Tag Archives: journalistic criticism

Saving Pvt. Journalism, Part 10

Reposting from Blackfive in case my archives can’t be recovered.  Originally posted June 25, 2003

Aren’t you glad I’m finally finished. :)

There is more that can and should be said, but I think that I am going to leave it to the people I am trying to get to provide some guest blogs. What I have done is to try and provide some history and context to the situation we face, as well as some constructive recommendations on what to do.

For me, the situation can be summed up with the following statements:

Blogs are the long-anticipated “new media” and the new journalism. Blogs show the best, and the worst, of what can be done in terms of almost real-time information transferal. The best of the blogs report, update, correct, and provide commentary in a timely manner that makes the best of television and radio seem glacial in comparison. The best of the blogs also provide the thought pieces that are necessary as well.

Media consumers are becoming more savvy every day. The trust factor is down significantly with mainstream media and The Media in particular, and a surprising number of people are now turning not to the Web per se, but to the blogs for news and information that is accurate and reliable, as well as for reasoned commentary and debate. This particular trend is only going to increase.

The Media and “journalists” are getting a rude awakening on many levels. Bias, distortions, lies and fabrications, and much more are now being exposed in ways not possible before. Questions are being asked and answers demanded, a thing that is beyond the ken for many of these people. Outlets and journalists are being held to account to a degree never before seen in the history of journalism. That they are less than happy at having their own tactics and “rules” applied to them as organizations and individuals is understandable, if amusing.

Specific suggestions are reiterated below, with a listing by who needs to do what:

You, the reader and consumer of media from blogs to movies, need to:

1. Let your congresscritter know, in no uncertain terms, that attacks on freedom of the press will not be tolerated, and that blogs and people on the net are just as much journalists as are people at the New York Times or Fox News. Remind them also that America does not condone or accept the licensing of media.

2. Let your congresscritter know that you oppose other government involvement in, and regulation of, the Internet for any reason. What is free speech today is all too likely to end up as pornographic or unacceptable tomorrow. Beware the slippery slope.

3. Support your local blogger. Make that monetary donation if they have a tip jar, and make comments to keep them honest. Promote valid discussion and rational discourse. That is, after all, one of your duties to the Republic as a Citizen. It should even be argued that it is your duty as a Citizen of the World.

4. Since no outlet can have specialists in all areas, if you see a problem let the outlet know in a constructive manner. Offer to help them with correction, correct information, introduction to experts, etc.

5. If the outlet won’t make a correction or is otherwise uninterested, let the blogs know and see if pressure can be applied that way. Public ridicule can work wonders…

6. Be an informed consumer of news from The Media. Learn the track records and background of the local or other reporters of interest. If you find they are lacking, switch media and let it be known. Media outlets are businesses, and they can and will change tunes – and reporters or editors – if the proper motivation is applied.

7. If you can’t get others to blog about problems in local or other media, do it yourself. Follow the rules (learn the difference between libel and slander, and avoid both) and do the best job you possibly can. Yes, it will cost you time and money, but that is one of the responsibilities we, as citizens, must bear.

The Media, those that call themselves journalists and news people, and the pundits who publish or broadcast through the same need to do the following:

1. Abolish the practice of so-called advocacy reporting. It is not journalism, it is not good “press” work, and it seriously compromises any pretext at doing real journalism.

2. Make use of specialists in subject areas, particularly in science, business, law, military, and other arcane matters. These are not compromised sources nor should they be second class citizens in the news structure. They are valuable resources and should be treated as such, be they on staff or freelance.

3. Make use of specialists all the way through the process. From writing to headline writing, make use of that knowledgebase so as to avoid mistakes and other problems.

4. No outlet can have all the specialists it needs, so make use of freelance specialists as well. Freelance does not mean tainted or unwashed, and does not automatically mean compromised in the journalistic sense. Get some sense, and grow up on this matter.

5. Offer the same degree of transparency that you demand of big business, government agencies, and others. You are a business, a big business, and need to be held to the same rules and standards to which others are required to meet.

6. Accept the fact that journalists are not elites, and that the club is open to anyone. Quit putting on airs, looking down your nose, and deliberately withholding of the term journalists to those who don’t happen to toil at a major daily. In short, get over it.

7. Make conflict of interest rules and ideals have relevance by including political and other sources of bias as much a part of them as financial and work history are supposed to be today.

8. Start correcting mistakes online, and do so by updating rather than trying to put things down the memory hole.

9. Study the best practices of the blogs and start making use of it on your own online sites.

10. Improve journalism schools and training, so that students are exposed to new ideas, concepts, and more in school. Fair and balanced needs to start there, if it is ever to make it into The Media.

Bloggers need to do the following:

1. Operate to the highest standards of personal and professional ethics. This does not mean play nice or only use good and proper language, but it does mean getting things right, doing things right, and obeying the letter and spirit of the law. Anything worth doing is worth doing right.

2. You/we need not only to point out problems, but suggest means of remediation directly or encourage discourse such that one or more means are developed in the course of said discussion.

3. You/we also need to make use of the fantastic opportunity to update, correct, and refine offered through the medium. The best already do this, the rest of us need to follow the lead.

There you have it. Ten posts, a lot of information and food for thought, and I hope that it does spark some good discussions on a crucial topic.

