Journalist Admits Journalists Don’t Do Journalism
Howard Kurtz’s column today contains a stunning admission — Journalists really don’t do journalism:
In the end, [healthcare reform] may simply have been too dense for the media to fully digest. If you’re a high-information person who routinely plows through 2,000-word newspaper articles, you had a reasonably good grasp of the arguments. For a busy electrician who plugs in and out of the news, the jousting and the jargon may have seemed bewildering.
Once the law takes effect — its provisions stretched out over years — perhaps journalists can help separate rhetoric from reality. That is, if we don’t lose interest and move to the next hot controversy.
Kurtz tries to save his fellow colleagues, by attempting to point out where they actually provided value:
One stellar moment for the press was the refusal to perpetuate the myth of “death panels.” After Sarah Palin floated the idea that government commissions would decide which ailing patients deserved to be saved, journalists at The Washington Post, New York Times, CNN and ABC News, among others, said flatly that this was untrue.
But even this is a stretch. Oh, it’s true in the eyes of the news media, but that is because they have a warped sense of “journalism.”
In our corporate-funded news media system, providing “objective” news means bringing the two sides of a debate into a room and letting them have their say. In our media system, it is never the journalists job to actually state something is not true.
Take, for example, the above-mentioned healthcare debate. Here is the transcript from an August 2009 CNN news show, at the height of the Tea Party protests. Anchor John Roberts is “fact-checking” the claims of the Republicans:
ROBERTS: Well, here again tonight to help us fact-check some of what we’re hearing is Bill Adair. He’s the editor of PolitiFact.com, which earned a Pulitzer Prize for its investigation of hundreds of political claims during the 2008 campaign.
Bill, it’s great to see you tonight. You heard the president’s response to this idea of death panels. Sarah Palin has a new posting on her Facebook page where she claims it’s the president who’s wrong. Here’s what she says.
“With all due respect, it’s misleading for the president to describe this section as an entirely voluntary provision that simply increases the information offered to Medicare recipients.”
So, what do the Truth-O-Meter say about all this bill? Is the former governor correct or is she incorrect?
BILL ADAIR, EDITOR, POLITIFACT.COM: She is incorrect. We gave that a false on our Truth-O-Meter on PolitiFact.com.
Really when you look at the bill, when you look at the language, it is voluntary. There is nothing in the bill that says that it’s mandatory. There’s nothing that backs up this claim. Now, Palin makes the point, well, perhaps seniors could feel pressured to take this care. And perhaps that’s possible.
But as the language is written now, as we have discussed it with experts, it’s just not true to say that it’s not voluntary. It is voluntary. It’s an optional thing. So, she gets a false on our Truth-O-Meter.
ROBERTS: False on the mandatory death panel. All right, Bill, cleared that one up.
A CNN anchor would never come out and say something is not true; he relies on someone from “Politifact.com” to say it. He needs the Truth-O-Meter, instead of just speaking the truth.
More importantly, I am sure it would be easy enough to find a campaign contribution made by Bill Adair, or some other statement he has made, to discredit him with an accusation of “bias.” And this is not just Bill Adair, but it’s the hundreds of other pundits and interviewees that are used in the same way in similar stories all the time. This is why our news system does not work.
Until journalists start doing their job, until they stop relying on “experts” to provide the requisite two-sides-to-every-story, our politics will never be served by their existence.
Virtual Memory paper
I’m happy to announce that a paper of mine was published, in The New School Psychology Bulletin, as part of a special issue on memory studies:
The following paper will explore the nature of memory in the digital age, proposing the blog as a model for a memory system. It will examine the blog’s position as both a medium and a social practice. Both are essential – without the medium, without the website itself, the blog’s community has no sense of place. Without conversational social relations, there is no basis for community. There is, in fact, an orality to blogging, an orality that recalls the manner in which non-literate cultures rely on speech for their existence. It is a form of speech, though, that is not ephemeral, but permanent and instantly retrievable, and, in this manner, the blog provides a space to create a collective memory, without which the blogger does not exist. This presents a new form of subjectivity, one rooted in bits and bytes, defined by a database, made accessible by a search engine. The blog becomes a technological prosthetic for its users: cyborg memory.
