The rock, or the hard place?

I have to confess I’m paying minimal attention to technology these last few days. I’ve been watching the goings-on in the Middle East. I saw the headlines that Intel’s newest chipset is buggy, but that won’t go down as the biggest news of 2011. A revolution in Egypt stands a chance. And it could have a domino effect.

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Going violent

The rhetoric in today’s political environment is toxic. Since before the 2008 presidential election, I’ve been expecting it to take a violent turn. Today it happened. It happened later than I expected, and the target wasn’t who I expected, but now we’ve gone violent.

It’s entirely possible that the pundits and candidates who utilize violent turns of phrase didn’t expect it to happen this way. Their intent matters little at this point. You never know whether violent rhetoric will be interpreted literally or figuratively, but all it takes is one person to take it literally for it to turn into a tragedy. Now it appears that a 22-year-old consipracy theorist did take it literally, and now we have a tragedy. Among the wounded is a 40-year-old Congresswoman. Among the dead are a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl.

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Of cameras and manhandling

If you haven’t heard, Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.) is the new Internet meme.

Two younger men, claiming to be college students, approached Etheridge on the street as he left a meeting. They asked if he supported Obama’s agenda. Etheridge demanded to know who they were, manhandled one of them, then finally walked away. Although he succeeded in disabling one camera, the other camera was rolling. After some editing, he became a You Tube sensation.

This is a very clear-cut case.Some are speculating the two "students" were trying to trap a Democrat in an embarrassing situation. In this case, the motives don’t matter. The two men were on a public sidewalk. They had every right to be there, cameras rolling or no.

Etheridge wanted the two men to identify themselves. However, this is a courtesy, not a right. When I was reporting, I always identified myself. I told my sources my name, the name of the publication I was working for, and, usually, the subject of the story I was working on. A few times I flashed my press pass, but usually nobody cared. Such courtesies lend credibility, but a journalist isn’t required to disclose any of that.

What did these two men say? "We’re two college students working on a project." Credentials like that will get you the brush-off about 99% of the time, and for good reason.

So what’s an appropriate brush-off? Say "No comment," then keep on walking. Make an excuse, like you’re late for another appointment, and keep walking. Hand them a business card and tell them to call you some other time.

Or, just answer the question. The question was whether he supports Obama’s agenda. The answer, of course, is, not all of it. Etheridge represents the second district of North Carolina, and the president does not. Since they’re both members of the same political party, there should be some overlap, but two representatives from adjacent districts who are members of the same party will disagree at times. Assuming they aren’t letting the party dictate everything to them.

Saying that takes less time and effort than grunting "Who are you?" a half dozen times and manhandling someone. And if they really are students, it gives them the material they need and they’ll leave you alone. If they’re political operatives for a rival party, it shuts them right down.

I started in journalism school a long 15 years ago. You Tube was a technical impossibility then, although it was something we expected would exist someday. Back then, the saying was that you should never do anything you wouldn’t want to see plastered across the front page of the New York Times.

There was another saying too. Freedom of the press is for those who own one.

A lot has changed. Today you can buy a video camera that fits in a shirt pocket for $70. Every computer sold in the last 8 years came with at least basic video editing software. And anyone can upload to You Tube.

Anyone can register for a blog and write whatever they want, and Google will index it. The overwhelming majority of it will be ignored, but there are legions of bored people out there. Never underestimate their ability to find stuff.

In 1995, there were serious barriers to entering journalism. Today, the traditional institutions like the New York Times are losing influence, but anyone who wants to practice journalism can do it.

I guess the saying today ought to be "Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want to see on the home page of You Tube."

Cameras can be used to restrict freedom and privacy. But they can also be used to prevent (or at least expose) abuses of power. This is still pretty new stuff, and a lot of people are having trouble adjusting to it.

Etheridge is trying to spin this as a mistake made at the end of a long day. That sounds plausible. But it’s a mistake that’s going to be around a long time. He’s up for re-election, and there’s no doubt in my mind that his opponent will use it in political advertisements from now until November.

Until this week, Etheridge looked like an automatic re-election. But video footage of an authority figure going all WWF Smackdown on two young men after asking a simple question has a way of changing things.

Are blogs credible?

