More “who’s a journalist?”

This crushing segment from Bill Dwyre’s excellent LA Times piece upon seeing the documentary of Pat Tillman’s death at the hands of fellow soldiers on a hill in Afghanistan six years ago. The film follows the pursuit of truth by Tillman’s mother, Dannie.

Dannie Tillman did what a nation full of high-paid, overblown journalists should have done. She went after the real story while the beautiful people on TV and the nerds with notepads broadcast and wrote morality plays. She got in the military’s face, in the government’s face. She didn’t let up. She was doing journalism while journalists were doing what we mostly do now — chase Web hits and take short cuts to higher profits.

A housewife got the real story, or as much of it as anybody probably will. Professionals trained to do so gathered moss and wrote slop.

So again, journalism is practiced by many who are outside the velvet rope of the institution. Dwyre indicts himself in the piece, and it’s a most worthwhile read.

This grave consequences of the Gawker raid

By now everybody knows about the Friday night raid at Jason Chen’s house as part of a police investigation into the alleged “theft” of a prototype iPhone that ended up in the hands of Chen’s employer, Gawker Media, Inc. I tweeted my initial reaction, which was “where’s the hue and cry from the press?” The truth is there isn’t any hue and cry and there won’t be, because “the press” wants Gawker — and every other disruptor of its party — shut down permanently.

The issue, which the DA in the case is now pausing to consider, is whether Gawker is practicing journalism and, therefore, falls under the California shield law (it does, even if it’s just a blog). If so, police did not have the authority to raid Chen’s home (including kicking in the damned door), because it was his office and, therefore, protected from such searches and seizures.

Some in the tech press are arguing that the police may be after Gawker for criminal charges in possessing a stolen item — and that that would justify the warrant — but that’s a specious argument, because even if it was the case, law enforcement would still need to obtain a subpoena first, because Chen was functioning as a journalist. The law is crystal clear on this, and if it were not, police would use the excuse of breaking the law to raid any organization’s files in pursuit of a source.

This case could set in motion a landmark ruling, which could ultimately find its way to the Supreme Court, and it has dreadful consequences for the very group that should be rallying to support Chen — the traditional press. Chen is, in fact, a journalist and the shield law must, in fact, support him. However, if that’s the case, all of those pedestal-dwelling professionals who think they and they alone actually practice journalism are going to get screwed, because the courts will be redefining what it means to “be” a journalist. In California, the shield law also protects bloggers, and frankly, I can’t wait to see what happens. The state will lose and Gawker will win.

Locally, we had a case a few months ago of a school board changing its media policy (they don’t allow “bloggers”) to evict a local blogger, because they didn’t like what he was writing about them. This is a damnable offense by a local government entity and one that “the press” wouldn’t tolerate if it was one of them. “First they came for the bloggers, but I wasn’t a blogger, so I said nothing…”

The state of California must do what’s right here and stand up for a free press. Let Apple appeal, and let’s have a real donnybrook over the whole thing. And here’s my warning to the silent traditional press: either get involved in the new world or risk total irrelevancy downstream.

UPDATE: Simon Owens asked editors what they thought. No hue & cry.

Poor PowerPoint

The Army’s dissing it and so is Seth Godin.

Look, here’s the simple truth about a PowerPoint presentation. It’s a story-telling tool. If you have no “story” — no beginning, middle and end — PowerPoint will make you look like an idiot, no matter how you use it. If, however, you do have a story, any tool of the software you use — yes, even bullets — will be just fine.

The software isn’t the problem; it’s the story-telling.

The Trouble With Twitter

Here’s the latest in my ongoing essay series, Local Media in a Postmodern World.

