Tag Archives: Media Studies

From Tweet to Ad to Mini Modern Scandal

AO Scott, movie critic of the New York Times, writes a personal essay on movie marketing and Twitter. After one of his tweets is altered and turned into a print movie ad, a strange conversation sparks.

Here we begin a rapid descent into a wormhole created by the collision of movie-awards campaigning and paracritical chirping. The world may be divided between those who think Twitter defines the boundaries of the universe and those who don’t know what it is. It may also be divided between those who follow every surge and stumble of the “race” to the Oscars and those who might or might not remember to tune into ABC on March 2. Somehow, I have found myself in the Venn diagram circle of hell where two pointless obsessions — with words and statues that, by any reasonable measure of significance, mean nothing — converge, and if you are still reading, I have dragged you along. As they say on Twitter: #sorrynotsorry.

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Do Not Track

Brian Fung of the Washington Post’s Switch blog writes on the state of privacy in web browsing and the policy proposal known as Do Not Track.

So where do the Do Not Track negotiations go from here? In the wake of Wednesday’s poll, the W3C is not expected to terminate the group. Instead, it might settle for establishing a definition for Do Not Track without laying out steps for compliance. Meanwhile, the Digital Advertising Alliance, an industry organization that recently exited the W3C working group, is developing its own draft standards. So while the W3C’s attempt may have stalled, Do Not Track may still have some life left.

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Snapchat And An Alternative to The Profile

Nathan Jurgenson, a sociologist and one of the most compelling thinkers on social media is also a researcher for Snapchat. In his latest post on the company’s blog, Jurgenson sketches out what Snapchat might become: an alternative to the identity straight jacket of the Facebook profile and permanent social media. As far as Facebook and Google are concerned, profiles are supposed to represent our “true selves,” the totality of our personality. The two force us to use our real names and everything we do and say on their networks is attributed to our identities as if we each have only one persona. It’s no surprise that this view of permanent identity is incredibly self-serving for Facebook and Google’s business. Since most of their revenue comes from advertising, it makes sense that the two would want all the info we type into their networks to be consistent with a Profile. Profiles are the way advertisers view humans. Single, female, in her 20s, likes denim and science fiction ebooks, travels often to South America. But we know from being alive, and from knowing other people intimately, that a person’s identity could never fully fit into rigid categories. As Jurgenson reminds us, our lives are full of revision, playfulness, ambiguity, contradiction, strangeness and discovery. Profiles and permanent social media stifle the ability to create ourselves. What if, instead, things could be different, perhaps temporary?

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Google To Feature Longform Journalism In Search

Google's In-depth News Search

Inside Search

Google will now begin to feature in-depth reporting and longform writing in their search queries.

Where the default Google search on any given topic brings up recently written news, the company will now cater to users who are looking for more thoughtful coverage on a subject. As Hamish McKenzie of PandoDaily explains, Google has enabled a kind of Twitter-style news consumption. This is where the most prominent stories Google offers are always the stories that were written up moments earlier, or stories that were extremely popular within the current news cycle.

The advantage of this style is that it provides readers with the news of the day, the word of the moment without much fuss. The downside, though, is that other kinds of journalism, the kinds that take longer to produce, or that don’t link strongly to the events that are happening THAT DAY are crowded out. This mode favors rapid-fire news over thoughtful essays, press release blog posts over careful criticism.

For example: If you searched “Boston Bomber” Google will give you a bunch of crappy, recently written articles about the Rolling Stones cover or the alleged revelations that he was into right-wing-conspiracy theories. While these links have merit, it would also be extremely useful for Google to give us some definitive accounts of the whole Boston bombing episode–not just the insignificant trickling of brand new news stories.

This novel, in-depth highlight will help readers more fully understand.

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The Wild Ambition of Youth Journalism And Vice media

Writing in the Guardian, Tim Adams summarizes the allure of Vice, “Twenty years ago Shane Smith set up a hip little Montreal magazine called Vice. Then along came the internet and Vice reinvented itself as the edgiest, wildest online media brand in the world. It’s staffed by twentysomethings and aimed at a global youth who have no interest in mainstream media. Which is why he is courted by everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Google.”

