Archive for the ‘future of journalism’ category

What Does The Fox Say? (Zombie Goebbels Is Taking Notes Edition)

December 22, 2014

No, I don’t think that title is hyperbole.

Via Talking Points Memo, here’s how a Fox affiliate “informs” its viewers:

A Fox affiliate in Baltimore aired a segment on Sunday showing footage from a “Justice For All” demonstration in Washington, D.C. in which it edited a chant to sound like protestors were shouting “kill a cop.”

“At this rally in Washington, D.C. protestors chanted, ‘we won’t stop, we can’t stop, so kill a cop,'” the WBFF broadcast said.

But the full footage, flagged by Gawker on Monday via C-SPAN, revealed that the chant was “we won’t stop, we can’t stop, ’til killer cops are in cell blocks.”

On being caught lying on the air, this is how the station responded:

We aired part of a protest covered by CSPAN that appeared to have protesters chanting “kill a cop”. We spoke to the person in the video today and she told us that is not what she was chanting. Indeed, Tawanda Jones, says she was chanting, “We won’t stop ‘til killer cops are in cell blocks”. We invited Tawanda to appear on Fox45 News at 5:00 and Fox45 News at Ten tonight for an interview so we can discuss the video and the recent violence in New York City. She has kindly accepted and we will bring you that tonight.

This is, of course, a double-dip of the bullshit.  You can listen to the raw and edited clips at TPM.  When you do so, you’ll see that there’s nothing but a lie in the phrase “appeared to have protesters chanting “kill a cop”.”

The Fox affiliate in Baltimore edited audio to create a statement no one said, one certain to inflame anger.  Most important, as the GOP-led bullshit hailstorm around “anti-cop rhetoric” begins to founder on the fact that people like DiBasio, Holder and Obama didn’t utter any, audio like this provides an answer to folks like me and many here.

We say “show us this anti-cop stuff.”  Give us links that plausibly tie those of us who argue that cops have been shown to be able to use excess force with impunity to the deaths of those two officers in Brooklyn.

They say, “let’s go to the videotape.”  Which they manufacture.

Fox 45 Baltimore is a local broadcast station.  As such, it is subject to licensing by the FCC.  Once upon a time, it might have been possible to mount at least a vaguely threatening challenge to its license renewal for sh*t like this.  The Reagan Revolution, aided by the GOP Congress under a Bill Clinton who did not wield a veto pen, has made that essentially impossible, while ensuring that broadcast TV will ever-increasingly belong to our oligarchs.

The FCC’s vision of the public interest standard ­ and how to achieve diverse programming — underwent a significant transformation in the 1980s. As new media industries arose and a new set of FCC Commissioners took office, the FCC made a major policy shift by adopting a marketplace approach to public interest goals. In essence, the FCC held that competition would adequately serve public needs, and that federally mandated obligations were both too vague to be enforced properly and too threatening of broadcasters’ First Amendment rights.(17) Many citizen groups argued that the new policy was tantamount to abandoning the public interest mandate entirely.

Pursuant to its marketplace approach, the FCC embarked upon a sweeping program of deregulation by eliminating a number of long-standing rules designed to promote program diversity, localism, and compliance with public interest standards. These rules included requirements to maintain program logs, limit advertising time, air minimum amounts of public affairs programming, and formally ascertain community needs.(18) The license renewal process — historically, the time at which a station’s public interest performance is formally evaluated — was shortened and made virtually automatic through a so-called “postcard renewal” process.(19) The FCC also abolished the Fairness Doctrine, which had long functioned as the centerpiece of the public interest standard.(20)

In 1996, Congress expanded the deregulatory approach of the 1980s with its enactment of the Telecommunications Act.(21) Among other things, the Act extended the length of broadcast licenses from five years to eight years, and instituted new license renewal procedures that made it more difficult for competitors to compete for an existing broadcast license. These changes affected the ability of citizens and would-be license applicants to critique (at license renewal time) a broadcaster’s implementation of public interest obligations. The 1996 Act also lifted limits on the number of stations that a single company could own, a rule that historically had been used to promote greater diversity in programming.

The results? Unsurprising:

The range of programming has expanded as the number of broadcasting stations and other media has proliferated over the past twenty years. Yet market forces have not necessarily generated the kinds of quality, non-commercial programming that Congress, the FCC and others envisioned.

