April 26, 2007

My last word on Don Imus

Two things:

1. I’ve seen many letters to the editor, blog entries and comments, and other commentary that demonstrate much confusion about free speech in regard to Don Imus. At no time during this episode was Don Imus’s freedom of speech ever in jeopardy. The First Amendment protects your freedom of speech against government control. Anyone else is perfectly free not to listen to you and not to provide you a medium for your expression. If government had attempted to silence Imus, I would have been on the front lines defending his right to call anyone a “nappy-headed ho.”

2. No double standard exists in this case. One standard holds, re: hip-hop use of similar terms. That standard is economics. To understand this you must understand who is the customer for a newspaper, TV or radio station and what is the product. This will be difficult for some journalists to accept, but the customer is the advertiser and the product is the eyeballs and ears of an audience. Journalism is simply the stuff the owner thinks will attract the eyeballs and ears the customer wishes to reach.

The customers for hip-hop and rap music are apparently happy with the product. The customers for Don Imus’s show apparently became unhappy.

And, if you think the opinion press has not taken hip-hop to task for its quality of speech, think again–and do a Lexus search. Or take a look at the current flap over the whole “no snitchin” thing. And if you think Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton played political roles in this–ignoring similar language in hip-hop–well, duh! What did you expect from these guys? Partisan politics is not about intellectual consistency. It’s about winning.

April 18, 2007

See It Now

Cell phone cameras make it possible for anyone anywhere to record news events. Just the latest example is the dramatic images taken by citizen journalists during the shootings at Virginia Tech. What makes them citizen journalists is not a prior intention to cover the news but the fact they they did cover it–and could cover it–given the opportunity. KY3 covered the cell phone angle using me as a source.

I wonder how long it will be before a cell phone company markets a model specifically for citizen journalists?

April 17, 2007

Springfield Bloggers meet tonight

Or, more accurately, in about an hour and a half. Sorry for the late notice. It has been a busy day.

Among today’s events, KY3 dropped by to interview me about citizen journalism, specifically as it involves the pictures and accounts coming from the shootings at Virginia Tech. Look for it at 10:00 p.m.

Tomorrow I’m doing an interview for NPR about political rhetoric. Details later.

April 12, 2007

Holier Than Thou

Should bloggers have a code of ethics?

Here’s the latest attempt at creating such a document. And you’ll find more attempts here, here, and here.

Individual bloggers may have specifically stated ethical codes or policies. For example, here’s mine (needs a bit of updating, I think).

But to answer the question: No, I don’t think “bloggers” should have a policy or code because “bloggers” is too big a category encompassing too many people doing too many things. I do, however, think adhering to some set of standards among groups of bloggers engaged in roughly the same task (e.g. media blogging) is a good thing. I think any desire on the part of an individual blogger to assert an ethical standard is an instinct that needs to be nurtured more than ridiculed.

Ethics codes, personal or otherwise, it seems to me, help promote civility. And civility helps promote understanding (if not persuasion). For this to work, however, “understanding” has to be valued more than “winning.”

On a related note, re: civility: MSNBC is dropping its simulcast of Imus in the Morning. Good. I say that not because I think there’s anything particularly more odious about Imus than any number of other blatherers on the right (e.g. Rush Limbaugh) or left (e.g. Randi Rhodes). A part of me hopes this episode will encourage us all to take a harder look at the nonsense that passes for entertainmentary.

Imus got whacked, and deserved to get whacked, for picking on accomplished college women who deserved praise for their feats. Only an utter lack of civility allows one to think his crack was funny.

April 10, 2007

Not nearly far enough

Rem Rieder has the right idea:

It’s time for Russert and Thomas and NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and “Hardball” impresario Chris Matthews and Sens. McCain and Joseph Biden and Joe Lieberman—and many, many more—to, in the immortal words of Nancy Reagan, just say no.

By continuing to appear on a program hosted by a guy who makes comments this far beyond the pale, Russert & Co. are giving their tacit approval. They give Imus a protective cover of legitimacy. It’s as if they’re all members of the same club. Imus may be naughty, but, hey, he’s just being Imus.

But this doesn’t go far enough (never mind Russert and Matthews are troubling hosts in their own ways).

Journalists (I hesitate to include Russert and Matthews) and politicians should be very careful about the media company they keep. How about using the current Imus flap to, say, closely examine all of the blathering radio and television talk hosts (including Russert and Matthews). How about we make plain to the world the kind of nonsense that regularly passes for…what?…what do we call what they really do? Journalism? Commentary? Entertainment?

Oh, yeah. This guy keeps constant watch on them.

April 9, 2007

Resisting pseudo-news

Here’s an interesting situation out of Jefferson City, Missouri regarding the rhetoric of political letters, i.e. public letters written by one politician to another for the purpose of…what?

I think it’s clear the purpose has little to do with changing the heart and mind of the recipient (who often doesn’t hear about said letter until it is made public).

Are such letters news? I think it is clear they are attempts to manipulate the news. How should reporters respond? One suggestion: Ignore them until actually sent to, and received by, the politician in question. And, further, report the political/rhetorical intention of said letter as a normal part of the article.

Tony Messenger also takes a look at this.

April 9, 2007

Journalism and Social Mythology

The single worst thing to happen to print journalism in the past 50 years was the introduction of USA Today. It introduced a damaging idea in two parts: That print journalism can/should compete with television journalism graphically and temporally.

I’ll not deal with the graphics here, except to say that I find USA Today ugly and The New York Times beautiful. Call it an “aesthetic of seriousness.”

