Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Wikileaks and the Pentagon Papers

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is neither terrorist nor hero.

As in the case of the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago, members of the military and government are making exaggerated claims that Assange may have blood on his hands because information in the leaks – particularly earlier leaks about the war in Afghanistan – might lead to deaths there. Such claims by Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates last July were never confirmed with any evidence.

With Wikileaks' latest release of diplomatic cables, some politicians are even calling Assange a terrorist. That’s nonsense, but the unfiltered publication of stolen government documents is irresponsible and unnecessary.

The New York Times has taken the extraordinary step of asking the U.S. State Department to review the documents it intends to publish and is redacting some of the most sensitive material. The government isn’t happy about what is being published, but this is a far more responsible approach than just pushing the material into the public domain.

There are areas where the Pentagon Papers and the current Wikileaks material diverge. The Pentagon Papers were historical – they dealt with earlier periods of the Vietnam War, providing important perspective on how decisions were made. The Wikileaks material is more current. However, claims then, just as claims now -- that release of the material would do the country irreparable harm --are overblown.

It’s likely that most people shouting the loudest about the need for government secrecy have not read the material in question. If they had, they would know that it’s a little like reading a thousand diaries from a thousand writers, each providing a small glimpse into a complex situation – sometimes the Afghanistan War, sometimes the intricacies of diplomacy.

Countries need their secrets, but not nearly as many as presidents, kings, prime ministers or dictators like to think. The number of innocent lives lost because of decisions made in secret must be magnitudes greater than the number lost because of unwanted disclosure. We’ll never know, of course, because most secrets stay secret.

The Post Register’s editors are in no position to know what of this material should be printed and what shouldn’t, but we have taken a conservative approach. We think the Associated Press has generally acted responsibly in covering the releases and we’ve followed that lead. It appears that the New York Times – far from irresponsibly publishing unedited material without journalistic consideration – has taken a careful approach; so much so that the stories on the information aren’t terribly compelling.

The debate over Wikileaks, like that over the Pentagon Papers, is an important one. Unfortunately, this debate is like so many before it – long on rhetoric, short on facts.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Is there anybody out there?

The power implicit in the First Amendment freedoms of press and speech ultimately comes from the actions they evoke, not merely through exposing hidden deeds to the light.

Those words sounds a bit lofty, but the framers assumed that by guaranteeing a free press, freedom of speech, the right to peaceably assemble, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances that Americans would actually use those rights instead of just arguing about them.

Freedom plus apathy equals status quo.

Over the past 20 years I’ve had the frequent opportunity to work with Idaho legislators in various attempts to improve Idaho’s “Sunshine Laws” -- those portions of state code protecting the peoples’ right to know by requiring the government to hold open meetings and maintain open records. The result has been a minor tweak here and there and occasional leaps forward, but Idaho remains well behind much of the rest of the country in requiring the government to be open.

It’s always struck me as odd that a state as politically conservative as Idaho seems to be so trusting of its government that its citizens allow weak Sunshine Laws to go unchallenged. When members of the journalism community meet with legislators to improve these laws, we often hear the same reply: “This is a newspaper bill. Why aren’t the people demanding this sort of change? You just want this information to help you sell papers.”

It’s a pretty compelling, if flawed, argument. The most obvious response is that the people elected these legislators to represent them and to see that their rights are protected. They shouldn’t have to show up en masse to every committee meeting or legislative session. But, in the absence of an obvious demand from citizens, legislators can be forgiven for taking the easy road and not demanding real openness in government.

Why? Oversimplified, it’s because two of the most powerful lobbies in Boise are the Idaho Association of Counties and the Association of Idaho Cities, which are organized and run by elected officials with whom our legislators feel a certain kindred spirit. Sunshine Laws create messy, inefficient government, and in the vacuum of citizen silence this argument often carries the day.

I have a few correspondents who argue that the Post Register ought to recognize the apathy of Idaho citizens and serve more as an advocate than an objective reporter on certain issues. I resist this, partially because it offends what I’ve come to accept as the ethics of journalism. But more practically speaking, in time advocacy erodes journalism’s credibility, and that’s too high a price to pay.