The Trouble With Twitter

In this piece, I’m taking a step back from observing local media to examine an issue about Twitter that I think my friends and colleagues who use it faithfully need to stop and think about. There’s no doubt in my mind that Twitter is a two-headed beast, a low-tech and highly efficient notification system, and a unique method of conversation. It’s when the two seem to combine that I have difficulty. I tweet, but not like some of the people I follow, because my work occupies most of my attention. I follow a select group (and for different reasons), and some of them are really prolific. The problem occurs when I try to understand the nature of those tweets and the conversation about which they are a part. I suspect technology will ultimately help me, but until then, it’s my trouble with Twitter.

Here’s the latest in my ongoing essay series, Local Media in a Postmodern World.
In this piece, I’m taking a step back from observing local media to examine an issue about Twitter that I think my friends and colleagues who use it faithfully need to stop and think about. There’s no doubt in my mind that Twitter is a two-headed beast, a low-tech and highly efficient notification system, and a unique method of conversation. It’s when the two seem to combine that I have difficulty. I tweet, but not like some of the people I follow, because my work occupies most of my attention. I follow a select group (and for different reasons), and some of them are really prolific. The problem occurs when I try to understand the nature of those tweets and the conversation about which they are a part. I suspect technology will ultimately help me, but until then, it’s my trouble with Twitter.

Slowing down the revolution

The lawyers are ahead, but the game isn't overMy disdain for the third branch of our government — the Judicial System — is well-documented here. My issue is the matter of so-called “case law,” which is something you won’t find in the Constitution. Lawyers have given unto themselves the ability to actually make law, which the founding fathers gave to the Legislative Branch. Here’s how it works:

  • The Legislature makes law.
  • Somebody challenges it in the courts.
  • The law loses, and since one judge or court ruled against it, lawyers bring that case up in other cases, which in effect, renders the law useless. In this way, the courts have created for themselves — thanks to self-serving lawyers — power that they, in reality, don’t have.

We’re walking ourselves into a real pickle here with case law that’s being created in the face of a cultural revolution. The status quo — represented by those same lawyers — needs to stop the revolution, but the truth is that the best they’ll ever do is slow it down.

In New Jersey, for example, a state appeals court has ruled against a blogger in a defamation case involving a company that provides software to the porn industry by deciding that no shield law can apply to her, because she’s not a journalist. I am absolutely sick and disgusted of hearing this crap, and it’s the kind of thing that our Legislative Branch MUST deal with. A press card from a traditional media does not make you a journalist; it’s the act that matters.

Another legal matter today that I find particularly annoying is the removal by YouTube of all the wonderful adaptations of the scene in the movie Downfall where Adolf Hitler realizes all is lost and drones on — in German — for several minutes. Hundreds of people have created their own versions of the scene by substituting the English subtitles to represent all kinds of hilarious thought streams. YouTube has been removing the parodies in the wake of legal notice from the copyright owner, Constantin Films. Never mind that the writer and director think the parodies are wonderful, Constantin Films has the “right” to demand they be removed.

The question to me is why?

The answer is because they can, and again, this is madness gone to seed in the name of the law. The only people who can fix it are our representatives in Congress, and the battle will be a donnybrook, pitting the status quo against the revolution (one, I might add, that is already so far along that I don’t even think the lawyers can stop it).

Media and the public (dis)trust

Howard Beale: We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymoreEverywhere I turn, I see conferences on saving journalism. There’s talk (again) of a government subsidy to save “newspaper journalism,” whatever that is, and the USC’s “Public Policy & Funding The News” project has published an entire list of ideas that have been brought forward to “save news.” The investigative reporters of the world are the most vocal, insisting that a lone wolf reporter simply cannot do what someone who works for a large, institutional press organization (with lots of lawyers and libel insurance) can do. “The sky is falling” rhetoric is at an all time high, and the decibel level of the blame game is louder than it’s ever been.

Those of you who’ve followed my work know where I stand on all this, but I want to elaborate on something that I first said many years ago. For journalism to function, it must do so with the public’s trust, and we’ve been losing that for decades. So the question to these groups is what exactly is it that are you trying to save (other than your jobs)?

Here’s the latest from Gallup, a company that’s been asking the same question since the early 70s.

