Category Archives: Blogging & Podcasting

The case for media literacy education

Having exited the center ring of the 24/7 cable news circus, we should take stock of the lessons learned from the Shirley Sherrod firing. She was the USDA official fired after a conservative blogger with already questionable credibility posted a crudely edited video clip of Sherrod, an African American explaining how she once chose not to help a white farmer as much as she could have. Rather than rehash the history, those not versed in the details of this debacle can check out the very thorough Media Matters timeline of the whole sordid affair.

This affair must be a wake up call to America. As a society we need to become media literate. Examining the Media Matters timeline it’s absolutely shocking it took so long for the truth to come out. Consider these points.

  • A cabinet member of a Democratic administration took action based on a conservative blogger known for his often distant relationship with facts. Andrew Bierbart is the poster child for the sad state of political discourse in the blogosphere. Just about six weeks ago Rebecca Mead profiled Beirbart in the New Yorker. Surely someone inside the beltway actually reads those New Yorker magazines prominently placed next to the brie and chardonnay on the coffee table. It’s shocking no one in the administration said to Secretary Vilsack, “Maybe we should look into this deeper. Do you really want to end someone’s career on Bierbart’s word?”
  • No one expects the Fox News opinion programs to properly vet an attack on a member of the Obama administration, so why did the administration react to these particular tantrums from O’Reilly and Hannity? Even the conservative Economist criticizes the network’s approach to discourse. But the blame here cannot be on Fox News. Neither Hannity nor O’Reilly call themselves journalists. They host entertainment programs, and the audience (and our leaders) should understand the difference between entertainment and journalism.
  • Why didn’t anyone question the editing of the video? It doesn’t take an experienced news editor to recognize that there was something more to Sherrod’s anecdote that was edited out. Why didn’t any mainstream media outlet call this out and demand to see the whole speech?

The mistakes pile up, and I could go on listing them, but I’ve made my point. The clear problem is that the mainstream news media failed to do journalistic due diligence before reporting this story, and the Obama administration showed poor judgment by taking the word of non-journalists as vetted fact.

If democracy is to survive the 21st century media onslaught, we need to do a better job of fostering media literacy. We simply cannot have people forming opinions, making judgments, and voting based solely on the prime time rantings of Fox News and MSNBC pundits, or the missives of Matt Drudge and Arianna Huffington. It’s not hard to teach kids how to interpret media messages — to teach them to ask questions these basic questions: Why are they telling me this? What to they want me to think? How do they want me to react? What’s in it for them? Is that audio or video clip complete? How can audio, video, and statistics be manipulated?

Glenn Beck and Rachel Maddow sit in sets that look like traditional news sets, but they are not journalists. I hope the issue is simply that we as a people are ignorant, and not that we’ve chosen to enter echo chambers that tell us only what we want to hear. Because if the latter is the case, it’s 1984.

Final nail in my newspaper’s coffin

I canceled my newspaper subscription today. I’ve subscribed to the Boston Globe for over 17 years without interruption. The role the newspaper plays in my life has changed in some significant ways. For example, I have no idea when the paper stopped publishing stock quotes. Sometime in the late 1990s I began consuming that data online. Virtually the same story applies to out of town sports scores, election results, and weather. In fact, the newspaper is no longer a significant source of news. My typical 15 minutes in the morning with the paper would be a scan of the Op-Ed page, the obituaries, sports (for background pieces on the local teams), and the puzzles. The bulk of that 15 minutes would be spent on the crossword.

Let’s do the math. A lot’s been said about the deteriorating business model of print journalism, but let’s take a look at the value proposition made to the consumer. In my case, with the exception of the crossword, I can get everything online and I get it fresher with access to voices from all over the globe. (Online crosswords don’t do it for me, but some of the Facebook word games are downright addictive and make a fine substitute.) I’m down from spending about 30 minutes with the daily paper a decade ago to 15 minutes. Home delivery costs approximately $40/month. That’s not much, but it’s much more than what I pay for the sports package or the movie package on cable, and I spend far more time with Curb Your Enthusiasm and Sports Center. Netflix with Roku and PlayStation 3 access is only $20/month. Time spent and value received from broadband and 3G services are similar.