One idea in this paper I really like is the use of Walter Ong’s work on orality. While his use of “secondary orality” is somewhat now in fashion, I think the more important concept here is the juxtaposition of oral cultures, where writing is non-existent, with today’s digital age, where nearly every bit of communication is inscribed, and made permanent (or nearly so). For me, the “community blog” is the perfect model of communication today, both a media form and a social practice, permanent and retrievable.
As Ong wrote, “you know what you can recall,” and as everything we say and write online becomes part of the Internet’s vast machine, what we can recall becomes an infinitely large database with which we will need to contend.
Old Versus New Media: Food Writer Edition
Cook’s Illustrated editor Chris Kimball has thrown down the gauntlet!
If you haven’t been following this food blogger versus professional writer battle that’s been simmering, it started when Kimball wrote a fairly silly op/ed in the Times, bashing both the so-called amateurish writing of bloggers, as well as the larger movement of participatory culture that is happening in all areas of media, where “regular people” have been given a voice through social media. When it comes to food writing, Kimball doesn’t seem too keen on this at all:
…in a click-or-die advertising marketplace, one ruled by a million instant pundits, where an anonymous Twitter comment might be seen to pack more resonance and useful content than an article that reflects a lifetime of experience, experts are not created from the top down but from the bottom up.They can no longer be coronated; their voices have to be deemed essential to the lives of their customers.
Bloggers have hit back; in particular, Adam Roberts, over at the Amateur Gourmet, has a great response:
The derision and condescension in this statement is baffling. Every food writer—from MFK Fisher to Ruth Reichl herself—started at the bottom and worked their way up. Kimball, at the end of his column, invokes Julia Child, a cook who didn’t start her food career until much later in life. If she’d had a blog documenting her time at Le Cordon Bleu (and maybe she would have, if she’d been born a few decades later), would Kimball complain that she hadn’t spilled enough blood in the kitchen yet? That “inexperience rarely leads to wisdom?”
It’s naïve to think that all food writing on the web is created equal, that the “million instant pundits” are all valued the same. The truth is that there are, indeed, an enormous number of food blogs out there, but it’s still a meritocracy: only the good ones gain traction. The most popular food blogs are popular because of their quality; in many ways, their content is better than much of what you’ll find in actual food magazines, including Kimball’s.
Kimball comes across here as elitist, an old guard fighting off the new. If he doesn’t read food blogs, he’s missing out on a diverse world of recipes and ideas and perspective on food. His notion of an “anonymous Twitter comment” is also strange — while we may not see each other on Twitter, the people I talk to there are hardly strangers. And yes, if someone I follow (and trust) on Twitter makes a recipe or restaurant recommendation, I’ll surely be paying attention.
In any case, perhaps looking to settle this (or cash in on the controversy, more likely!), Kimball has upped the ante, challenging any recipe found on a wiki to one of his from the Test Kitchen:
So, I am willing to put my money, and my reputation, where my big mouth is. I offer a challenge to any supporter of the WIKI or similar concept to jump in and go head to head with our test kitchen. We will jointly agree on a recipe, on the rules, on a time frame, etc. At the end, we will ask a panel of impartial judges to make and test the recipes and declare a winner.
It’s a fantastic idea, and should be lots of fun.
Let the games begin!!!
I Love You Man
Wow was that an awful movie.
Parasitic Media: Butcher Edition
A good example of parasitic media, this time involving, well, butchers.
What’s significant here, though, is there’s not a blogger in sight: New York mag writes a story, copied by the Times, copied by Nightline.
New York details the, um, “borrowing,” here.
Netroots and Politics
Within Henry Farrell’s review of two new books about the netroots, there is some excellent analysis:
The netroots are neither genteel nor interested in nuance. They want to aggressively confront a right that they see as dangerous and an establishment that they see as at best semi-corrupt. Their combativeness can be a problem. The fights over Hillary Clinton’s candidacy were so bitter because members of the netroots used debating tactics against each other that they had previously reserved for external enemies. But they also potentially provide a model for a politics that can actually engage citizens. As political scientists such as Theda Skocpol and Nancy Rosenblum have argued, vigorous political contention mobilizes people and gets them involved in civil society.