OK, so 60%+ of Americans don’t trust blogs. Do I need to do a Gomer Pyle imitation?

Blogs are media. People generally don’t trust the media either.Ten years ago, which was a time when the Web had about 12 pages on it and almost all of them were personal pages, I was in journalism school and if there was one point the introductory and history classes tried to hammer home, it was that freedom of the press is in danger. Today, a majority of students, when presented with the exact wording of the First Amendment, believe it goes too far.

There’s an old saying that freedom of the press is for those who own one. To a degree, that presented a large barrier of entry. One can safely assume that it will cost more than a million dollars to start a magazine, and that’s been true for a very long time. Newspaper startup costs will be much higher.

But somehow that hasn’t stopped quacks from getting into print. Some quacks are very wealthy. They can buy media outright, and less-wealthy quacks can just buy some space in a newspaper and pontificate all they want about whatever bothers them and act like a syndicated columnist–some even include their picture–and the only way you would know is by the word “ADVERTISEMENT” plastered across the top and the bottom of the editorial.

In contrast, some people will give you a blog for free, and that lowers the cost of entry even further. Now all it takes is some rudimentary computer skills and the willingness to sit down and write. And if people agree with you and link to you, you might even gain some prominence.

Does that make them credible? No. But do the words “of the [insert newspaper name here] staff” give you credibility? It shouldn’t. Journalism is not a licensed profession like engineering or law or medicine. If I can convince someone to hire me and pay me to write, I’m a journalist. The same goes for you. There are just two barriers of entry: People who can string words together intelligently are much more rare than they should be, and the pay stinks. If your goal is to keep a dry roof over your head and drive a car that isn’t falling apart, you’re better off persuing a career as a garbage man. But if you’re willing to live with pay that makes schoolteachers look like aristocrats, there isn’t much keeping you from being a journalist.

The low pay is one reason I’m suspicious of a lot of journalists. To put up with that lifestyle, you pretty much have to have a hidden agenda.

So do I trust blogs? Generally, no. But don’t feel bad. Generally speaking I’m suspicious of television news and newspapers and magazines and other online news services too.

Credibility is earned. I know some people trust me. I know some other people think I’m a quack who blogs because no sane person would pay me to write anything. And that’s fine–in some cases the feeling is more than mutual.

So what to do about those big, bad blogs that have no credibility? Censoring speech is always bad. The solution to speech that needs censorship is more speech. So the answer to bad blogs is more blogs. The best of the best will rise to the top, and quacks always find a way to eventually self destruct.

The government exists to protect and serve its citizens, not the other way around

“If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.” — Thomas Jefferson

Today, half of U.S. high school students surveyed believe newspaper stories should require government approval. Pravda, anyone?We shouldn’t be surprised. Freedom of the press died in the U.S. schoolroom on January 13, 1988 when the Supreme Court ruled that high schools can censor student newspapers.

As an outspoken high school newspaper editor in the early 1990s, I argued that in the 1950s the biggest problems were kids running in the halls and chewing gum in class. By the 1990s, teen pregnancy wasn’t even in the top two. Drugs and guns had pushed it out.

I argued that high school journalists should be permited to pursue tough issues. Their chances of solving any of those issues approaches zero, but their chances of helping their readers to feel less alone were pretty good. And I wouldn’t have minded if the newspapers made the administration a bit more accountable too–this was only a year or two after Pump up the Volume came out, after all.

I also argued that school’s job was to teach kids how to operate in the real world, and if they spent their late teens in a totalitarian regime, then they wouldn’t know what to do with their freedom when they turned 18.

Does this new study prove I was right?

Democrats and Republicans both agree that the government’s job is to protect its citizens from thugs. Where they disagree is on the definition of the word “thugs,” and, to a lesser degree, on how to go about doing the protecting.

But that’s irrelevant. The government’s job is to protect its citizens from thugs is turning into Citizens’ job is to protect the government from thugs. That’s backwards.

Maybe we need to worry less about test scores and start making sure we teach the basics. I knew what libel was when I was in the seventh grade. We re-enacted the Trial of John Peter Zenger. I don’t know how many of my classmates remember it, but we were presented with the concept and we all knew, if only for a moment, why it was important. Chances are even if the names and dates and other details are forgotten, one who studied the case in school will at least be left with the gut feeling that government censorship of newspapers is wrong.