But I am often left to wonder: Is anybody listening? And if so, to what end?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Once more, with feeling

There are myriad, mostly mythological, explanations for why the American business model for journalism -- successful for generations -- is undergoing wrenching change.

The Internet, of course, is perceived as the main culprit. The problem with this is that technology by itself changes nothing -- how consumers and businesses respond to technology is what matters. But there are deeper, more systemic issues at play here.

In their recent book, The Changing Business of Journalism and Its Implications for Democracy, two Oxford University professor draw some conclusions that will be familiar to readers of this blog. The most striking is that the over-reliance on advertising revenue by U.S. media -- particularly newspapers and magazines -- has been as much to blame for current business troubles than the Internet.

In Europe, as both this book and previous studies I've noted before point out, only 50 percent of newspaper revenue comes from advertising, compared to 80 percent in the U.S. In many parts of Asia, the ratio is the reverse of the U.S. -- 20 percent of revenue comes from advertising and 80 percent from the sale of the produce to consumers.

Why is this important? First, a huge reliance on advertising sales in essentially monopolistic markets created enormous profit margins for newspapers -- often approaching or exceeding 40 percent. This sort of return eventually led to the creation of enormous newspaper chains that were less invested in the communities served by their newspapers than they were in ensuring increasing returns to shareholders.

But probably more important is that higher cover prices charged and received for newspapers and magazines in Asia and Europe made the news seem less like a commodity and more like something of real value. Of course, particularly in the U.S., the information-as-commodity trend really hit its stride when newspapers put their information online for free beginning 15 years ago.

Here's the book's "nut graph":
While the industry has certainly suffered severe declines in revenues in several countries in recent years, the latest downturns seem to be more closely connected with the relative degree of dependence on volatile revenue sources like advertising and on the differential impact of the global recession than with the spread of the internet.
To be sure, it's oh-so-tempting to reach for simple solutions to complex problems, and the evolution of journalism business models is enormously complex. As the authors note, European models tend to include a high public sector investment (tax subsidies, taxpayer-funded journalism of various sorts) that would never fly in the U.S. -- and rightly so. But, as earlier research has shown, most European and Asian newspapers adopted some sort of online subscription model years ago while U.S. newspapers continue to wring their hands and take baby steps.

As advertising platforms continue to fragment, there's one thing that is remaining constant -- 1,400 daily newspapers in the U.S. continue to provide the best journalism available, and most of those papers are so dominant in their local markets that there continues to be little real competition. What this suggests is that newspapers should ask for more, not less, from their subscribers and not expect the old 80/20 advertising-to-subscription revenue ratio to hold up. Total print circulation numbers may continue to fall, but combined print and online readership and total circulation revenue should continue to rise.

There are really only two things for certain: 1) Clinging to the old model won't work. 2) Giving valuable news and information away in the impossible hope to make up for the lost subscription revenue through increased ad revenue won't work, either.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Fear-mongering, ignorance and the not-so-fine arts

Today Kathleen and I were shopping at the mall in Provo, Utah and came across a store that sold what appeared to be knock-offs of Thomas Kinkade-style paintings, many with Mormon themes. This being Sunday, the store was closed, the cage drawn down.

Dominating the entry area was a large painting of a crowd of men standing in front of the White House. On further inspection, it became clear that the men were the 44 presidents of the United States. There was a forlorn man sitting on a bench with four presidents appearing to comfort the fellow. All of the other presidents are paying the man no attention.

In the foreground is President Obama, who appears particularly disdainful. Under his right foot is -- a copy of the Constitution. Dollar bills litter the ground nearby. There are other papers, including the act that created Social Security, etc. Subtle it is not. "Fine art" it is not. It's title is "The Forgotten Man."

Who, you would ask, are the four presidents who are depicted favorably? They are Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington and -- wait for it -- Ronald Reagan. Yes of the 44 American presidents, he is among the four who deserve particular credit for coming to the aid of the common man.

It turns out that this painting has become either famous or infamous in various circles. I'm surprised I'd not heard of it. The depiction is so despicable that I won't mention the artist's name, but he's copyrighted the image so I can't show it here. You can see it, complete with a detailed description of the symbolism (as if you'll need it) on the artist's web site.

