We need to stop underestimating our audience

Gary Vaynerchuk

Gary Vaynerchuk

I laughed out loud the other day while watching one of those wonderful Gary Vaynerchuk videos. You should already know what I mean by that, but if you don’t, here’s where to find Gary Vee, as he’s known: garyvaynerchuk.com.

The customers’ bullshit radar is better than ever before,” was the line that put a smile on my face.

You know why we have an audience problem in the news business? It’s because we behave as though they’re stupid. We act as though we’re so much better than those with whom we’re sharing information, and it shows. This is at the heart of a massive cultural change in our world, because the people just aren’t as stupid as the elites of the Industrial Age, 20th Century think we are. And we’re getting smarter every day, and the smarter we get, the more disruptive we get. I wrote about this in The Evolving User Paradigm many years ago.

Vaynerchuk is absolutely right, because people have access to information that used to be protected by and for elites. This is not going to end well for the status quo, and journalists especially — who think of our trade as a profession — are incredibly vulnerable in separating ourselves so arrogantly from the people we serve.

I’ve written before of Edward Bernays’ (The “father” of public relations) 1947 essay The Engineering of Consent, in which he wrote:

If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.”

The point is that the ruling class of the 20th Century is being disrupted by the Internet and its ability to put information in the hands of everyday people. It makes Bernays’ cleverness much more difficult, which prompts observers like Gary Vee to note that “The customers’ bullshit radar is better than ever before.”

In a recent interview with SFGATE, CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley tried to explain a recent uptick in ratings for network newscasts.

Because never in human history has so much information been available to so many people, but unfortunately that also means that never in human history has so much bad information been available to so many people.”

We may not get it right all the time, but at least (viewers) know serious journalists and serious editors are trying to get the news right.”

No they don’t, Mr. Pelley, as the Gallup survey of media trust going back to 1973 reveals a serious decline in trust of the press by the American public. Only 1 in 5 believe these kinds of statements. For the others (80% of us) what Mr. Pelley is selling is, well, bullshit.

But it goes far beyond that culturally.

In this simple statement, Mr. Pelley reveals his bias and represents the central argument of colonialism — that people are stupid and need the brilliance and experience of experts in order to survive and thrive. Along the way, these experts make a very fine living as parts of the hierarchical ecosystem that feeds the masses. Every institution of Western Civilization functions on this tenet, which needs to be the functional reality in order for the elites to manage everybody, whether they know it or not. It’s eerily similar to the way things where in 15th Century Europe when Gutenberg challenged the ruling authority of the Roman Church by printing the Bible and subsequently, a common English language version.

TVNewsCheck ran an article recently about WBIR-TV news director Christy Moreno in Knoxville who regularly asks for feedback from viewers on daily decision-making. Notice the response of the Poynter Institute, that bastion of journalistic tradition.

Purists, such as Kelly McBride, Poynter’s expert on journalistic ethics, however, don’t like the idea, saying the average TV watcher doesn’t have the skills it takes to resolve journalistic issues.

Making ethical decisions about journalism is a process,” McBride says. “When you crowd source a decision, you come out with the lowest common denominator. That’s just the math of it.

So easily do these words flow from Ms. McBride’s mouth (and, let’s be honest here, the mouths of “most” professional journalists) that there’s not even the slightest thought that the idea may be insulting to a person with even average intelligence. This delusional gap between journalist and average citizen is at the heart of the people’s mistrust of the press.

I keep running into TV news directors who view their websites as a distribution point for what we call “Finished Product News,” in other words a completed, fully-vetted story filled with every detail and pictures or video that we have (see my 2007 essay “News is a Process, Not a Finished Product”). It’s not; it’s a distribution point for bits and pieces. Our TV newscasts are our “finished products.” This, too, is a failure to recognize a) that people understand the moving, changing, evolving nature of news in the process of development and b) that they don’t need us to assemble everything for them.

Citizen media pioneer Dan Gillmor and author of the seminal “We, The Media,” once wrote “My readers know more than I do.” He was speaking of his readers as a group, and he spoke to them always with respect and humility. We could use a whole lot more of that ourselves as we deal with both the changing nature of news on the Web and the changing cultural roles brought about by the cultural shift to postmodernism.

Broadcasters and Aereo: sometimes winning means losing

We have a lottery game here in Texas called “All or Nothing.” The point is that if you get ALL the numbers on your ticket, you win, but you also win if there are NONE of the numbers on your ticket. Hence, “all or nothing.”

I think the Supreme Court’s pending decision in the broadcasters versus Aereo case is a similar proposition for the broadcast TV industry, although the other way around. They will lose even if they win.

