than dealing with their critique and message at face value.

I imagine Stelter is frightened of criticizing Fox News directly because it is (a) a competitor and (b) conservative and we know that shit storm will rain from the right. So be it.

I will not mince words: Rupert Murdoch has single-handedly brought American democracy to ruin. Cable news — especially CNN — made its business on conflict and the rest of media built theirs on clickbait but only Fox News is built to — in de Blasio’s words — “sensationalize, racialize, and divide.” Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. are specifically to blame. How can any civilized soul, let alone a media correspondent, not have heard Laura Ingraham’s bilious racist rant last week and then demanded in all caps and bold: HOW THE FUCK IS THIS ON TELEVISION? WHO ALLOWS THIS? Murdoch does.

Media are fretting and kvetching about Twitter and Facebook enabling a few — yes, a few — crackpots to speak but it’s Fox News that has the bigger megaphone. It’s Murdoch that empowers Trump. It’s Fox News that instructs him on what to do, as we can see on Twitter every morning. Murdoch has far more impact than Infowars or any random asshole in your Twitter feed. de Blasio could not be more right: Rupert Murdoch made Donald Trump. He made it acceptable for the racism we saw in Washington this weekend to come out into the light. This is a damned big media story that media are not covering. So what if it takes a politician to bring attention to it? Credit Stelter for inviting de Blasio on after he gave a preview of his perspective to The Guardian. But arguing with him does not necessarily journalism make. Journalism is also listening, probing, exploring, understanding.

I go into class this week urging students to become media critics, to question what they see in journalism and why it is done that way. To prepare, I’m rereading The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. In it, they quote Murdoch when he won TV rights in Singapore:

Singapore is not liberal, but it’s clean and free of drug addicts. Not so long ago it was an impoverished, exploited colony with famines, diseases and other problems. Now people find themselves in three-room apartments with jobs and clean sheets. Material incentives create business and the free market economy. If politicians try it the other way around with democracy first, the Russian model is the result. Ninety percent of the Chinese are interested more in a better material life than in the right to vote.

“These words by a modern publisher advocating capitalism without democracy have no meaningful precedent in American journalism history,” Kovach said in a speech. He is talking about the man who is influencing at least a third of America. News Corp. is singular. That is why I have been arguing since before the election that the nation must invest in responsible, fact-based, journalistic media to compete with Fox News and provide an alternative. Until then, be worried. Be very worried. For as de Blasio warns, the local version of Fox News, Sinclair, came very near to taking over and brainwashing more local TV markets in the nation. This is not going to go away of its own accord, as if the nation one day wakes up from this nightmare, hits itself upside the head, and asks: “What were we thinking?” This is going to go away only through exposing what is happening. You’d think journalists would be the first to understand that.

Congratulations, America. Victory against Infowars!

 

You did it, O, you denizens of social media, you sharers of cats, you time-wasters, you. With every appalled tweet and retweet and angry emoji on Facebook, you vanquished the foe, Infowars. You got it banished from Facebook, Apple, YouTube, and Spotify. Congratulations.

I have no inside information to know what made the platforms finally come to their senses. But I will bet that it was the cover provided by the public on social media that gave them the courage to do the right thing.

Consider what Sleeping Giants and Shannon Coulter’s #GrabYourWallet did to get thousands of advertisers to drop Breitbart. After Kellogg dropped Breitbart back in 2016, right-wingers tried to declare a cereal boycott. It fizzled like stale Rice Crispies. Then the social pressure started on every advertiser that appeared on Breitbart and by the hundreds they flew away. I spoke with advertisers who did not resent Sleeping Giants for this. No, they were grateful for the cover.

Meanwhile, #GrabYourWallet also put pressure on retailers to stop carrying the merchandise of the enabler-in-chief and éminence greed, Ivanka Trump, and she killed her company. Last week, many of us brought a shitstorm down on the Newseum for selling fake news T-shirts and they relented. Many of us keep screaming about cable news shows inviting on Trump’s liars and at least a few listened as Morning Joe stopped inviting Kellyanne Conway and Joy Reid, Nicolle Wallace, and Rachel Maddow stopped giving free airtime unencumbered with context to Trump rallies, press briefings, and tweets.

