Tag Archives: media

The Right Problem

Sometimes, unrelated “factoids” converge to tell a story. Just in the past couple of weeks, I’ve come across stories that seemed initially to be unconnected, but come together to illustrate a troubling aspect of contemporary political life.

Factoid #1: Recent polls show that a third of Americans do not believe the Nazis killed six million Jews.Thirty-one percent of the Americans surveyed, and 41 percent of millennials within that group, do not believe that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust and think the real death toll is at least 2 million lower. (Eleven percent said it is acceptable to hold neo-Nazi views.)

Factoid #2: An October poll by Axios found barely a majority of Americans affirming faith in democracy. Just 51% of Americans said they have faith in the country’s democracy, and 37% say they have lost faith in democracy.

Factoid #3: The people most apt to share “fake news“–to be taken in by conspiracy theories, spin and propaganda– aren’t defined by political ideology, but by age (although age does correlate with political philosophy). Research published by the journal Science Advances, found that older Americans — especially those over 65 — were much more likely to share fake news than younger ones, and conservatives and Republicans were more likely to share fake news than were liberals and Democrats.

There are several disheartening conclusions to be drawn from these disparate items. The most obvious is that Americans are woefully ignorant of history. Another is that the pace of social change has been most upsetting to older Americans, who find themselves attracted to “alternative facts” when their settled views are  challenged. Still another is that Americans are disappointed with the direction the nation is taking, and draw the conclusion that democracy hasn’t worked.

But beneath those fairly superficial conclusions, I think there is a state of bewilderment. As our media has fragmented, as the availability of widely-trusted news sources has diminished and the number of politicized, highly partisan outlets has increased,  thoughtful Americans–those who don’t automatically accept the spin from one “true believer” cult or another– no longer know what to believe.

Did you read that six million Jews were murdered? Well, maybe. Where did you read that?  Did you read that Trump lies constantly? Well, that was from the Washington Post; this article from Breitbart attributes the accusation to the Post’s “liberal bias.” I’m not sure who’s right.

An article for the Guardian profiled David Neiwert, who has written about the contribution of the alt-right to our current situation.

For several decades following the Great Depression, when capitalism and liberal democracy teetered on the brink, Republicans and Democrats “agreed to defend democracy, and defend the values of democracy because it benefited them all by following basically FDR’s program. Now, we’ve lost that because conservatives have decided they are no longer willing to submit to any kind of government run by liberals,” Neiwert says. “The current conservative movement has decided it no longer wishes to be part of a liberal democracy.”…

Neiwert has focused on the media environment.

In his 2009 book The Eliminationists, Neiwert explained how this post-9/11 authoritarianism was fuelled by increasingly lurid fantasies in conservative media of destroying liberals, Muslims and other perceived enemies. These bubbled away throughout the presidency of Barack Obama, himself the subject of endless conspiracy theorising. Trump, of course, became the principal pusher of the idea that Obama wasn’t born in the US. His subsequent presidential campaign was powered by authoritarian and conspiratorial fantasy. And so, Alt-America has its president.

But can the problems Neiwert points to actually be remedied? “I’m not optimistic,” he says. “I believe that we’ve dug ourselves a really deep hole and we have a really long way to dig up.” He believes that while Trump is likely to lose in 2020, the movement, and the party, that propelled him to power will continue to have a malign effect.

One important step to challenge this would be media reform. He says that the internet and corporate ownership of local media have “basically gutted the ability of local newspapers to cover local news, gutted the ability of larger newspapers to do consumer and investigative reporting”. Social media, a paradise for conspiracy theorists, is filling the gap.

Without trusted and trustworthy journalism,  reasonable citizens don’t know what they can believe, and that uncertainty paralyzes them.

Unreasonable citizens believe what they want to believe, and alt-right propagandists are happy to oblige.

No News Is Definitely NOT Good News

Indianapolis, Indiana used to have three newspapers. Little by little, we lost them–the Indianapolis Times went first, then the Indianapolis News, the evening paper, “merged” with the co-owned morning Star. Then Gannett bought the Star, and changed what had been a mediocre newspaper into a worthless compendium of sports columns and stories about new bars in town, wrapped around a daily “McPaper”–aka USA Today.

Gannett’s ownership led to a constant series of layoffs and outsourcing. The layoffs and firings decimated the news staff, with those having institutional memory going first, and the outsourcing of copy editing multiplied the number of misspellings and textual gaffes. All of this seemed–and still seems–insane to me: the only thing news organizations have to sell is news content; it makes no sense to save money by reducing your ability to produce the quality and quantity of what you are selling.