Historically, when given the opportunity — which this case does — to come down on the side of culture, the high court cannot resist, and culture — whether we like it or not — is moving to a one-to-one model of communications. There are exceptions, certainly, but the use of government resources, like spectrum, to enable old school thinking is up for grabs in the hands of the high court. What most people don’t realize is that one-to-one can mimic one-to-many in certain necessary situations, but one-to-many cannot mimic one-to-one. This is the essence of Jay Rosen’s “Great Horizontal,” and why this case is so fraught with danger for the status quo. You see, it isn’t about my ability to receive; it’s about my ability to send, and that’s why a whole host of laws have to be modified, including the use of the spectrum that’s owned by the people.

TVNewsCheck’s Harry Jessel published a piece last week that examined the question of what happens if the court sides with Aereo. As informative as the essay is, the comments are not only entertaining but also revealing regarding how broadcasters think in terms of defending themselves in the case. Here are six general themes:

  1. Its “unnegotiable” civil defense mission is what will sustain broadcast spectrum. The Telcos even now are working to develop a new system of civil defense warnings and assisting the government in real time and beyond.
  2. The question before the court can’t produce a loss for broadcasters. Since when has the “question before the court” prevented the Supremes from deviating? Sorry, I don’t view this as protection.
  3. Local bandwidth is too small to permit any significant competition to high quality OTA broadcast delivery. This is the same argument used by broadcasters when cable first came on the scene. Quality follows what culture wants.
  4. The most likely outcome would be for Congress to intervene, revising the Copyright Act to bring systems such as Aereo’s within the purview of the transmit clause. The Supreme Court doesn’t need Congress to make law.
  5. There is a finely balanced economic ecosystem going on here in which everyone thrives. But it’s an ecosystem that can be damaged if something disruptive, like a Supreme Court win for Aereo, took place. Nobody cares about our “finely balanced economic ecosystem,” except where it impacts their wallets, and that is a biggie that the court could impact.
  6. If the Supremes give the decision to Aereo, then broadcasters’ spectrum is safe, because Aereo depends on a broadcast signal in order for its antenna farms to work. Well, yes, and that’s a possibility, but Harry’s piece fully explores how that could be a net loss for broadcasters anyway.

If the broadcasters were to win, however, there’s a significant chance, in my view, that the price of winning will be its spectrum, because there is widespread and significant pressure to shift TV stations to cable in the name of spectrum use for the one-to-one world of the Web.

It is the law that gives broadcasters the spectrum. It is the law that says cable companies MUST carry the broadcast signals. It is the law says that broadcasters have a right to compensation for cable carrying their signals. And now broadcasters want the law again to boost their business model. Live by the law, die by the law, for the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of what is or isn’t law, and that’s why this case was such a crap shoot from the beginning.

Broadcasters are already acting as cable companies, and here’s the rub. If broadcast signals become cable channels, then must-carry laws are irrelevant, and retrains fees become renegotiable. Without the weight of law behind the broadcast companies, there’s little doubt in my mind that the networks will by-pass the local money tree in making their programming available via cable. Hence, the losing even if they win.

The problem for the Supremes — and the key reason I think they took this case — is the profound necessity of rewriting what copyright means, absent the immense Congressional lobbying power of the status quo. “Intellectual property” is an oxymoron created by the entertainment industry to give itself the weight of law in conducting its business throughout the world. It works fine in the one-to-many world of mass media, but it makes no sense in the Great Horizontal, and this is the conundrum for the court. Personal use of products must include sharing in a one-to-one universe, and every one of the old industries that thrived in a one-to-many paradigm must face this reality. It will take something like a court ruling to give the people formerly known as the audience (thank you, Jay Rosen) what they deserve.

The supermarket can’t charge me twice for a meal I share with neighbors, yet this is the absurdity of current copyright inside the network. The network is a cultural shift that’s here to stay, and its advancement is the duty of those in positions to make it so, such as our Supreme Court justices. Neither side in this case gives a ripple chip about consumers, the people, and that’s what the court will be forced to consider.

Folks, there’s much more riding here than the question before the court. In attempting to right what they view as a business wrong, broadcasters have opened Pandora’s box, and the chaos unleashed will likely produce a deleterious result for anything “business as usual.”

BONUS LINK, also via TVNewsCheck: Michael Berg’s legal view of the case (although tilted by an admitted bias towards the NAB).