There’s not much news here. Every media consumer gets the math, and many took action long before me. Here’s the thing… I’m old-fashioned. I like reading the paper with my morning coffee and Corn Flakes. While many consider reading at the morning table rude, it’s somewhat more sociable than hunkering down behind a laptop screen, and you can share the paper much more easily than a laptop.

The newspapers counter that all that “free” content on the Web costs money to produce, and much of it is the product of the print team’s labors. Kill the newspaper and there’s no free online content. Agreed. So here’s my proposal. Rather than sell individual subscriptions to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, I would be happy to pay single monthly fee for all the news I consume online. That fee is shared proportionally among all the publishers whose sites I regularly visit. This could be added to my broadband bill or charged separately. The news outlets already know how much I’m willing to pay for decent journalism.

So why did I take action today? I’d like to say that something like anticipation of Apple’s tablet announcement was the spur. Or maybe the latest rev of the Kindle caught my eye. But it’s none of those. The driver delivering the paper has decided he no longer wants to deliver the paper to my door. He just tosses it on the driveway. Winters are cold here in New England, and I like my neighbors just enough not to subject them to the daily sight of me marching out for the paper in my PJs. It turns out that $40/month is exactly my limit – remove just one more feature from the offering and I’m gone. How many other newspaper subscribers are at that point?

Maybe now I’ll get through the Economist and the New Yorker every week while waiting on my tablet.

What is news?

Iranian protestor

An image of an Iranian protestor posted to Flickr this week

This week’s events in Iran remind me, perhaps too much, of the Tiananmen Square protests twenty years ago. People coming together peacefully to rally against oppression, whether in Selma, Johannesburg, or Berlin brings hope. Knowing how Tiananmen, Prague, and Myanmar ended brings dread.

Optimists say the world has changed. While tyrants can restrict the activities of CNN and the New York Times, they can’t block Twitter, SMS, YouTube, and Facebook as easily. The truth will get out. People can be called to action and know they will outnumber their oppressors. I hope they are prescient, but in this case the tyrants will prevail — at least in the short run, and people will continue to be injured and killed.

Ahmadinejad is about the worst the world has to offer. He will cling to power and he will be as ruthless as a cornered rat when confronted. People are already being killed by his and the clerics’ thugs, the basij. These people with their 15th century worldviews don’t understand Twitter, and they certainly don’t fear it. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube might get the word out, but they can’t block the bullets. We will know more about what happens in Tehran in 2009 than we know about what happened in Tiananmen in 1989, but it’s not going to change the outcome.

The Economist summed up the old media v. new media coverage of the events in Tehran quite well. No flowery speech about how the face of politics is forever changed by Web 2.0 techologies. Just the facts.

[The] much-ballyhooed Twitter swiftly degraded into pointlessness. By deluging threads like Iranelection with cries of support for the protesters, Americans and Britons rendered the site almost useless as a source of information—something that Iran’s government had tried and failed to do. Even at its best the site gave a partial, one-sided view of events. Both Twitter and YouTube are hobbled as sources of news by their clumsy search engines.

It’s ironic that the same week China has begun stepping up its censorship efforts. PCs can only be sold in the People’s Republic with government controlled web filters.

The software, which manufacturers must install on all new PCs starting July 1, would allow the government to regularly update computers with an ever-changing list of banned Web sites.
The rules, issued last month, ratchet up Internet restrictions that are already among the most stringent in the world. China regularly blocks Web sites that discuss the Dalai Lama, the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters, and the Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement.

And just this week, Google agreed to further restrictions on the information it serves up to the Chinese people.

Google caved. Dell, Lenovo, and company caved. They cannot be blamed. As publicly traded companies they have a fiduciary responsibility to their share holders to maximize profits, not a mandate to make the world a freer place. Our 401Ks contribute to the problem today, but not as much as many liberals complain. In the end places like Iran and China will have to open up and allow the freer exchange of ideas. Otherwise the best and the brightest will continue to bring their innovations to freer countries. Look at how many Silicon Valley start ups are started by immigrants to the US. Look at the wealth they create. Wealth that keeps the US the dominant economic power. If China and Iran want to continue to be economic and technological followerers, they are on the right path. Otherwise they have to open up their miserable political systems.

So what is news? If CNN can’t get there first, but Twitter and YouTube are too clunky to disseminate information quickly and efficiently, what models will emerge? Large news organizations will have to take on the task of organizing the world’s tweets and mobile videos. It will require new business models and new infrastructures. The traditional satellite feed will diminish in importance.

