Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Journalism? What the heck is journalism?

What, you may ask, is the difference between journalism and other stuff that is printed, broadcast or otherwise disseminated via cable, radio and the Internet?
OK, odds are you haven’t asked that question. Nonetheless, I humbly submit, it’s a question worth pondering.

Modern journalism can actually be defined, and we at the Post Register have attempted to refine that definition in a very public way. On our web site, we even have a highfalutin code of ethics that we actually attempt to practice.
Here’s a snippet:
“We believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and a contributor to democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.”
This language is adapted from the Society of Professional Journalists and was honed by former Post Register Executive Editor Dean Miller. It goes on:
“We strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility. Working at the Post Register means sharing a dedication to ethical behavior and striving to follow this code and the connected standards of practice.”
I know. You’re thinking, “Journalists have a professional society?” We do. I confess that I’m not a current member. Nonetheless, we have shamelessly plagiarized and edited the society’s code of ethics to suit our purposes.
This code goes farther, listing four specific objectives. They are:

• Seek the truth and report it.
• Minimize harm.
• Act independently.
• Be accountable.

If you’d like the details of this code of ethics, go to this link on our web site.

OK, so these are all high-minded principles, but what do they mean? Most important, they provide a pole star -- a target. Being human, sometimes we fall short of these lofty goals. But when you’re deciding which information sources out there to trust, it’s helpful to know what standards guide the provider has set for itself.

Truthfully, if you were to quiz the journalists in our newsroom they probably couldn’t quote these principles to you. They wouldn’t need to, because they are part of a good newsroom’s culture, and the Post Register has a good newsroom. I write this not out of pride, but as a straightforward statement of fact.

In a way, journalism can best defined by what it’s not. It’s not a shouting match. It’s not just holding out a microphone. It’s not even just who, what, when, where, why and how. It’s the work of committed people who actually believe that what they do is important.

Here’s my offer: Hold us accountable to the principles of journalism and demand the same of other information sources.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Saying it with a straight face

Over the last decade and a half Fox News has become a cable powerhouse by following a simple but powerful strategy. It has four parts:
1. Exploit the belief among Americans -- particularly conservatives -- that the “mainstream media” are biased; owned, managed and staffed mostly by left-wingers.

2. Promise that you’ll be different, putting it right in your slogan: “fair and balanced.”

3. Without coming out and saying so, redefine “fair and balanced” to mean, “If other media do something we think is unfair, we’ll balance it out by being even more unfair on the other side.” In other words, provide the conservatives with the TV voice they’ve long sought.

4. Make sure all of your news readers and commentators continue to look the camera right in the lens when they repeat the claim -- often -- that Fox is “fair and balanced.”
Brilliant. Truly. Fox now dominates cable “news” (in truth, the “news” part of cable died, oh, about 2003 or so). There are imitators on the left -- MSNBC tries to provide a left-wing alternative but is short on superstars. CNN can’t decide whether it wants to do journalism or give in to the “Age of Entertainment.”

Fox’s approach is unabashed. While the content of its daily lineup -- there’s little, if any reporting -- is so obviously designed to support a conservative agenda, no one has been caught on camera bursting into laughter when repeating the “fair and balanced” slogan. Yes, it’s so obviously a lie that it’s become a joke line for anyone who attempts any sort of fair-minded analysis of what the network does.

Seth Ackerman provided one of the best reviews of Fox News nearly 10 years ago in his piece, “The Most Biased Name in News.” He quotes what has become one of my favorite tease lines from Bill O’Reilly:
"Coming next, drug addicted pregnant women no longer have anything to fear from the authorities thanks to the Supreme Court. Both sides on this in a moment."--Bill O'Reilly (O'Reilly Factor, 3/23/01)
Now, that’s genius, and O’Reilly repeats the approach every day. Since those early days, Fox has gathered the Holy Trinity of TV conservatives: O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. It’s the TV equivalent of the Miami Heat’s Big Three: Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. It’s a powerful lineup, providing a steady stream of fair and balanced reporting, which in this case is a repetition of this sort of question that used to be a joke among journalists: “So, do you still beat your wife?”