Saving Pvt. Journalism, Part 9

Reposting from Blackfive in case my archives can’t be recovered. Finishing up a repost of this series, just one more to go.
One of the largest keys to saving journalism will be simple to identify, but difficult to make happen: Lose the attitude.

Yes, what passes for news in The Media comes with loads of attitude. There is the open anti-American attitude that is so prevalent in the New York Times, the BBC, and a host of other outlets. There is the less obvious, but no less prevalent, attitude of holier than thou that comes from many in the profession. You see, they are the anointed ones to enlighten the masses, to guide them as betters should guide social and mental inferiors, the bearer of higher standards to which mere mortals (and bloggers) can not possible understand, much less aspire to. Like the Anointed One in Buffy, they forget that the inevitable name for such quickly becomes the annoying ones. There is also a cultural attitude of “we don’t make mistakes” that goes hand in hand with the-end-justifies-the-means approach towards biased news coverage.

The fact is, many in the media are so far involved in causes and politics, that they fail to comprehend that they are, deliberately or not, biasing their coverage. That they are also so far away from real journalism goes without saying, but they will not see that either.

Changing the attitudes will not be easy. The Journalism Purity League and the Journalist Citizen Councils are out in force already, and have been for some time. Even within professional organizations, these groups have fought long and hard against any encroachment into their turf. If you are not a full-time writer at a major daily paper or news magazine, you are lower than pond slime and should not be considered in any way, shape, or form a journalist.

Now, there is a conflict of interest here for me. I have a strong bias and it will show through. For several years, I have fought within one particular professional organization against some of the nonsense, and for highest ethics for all members. This has been met with strong opposition, including some rather interesting political maneuvers and flat out misinformation.

Within what has been going on in The Media and elsewhere, you should understand that there are those who do hold to high standards of reporting and ethics. There are others who wrap that around themselves to build themselves up for other reasons. These are often the people who feel that if you have every done anything other than their definition of “pure” journalism, then you can never be a journalist again. You are forever tainted and unable to join the exclusive self-anointed club at the peak or Olympus. My word to them continues to be “Get Over It.”

The fact is, I agree with some of the ideals espoused by the hard-liners. Conflicts of interest do need to be spelled out, but that needs to include political affiliations, organizational membership, and other things that just are not done by today’s so-called journalists. To do anything less is as dishonest as writing a story promoting a product that you have been paid to promote, and passing it off as an unbiased news article.

The fact is that many members of The Media are quite happy to see their views, their prejudices, and their ideals as “right” and everything else as “wrong.” The fact is that most members of The Media are a rather isolated bunch and most journalism schools do little or nothing to expose them to any outside ideas. Environmental reporting courses often have strong inputs from outfits like the Sierra Club, but limited influence from counter groups. Heaven’s forbid that you send them to a gun range or do anything like that. If fair and balanced is not in the classroom, how can it be in what comes out?

So, today’s suggestions are as follows:

1. Start by improving journalism schools and training, so that students are exposed to new ideas, concepts, and more in school. Fair and balanced needs to start there.

2. Make conflict of interest rules and ideals have relevance by including political and other sources of bias as much a part of them as financial and work history are supposed to be today.

3. Accept the fact that journalists are not elites, and that the club is open to anyone.

4. Start correcting mistakes online, and do so by updating rather than trying to put things down the memory hole.

5. Take the best of the blogs and use it in online sites by The Media

6. As consumers, keep on keeping them honest by pointing out errors, lies, bias, and more.

7. If a media outlet won’t admit to things, then blog about it and force them to honesty.

Now, some of these have come out before, but they are as relevant here as they were elsewhere. This has gone on long enough for now, so tomorrow should be a wrap-up piece. Maybe by next week, some of the guest blogs I have been soliciting will come through and can go up as well.

Saving Pvt. Journalism, Part 8

Reposting from Blackfive in case my archives can’t be recovered.  Originally posted June 23, 2003

In my opinion, one of the largest problems facing real journalism today is the practice of advocacy journalism. To my mind, advocacy and journalism are an oxymoron as to dwarf any other two words of your choice, from military and intelligence to politician and trust.

Advocacy journalism is in many ways a child of the 1960s, though it claims roots to the start of the century. It was then that stories broke about the conditions, and ingredients, in the meat industry and in the food industry in general. The stories, which if my not so great memory serves were actually discovered by a book author and then picked up by the newspapers, are alleged to have made the then President physically ill. The government enacted laws to help protect both the workers and the consumers, and good things are supposed to have been done.

The actual good done by some of the laws can be debated, and by others it can not be disputed, but it set a precedent in terms of journalism that has become somewhat distorted with time. Rather than exposes of fact and then let the reader and government decide as happened earlier, advocacy journalism takes the “for the greater good” approach. The reporters go in with an agenda, gather facts to support that agenda, and usually push one particular means of solving “the problem” as the only realistic solution.

Problems abound with such an approach. For one, facts are rarely presented in a clear and unbiased manner. Facts which might mitigate the impact of “the problem” tend to get distorted or dropped; facts which support other approaches to solving the problem also tend to get short shrift; and, the reporter has violated both the tenets of journalism and the tenets of rational investigation: observe, hypothesize, test, refine, and theory.