New York Press Club responds to police rule change

The New York Press Club has fired off a letter to police commissioner Raymond Kelly (I thought it was Tom Selleck) demanding an explanation among other things for a rather striking rule change impacting the press. Reporters used to be able to obtain police reports at the precincts they were covering, but they must now go to a central office. Here’s the letter:

December 9, 2013

Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly
New York City Police Department
One Police Plaza
New York, NY 10038

Dear Commissioner Kelly:

On behalf of the New York Press Club, I strongly protest NYPD’s latest decision to cut-off a long-standing source of information, vital to New Yorkers.

The policy change to deny media access to complaint reports at the precinct level is, to us, another example of blatant hostility by NYPD toward locally-based media outlets that disseminate information about neighborhood occurrences to residents of those neighborhoods. We are stumped by the question of why NYPD now requires community reporters to scurry down to the notoriously uncommunicative and uncooperative DCPI office to examine incident reports that originate locally. One inescapable conclusion about the new policy is that NYPD wishes to “edit” or otherwise obfuscate the information in question. At the very least, the policy unnecessarily complicates public access to information and data that should instead be freely available.

This new restriction on openness and accessibility is, in our opinion, another disturbing example of the department’s recent, relentless slide towards non-accountability. We therefore request restoration of the previous, long-standing policy and its expansion to all precincts. We also request, for publication, an explanation of the reasoning behind NYPD’s latest decision to constrict access.

Thank you,

Sincerely,

Larry Seary
President

CC: Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Mayor-elect William de Blasio, William J. Bratton, John McCarthy, Donna Lieberman, Esq.

This is a big deal, folks, and I’m surprised I haven’t seen it elsewhere. It’s a big deal, because it signals a reaction to the concept of “everybody’s a reporter.” It’s the kind of thing we’re going to see repeated as the institutions of Western culture are challenged by weakening silos and authority that’s spread horizontally across a world that used to be entirely top-down. The press has always been defined by its access, but as Mr. Seary notes above, even press club members themselves face a form editing in the oldest information gathering process on the planet — the police beat.

While nothing about this is good for the First Amendment, it does point out the absurdity of trying to govern a horizontal culture with top-down rules.

Stay tuned. This one is going to get interesting.

The future of journalism is independent contractors

Dad's new master bedroom

Dad’s new master bedroom

I recently finished a small remodeling project at my house, and I learned something that validates a suspicion I have about the future of work and specifically those who work in journalism.

I turned a bedroom/bathroom combination into a second master bedroom, because my 90-year old father-in-law is coming to live with us. I wanted to give the old guy some privacy, and putting the bathroom “inside” his space did the trick. The guys who built it were independent contractors who were paid by the contractor I hired. Sears delivered dad’s new mattress and box spring, and the deliverymen, while wearing Sears shirts, were independent contractors paid by Sears. Empire Carpets came out and installed hardwood flooring. The two guys who did the work were independent contractors paid by Empire to install carpets, tile and hardwoods.

I spoke with each of these people about working as independent contractors instead of employees, and while they all bemoaned the lack of benefits, they all said that working for themselves had some advantages, especially when it came to taxes.

Clearly the business world is moving in the direction of independent contractors, and I’ve been writing for ten years that this will one day be the model for media companies. In the beginning, it will likely come about as a cost savings, but in the end, I think it’ll also be a part of acknowledging the growth of what J. D. Lasica first termed the “personal media revolution” in his 2005 book “Darknet, Hollywood’s War Against the Digital Generation.”

Right now, in every community in the U.S., there are people practicing a form of journalism who aren’t employed by traditional journalism companies. Athletes, actors, retired journalists and TV people, elected officials, municipalities, police and fire departments, writers, moms, dads, students and many others are self-publishing content worthy of consideration as “news,” and tomorrow’s news organization will aggregate all of it. And if news becomes a matter of aggregating, then it makes sense for those who are currently “employed” to work for themselves and the highest bidder. This could upend the entire local media farm system, which finds young people just passing through small markets on their way to jobs in bigger markets. Smaller markets will be home to those who wish to live there, and I feel that would be quite a good thing for journalism.

Forbes is already practicing a form of this, as is the Huffington Post. Don’t be surprised when local media companies begin to move in this direction.

Deconstructing the path to truth

Here is the latest in my ongoing series of essays, “Local Media in a Postmodern World.”

Deconstructing the path to truth

We’re hearing lots today about the laziness and weakness of what Jay Rosen calls “he said/she said” journalism, where writers find what feels like a sterile form of “balance” in the issues of the day by including both “sides” of any particular matter. This formula is fine until we discover that there isn’t another “side,” or that this other view is actually one that’s based on falsehood or worse, manipulation. “He said/she said” has worn out its welcome in many places, where the experiment now is to find a sense of fairness amidst the often manipulative efforts of those who have a selfish interest, and use the rules of “balance” to interject their thinking into complex issues.