In any event, it’s not clear to me that one false report would have cost anyone a license even in the good old days (get offa my lawn!) — but this one is egregious.  It’s shouting “Fire!” in an uningnited croweded theater.  It’s gasoline on the bonfire.  It’ s vicious and abhorrent.

And you know the worst thing.  I’m not nearly as surprised as I wish I were.

Forget it, Jake, it’s Fox.

[no pic today — recovering from minor surgery and can only concentrate in intervals — doing the pic search is a bridge too far.  Sorry]


Stephen Colbert’s Salsa Recipe/iPad App.

April 2, 2010

Presented, without further comment, for your viewing pleasure.

What I Meant When I Meant What I Said: Checking and Blogging and Writing about Science edition

October 19, 2009

James Kwak over at Baseline Scenario paid me the compliment today of taking something I wrote recently quite seriously.  In the last section of my tome of a screed about Megan McArdle’s misleading use of sources to defend a dubious position on health care reform, I went all Mrs. Grundy on the obligations of science journalists, the need to be meticulous in checking the literature and handling sources.

But then Kwak used what I had written about McArdle to query his own blog practices — and while I certainly don’t mind introspection by any writer — his worries made me realize that I hadn’t been quite clear about how my plaints about science journalism dovetailed with my complaint about McArdle’s blog writing.

There is, I think, a difference obvious to everyone not hopelessly invested in alter kocher journalism, between blogs and other forms — features, books and so on. That there are huge variations, even genres in blog writing is obvious too, but I’m not going there.  Here I just want to talk about issue or subject focused blogging with pieces that mostly follow the text-and-exegesis form familiar to anyone who’s listened to a sermon (however skillfully buried the text might be).

There, the reader understands that what s/he’s getting is interpretation.  The essential bargain to be made with the reader is that whatever the text may be has been accurately represented.  In our journalism instruction at MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing, this is where we emphasize the need (especially for investigative pieces) of making sure you present your source’s argument as well as they would if they could.

But what I was trying to point out is that McArdle routinely performs a sleight of hand.  She asserts journalism, research specific to the posts at hand.  She makes claims of fact, of having reported some story or part of a story — and then uses that claimed authority to assert her opinion as fact — or perhaps better, as logically necessary.  In the post I attempted to eviscerate, she claimed that her reading of the academic literature proved that we have to pay whatever Big Pharma wants, for the alternative had been shown to be the death of grandma.

Which is bullsh*t, as I attempted to demonstrate in the series linked above.

That is:  I think it’s reasonable to demand that folks making claims that are essentially classically journalistic do what journalists should do (though that obligation is certainly often enough honored in the breach) — they can’t just run on their gut; they have to report, check, verify.

Kwak’s response to that was (a) to question whether he does what he should in his own blogging and (b) whether, as the current controversy over Leavitt and Dubner’s Superfreakonomics suggests this is a general problem with any attempt to run a discourse, online or off.

I leave (a) aside:  again, I think that as long as blogging is honest about its own ambitions, the charges I levy at McArdle don’t apply.  As for (b), I agree with Kwak that this is an issue to which there aren’t obvious solutions — and certainly there does seem to be a Gresham’s law of argument: bad flashy stuff drives out good as often as not.

That is:  the miracle of McArdle and others like her is that such a sustained run of shoddy work hasn’t made her an embarrassment too great to bear even for those who are in sympathy with her rhetorical goals.  But, really,  it comes as no surprise that our journalistic society mirrors society at large, in which identity — membership in an in-group, an institution, The Atlantic! — counts for much more than action, the actual quality of one’s deeds or work.  Same goes for Leavitt and Dubner, the real subject of Kwak’s post, and many more besides.

But I do not think, and I didn’t want to imply in my rather waspish remarks that seem to have troubled Kwak, that the relative lack of internal checks in online writing is the chief problem.  It’s not the errors that occur (though they are damned embarrassing when you have to admit them).  Rather, the question is whether or not criticism of bad work can catch up to the impact of the shoddy stuff in our society.

And my answer is a hearty maybe.  We get the norms we enforce as a society.  In the blogosphere, we have more tools of enforcement now:  more voice.

I’m not Dr. Pangloss. The McArdles of the world, the Douthats and the Kristols and all their herd, paid and happy to comfort the comfortable, are always going to have big megaphones, perhaps the biggest.  And certainly the right-blogosphere shows that there are plenty of rank and file out there to amplify voices that should be ridiculed into silence.