Journalism owes a great deal to the scientific method and the idea of natural or rational investigation. It has helped shape modern journalism on several levels, including the philosophical ideal that facts can be studied, judged, and combined so that a reasonable course of action can be determined for any situation. What many or most practitioners of advocacy journalism fail to consider is that many different courses of action can often be built from the same set of facts.

As advocates, they have given up any pretext of being observers, much less impartial observers, and become a part of the process. As such, they blind themselves to facts, nuances, and alternatives. There is a great danger of becoming a zealot in the cause, and falling prey to the shortcomings of same. Anyone who disagrees with you, no matter how slight, or suggests even a slightly different course of action, is the enemy and must be destroyed.

This is particularly true in terms of environmental advocacy journalism. The underlying ideals and philosophies get lost, and often in my opinion, the prevailing idea of man equals bad becomes the unspoken bedrock of what is “reported.” Most stories present complicated ideas in very simplistic terms, leaving accuracy in the dust. The Earth’s environment is an extremely complex system and we are not yet even close to fully understanding all of its components, much less being able to model them.
Yet, this is rarely brought out in most stories. This is close to being criminal, given that trying to base actions, particularly remedial actions, on the basis of just a few dimensions out of a few million dimensions or levels, can actually do more damage than good.

Advocacy journalism actually started with a good idea: expose problems, suggest solutions, and push for change. This quickly was lost to the practice of exposing and exaggerating problems for the hype, push one solution and attack all others, and demand change at any cost without due process.
None of this is acceptable, nor is it good journalism. It is time to end this practice within serious journalism and real media outlets.

Saving Pvt. Journalism, Part 7

Reposted from Blackfive in case my archives can’t be recovered.  This series is all the more appropriate given what the wonderful Chris Muir skewers so delightfully today…  originally posted June 20, 2003

I just realized that I forgot to post the discussion on how most media outlets operate, and to contrast it with other types of communications. So, I am going to do an abbreviated version and then jump into today’s suggestions and commentary.

First, all traditional outlets have the concept of deadlines. This is because the presses were only run once a day if possible, to cut costs, and in broadcasting because radio picked a set time for large-scale news that carried over into TV. How a story gets selected is simple: it is either a breaking news story that is big (fire, robbery, murder, etc.) or is a story that was most likely assigned to a reporter. Reporters can and do come up with their own stories, but they must be approved by, and other assignments come from, an editor. This editor then says have this story ready by XXX and the reporter hops to it. They research, talk to sources, write up/produce the story, and it goes into the hopper and out into print or broadcast. Review is often cursory by an editor or senior producer, and the copy desk (where a lot of fun and interesting mistakes can and do occur).

This is in contrast to lets say a science journal, where stories usually are produced in a manner of months, reviewed by outside experts in the field of the story who approve or disapprove it, and who often provide commentary to go with the story. The process is relaxed, and deadlines are in terms of months or more, instead of hours and minutes.

Both have one thing in common, however. Journalism and peer-reviewed science writing count on people who are knowledgeable in their field to write and edit the stories in question. Journalism is increasingly requiring reporters who are intimately familiar with given subject areas, from science to law to business. While it is required, it is often not the case and it is not at all unusual to find that editors assign a general reporter to cover a major story that needs a specialist instead of the staff or freelance specialist.

This is a subject that has been debated hotly and long within journalistic circles, as well as being the stuff of water cooler discussion as well. In some cases, it is because the general assignment reporter is a name or someone they trust to give the story the particular slant desired. In some cases it simply reflects a deep seated prejudice on the part of the editor, who most likely came up as a general assignment reporter and is still not comfortable with specialization. In other cases it is probably nothing more than a brain fart on the part of the assignments editor. Other scenarios may be applicable as well. You pays your money, you picks your reality.

That there is a prejudice within journalism against specialists is something of a given. When I was starting out, I could have already retired if I had a dime for every editor who said to me that the public was not interested in science. It didn’t matter if the paper in question had just conducted a poll that showed they were, the editors did not understand science, were scared of it, so “the public” was the same. I have seen it in other areas as well, and the horror stories by other specialists, such as in business, are both funny and heartbreaking.

But to be fair to many in editorial positions, there is another concern that lurks: conflict of interest. There were and are some in power who fear the specialist because they do know the subject matter. They have studied it, covered it, and are intimately familiar with this. While the validity of the fear is doubtful, I think that there lurks within the subconscious of the editors mind the idea that because the reporter is an expert that they have been co-opted and can no longer write objectively.

One area where this can be clearly seen is in coverage of the military. For many years, I found it was the kiss of death to let anyone know you were familiar with such, or had even been in ROTC. If you did so, you were immediately branded the enemy and heavens help you. This was part and parcel of the war waged by The Media against the military (see this for more on that topic), but I also feel it is indicative of how The Media feels about other specialties as well.

It also does not help that in many institutions, the copy desk is not required to run specialist stories back by the writer after editing. The result is that stories that started out both accurate and precise (and there can be a big difference between the two) end up garbage. If lucky, it may be just a bad headline, such as one that was in a paper during a Shuttle mission. The mission featured some plasma physics experiments and the headline identified the payload as a blood experiment. At worst, you get factual errors that can endanger the public with faulty information.

So, I think it essential that The Media and related outlets embrace the era of specialization. Knowledge and familiarity do not mean subversion or conflict of interest, but are crucial to accurate and fair reporting. This specialization needs to extend from the writing all the way through the editing. You have that specialist for a reason, let them do their job and learn how they can help you do yours as well. That does not diminish you in any way; indeed, it shows that you are a big person for being willing to do so.

