Category Archives: democracy

Nous ne sommes pas Charlie Hebdo

The media solidarity for the victims of Wednesday’s massacre at the offices of the Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is at the very least fraught with some obliviousness.

The cartoons mocking Muslims and the prophet Mohammed prompted two French-born Muslims to commit the bloodbath that killed 10 staffers, a police officer and a bodyguard. These caricatures were meant to be exceedingly offensive, and the publication’s leadership vowed to carry on after the offices were firebombed in 2011.

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Much of what I’ve seen of Charlie Hebdo cartoons are in what I consider poor taste. In quite a few covers, the icons of multiple religions, including Christianity, are depicted as taking it in the behind, or shown in degrading post-coital positions.

This is not the satire of The Onion or the snark of Gawker, with their aura of cynical detachment and hip disillusion. Nor is this the satire of Jon Stewart, the poster boy of American liberals who think of themselves as sophisticates of the pop culture send-up.

The willfully pugnacious Charlie Hebdo is part of a long tradition of searing French satire unfamiliar on these shores, “best seen as an anarchic publication, willing to tackle anything taboo.”

We in the West tout our love of a free press. But more mainstream outlets, in Europe and North America, refused to print the offensive cartoons to illustrate why some Muslim terrorists acted with rage. Some journalists even defended these actions with greater cowardice than not showing the cartoons. Others complained that Charlie Hebdo peddled racist ideas, and that there’s no defense for that.

In The New York Times, David Brooks argues that a student publication that dared to print Charlie Hebdo-style fare wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds” at any American university, where speech codes are enforced with an iron fist.

Think about that for a minute: Two of the most liberal institutions in America, designed to promote free inquiry and expression, are among the most censorious entities we have. The gunmen who assassinated journalists in the broad daylight, in one of the most cultured, open cities of the world, thought Charlie Hebdo was full of hate speech, then undertook a brutal rite of censorship they made sure would never be forgotten.

No, we are not Charlie Hebdo, and the real effect of this terrorist act will be to move further away from what the magazine’s publisher, editor and cartoonists deeply embodied, as vulgar and offensive as their work often was. French novelist Michel Houellebecq, a master provocateur whose new book is about his country being ruled by a Muslim, immediately suspended a promotional campaign.

The staff of Charlie Hebdo lived dangerously with the full knowledge that their next issue, their next cartoon that blasphemed Muslim faith and culture, could be their last.

And so it was, for 10 of them.

In 2006, Charlie Hebdo opened its doors to an editorial meeting. Some of those killed are featured in this video, which was updated after the shooting. It’s in French with English subtitles, and is absolutely haunting.

The next time you laugh at what you think is provocative satire, keep in mind what the cost for the truly subversive variety can be. It was measured in an awful lot of blood this week.

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Readings: The Web at 40, and how we’re still kids

I’ll admit it: I’m looking forward to a good long Labor Day respite, and so are you. So I’ll post some really good links here on a Thursday that I usually save for weekend reading. Will return on Tuesday after I get off the griddle for a few days (and I really mean it this time).

The first connection between two computers in September 1969 was a quiet event, eclipsed by such events as Woodstock. Now, some of my fellow aging Baby Boomers are trying to come to grips with the Web and all that it has wrought before we head for the rocking chairs.

What has become a major life-changing event for many of us in the media fields took place right after Richie Havens played his bongos on an upstate New York farm, Richard Nixon summoned the silent majority to speak up, a car careened off a bridge on Chappaquiddick and two men walked on the moon. There was a lot going on.

Various overview thoughts on the Web at early middle age here, here, and here, plus some goodies about the Web and digital life below that have many of us feeling like rebellious teenagers in the face of it all:

The Web Does Not Equal More Civic Engagement: “The impact of these new tools on the future of online political involvement depends in large part upon what happens as this younger cohort of ‘digital natives’ gets older. Are we witnessing a generational change or a life-cycle phenomenon that will change as these younger users age? Will the civic divide close, or will rapidly evolving technologies continue to leave behind those with lower levels of education and income?”

Bill would give President emergency control of Internet: “Rockefeller’s revised legislation seeks to reshuffle the way the federal government addresses the topic. It requires a ‘cybersecurity workforce plan’ from every federal agency, a ‘dashboard’ pilot project, measurements of hiring effectiveness, and the implementation of a ‘comprehensive national cybersecurity strategy’ in six months–even though its mandatory legal review will take a year to complete.”