So that is your job, America: Keep demanding the best of platforms when it comes to distributing extremist bile. Demand the best of brands, ad networks, ad agencies, and retailers when it comes to supporting their shit. And demand the best of media — I’m looking at you, cable news — when it comes to inviting pathological liars and extremist nut jobs on your air to amplify their hate and disinformation.

Now it would be nice if the companies that run the internet had long since shown the decency, good sense, and courage to do this on their own. But it seems they feared blowback from the other side, the indecent side, the allies of Infowars and you-know-who. Well, we showed them who is more powerful.

Now I know there’s a risk here. A tool is a tool and bad guys can use them just as well as good guys. Indeed, it was the far right that first went after Facebook with accusations that it was disadvantaging conservative news in its (now gone, thank you) Trending feature. Facebook caved and then cowered — until now. I don’t want to see mobs going after voices because of disagreement. But that’s not what happened here. Citizens went after companies to uphold basic standards of decency. Big difference.

 

My message here is simple: Keep it up, social media. Keep it up, America. Demand the best of ourselves, our technology companies and media companies and their advertisers. Then come November, demand the best of the women and men who represent you in government.

What you’re seeing is democracy and civilization in action — and civilization is winning. At last.

 

Gutenberg in Mainz

Here is the English version of an essay I wrote for the Allgemeine Zeitung of Mainz — the birthplace of Gutenberg and of his invention. I’m honored that it was translated into German by the leading expert in Gutenberg, Prof. Stephan Füssel of Mainz University, who just produced an amazing fascimile of and commentary on the Gutenberg Bible

It is fitting that we pay tribute to Johannes Gutenberg now, as his grand invention reaches its twilight. The lovely geometry of type and the grammar of text have been overtaken by the binary aesthetics of data and dots. Today, our vulgate is visual, our vernacular video. Come the 600th anniversary of movable type, it is unlikely that words will any longer be impressed on paper mechanically, now that they can be sprayed, transmitted, copied, and animated digitally.

But let us not mourn print’s passing. Let us first celebrate the example of innovation Gutenberg set. He was, perhaps, our first technology entrepreneur; Mainz was his Silicon Valley. He had to grapple with challenges similar to any startup’s today. Fundamental to the business he began — as in today’s economy — was the necessity of scale, of manufacturing fonts in large numbers so that books could in turn be manufactured with then-unimaginable speed and efficiency. He tamed many technologies: mechanics to build the ingenious, hand-held mold used to make letters with great precision; metallurgy to produce a lead amalgam that would cool quickly but withstand many impressions; chemistry to formulate the ink whose midnight blackness in his Bibles still has not faded over centuries. He designed an industrial process with division of labor. And he had to innovate new business models based on using risk capital before revenue would flow (which is how he lost much of his business to his financier, Johann Fust).

The epochal impact of Gutenberg’s work will be measured for still another millenium. “Print technology created the public,” said Marshall McLuhan. “Invent the printing press and democracy is inevitable,” Thomas Carlyle is often quoted as saying. The Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, even the Industrial Revolution — could any of these fires have been lit without printing’s spark? I am not arguing for technological determinism — that printing caused these disruptions with certain outcome — but instead that printing made them more possible. The acts were still human; the tools Gutenberg’s.

At the dawn of the net age, we still see the future in the analog of the past, in Gutenberg’s terms. Two Danish professors, Tom Pettitt and Lars Ole Sauerberg, argue that Gutenberg’s centuries were an exception in human history — the Gutenberg parenthesis, they call it. The book — a container — made us see in the world as packages with boundaries, with a beginning and an end. Says McLuhan: “The line, the continuum — this sentence is a prime example — became the organizing principle of life.” Thus we came to call literature and journalism “content” to fill containers: books and later newspapers. Books standardized our languages and helped define us as distinct peoples and nations with boundaries of their own. With the copyright law that followed Gutenberg by a century, books and that which filled them could be bought and sold as property. With the addition of steam power to the press, we came to measure mankind by volume: mass media, mass marketing, mass culture, mass man. Books — more abundant than ever but still a scarcity — supported the elitism of the author, the academic, the expert, and eventually the celebrity.