The artist is quick to argue that his depiction isn't racist and that he deplores both parties. In other words, he's an equal-opportunity bigot and simpleton. He suggests that his purpose is to incite discussion. I beg to differ -- he's attempting to use his modest artistic talent to color over centuries of history, debate, compromise, sincere effort, progress and failure. In this way he's no different than the talk show hosts, bloggers and talking heads of our era who profess to wanting simply to engage the debate but who are clearly not sincere.

We've all seen lots of ugly art, but I don't recall seeing anything quite so disgusting as "The Forgotten Man." I was so appalled that I went to the men's room, took a piece of paper hand towel and wrote a brief note, which I jammed into a notch in the metal cage protecting the store. While I was in the men's room, a couple had walked up to the store and were standing at the opening looking at the painting.

"I'm surprised," said the woman to the man next to her, apparently her husband.

"Why?" I asked.

"I know these people," she said, apparently referring to the artist and his family. "I'm disappointed."

I showed her my note.

"Good for you," she said. Small comfort.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Click "Like" and change the world

Wildly simplified, Moore's law famously states that the capacity and speed of computing technology doubles every two years.

Here's another law that is equally accurate and would be remarkable were it not for the fact that it's based on 20 years of Internet history instead of the precise calculations of an ingenious mind: The implications of every advance on the Internet will be overstated.

A famous example from the Internet's infancy was the thought among some really, really smart people that the Internet would help the world resolve conflicts before countries and people resorted to guns and bombs, because we'd have the communications capacity to work things out. Of course, a version of the opposite has proven true -- the more we communicate in real time with each other, the more we disagree. And shooting wars certainly haven't diminished.

Advocates of social media (read: Facebook and its step-cousins) think this is a marvelous way to organize people into taking real action that will change the world. In other words, by clicking "Like," we can end racism, AIDS, and obesity.

I kid. But let's hear from a really, really smart person --Malcom Gladwell, author of Blink and Tipping Point, writing in the New Yorker:
The evangelists of social media ... seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend ... Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.
Why is this not painfully obvious to anyone observing the phenomenon? Perhaps it's because we desperately want to believe that the world really can change by our clicking "Like", because, wouldn't that be splendid and not require us to get our hands dirty?

The Post Register launched its very own Facebook page last spring and, as of today, 888 people have clicked "Like." We are very proud -- I confess that I check that number from time to time and enjoy watching it go up. We're going to have some kind of party when we hit 1,000. As a result of all of these Facebook friends, the Post Register is ... no more or less successful than it had been without them.

Facebook is a free and easy promotional tool, and we do occasionally get some interesting feedback on our page. Beyond that, it's a non-event.

But enough about my newspaper. What about, you know, changing the world? Here's more of that pesky data from Gladwell: The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece.

I know, and I know -- that's $115,410.51! That's nothing to sniff at, and it's a good deal more than zero. But change the world it will not, and it certainly is less successful in fund-raising than other, more traditional means.

Gladwell contrasts the early organizing efforts of the civil rights movement with similar efforts online. Would Jim Crow have been defeated by a million people clicking "Like?" Of course not, and we won't end hunger or breast cancer with a mouse click, either.

I like Facebook -- I'm on it every day that I'm not on vacation or otherwise engaged in productive human activity. It's allowed me to re-connect with some old friends, stay connected with my family and to post my really pretty pictures of sunsets. It's entirely possible, however, that if I had exchanged my time on Facebook with some other activity that the common cold would be history by now. Probably not, but you get my drift.

Now, click "Like," please.

Update: We're up to 890, just in the time it took to write this. (Like!)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Olbermann doesn't get it

I like to watch Keith Olbermann's "Countdown" show, mostly because he's smart and funny, and he has a terrific grasp of history, politics and the English language. But he doesn't understand journalism.

As I write this, he's still going on and on in his latest "special comment," attempting to refute (articulately but somewhat pathetically) Ted Koppel's recent assertion in the Washington Post that Olbermann and his right-wing counterparts are not journalists. Olbermann is unpersuasive.

Of course, I champion Koppel's position because I published a version of it four days prior to his Post column. Olbermann refers to journalists who practice the tradition of our better angels as "glorified stenographers" who he suggests are incapable of making a difference. Nonsense. He oversimplifies the role and work of real journalists to give himself more apparent gravitas.

