Thursday, January 10, 2013

I unfriended Facebook

The Sandy Hook shootings were the last straw.

Sitting in my easy chair the next Saturday morning fooling around on Facebook, I could hear the repetitive coverage of the massacre on TV. On Facebook, friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends were commenting. Most were thoughtful, but some were stupid and a handful were outrageous. I flipped out.

First, I burst into tears. Yes, I know, that's helpful. Then, I turned off the TV. Finally, I looked into discontinuing my Facebook account. I realized that I had created the account for the Post Register and, besides, Facebook makes it damn near impossible to just cancel your account. So, I did the next best thing.

I unfriended everyone -- everyone -- except for my and Kathleen's kids. My personal experiment with the full menu that Facebook has to offer was over.

I had started before the election by reducing my Facebook friends to just my extended family, which included distant cousins in Brazil. The insanity and stupidity of political commentary on Facebook became too much to bear. Reducing it to a place where I can get updates on the grandkids was the next logical step.

My Facebook experience peaked -- or hit bottom, depending on how you look at it -- about a year and a half ago just before my 35th high school reunion, when I added a bunch of Facebook friends from my high school days. Many of these very nice people I knew little or not at all, but I got caught up in the spirit of the moment. At that point I had around 200 Facebook friends, which is still a pretty modest number in comparison to some

Suddenly, however, I was spending two hours or more a day on Facebook and engaging in conversations and debates with people I either had scarcely known once in the mid-70s or, through the Facebook friends of friends process, people I knew not at all. Some people find this exhilarating. I began to find it annoying, frustrating, occasionally entertaining, rarely enlightening, but nearly always a bad use of my time. There are 10 or so -- you all probably know who you are -- that I actually miss, and maybe I'll see if they'll take me back some day. And I did enjoy the antics of the Brazilian Plothows.

However, I spend my professional life at the center of the public discourse, which often means engaging with people who say ignorant or silly things. The last thing I need to do is continue engaging people like that at home, and the wider the Facebook circle the more likely it gets infiltrated with uninvited guests.

Yes, I could have more carefully managed my privacy settings and list of friends, but I decided to go all in, or, more correctly, all out. It was the right call.

I'm still on LinkedIn and my email address is known to thousands. It's not hard to get hold of me. Plus, I maintain Facebook pages for my first novel and its upcoming sequel, plus one on Yellowstone National Park. That keeps me in the game.

Most important is that I have now freed significant time for Angry Birds, and I'm nearly through the Star Wars version, three star complete destruction.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Journalism run amok

It's really no wonder why journalism is viewed so negatively by the public.

Twenty-four percent of people surveyed in a recent Gallup Poll rate journalists high in standards of honesty and ethics. That puts us right between bankers and business executives, but higher than lawyers, politicians and car salespeople. (Nurses rank at the top of the list. Congress is next to last at 10 percent.)

When a newspaper in New York State publishes the name and address of every gun owner in its readership, complete with an interactive map, it only serves to bolster the low opinion people have of our profession. It was stupid and, perhaps more to the point, served absolutely no purpose.

What did the newspaper hope to accomplish with this story? I can't come up with a reasonable answer, and I'm hardly alone.

“The Journal News, I personally think, should have rethought the idea as actually going so far to identify actual addresses,” said Steve Doig, a professor with an expertise in data journalism at Arizona State. “This particular database ought to remain a public record. Just because it’s available and public record doesn’t mean we have to make it so readily available.”

I have long understood that one reason journalists are viewed so negatively is that people who ply a trade that somewhat resembles journalism  -- entertainment reporters, political commentators, etc. -- are considered journalists by many in the general public, and this pulls our numbers down. That rationale doesn't work here, since the people behind the gun story are from the Journal News, a very mainstream local newspaper based in White Plains, New York. Presumably, the newspaper's publisher, editor and reporters are well trained and follow some sort of code of ethics. I have searched its web site and find no code of ethics published, which is too bad. I believe every newspaper should publish code of conduct so readers can hold the journalists accountable. 

