In Praise of Television

Posted: April 30th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , | No Comments »

I am not to going to fall into the trap of taking stock of the President at his hundred day mark because that is silly. The 100th day was defining for Napoleon and FDR, but for few others. George Bush’s first hundred days were uneventful; he was defined by the two years between 9/11 and the entry into Iraq. The tone for the Clinton presidency was set over the health care contraversy and the breakdown of relations with Congress, in other words, the period between summer 1994 and winter 2005.

I am going to take stock of the President’s press conference, however, and the press that covered it. In the introduction to their liveblog on the event, the Times’ Adam Nagourney and Peter Baker posed an interesting question–would more journos ask silly questions about the 100-day mark, or use the opportunity to ask substantive questions to fuel policy stories? As it turned out, the one totally stupid 100-day question came from the Times’ own Jeff Zeleny: what had “surprised, troubled, humbled and enchanted” Obama about the office. It reminded me of the stereotypical shrink in movies whose only line is “and how does that make you feel?”

Obama’s answer did not inspire confidence. Basically, he was surprised that the economy is such a mess, even though it’s been that way since before he was elected. He was troubled that Washington didn’t go postpartisan at his command, even though that’s a silly goal he should really give up. He was humbled to discover that he’s not the center of the “tapestry of American life” after all, a suggestion that he has a wee bit of an ego. And he was enchanted to find out that our servicemen and women are really lovely people, something he surely should have known before.

The questions for the rest of the session were better, with the prizes for hardest hitting going to CBS’ Mark Knoller asking about the torture memos (has Obama read the memos Cheney keeps referencing which show that torture works, and is Cheney right in describing what the memos say) and NBC’s Chuck Todd asking about Pakistan (would the US invade to secure the country’s nukes if it feared them falling into Taliban hands).

The takeaway: for all the snide remarks print journalists like to make about their superior rigor compared to the alleged talking points hackery of broadcast, it’s the TV guys who had their priorities straight last night. As I’ve said before, TV still matters.

ANNIVERSARY POST: The Medium is [Still] not the Message

Posted: April 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Ephemera | 2 Comments »

Believe it or not, Cappuccino-ers, this digital coffeehouse turns one year old today, and it’s instructive to think how much has happened in the realms of technology, politics, business, and media that are our daily grist:

1. The Democratic primaries finally ended. Sarah Palin helped Tiny Fey find her life’s calling. John McCain sputtered his way to irrelevance leaving President Barack Obama to usher in, among other things, the rise of the individualist left. In Britain, David Cameron gave us a sneak peak of what individualism looks like on the right: war with the NHS. Arlen Specter left the Republican Party, marking, among other things, the breaking of the coalition between institutionalist rightists like Specter and individualist rightists like the party chiefs.
2. Obama’s campaign also highlighted the political power of social media technologies, though the President was not the only practitioner. At various points, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Paris Hilton, Gordon Brown and Hu Jintao, the Swedish police force, and Pakistani legal activists all made forays into interactivity.
3. Despite Robert Wright’s promises to the contrary, many parts of the world continued to grow more violent. Russia went to war in Georgia, Israel went to war in Gaza, Bombay was held hostage, the drug cartels upped the ante on the Mexican border, some IRA hands and Tamil Tigers were up to their old ways. The situation in Pakistan went from optimistic to disastrous, with the military finally deciding a Taliban takeover of the country was worth fighting against today. The Obama administration, meanwhile, turned Pakistan into a counterweight to its Iraq and Iran strategies, continuing and expanding irrationally (and perhaps illegally) hawkish courses of action to balance its dovish stance re: Baghdad and Tehran.
4. The global economy collapsed, taking down Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and a whole host of economic experts, sending the rest of the financial sector and the auto giants to the government for handouts and raising tons of populist rage against Wall Street. One silver lining, perhaps, is a new IMF+Free Trade approach to development that emerged from the London Conference, a dramatic improvement over the Doha disaster.
5. The next big paradigm shift in the web began as the first wave pioneers, like Bill Gates, left the scene, second wave leaders, like Google, started to face criticism, and second wave memes started to lose their luster. Web 3.0, though still in its nascent changes, showed signs of being more oriented towards globalism than its predecessors.
6. The media apocalypse picked up its pace, taking down the Christian Science Monitor (in print), the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Tribune Company, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and most recently, Portfolio. The madness of those on both extremes expanded. Jeff Jarvis called for us all to become Google [who want to help newspapers, promise], while the Associated Press hammered all the aggregator startups for linking fees. But the beginnings of a cross-platform future began to emerge in the ashes of the recession, with the battle on between individualists and institutionalists to structure of that future model.
7. The downsizing of our over-leveraged ambitions brought a downsizing of technology trends, favoring the rise of the netbook over the laptop and desktop and most significantly, the rise of Twitter as a challenger to Facebook. In a sign of the media apocalypse, see above, commentators hailed Twitter not only as a useful social tool, but as some form of alternative journalism. Not only does this violate the speech/press divide (a victory for radical individualists), but confuses what Twitter offers users. Yours truly joined several weeks ago to test the service out, and I’m finding it to be more like Facebook before the applications: Indeed, as one who misses old Facebook, I’m glad to have it as a tool. It is all conversation with people I know that resembles the early days of social networking, lots of aspirational expressions “Maha wishes she could get more sleep.” or “Maha is mysterious,” and very little by way of information content. Indeed, when falsehoods appear on Twitter, there’s no effort by the company to shut them down and a certain flippancy from its founders about what goes on the site. That’s okay, because so long Twitter is just a social platform, it’s not legally or economically accountable for facts.  It’s just people talking, and people lie. That’s why the best “journalistic” use of Twitter I’ve seen is the same as the journalistic use of people in the analog world–quote them saying their piece, go out and verify or debunk what they say and put the raw facts in your words. Twitter, Facebook et al are a beautifully efficient way for reporters to get the views of the man on the street that have peppered our stories for years.
Thanks to everyone who’s kept the conversation fiesty on these pages–here’s to another year of digital caffeination.

