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An Occasionally Informed Public Misses Too Much

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Some say politics and family don’t mix, but what about politics and news? It depends on the season.

In election years, news consumers pay attention to election-related information. But in non-election years, they practically turn a blind eye.

As this week marks the one-year anniversary of Barack Obama’s reelection, a look back at the two-week period from October 29 until November 11 of 2012 reveals that the most popular stories both for journalists and for the audience of six American leading news sites (ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX,USA Today andWashington Post) had to do with the presidential election.

But during the exact same two-week period in 2011, the public’s attention was largely focused on other topics. For instance, the only story that appeared on the most-viewed lists of all six sites during this period was Joe Paterno’s dismissal as Penn State head coach after one of his assistants, Jerry Sandusky, had been accused of child abuse. This was the case even though journalists simultaneously offered a selection of public affairs stories such as the Greek debt crisis and the Republican primary, as the most newsworthy topics of the day.

We are not fortune tellers. But as researchers we would not be surprised that on the same 14-day period surrounding November 6 of this year, journalists will still prioritize coverage of public affairs stories on news sites of this kind. However, barring any unforeseen political, international, or economic crises, the public will largely tune out of it just as they did in 2011, another non-election year.

Why? Because the news choices of the public follow a highly predictable pattern: major political events lead consumers to increase their interest in public affairs news, while most of the time they largely focus on topics such as sports, entertainment, weather, and crime.

Professor Michael Schudson of Columbia University (author most recently of The Sociology of News) calls this phenomenon “monitorial citizenship.” Rather than focusing on public affairs routinely, members of the public merely scan the news to identify important developments that might require their attention. They are “apparently inactive, but poised for action if action is required.”

That is the pattern we found in our analysis of more than 23,000 stories from these six news sites from 2008 to 2012, a timespan that included two presidential elections and a midterm election, as well as two non-election years.

There is a gap between the most prominently displayed stories of the day and the most viewed ones on each of these sites during each one of these five years. In addition, this gap increases during non-election years and decreases during the electoral process.

To this point, during the final two weeks of the 2008 election campaign there was only an 8 percent difference in the prevalence of public affairs news between the stories journalists consider most newsworthy and those that consumers click most often.

The gap increased more than fourfold, to 50 percent, during the equivalent two weeks in 2009. A year later, in 2010, during the final two weeks of the mid-terms campaign, it went down to 23 percent.

But in the same two weeks during the non-electoral year of 2011 it went up again to 51 percent. Finally, during the final two weeks of the 2012 election campaign, the gap went back down to only 10 percent.

What we have then is a stark disparity between servings of political news by the media and a lack of political news appetite in consumers.

Against the backdrop of a general lack of interest in political news, the demand for this type of news for civic engagement appears to be much more variable than the demand for it. During the five years we studied the largest difference between the highest and the lowest point of consumers’ demand for public affairs news was more than double the difference between highest and the lowest levels of supply of political information.

The evolution of media and consumer behavior during the last three months of the presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012 also shows that demand for political news changes more drastically than the supply of this type of content.

Journalists increased the proportion of public affairs in the stories they displayed most prominently as the final months of the campaigns unfolded. Consumers also increased the prevalence of this type of news in the stories they clicked most often. But the rate of increase was on average 60 percent higher for consumers than for journalists.

What does this mean for the future of the media industry and its role in democracy?

Traditional media organizations neither meet the public where it is at nor take it to a new destination, which partly explains why the public is tuning out of news. This dovetails with findings from the 2013 State of the News Media report that one in three members of the public has abandoned a news source in the previous year.

If citizens mostly focus on political news when there are pressing matters such as an election, then providing them a steady supply of this kind of news during other periods means a waste of reporting resources. This is an unhealthy option for media organizations whose bottom line is already under duress.

The lack of flexibility of news organizations to meet changes in the public’s interest is particularly worrisome. No business can survive in a highly competitive market if it is less dynamic than their consumer base.

The ability of the media to set an agenda that is widely shared and centered on public-affairs topics is a critical contribution to the democratic process. Our studies show that this agenda-setting power is cyclical and tied to the ups and downs of the political environment. Except during major electoral campaigns, the public is not likely to seek out public affairs news on traditional sites such as the ones we studied. Read the rest at the Huffington Post.

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Journalists Describe Changing State of Media

By Karl M. Aspelund

De Blasio Defends Campaign’s Twitter Insults Against Reporters

By Ross Barkan”

Bill de Blasio defended his campaign manager tonight after the aide insulted reporters for highlighting a 1-year-old Twitter post from Mr. de Blasio’s own account that mentioned where his daughter, Chiara, attended college.

“I respect the media and I also think you need to respect matters of security and matters of privacy and matters of family,” Mr. de Blasio told Politicker after a Hurricane Sandy-related event. “So I think he reacted honestly out of concern for security.”

After Gawker initially published a story today wondering where in California Mr. de Blasio’s daughter, Chiara, attended college following repeated omissions in media reports, a New York Times reporter, Kate Taylor, noted that Mr. de Blasio himself posted the information publicly a year ago. Bill Hyers, the manager of Mr. de Blasio’s front-running mayoral campaign, responded by saying he thought her publication “had some class,” but apparently was wrong.

When a Talking Points Memo reporter, Hunter Walker, asked why Ms. Taylor was under attack, Mr. Hyers answered with another insult: “because she stooped to your level.” (It’s not immediately clear what this was in reference to, but Mr. Walker, when he worked for The Observer, once wrote a highly-publicized story revealing that Mr. de Blasio’s wife used to be a somewhat prominent lesbian activist.)

Pressed further on the topic tonight, Mr. de Blasio said the media, for the sake of his daughter, should not pry any further into her whereabouts.

“I’m just going to be very broad on this for the very purpose that this is obviously a matter related to our family and related to security. That retweet was of something a year ago and it was very, very different time,” he said. “I would ask everyone to recognize that concern going forward. It’s a very real thing so I think everyone can recognize there are certain boundaries.”

When another reporter noted that the public knows his younger son, Dante, attends Brooklyn Technical High School, Mr. de Blasio insisted it was “a different matter” with his daughter. Both have been featured in the campaign’s television commercials.

“I think it’s something people should recognize, there’s a real issue here that should be considered. I make myself available almost every single day. There are all sorts of venues for providing information on things that matter,” he continued. “There are other issues that take on added meaning when it comes to security and people need to be sensitive about it. It transcends some of the valid mission you have to provide information to the public that the public needs. Issues of security need to be taken into account also.” Read more in Politicker.

 

Greeks Question Media, and New Voices Pipe Up

By Rachel Donadio

Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times Apostolis Kaparoudakis at the controls of the Athens radio station and cafe of which he was a founder.

Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times
Apostolis Kaparoudakis at the controls of the Athens radio station and cafe of which he was a founder.

ATHENS — Late on a recent evening, crowds gathered at the Radio Bubble cafe in downtown Athens, drinking beer and talking politics. The cafe, in the trendy yet rough-around-the-edges Exarchia neighborhood, funds a small leftist online radio station of the same name, which broadcasts from inside.

At the sidewalk tables outside, where guests smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, the conversation inevitably turned to Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s unilateral decision in June to shut down the state broadcaster, the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, known as ERT, overnight, turning an institution once seen as a bastion of patronage hires into a veritable martyr to press freedom.

“When a war begins, they send an army to protect public TV,” said Apostolis Kaparoudakis, who was a founder of Radio Bubble in 2007. “Here they sent it to close it down.”

As a song by the Beastie Boys played in the background, Mr. Kaparoudakis said he had started Radio Bubble to play good music, “which is a political act,” but also as a challenge to the mainstream news media in Greece, almost all of which is owned by the country’s business elite, who often dictate the editorial line.

The radio station, which has an active presence on Twitter, is one of many small, often left-leaning news media outlets that have cropped up in Greece in recent years. Although their audiences are still relatively modest, they are playing an increasingly vital role in the conversation, largely because they question the country’s dominant power structures.

Even before the economic crisis hit, polls showed that Greeks lacked trust in the mainstream news media almost as much as they lacked it in politicians, seeing both as intertwined in a kind of crony capitalism that helped push the country to bankruptcy.

Now, four years into the crisis, Greeks are even more skeptical of mainstream news organizations and even hungrier for information from nontraditional sources, especially if it veers from the government’s line that Greece has no alternative to the austerity policies demanded by its foreign lenders.

“There’s a great lack of trust that is no longer there,” said Ioanna Vovou, who teaches media studies at Panteion University in Athens. “It’s true that people, mostly younger people, say they have turned to alternative sources of media.”

At the same time, the economic crisis has fueled rampant speculation about the true sources of Greece’s misery, sometimes drowning reliable information in a cacophony of conspiracies. But alternative news media have increasingly tried to bridge the trust gap by fostering citizen journalism and taking on topics that remain taboo for the more established news organizations.

Some of the new sources, like Radio Bubble, the magazine Unfollow and the web portal The Press Project, lean left and are critical of Mr. Samaras’s coalition government, an uncomfortable alliance between the center-right New Democracy party and the Socialists.

The most interactive of the three, Radio Bubble urges its audience to use Twitter to send images and updates using the hashtag #rbnews during developing stories. The tweeted information helps fill out the picture of chaotic events, like street demonstrations when protesters clash with the police, who often fire tear gas.

“We call ourselves citizens’ media, not alternative media,” said Theodora Oikonomides, a former Radio Bubble editor who was a humanitarian aid worker before returning to her native Greece in 2009. Mr. Kaparoudakis added, “We don’t want listeners, we want citizens.”