But the fact that what would quite recently have been allowed to echo through the discourse essentially unchallenged is now almost immediately entangled in argument is what gives me hope.

Compare this health care debate with that of 1992.   Betsy McCaughey’s nonsense, propelled into national prominence by Andrew Sullivan in TNR, managed to contribute a great deal to the dismantling of health care reform then; this time, it has not, though some damage has been done.  One big difference is that despite dismal coverage by most of the MSM, a lot of online writers have hammered the death panel crap and all the rest, to real effect.

It’s a wearying prospect, having to jump up and down again and again on knowing deceit and simple willed not-knowing.  And the sheer repetition of the same zombie stories induces incredulity:  surely no one can believe this or that idiocy; shurely we need not go down this path again.

But in essence, that’s the job — or rather, that’s the tool we have now:  the ability to create and nurture the counter argument.  It’s deeply imperfect, but it is I think demonstrably better than the situation as recently as the late nineties, when the media seemed literally about to collapse to no more than five or six huge organizations.

Or so it seems at this hour past the acceptable time for blogging.

Good night, all.

Image:  cartoon of Czech painter Soběslav Pinkas (left) and reporter P. V. (right), before 1872

Good Work Alert: Another MIT Science Writing Grad Student Making Good.

September 5, 2009

In today’s iteration of this sporadic series, check out some stuff by MacGregor Campbell, the man who is his own clan feud, and the pride of both the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing and The New Scientist‘s SF bureau, where he has interned this summer.

MacGregor, who had to suffer through the experience of being my advisee, is one of those polymathic students that can make their teachers feel both delighted and old.  He came to us as a musician and video artist, with a background in math and the teaching of that subject to high school students.  For a feel for his range and the flexibility of his mind, check out his blog, Main Sequence (a little slow to update just now, in the throes of his internship).

You’ll see there links to much of the work he’s done for the NS, along with his own sparks, but I’d like to draw attention to a couple of pieces.

First a little background.  Y’all may have noticed that the media landscape has changed a bit over the last few years.  One of those shifts has been to expect, increasingly as a matter of course, that prose on its own is not enough; the presentation of stories on the web is both enhanced by the incorporation of video, audio, and interactive elements, and it is transformed, at least in part, into work explicitly intended to entertain as well as inform.

More later, I’d guess, on the tension implied in that last statement, but here, just the practical problem for would-be writer/communicators in this evolving beat and medium.

The basic problem is this:  writing, creating good radio/audio, film making, and interactive design are all highly skilled crafts.  It takes time and practice — and talent, and passion, and habits of mind, and sensibility, ways of looking at or listening to the world — to get good or great at any of them.  The more one tries to master both the technical skills needed to, say, light, shoot and cut video, and to tell stories in the very different grammars of two or three different media, the harder it is to hone capacity in any one.

So, to MacGregor’s work:  check out these two interactives on health care, fine examples of why the web is a better delivery vehicle for mildly-enhanced prose than dead trees.  There is a reason traditional newspapers/magazines are bound for dodo-land, and it isn’t just MSM self-regard and feckless business decisions; the digital domain lets you do new, useful, sometimes transformative stuff with the material that is at the heart of the mission o f traditional media:  provide information within an apparatus that actually enhances a reader’s ability to understand what the writer is going on about.

And then look at this:  MacGregor (and friend’s) video on a development in robotics.

After seeing this, I wrote to MacGregor to ask him if the key point of …not quite dispute, but doubt…he and I wrangled over during the term had settled down for him.  I’m old fashioned about video, about new and integrated media in general.  I believe, strongly, in production and in the value of particular skills.  So when it came time to work with the MIT grad students on creating stories in audio and video, I emphasized a formal production procedure and sequence, the significance of writing your piece at every stage, from first story pitch, through articulated phases of treatment, shooting script, paper cut, and then on through the stages of editing and review.  And I emphasized old fashioned photographic and cinematographic skill, the use of a camera, knowledge of its particular properties, and above all, attention to lighting.  One thing we do differently at MIT than at some other programs is we bring in a national-shooter level DP to shoot for two days with our students — and to teach as the shoot proceeds about how to think about light, color, and motion as story telling tools, and not just decoration.