So, today’s suggestions are as follows:

1. Make use of specialists in subject areas, particularly in science, business, law, military, and other arcane matters.

2. Make use of specialists all the way through the process.

3. No outlet can have all the specialists it needs, so make use of freelance specialists as well.

4. Since no outlet can have specialists in all areas, if you see a problem let the outlet know in a constructive manner. Offer to help them with correction, correct information, introduction to experts, etc.

5. If the outlet won’t make a correction or is otherwise uninterested, let the blogs know and see if pressure can be applied that way. Public ridicule can work wonders…

6. Be an informed consumer of news from The Media. Learn the track records and background of the local or other reporters of interest. If you find they are lacking, switch media and let it be known. Media outlets are businesses, and they can and will change tunes – and reporters or editors – if the proper motivation is applied.

There is, of course, more to come. Stay tuned.

Saving Pvt. Journalism, Part 6

Reposting from Blackfive in case my archives can’t be recovered.  Originally posted June 19, 2003

From the background provided, it is clear that this is a complex situation and that simplistic solutions just won’t cut it. That is not to say that some of the suggestions I am going to put forward will not be simple and easy, but each will only be a part of what needs to be done.

The first thing I recommend is acknowledging the attacks on the Internet, the WWW, and the blogosphere as a start. These come from both within and without, and should be a matter of concern to everyone.

With all due respect to Senator Hatch, which is damned little in this case, he is just one of the people who are broaching the idea of controls and rampant intrusion into private lives and private activities in the guise of protecting private property, to wit copyrights. While one can question his position in regards the DCMA and the RIAA (and pockets therein), there is no question to my mind that his proposal is clearly unconstitutional and that he is well aware of the fact. The current copyright law is extremely poorly crafted, and while there is considerable debate as to how deliberate that was, it is also clear that this needs to be addressed.

It does not, however, need to be addressed by actions that violate the Constitution by eliminating due process and providing for government sanctioned destruction of private property without due process, recompense, and other little niceties of law. I seem to recall that the last time something like this was tried, that some tea got dumped in a harbor and a small fracas ensued. If Senator Hatch, and any other congresscritter, fail to understand their sworn oath to the Constitution, then they need to either resign, join the appropriate totalitarian party and run in an honest manner, or be defeated under false colours.
This also applies to regulation by content. While I deplore a great deal of the content that is out there, and just love the spam I get each day promising to enhance different portions of my anatomy, the government does not need to get involved under any pretext. This is called a slippery slope, and it is not well regarded for a number of reasons. Almost all totalitarian actions began with the pretext of doing something for the public good, and this is a real threat to our freedoms and the Internet as we know it.
Whatever aid and comfort can be given to those opposing totalitarian regimes or other assaults on free speech should be given. This is already being done in the case of a number of bloggers in Iran, for example, and should be expanded. Since the free exchange of information and ideas scares these people, let’s really scare them.

We also need to view with some concern, and a lot of contempt, calls from those within The Media who want to regulate. Their reasons for doing so have been brought out in the previous posts: continuation of media dynasties, control of news and gatekeeping, protecting a privileged position (i.e. being a member of the press), and control of the economics of the media.

The blogosphere will play a key role in that by acting in the best and purest motives of real journalism: providing accurate and immediate information that will go out to the world. By providing multiple sources of information, thoughtful and documented commentary, and means of discussions through comments, the blogosphere will prove the ideal of rational discourse and the ability of the masses to govern themselves.

This will mean some changes to the blogosphere as well. For now, there is a perception, if not a reality, that all blogs do is negative. Blogs expose lies, corruption, bias in reporting, and more. Critics charge that this is all there is, and while it can be refuted fairly easily, it is a charge that unfortunately tends to resonate with those who are not yet a part of the Web and blogdom. One must also consider that many who make and shape laws are a part of this latter group, and act accordingly.

The real issue being this charge is the difference between being a destructive force and a constructive force. Blogs have been destructive in that they have exposed lies, misrepresentation, mismanagement, and more at major media outlets. While one can argue that such is in reality constructive, there is a need to provide some positive context so as to live up to the potential inherent in the medium and eliminate this avenue of attack.

This is already underway, and discussions are readily found at a variety of sites. This multi-part presentation could also be seen as a sign of constructive action in that specific actions will be called for in each, that will help remediate the problems identified here and elsewhere. Other sites are, I believe, doing the same thing but as noted earlier I have not read them so as to avoid potential problems.
Another point to consider here is historical trend, and the fact that The Media, and media as we know it, will no longer be the same. Newspapers, broadcast outlets, magazines, and other staples of traditional media will never completely disappear, but their role and importance is already in a state of fundamental change. Most of them are operating under old models and having considerable difficulty adapting to the changes that are taking place. This will make for interesting times in terms of the Chinese curse, and much of the mantle of journalism has already fallen onto other shoulders.
Blogs and other new media to be developed will most likely take over much of what was the role of traditional media outlets. Some outlets will adapt and move in. For example, the Wall Street Journal does have one of the better WWW sites of the “old” media, and seems poised to take advantage of the new media. If they can or will remains to be seen, but do expect to see some make the transition.
This does place a heavy burden on blogdom, however, in that with freedom comes responsibilities. Those very responsibilities that we harp about to “Old Media” (and yes, I do love comparing The Media to Old Europe a la Rumsfeld) have now become ours to uphold as well.