Where public trust towards long standing new outlets has eroded, especially for young people, Vice aims to explore the absurdity of contemporary life and the mass hypocrisy of Western politics. Adams interviews the cofounder and CEO of Vice, Shane Smith, and extracts golden nuggets of media wisdom:

But the fact is four corporations own all of American news, and they are all equally scared of losing Budweiser or whoever as their advertisers. The greatest propaganda coup of the American right has been to convince its citizens that we are in the grip of a liberal conspiracy. As a result, Obama is to the right of Richard Nixon on most issues. And there is we believe, certainly some space to exploit there.” He pauses, smiles, concludes his lesson for the day. “And we, Vice, aim to exploit it.

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Rubbing On Our Glowing Rectangles: The False Distinction Between “Online” And “The Real”

My post at BuzzFeed.

“The language of offline VS online dominates the way we think of social media and communication. Sociologist Nathan Jurgenson wants us to move beyond it.”

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Objectivity Is Concensus. Truth is Persuasion.

Are there questions political reporters shouldn’t try to answer? Michael Scherer of Time magazine seems to think so.

Determining which politicians are being misleading involves unreliable subjective judgment. Because no objective metric exists to sniff out deception, reporters are better off not tackling the subject.

He’s basically saying Fox News fact checkers will pummel Obama. And MSNBC fact checkers will crush Romney. So it’s best that reporters not call out politicians and just report the news.

…I feel I can say with confidence that the likelihood that someone believes they know who is misleading more is directly related to their own partisan feelings in this campaign. There are just too many subjective judgements that have to be made to come to any conclusion, and as I point out in my piece, we are predisposed to forgive those deceivers that share our worldviews and punish those who do not.

John McQuaid of Forbes disagrees. Just because something is hard to answer, that is, not able to be proven using numbers, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother to answer.

That a question is difficult, and in this case super-controversial, are certainly powerful incentives not to make judgments. But I don’t think that makes this question effectively impossible to address. Moreover, to put such a question off-limits is arbitrary. Why this question, and not thousands of other subjective questions that have no empirical “answers” that are entirely routine in campaign reportage?

If you’ve been reading Draper’s Den, you’ll know that I think the first perspective is barf-worthy status quo horse-race news garbage, and that the second perspective describes the kind of stuff Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow do.

Yes, their judgments are subjective. They do not pretend to be cyborg-news readers without opinions or preferences or judgments. But they do their best to guide you through their thinking. You don’t have to agree with their conclusions, on which politicians are liars or what campaign is being phony, but they show you how they themselves got there. With video evidence and quotes and cultural observation they walk you through their thought process.

It’s called critical thinking.

In this kind of journalism objectivity is not pretending to remain neutral, it’s not depicting false equivalency, or acting “dumb” by merely stating what “he said” and what “she said.” Objectivity becomes forging a consensus: Trying to get everyone’s subjective opinion to mesh with yours because your descriptions are useful, insightful and open to criticism.

In this kind of journalism truth is not some magical representation of what’s REALLY REAL. It’s not merely reporting the news with a flat tone, devoid of the first person. The truth is not just quoting experts and citing studies. Truth becomes the most accurate and persuasive and useful description. We say things are “true” because we want people to believe us, to join us, to get others to do things. And the truth emerges when descriptions are agreed upon, when predictable outcomes occur, when facts “check out.”

Journalists need to define themselves as assertive, critical thinking story tellers, not just purveyors of campaign happenings, hiding behind bullshit ideas like objectivity.

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Youtube Will Stream The Debates And 6 More Much Needed Improvements

Frederic Lardinois writes on TechCrunch

For the first time ever, YouTube will offer a live video stream of the U.S. presidential and vice presidential debates this year. To do this, YouTube has partnered with ABC News, and the debates will stream on ABC News’ YouTube channel and YouTube’s Election Hub. The four debates, which will start on October 3 at 9pm ET, will be available for YouTube viewers around the world.

This is awesome news. But this is only one necessary step out of dozens. For the debates to be worthy of Web culture, for them not to be miserable talking point GIFs, we also need:

1) More challenging formats (a moderator in addition to a panel of academics and cultural leaders).
2) Aggressive moderators who are relentless with follow up questions.
3) Candidates must be forced to address one another and ask each other questions.
4) A Youth Town Hall Debate. The audience is young. The topics have to do with young people. Unorthodox questions.
5) A BuzzFeed/Twitter sponsored debate where only the top voted questions are asked.
6) More inclusive rules for 3rd party candidates.

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Can Web Culture Save The Debates?

The debates are talking-point GIFs that are strikingly terrible.  Let’s remake them to serve the public interest.