About Those Memos

Posted: April 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »

I’ve waited on the sidelines a few days, but I now feel it’s time to dive into the torture memos debate. Here’s what stands out to me: as Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff reports, there was a divide within Obama-land about how much info to release and what to do with it. Ultimately, as Eric Holder explained to the President, there was no choice, since the ACLU Freedom of Info Act suit forced the release, but in the lead-up, CIA director Leon Panetta was arguing the other side, asking the President not to expose the agency to public censure and if he did, to promise not to investigate those who “followed” orders.

Why would Panetta be so worried about this? Because, as Isikoff argued on MSNBC’s Hardball, he is a newbie to the agency who does not have credibility with the career employees who were involved in, but not politically committed to, the Bush agenda. In other words, someone from WITHIN the CIA might have been more able to lead the agency through public scrutiny with grace, counterintuitive as that sounds. This is precisely the kind of problem I had in mind when I critiqued his appointment to the post.

President Obama listened to the law, but I have some qualms with his decision to “look forward,” not backward when it comes to investigating those involved in the torturous practices. Not only because I agree with Keith Olbermann that un-investigated practices could remain as precedent, but also because I don’t completely buy into the assumptions that drive Obama’s decision. Basically, the Obama administration reflects a rising tide in 21st century liberal thought that idealizes the power of transparency. So long as the government comes clean, this argument runs, these practices can’t ever happen again, because the public won’t let them. Implicit in this argument is the notion that somehow the public did not know, and therefore could not protest, what was happening before.

That’s naïve: we didn’t have confirmation before, but you’d have to have been living under a rock not to have seen or heard discussion of these practices over the last 7 years. Moreover, full awareness of government misconduct never worked as a powerful enough check before. The law (an institution) exists to achieve the kind of justice that public opinion, even at its moral best, cannot enforce. Once again, the faith in public opinion (the morality of individuals) is just insufficient.

The institutionalist triumph

Posted: April 23rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Culture, Politics | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

The last few weeks have seen an explosion of positive activity on the issue of gay marriage. To sum up, after a really nasty set back in the form of Proposition 8 last fall, we’ve seen gay marriage legalized in Iowa, Vermont and Connecticut, and a powerful move from Governor David Paterson to do the same in New York.

Here is what stands out about these decisions: Iowa is a longtime “red” state, Vermont was too until the 1990s, and NY and Connecticut, though they vote “blue” in national elections have rather conservative rural populations who play meaningful roles in state policy. Therefore, some changing of minds on the right is at play in the tidal wave of decisions this month.

Now, there are two ways to make the case for gay marriage and they reflect the ideological dichotomy I have been describing on this site, between institutionalism and individualism. The individualist case, the one that dominated the gay marriage movement until this year, is about railing against the oppressive social norms of a heterocentric definition of marriage, defending the rights of all of us to love as we please, and including marriage as one form of love we should all have access to. This is a mostly left-wing argument that is related in its tone and its values to 1960s feminism and “free love.” It made it very easy for the right-wing to counter that same-sex marriage would undermine heterosexual families, in much the same way they critiqued the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

The institutionalist argument for same-sex marriages is different: it claims that all marriages are better than all non-marriages, that society should actively privilege people (of all orientations) who make monogamous commitments over those (of all orientations) who don’t. So, by this line of argument, all marriages are and should be equal, but married love is morally superior to unmarried love and should be a. legalized and b. socially encouraged.