Now, a new organization evidently wants to buy Gannett. Ordinarily, I’d be delighted, but evidently, the potential buyer is even less interested in producing news than Gannett. According to a column in the Washington Post,

Print revenue is down, digital and mobile revenue aren’t nearly enough, and now a hedge fund promising even deeper cuts wants to acquire the company. If the future of corporate news operations looks bleak, that’s because it is.

In Tennessee, we’ve been watching the slow-motion destruction of our news institutions under Gannett for a few decades now, and the idea that things are about to get even worse is appalling. As badly as the country needs strong coverage of national news these days, the local news landscape is important, too. And what happened here mirrors what’s already happened in city after city.

The story of what happened in Tennessee mirrors what happened in Indianapolis.

In July, for example, local hospital operators LifePoint Health and RCCH HealthCare Partners merged in a nearly $6 billion deal that affected roughly 1,000 local employees. The Tennessean covered the story with an Associated Press dispatch written in New York, followed by a local rewriteof a news release at the end of the day. There was no follow-up coverage despite LifePoint’s founder receiving a $70 million exit package and 250 jobs getting eliminated.

In Indianapolis, the locally-owned Indianapolis Business Journal (disclosure: I write a column for the IBJ) does a good job of covering the business community. (It actually does a better job of covering state and local government than the Star, but that’s not its primary mission and being better than the Star is to clear a low bar.) Nuvo, our alternative weekly newspaper, does excellent reporting on selected scandalous or corrupt matters, but doesn’t have the resources to provide the sort of comprehensive coverage we used to get from daily papers. Thanks to the Star’s shortcomings, citizens of Indianapolis get only the most superficial coverage of state government, the legislature and city agencies.

And it matters.

When no one is watching the store, there is no way to evaluate whether  or how local officials are doing their jobs. There’s no “early warning system” allowing citizens to object to changing rules. There’s no authoritative, trusted source to rebut or confirm rumors or conspiracy theories.

It’s hard to disagree with the conclusion of the cited article:

All over America, we need something different: We need more reporters covering the issues that matter to our communities. We need to stem the crisis in statehouse reporting; here in Nashville, the Capitol Hill press corps has dwindled from 35 to just 10 over a few decades. We need more investigative power to follow the billions of dollars spent by state and local governments, often with little oversight. We need competition in places where corporate news has carved out monopolies and let local news wither.

 And we need to do it fast, because the butchers are sharpening their knives.

No news is definitely not good news.

 

Weaponizing Speech

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a provocative article by Tim Wu, a media historian who teaches at Columbia University, titled “Did Twitter Kill the First Amendment?” He began with the question:

You need not be a media historian to notice that we live in a golden age of press harassment, domestic propaganda and coercive efforts to control political debate. The Trump White House repeatedly seeks to discredit the press, threatens to strip broadcasters of their licenses and calls for the firing of journalists and football players for speaking their minds. A foreign government tries to hack our elections, and journalists and public speakers are regularly attacked by vicious, online troll armies whose aim is to silence opponents.

In this age of “new” censorship and blunt manipulation of political speech, where is the First Amendment?

Where, indeed? As Wu notes, the First Amendment was written for a different set of problems in a very different world, and much of the jurisprudence it has spawned deals with issues far removed from the ones that bedevil us today.

As my students are all too often surprised to learn, the Bill of Rights protects us against government misbehavior–in the case of our right to free speech, the First Amendment prohibits government censorship. For the most part, in this age of Facebook and Twitter and other social media, the censors come from the private sector–or in some cases, from governments other than our own, through various internet platforms.

The Russian government was among the first to recognize that speech itself could be used as a tool of suppression and control. The agents of its “web brigade,” often called the “troll army,” disseminate pro-government news, generate false stories and coordinate swarm attacks on critics of the government. The Chinese government has perfected “reverse censorship,” whereby disfavored speech is drowned out by “floods” of distraction or pro-government sentiment. As the journalist Peter Pomerantsev writes, these techniques employ information “in weaponized terms, as a tool to confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert and paralyze.”

It’s really difficult for most Americans to get our heads around this new form of warfare. We understand many of the negative effects of our fragmented and polarized media environment, the ability to live in an information bubble, to “choose our news”–and we recognize the role social media plays in constructing and reinforcing that bubble. It’s harder to visualize how Russia’s infiltration of Facebook and Twitter might have influenced our election.