In the second to last episode of The Newsroom, HBO’s frenzied new series, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) sells a new kind of debate.  Pitching to Republican operatives, the Atlantic Cable News stages a mock forum.  As the moderator, McAvoy is a raging bull.  Against the politicians’ rote talking points, he pummels with forceful follow-up questions, piercing fact checks, and an aggressive attitude of: “are you kidding me?”  It had the feel of Bill O’Reilly meets 60 Minutes, formidable intensity fused with civic mindedness.

It’s bracing but effective.  McAvoy believes an assertive moderator fosters the thoughtful but spontaneous reactions we expect from real discussion.  Where stump speeches, campaign stops, and party conventions are staged, filled with spin, and blatantly distorting, the presidential debates should be a towering gauntlet of public scrutiny—a forceful, let’s-get-real sort of moment.  In McAvoy’s vision, sharp and persuasive politicians would thrive.  Pretenders and spin doctors would be crushed by expert journalism and intelligent debate.

The politico in charge does not buy it, of course.  He sees the risk of candidates being called out, of the moderator pressing for more honest answers, of interrupting a politician’s talking point GIF.  (A recent example: President Obama’s “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) on Reddit.  As many tech and political reporters observed, the President evaded challenging questions and robo-responded in the kind of unthinking, predictable messaging we expect from the campaign, which is counter to the whole point of the Reddit AMA.)

It suits both parties to have debates that they control.  It favors them to have moderators that they choose, and the formats that are uneventful and electorally insignificant.  That’s why the official presidential debates are not run by the free press, by a governmental body, or by some public institution.  They are run by the two parties.  In 1987 they named it the Commission on Presidential Debates.

In his definitive and unforgiving history, No Debate, George Farah documents the creation of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the private organization established and controlled by members of the Republican and Democratic parties.  It is the same entity that runs the debates today.

Formed in 1987, the CPD’s first co-chairs, Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk, were also serving simultaneously as chairs of the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee, respectively.  And while the CPD is officially nonpartisan—abiding Federal Election Committee regulations—Farah marshals convincing evidence to prove the CPD is a political cartel.

Using testimony from dozens of journalists (Tom Brokaw, George Will, Tim Russert), scholars (Larry Sabato, Jamie Raskin), and politicos (President George H.W. Bush, George Stephanopoulos, Paul Begala) Farah demonstrates the CPD’s dubious neutrality.  He quotes Fahrenkopf, the first and current co-chair, in 2001: “It very quickly changed from bipartisan to nonpartisan, and it changed that way for legal reasons.” (The commission is legally obliged to state its goals as nonpartisan, but the two parties working together to exclude dissent is hardly neutral.)

Farah’s second chapter, “Hostile Takeover,” describes how the CPD asserted control.  1976 was the first year the League of Women Voters sponsored the presidential debates.  That election pitted a peanut-farmer-turned-governor, Jimmy Carter, against the unelected incumbent, Gerald Ford, who had pardoned President Nixon two years prior.  With broad civic authority the League maintained strong discretion over the debate format (follow-up questions were mandatory), the selection of moderators, and the response time given to candidates.

The presidential debates of 1980 and 1984 were executed under their sponsorship as well.  But in 1988, in a gross display of unimpeded power, the non-partisan League was muscled out.  The unsettling October press release explains:

“The League of Women Voters is withdrawing sponsorship of the presidential debates…because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.  It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organization aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions.  The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

Facing onerous demands from the candidates—limited use of follow up questions, absurdly short response times, and a handpicked list of “acceptable” moderators—the League refused to cooperate.  Before the first debate began, the moderator Dan Rather announced to the American people:

“This will not be a debate in the sense the word is often used in the English language because all of this is so tightly controlled by the candidates themselves and their managers.  These things have developed over the years into what some people believe can more accurately be described as a joint campaign appearance or an orchestrated news conference.”

Rather’s words are striking precisely because they are so apt today.  A quick Youtube sampling will refresh your memory.  The 2008 moderators attempt to educate the public.  They begin by reminding us that their questions were not reviewed by anyone.  They tell us what the subject will be and how much time the candidates have to respond.  But as soon as the debates begin the sound bites spew out.  The rebuttal times seem maddeningly short.  Nothing really illuminating or informative or inspiring occurs.

What the moderators don’t tell us is that the debates are designed to be this way.  That the moderators themselves are selected by the candidates, that the restrictive response times are put in place to prevent going off message, and that the debate topics are embarrassingly predictable are miserable features of the debates.