He said the station came into its own in December 2008, broadcasting around the clock when riots broke out in Athens after a policeman killed a 15-year-old boy. Today, Radio Bubble has about 9,000 followers on Twitter and streams about 100,000 hours of programming each month on its online radio station. Bar revenues cover operating costs and only bar employees and the station’s two founders are paid. Read more in the New York Times.

Do you care if a news website changes a story after publication?

By PJ Vogt

Late last night, when most reasonable people were sleeping, NBC News published a story about how, despite Obama’s promises to the contrary, many people weren’t able to keep their existing health care under Obamacare. Then, NBC News did something unusual. They unpublished the story. About a half an hour later, they published it again, but with a seemingly innocuous paragraph deleted.

I saw all this because journalists don’t sleep well, and a bunch of us were watching this unfold. New York Magazine’s Stefan Becket was awake, and he started tweeting about the NBC publish/unpublish dance as it was happening. As did Talking Points Memo’s Igor Bobic. The Washington Free Beacon’s Katherine Miller screengrabbed the redacted paragraph for posterity. Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski, also not sleeping, spoke to a source at NBC who blamed the glitchiness on their publishing tool, although, that doesn’t really explain why the NBC article, when it was finally published for good, would be slightly edited.

For me, the weird thing about all of this is that I think I’m supposed to care a lot more than I do. I’m all for transparency, and for news outlets owning their mistakes – up to a point. But there’re actually instances where I’d like less transparency, thank you very much.

If a news outlet publishes something that turns out to be untrue, please, issue a correction so that people who find their way back to your bad story know where the wrong information came from. But if you just posted draft 8 of your Obamacare story instead of draft 9, and it’s midnight on a Tuesday, and the only people watching are a gaggle of insomniac journalists checking Twitter on their phones instead of sleeping? I’m not sure I mind a little sneaky CMS fixing.

That said, I am almost certainly biased here. I write on TLDR mostly without an editor, and I’ll frequently go back and fix a stray hyperlink or bit of glitchy grammar in the minutes after I post an article. On the Media.

Former Murdoch Journalists Plead Guilty To Phone Hacking Charges

Rebekah Brooks arrives at The Old Bailey law court in London, Monday, Oct. 28, 2013. Former News of the World national newspaper editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson are due to go on trial Monday, along with several others, on charges of hacking phones and bribing officials while at the now closed tabloid paper.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth) | AP

Rebekah Brooks arrives at The Old Bailey law court in London, Monday, Oct. 28, 2013. Former News of the World national newspaper editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson are due to go on trial Monday, along with several others, on charges of hacking phones and bribing officials while at the now closed tabloid paper.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth) | AP

LONDON, Oct 30 (Reuters) – Three former senior journalists from Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloid the News of the World have pleaded guilty to charges relating to phone-hacking, the trial of two of the media mogul’s former editors heard on Wednesday.

Rebekah Brooks, Murdoch’s former British newspaper chief and Prime Minister David Cameron’s ex-media head Andy Coulson are on trial at London’s Old Bailey court accused of conspiring to illegally access voicemail messages on mobile phones, charges they deny.

The court was told on Wednesday that ex-chief correspondent Neville Thurlbeck, former assistant news editor James Weatherup, and ex-news editor Greg Miskiw had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to intercept communications at earlier hearings.

Their guilty pleas, which had not previously been reportable, are the first public admissions by former News of the World journalists since police launched an inquiry in 2011 into allegations that staff on the Murdoch paper had hacked the phones of celebrities, politicians and victims of crime. Huffington Post.

Think Again: 10 Years of False Equivalence and Still Going Strong

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The Center for American Progress is celebrating its 10th anniversary today with a policy conference and a “progressive party.” Not exactly coincidentally, this column is also 10 years old–10 years and a day, to be exact. My introductory column was called “Think Again: Who’s Driving This Train?” and appeared on this website on October 23, 2003.

By a rough estimate, this is my 500th column; what a long, strange trip it’s been. American politics has grown more extreme and unwieldy during the past decade, owing largely to the simultaneous radicalization and flight from reality of the conservative movement and its takeover of the Republican Party. What was so remarkable about the recent government shutdown and near-default was, as conservative columnist Ross Douthat pointed out in a column called “The Kurtz Republicans,” that “Even the shutdown’s ardent champions never advanced a remotely compelling story for how it would deliver its objectives.” As pundit Paul Rosenberg recently wrote for Al Jazeera English, the media ignored nine bodies of evidence that clearly showed it was Republicans, not Democrats, who caused the shutdown.

The mainstream media’s greatest failure has been its members’ inability to acknowledge this reality. Over and over, no matter what the issue–no matter how outlandish, illogical, or simply untrue the conservative argument has been–journalists create a sense of false equivalence between positions that rest on data and logic and those that don’t. To quoteCenk Uygur, “If CNN did sports reporting, every game would be a tie.”

The clearest example can be found in the global warming debate where, as I recentlyargued, “The mainstream media irresponsibly treats uncredentialed climate deniers … with the same degree of respect as climate scientists who are qualified” to judge the problem. In doing so, they ignore the fact that, led by massive investments from Charles and David Koch, “Conservative billionaires used a secretive funding route to channel nearly $120m (£77m) to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change.”

Oddly enough, my first column also focused on the problem of false equivalence. Here is its opening; the subject was Democrats refusing to support a particularly problematic Bush administration bill to further fund the Iraq War:

Go down the Iraq laundry list; no WMD’s found, bogus intelligence claims, American GIs dying at the clip of at least one-a-day, a billion a week just for security, while Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden still roam the landscape. So what’d the press do last week when covering the war? Blame the Democrats, of course.

We don’t want to give anyone the wrong impression right off the bat here. This column will not be in the business of flacking for the Democrats, with whom we have many problems and differences, as will become evident in weeks ahead. What we hope to identify here is a dreaded media malady we seek to christen “Ontheonehandism.” This is how the So-Called Liberal Media (SCLM) demonstrates their alleged even-handedness by finding ways to criticize Democrats and liberals even when they’re right, no matter how trivial or wrong-headed the critique.

I also noted that Time‘s Joe Klein, NBC’s Chris Matthews, The New York Times‘ David Brooks, and Brit Hume and Tony Snow on Fox News–together with the editorial boards ofThe Washington PostThe New York Times, and The New Republic–all heaped scorn on the Democrats for taking the position of a “solid majority of Americans.” Among the adjectives employed by the critics above were “an embarrassment,” “not plausible,” “illogical,” “shameful,” and likely to make Saddam Hussein “jubilant.”

This was not exactly false equivalence, but it was a precursor of things to come. Even for an issue with a cause as obvious as that of the government shutdown, mainstream reporters cannot bring themselves to assign responsibility where it undeniably belongs. Media Matters for America has helpfully provided us with a compendium of such instances, and here is a similar review from the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University.

The reasons for this phenomenon are complex and interrelated. They derive from mainstream reporters’ outdated commitment to the ideal of objectivity. Conservatives successfully exploit this commitment with their willingness to invent facts, subvert scientific study, and replace reality with ideology. “Both sides” may “do it,” but not to degrees that are remotely comparable.

For a final example, I ask you to compare two institutions and their work over the past 10 years: the Center for American Progress and the Heritage Foundation. Read more at the Huffington Post.

‘Balanced’ coverage ignores nine reasons why the shutdown is a GOP Idea

By Paul Rosenberg

"The Ted Cruz/Tea Party plan outflanked the GOP leadership, requiring GOP politicians to support a shutdown against their better judgment," writes Rosenberg [AP]

“The Ted Cruz/Tea Party plan outflanked the GOP leadership, requiring GOP politicians to support a shutdown against their better judgment,” writes Rosenberg [AP]

As the government shutdown drama unfolds, perhaps the single greatest asset that GOP has on its side is the so-called “liberal media”, with its ideological bias toward “balance” that prevents it from honestly reporting that the shutdown is a entirely Republican creation—which would dramatically intensify the pressure on Republicans to fold. Indeed, the promise that Republicans could spin the media to shift blame onto the Democrats was a key selling point in Ted Cruz’s two-month campaign to bully the party into following his lead off the cliff. If US media did not have its balance-at-all-costs bias, it’s quite likely that the shutdown would never have happened in the first place.

In fact, over the weekend, the New York Times ran a story, “A Federal Budget Crisis Months in the Planning“, which traced the shutdown plan back to a meeting early in President Obama’s second term, led by former Attorney General Edwin R. Meese. In any rational world, this would finally put an end to stories blaming Democrats as well as Republicans for the shutdown—but don’t hold your breath. There were already multiple different bodies of evidence that Republicans were solely to blame. There were also devastating criticisms of the “blame both sides” practice from leading critics such as James FallowsJay Rosen and Dan Froomkin.

In support of their arguments, here is a survey of nine distinct bodies of evidence which “balanced”, journalism distorts, denies, or marginalises while furthering the extremism which threatens to destroy us. Taken all together, they show how essential the “liberal media” is in facilitating the success of Tea Party extremism.

(1) The longstanding GOP fixation on shutting down the government. GOP politicians have been talking about a government shutdown since even before the 2010 election in a manner that portrays the shutdown as a positive good in and of itself. This was demonstrated quite clearly by Rachel Maddow, using clips of various Republican politicians endorsing the shutdown strategy. One example was Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, from Georgia, speaking to a movement conservative audience at the Faith and Freedom Conference, where he said:

If we hold the line, if we get those courageous men and women to be part of our majority, if we say, look, we’re in partnership with the American people, we’re listening to the American people, this is what we’re going to do. If the government shuts down, we want you with us. We want you with us. We’ve got to have you.

Another was one-term Congressman Joe Walsh, of Illinois, who back in 2011 said, “We will do what we have to do to shut down the government, if we have to,” and “[M]ost people in my district say shut it down. ” (More complete remarks here and here.)