What I want to deal with here is the temporal issue. Television is time-bound in a way print (and the internet) is not. If you want a cogent analysis of why this makes television a difficult medium for news, read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. Because the usual 30-minute newscast is bound by the need for visuals and the reading speed of normal human beings, it can only deliver so much content in terms of words. The popular (and very rough) comparison is that a typical news program delivers roughly the same number of words as half a front page of a typical newspaper.

One of the ideas behind USA Today, following from television as a medium of a certain kind, is that Americans have short attention spans for news (and in general). I’ve always thought this was a load of malarkey, largely because I do not trust the current practices of journalism to be able to accurately assess such things. As proof, I offer any typical “trend” article that runs in any typical newspaper nearly every day. For a discussion of why these articles are nearly always faulty, read A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper by John Allen Paulos.

An ongoing study by Poynter may challenge the popular mythology about American’s short attention spans for news (thanks to my buddy Jay Manifold for the link). Here’s the upshot:

Readers select stories of particular interest and then read them thoroughly.

And there’s a twist: The reading-deep phenomenon is even stronger online than in print.

At a time when readers are assumed to have short attention spans, especially those who read online, this qualifies as news.

That last line disturbs me. I think it is entirely true. But I would ask: Why should this be news? Why shouldn’t journalism have long understood that citizens will spend time on news that interests them (and we ain’t talkin’ scalps and corpses here)?

A partial answer: Journalists are poorly trained in, and generally have a poor understanding of, statistics and science. And this situation is all the more acute when it comes to misunderstanding the very media they use to give citizens “the information they need to be free and self-governing.”

April 4, 2007

Goodbye John Stone

I met John Stone at the second meeting of the Springfield Bloggers. Steve Kirks had tried to start a bloggers’ group some months before I arrived in Springfield (early summer 2004). I made the same attempt when I blew into town because I wanted to make new friends and learn the local culture, of which I was now a part.

John Stone, 62, died yesterday of an apparent heart attack. He was the writer of Curbstone Critic.

John came to that second meeting and was a stalwart and regular ever since. It was sad news to learn from Tony Messenger last night that John would no longer be attending. Tony posted a podcast of our discussion after we heard the news.

I am deeply saddened by the death of a man I counted among my friends. As I wrote in the comments of Chatter today: “I am bummed to the core of my being over the loss of our good friend.”

Read Chatter’s thoughts here.

Read Zach’s thoughts here.

April 3, 2007

Too Funny

From a report by Tim Porter about a recent ANSE panel:

Huffington is talking about Huffington Post’s plan to work with Jay Rosen’s new project. NewAssignment.net, in covering the 2006 presidential campaign. We’ll have citizen journalists in every state, she says. What’s a citizen journalists, asks Diller. Mossberg, not missing a beat, jumps in: “It’s like citizen surgery.” Rim shot. Big laugh from the newspaper editors.

I have heard of journalists making this same statement, but I have never heard it with my own ears. And if I ever do I will laugh heartily.

One could attack such a silly statement from so many angles. But the most obvious angle is also the most amusing one. That is: Journalists generally (and rightly) bristle at the idea that they should ever participate in the same kind of state-sanctioned education or be subject to the same kind of state-sponsored licensing as physicians. Freedom of the “press” (i.e. a metonymy for all sorts of information gathering and disseminating) is the right to distribute information to the public. It is a First Amendment right. Cutting into people with sharp little knives is not. You don’t have to prove to anyone you can practice journalism (except maybe your crusty local editor if you want to get paid for it). You most certainly do have to prove to the state that you can cut into people without killing them (most of the time).

There are two primary differences between citizen journalists and professionals (i.e. those who get a paycheck): 1) The paycheck; and 2) Professional journalists enjoy, but don’t discuss, the de facto licensing that most certainly exists, e.g. in the form of employer-issued press credentials that pros are only too happy for authorities of all kinds to recognize.

There are a few other differences that involve skills in news gathering and writing. A good dose of journalism ethics sure wouldn’t hurt either. To get you up to speed on ethical practice, I recommend The Elements of Journalism and Good News, Bad News. None of these skills are particularly difficult to acquire. They are, however, often quite difficult to practice well. Journalists ought to applaud citizens who want to take on this job as amateurs. Journalists ought to want to help.

April 3, 2007

Gotta Know What’s Goin’ On

I forgot to mention an article I saw in The New York Times a few weeks ago in the Sunday edition. It seems book publishers consider The Daily Show with Jon Stewart an A-list publicity stop. Reason: Viewers of the show are book readers. Evidence: Among other things, Amazon sales spike after an author’s appearance (to a greater extent than other shows).

This surprises me not at all. I don’t think you can find The Daily Show very funny if you don’t know what’s going on in the world and if you aren’t “news media literate” to a fairly high degree.

In my media ethics class recently, a bit of anecdotal evidence emerged regarding the intellectual chops it takes to enjoy Stewart (and Colbert). One of my students works as a news photographer for a local television station. He tells this story:

Typical of television news operations, the newsroom has several televisions tuned into various news programs throughout the day. And one of them is tuned to The Daily Show at 10:30 p.m. central time Monday through Thursday. (Which I find rather hilarious considering how hard Stewart is on television news.) Quite often, younger technical employees–fresh out of school and new to their jobs–don’t find the show all that funny. But after a few weeks of working in a news organization, they begin “laughing just like the rest of us.”

Getting smarter being around journalism? Getting it because they see first-hand what Stewart is satirizing? I don’t know. But I find this anecdote interesting.

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