Gallup's survey of trust in the press

Take a hard look at that and then go look in the mirror. The notion that we go out the door in the morning to do our jobs carrying the public’s trust on our shoulder is false. It’s bogus. Look at that graph. More people distrust us than trust us, and it’s been that way for a few years. The decline started long ago.

The old definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over only expecting different results. We want to do what we’ve always done, only we want people to love us. The pity party over the decline of the institutional press is pathetic, when we should be staring at that graph and being honest enough to ask ourselves why.

For example, an honest look at history would stop and examine Spiro Agnew’s famous rant against the bias of the television press in 1969. Most people I know dismiss Agnew as a nutcase or a Nixon pawn, but that kind of hubris is exactly our problem in the above graph today. Agnew was a spokesman for Nixon’s “silent majority,” another concept we dismissed as just marketing. Read carefully Agnew’s words in that 1969 speech in Des Moines:

A raised eyebrow, an inflection of the voice, a caustic remark dropped in the middle of a broadcast can raise doubts in a million minds about the veracity of a public official, or the wisdom of a government policy,” he said. “One Federal Communications Commissioner considers the power of the networks to equal that of local, state, and federal governments combined. Certainly, it represents a concentration of power over American public opinion unknown in history.”

That power has gone to our heads, and that, too, is reflected in Gallup’s graph, and if we want to do something about it, we’ve got to give up the notion that continuing to do the same things is the solution. Maybe, just maybe, there is truth in Agnew’s words, and the public is responding.

Here’s more from that speech:

The purpose of my remarks tonight is to focus your attention on this little group of men who…wield a free hand in selecting, presenting, and interpreting the great issues of our nation.

How is this network news determined? A small group of men, numbering perhaps no more than a dozen “anchormen,” commentators, and executive producers, settle upon the 20 minutes or so of film and commentary that is to reach the public…Their powers of choice are broad. They decide what 40 to 50 million Americans will learn of the day’s events in the nation and the world.

The American people would rightly not tolerate this kind of concentration of power in government. Is it not fair and relevant to question its concentration in the hands of a tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men, elected by no one, and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by government?

The views of this fraternity do not represent the views of America.”

Those four paragraphs closely resemble a remarkable recent essay by NYU Journalism professor Jay Rosen, one of the great minds actually asking the right questions today. If you’ve never read “Audience Atomization Overcome: Why the Internet Weakens the Authority of the Press,” I strongly recommend you do so.

In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized– connected “up” to Big Media but not across to each other. And now that authority is eroding.

For all of our work — broadcast or print — we continue to underestimate the people who make up our audience. They see through our efforts to be “objective” and they’re, frankly, tired of it. The good old days of absolute institutional power are gone, and journalism will certainly be just fine without it.

I recently wrote about a Dallas sportscaster’s rant against his station for showing the video clip of Dallas Cowboy’s owner Jerry Jones — with likely a few beers in him — saying some embarrassing things. The sportscaster said this was exactly what’s wrong with “the news” these days, and then he crossed a major line with me:

Our business now too many times is a fat kid in a T-shirt in his mother’s basement eating Cheetos and writing his blogs.

Blaming bloggers is the passionate raison d’être of the press these days, because we seem incapable of viewing blogs as a reaction to the above graph rather than a cause. Go back and look. When was the first blog? Late 90s, perhaps? I started blogging in 2002, and I was considered radical at the time. So which came first, the public distrust or blogs? Blogging and the personal media revolution — Jay Rosen’s “Audience Atomization Overcome — are a reaction to the mistrust of the press and certainly not the cause or even a cause.

Again, we simply must get off our collective pedestal, if we are to make a difference in the trade of journalism.

Rather than trying to save something that is lost (the insanity of “saving” the press), we ought to be discussing — with a blank page — how we can provide a news and information service that the public will trust. Here’s a tip: they will be a part of it.

(Originally posted in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel newsletter)