(2) The GOP’s creation of the shutdown crisis by blocking the budget reconciliation process. Since last spring, when the Senate passed its version of the budget—the GOP has refused to go to conference committee on the budget, thereby creating the shutdown crisis in the first place, since a conference committee is how Congress reconciles differences between House and Senate budget bills. Ted Cruz was the most vocal opponent of the normal conference committee process, taking to the Senate floor in late May to explicitly say, “I don’t trust the Republicans” who would be appointed to the committee. His main objection was that a budget deal might also include the debt ceiling—thus getting rid of not one, but two chances for him and his fellow Tea Party extremists to create a government financial crisis. In a mid-July oped in Politico, Senate Budget Chair Patty Murray explained what was happening. Murray and her allies tried 18 times to set up a conference committee, and were blocked every single time.

(3) The emergence and evolution of the incoherent Ted Cruz/Tea Party plan to force a shutdown over ‘Obamacare’. As opposed to the broader GOP interest in a government shutdown, the actual scenario we’re now caught up in came from a splinter development, whose entire history is incompatible with the “both sides are equally responsible” narrative. The Ted Cruz/Tea Party plan outflanked GOP leadership, required GOP politicians to support a shutdown against their better judgment—and required them to aggressively blame the Democrats in order to avoid responsibility for their actions. This was a strategy to browbeat Republicans into shutting down the government—and it worked! It’s too late now to pretend the Democrats did it.

(4) The record of prominent Republican politicians and others who repeatedly warned against forcing a government shutdown—including many who are now trying to blame the Democrats. On the eve of the shutdown, September 30, Think Progress published “49 Republicans Who Say Shutting Down The Government Over Obamacare Is A Big Mistake,” a collection of brief quotes from prominent office-holders, activists and pundits. There were 11 House members, including Paul Ryan, who said, “Shutting down the government puts us on the wrong side [of public opinion].The fight is on the debt limit,” and 16 Senators, including Orrin Hatch who said, [T]o expect the government to shut down is not the way to do it [get rid of Obamacare],” and Richard Shelby who simply said, “It’s foolish”. There were also six governors, including Scott Walker, as well as an assortment of other prominent figures, including Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Bill O’Reilly, Karl Rove, Charles Krauthammer, and George Will.

Obviously, there would not have been such an outpouring advice to other Republicans not to shut down the government, if it were the Democrats who were actually planning the shutdown all along.

(5) The contrary historical record of some Republicans downplaying the severity of the shutdown. A contrary tendency among other Republicans is equally damaging to the “blame the Democrats” narrative—the tendency to minimise the impact and significance of the shutdown. As noted above, Ted Cruz and Heritage Action engaged in this sort of downplaying in the months preceding the shutdown as part of a strategy to pressure other Republicans to go along. But as the shutdown has become a reality, this narrative has become much more widespread among the GOP faithful, creating a tacit hybrid “it’s-no-big-deal-but-it’s-all-their-fault” narrative, particularly within the right-wing mediasphere, as summarised here at Salon by Elias Isquith (“Right-wing media on shutdown: ‘Let the crisis continue’“.)

(6) The record of drastic Democratic budget concessions embodied in the “clean CR”. The idea that Democrats are forcing the shutdown by refusing to negotiate presumes that passing a 6-week continuing resolution on the budget would give Democrats everything they want, and give Republicans nothing. This presumption is utterly false. Democrats have already agreed to accept a budget level in the CR far below the $1.203tn in discretionary spending that Obama originally asked for, and very close to the $967bn in the Ryan House Budget that Republicans wanted.  The exact figure is $986bn—8 percent higher than the House Budget, and 92 percent lower than Obama’s budget. (See chart here.) Thus, by any traditional standard, House Republicans have already won, overwhelmingly. If Democrats really were the ones shutting down the government because they were unwilling to compromise, then they would never have agreed to a budget level so much lower than they originally wanted.

(7) The polling evidence that only GOP base voters are opposed to political compromise—and are indifferent to crisis. Polling shows that Democrats & independents want political leaders to compromise—and Democrats already have, substantially (see #5 above).  Republican voters now oppose compromise. Thus, it’s consistent with their voters for Republicans to want a shutdown and for Democrats to want to avoid it through compromise. Examples include a November 2010 Gallup poll found that Republicans were more than twice as likely as Democrats to say it was important for political leaders to stick to their beliefs, rather than compromise to get things done. Combining data from that survey with one the following January, Gallup found that extreme conservatives opposed compromise 53-25 percent while extreme liberals supported it 52-17 percent.

More recently, a post-shutdown CBS poll, for example, found that 72 percent of Americans disapproved of the shutdown, but that 57 percent of Tea Partiers approved of it.  Likewise, Quinnipiac found 72 percent opposition to shutdown overall, but with Republicans supporting it narrowly,  49 – 44 percent while Democrats opposed it 90 – 6 percent , joined by independents at 74 – 19 percent. Quinnipiac also found that a solid 52-39 percent majority of Republicans supported defaulting on the debt in order to stop ‘Obamacare’.

Similarly, in mid-September, Plum Line blogger Greg Sargent called attention to a Washington Post/ABC poll, the internals of which showed that Republicans opposed raising the debt ceiling by 61-25, compared to Democrats who favoured raising it by 62-31. More ominously, Sargent reported, “Among Republicans who believe not raising it would cause serious economic harm, a majority say don’t raise it by 53-32.”

This body of evidence is unmistakable: the GOP base opposes compromise and supports intransigence, even if it knows the result could bring serious harm. No one else feel the same way.

(8) Evidence that GOP base intransigence drives policy. It’s not just polling. By itself, one could argue that the evidence in #7 is irrelevant, since its generally true that public opinion matters distressingly little in our “democracy”. The overwhelmingly anti-war Democratic Party base certainly didn’t defund the Iraq War, for example.  Nor did it pass Medicare-for-All health care reform.  It didn’t even get a public option.  In this case, however, the political power of the Tea Party base to drive GOP policy has been one of the dominant recurring political stories of the past three years. The political mechanism driving House Republicans to oppose compromise and force a shutdown is obvious to all—the threat of defeat in a primary in overwhelmingly safe GOP districts—while there’s no such political mechanism driving Democrats to want a shutdown.

There are far too many stories covering this historical development to link to any one of them. But when this broader historical development transitions specifically into the shutdown fight, there’s freshman Congressman Mark Meadows’letter to John Boehner, pressuring Boehner to reverse himself, and use the threat of a government shutdown to defund Obamacare—a letter signed by 79 other House members, whom conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer later dubbed the “suicide caucus”. The New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza then dissected the caucus, geographically and demographically (“Where The G.O.P.’S Suicide Caucus Lives“), concluding, in part:

In short, these eighty members represent an America where the population is getting whiter, where there are few major cities, where Obama lost the last election in a landslide, and where the Republican Party is becoming more dominant and more popular. Meanwhile, in national politics, each of these trends is actually reversed.

This is demographic/electoral framework within which the GOP base’s intransigence has real political power, and indeed is driving policy right before our very eyes. Needless to say, there is nothing remotely equivalent on the Democratic side of the aisle. Pretending otherwise, as balance narratives do, simply transports us into a fantasy world.

(9) The framework of American legislative history. As pointed out by James Fallows in another piece on false equivalence two months before the shutdown began, “A False Equivalence Classic“. His subject is the threat of debt limit default, rather than the government shutdown, but the difference is largely immaterial for the purposes at hand. Fallows noted there are two ways to report on the coming crisis. One is the classic blame-both-sides-it’s-all-just-politics narrative.  The other takes account of actual history:

But there’s a different way to describe the situation. That would be to say that the 44th president, like his 43 predecessors, believes that the United States should honour its sovereign debt, as part of maintaining the “full faith and credit of the United States.” He also believes that the policy on government spending first applied under George Washington and in force since then should still be the policy now: once Congress has voted programs or benefits into law, then the government is legally and morally obligated to carry out those programs, until and unless they are repealed….

What’s involved in telling the story the second way is actual journalism: not just giving a blow-by-blow of what happened, but providing enough context for people to understand the significance of what they are seeing.

Conclusion

The nine bodies of evidence cited above are more than enough to do three important things: First, they conclusively debunk the “both sides are responsible” narrative regarding the shutdown. Second, they show how this “balanced” media framing distorts the news. Third, they highlight significant background and foreground aspects of the story that are being denied, distorted or obscured.

What the evidence cited above does not do, however, is present a coherent counter-narrative to make sense of the crisis situation we find ourselves in. Dethroning the media’s “balanced coverage” ideology  is only the first stage in a multi-part journey toward the sort of true historical self-understanding that a genuine democracy requires.

We still have miles to go before we sleep. Al Jazeera.

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Women from Syria, Cambodia, Afghanistan win courage in journalism awards

By Associated Press

From left, Honorees Edna Machirori, Najiba Ayubi and Bopha Phorn, attend the 2013 Courage in Journalism and Lifetime Achievement Awards hosted by the International Women's Media Foundation at Cipriani's 42nd Street on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

From left, Honorees Edna Machirori, Najiba Ayubi and Bopha Phorn, attend the 2013 Courage in Journalism and Lifetime Achievement Awards hosted by the International Women’s Media Foundation at Cipriani’s 42nd Street on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

NEW YORK — The director of an Afghanistan news organization, a Syrian photojournalist and a Cambodian investigative reporter each received Courage in Journalism awards from a women’s media group.

The International Women’s Media Foundation also honored the first black female editor of a newspaper in Zimbabwe, Edna Machirori, with its annual lifetime achievement award during a luncheon Wednesday in New York City.

ajiba Ayubi of Afghanistan, Nour Kelze of Syria and Bopha Phorn of Cambodia won the courage awards.