By arguing against free love, the institutionalists take away the right-wing’s main argument against marriage equality: their fear that it dilutes heterosexual marriage. I have a hunch that what made the tide turn in Iowa, Vermont, Connecticut and New York is that conservatives are beginning to think of gay marriage in these institutionalist terms. David Brooks has been saying it for ages, but no one has listened. Steve Schmidt (McCain’s campaign aide) said it this week and his comments were repeated all over the news.

As Schmidt pointed out in his speech, what has changed since Brooks first voiced this idea is the opinions of young people and the increased interaction between young people of different political ideologies and sexual identities permitted by social media. People who may never interact in the physical world are increasingly finding each other online. Young social conservatives, who may spend their physical lives in communities where homosexuality is  derided and policed, are interacting online with young gay Americans–liberal and conservative–and finding out that the interaction doesn’t dilute their value system after all. Schmidt urged his partisans to accept and embrace this fact if they want to be electorally viable in the future.

This blog is subtitled “Reflections on the Revolution in Culture.” This shift on the right, the change in ideals and, slowly, in policy, driven by the coffeehouse-like minglings of the digital age, is precisely the revolution I had in mind.

Apocalypse 22: Fiddling while Rome burns

Posted: April 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Apocalypse Series, Journalism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

The Pulitzer Prizes were announced earlier this week, to little fanfare, as perhaps befits a set of awards for such a troubled industry. I’m really pleased with the choice of WaPo’s Gene Robinson for Commentary; his columns on the presidential campaign were insightful but respectful, something rare in political opinion. I’m also happy to see the NYT (esp Jane Perlez and Carlotta Gall) get the nod for their AfPak coverage.

I’m less pleased with the lack of ANY awards for reporting on the financial crisis. Gretchen Morgenson and Vikas Bajaj both probably deserved to be recognized, as the did the WaPo’s series on AIG (nominated) and the WSJ’s series on the End of Wall Street (nominated).

But the real killer was this: In the category of breaking news, the NYT won a prize for its coverage of the Spitzer scandal. The NYT wins my prize for breaking news this year, but I’d have given it for the superior coverage the paper did of the election eclipsing, IMHO, both the WaPo and CNN (the usual dominators in horse race coverage) with its impressive use of multimedia features like live blogs of campaign events, district-by-district maps and polling data, and all manner of unique ways of calibrating and comparing the candidates. Breaking news in the digital age is not just about getting information out there–anybody with a cell phone can do that; it’s about providing depth and insight in real time. That’s where the journalism happens.

Nominating the Times for the Spitzer story (which was just info-dissemination) was shortsighted and backward-looking. Coupled with the lack of acknowledgement for financial reporting in a year dominated by financial news, the choice reflects, to my mind, the problem with groups like the Pulitzer board. Instead of using their considerable brand power and influence to lead reporters to a brave new digital future, they are rewarding increasingly irrelevant forms of content and ceding the public discourse to amateurs.

The amateurs will have no problem disseminating information, and may beat the journalists at this function, but there are no amateurs so far replicating the analytical depth of the big papers’ reporting on credit defaults. By trying to compete at a disadvantage in the info-breaking space, the professional media will only put itself out of business and we will all be the worse off for it. If organizations like the Pulitzer don’t incentivize a change of direction, it won’t happen.

How to Deal with Google

Posted: April 17th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Business, Technology | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments »

When I posted my concerns about the market power of Google a few weeks ago, I got the following arguments in response:

–what Google offers the ordinary computer user is the opposite of a monopolized experience: free innovate products. Let’s call this argument “Google is not evil.”
–what Google offers the buyers of ad space and data is also the opposite of a monopolized experience: innovative services that cost less than their competitors. Let’s call this argument “Google is not greedy.”
–Google has achieved its dominance of search-based advertising and data-aggregation on the merits of its algorithms. Let’s call this argument “Google is not cheating”
–Google plays in many fields but doesn’t own any of them, since there’s still all that TV, radio and yes, print advertising still out there that Google hasn’t yet taken over. Let’s call this argument “Google is not that big.” Read the rest of this entry »

Apocalypse 21: Arts and Crafts

Posted: April 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Apocalypse Series, Journalism | Tags: | 3 Comments »

In this ongoing series on news business models, I’ve maintained that journalism is a profession. To me, a profession means work with a public value, a defined code of conduct or methodology, and a mentality of prizing institutional goals over individual ones. Journalists in the mainstream media made the mistake of eroding the first criterion over the last two decades with lots of non-public-interest infotainment; citizen-media activists are eroding the other two by thumbing their nose at codes of conduct and staking their business models on individual permalancers.