So, here are the first suggestions I am putting forward:

1. Let your congresscritter know, in no uncertain terms, that attacks on freedom of the press will not be tolerated, and that blogs and people on the net are just as much journalists as are people at the New York Times or Fox News. Remind them also that America does not condone or accept the licensing of media.

2. Let your congresscritter know that you oppose other government involvement in, and regulation of, the Internet for any reason. What is free speech today is all too likely to end up as pornographic or unacceptable tomorrow. Beware the slippery slope.

3. Support your local blogger. Make that monetary donation if they have a tip jar, and make comments to keep them honest. Promote valid discussion and rational discourse. That is, after all, one of your duties to the Republic as a Citizen. It should even be argued that it is your duty as a Citizen of the World.

4. Bloggers need not only to point out problems, but suggest means of remediation directly or encourage discourse such that one or more means are developed in the course of said discussion.

5. Bloggers also need to make use of the fantastic opportunity to update, correct, and refine offered through the medium. The best already do this, the rest of us need to follow the lead.

6. Bloggers need to operate to the highest standards possible, both for themselves and for the duties that are headed our way. This is not only for large sites, but for individual sites as well. Remember, anything worth doing is worth doing right.

With this as a start, real journalism can indeed be saved. Tomorrow, some more thoughts and suggestions on other aspects.

Saving Pvt. Journalism, Part 5

Reposting from Blackfive in case my archives can’t be recovered.  Continuing the reposting theme, here is Part 5 of the Saving Pvt. Journalism series I started reposting here sometime last August…

Originally posted June 18, 2003

We are getting near to the end of the background portion, and remember that you should count Rational Discourse/Persuasibility as a part of this discussion. Before we go forward, however, there remain some economics and some theory that also need to be put forward.

Economics truly is the heart of the process. Despite what a lot of idealistic writers and academics may say, the pursuit of truth at all costs is not what journalism, or any aspect of The Media, are all about. What it is all about, besides the hokey-pokey, is money. Newspapers, magazines, radio stations, television stations, shows, movies, plays, etc. all exist for the purpose of making money. Capitalism at its best, and none of the aforementioned outlets would exist unless they succeed in making money. To make things easier on you and me, I am going to refer to all the outlets as publications, as printed text is required for each, either for publication, scripts, or other means of communicating dialog.
Now, the amount of money made can vary. There have been a number of advocacy publications that were content simply to break even. The people involved were on a crusade and/or had other means of support. This was made possible by changes in technology that lowered the cost of printing.
That cost has been a driving force in American journalism and communications from well before the revolution. The cost of a press, of setting type by hand, of ink, of paper that was neither inexpensive or in plentiful supply, of repair, and other expenses made it so that presses were limited. Again, this is why many publications would use the same press and it is also why the phrase “press,” “the press,” etc. are so frequent in the writings of the founding fathers and in the Constitution. It was anticipated that this situation would change only slowly, and until it did that protections needed to be in place to ensure the independence of the presses from government.

Indeed, Thomas Jefferson hit it on the head when he said “No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”

Therefore, the Constitution set forth certain guarantees for this purpose, and the government for a considerable time did not charge for the mailing of newspapers and related documents, so as to foster the spread of information.

Of course, technology had begun its rapid ascent and as an outgrowth of that improved printing methods and improved methods of paper production were developed. As a result, presses became more commonplace and competing groups took advantage of the fact to own their own presses. This resulted in larger cities having several newspapers, all of which represented a different political viewpoint. This was also made possible by the elimination of expensive rag paper for that made from lint, felt, and ultimately wood pulp. When paper became comparatively inexpensive, and available in massive amounts, this further fueled the process. It also meant that papers might be put out morning and evening, and that special editions came out “as needed” to highlight special events or to push a particular objective.

It is well to remember that objective, honest, fair, and balanced were not the watchwords of the day. It was not unusual to find stories made up out of whole cloth, or slanted towards a particular group or objective. Laws against libel did not cover events, merely people, so the admonition of the founding fathers towards reporting the truth and facts went largely unheeded in the push to both convert and to make money. The latter was required to cover the costs of the presses, paper, and such, and to further the goals of the organizations behind the papers, most often political parties.

To get a better idea of what this period of history was like, go check out the copperheads, the Chicago Tribune, and related articles during the Civil War. Indeed, if looking for feet of clay in heroes, check out the actions of Lincoln and his government in regards the Tribune and other papers. There were many dubious actions on all sides at the time, and it is an interesting read.

Towards the end of the 1800s and in the early 1900s was when the idea of a press committed to the truth came to be proposed. There were a number of scandals that helped push it, and it was also advances in technology and changes in economics that helped bring about the acceptance of the idea of a fair and balanced press.

The changes in economics were a part of the maturity cycle discussed earlier. The markets were saturated, and no matter how lurid the stories or how much pandering was done, it was inevitable that some papers would die off, or that some other means of accommodation would be required. The Great Depression helped push this, and newspapers and magazines either folded, or found ways to work together. It was not unusual for bitter rivals to agree to share a common printing plant, so that they could both stay in business.