I am gratified to note that Olbermann appears to have been speaking about TV journalism, which is often a contradiction in terms on the highest level. Still, he clearly wants to be seen as a journalist in the same sense that Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite were. Oh, please. If that weren't so presumptuous it would be comical. Yes, as Olbermann correctly pointed out, both Murrow and Cronkite -- plus countless other broadcast journalists of earlier eras -- occasionally lapsed into commentary. But it was not their stock-in-trade. It was precisely because they rarely engaged in commentary that they had the credibility to be persuasive when they did.

Olbermann clearly has the talent to portray umbrage, even outrage, and he may even actually feel it. But he just needs to give up the argument that he's a journalist. He's not, and he doesn't have the street cred to pull it off. He's a commentator, and a damned good one. That should be enough.

He claims that Koppel suggested that MSNBC and Fox News are essentially equivalent but opposite sides of the same coin. Koppel did not. He simply said that neither rises to the level of journalism. Whether one comes closer than the other is no more relevant than trying to figure out which woman is more pregnant.

Koppel gave voice to essentially the same point I had made in my column about MSNBC's silly reaction to the uncovering of Olbermann's contributions to Democratic candidates, though he was more eloquent:
The need for clear, objective reporting in a world of rising religious fundamentalism, economic interdependence and global ecological problems is probably greater than it has ever been. But we are no longer a national audience receiving news from a handful of trusted gatekeepers; we're now a million or more clusters of consumers, harvesting information from like-minded providers.
And yet Olbermann, with a straight, even stern, face, argued the opposite -- that the times require hacking down "the false god of objectivity." While achieving complete objectivity by human journalists may be out of our reach, we shouldn't stop striving for the ideal. It makes us better, even as we fall just short. To toss it out under the guise of a "more honest" exposition of personal editorializing is fine, so long as it's not called journalism doesn't pretend to be.

I will continue to watch Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, mostly because I find them intellectually stimulating in a way that Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly cannot possibly pull off. But when I want journalism I will turn to newspapers.

Monday, November 8, 2010

What was MSNBC thinking?

Neither MSNBC nor its commentator, Keith Olbermann, would be considered a bastion of good journalism.

Olbermann, a former ESPN host, is a bright, articulate and insightful guy who can be alternately funny and angry, sometimes on the same broadcast. He was suspended without pay by his network for two days recently when it was disclosed that he had contributed to the campaigns of several Democratic candidates.

We learned later that his suspension wasn’t so much for the contributions but because he hadn’t received permission from his higher-ups to do it. That’s nuts.

There’s nothing new about commentators contributing to political campaigns. Many on either side of the political spectrum have done it, and some commentators actually run for office while doing their commentating. At this point everyone pretty much knows that MSNBC, Fox News and, increasingly, CNN, are entertainment and opinion networks, not news organizations that pay a lot of attention to journalism ethics.

That’s entirely OK, but it makes Olbermann’s suspension even odder. He leans left – hard. Spend 15 minutes watching his show and it’s obvious. That he would contribute to Democrats is about as surprising as learning that potatoes come from Idaho.

Fox News still uses its “fair and balanced” slogan when it clearly has no intention of being either. Fox leans right – hard - and everybody knows it. That’s OK, too, but fair and balanced it certainly is not.

Legitimate news organizations adopt, enforce and make public their ethical standards. They are no mystery. For example, there is a clear separation between news and opinion. Reporters don’t make contributions to parties or candidates. They (I’m quoting now from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics):
o Seek truth and report it.
o Minimize harm.
o Act independently.
o Are accountable.
It sounds pompous or quaint in today’s cynical media environment, but the objective of the journalist can be summed up with this paraphrasing from SPJ: “The duty of the journalist is to further public enlightenment by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.”

Organizations that focus more on entertainment and opinion aren’t necessarily less honorable than those that focus on journalism, but they are decidedly different, just as they are likely to be more profitable. C-Span and the PBS News Hour don’t exactly rake in the viewers, and the evening news broadcasts of the major TV networks don’t get many more. We prefer, it seems, to listen to people who share our world view and who can both entertain and infuriate.

MSNBC managers should drop their journalistic pretensions and they should never have suspended Olbermann in the first place. It made them look bad.