Ayubi runs the independent news organization The Killid Group and co-founded the Afghan Independent Media Consortium. She “has faced direct threats from many sources — politicians have sent gunmen to her home, anonymous aggressors have vowed to harm her family, and she has been publicly defamed,” the IWMF said in describing her work.

Simply working openly as a woman remains a challenge in parts of Afghanistan, and Ayubi noted the lack of female journalists in several areas of the country.

Kelze, a photographer for the Reuters news agency, was a school teacher before the civil war in Syria began. She “has been targeted in pro-regime propaganda and has received threats via social media” and broke her ankle this year while retreating from sniper fire, the IWMF said.

Kelze was unable to attend the luncheon but spoke in a short video about her work, which also showed the death by sniper fire of a 19-year-old friend, a man she tearfully described as being like a brother. He was shot through the chest while pulling a wounded person out of the line of fire.

Phorn, who writes for The Cambodia Daily, “narrowly escaped with her life when the vehicle in which she was traveling came under heavy fire” while she and colleagues were investigating claims of illegal logging, the IWMF said. An activist traveling with her was killed.

Illegal logging is widespread in the lush Southeast Asian country and is believed to be supported by tycoons with good political connections.

Machirori, who has been a journalist for 50 years, told the audience Wednesday that she started her work when she was 19 and joked that everyone could do the math themselves. Read more at the Washington Post.

Sacking Sebelius? How she became the media’s pinata

By Howard Kurtz

 Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at panel discussion at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, in Cincinnati, Ohio.AP

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at panel discussion at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, in Cincinnati, Ohio.AP

Kathleen Sebelius is getting pummeled by the media for the disastrous ObamaCare rollout, and now she’s mounting a new defense.

Not directly, of course. The secretary is sticking to her bland talking points in the rare interviews she grants. But people sympathetic to her are making the case behind the scenes that she’s not to blame, as we see in this New York Times story:

“Although Ms. Sebelius runs the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency directly responsible for the health care law, there are questions about how deeply she was involved in the development of the troubled Web site.”

Here’s the blind quote: “‘Kathleen has the title, but she doesn’t have the responsibility or in many respects the kind of wide authority and access to the president that she really needs to make a difference,’ said one person close to Ms. Sebelius and the White House, who asked to remain anonymous to discuss internal decision-making. ‘Everybody thinks that she’s the driving force, but unfortunately she’s not.’”

See? Sebelius shouldn’t be the fall guy because she doesn’t have much power and isn’t really running the health care show. Which is not terribly flattering, but beats the alternative: that she’s a powerful and hands-on manager—and therefore responsible for this mess.

The former Kansas governor is caught up in a Washington ritual, that when a scandal or debacle occurs, heads must roll. The media demand to know why so-and-so is still on the job.

Firing someone is a symbolic act, to be sure, but it also allows a president to appear to be taking decisive action. A top official will frequently offer to resign after concluding that he or she has become a liability to the administration.

That is sometimes unfair to the official being eased out, but it’s also the way politics works, and these folks serve at the pleasure of the president.

“Somebody ought to be fired,” GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander told Fox News. That’s the usual drill.

And in a new Fox News poll, 49 percent say the rollout should lead to firings, while 38 percent disagree.

But all the administration’s signals suggest that, so far at least, that isn’t happening. And Politico says Sebelius isn’t going anywhere because of a stark political reality:

“The White House and Democrats on the Hill know a potential confirmation fight would be so torturous and difficult that they’re better off sticking with the Health and Human Services secretary they’ve got, despite all that’s gone wrong on her watch. … Democrats know the people opposed to the law would never let another person who backed the law through unscathed and would instead use the confirmation hearings to re-litigate the Affordable Care Act — to subpoena reams of information, chase headline-grabbing leads and, overall, do whatever they could to delay or derail it.”

As a media figure, Sebelius hasn’t been a great advocate on her own behalf. She had a disastrous interview with Jon Stewart, and she wasn’t much better on Tuesday with CNN’s Sanjay Gupta.

Shouldn’t the launch have been delayed?

“There are people in this country who have waited for decades for affordable health coverage for themselves and their families. So waiting is not really an option,” Sebelius said.

Has she talked about leaving?

“What I talked about is doing the job that I came here to do. … I think my job is to get this fully implemented and to get the website working right. And that’s what I’m focused on.”

Sebelius will soon get focused on her testimony next week at a congressional hearing, where she is likely to get grilled. For the media, at least, she remains the piñata of the moment. Fox News.

Why is Harper gov’t muzzling the media?

By Letter to the Editor

Can you believe what the news media did in Ottawa last week? They stood up for Canadian values, such as a free press that has the freedom to hold our elected government accountable and ask the hard questions.

Typically when the prime minister gives a speech, both reporters and cameras are allowed to cover the event. In order to prevent Canadian journalists and reporters from asking any specific questions, they were banned from attending his speech: cameras only were allowed, so they could rebroadcast the prime minister’s speech but be prevented from asking any questions. This kind of manipulation and muzzling of the news is something we are used to hearing about in third world countries or nations controlled by strong authoritarian regimes, not in the democratic country of Canada.

As a result all but one news organization refused to attend or broadcast the prime minister’s speech. The most troubling part of this is that the Conservatives are not doing this in the shadows, but are blatantly trying to silence any and all voices — be it the news media or even their own MPs who offer a perspective different than the official spin from the offices of the Conservative party.

The national news outlets should be commended for standing up for Canadian values and making a stand against an overt effort to prevent them from asking the questions that Canadians want asked asked and answered. We as Canadians should also be standing up by asking our elected representative, LaVar Payne, why our government is so keen on muzzling our media from reporting on the issues that keep our government accountable.

The Conservatives have run before on the platform of the need for transparency of elected officials; preventing our nation’s reporters from doing their job is exactly the opposite of an open and transparent government. That this government has something to hide from our reporters is all the more reason we need them to keep pushing forward and asking those questions. Our freedom and the quality of our democracy depend on it. Medicine Hat News.

Scott Raible

Medicine Hat

Politicking is not media’s business in Bangladesh: Khalidi

18_Toufique+Imrose_231013BDNEWS24.com Editor-in-Chief Toufique Imrose Khalidi has reminded the politicians of their duty to safeguard the political process as he opposed the media’s direct involvement in politics.

He felt a ‘free and functioning media’ cannot sustain without a ‘proper political process’.
“When people talk about a ‘third force’ – we would like to believe they are talking about a third political force. We have never supported a third force outside the political process.””It is the responsibility of the politicians to protect the process. And the media must be in a position to support that. Because we have a stake. A free and functioning media cannot sustain without a proper political process.”

The country had gone through volatile politics in the run-up to the ninth parliamentary elections, which was ultimately held in Dec 2008, after a hiatus of almost two years.

bdnews24.com, the country’s first internet-only newspaper, was in the early stages of its evolution.

Speaking at the seventh anniversary programme of bdnews24.com on Wednesday evening, Khalidi remembered those days as well as the media’s responsibility, vital for that period.

His audience at the Radisson Blu Water Garden Hotel included policymakers from both the government and the opposition.

Even top judges, lawyers, businesspeople, entrepreneurs, poets, litterateurs, journalists, cultural activists, organisers, sportsmen, civil and military officials were present.

The Editor-in-Chief said, “Politicking is not media’s business. We do not support any media entity getting engaged in changing regimes.”

“We do cover politics, analyse or comment on political developments but getting involved directly should not be in our scheme of things.”

‘BDNEWS’ was launched as a news agency in 2005, keeping its contents to its subscribers only.

bdnews24.com was re-launched at the dawn of Oct 23 as the country’s first internet-only newspaper in Bengali and English opening up its all contents to readers when Bangladesh was going through a crucial period.

Remembering that period, he said, “We started off at a time when there was no dearth of news. The nation was in a crisis. Remember 2006? Especially the second half? Political violence was the order of the day. A caretaker government wasn’t really functioning.”

“Half the advisers resigned and were replaced by not very credible people. Chaos continued, and an election was announced; and the stage was all set for a vote that would be boycotted by one of the major parties and all its allies.”

The political changeover on Jan 11, 2007, frustration, anger that had then gripped politics, trade and commerce came up in Khalidi’s speech.  Read more at BDNEWS of Bangladesh.

Australia’s politicians finally nail the social media thing

By Malcollm Farr

A screen-grab from Tony Abbott's facebook page thanking his 150K+ Facebook supporters Source: Supplied

A screen-grab from Tony Abbott’s facebook page thanking his 150K+ Facebook supporters Source: Supplied

POLITICS has muscled its way to the top of the Facebook tree for the first time, cementing social media as a key campaign tool for major parties.

The election year review of Facebook performances also shows that of the top 10 Facebook pages by engagement, just about all have a political connection.

And not surprisingly, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard were strong performers.

The findings will be reviewed by all major parties after a big investment in social media in the September 7 election campaign.

“Not surprisingly, social media was more important in this election than any previous one and the Liberal Party devoted a much greater proportion of our campaign resources to it than we have in the past,” Liberal federal director Brian Loughnane sad yesterday.

Politics was the top engagement group with 20.9 per cent, a long way ahead of radio on 12.73 per cent, newspapers and magazines on 11.35 per cent, sports clubs 7.6 per cent, and banks and financial institutions on 4.6 per cent.

The survey was done by Social Pulse and Online Circle Digital.

The top Facebook political post by “likes” (47,349) was Kevin Rudd’s speech on his return to the prime ministership. That was followed by posts by Tony Abbott ((39,195) and Julia Gillard (31,022), both on election night.