And now we have the internet. Invent it and what is possible? It is too soon to know. Today, we are only 24 years from the introduction of the commercial web in 1994. Reckoning by Gutenberg time, that puts us at about the year 1474. Consider that Martin Luther was not born until 1483. What if our Luther — the visionary who will fully understand and exploit the greater potential of the internet — is not yet born?

In the internet, we have a world in which every person can be connected to every other person and to any fact instantly. We have the opportunity to collect and build upon information as never before; now our machines can manufacture not just books but intelligence itself. Because we now communicate with images on Instagram, video on YouTube, and symbols as emoji, the definition of literacy has opened up so everyone is empowered to speak, be heard, and create a public. What becomes then of our economy of content, our notion of nations, our ideas of education, our standards of culture, our laws governing ownership of content or data, and our hierarchy of elites vs. masses? Who knows?

I would like to think that we can return to the other side of Gutenberg’s parenthesis and learn once again how to hold conversations as the threads that weave a society. I would like to see us move from a society built on transactions to one built once again on interactions with ideas and facts, emotions and empathy, and each other. Can the net help us gather into communities more easily and then to build bridges among them? Can it help offer the power of education and creativity to many more people in the world? Can the internet help us recognize our connected humanity again?

Today — especially in the narrative of media — it may feel like the opposite is occuring, as if we live in an age of cold, impersonal technology that is challenging our institutions, threatening our jobs, grabbing our data, spreading lies, amplifying hate. But the machines aren’t doing all that. We are. Or rather, some small number of people — trolls, thieves, demagogues, racists — have learned how to exploit weaknesses in both technology and society before the rest of us have a chance to plug the leaks in our morality.

What I fear most is fear itself. I worry that society is entering into a full-blown moral panic over technology and that — especially in Germany and Europe — laws will be enacted to limit not only the risks but also the opportunities the internet brings. Please remember that when Gutenberg invented his press, leaders of church and state alike feared it — not without reason — and tried to license and limit its use. “To what corner of the world do they not fly, these swarms of new books?” Erasmus complained. “The very multitude of them is hurtful to scholarship, because it creates a glut and even in good things satiety is most harmful.” After the English Civil War, writer Richard Atkyns worried that printers had “filled the Kingdom with so many Books, and the Brains of the People with so many contrary Opinions, that these Paper-pellets become as dangerous as Bullets.” Eventually, though, society and its institutions learned how to live with and by the book. We can and should do the same with the net. To do that, we will need to:

  • Study and learn from prior disruptions in society — starting with Gutenberg’s own — to give us perspective and inform our decisions today.
  • Rely on evidence of actual harm before assuming the worst and acting on that fear to legislate and regulate. I am not convinced that the internet is addicting us or killing privacy or even that the fake news on it can sway elections. Nonetheless, we certainly must become smarter about recognizing and counteracting efforts to manipulate politics, markets, and lives with technology.
  • Negotiate new norms of behavior. We have decided it would be rude to take a phone with a camera into a locker room or sauna. We are close to deciding when it is OK to pick up a phone to check messages and when it is not. A far more difficult question is how we negotiate the the balance between free speech and threatening, hateful, manipulative, or false speech.
  • Most of all — as difficult as it might seem in this age of AfD, Trump, and Brexit — we need to regain faith in the sense and civility of our fellow man and woman. Technology alone does not corrupt the human brain and soul. Despite fears that it would, the book did not ruin civilization. The internet won’t either. We’re too smart for that.
In the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz. Photo by Stefan Sämmer for the Allgemeine Zeitung