The Government encouraged this up through the 1980s, ruling that such was not a violation of anti-monopoly laws. Rather, it was but was allowed because of the need for multiple sources of information in order to obtain fair and balanced coverage. This is also a bit of an indictment of The Media in that it was a tacit admission by the Government that no single outlet was capable of, or should be trusted with, providing fair and balanced news.

The other factor that forever altered the economic landscape was the development of news means of communications. The telegraph was the first example of this, but it was not a true mass instrument of communication. Instead, it provided a foretaste of what was to come by allowing news to get across the country relatively accurately in a matter of hours or days instead of weeks or months. In this way, newspapers and magazines across America could, would, and did provide news and information (and fiction and misinformation) on a much more timely basis. This, too, was a part of the revolution that was to come in journalism and The Media.

The first true new mass communication method was radio. While it was years before every home could afford one, enough were out there to allow news and entertainment to reach large amounts of the population. Indeed, the problem was that it was sometimes quite hard to tell the news from the entertainment, and vice versa. The subconscious feeling was that if it came over radio, because of its immediacy, it must therefore be true. That is one of the reasons that Orson Well’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast was taken so seriously, and created a panic.

Radio did take revenue away from newspapers, magazines, and other publications. There was not an expansion of the market, and where the market could not afford to do both there was a tendency to go with the new media. This was for several reasons, ranging from hearing rather than imagining a symphony to the fact that it did not require quite as much though and knowledge to understand. It also provided the first means since the public readings of papers in pamphlets in colonial days to reach illiterate portions of the public. Those people voted with their money and helped make radio a dominant communications means.

There was also the fact that you could take it everywhere. From the early, large, cumbersome radios, there soon evolved small units for the home and even units for that newfangled horseless carriage. This allowed news to get much faster, and made it easier for the public to be informed and to be more easily entertained.

Recognizing the threat, many of the great media empires bought into the technology and opened up radio stations as a corollary to their print operations. They particularly went after the “clear-channel” stations and locked up corresponding slots on the FM spectrum when they became available.
It was also inevitable that radio stations would buy into television when it came along. At first, many did not see television as truly being a separate medium. It was perceived as, and treated as, radio with pictures. It took a number of years for that to change, and a good argument can also be made that television has simply built on and refined the so-called golden age of radio with its comedies, dramas, and the like.

Both new media, however, moved into journalism and as such ensured minimal government controls over the new media. In fact, there were (and are even now) campaigns to get the government completely out of the picture by abolishing the FCC and related organizations. The original purpose of the FCC was simply to ensure the fair distribution of available broadcast slots to prevent interference between competing stations. That has, as in inevitable with any government agency, to a much more intrusive role, with the rational that government control is needed to deal with new technologies not envisioned by the founding fathers and the resulting complexities. Good arguments have been put forth, however, that things might have functioned much more smoothly, and technological advances come earlier and better, without such regulation.

New media has always been a problem both for the government and for the American media dynasties. The Media has seen advertising dollars shift, operations become marginal or outright losses as the fickle public switched en masse to the new technology, and seen challenges to their dynasties in the form of new “upstarts.”

For this reason, there has been a great deal of attention paid to the internet by many in The Media and in government. The Media was worried about competition, challenges, and the like, as well as how it would affect the economic landscape. Unlike radio and television, however, the Internet did not take off in the same relative timeframe and did not follow the established models for same, so quite a few failed to realize its potential. The government, despite some strong desires both within and without, could not find reasonable arguments to provide control since there were no frequencies to allocate, etc.

Yet, the Internet has finally taken off, and many in academia and the real world see the World Wide Web as the new media of this new technology. Through the Web, information transmission truly has become instantaneous such that news is flashed around the world in near real-time. It also bypasses many of the traditional checks by government and The Media in that there are no gatekeepers to restrict the flow of information. From almost the start, the Web went into specialization of information, with sites devoted to almost any topic, and any sub-topic to the topic, popping up like mushrooms in a field.

The blogosphere is a prime example of this. There are sites to cover almost any topic of interest, as well as more general sites that try to cover the high spots. The best of these sites are multi-faceted such that there is the general and the specific provided. Glenn Reynolds is a good example of this with the somewhat general Instapundit site, as well as other specialized sites where certain topics are taken up in greater detail.

It also represents an unprecedented challenge to The Media and all governments. For the first time in history, so-called news coverage is subject to immediate investigation and refutation. Comments are spread around the globe with immediately, without the ability to retract them, merely redact them as needed. Unlike traditional outlets, Blogs and other Web sites can make corrections, updates, and changes as they happen and the entire result is available for review. This does make historical revisionism much more difficult, since many on the Web cheerfully archive things as they were up originally for comparison, and are not at all shy about posting notices of such attempted revisionism for all to see. Worse yet, from the point of view of The Media, they have no real way to seize control of the outlets in the same manner that they did radio and television. There is no exclusivity to them, and peasants and princes both have the same access and availability – for now.