This is unfair, but I suspect the Journal News' managers would like to re-think its decision at this point. The editor's explanation is weak:

“We knew publication of the database would be controversial but we felt sharing as much information as we could about gun ownership in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings,” said CynDee Royle, Editor and Vice President/News.

“People are concerned about who owns guns and how many of them there are in their neighborhoods. Our Freedom of Information request also sought specifics on how many and what types of weapons people owned. That portion of the request was denied.”

Now, a story indicating how many guns are owned in the newspaper's market, including the types, etc., has real relevance. Revealing who the gun owners are, including addresses, has no journalistic value I can think of.

I agree with one of the people who called the Journal News to complain about the story and map. As reported in the Journal News:
Scott F. Williams, 41, of Haddon Heights, N.J., near Philadelphia, who served in the Marines as a rifleman, was one of a very few callers who agreed to identify themselves and comment on why they called.
“This is what I see,” he said. “It’s all in the context of the shootings in Newtown ... it gets us all talking about gun control. That people are at a heightened concern makes sense to me. I am a gun owner and a pro-Second-Amendment (person). I try to be rational.”
He called the newspaper’s decision to link to the database “highly Orwellian. The implications are mind-boggling,” he said. “It’s as if gun owners are sex offenders (and) to own a handgun risks exposure as if one is a sex offender. It’s, in my mind, crazy.”

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Government we deserve

I can't nail down its original source, but it's become popular to suggest that we get the government we deserve.

That has been no truer than it is today. Do you doubt me? I offer for my only exhibits a handful of recent posts from Post Talk, the Post Register's message board and veritable sewer of free speech. I do not provide the names of the authors to protect the guilty.

Let's start with a doozy:

"Hitler never wanted war with Britain, only a dictatorship and absolute power in Germany. Much like our presidents today, he wanted to be a great German historical figure like Bismarck. He sought revenge from the treaty of Versailles Treaty. He wanted to restore German pride and enlarge the German empire to the east. He wanted to rid Germany of Jews and gays and destroy Bolshevism. He wanted Germany to achieve economic self-sufficiency. Whether these things were right or wrong is not the issue. Hitler never wanted war with Britain, and certainly not with the U.S. He never wanted a two-front war, let alone a world war. He wanted Germany to be a world power, not the ruler of the world. Today, the U.S. is guilty of the very same desires of Hitler. "

OK, that one's unfair, since the author is a known John Bircher and conspiracy monger. So, let's move a little closer to the mainstream.

"Once in a while the liberals pause to address the out-of-control spending ("investment" in liberal speak) but then simply blame it on GWB! Their indoctrination by the uber-liberal teachers/professors has worked well."

There's some classic anti-intellectualism for you. (Just this week the latest list of the world's top universities was released. Eight of the top 10 are American, and that proportion continues through the first several dozen. We are the envy of the world in many respects, and our colleges may be at the top of that list.)

From the left:

"Makes me wonder when the Republican Party will take responsibility for the economic mess we are in today. After all, Reagan started Class Warfare increasing the flow of wealth to the top and Bush capped it off with his unfunded tax cuts, Medicare D, and two wars; culminating in the crash of 2008. Republicans love to crush the hopes and dreams of the poor and middle class while preserving the wealth of a few."

I know a lot of Republicans but can't think of a single one who is bent on crushing hopes and dreams.

"Obama has shot another volley over the bow of the Republican-led House by promising he won't negotiate on raising the debt limit. This individual is determined to completely bankrupt this country - although it seems we have already achieved that "goal". Boehner and McConnell must hold firm and demand spending cuts that will more than equal any raising of the debt limit. Medicare and Medicaid are the drivers of our debt and congress knows this but seem too timid to make the difficult choices."

This writer used to refer to our president as BO until I put a stop to it. Now, she uses "this individual," and is quite certain he is "determined to bankrupt this country." Of course he is. Every president runs for office with a deep desire to screw things up or, worse, has a specific "destroy our country" agenda. No, wait. It's only Obama who came to power with that objective.

"No level of gun control will remove guns from most who should not have them. It would only keep law abiding citizens from owning them. I have a hard time understanding how owning an assault rifle somehow translates in it being used to kill people."