The top political post by comments (11,780) was Tony Abbott’s victory acceptance on election night.  Herald Sun.

Who Are The Anonymous Sources In DC Journalism?

By Lt. Col. Robert Bateman

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

I was sitting in a coffee house on K Street when I got my first real insight into journalism as it is practiced in Washington, DC. Sitting across from me was a reporter from a major newspaper. We knew each other casually at that point, as he had reported on an earlier military-history-media controversy in which I had been involved. (Note: Link is to the controversy, not to the reporter I am talking about.) Unlike a lot of my peers, I did not have a fear or distaste for reporters. My peers had been taught to dislike reporters as a hangover from Vietnam, and their distaste also partially stemmed from the fact that few saw the truth of the problem of military-media relations.

The truth is that historically the military and the media have not gotten along because they are brothers, and there is no fight worse than one between brothers. Brothers know just where to punch, what hurts the most, and how to cause lasting damage. But the thing is that the reason they know all of this is because they are so close, and they are so much alike.

With journalism and the military the similarities often outweigh the differences.

Both professions are filled with idealists. Both professions are stuffed with people who truly and honestly believe that they are the defenders of the American Dream. They are the ones who protect the rights of all Americans through their selfless (and often low-paying) labors. And both of them are right, although they come at the issue from 90-degree separations, of course. Inevitably that leads to collisions. But for me that was okay. I am large, I contain multitudes, and so had no intellectual problem reconciling the two. But what this reporter, then a person, now a friend, asked me that day gave me an insider’s view which I had not anticipated.

It was just about this time of year, but the year was 2001 when this conversation took place. That year I was on a fellowship at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a DC think-tank. Obviously, in the prior month, things had changed for all of us. Now this reporter, who knew me for my writing and academic material and knew that I am a US Army Strategist, wanted to talk to me about upcoming operations.

“WHOA!” I said, “Hold on there. No. Look Zaphod*, you know I can’t talk about stuff like that, even if I had a clue about anything like that. I’m not operational, I’m at a think-tank fercripesake. But even if I wasn’t, no.”

“Bob, it’s not a problem,” he replied, “I already know most of what is going down. How about I just quote you as, ‘A respected military strategist’ or, ‘A long-time professional military planner’?”

And then, at that moment, I had to put into deliberate practice for the first time the rule that I had given myself almost seven years earlier.

“No Zaphod. And here’s the rule. I like you as a person, and you’re interesting. And if you ever need any help on the historical background of some story you are working on, or you want a historian’s perspective, I am your dude. But I will always be quoted with my own name, and whichever set of my qualifications you want to use. But my own name. That’s how it works. As for the current stuff that I ever might work on, no, I don’t do that. Not for you, or anyone.”

In truth, “Zaphod” did know most of what was about to happen, and that day I certainly learned more from him than he did from me. He knew, roughly, the time, location, and purpose of the initial US incursion into Afghanistan which would happen just days later. I, on the other hand, did not know any of that. But that meeting got me to thinking about the DC world of journalism, what I had been offered, and what a similar offer might mean to somebody else.

Good reporters, the best reporters, use honey.

They seek out the angry, disaffected, or outraged, and offer them a willing and friendly ear. That is the honey. A young major, frustrated after years of beating his head against the system to try and correct some (often perceived, but sometimes real) wrong, is vulnerable to this. Somebody who will listen, pay attention, and ask intelligent questions without judgment is a balm to any human. Add in the “celebrity” of being able to read (anonymously) the words you spoke in, gasp, a major magazine or newspaper, and it is not difficult to see how this might be a draw.

This is how a tiny percentage of the “unnamed” sources** come in to play. On that October day Zaphod really did not need me as a source, what he actually needed me for was to be a “sacrificial.” In other words, if somebody went after him because of his pending story, I would have been the first layer of defense, protecting his real, more valuable sources. All he wanted me for was as a confirmation source to validate what he already knew. I did not begrudge him this attempt, I was already coming to understand that this was how the game worked in DC.

When I realized this, and pointed it out, Zaphod shrugged. We then had a nice lunch and thereafter — our relationship defined — we never had another moment like that. But the lesson stuck with me, and then I wondered, where were all these sources coming from? DC stories are stuffed with anonymous sources, and barring the obvious political plants, how could it be that so many “Senior Defense Official” and “Prominent Military Advocate” and “Senior military leader” types were cited without being named. It took me all of about seven months after I arrived in DC to figure it out. Read more in Esquire.

The Role of News on Facebook

BY  and 

On Facebook, the largest social media platform, news is a common but incidental experience, according to an initiative of Pew Research Center in collaboration with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Overall, about half of adult Facebook users, 47%, “ever” get news there. That amounts to 30% of the population.

1-Facebook-and-NewsMost U.S. adults do not go to Facebook seeking news out, the nationally representative online survey of 5,173 adults finds. Instead, the vast majority of Facebook news consumers, 78%, get news when they are on Facebook for other reasons. And just 4% say it is the most important way they get news. As one respondent summed it up, “I believe Facebook is a good way to find out news without actually looking for it.”

However, the survey provides evidence that Facebook exposes some people to news who otherwise might not get it. While only 38% of heavy news followers who get news on Facebook say the site is an important way they get news, that figure rises to 47% among those who follow the news less often. “If it wasn’t for Facebook news,” wrote one respondent, “I’d probably never really know what’s going on in the world because I don’t have time to keep up with the news on a bunch of different locations.”

In particular, younger adults, who as a group are less engaged than their elders are with news on other platforms, are as engaged, if not more so, with news on Facebook. Young people (18- to 29– year-olds) account for about a third, 34%, of Facebook news consumers. That far outpaces the 20% that they account for among Facebook users who do not get news on the site.

What’s more, these 18- to 29-year-olds get news on Facebook across topics at roughly the same levels as older age groups, turn there as often for breaking news and deem the site as important a source of news.

All in all, then, it may be the very incidental nature of the site that ultimately exposes more people to news there. Indeed, the more time one spends on the site, the more likely they are to get news there. Two-thirds (67%) of those who use Facebook for at least an hour a day get news there compared with only 41% of those who spend less than an hour a day on the site.

These are some of the findings of the survey, which is the first in a multi-part research project by the Pew Research Center, in collaboration with the Knight Foundation, examining the role of news on Facebook and other social media platforms. Among other key findings in this report:

  • Facebook news consumers still access other platforms for news to roughly the same degree as the population overall. Four-in-ten (42%) Facebook news consumers often watch local television news, as do 46% of all U.S. adults; 23% often watch cable news (compared with 24% of all U.S. adults). But, just 21% of Facebook news consumers often read print newspapers, compared with 27% of the population overall.
  • News consumption on Facebook does not replace other activities. Those who consume news on Facebook are more active on the site than other users by nearly every measure. Fully 77% are driven to the platform to see what friends are up to (compared with 60% of other Facebook users), 49% go to chat with friends and family (versus 29%) and 26% go to post personal updates (versus 9%). In addition, almost two-thirds (65%) of those who get news on Facebook visit the site several times a day, compared with about three-in-ten (29%) other Facebook users.
  • Roughly half, 49%, of Facebook news consumers report regularly getting news on six or more different topics. The most popular topic is entertainment news, which 73% of Facebook news consumers get regularly on the site. Close behind is news about events in one’s own community (65%). National politics and government rank fourth, reaching 55% of these consumers regularly, just behind sports, which reaches 57% regularly. Still, Facebook has yet to become a platform for learning about news events as they happen. Just 28% of Facebook news consumers have ever turned there for breaking news.
  • Liking or commenting on news stories occurs almost as frequently as clicking on links, though back and forth discussions are less common.  About two-thirds (64%) of Facebook news consumers at least sometimes click on news links (16% do so often). Nearly as many, 60%, at least sometimes “like” or comment on stories (19% do so often). Just under half, 43% post or share links themselves at least sometimes (10% do so often) and about a third, 32%, discuss issues in the news with other people on Facebook (6% do so often).
  • News outlets rank low in the reasons Facebook news consumers click on news links. The biggest single reason people cite for clicking on links to news stories is interest in the topic; 70% name this as a major reason to click on news links. About half say finding the story entertaining (51%) or surprising (50%) is a major reason; 37% say a friend’s recommendation is a major reason. On the other hand, that the link came from a news organization they preferred is cited by just 20% as a major reason for clicking – outpacing only that the story had a lot of “likes” (13%).
  • Facebook news consumers who “like” or follow news organizations or journalists show high levels of news engagement on the site. About a third, 34%, of Facebook news consumers have news organizations or individual journalists in their feeds. Those who do are more likely to see the site as an important way to get news than those who do not have news organizations or journalists in their feed (54% versus 38%). They are also nearly three times as likely to often click on news links (27% versus 10%)and discuss issues in the news with others on Facebook (11% versus 4%). They are twice as likely to often post or share stories (16% versus 7%) and “like” or comment on stories (29% versus 15%).
  • As with U.S. adults overall, only a minority of Facebook news consumers say they prefer news that shares their point of view. Less than a third, 31%, of Facebook news consumers generally prefer news that shares their own point of view, just slightly higher than the 27% of U.S. adults who say the same. And, when asked about things that bother them on Facebook, twice as many Facebook news consumers are bothered when people post political statements (whether related to the news or not) than when people post opinions about something in the news (32% versus 14%). And, 58% have been surprised by a friend’s or family member’s opinion about an event in the news on the site.
  • Among U.S. adults, the desktop/laptop computer is still the primary way most adults access Facebook. Fully 59% of all adult Facebook users and 53% of Facebook news consumers mostly access the site through a desktop or laptop computer rather than a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet. And while the primarily mobile users tend to check in more frequently, desktop users clock more total time: 37% of mainly desktop/laptop Facebook news consumers spend an hour or more a day on the site, compared with 28% of mainly mobile Facebook news consumers. Read more at the Pew Research Journalism Project.