To be sure, Fox is not alone. The aforementioned MSNBC and CNN are trying to learn the game, but Fox is much better at it. It has the better ratings and the better talent, and, apparently, a more willing and loyal audience.

When it’s said and done, the only thing wrong with Fox News is that it still purports to be “Fair and Balanced.” It quite clearly is neither, and it's unlikely any of its audience would care if its slogan became, “We Tell You What You Want to Hear.”

Sunday, August 22, 2010

An update on how to consume information

(Most of this post is a repeat of something I wrote about six months ago, but I'm adding a really funny cartoon by Pat Bagley of the Salt Lake Tribune and recent comments from other sources on the same issue.)

One of the great challenges for information consumers in the 21st century is figuring out whether to believe what they read, see or hear.

The first rule of thumb is that no information source is infallible. Usually reliable sources like the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, the Economist or the nation’s major magazines and newspapers miss the mark from time to time and publish a story that’s either insufficiently researched or is too influenced by the writer’s personal bias. Journalism involves human beings, which means it’s subject to human error.

In the case of usually reliable and credible information sources, the best way to ensure that what you’re reading is accurate is to check it against other usually reliable, credible information sources.

Perhaps understandably, we are all too eager to accept as gospel information or stories that conform to our personal politics or values, regardless of the veracity of the source. We tend to drift toward sources that skew toward our value set. Sources that want to be seen as credible all too often insert a particular political spin to their coverage include such TV networks and web sites as MSNBC, Fox, Huffington Post, and The Drudge Report.

Of course all the national political magazines like The Nation, New Republic, American Conservative and National Review, among many others, make no pretense of applying any standards of journalism to their work – they are opinion, pure and simple. Take them for what they are.

"How is one to be judged as educated?" wrote Debu Majumdar in the Post Register recently.
"In the 19th century, knowledge of the classics and philosophy was the criteria. I propose in this century it should be the ability to decipher what is true in the midst of misinformation and disinformation. Information was power before, but now power is deciding what, or how much, is true."
Increasingly, there are the information sources that are filled with nothing but conjecture, innuendo, spin, blather and even hatred and lies. Many of the chain e-mails so popular nowadays fall into this category – they come across as credible information when they are essentially complete fiction. But how to tell?

One good rule of thumb is the same one we apply to food that may have been in the refrigerator too long but looks OK – when in doubt, throw it out. Unless an unsolicited e-mail provides sufficient sourcing and background information for a claim, it’s probably bogus.

We’ve all received these – debunked claims that Pres. Barrack Obama isn’t an American citizen, or that the New World Order is secretly controlling the global economy. While this is perfect fodder for conspiracy theorists, the information is almost always just plain wrong.

If you aren’t willing to just hit “delete” on this sort of material, there are a number of Web sites that specialize in investigating urban myths and other nonsensical material floating around the Internet, including these two: Snopes.com and factcheck.org, the latter being run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

Jack Shafer, blogger for Slate, takes a more prosaic approach to the issue in his post about the fact that nearly one in five Americans still believes that President Obama is Muslim.
I'd be more upset about the Pew poll if a Gallup Poll hadn't also reported that 18 percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth or that only 18 percent of Americans believe all or most of what is published in the New York Times. We can count on stupidity, willful ignorance, and intellectual sloth to plague us 100 percent of the time. All we can do is fight the darkness with light.
The bottom line is, not all “news” is created equal. It's the responsibility of the consumer to learn the skills necessary to differentiate fact from fiction, and it's the job of newspapers to differentiate themselves from other media by providing credible and reliable journalism.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Honest, I really do get it

Ever since I wrote about net neutrality a couple of weeks ago, some readers have suggested that if I only truly understood the concept I'd be in full support of it.

I appreciate the concern, but, honest, I think I've got this one. Boiled down, the idea behind net neutrality is that carriers (like, say Google or Verizon) must allow all content providers access to the Web. This is because the Internet, so the theory goes, is the new First Amendment, requiring that anyone who has something to say must have access to it distributive powers. Nonsense, I say.