The erosion of privacy in the Internet era: “Do we want to live in a society where the government can—regardless of whether they use the power or not—have access to all of our communications? So that they can, if they feel the need, drill down and find us?”

Multitaskers beware: your divided attention comes at a price: “Heavy multitaskers tended to be more readily distracted by extraneous information than their more focused peers. That doesn’t mean that multitasking is a total loss, as there may be benefits that weren’t tested in this study, but it does make the case that heavy multitaskers might want to consider the limits of their habits.”

Why Studies About Multitasking Are Missing The Point: “I reject the notion that media is a stream of soulless ‘content’ that I am ‘consuming’. As a result, I read differently than than someone who simply wants to scan the headlines. An article may cause me to look something up, and I read that, and I need to let some inchoate idea at the back of my mind bubble for a day before taking any measurable action.”

Sentiment Analysis Takes the Pulse of the Internet: “Social media used to be this cute project for 25-year-old consultants. Now, top executives are recognizing it as an incredibly rich vein of market intelligence.”

‘Social Networking’; Give me a break: “Granted, there are people spending too much time on social media, just as others 10 years ago spent too much time surfing the Web, or using AIM. I’m old enough to remember people who spent the entire morning pouring over every word in a newspaper sports section, or checking their stocks. Those who are non-productive in the workplace are obvious, whether they are addicted to Twitter or online puzzles. Why should companies spoil it for everyone else?”

How Twitter saved my career . . . and my life: “Over the course of my unemployment, my Twitter account grew from roughly 2,000 followers to more than 5,000, and it was undoubtedly these impressive numbers and a demonstrated knowledge of the power of social media that played a role in my hiring and differentiated me from others with similar skills.”

A history of blogging, and why it matters: “I am now one of them, although, like half of registered bloggers, I rarely update. As such, I can attest it’s possible to accept blogging with neither cynicism nor Rosenberg’s unequivocal enthusiasm. Blogging is time-consuming no matter what your profession, and if you happen to be in the business of selling your intellectual and creative capital, giving it away free can be a mystifying and maddening expectation.”

Race to Be an Early Adopter Goes Mainstream: “There’s really no group out of the tech loop. America is becoming a digital nation. Technology adoption continues to roll along, picking up more and more mainstream consumers every year.”

Readings: Newspapers and democracy, the freelancing life, Craigslist and slow media

Some good long-form pieces on journalism, the media and related topics for some weekend reading. I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the fate of newspapers, but soon I’ll be unveiling a revamped blog concept designed to move far beyond those boundaries.

As usual, I seem to conclude this roundup with an admonition to get off the Web for a bit. It’s a great and wonderful thing, but not merely for its own sake:

Unnecessary death of an institution: “To see the word ‘I’ in any kind of piece written by a reporter is about as shocking a development as a reader can read in the Times. Suddenly Times reporters are writing in the first person. The next thing you know Times beat writers will be cheering in the press box.”

Vanishing down the ink hole: “Not to be snide about it, but is quality journalism the best tool to foster democracy? Advocates of participatory democracy and government accountability might be smarter to invest their time directly in reforming government.”

The Midnight Disease: Freelance Writing’s Joy and Terror: “One night, sharing drinks with a woman, long after the thrill of seeing my byline had died, she asked in wonderment, ‘Don’t you just love seeing your name in print?’ I replied: ‘I love seeing my name on a check.’ ”

Why not sell EveryBlock to a newspaper? “It’s like asking me, after I put together a band of musicians, why I didn’t choose the musician who spoke Portuguese. What difference does it make if a musician speaks Portuguese?”

The New Media Crisis of 1949: “Americans of all ages ­embraced TV unhesitatingly. They felt no loyalty to network radio, the medium that had entertained and informed them for a quarter-century. When something came along that they deemed superior, they switched off their radios without a second thought. That’s the biggest lesson taught by the new-media crisis of 1949. Nostalgia, like guilt, is a rope that wears thin.”

Of Media Poverty and Passion: “Add a healthy dose of old-fashioned journalistic passion to the mix, and you will be more successful than your father or any journalism professor ever could have imagined. That knowledge is all that keeps the hope within me alive after three consecutive layoffs, two of them within 10 months, in a changing media world. The future of journalism is both scary and exciting. It will be literally what we formerly ink-stained wretches make of it.”