The flip-flop over beheadings: Facebook finds being a media entity isn’t as easy as it looks

By 

photo: Richard Engel, NBC

photo: Richard Engel, NBC

Is Facebook a social network? Of course it is, since it connects people with their so-called “social graph,” and makes billions of dollars by doing so. But it is also clearly a media platform, just as Twitter and YouTube and other networks are — and trying to find a dividing line between what it sees as offensive and what it is willing to permithas been sending it (and users) in circles lately.

How much free speech is Facebook willing to allow? That seems to depend on what kind of speech it is. Videos of people being beheaded appear to cross a line — although that hasn’t always been the case — but other equally violent imagery continues to circulate freely on the network. Photos of women breastfeeding, however, are routinely removed, as are posts by dissident groups in a number of different countries, often without explanation.

The latest controversy arose after a video of someone being beheaded in Mexico was posted repeatedly to multiple accounts. Facebook removed a host of similarly violent videos in May after a wave of criticism from those who said the images could cause emotional harm, particularly to younger users. The social network originally fought the move, however, arguing that the videos were free speech, and part of a valuable effort by users to discuss important political and social issues:

“People are sharing this video on Facebook to condemn it. Just as TV news programmes often show upsetting images of atrocities, people can share upsetting videos on Facebook to raise awareness of actions or causes. While this video is shocking, our approach is designed to preserve people’s rights to describe, depict and comment on the world in which we live.”

It’s interesting to note that Facebook — a proprietary network controlled by CEO Mark Zuckerberg — compared itself in this original statement to a media outlet, justifying its actions with a fundamentally journalistic defense. After much criticism, however, the company seemed to change its mind and removed the videos, saying it was reviewing its policies on the posting of such content. But then on Monday, Facebook said that it had reconsidered its ban on beheading videos, and was once again allowing them to be shared:

“Facebook has long been a place where people turn to share their experiences, particularly when they’re connected to controversial events on the ground, such as human rights abuses, acts of terrorism and other violent events,” said a spokeswoman. If the video were being celebrated, or the actions in it encouraged, our approach would be different.”

Then came the third flip-flop (depending on how you are counting), when the company said that it had determined that many of those accounts who were sharing the beheading video were not doing so to criticize or condemn it, but were doing so in a way that “improperly and irresponsibly glorifies violence,” whatever that means. Facebook went on to say that it plans to “take a more holistic look at the context surrounding a violent image or video,” and will remove any content that celebrates violence.

No matter how you slice it, this puts Facebook into the thick of an editorial decision — and not an easy one either. Now it’s no longer the content itself that determines whether it is removed or not, but the context of the sharing, including the words around it and other behavior by users. That’s a much harder decision, and one that is likely going to come back to bite the company in the future, especially given its somewhat contradictory decisions in other cases. Read more in GIGAOM.

Glenn Greenwald and the Future of Leaks

By 

greenwald_0Glenn Greenwald, the lawyer-turned-journalist-turned-global headline for his reporting on leaked NSA documents, says there is about to be a revolution that will radically change how news organizations cover governments and other big institutions.

The change, he insists, is inevitable because of the pervasiveness of digital content, which has already remade the global economy by allowing instant access to vast troves of information. “Government and businesses cannot function without enormous amounts of data, and many people have to have access to that data,” Greenwald says, adding that it only takes one person with access and an assaulted conscience to leak, no matter what controls are in place.

Information that governments, companies, and associations would rather keep private, especially when it contradicts what they tell the public, can be quickly downloaded and spirited away, as shown by the Edward Snowden National Security Agency files and the diplomatic and military files leaked by Army Private Chelsea Manning.

Greenwald says news has always been mostly the official version of events and the official criticisms of those events, with unofficial criticism as an occasional condiment. But he declares that the condiment is about to become a main course, thanks in part to a mighty push from Greenwald and eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar.

The Journalist Who Came in From the Cold

The man some Americans regard as a traitor or spy is a hero to many Brazilians, from the president on down, and looks more like a fit, middle-aged surfer than a John le Carré character. Glenn Greenwald now lives under the protection of the Brazilian government – Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff responded to the Snowden revelations by calling the spying a violation of Brazil’s sovereignty and canceling a state dinner with President Obama – and his hillside home in Rio de Janeiro’s wealthy São Conrado neighborhood is just steps from the mayor’s official residence and next to what Greenwald notes is the largest favela, as Brazilian slums are called, in Latin America.

He sat down with Newsweek this week for his first extended interview since word leaked he was leaving The Guardian, the British newspaper that published his most sensational revelations, to join a global Internet news startup funded by Omidyar.

The first question seemed obvious: How does it feel to be the victim of an unauthorized leak?

“I don’t mind,” he says, grinning, as he puts down a can of soda and reaches for a ring of lightly fried calamari. He is wearing a short-sleeve pullover shirt, tan shorts and flip-flops; the backpack at his side holds a cell phone that rings often as we talk. “We’re talking to lots of big powers in journalism about coming to work for us, so I shouldn’t be surprised that it leaked.”

He says Omidyar’s new venture will hire influential journalists from around the world and present a package of general news, all delivered without a lapdog approach to journalism. He vows it will be rife with skepticism, and cover news across the board. Even sports.

Surveillance, in Greenwald’s view, destroys journalism because it allows the government to monitor the reporting being done on it. A world in which the government operates in private while the lives of individuals are exposed, is the appalling opposite of what America’s Founders intended and a healthy democracy demands.

Government Agents Smashing Computers

Greenwald started out as a lawyer at Wachtell Lipton, one of America’s most highly respected law firms, but he hated corporate work. “I spent much too much time on pro bono cases” involving civil rights and other causes instead of developing paying clients.

Although he bailed on his career as a lawyer, his legal training at NYU Law School still permeates his comments, and he clearly has a long-term legal strategy to avoid arrest or being shut down. He also has a nuanced appreciation of the strengths – and weaknesses – of the American government in trying to limit what he can report.

He says a big reason he left The Guardian, the paper that made him world-famous, is the Official Secrets Act, a 19th-century British law that grants the government powerful tools to protect secrets. The law had a “public interest” defense for leakers until 1989, when Parliament struck it from the statute.

Downing Street demanded that Guardian computers and discs laden with Snowden secrets be smashed. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger was obliged to stand watch this summer as British agents oversaw the destruction of hard disc drives. Greenwald sees that act as an egregious abuse of power—Where, he asks rhetorically, is the outrage over government agents coming into a newsroom to destroy the work of journalists?

His most telling story is one that went virtually unreported in America, other than a photograph a few months ago in The New York Times Magazine, that showed young people wearing Snowden masks when Greenwald spoke at a Brazilian Senate hearing.

What made the news in Brazil, but not America, was what the members of the Brazilian Senate did after hearing Greenwald talk about NSA spying on Rousseff, Brazilian mining firms and government-run oil company Petrobras. They put on the Snowden masks, which he says would be unthinkable in the U.S. Senate.

“The American national security state is totally bipartisan. My biggest problem is with the Democrats, like Feinstein and Pelosi, who are defending it because there is a Democrat in the White House, and they are party loyalists and hacks before they are public servants.”

Snowden masks in the Brazilian Senate is a powerful indication of how much revelations about America’s massive spying apperatus are turning world opinion against the United States.

“The Obama administration says we only destroy the privacy of non-Americans,“ Greenwald says. “That is not true. The government is spying on Americans. But what do we expect the rest of the world will think about our government’s repeated declarations that we have no regard for the privacy of” the rest of the world?

“Washington has said over and over that only China spies for economic advantage, but the (Snowden) documents show that is not true.” Read more in Newsweek.

Murdoch corruption scandal back in the news

By Ryan Chittum

The Murdoch hacking scandal is back in the news after a bit of a respite.

Next week, Rebekah Brooks, Rupert Murdoch’s right-hand woman and a central figure in News Corp.’s hacking and bribing culture and in the ham-handed coverup, will go on trial for bribing public officials, phone hacking, and obstruction of justice. Alongside her will be former top Murdoch editor and David Cameron spokesman Andy Coulson, who epitomized the corrupt relationship between News Corp. and the British government, and Glenn Mulcaire, who hacked phones for the News of the World and whose silence was bought by the company when the hacking scandal began coming to light.

Rebekah Brooks

Rebekah Brooks

Brooks could presumably bring the House of Murdoch down if she felt it best served her own interests. It’s worth noting, though, that she too was paid off by Murdoch when defenestrated—with $18 million. But pass the popcorn.

In the meantime, NPR’s David Folkenflik is out with a well-timed book on Murdoch. I haven’t had time to read it yet, but it’s made news on a couple of fronts.

First, “Murdoch’s World” reports that Murdoch’s top men at The Wall Street Journalstymied the paper’s coverage of the unfolding hacking scandal story in the summer of 2011.

Folkenflik reports of “stories that were blocked, stripped of damning detail or context, or just held up in bureaucratic purgatory” and notes that the London bureau of the WSJ, still stocked with pre-Murdoch veterans waged a fierce battle against Managing Editor and Murdoch yacht buddy Robert Thomson, who was intent on squashing original reporting that could raise problems for News Corp.

 Andy Coulson

Andy Coulson

That’s not a surprise if you were reading your Audit back in July and August of that year, much less in 2009. But it’s as close as we’ve gotten to concrete evidence that it was a conscious editorial decision.