I don’t know what history and civics teachers are being told to teach today, but obviously the constitution is lacking in the curriculum.

And that’s a problem, because once the First Amendment falls, most of the others will fall right with it, and the few that manage to remain won’t be worth having anymore anyway. I suspect that’s why Jefferson, who couldn’t open a newspaper without reading someone blasting something he’d done or not done, still considered newspapers more important than government.

Don’t bury publishing yet

Ray Ozzie is one of my heroes. He has a rare mix of good programming ability, creativity, and a keen sense of observation. Like it or hate it, Lotus Notes changed the world, and Notes was Ozzie’s baby. Time will tell what impact Groove will have on the computing landscape (I don’t understand what it is yet) but in 1992, who outside of Lotus understood what Notes did either?
But no one uses Notes anymore, you say? Think again. Consider Exchange: It’s just watered-down Notes with a prettier user interface. Strip out a bunch of the power and put it in a sexier dress. Oh yeah. And take away the reliability. That’s all. Microsoft wouldn’t have come up with Exchange without Notes.

Anyway, when Ray Ozzie makes a bold statement, I’m inclined to listen. But on Wednesday, Ray Ozzie declared traditional publishing dead. I disagree. Dying, sure. But paper has 10 years left in it, if not 20. Or a hundred.

You see, radio was supposed to kill off newspapers. It’s much cheaper and much timelier, you know. And it takes a lot less effort. The problem was it wasn’t portable–a radio weighed as much as you did. Well, guess what? Today, radio’s portable (and a cheap portable radio costs less than the Sunday paper) and it still has all of its advantages. But it didn’t kill off paper.

Television was supposed to kill off radio and paper because it had all the advantages of radio, along with moving pictures. It didn’t. Radio’s still here.

In journalism school eight years ago, I watched a video that predicted people’s major news source would be the Internet by the early aughts. I think a majority of my classmates who watched that in 1994 thought it was possible. We watched it again in 1995, in another class. Most people laughed at it.

New media does not kill old media. New media forces old media to adapt. Newspapers increased the depth of their reporting. There’s still news radio today, but the majority of radio stations are dedicated to music, talk, and sports (or talk about sports). Traditional media outlets didn’t know what to do with the Internet. Bloggers did. Blogging will not replace the other media. It will complement it. It will criticize it. It will force it to adapt. Kill it? Certainly not quickly.

I remember sitting in Journalism 200 class at age 19, listening to Don Ranly, a grizzled professor who’s taught virtually every student who’s been through the University of Missouri School of Journalism for the past 30 years. He bellowed a lot of things that semester, including some things targetted at me. But one thing he said that I’ll never forget was this: Freedom of the press is for those who own one!

A press costs millions of dollars. So while freedom of speech is for everyone, freedom of the press is for the elite. At best, in 1994, freedom of the press meant I could read anything I wanted. I certainly couldn’t print anything I wanted.

But my Internet connection costs about the same as my monthly phone bill. This computer cost me $194. Within the limits of my Internet connection, I can print anything I want, whenever I want. I can’t stream video, but I could if I went to colocation. I have true freedom of the press, and anyone who lives in a major metro area can have the same freedom I have.

I also note the majority of blogs don’t do much original reporting. They link and they comment, like I’m doing now. Sometimes the links are on other blogs. Often they are on a Web site originating with a major old media outlet. Or they’re a link to a link to a link that leads to old media. But don’t get me wrong. What the bloggers say sometimes can make or break a traditional media outlet.

Yes, we live in a revolutionary time. Ray Ozzie is dead right about that. We’ll bring about some death. TV and radio didn’t kill all newspapers. But they helped kill a lot of newspapers. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat and Kansas City Times aren’t around anymore. Realistically, a town has to be the size of Chicago if it’s going to support two newspapers. The once-mighty Computer Shopper, which used to be the size of the Sears catalog every month, is down to less than 200 pages, the victim of the Internet.

But we’ll bring about a lot more change than death. And let’s not be too arrogant here. For all we know, blogging might be the next really big thing. But it’s just as likely that it’s only a passing fad.