Portrait of the Artist as a Digital Native: “As a creative type you can promote your work as much as you can online, you can give samples or all of your work for free, but until now a sure foot on ‘old’ media is still needed for success. Notions of authority, professionalism, quality, respectability and good artistic reputation are still defined by gate-kept models.”

Why Craigslist is such a mess: “It is easy to find hypocrisy in the idealism of a business owner who prescribes democracy for others while relieving himself of the tiresome burden of democratic consultation in the domain where he has the most power. But of course, craigslist is not a polity; it is just an online classified advertising site, one that manages to serve some basic human needs with startling efficiency. It is difficult to overstate the scale of this accomplishment.”

A Manifesto for Slow Communication: “Many of the values of the Internet are social improvements—it can be a great platform for solidarity, it rewards curiosity, it enables convenience. This is not the mani­festo of a Luddite, this is a human manifesto. If the technology is to be used for the betterment of human life, we must reassert that the Internet and its virtual information space is not a world unto itself but a supplement to our existing world.”

Basking in the decadent glory of print’s decline

I don’t want newspapers to go away because I will always love them. But how much more watered down and hollowed out do they have to become before the hardiest print defenders stop deluding themselves about the real reasons for their demise?

How much longer will they blame the Internet, mock the efforts of those who are trying to refashion journalism on the Web, and ridicule those terrible bloggers, aggregators and digital creative types who apparently are guilty of nothing less than intellectual debauchery?

Paul Farhi of the Washington Post has been taken to task before for defending the work of rank-and-file journalists, and most recently, for urging newspapers to build a pay wall and consider not posting print material on their Web sites. I generally agreed with him on the former and shook my head at his latter idea.

Now he’s totally jumped the shark from nuanced, thoughtful writing on these subjects to reignite a phantom clash between bloggers vs. journalists. He’s not the first to launch the following ad hominem attack (halfway down in this link, after much rambling about the Washington Redskins):

“I can’t imagine a world (or an internet) without the raw factual material that newspapers provide every day, but I guess the bloggers don’t really care about any of that. They’re mostly about themselves and their opinions, with little thought given to where they’re getting their basic facts.”

Oh yes, here’s another tiresome bloggers-as-monolith screed. Which bloggers? What are they blogging about? Why don’t they care? We don’t know, because then Farhi’s off fielding more readers’ questions about the Redskins — talk about a lost cause! This is how online chats go.

But Farhi’s shots are more than cheap. They’re reflective of the deep denial of so many still bound up in the cult of print. Print good, bloggers bad. Either you’re with newspapers or you’re with the “digital barbarians.” If we don’t save newspapers, democracy will die.

I’m fed up with digital triumphalists who like to kick print when it’s down, who can’t wait for it to slip into further irrelevance. They have been tone-deaf to the plight of thousands of people whose livelihoods have been dashed because leaders of the newspaper industry failed to prepare for the future.

But to suggest that the fate of self-government is bound up with newspapers is to ignore what’s been happening (to both) for several decades:

“Once the individual papers started getting gobbled up by the chains and the chains went public, Wall Street wanted profit over journalism and the business got a one-way ticket to Palookaville. This is not new. How many monastic scribes lost their jobs when Gutenberg started cranking up his press?

“How many typesetters lost their jobs when offset presses came along? This has been coming on for a long time. And while all these CEOs of the big chains were talking about how you can’t cut your way to profitability, they kept cutting. When there was no more fat, they cut into muscle and then bone. And what did it get them?”

Still, desperate, hair-brained schemes, such as bringing in the heavy hand of government to prop up newspapers, stubbornly persist. These actions will not stop the continued decline of print, which is nothing I feel good about.

It’s necessary to examine what’s being lost because reviving the news cannot take place without this understanding. But the ceaseless, hyperbolic hand-wringing that only newspapers — instead of journalism — can provide the necessary checks on government is tragic and misplaced:

“Traditional journalists have long believed that this form of fact-based accountability news is the essential food supply of democracy and that without enough of this healthy nourishment, democracy will weaken, sicken, or even fail.”

For the quarter-century I was in newspapers, the journalism that I and many others influenced by Watergate idealized dwindled, replaced with lifestyle and celebrity fluff that hardly serves exalted notions of democracy. As a sportswriter, I knew I was helping readers escape the duties of citizenship.

I’m skeptical about the purported renewal of democracy on the Web, but that comes more from my pessimism about our political system. And I am extremely concerned about the fate of reading and cognitive development among the Web generation. But those are topics for another time.