The Journal’s coverage of the hacking story was embarrassingly stunted in the first several weeks of the world-shaking scandal. On the day after the Milly Dowler bombshell broke, the paper stuffed a wire brief on A11 with the headline “U.K. Tabloid Accused of Hacking Girl’s Phone.” It followed the next day with a workmanlike story on B1, but dropped it below the fold.

The WSJ’s first major contribution to the hacking story was a piece a month later—that fingered, based on flimsy evidence and without talking to the alleged briber, News UK rival the Sunday Mirror for a minor instance of alleged police bribery more than a decade. I hit my old paper at the time and got perhaps the most livid complaint call I’ve ever gotten, from a WSJer whom it was clear was under tremendous pressure at the time. Now we know the backstory.

Folkenflik also reports that Murdoch’s flacks at Fox News descended into industrial-scale sockpuppetry in comment sections of posts critical of Fox:

Fox PR staffers were expected to counter not just negative and even neutral blog postings but the anti-Fox comments beneath them. One former staffer recalled using twenty different aliases to post pro-Fox rants. Another had one hundred. Several employees had to acquire a cell phone thumb drive to provide a wireless broadband connection that could not be traced back to a Fox News or News Corp. account… “Even blogs with minor followings were reviewed to ensure no claim went unchecked.”

Another long-held suspicion confirmed.

Now, British investigative site ExaroNews, has more bad news for News. This summer, Exaro got hold of a tape of Murdoch’s meeting with beleaguered Sun journalists last year that showed him admitting he had known about his papers’ bribes culture for decades. The tapes showed the old man has learned almost nothing from the last two years of scandal. In addition to his “everybody knew it” admission, he trashed Scotland Yard, and promised jailed Sun journalists “support.”

“I’m not allowed to promise you – I will promise you continued health support – but your jobs. I’ve got to be careful what comes out – but frankly, I won’t say it, but just trust me.”

 Read more at the Columbia Journalism Review.

Shutdown science

By Naomi Sharp

Since Barack Obama signed legislation to end the government shutdown last week, things in Washington have been slowly returning to normal. But for the slew of scientists whose research was interrupted by the hiatus, the partisan battle has larger ramifications. Experiments funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stopped while researchers waited for funding to trickle back. Scientists stationed in the Antarctic were forced to return home, wasting months of preparation and leaving their fieldwork to fester. As Politico points out, the hiatus in research funds resulted in data loss and ruined work for government-funded science.

But a number of news outlets are suggesting that effects of the shutdown on researchers is simply a symptom of a larger problem: the Republican party’s anti-science attitudes. Conservative politicians have fought for more restricted science funding for years. In the past, the GOP has tried to limit the independence of the NSF and limit the regulatory power of the EPA. (Some Republicans have suggested shutting the EPA down altogether.) With the shutdown causing problems to research, a number of outlets like SalonPolicy Micand MSNBC have reported that—rather than writing off the blows to science as a sad side effect of party politics—Republicans have celebrated the sucker-punch.

Last week the Guardian connected the dots with a straight-to-the-point article. “Are Republicans anti-science?” asks environmental journalist Richard Schiffman. “In this case, yes.”

According to Schiffman, Republicans deserve scrutiny for the potentially crippling problems—like damaged monitoring systems, lab animal euthanizations, and lost data collection—that arose from the suspension of government funding. “It is not just that government researchers were locked out of their labs and offices, but whole programs were wastefully delayed and, in some cases, endangered,” he writes. The title is a bit more provocative than its content—Schiffman doesn’t suggest that Republicans let the government come to a halt specifically to slow down the EPA and scientific research. But he chastises Republicans (Michele Bachmann in particular) for their self-congratulatory responses to the shutdown, in spite of the lasting damage it caused to science.

The Guardian isn’t alone in chronicling the partisan glee: Salon went further writing, “Fox News, Republicans overjoyed that the EPA’s been shut down.”

And Republican officials haven’t been quick to squash the Guardian’s claim: In fact, they’ve been playfully acquiescing. On Tuesday, conservatives in the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee (EPW), posted a BuzzFeed-esque listicle on their website, titled “The Top Ten Reasons The Government Shutdown Isn’t All Bad.” The 10 perks all pertain to diminished environmental regulation, like reason number nine, the “EPA doesn’t have the manpower to raid Alaska mines with armed guards.”

Only a few writers caught on to EPW’s science-mocking post—surprising, considering it’s such low hanging fruit. The shutdown “has nothing to do with stopping entitlements such as Obamacare, or shaving the national debt,” wrote Darryl Fears at theWashington Post. “Nope. It has almost everything to do with their hated rival, the Environmental Protection Agency.” At The Atlantic Wire, Philip Bump takes reason eight—“Fewer bureaucrats at the EPA makes it less likely that they’ll make up science on new regulations.”—to task:

“The “made-up science” [that the EPW referred to] is, naturally, the science bolstering the link between carbon pollution and climate change…It’s not the EPA’s science, anyway — it’s the scientific community’s, most of whom aren’t furloughed and so can “make up” (read: “generate data on”) climate science to their hearts’ content.”

Calling Republicans “anti-science” is a well-worn argument, but Republican reactions to the loss of scientific work have made an old case fresh. Their complacency in the face of serious blows to scientific research and environmental regulation is fair game for criticism from the media. It’s probably a stretch to suggest, as Business Insider did, that blocking the EPA was a driving goal of the shutdown. But journalists aren’t misrepresenting reality when they point out that many Republicans considered it a perk. Columbia Journalism Review.

Fox News defends global warming false balance by denying the 97% consensus

By Dana Nuccitelli

Fox News uses denial to defend false balance.

Fox News uses denial to defend false balance.

A study published earlier this year in the journal Public Understanding of Science found that consumption of politically conservative media outlets like Fox News decreases viewer trust in scientists, which in turn decreases belief that global warming is happening. This is in large part a result of disproportionate representation of the less than 3 percent of climate scientists who are ‘skeptical’ of human-caused global warming, as well as interviewing climate contrarian non-experts, for example from conservative fossil fuel-funded think tanks.

Last week, I reported that studies of media coverage leading up to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report revealed that Fox News and other politically conservative media outlets continued this practice of false balance. Fox News was particularly guilty, representing climate contrarians in 69 percent of their IPCC stories.

How did Fox News respond to my criticisms that they were disproportionately representing the views of climate contrarians, particularly non-experts from think tanks? By publishing an opinion pieceby Marlo Lewis from a conservative fossil fuel-funded think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Lewis has a background in political science, and has been described by DeSmogBlog as,

“…just another energy industry crony who is paid to deny that fossil fuel pollution causes problems.”

Lewis defended Fox News’ false balance climate reporting by denying that there is an expert consensus on human-caused global warming. He did so by attacking the study that I co-authored earlier this year, finding 97 percent of peer-reviewed climate abstracts and papers taking a position on the cause of global warming agree that humans are responsible.

ipcc-chart2_450

 

Soon after our paper was published, it was the subject of many attacks by climate contrarians who know that expert consensus is a powerful public communications tool. These attacks exemplified the five characteristics common to scientific denialism highlighted in a paper by Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee:

1) Conspiracy theories;
2) Fake experts;
3) Cherry picking;
4) Impossible expectations of what research can deliver; and
5) Misrepresentation and logical fallacies.

Five months later, Lewis’ Fox News opinion piece made the exact same arguments, exemplifying all five characteristics of scientific denialism. Mainly, he focused on the papers captured in our peer-reviewed literature search using the keywords “global warming” and “global climate change” that didn’t say anything about the causes of global warming. These are broad search terms, and Lewis’ expectation that every climate-related paper must discuss the causes of global warming is an example of impossible expectations. Lewis also advanced this revealingconspiracy theory:

“People get suspicious when government-appointed experts define “the science” for the purpose of advancing an agenda that just happens to increase government control of energy markets.”

In reality, by acknowledging that he and his fellow climate contrarians are suspicious of the expert consensus because they don’t like its implications, Lewis is admitting that the global warming ‘debate’ isn’t about science. Read more at The Guardian.

Free our reporter, begs newspaper as China cracks down on journalists

By Megha Rajagopalan

2012012800121439Oct 23 (Reuters) – A Chinese newspaper pleaded with police on Wednesday to release an investigative reporter accused of defamation in an unusual public rebuke amid a wider government crackdown on freedom of expression.

The state-run New Express tabloid printed a front-page commentary begging police in the south-central city of Changsha to set reporter Chen Yongzhou free under the headline: “Please release him.”

Chen was detained after writing more than a dozen stories criticizing the finances of a major state-owned construction equipment maker.

Chen’s arrest, which coincides with new curbs on journalists, lawyers and internet users in China, throws into question the role of whistleblowers as the country’s leadership moves to eradicate graft.

“When the government is cracking down on freedom of expression and arresting journalists … it seems to cast serious doubt on how serious this anti-corruption drive is,” said Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch.

Chen reported that Changsha-based Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science and Technology Co. Ltd. engaged in sales fraud, exaggerated its profits and used public relations to defame its competitors, accusations strongly denied by the company.

The commentary went viral on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblog service, on Wednesday, and was republished by Chinese media with no obvious antagonism from censorship authorities.

Zoomlion said it had complained to the Changsha police about Chen following his stories.

“The reason we did it was to safeguard the legitimate rights of the company,” Zoomlion vice president Sun Changjun told Reuters, declining further comment.

Media experts said the commentary was unusual but not highly controversial because the paper, published in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, was criticising Changsha authorities as opposed to the central government.

Changsha police did not specifically name Zoomlion, but said Chen was detained on defamation charges.

“New Express journalist Chen is suspected of the crime of damaging business reputation, and so on October 19 was detained by police according to the law,” the city’s public security bureau said in a posting on its microblog.