There is another approach that people use — some very well, which worries less about the formal steps in either the writing process or the shoot, and seeks to acquire the material first, and then cut whatever you’ve got, on the theory that what matters most is the event in front of the camera, and not the art, or artifice of the person behind it.  Both views have their merits, and when MacGregor came to MIT, he was definitely more immersed in the latter approach.

So when I saw his robotics video I asked him if the hoops through which I made him jump in the preparation of this documentary whilst at MIT were of any value to him.

To my great satisfaction, he answered yes, for both axes.  The emphasis on formalizing the production and writing process helped him a lot, he said, and he had found from his experience with our cameraman why one might do the kinds of things he had always disdained as a “catch the moment” documentarian.  So I have to say that the links I’ve sent you too above give me pride as well as pleasure; it’s hard to know, sometimes, if anything one tries to teach actually matters.  Here, generously, from MacGregor, I have some confirmation.

(And, btw, if any magazine editors are reading this:  I strongly suggest you think in two person teams, not one-man-bands.  Find those on your staff or in your orbit who love video, and match them up with writers who love prose story telling.  You’ll get more work done at a higher level than if you ask a good reporter to stop thinking about what’s being said to him or her and start thinking about the lighting triangle and whether or not you’ve got a directional enough mike to make that HVAC outlet in the upper corner an solvable problem.  Just my two cents.)

Illustration:  Movie poster for “The Kid,” 1921

THe Future of News and Civic Media: Digital story telling/complex investigative stories on the web session.

June 18, 2009

William Buzenberg, Center for Public Integrity honcho, is speaking at a “barcamp” at the FN+CM conference at MIT.  What follows is an attempt at a live-ish blog:

First up:  Bill talks about a computer/assisted reporting project on the subprime lenders, “The Subprime 25” — real story was that the banks we are bailing out invested in the big bad 25…all of which are now out of business.

He is going through the mechanics of reporting.  1)  took 3 months just to gather the data on the 25 lenders and the 7 million mortgages…and the SEC documents that helped uncover the underwriters, from Lehman on down.

William takes us through both the contents of the story(ies) — with material like heat maps to show where subprime was happening — and who was doing it…

At the same time he spends some time talking about how to get this stuff out in the web ecosystem…went too fast to capture, but the idea was to catch both traditional media and places like Huffington post.

Mostly, though, this is superstructure.  The story and the reporting he describes in tracking who did what to whom in a large and complex story are familiar…investigative reporting is investigative reporting; the value add of web-based distribution is clearly significant, but by far the larger and harder task is just working the story in the first place.

Now Bill is facing questions on the display and the penetration of the story and whether or not people will actually find the material.  One example Bill used as something that didn’t work as well as he hoped was this set of cards with a “more info” feature.

He did talk about the creation of an e-book available for five bucks or so through the site and Kindle — but it has not produced all that money.

More questions are coming about the searchability and linkability to parts of the story.  Basically it’s all or none.

William now wonders about whether the amount of work — fact checking thousands of words, triple editing and so on is overkill for a web in which folks want it right now…but that gets at the heart of the new v. old journalism debate.

Switch of story:  we’re now looking at the pentagon travel story…took him about a year to get all the information from initial FOIA, through students (i.e. free or v. cheap labor, I assume) working through the results, to final organziation and cleaning up of the information.

This is a very simple, clear story — but still a year in development.  Again, the story being told here is that the investigation is what makes investigative reporting work.

William now talks about the evolution fo the Center for Public Intregrity — began as an investigative service to the MSM, now with the emergence of the web, issue of getting platforms to use it.  This gets to the ecology/economy of news on the web. One point:  he wants to give his stuff to the places that will find audiences.  So bloggers — have at it.

One of the technical issues that Buzenberg is now focusing on is the future of journalism as the creation, manipulation and drilling down through large data bases.  For his organization…that means subcontracting to folks like Palantir to do the database infrastructure work.  Hence, he argues on some level (this is me) the argument about the economics of newspapers is secondary. The digital revolution is transforming the back rooms of journalism as well as the boardrooms — and getting that going requires matching old line investigative skills with data and digital distribution chops.

11:30:  A bit of unintended comedy — how to point the browser to another site.  This is MIT!  This is the future of journalism!  Be afraid!