One of my professors, Jonathan Knee, has written about the downgrading of banking from a professional calling to a trade with the rise of transactional over client models of doing business and defines a profession by the same three metrics I do:

“A profession is a job that owes obligations to society at large...It is the antithesis of the idea of a profession to argue that the standards to which investment banks once held themselves was simply an attribute of a grand financial bargain…our society’s increasing emphasis on celebrity, self-realization and personal wealth over more communal callings has reduced the social benefits associated with pursuing a higher professional calling.” (x)

I asked Knee the other day if he thought journalism was a profession and he, a media banker, said “No.” He thought it was an art, which I might define as self-realization that explicitly defies codes of conduct, and which might have some social benefits that are external to the purpose with which it is pursued. We fund the arts because we like to see art in museums, but the artists don’t produce explicitly for society’s benefit or according to professional norms. The models for journalism we hear floated most often these days–nonprofit trusts, licensing fees or micropayments–all mimic the way we finance the arts.

Not only is this conceptually problematic, but financially, it won’t work. Because the arts are non-professional, most artists do something else on the side to pay their bills, unless they are among the lucky few to get a big break (see above: individual self-realization over communal goals). Having every journalist do something else on the side would overtime erode their expertise about their beat and their commitment to journalistic codes of conduct; because good reporting (which, see above, is a public good) depends on those practices, turning journalists into artists is bad news.

There is perhaps a third way: journalism as craft, journalist as artisan. A craft is a job with a defined skill set, some training/apprenticeship and some social utility, but no obligation towards institutions. That’s a pretty solid conceptualization of how reporting should work, but I’m not yet sure what it means as a business model. My hunch is that it leads us to finance individual stories, instead of publications, but to finance stories by journalists who do reporting all the time, even if they migrate from outlet to outlet. As always, any thoughts on where this leads are most welcome.

The Press Does Matter

Posted: April 6th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Journalism, Politics, South Asia | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

To all those who scoff at the notion of the press as a social institution that is something more than the sum of its participants, witness the controversy over the recent move by the Pakistani government to free the judges shackled by President Musharraf two years ago. I’ve blogged about the civil rights issues in Pakistan before and written about them elsewhere, but today, I spoke with Ayesha Tammy Haq, host of a business show there, about the media’s promotion of and even active involvement in the lawyers’ movement.

On one level, the Pakistani experience gives credence to claims that citizen-media can adequately discharge the civil-society-strengthening duties of a Fourth Estate. On another level, as Haq pointed out in our conversation, journo-activism has yet to function over any long period of time–it’s quite effective when marshaled to some political cause, speaking truth to power on behalf of the public, but what becomes of the activist bloggers once their chosen candidate is in office? How effective and/or credible can they be as outside critics or interpreters who decipher power for the public if they helped bring that power into being?

Finally, it’s worth noting that professional journalists, citizen-activists and the lawyers themselves argued that a restored judiciary would protect the free press. That’s the paradox that always rankles me when it comes to citizen-journalism. While their methods threaten the idea of “the Press” as a semi-independent profession, the citizen-journalists almost always claim there is.

Gordon’s Day

Posted: April 2nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Britain, Economics, Foreign Policy, Journalism | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Gotta hand it to Gordon today. Somehow, he’s pulled world leaders back from their insanity to agree to principles for that were, only a day ago, the butt of jokes among policy wonks. A triumph.

In the past week, much of the American media has referred to the IMF infusion in particular as though it were proposed by President Obama in the lead-up to this meeting. That’s wrong.

As readers of this blog will know, the whole combination of trade, aid, and regulation was the brainchild of Gordon Brown and the subject of his speech in Congress some weeks ago. At the time, the American media focused on his praise of the United States and on the symbolism of the moment, so American readers never processed the weight of his policy prescriptions.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration, realizing that a dramatic expansion of fiscal stimulus was not in the cards, began talking up the IMF infusion as though it were their plan, and journalists in the US political press have followed suit. World leaders were smart enough to let Gordon announce the comminque himself (he did superbly; video below), but the talking heads in the American press still spent the evening news discussing whether this as an achievement of the Obama team.

Obama and his celebrity charm get some credit for helping curmudgeonly Gordon get this done; surely Obama had some role in stopping Nicholas Sarkozy from throwing another tantrum. But the policies–using the IMF as a form of trade subsidization and trade as a form of development aid–don’t bear any signs of his input. That my colleagues in the political media insist on declaring otherwise only facilitates conservative critiques that they are in Obama’s tank.

Moreover, I find this strategy of taking credit for others’ ideas unnerving. There were two stories buried in the inside section of the NYT these past weeks about a Congressional effort–led by Ted Kennedy–to devise a health care bill, even before the administration has a Health Secretary. The emerging plan sounds a lot more like Hillary Clinton’s proposal from last spring than the Obama plan, but if it looks liable to get Congressional passage, you can bet it will get Obama branding.

Come on, Mr. President. Your popularity ratings are sky-high, where Gordon Brown is fighting for his political life. You are young with years ahead of you, where Ted Kennedy is singing his swan song. Take a back seat, for once, and give credit where it’s due.