What I find so sad about these newspaper laments is that the hard-headed realism that journalists supposedly possess has been completely abandoned for treacly sentiment and arrogance. As has been said often before, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, and the newsroom-on-a-pedestal that’s being conjured up now never really existed. While I do terribly miss the camaraderie I enjoyed with former colleagues, I never worked in such a place.

Not long ago I finished reading “The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald-Tribune,” an engrossing account of a great, but flawed newspaper that went by the wayside in 1966. Its fate was sealed by rancorous newspaper strikes and poor family-run ownership. Like many newspapers, it often did great public service journalism (and employed the likes of Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin at the end).

But it was also guilty of lacking a backbone on many other topics, worried about offending its advertisers and fiercely loyal to its moderate Republican political ideology. In the immediate post-World War II years the Herald-Tribune fatally missed the opportunity to expand its reader base by ceding the vastly-growing suburbs to The New York Times.

This was a full 30 years before the advent of the Web. And while newspapers weren’t facing the levels of extinction they do today, Ben Bagdikian’s assessment, first delivered the same year I got into the business, predicted what complacency and monopoly power could yield. He envisioned that one-way ticket to Palookaville before most everybody.

Like many former newspaper journalists and as a proud product of print culture, I am also wistful of what’s fading away. My former newspaper is giving up the ghost in astonishing fashion, which actually has made it easier to shed the last layers of nostalgia I’ve held for it.

It’s also far too easy to be snarky and dismissive of what’s being attempted to follow newspaper journalism. Say what you will about Arianna Huffington and cohorts (and I’ve said plenty about her), they’re not the problem here. Some of their solutions are knuckle-headed, but they’re doing much more than their fiercest critics, who are content to take potshots from the bleachers.

What are these print Cassandras doing to ensure the vitality of journalism in the digital age? Instead of lending their time and talents to invigorate a profession they insist is vital to democracy, they’d rather defiantly (and selfishly) go down with the ship. I just wish they would admit that.

Inauguration Day media choices abound online

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What will the new First Lady wear first? / Glamour

Even if you’re suffering from pre-inauguration fatigue — do we really have to comprehend what kind of statement Michelle Obama’s dress might make? — big events are giving news organizations plenty of options to experiment with multimedia tools and other online-only presentations.

Like the coverage of the marathon presidential campaign (which I summarized here), this is a big part of the fun — witnessing not just the future of journalism, but how it’s evolving right now, all on the fly. Perhaps like the First Lady’s wardrobe-in-the-making.

Much of the emphasis is on social media, of course, with CNN.com’s “The Moment” — a 3D panoramic collage formed by user-generated photos sent from Washington as Barack Obama takes office — getting plenty of attention. The technology is called PhotoSynth, developed by Microsoft. The reviews have been better for this than the election-night hologram that “appeared” with Wolf Blitzer.

Here are some other new media experiments tied to the inauguration.  And a compendium of inauguration-related links compiled by journalists in a collaborative format across many news organizations. Mainstream media outlets are finally grasping the ethos of online communication:

” ‘Increasingly, what we do is not just a one-way conversation,’ said Mark Lukasiewicz, vice president of digital production at NBC News who will produce live coverage for MSNBC  Tuesday. ‘It’s not just about what we do on cable, it is what the conversations elsewhere are about what we do.’ “

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Not too old to Tweet / PBS

Even Jim Lehrer of PBS — the last remaining old-school television news anchor — will be Twittering, at least indirectly. And the official Obama inaugural committee has set up a special Twitter page for Tuesday’s events.

Most of the television broadcast and cable news networks will be live-streaming inaugural festivities on their companion Web sites.

NPR has created a special inaugural hub with user photos, live chats, blogging and other features. Here’s a very helpful story for those sending photos, text messages and other digital data when “The Moment” arrives — better hope the networks don’t crash.

And C-SPAN — which in many ways has been ahead of the multimedia curve — also has its own hub with various live feeds from Washington, and coverage from other news outlets, such as the CBC. Not everybody thinks its such a square outfit.

Blogging pioneer Jason Kottke is inviting you to watch on his site, via the Hulu online video service that was such a big hit for those wanting to see “Saturday Night Live” with Tina Fey dishing on Sarah Palin.

I do think this is a bit much — the mlb.com site, the one devoted to Major League Baseball, drumrolled an announcement Monday that it too is live-streaming the inauguration for free. How charitable! But why, with all the other networks doing the same thing? It suggests its loyal fans — stuck in that dark void between the Hot Stove League and the start of spring training — have nothing better to do.