In the acerbic commentary, New Express alluded to state-owned Zoomlion’s influence in Changsha.

“Even though Zoomlion is very strong and pays a lot of taxes in Changsha, we are still of the same class,” the commentary said. “Uncle police, big brother Zoomlion, we beg you, please let Chen Yongzhou go.”

A Chinese cartoonist was detained last week for criticising the government of the flood-stricken city of Yuyao using Weibo. Read more at Reuters.

Related Story:

China paper’s front-page demand for journalist release

Group of journalists from across the Americas condemns press violations in Latin America, US

By Associated Press

DENVER — A group representing journalists from across the Americas condemned violations of press freedoms in both Latin America and the United States on Tuesday, including the killings of 14 journalists, the secret seizure of Associated Press phone records and a new censorship law in Ecuador.

The Inter American Press Association also cited the large-scale government acquisition of media outlets in Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina as well as advertising restrictions in Argentina aimed at hurting independent media outlets as among the worst problems of the last six months during the final day of its 69th general assembly in Denver.

In addition to the 14 journalists killed in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti, Ecuador, Honduras and Paraguay, statutes of limitations for prosecuting the killers of 17 journalists in Colombia and Mexico in previous years is expiring this year, IAPA said in its annual declaration.

Ecuador’s gag law, which took effect in June, created government bodies that have the power to control media ownership, censor content and define who may be a journalist. IAPA asked President Rafael Correa to seek an advisory opinion on the law from the Inter-American Human Rights Court as well as Ecuador’s constitutional court to consider petitions against it.

The press group called on Venezuela to end judicial persecution of journalists and media executives and to allow media outlets access to foreign currency so they can buy vital supplies such as newsprint.

Regarding the secret seizure of AP’s phone records, IAPA called upon the U.S. Justice Department “to vigorously adopt and comply” with proposed department guidelines to ensure advance notice is given the media in similar cases. The records were seized in 2012 as part of an investigation to find the source of an AP story about the foiling of an attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner, but AP was only notified about the seizure this year. Read more in the Washington Post.

The media industry versus Google – Is it a frog or a turtle?

By 

The recent media venture by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, and Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post have spurred the decimated ranks of US news organizations as potentially being able to save journalism. [Tech Wealth and Ideas Are Heading Into News – NYTimes.com]

Foremski’s Take: These billionaire ventures can’t save journalism — here’s why.

The problems in building sustainable news businesses aren’t caused by a lack of apps or technology, or by paper versus electron. They are caused by a business model reliant on advertising, which continues to degrade despite the best efforts of leading news sites.

The New York Times is considered at the forefront in terms of its digital news, its paywall, its innovative publishing experiments, etc. Yet its digital ads revenue continues to fall, quarter on quarter. How is this possible with a rising audience?

It’s because it is fighting an industry business model issue.

Negative trends for news…

– The Pew Research Center reported a 22 per cent rise in local advertising, however, two trends are taking revenues away from local news organizations:

One is the more sophisticated geo-targeting by major national ad networks, which appeals to national brands like WalMart. In addition, Google, Facebook and other large players are improving their ability to sell ad space to truly local advertisers.

– The move to mobile platforms is another negative factor. Mobile ads earn one-fifth that of desktop ads. Plus, Pew reports that: “Fully 72% of mobile display ad revenue now goes to six companies—none of which are news producing organizations.”

– Online advertising rates continue to decline. It’s because there’s tons of new inventory on the web. News organizations have to chase more traffic just to stay still.

– It’s not about paper versus electron — news is getting less popular. Pew reports that audience numbers will worsen because younger generations aren’t that interested. Pew Research surveys of audience habits suggest perilous future for news

– Tech billionaires investing in news doesn’t mean that they will come up with a magic app, or a technology that will turnaround the dismal economics of the media industry.  It’s not a technology issue but a business model issue.

Other billionaires have invested in trying to help journalism. The late Warren Hellman, who also made his money from eBay, financed the Bay Area News Project. But  how does this help when it competes with local news organizations that don’t have billionaire backers?

Billionaires: Here’s how you can save journalism…

Saving journalism means one thing: developing a sustainable business model that can allow any media organization to thrive and compete. For example,  San Francisco used to have more than a dozen daily newspapers, competing based on the quality and urgency of their news reports because there was a business model that rewarded the best. Increased readership meant increased revenues — unlike today.

The billionaires should all get together to fund the development of a sustainable media business model that any local news organization can adhere to and build on. 

It can only be done on an industry-wide basis,  it’s the only way to develop the scale that can compete with large media platforms such as Google and Facebook.

It will require a cartel-like approach to provide the control and the metrics to revive advertising revenues. For example, to show how media content drives far more commerce than search advertising and is thus more valuable to advertisers. Yet it is the last-click that gets the credit or the payment. (See: Skimlinks Says Affiliate Payouts Short-Change Publishers.)

It’ll probably require the Department of Justice to provide special protection from anti-trust laws but unless there is an industry-wide effort to shore up revenues from the deflationary crush of the tech media giants, the news industry will continue to struggle and fail.

The scorpion and the frog

Google has done much damage to the news industry by deflating the dollar value of advertising. This reduces the dollar value of all media content while protecting the value of its proprietary index.

The index —  the metadata — trumps individual content and Google has every incentive to keep things that way.

It’s what’s killing the media industry. But it is also killing the revenues Google can make from the media industry.

For example: Google’s $12.7 billion AdSense network, which shares ad revenue with publishers such as New York Times, is plunging this year. [Please see: Analysis: What Future For Google’s Troubled AdSense?]

Google is like the scorpion in the Aesop fable, that wants to cross a river. He asks a frog to carry him on his back but he refuses, saying he’ll sting him. The scorpion says that’s ridiculous because they would both would drown.

The frog agrees but half-way across the river the scorpion stings the frog. As both are drowning the frog croaks, “Why?” The scorpion relies, “I’m a scorpion!” It’s in its nature to sting — it’s not a rational or premeditated act.

It’s in Google’s nature to devalue media content to preserve the value of its index. It is self-defeating because if there’s nothing “new” created on the web — why would anyone return daily?

Yet Google doesn’t understand that creating news is not free and that quality news is very expensive. Read more at ZD Net.

 

Most Political ‘Messaging’ Is Just Not All It’s Cracked Up To Be

By Jason Linkins

Shutdown White HouseIf you read enough Beltway reporting, you will probably die pretty quickly of intellectual dysentery. But for those whose hearty constitutions allow them to stick it out, it is inevitable that once you’ve inundated yourself in political reporting, you’ll run across lots and lots and lots of pieces that are primarily about “messaging” — who is winning at “messaging” and who is losing at “messaging.”

See, lawmakers have policies they want to see enacted. But a lot of those policies really suck canal water. That’s where “messaging” comes in — it’s the gloss and fuss that dresses up everyone’s ideas. Typically, just about everyone in Washington believes that almost anything can be sold if you just tell a good enough story about it. I suppose that can be true in a few limited instances. But the truth of the matter is that if everyone who plies their trade in politics were some sort of silver-tongued pitchman super-genius, then they wouldn’t ply their trade in politics.

I’ve learned to minimize the pain of reading these stories — all of which are essentially gossip — by recognizing within a few paragraphs that I’m about to wade into some bullshit and that I should close the tab on my browser before I blow sick all over my shirtfront. In general, I can say that by skipping these stories, my understanding of how politics fundamentally works hasn’t really slipped. And so, I’m grateful to the Monkey Cage’s Dan Hopkins, who takes to the pages of the Washington Post to offer a master-class elucidation of “how the myth of messaging gets politicians into trouble,” and prove with political science that I am making some sound life choices. Well … at least one sound life choice, anyway.

As noted before, there exists this funny theory that the president has a magical bully pulpit with which he can entrance the minds of menAs Hopkins notes, this isn’t how the world works in practice, because “all of our recent presidents have managed to push public opinion away from them during their time in office, including one dubbed ‘The Great Communicator‘ and another who rose to prominence thanks to a keynote address at a national convention.” This is something that the aforementioned “great communicator” learned and acknowledged; the famed keynote speaker, it’s also noted, is perhaps still learning this.

Hopkins goes on to say that despite the furious debate over the Affordable Care Act affording actors on both sides to deploy their sharpest minds and hardest talk in crafting elegant, piquant soundbites of pleasing, hashtaggable simplicity, the truth is that “[p]ublic opinion on health-care reform shifted only gradually, and the words that American citizens used to describe the law’s advantages and disadvantages remained almost constant as the debate unfolded.”

The single biggest limitation to messaging is that the audience that would presumably benefit from it the most has proven to be singularly adept at avoiding it completely, and so it lands in the ears of people who are least likely to be shaken by it. As Hopkins explains:

In part, the myth of messaging relies on the idea that there are lots of voters who are at once engaged with politics and without strong party loyalties. But as John Sides has pointed out, such voters are few and far between, since it is the strong partisans whose rooting interest keeps them tuned into C-SPAN. Just as you don’t find a lot of people at football games who will root for whichever team plays the better game, the core audience for contemporary politics doesn’t have many attentive, neutral voters who are simply listening for the best argument. Instead, the voters who follow the ins and outs of politics most closely are those with a strong commitment to a party, making them very unlikely to abandon that party at the turn of a phrase.

One of the most common mistakes that a person who is highly engaged in politics can make is to assume that most people are as highly engaged as they are. In truth, most ordinary Americans are not that engaged in politics (a sizable percentage do not even vote), and so the daily nips and tucks of “political messaging” gets trapped in the spam filter known as “just plain living your life.” Read more in the Huffington Post.