Wu wants law enforcement to do more to protect journalists from cyber-bullying and threats of violence. And he wants Congress to step in to regulate social media (lots of luck with that in this anti-regulatory age.) For example, he says much too little is being done to protect American politics from foreign attack.

The Russian efforts to use Facebook, YouTube and other social media to influence American politics should compel Congress to act. Social media has as much impact as broadcasting on elections, yet unlike broadcasting it is unregulated and has proved easy to manipulate. At a minimum, new rules should bar social media companies from accepting money for political advertising by foreign governments or their agents. And more aggressive anti-bot laws are needed to fight impersonation of humans for propaganda purposes.

When Trump’s White House uses Twitter to encourage people to punish Trump’s critics — Wu cites the President’s demand that the N.F.L., on pain of tax penalties, censor players — “it is wielding state power to punish disfavored speech. There is precedent for such abuses to be challenged in court.”

It is hard to argue with Wu’s conclusion that

no defensible free-speech tradition accepts harassment and threats as speech, treats foreign propaganda campaigns as legitimate debate or thinks that social-media bots ought to enjoy constitutional protection. A robust and unfiltered debate is one thing; corruption of debate itself is another.

The challenge will be to craft legislation that addresses these unprecedented issues effectively–without inadvertently limiting the protections of the First Amendment.

We have some time to think about this, because the current occupants of both the White House and the Congress are highly unlikely to act. In the meantime, Twitter is the weapon and tweets are the “incoming.”

 

When Evidence Isn’t Reliable

How do we know what we know? Who can we trust?

It’s bad enough that an American President constantly attacks reputable sources of information; when Trump asserts that reports unflattering to him are “fake news,” those assertions join–and bolster– widely-held doubts about the reliability of contemporary media. Those doubts are understandable; it is increasingly difficult to separate out the conspiracy-theory websites from legitimate digital newcomers, to recognize and discount sources trafficking in spin and outright propaganda, and even to distinguish between objective reporting and satire.

The unremitting assault on fact, on objective reality, makes the reliability of the information we get from government agencies more important than ever. When Scott Pruitt scrubs accurate science from the EPA website, he does more than degrade our efforts to protect the environment–he adds to the Alice-In-Wonderland nature of our shared reality.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just Scott Pruitt. The problem isn’t even limited to the Trump cabinet.

According to the Guardian (a very reputable source)

Over half of all police killings in 2015 were wrongly classified as not having been the result of interactions with officers, a new Harvard study based on Guardian data has found.

The finding is just the latest to show government databases seriously undercounting the number of people killed by police.

“Right now the data quality is bad and unacceptable,” said lead researcher Justin Feldman. “To effectively address the problem of law enforcement-related deaths, the public needs better data about who is being killed, where, and under what circumstances.”

This article underscores the importance of good journalism–the Harvard study used data compiled in the Guardian’s investigative reporting. It also illustrates the consequences of relying upon bad data.

Feldman used data from the Guardian’s 2015 investigation into police killings, The Counted, and compared it with data from the National Vital Statistics System (NVSS). That dataset, which is kept by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was found to have misclassified 55.2% of all police killings, with the errors occurring disproportionately in low-income jurisdictions.

“As with any public health outcome or exposure, the only way to understand the magnitude of the problem, and whether it is getting better or worse, requires that data be uniformly, validly, and reliably obtained throughout the US,” said Nancy Krieger, professor of social epidemiology at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health and senior author of the study. “Our results show our country is falling short of accurately monitoring deaths due to law enforcement and work is needed to remedy this problem.”

Interestingly, the researchers found that the accuracy of the data varied wildly by state, “with just 17.6% misclassification in Washington, but a startling 100% in Oklahoma.”

In 2015 the Guardian launched The Counted, an interactive, crowdsourced database attempting to track police killings throughout the US. The project was intended to help remedy the lack of reliable data on police killings, a lack that became especially visible after the 2014 unrest in Ferguson put policing in the national spotlight.

Other federal databases, including the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) arrest-related death count and the FBI’s supplementary homicide reports were similarly criticised for severely undercounting police-related deaths. Both programs have been dramatically reworked since The Counted and similar media/open source databases forced officials such as the former FBI director James Comey to admit that newspapers had more accurate data than the government on police violence.

To state the obvious, policymakers cannot craft good laws or regulations in the absence of sound data. Citizens confronted with experiences at odds with government’s descriptions lose confidence in that government. Discrepancies between reality and government reporting feed conspiracy theories.