Gregor Hackmack now takes the stage.  Hackmack is the co-founder of  He presents this as a tool being used to connect citizens and representatives, displaying crucial legislative data about German and now Europe-wide parliamentarians, allowing constituents to find their particular representatives, and then pose questions.  Both questions and answers are published.

Some of the issues are data display– parliamentarians are ranked by number of questions answered and (if I caught this right) by the amount of discussion on any given politician.  The site can also organize questions by theme rather than respondent.

Question:  how does the website get known?  One way is through a partnership w. Der Spiegel and a widget connecting Spiegel stories that have a political element and the Parlamentwatch website.

Conceived of as building a repository of voter memory — nice phrase.

For an English language versions, see Ireland’s Candidate Watch.

Again, the emphasis is on building a body of data that may satisfy an enduser need, but is really accumulating into a point of access into stories for journalists.  This, even more than Public Integrity’s project is a kind of middle-man in the new journalistic infrastructure:  if data will drive new journalism, this is a way to construct data as well as archive or organize it in a way that catalyzes stories.

11:45:  question time.  Hackmack is talking now about how a change in the electoral law in one state in Germany to allow voters to alter party lists of candidates created a need to provide information about the candidates and parliamentarians…and beginning in the Hamburg era in 2004, they moved the idea of Parlament Watch national in 2005.

Problem, as always:  where’s the money?  Offered profile upgrades to 2000 candidates — paid 100 euros to get picture up on the site.  They were able to raise about $25,000.  Hackmack and his colleague, two guys with computers, leveraged that to a larger donor base, advertising — with an ingenious opt out that tells a user how much money they cost the site by withholding one click (.o4 Euro in the demo presented here); and a kind of membership involvement — currently about 600 members, with a goal to reach 1,000.

In other words just about anything that works.

Now question comes up on multi skilled journalists:  Buzenberg wants reporters that can write, report, shoot and blog.

I’m dubious for certain applications at least.  ENG shooting is a real skill, and documentary work, especially: I’ve done enough documentary work to know that the skills required for visual story telling are not the same as those for the core journalistic practices that Buzenberg describes as the backbone of his center’s projects.  I’m a believer in a more team based approach, working a documentarian/video news person with an investigative person or team.

12:05  Buzenberg — there is a technological solution to everything that is wrong with journalism today; we should just go for it.  You don’t need to bat an eye at 350 million mortgages.  He’s working on a medicare/medicaid story with more technologies.  In this context Buzenberg walks back the claim that new hires need to do everything.  To get to computer-assisted journalism (his phrase, and another nice one) you need a team including traditional journalists — editors and the investigators — with web designers, coders, videographers, data base folks and so on.

Buzenberg — talks about the international network of investigative journalists….on a tobacco underground story — all be done, with just 30 folks in Washington, connecting virtually to “the jedi knights of journalism” for a story that has global reach.

The point — where I find a very familiar investigative journalistic approach in what’s been described here, Buzenberg and Hackmack both point to the extraordinary multiplier that the web allows for this work.  The key, I think, in this argument, is the degree to which the connectivity side of the web (as opposed to the distributive function) powers this extreme amplification of journalistic effort.  People and data are at a (clever) persons fingertips…thus permitting a different set of stories to be approached.

Buzenberg now talks about his location in the ecosystem:  if a newspaper does something, the center does not have to do it — but there is an enormous “middle ground” (his phrase) where an investigation can find plenty to sink its teeth into.  Watchdog role is available, e.g. (references the Pentagon travel story as an example).

Do people care about such transparency?  Does it matter if they do?  Buzenberg replies that watchdog journalism is about holding powerful transparent.  (All this in response to a rather defeatist question about whether or not people care about the stories that document official wrongdoing.)

ProPublica guy talks about the value of putting information people together with journalism.

Buzenberg talks about a concept called an impact grid as a tool of measuring how a project has penetrated the media space.  Traffic, hits, links and so on — wants to get his journalists thinking about that grid at the start of the project as well as the end.

The reach can be achieved in different ways:  briefings on the hill; ngos etc.  So one issue is what that community is interested in.  Did a pesticide story that took a year of FOIA stuff and a suit — but that is now valuable for an advocacy community (which the Center for Public Integrity is not.)

The question comes up again — is anyone reading the stuff?  Shouldn’t investigative journalists find out from the public what they want to have investigated?

Answers range from crowd sourcing is doing that, to the fact that folks respond to big investigations.

And with that, we’re done.