The last sentence is one of the more remarkable things I've ever read, anywhere. There's no point in debating with someone who would write such a sentence.

"I haven't been in a theatre since the early nineties - except for "2016: Obama's America", which I saw this past summer. I got tired of paying good money to watch poorly-written and poorly-acted ho-hum movies. Once in a while I will rent a DVD - but even then, it's sometimes a waste of my time and dollars. Give me a good book any day!"

Here we have a person who hasn't seen a movie for nearly two decades, except, of course, for a propaganda flick so full of lies and conspiracy innuendo that it's hard to imagine even hard-core Obama-haters can take it seriously. This person votes, presumably.

"Many of us who were in the military and in war zones saw firsthand what some folks with guns in their hands or bombs and rockets at their disposal could do to other human beings. We didn’t like that either. I don’t keep semi-automatic pistols and rifles with 30 round clips around for hunting nor did I buy them for that purpose. I will always have them, out of reach from the grandkids for sure, but ever present. I always strive to be at least as well armed as are the folks who would do me, or my family harm, be they thugs, thieves, rapists, murderers or government goons."

Yes, we need assault weapons to protect ourselves from "government goons." (Never mind that if "government goons" really wanted to take you out, they would have access to weapons that would make your assault rifle seem like a pea shooter.)

Let's end with a note from the populist left, a crusader for pro-union laws.

"Let's all thank the Right To Work law and all those who voted for it. Idahoans now have the right to work for less and qualify for Medicaid for their children and Food Stamps for the family."

The most instructive issue presented on this one is the depiction of our tendency to snatch up simplistic, one-size-fits-all causes for our various ills, which plays nicely into sound-bite politics.

I close with the lyrics from a classic Supertramp track, Crime of the Century:
Who are these men of lust, greed, and glory? 
Rip off the masks and let's see. 
But that's not right - oh no, what's the story? 
        There's you and there's me That can't be right

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Shooting for 'good enough'

For every “expert” on the business of journalism and the broader world of media there’s a strategy, a clear indication that everyone involved in the media world – from journalists to news consumers to advertisers – is still trying to figure out the next steps.

So it was interesting to find this nugget on Lost Remote, a blog devoted to television:

“A paid content revolution is under way at newspapers across America … It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize this is an unusual opportunity for (TV) stations to go after audiences frustrated with the new restrictions.”

Then comes this surprising admission:

“Newspaper folks will be quick to point out they produce a higher quality and frequency of online coverage. This is certainly the case in most markets, but local TV stations can attract a larger share by stepping up coverage a notch and marketing themselves as a free and everywhere alternative.”

The blog’s recommendation is for local TV stations to essentially become “newspaper lite,” including a suggestion to “… redesign your sites to be lighter, more responsive and a bit more ‘newspapery’ while still showcasing video.”

The goal, the blog writer suggests, is not to attempt to replicate newspapers but to become provide “good enough coverage across a broader array of content and platforms.”

Newspaper types should be flattered, I reckon.

Pay walls (an unfortunate term – I prefer “subscriber-based business model”) are nothing new, particularly in Idaho, where newspapers like the Post Register, Lewiston Tribune and Moscow-Pullman Daily News have charged for online access for a decade now. Other serious journalism organizations, however, are just now coming around to the realization that reporting that goes beyond “good enough” is expensive and can’t just be given away on a web site.

Ultimately, the alternatives boil down to a choice between “good enough” journalism provided to the consumer for free or journalism important enough to compel people to pay a little for it.

The truth is, there remains room in local markets for a variety of competing media. TV can be more immediate, is free (well, unless you’re watching on cable) and simple to consume. Newspapers go deeper and wider, containing as much local information in a single edition as a week’s worth of TV newscasts.

The Idaho Statesman recently announced it would be implementing a subscriber-based business model and some of the local TV stations went a little loopy, running commercials suggesting that the good people of southwestern Idaho should be offended at the very thought of having to pay for local news from a web site.

I don’t know how the Statesman has responded, but I have a suggestion – post a running tally of local information items appearing in the paper compared to the number on TV. The message would become crystal clear.