02/09/2001

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Fatal Exception Error

Ahem. Dan Bowman decided to rile me up yesterday by sending me this link.  What is it? An allegation that the press kisses up to the likes of Larry Ellison, Scott McNealy, and my all-time favorites, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. They put them on the front page at least once a year and don’t call them on their lies because then they wouldn’t pose for photographers.

There’s a big difference between journalism and PR. Journalism reports the facts. PR casts personalities in the best possible light. What Dave Winer was describing yesterday isn’t journalism, it’s PR. And that’s why I read a lot fewer newspapers and magazines than some people might think a professional writer would.

I interviewed a few people in my days as a newspaper writer. (That photo up in the left corner is the photograph of a 21-year-old crime reporter for the Columbia Missourian newspaper. I scanned it off my press pass.) You’d better believe I hacked some people off. Did I give a rip what the county prosecutor thought of me, or the things I wrote? No. He had to talk to me. Sure, there was a competing newspaper in town (that’s a long story why a town the size of Columbia, Mo., has two papers), but he felt like he had to talk to me anyway. If I cast him in an unfair light, well, that was what the editor was for. Or he’d go tell my rival at the other paper how unfair I was. He’d listen.

I didn’t kiss up to RPs either. (That’s jargon. It means “real people.”) Once I covered the story of a separatist who was living about 15 miles north of Columbia. Now, this guy was one of the biggest looney tunes I ever talked to, but he did have a couple of good points. Everyone does. Even Steve Jobs. (He’s right when he says Microsoft doesn’t innovate, for instance.) But this guy was a criminal, convicted of a DWI. His solution rather than to pay the fine was to withdraw from the union, declare himself sovereign, and declare war on the United States. Really. He also placed liens on the property of everyone he didn’t like–city officials, judges… I believe he demanded payment in gold. He made a lot of people really nervous. He didn’t like me or the story I printed all that much, so he never talked to me again after that. He did get one of his cronies to call me up at the newsroom and threaten me with bodily injury though. (I guess he decided it wasn’t worth it to place a lien on my 1992 Dodge Spirit, or maybe he couldn’t track down that piece of personal property.) So I told my editor, carried around a can of mace for the next few months, and reminded myself that the guy could barely move, whereas I was 21 and still in decent enough shape to play softball well, and the cops all knew me and they knew him.

Oh, and when we did need to get a quote from him after that, I just grabbed the best-looking girl in the newsroom at the given time, asked her to turn the charm on, call him, and talk to him in as soothing and polite a voice as possible. They’d usually be good for about a one-minute conversation, which was enough to say we had talked to the man. By that time, I’d talked to him enough and talked to enough of his separatist allies to know how he thought and put what little we could get out of him in context. Plus I still had my notes from our original interview. It’s amazing how you can milk multiple stories out of a single interview when you have to.

We couldn’t get that separatist to pose for pictures either, needless to say. So we’d find out when he was scheduled to be in court, and one of our photographers would camp out on the courthouse steps and shoot half a roll of film as he walked past. Plus we maintained file photos for just those occasions when someone wouldn’t talk to us, or we couldn’t arrange to have a fresh shot taken due to the lack of a photographer’s availability.

I handled elected officials the same way. I wrote an extremely unflattering story about then-Gov. Mel Carnahan in early 1994. Carnahan wouldn’t talk to me; one of his aides denied the entire story, but I had half a dozen sources from both political parties who gladly talked to me. And a story that I wrote about former Rep. Harold Volkmer (D-Mo.) in 1996 undoubtedly hacked off more than a few Republicans.

So you hack off Bill Gates or another Silicon Valley personality. Big fat hairy deal. There’s a solution to that problem. Show up at the next speech he gives. Snap three rolls’ worth of pictures during his speech, each in the middle of saying a word. In half or even two thirds of the shots you get, he’ll look like the world’s biggest idiot. Find the least flattering picture, then run it really big. That’ll make him even madder. But remember, he can’t win. The press never loses. Freedom of the press is for those who own one, and, well, most of those guys don’t. Those who do don’t have as big an audience.

Or, if you’re not quite that mad (or your editor isn’t), run a file photo. Run a nice-looking one if you’re somewhat interested in making peace. Run one from the 1970s if you’re less so.