Still want more? Here are some inaugural multimedia roundups from the New York Times’ Bits blog, TechCrunch, and Lifehacker.

If I’ve left out something you think should be highlighted here, by all means let me know. Before noon Tuesday, of course.

In the meantime, I’m going to dig into the YouTube vault and check out another famous inaugural — one that took place a couple months after I was born. It’s even in color!

On the future of democracy and journalism

There’s much hand-wringing going on these days (and for a few years now) about how democracy is supposedly endangered as newspapers continue their decline. Now one of the more bombastic members of my sportswriting tribe (and it is a rather bombastic tribe) has weighed in:

“You can’t have a democracy without us. If newspapers are dying, so is our system of government.

With all due respect to Jason Whitlock, and do I respect his work a great deal, newspapers alone are not the key to democracy. They are one component of a journalism profession that is undergoing a massive transformation and redefinition that ideally will re-energize it.

With the explosion of the Web, many of us steeped longer in the print tradition are struggling to grasp the idea that it is the journalism, and not the platform, that is paramount. Whitlock is one of many sports columnists who works across many platforms rather comfortably yet he seems to fall into the same trap of regarding newspapers as the gold standard of what the profession represents.

(And there are plenty of blog posts like this arguing that blogging saved democracy because the established legacy media grew flabby, timid and complacent in recent decades.)

Yet the platform many of us will be using for our journalism from now on has the power to better inform us, more effectively hold our politicians to account and enable us to demolish cant and official statements more than print ever did. I don’t think there’s been a better time to get to the heart of the journalism that matters to us, and to the citizens we serve.

We’ve never had more freedom to dig into to those topics and issues that stoke our passions, and that called us to journalism in the first place. For those of us now out from under the umbrella of corporate media, this rediscovery ought to be endlessly appealing.

The struggle to speak and publish freely shouldn’t be taken for granted. As late as 1959, the year before I was born, the United States government was still charging journalists with sedition, and blackballing those cleared of such accusations until just two decades ago.

In many parts of the world, individuals fighting censorship, repression, poverty and the effects of war struggle mightily to get out the word. And risk jail and death to do so. American journalists who dismiss blogging, social media and other Web trends, or who aren’t comortable with them, need to understand that it really isn’t about them any longer.

There’s a tremendous opening here for “old media” journalists, with their experience, news judgment, expertise and dedication to craft, to jump fully into the fray on the Web and help bolster the democracy they say their work is all about. The time for looking back and mourning needs to be over.

Kvetch of the Week: Obama’s media hucksters

There are times when I’m reading a juicy media kvetch that I don’t may much attention to the byline until I’ve reached the end. Who wrote that?

That was the case today as I came across a piece in Editor & Publisher slamming media organizations for making more than a few bucks off the historic election of Barack Obama. For a moment I hesitated to use this piece because it was written by a former colleague at my paper (we worked in different departments and rarely crossed paths. He covered the military and defense issues, I was a sportswriter. He took a buyout last year; I followed suit three months ago.). But the über-kvetchiness off Ron Martz’ diatribe is too good to be passed up here, earning it the latest Kvetch of the Week honors. A few excerpts:

“Ombudsmen and reader advocates who are supposed to examine individual media organizations rarely do an adequate job because more often than not they are employed by the very companies whose dealings they are supposed to scrutinize. Who is going to take a chance on making the boss angry and being relegated to a dead-end job, or being jobless, at a time when so many journalists are out of work?”

And this:

“It is one thing for private entrepreneurs to get into the business of making a buck off Obama. More power to them. But the media, who have set standards for others, now refuse to live by their own standards.”

Go read the whole thing. My take: I’m not entirely surprised that the press has gone ga-ga over all this, since I’ve lived through plenty of “big” memories in my experience (Braves win World Series, 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Sept. 11th) that my paper and other news outlets jumped on like a dog on a bone. For quite a while we’ve been guilty of going overboard promoting merchandise stemming from a major news event. However, I was taken aback at how expensive some of these trinkets are. Then again, I’m not spending my money on stuff like this given the economy and my status as a newspaper refugee.

Gripes about the coverage of the presidential campaign by The New York Times I found a bit over the top. They took away from detailed descriptions of the media’s milking of the Obama election (and what the L.A. Times has pocketed, for example) that are quite revealing on their own.

But there would have been one less really good kvetch in a piece oozing with them.