An RFB (Roger's Favorite Bloggers), Patricia Hanschiegel has once again said it better than I:
The internet was not created for fun, it was not created by accident. It wasn't even necessarily created for you, the user. The government created it to track tanks in the battle field. The carriers put the money into it because it offered larger margins and a more stable infrastructure that cost less to run. How fitting that the giants let everybody else build up the platform only to step in and pull the cord! The walled garden. Sounds like lots of internet and technology companies we know.

I am not sure who sold all on the idea of it, but you must know: It was never an open platform. That was a lie.

It won't just be a case of more expensive innovation. The telcos have been generous in allowing it to date on what's been essentially their dime. The real battle will be whether or not all will be allowed to play at all. Carriers, like all big companies, do not ever truly play nice. I've written a lot about how the next phase of the Internet's disruption will be telecom, and that in the end the internet platform will likely shake the internet business the most. Here's why.

It'd be very important for all who do not own internet infrastructure to quickly learn how the platform works. Soon, all will need to know.
"It was never an open platform," she says. That'll tick some people off.

The Internet (remind me again why we capitalize it?) is not a magical, mysterious thing straight out of The Matrix. It is an ingenious and breathtakingly efficient way to distribute data. That's it. It doesn't defy gravity, end hunger, establish world peace (the folks at MIT actually once thought it would do just that), or create a flat world (sorry, Thomas Friedman).

The sooner we get used to the idea that the Internet is simply a tool, the better. Most of the data moving around it today is garbage -- fraudulent or downright dangerous (or illegal) Craigslist ads, sites for the latest Neos -- Nazis, Supremacists, general wackos. It has changed the world, but it doesn't deserve special government rules to ensure every nutjob, criminal or pervert has equal access to it.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Tilting at the Post Talk windmill

Post Talk -- the message board on the Post Register’s web site -- is the second-most popular part of our web site, attracting thousands of page views a month.

I can’t decide if that’s a good or a bad thing.

The vast majority -- probably 95 percent -- of people who visit Post Talk are “lurkers;” people who look but don’t participate. The posting is dominated by a dozen or so people divided roughly between political conservatives and liberals, in the loosest definitions of those terms. The two sides have developed a rather nasty disliking for each other, it seems.

Beginning last week, Post Talk is now fully moderated, meaning that a member of our news staff -- usually Editorial Page Editor Corey Taule or me -- reviews each post to determine whther it generally meets the guidelines we’ve set.

Those guidelines are:
“We encourage lively but civil discussions that won't get you or us sued. Please avoid offensive or distasteful language and attacking other posters personally. Please stay on topic. As much as possible, support your claims with facts. Please leave theological issues that don't involve public policy to other forums. As always, please end each post with your full name and city of residence.”
Not every post we’ve OK’d has met the spirit of those guidelines, but we’re trying to be generous without just approving everything. Going forward, we’re going to start tightening up a bit. Too many of the posts continue to be personal or unnecessarily harsh in tone. Too many make broad generalizations or accusations that lack precision or nuance. Too many writers exhibit a certitude that their claims don’t deserve.

As I wrote to a PT participant last week, Post Talk continues to be something of an experiment in online dialog, and so far it’s bearing an unfortunate resemblance to a Frankenstein monster. Despite encouragement among some at the Post Register to either drop Post Talk entirely or just let people verbally rip each other to shreds without moderation, I’m persevering in what we all agree is something of a Quixotic quest to develop a new model for online give and take.

Moderating a message board takes more time than it’s probably worth. Posting goes on day and night, but Corey and I check in several times a day. On weekends it becomes more haphazard still, as we don’t assign anyone to do it on a regular schedule. For now, it tends to be something I do between weekend chores.

Meanwhile, it remains an open question whether Post Talk can facilitate meaningful dialog or if it’ll just be a verbal jousting match

Monday, August 9, 2010

Thank you, Craigslist

Over the weekend my column for the Post Register on net neutrality (published on this site in an earlier version) caused a minor stir that resulted in a stimulating debate on the PR's web site. First thing this morning, The Guardian in the U.K. runs this story about the increasing scrutiny and legal troubles for Craigslist.

Think these are unrelated matters? Think again.