Governments are also scared by the Web. Many totalitarian regimes exist because they control the flow of information to and from their subjects. This control is paramount to ensuring continued power, because if the people do not realize that things can be better and are better elsewhere, it is hard(er) to foment revolution from within. By keeping things like mass murder, burying babies alive, etc., from getting out, it keeps down the noise from the neighbors and allows idiots to bury their head in the sand and pretend that such horrible things are not happening, and therefore do not need fixing. Even relatively benign governments are scared of the unprecedented freedom of expression and freedom of information provided by the Web. Our own government, denied traditional rationalizations for interference, has opted to approach it from a law enforcement perspective by focusing on the reprehensible uses of same to provide pornography and such, particularly child pornography. Conveniently overlooked is the fact that this industry was largely created by the government in the form of the U.S. Post Office. When that agency decided to go after child pornography being sent by mail and the internet, there was so little of it that they had to create their own. In the process, a new horror was born, and the similarities to what happened with prohibition are best left to the reader or another series of long posts. This has been fairly well documented, even though very little coverage has been provided by The Media.

Today, we have calls by those who should know better, such as Senator Hatch’s abominable statements of late, to regulate the Internet and particularly the Web, on this basis. Also added into the equation are demands for restrictions and back-doors for national security. For now, I merely suggest that all concerned go read the Constitution, and think again.

For now, the real factor that upsets most of the apple carts is that the U.S. Government has never required the licensing of journalists, and in fact has ruled against such. While there have been a number of cases of individual judges deciding – in most interesting fashion, (see the case of the freelance writer jailed in Texas by a judge who has a most creative and interesting definition of “real” journalism) – who is and who is not a journalist, the law of the land simply states that it is anyone covering and reporting the news. Most interesting decisions by judges end up getting overturned when and if the cases involved reach the Supreme Court.

As for me, I see the blogosphere as being the new media and the new journalism. With the power provided by this technology, the relatively low cost and wide availability, everyone has the capability to be a reporter, and it can and should be argued that blogs represent the new media outlets. Indeed, many of the blogs do a far better job of reporting news in a fair and balance manner, with discussion in comments or in separate columns that would fill Jefferson, Paine, and others with fevered delight in terms of rational discourse. Not to say that many comments are rational, but even the most irrational spark discussion and thought.

Add to this the power of economics, and you have a winner. Bloggers such as Andrew Sullivan have proven that blogs and the Web can be a money-making proposition in the same way as traditional media, fulfilling the economic requirement. It is quite likely that we are witnessing the start of a new revolution within the Web and blogging as payment, voluntary or otherwise, becomes the norm rather than the exception. Even with such, there will be few restrictions on anyone taking part from the point of view of the technology. Governments can and are putting restrictions elsewhere, in a desperate and doomed attempt to control the flow of information, but at least for now there are means to bypass such efforts. Care needs to be taken, however, to ensure that this situation does not change from ill-intentioned laws (cloaked in the best of intentions/save the children/protect the public from what it can’t or shouldn’t understand) both local and international.

Now, we are finally set to begin discussing specific suggestions for saving journalism and actually making it what it has wanted to be, and has never truly been. Stay tuned, more to come.

Saving Pvt. Journalism, Part 4: Rational Discourse and Persuasibility

Reposting from Blackfive in case my archives can’t be recovered. Originally posted 17 June 2003 Also being reposted at my temporary lair.

Part 4
Though it stands on its own, you can also think of this as the fourth installment of Saving Pvt. Journalism. I have been wanting to do this for some time, as it lies at the heart of the great experiment that is America.

The founding fathers took part in, and encouraged, a concept known as rational discourse. Since there was not the mass entertainment of today to occupy them, there were discussions and presentations held at dinner parties, gatherings at taverns and other public places, and even at theatres. At such times, discussions and news of the latest scientific theories, philosophy, thought, and more were presented, discussed, and considered. Even those who could not read the written word heard, learned, understood, and took part.

The exchange of ideas and information was the heart of the process. Through discussion, those present learned the news, examined the implications of same, and took part in a sometimes vigorous exchange of ideas.

This tied into the very radical idea that this bunch of rich white guys held dear: namely, that individuals were capable of making informed decisions and ruling themselves. This idea, as with the concept of rational discourse, came from Europe and intellectuals and revolutionaries there. There is some debate as to whether the concept of rational discourse as practiced in the New World matched that of the old, but such discussions – while interesting – are largely irrelevant.

What matters is that the idea as practiced here by the founding fathers and those who came before them, became a cornerstone of America. The way it is supposed to work is that news, ideas, and concepts are brought forth on the public stage by one means or another. This is presented to the audience, and from that audience individuals examine, interpret, and discuss. Some individuals do so in a way as to create positions, or presentations on what “it” all means and what it might mean to society. These positions are then debated and discussed, and all who hear, read, or are otherwise exposed to them can formulate their own opinions and act on same.

The key points are and were the presentation of the facts as facts, the discussion of same, the formulation of positions, and the debate and decisions reached through sound consideration of same. It may be thought of as debate on a grand scale, but a key component was rational presentation and rational discussion. Then, as today, it was known that you will never convert an ideologue of any type, and as such extremist positions were more or less excluded by consensus.

As I stated earlier, the exchange of ideas was the heart of the process. The soul of the process was the ability to change minds. It was expected that when presented with facts and information that showed a position to be untenable, that the person presenting it would concede such and change positions. All positions, popular or not, were expected to take part in this process, and abide by this unspoken rule. This was the model followed by many of the founding fathers, and as such became the example held up to the country.

This is a very fine concept, but in practice it can and does fall short. Even in the days of the founding fathers, it was sometimes honored in the breach. I urge you to read some of the writings of Jefferson and others to get a better feel for this.