It’s a good time to be a software designer for the media industry. We still have our fiduciary responsibilities, but we can build the tools to help the world become a freer place.

Entertaining blog

Oliver Peters of DV and Videography turned me on to this amusing blog. Screenwriting from Iowa is kind of the Ulysses of blogs. It takes a bit of time to get through the posts, but it’s often worth it.

Smith’s most recent post on infomercials and gurus hit remarkably close to home.

Infomercials never touch on how hard it is to make money because infomercials work emotionally on how easy things are to do. They skip showing the scenes of Rocky running up the stairs and pounding the beef. Instead they pound the testimonials of how much money people say they have made until you hear what you want to hear. The executive producer where I worked was fond of saying, “There is no such thing as over-the-top in infomercials.”

And he goes on to make the link between a successful infomercial and a guru.

Basically [infomercials] touch on our deepest longings in life to look good, feel healthy, and have money. You want to believe the infomercials, that’s why they work.

Here’s the problem as it applies to screenwriting seminars. We want to believe they will give us the missing link and make us a better writer. Many writers are like crack addicts thinking the next book, workshop, audio series, writing software will make them a better writer. Just one more hit off the pipe and we’ll quit.

There are no “missing links.” It’s hard work, a tireless drive to the goal that will get the aspiring screenwriter, videographer, or editor where s/he wants to go. The Red camera’s not going to get your feature into distribution, a big monitor and Color won’t make you a sought after colorist. I’m not above looking for the short cut — whether it’s the $199 plug-in to solve a motion graphics challenge, or the $60,000 degree to get me hired into senior management.

The trick isn’t avoiding those tools. It’s just not expecting too much from them. That new plug-in still requires you to RTFM, and that degree needs to be backed up with experience. Just as you have to spend a day or two with a new plug-in, be prepared to invest years honing the skills you’ll pick up in a workshop or a degree program. That’s OK because it’s about the journey since so few of us know the destination.

And be wary of those gurus and pundits who spend more time talking than doing. If we had the answers we’d be too busy making money to share them.

The COW groans

Creative COW error messageA little issue is brewing in various forums and mailing list regarding Creative COW’s moderation policies. The COW has always been pretty upfront that it moderates posts. Tim Wilson celebrated as much in a 12th anniversary congratulatory piece.

Today, this seems head-slappingly obvious. Every single significant online community, including the few, small email-based communities that remain meaningful, every single one of them is moderated. Zero exceptions. Forum members across our industry even want to be moderators themselves. THAT’s why it seems obvious now.

Yet The Lindebooms came under personal attack for years, and sometimes still do, for a practice now virtually universal in our industry, and in the hundreds of thousands of forums across the web that have been founded since Ron & Kathlyn started theirs.

By the way, it’s not that nothing off-topic is ever allowed. Off-topic conversations are sometimes critical for keeping the community together–as long as they don’t tear the community apart.

Please note that the following intends no disrespect whatever. But it’s worth noting that one of the longest and strongest holdouts to moderation was our dear friends at the Avid-L, some of whom are also leaders in The COW. “The L” came to an acrimonious split in 2005 over the lack of moderation. The core of that group in its new incarnation moderates both its membership and topics.

Again, no disrespect intended. I’m just saying that moderation works. The Lindebooms started it in our industry. Others have followed.

I look back on all of this and remember what they say: history is written by the victors. Well there you go.

Understood. But that’s not the whole story. Avoiding flames and way off topic posts is laudable. The COW goes much further, disallowing posts that mention competing sites. A COW user can’t say to another, “The answer to your question can be found at this site…”

That’s too bad. Ron, Kathlyn, and Tim should be a little more secure than that. In the age of Google, eventually the user will find that answer anyway. Would they rather Google be that user’s first option? The COW is big. It’s successful, and it can afford to allow the free flow of information — or eventually it will become irrelevant.

Most troubling is the extremely misleading error message (pictured above) one receives when mentioning the unmentionables like DigitalProductionBuzz, Total Training, or Pixelcorps. Would you trust a site that isn’t totally upfront about its moderation policies?

Moderation works, but censoring the free flow of valid information is a poor strategy. Lots more on this at GeneralSpecialist.

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