The netroots may help to create a more participatory American politics. If they do succeed, however, it will be the result of their long-term effects in building political movements, not their short-term effects in an election like that of 2008, when they were not especially consequential.
The important overall point I think he makes is there is no absolute answer to whether or not the netroots “matter” in politics. It’s not a “good” or “bad” thing, and it’s likely still too early to really tell how significant the last few years of the active blogosphere have been. Political change is a very slow thing…
The whole piece is well worth reading.
The Materiality of Netflix
Netflix seems like magic. You click a few clicks on your web browser, and in a couple days, a movie appears in your mailbox.
Like Amazon, Zappos, and the other businesses thriving in the doc-com world, Netflix is a business that keeps hidden from its customers all the messy physicality fueled by our mouse clicks. Point and shoot retail.
Broadly speaking, in fact, the net — by design — hides the materiality of information. Terms like virtual communities, cloud computing, and software as a service are devices of obfuscation. Click the mouse, and things just happen.
But things actually just don’t happen in the world; they happen somewhere. Bits and bytes cannot remain hidden forever, and eventually reveal, or manifest, themselves. In the world of Web 2.0, this manifestation usually happens in a data center — a security-hardened, temperature-controlled facility filled with very few people, but many, many racks of computers. The Times recently foregrounded this largely unknown world of the data center, with an excellent piece on Microsoft’s computer storage facilities:
For companies like Google, Yahoo and, increasingly, Microsoft, the data center is the factory. What these companies produce are services. It was the increasing “viability of a service-based model,” as Ray Ozzie, now the chief software architect at Microsoft, put it in 2005 — portended primarily by Google and its own large-scale network of data centers — that set Microsoft on its huge data-center rollout: if people no longer needed desktop software, they would no longer need Microsoft. This realization brought new prominence to the humble infrastructure layer of the data center, an aspect of the business that at Microsoft, as at most tech companies, typically escaped notice…
Netflix, on the other hand, might be a service, but because they are not software-only like Microsoft or Google, there is a greater materiality at hand, contained in a factory-like setting of the Netflix warehouse. Only what is produced here is the packaging and repackaging of the same DVDs, over and over.
The process begins in an undisclosed location:
Its biggest secret remains the warehouses themselves…Indeed, one of the few things about the building that suggested it was not a meth lab was that, at sunrise, the parking lot was full — shifts begin at 3 a.m. The busiest time is around 7 a.m., but as I entered, the first thing I noticed was how silent it was. No one was chatting. The second thing I noticed was how, for a Web-based business, there were few computers — maybe seven in the building, which has towering white walls and a concrete floor. Every Netflix warehouse looks like every other Netflix warehouse, down to the same flat, bright wattage of its light bulbs. It’s not attractive, which might explain the hasty mismatch of promotional posters taped to its walls like college dorm decor — a poster for “Atonement” alongside a poster for the direct-to-video “Dr. Dolittle: Tail to the Chief” alongside a horror flick poster.
There’s no there there, by design.
No computers — Netflix runs on manual work, with employees flipping through each DVD one by one:
…at the 28,500-square-foot warehouse, from which more than 60,000 discs are shipped daily in the Chicago area alone, cartons are placed at the feet of employees, who glance in two directions — down (to pick up an envelope) and up (to look at the disc), and that’s about it. This is the first, and least automated, stage of the process, performed mainly by women, including a seemingly disproportionate number of local grandparents; they have full medical benefits and a 40-hour workweek.
They inspect each returned disc. They rip open each envelope, toss it, pull the disc from its sleeve, check that the title matches the sleeve, inspect the disc for cracks or scratches, inspect the sleeve for stains or marks, clean the disc with a quick circular motion on a towel pulled tight across a square block of wood, insert the disc into its sleeve, and file the disc in one of two bins. The bin to the right is for acceptable discs, the bin to the left is for damaged discs or discs not in the proper sleeve.
To a casual observer, this all seems to happen in a single motion, a flurry of fingers.
The image of a Netflix worker, inspecting thousands of individual DVDs for scratches and cracks, dispels the utoptian notion of cyberspace, where all of our disembodied minds are floating around the net. In typical Web 2.0 rhetoric, our second lives leave our first lives behind; the truth is, though, even our second lives have to run somewhere.
There is a there there. Just no escaping it.