When we don’t know what we know, we cannot act.

Other than patronizing news sites we know to be trustworthy, there’s not much we can do about the proliferating media wannabes spouting fantasies and disinformation. But we should be able to insist that government agencies charged with compiling and disseminating factual data do so accurately. We aren’t likely to get that done in the Age of Trumpian Fantasy, but when the time comes to clean up the incredible chaos he is creating, a commitment to accurate data collection by government should be high on our cleanup list.

Weaponizing Social Media

The already ample commentary directed at our “Tweeter-in-Chief” grew more copious–and pointed–in the wake of Trump’s “Morning Joe” attacks and the bizarre visual of him “body slamming” CNN.

John Cassidy’s essay in the New Yorker was consistent with the general tenor of those reactions, especially his conclusion:

Where America, until recently, had at its helm a Commander-in-Chief whom other countries acknowledged as a global leader and a figure of stature even if they didn’t like his policies, it now has something very different: an oafish Troll-in-Chief who sullies his office daily.

Most of the Cassidy piece focused on Trump’s addiction to–and childish use of–Twitter, and it is hard to disagree with his observation that the content of these messages is “just not normal behavior.” Thoughtful people, those not given to hyperbole or ad hominem attacks, are increasingly questioning Trump’s mental health.

The paragraph that struck me, however, was this one, because it raises an issue larger than the disaster in the White House:

Trump’s online presence isn’t something incidental to his Presidency: it is central to it, and always has been. If the media world were still dominated by the major broadcast networks and a handful of big newspapers, Trump would most likely still be hawking expensive apartments, building golf courses, and playing himself in a reality-television series. It was the rise of social media, together with the proliferation of alternative right-wing news sites, that enabled Trump to build a movement of angry, alienated voters and, ultimately, go from carnival barker to President.

Unpack, for a moment, the observation that social media and alternative “news” made Trump possible.

John Oliver recently aired a worrisome segment about Sinclair Broadcasting, a “beneath the radar” behemoth which is on the verge of a $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media. That merger would significantly consolidate ownership of local television outlets, including one in Indianapolis. Oliver showed clips demonstrating Sinclair’s extreme right-wing bias–bias that, as Oliver pointed out– is in the same category as Fox News and Breitbart.

It’s damaging enough when radio talk shows, television networks and internet sites peddle falsehoods and conspiracy theories. What truly “weaponizes” disinformation and propaganda, however, is social media, where Facebook “friends” and twitter followers endlessly repeat even the most obvious fantasies; as research has shown, that repetition can make even people who are generally rational believe very irrational things.

When NASA has to issue an official denial that it is operating a child slave colony on Mars, we’re in unprecedented times.

I don’t have research to confirm or rebut my theory, but I believe that Americans’ loss of trust in our government–in our institutions and those elected and/or appointed to manage them–has made many people receptive to “alternative” explanations for decisions they may not like or understand. It couldn’t be that the people making that decision or crafting that legislation simply see the situation differently. It couldn’t be that public servant A is simply wrong; or that those making decision B had access to information we don’t have. No–they must be getting paid off. They must be working with other enemies of righteousness in a scheme to [fill in the blank].

No wonder it is so difficult to get good people to run for public office. In addition to good faith disagreements about their performance, they are likely to be accused of corrupt motives.

The other day, I struck up a discussion with a perfectly nice woman–a former schoolteacher. The talk turned to IPS, and she was complimentary about the schools with which she was familiar. She was less complimentary about the district’s charter schools–a position I understand. (It’s a mixed bag. Some are excellent, some aren’t, and they certainly aren’t a panacea for what ails education.)

All perfectly reasonable.

Then she confided to me that the Superintendent “gets a bonus” for every contract he signs with a Charter school. In other words, it’s all about the money. It couldn’t be that the school board and superintendent want the best for the children in the district and–right or wrong– simply see things differently.

Our daughter is on that school board, and I know for a fact that the Superintendent does NOT get bonuses for contracting with charter schools.  When I shared this exchange with our daughter, she regaled me with a number of other appalling, disheartening accusations that have grown and festered on social media.

I don’t have a remedy for our age of conspiracy. Censorship is clearly not an answer. (In the long run,  education can help.) But if we don’t devise a strategy for countering radio and television propaganda and the fever swamps of social media–the instruments that gave us Trump–we’ll be in an increasingly dangerous world of hurt.