If the press quits kissing Bill Gates’ butt (and those of his sworn mortal enemies), they’ll lose a few interviews and photo ops. But what else will happen is the papers who quit will gain some credibility. Not all will fall into line, at least not at first. But those papers’ reputations as just a cog in the Microsoft PR machine will grow, and it will cost them. So slowly they will fall into line. And Gates will eventually realize that he has to talk to the press, even those he doesn’t like, because that’s the only way you have any control at all over what goes into the press. If you don’t talk, the press has total control.

In journalism school, one of the things they taught me was your integrity is far too high a price to pay for an interview. Your ultimate loyalty isn’t to your sources, but rather, your readers. But not everyone went where I went, and not everyone paid attention in class. But if the computer press would take that advice to heart, eventually we might start seeing less gum-flapping and more action. And that can only mean better products.

Mailbag:

Fatal Exception Error

02/04/2001

Hey, hey, give ’em what they want
If lust and hate is the candy
If blood and love taste so sweet
Then we
We give ’em what they want

–10,000 Maniacs, “Candy (Everybody Wants)” from Our Time In Eden, 1992

What’s the matter here? (Warning: mature subject matter.) My mom asked me a disturbing question yesterday. She went to a high school play last night. The storyline went something like this: a young lady with no self-esteem meets a young man. His attention turns her around. They have an affair. She continues the affair, but decides to have one-night stands with whoever comes along, just for fun. In the meantime, the guy meets another girl, who’s a lesbian but admits being attracted to him. He’s devastated when he finds out his girlfriend is sleeping around, then becomes enraged, so he rapes and kills the lesbian, then commits suicide.

My mom’s question was this: Was this subject matter inappropriate for high school students?

My answer was absolutely. Were this storyline made into a movie, it would probably get at least an R rating right off the top because of the subject matter alone, regardless of language or nudity. In high school, there are people aged 13 in attendance–unless it happens to be a 3-year high school (I don’t remember if high school starts at 9th or 10th grade there). At any rate, this isn’t appropriate subject matter for 14-year-olds.

For another, it’s one thing to talk about rape for instructional purposes–here’s the definition, here’s why it’s bad, here’s how to avoid it. Sure, a 14-year-old needs to be aware of that. So I should probably clarify. This isn’t an appropriate form of entertainment for 14-year-olds. Not to mention younger, pre-high school siblings who might be in the audience for whatever reason. A high school production needs to be appropriate for general audiences, or at least rated PG–particularly in a day and age when school newspapers are censored. Though I suspect the objectionable material in many school newspapers is not of social issues, but rather calling the administration into question (that was the case when I was editing my high school paper some 5 years after the Kuhlmeier v. Hazelwood decision ). But the courts have decided high schools don’t have freedom of the press, so appropriate editorial material continues to be why chewing gum in class or running in the halls is bad. Meanwhile rape and murder are appropriate forms of entertainment in school plays, because that’s not journalism. It’s art. (Supposedly. Though as I read Kuhlmeier v. Hazelwood, the case applies because the play, like a newspaper, is a school-sponsored activity.)

But legalities aside, what I’d like to know is why anyone would choose this subject matter for entertainment, period. It’s sick. But then again, so is our society.

But just because we have loose politicians and loose civic leaders and we’re losing our sense of morality, does that mean we have to use the combination of rape, murder and suicide as forms of entertainment? Give me a break. If someone were to record a rock album telling this story, Tipper Gore would be up in arms. If a mainstream movie or TV show were to take this subject matter, there’d be protests on both the left and the right. I believe in art and free expression as much as the next guy (I’m a professional journalist, after all, and I’ve dabbled in fiction writing and songwriting as hobbies) but I also believe in observing the boundaries of good taste and age appropriateness.

But what do I know? I’m just an old-fashioned Christian with a sense of decency, whatever that means, who understands insecure people because he’s been one himself, who fails to understand the purpose of parading the story of two very insecure and unstable people plus a confused lesbian in front of a bunch of teenagers, many of whom are probably insecure and confused themselves (because isn’t that the definition of teenager? It was when I was that age, and that wasn’t all that long ago–the song I quoted was a popular song when I was 17).

You know what? I don’t think I want to understand.

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