At some point, usually very close to the start, the moderator stops being an assertive journalist.  They shrink from their role as a representative of the public and shrivel into an impotent emcee—a glorified Ryan Seacrest emitting irrelevant background noise as the candidates spew campaign nonsense and slither from specifics.  (At one point during the 2008 town hall debate, as Senators McCain and Obama jostle to respond and verbally stampede over the moderator, Tom Brokaw as if throwing his arms up in despair, exclaims: “I’m just hired help here, so I mean…” crowd erupts in laughter).

Farah outlines his three main criticisms of the CPD: its formats fail to inspire challenging questioning and genuine debate; the scope of debate topics is too narrow; and its rules unfairly exclude popular third party candidates.  And for each problem he offers solutions.

After Ross Perot in 1992 proved surprisingly capable of carving a new constituency—peeling off voters from Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush—the commission banned him from the ’96 debates.  (In ’92 Perot carried zero electoral votes but received 19% of the popular vote).  To avoid accusations of imposing arbitrary restrictions, the CPD instituted a rule in 2000 whereby only candidates polling at 15% or above were invited to debate.  Farah explains that while this number may seem fair as an objective metric, it functions as a stifling barrier to entry.

Citing the criteria of the Appleseed Citizen’s Task Force on Fair Debates, a nonprofit public interest law organization, Farah proposes a more inclusive rule where candidates become eligible if they poll above 5% or “register a majority in national polls asking eligible voters which candidates they would like to see included.”  Because more than 200 citizens file to run for president every election, potential candidates must also qualify to be on enough state ballots to theoretically win the election (270 electoral votes).  The Appleseed criteria cuts unrealistic candidates from the debates but also empowers worthy, independent voices.  (In 2000 both Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan were blocked from the debates by the CPD but would have been allowed under the Appleseed criteria.)

On debate night imagine if, in addition to a moderator, a panel of outspoken journalists, professors, entrepreneurs and cultural figures questioned the candidates (say, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Shepard Smith, Sheryl Sandberg, Ira Glass, Richard Branson, David Frum, Rachel Maddow, Colin Powell, Anthony Bourdain, Melinda Gates, and Madeleine Albright).  Imagine if the candidates were forced to ask and answer each other’s questions.  (In 2004 the commission explicitly forbade them from doing this.)  What if voting users—not Fox or CNN producers— decided what YouTube and Reddit questions to ask.  This would help drill into rhetorical vagaries and expose precise policy proposals.

Or what about a youth town hall debate, hosted by Jon Stewart and cosponsored by Twitter and BuzzFeed with live-streaming follow-up questions (the kinetic upvoting and retweeting and fact-checking would occur real-time instead of afterwards).  The topics and queries would be unscreened and unconventional, forcing the candidates out of the beltway bubble (gay civil rights, carbon tax and climate change, proportional representation, publically funded elections, warrantless wiretapping, college affordability, Guantanamo Bay, drone strikes, term limits, marijuana policy, military spending and prison reform).

Farah makes a compelling case for unpredictable, novel formats.  They would force candidates to think instead of recite.  They would debate instead of word-vomit.

While the first step is to bring attention to the self-serving CPD and its candidate coddling, Farah advocates replacing the CPD with a nonpartisan organization whose explicit goal is to educate the public: The Citizen’s Debate Commission.  With mounting intellectual support and the potential for robust engagement from Buzzfeed, Google, Twitter, Branch, Facebook, Tumblr, Wikipedia, and the dozens of innovative media companies that are disrupting journalism’s landscape, how long could the two parties withstand a coordinated protest?

While scholars and politicians have called for reform within the CPD for years, President Obama and Mitt Romney have already entered into a secret agreement with the CPD.  Farah’s nonpartisan group Open Debates put out this press release in August:

“Robert F. Bauer of the Obama campaign and Benjamin L. Ginsberg of the Romney campaign negotiated a detailed contract that dictates many of the terms of the 2012 presidential debates.  The Commission on Presidential Debates…has agreed to implement the debate contract.  In order to shield the major party candidates from criticism, the Commission on Presidential Debates is concealing the contract from the public and the press.”

For 24 years the American public and the legacy media has let this embarrassing trait of our democracy endure.  In our age of innovative Web culture, of bewildering connectivity and a heightened awareness of political machinery, will the new social Web allow this to continue? Or are we all content with President Obama’s AMA, where he ducked accountability but let us know that Jordan is his favorite basketball player.

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