This form of rhetoric is one with which I was raised and taught. I also quickly learned that it is not terribly well followed today, or any day for that matter. It is difficult, requires not merely thought but thoughtful consideration of ourselves and the world, and it requires effort. You must be knowledgeable, seek more knowledge, take the time to be informed on current events and the like, and have a high-degree of self-honesty.

Yet it was still a core part of my beliefs, but recently there was some discussion by author John Ringo that caught my attention. He recounted and amplified on the concept of persuasibility as presented by former professor and current author John Barnes. Dr. Barnes states categorically that much of his presentation is nothing more than classical rhetoric, but if so it is an excellent summation of same.

It also is a very clear example of what I feel rational discourse to be about. Rather than try to distill it down, I am with his permission going to quote the key points as he presented them to me.

“Where it is: The obligation of persuasibility is a moral and ethical obligation that flows from the enthymeme of reciprocity, which in turn is one of the quasi-logical structures of informal logic. It is therefore itself enthymemic, so it’s more firmly rooted than a mere preference or value (like the rules of baseball, driving on the right, “the Backstreet Boys suck”, “patriotism is good”, “all you need is love”) but less so than an empirical law or a mathematical theorem.

What it is: the obligation of persuasibility is the requirement that if you enter into a dialogue with another person or persons, your purpose will be not only to refute their arguments or to convert the arguer, but to consider their arguments as candidates for your own belief. That is, you will not reject the possibility that it may be your mind, rather than theirs, that needs changing; or in utilitarian terms, the greater good may be for you to be persuaded, rather than them.

What it ain’t: Although, obviously, if someone converts, they were persuasible, the other side’s not being persuaded does not prove that they violated the obligation of persuasibility — it may be, for example, that you made a poor case. It is perfectly possible for people to disagree throughout their entire lives while still upholding the obligation of persuasibility. (Indeed, it is likely).

Why it matters: because ethically, two people who have placed themselves under mutual obligation of persuasibility can co-participate in a political and social order peacefully and of their own free will. The obligation of persuasibility is thus a possibility condition for liberal democracy. The areas in which the obligation of persuasibility holds, within a given society, are the ones where society can be both individually free and socially ordered. Or, as I used to put it to my class, tell me how much of the obligation of persuasibility your society is willing to undertake, and I will tell you how much peace and freedom you’re going to get.”

To me, this is the heart of rational discourse as practiced in the colonies. It may or may not have been the correct interpretation of the continental philosophers of the day, but is built on the foundations laid by Aristotle and still taught at that time. The sad state of education today is a topic for another day.

That said, there are some things that will invalidate rational discourse/persuasibility. Again quoting Dr. Barnes, the things that do this are:

“1. communications aimed entirely at conversion; that character on your doorstep in the cheap suit, who is not there to find out what you might think about God or God’s nonexistence, but to deliver a single-sided message and try to knock down your objections. 2. communications aimed entirely at expression (or maybe “venting” is a better word, since the legal term ‘freedom of expression” covers much that is intended to be persuasive), e.g. shouting “Nigger” into a bullhorn on a crowded city street, 3. communications whose purpose is to dismiss any need to listen to the other side (e.g. ad hominem, sponsor boycotts, a habit of characterizing the other side as morons or dupes), 4. therapizing speech (treating the other person’s opinion as a symptom of disease or vice), 5. listening solely to refute, 6. some kinds of extreme relativism (“that might be right for you but it’s not right for me”), 7. apathism (the position that the other sides’ distinctions are without differences).”

John Ringo also brought up a concept that deserves mention, because it is an area in which rational discourse/persuasibility has no bearing. This is the concept of a “religious” belief, i.e. one that is held on a matter of faith such that no amount of evidence, data, or other will change it. These are beliefs that can be core to a person, or are simply such that they will not be discussed or modified. A former co-worker and I discussed this point at some length in some rather fun discussions, and the term we had settled on to describe such was “prejudice.” For such beliefs are just that, they are subjects on which a preconceived opinion exists that is not subject to rational discussion or debate.

We all have such, and they can be a religious belief, a political belief, or simply an opinion on a current event. I have certain prejudices regarding space, including the fact that we need to be out there, that no amount of discussion will change. In terms of events, it is a prejudice with me that we did a good thing in Iraq, and that having been home sick and watching it live on TV that day it is my prejudice that my government committed murder at Waco. I have facts to back both assertions up, but these are not topics in which I will engage in rational discourse, but rather conversion discourse.

The press, as opposed to The Media, was intended to play a crucial role in the process of rational discourse in America. It was to be a means of providing the news, the facts which needed to be considered by one and all. It was to provide a means for disseminating the differing positions that were generated, along with the discussion of same. It was to allow a means of disseminating what was distilled from this, so that some form of consensus could be presented, or at least what decision had been reached by the government and why.

Through this, there was presentations by the press, by pundits, conversion messages by individuals or groups, and again news of the decisions reached. It is a critical process, and is key to ensuring and expanding our freedoms, as well as continuing the great experiment that is America.

It is also the concept upon which I founded this blog, with the hope of encouraging thought, discussion, and more. It is why I can and will delete comments that fail of the test of persuasibility. If you want to convert, attack and destroy, fail to provide facts and citations: go start your own blog. I am very pleased that I have thus far only deleted one comment. It gives me hope for the blog, the concept, and for America if not the world.