Yes, I despise Craigslist, and not just because it has stripped millions of dollars from newspaper classifieds over the last decade, though I'm not crazy about that. In a free market, a better mousetrap should attract the business.

The bigger issue is that Craigslist has become THE place to go to advertise prostitution, pornography, scams, and now, it seems. child sex and trafficking. Of course, it's also been used to lure murder victims, attract people who ransack houses of strangers, etc.

But none of this is Craigslist's fault. No, Craigslist's owners and managers are just providing a simple service on the new, open-architecture Internet and are not responsible for any of its content. They're just being good old-fashioned small "d" democrats.

This, of course, is so much nonsense. We don't get to create things that turn into monsters and then plead innocence. What does this have to do with net neutrality? Stay with me.

One of the fundamental ideas behind the principle of net neutrality is that all content should be treated equal, that everyone should have a right to create and post content on the World Wide Web. It's a romantic notion until you consider all of its implications. To make net neutrality work, the government would have to set and enforce rules requiring service providers and other Web players to carry essentially any content, regardless of its market value or its otherwise dubious nature.

Not all content is created equal. In fact, most content being created today is dross, nonsense, or, in the worst case, encourages or supports criminal behavior. It's not good enough for Craigslist's management to same, "We're trying." Not good enough at all.

It's time that content providers took responsibility for what they're putting on the Web, either directly or indirectly.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Don't fear the "end of the Internet as we know it"

To borrow a line from REM, it's the end of the Internet as we know it, and I feel fine.

The lead story on Huffington Post for the morning of August 5, 2010 is so breathlessly apocalyptic that it could be seen as satire if it weren’t so clearly intended to be serious.

“Don’t be evil*” proclaims the enormous headline, followed by “*unless it’s profitable,” it continues. Oh, please. This is just crazy.

The focus of this is a potential deal between Google and Verizon that would establish cable-style fee schedules to use the Internet. Josh Silver, an “information wants to be free” advocate, says “this could be the end of the Internet as we know it.”

My response: It’s about time. The Internet as we know it is full of garbage, a cesspool of bad information, lies, distortions, scams, falsehoods and just plain nonsense. A culling of this stuff has been a long time coming.

“Since its beginnings, the Net was a level playing field that allowed all content to move at the same speed, whether it's ABC News or your uncle's video blog,” Silver writes. “That's all about to change, and the result couldn't be more bleak for the future of the Internet, for television, radio and independent voices.”

He’s all worked up because the Federal Communications Commission is --at least for now -- allowing capitalism to do its thing. Instead of enforcing rules that wouldn’t allow companies to charge for certain types of Internet access, it is essentially allowing the market to set the rules. That’s how the marketplace works, but not in Silver’s Internet world.

Here’s one definition of net neutrality: Internet Service Providers and governments may not place any restrictions on content, sites, platforms, on the kinds of equipment that may be attached, and no restrictions on the modes of communication allowed. One way to look at this is that it’s a special set of rules for doing business on the Internet because, well, “information wants to be free.”

Here are Huffington Post’s lead paragraphs on the story:
“Google Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. are close to finalizing a proposal for so-called "network neutrality" rules, which would dictate how broadband providers treat Internet traffic flowing over their lines, according to a person briefed on the negotiations.”

“Under the deal, ‘charges could be paid by companies, like YouTube, owned by Google, for example, to Verizon, one of the nation’s leading Internet service providers, to ensure that its content received priority as it made its way to consumers,’ the New York Times explains, noting that Internet users might eventually pay a higher price for service as a result.”
Of course, the truth is that “free” stuff is usually worth about what you pay for it. But to Silver, the idea of allowing Americans to vote with their wallets represents impending doom.

“Ending net neutrality would end the revolutionary potential that any website can act as a television or radio network. It would spell the end of our opportunity to wrest access and distribution of media content away from the handful of massive media corporations that currently control the television and radio dial.”

There are plenty of ways to address the potential issue of media monopolies (more a fear than a real issue), but enforcing “net neutrality” isn’t it.

UPDATE: Despite earlier denials, Google and Verizon went public with their plans to kill the Internet as we know it.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Read this

I am not alone, again.