In the advancing “age of participation” – what I call “postmodernism” – this artificiality is having difficulty standing up against the wider spectrum of the public, which has two things going for it today. One, they’re more able to monitor and respond to any form of artificiality in the news, and, two, they can participate in the forum that was once reserved only for the professional journalist and make up their own minds. As Gallup reaffirmed last week, the American public simply does not trust the professional press, and the whole “he said/she said” business is a big part of that.

It is against this background that I’ve published another chapter in the manual of postmodern journalism. It is my hope that you will give the ideas expressed herein a few moments of your valuable time.

The GOP’s currency of envy

Heinz 57 variety political guyI’m such a Heinz 57 variety political guy that it’s really hard to fit myself into anybody’s pigeonhole. I like it that way, and my suspicion is that I’m not alone. We are silent, or so it seems, because no one truly speaks for us. We are offered choices that really don’t matter at the dawn of a new era (postmodern) in which the best we can do is hope for something different. Just like life itself, we can either live it or hope to live it, the former coming with great risk while the latter offering the same old, tired-but-comfortable options.

Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative and many other political groupings are all designed by our top-down culture to suit, well, our top-down culture, but if we believe that “top-down” doesn’t cut it anymore, then we need to start thinking differently when it comes to how “we, the people,” govern ourselves and, by extension, our country. Anybody wishing to start something new must fit himself into the old political portal mindset, which is by nature designed to prevent such intrusion without incredible cost.

I was the executive producer of The 700 Club in the early 80s, a wonderful adventure to which I gave my all but ended up broken. I was an outsider, of sorts, and even though I often led worship services at the ministry, I’d like to think I still managed to nourish and maintain my observer roots. In board room meetings on a host of issues, for example, Pat Robertson would often look at me for reaction to what he was proposing-cum-ordering, because he knew my head could and would move in both directions. I’m proud of that (book forthcoming some day, I promise), and while I’m sure many thought I was conflicted internally, the truth is I rather enjoyed being in that place at that time. Never try to judge what somebody’s thinking on the inside by his or her outside performance or circumstances.

Nobody ever asked me about my politics at CBN; it was simply assumed, and I count the many wonderful discussions — and even debates — with remarkable thinkers while there as one of the greatest joys of my life. You’ve probably never heard the name, but Herb Titus has one of the most remarkable minds of the late 20th Century. We often had super intellectual thinkers on the program, and I had the chance to learn from each of them. Dr. Benjamin Mays, for example, on what’s wrong with youth today:

Because we are so extraordinarily afraid to let them experience the same hard times that helped shape our own character.”

American Thinker Logo image

American Thinker”

That’s a long path to introduce you to a publication you’ve probably never encountered but that I often enjoy, American Thinker. It’s a conservative “think” publication, and since the reason for much of my writing is the challenging of assumptions, it’s a great place to do just that. Can my/your arguments that are counter to contemporary conservative positions stand up to genuine and passionate intellectual scrutiny? I find this a good place to bounce things around in my mind. I was doing this recently, when I came upon a fascinating argument about the currency of envy in a piece called, “Obama and the Infernal Serpent, by Jeffrey Folks, a prolific writer and conservative thinker from Knoxville, TN.

Mr. Folks charges President Obama and all Democrats with “wealth envy,” something he decries as evil and contrary to both the ancients and Christian literature. His opening statement reveals the flaw in this logic. “Envy of the rich,” he writes, “is actually one of the seven ‘deadly sins,’ according to Christian belief.” I’m sorry, but the phrase “of the rich” isn’t something I can find in my studies of those seven deadly sins. But he goes on:

The ancients understood envy better than we do today. Envy was always associated with snakes because it is a destructive emotion that creeps into one’s heart. It is sluggish, gradually overturning one’s nobler feelings and replacing them with venomous hatred. Like our current occupant of the White House, whose speeches have become harsher as the campaign draws on, envy is ruthless and unsmiling.

Once unleashed, envy knows no bounds. It slithers into men’s hearts, poisoning their relationship to others, destroying families, ruining friendships, and making the governance of society impossible. That is what has now been unleashed in America. Employing the tactics of Saul Alinsky, Obama approaches every political problem with the intent of isolating his target and exploiting the destructive emotions of envy and distrust.

All of Obama’s talk about “fairness” is nothing but an attempt to gin up a sense of grievance and exploit it for his own purposes. The rich should be taxed more, he says, not because it would bring in more revenue or because they are not taxed enough already, but because they need to be punished. We hate them because they have succeeded and we have not. Even 2,800 years ago, that kind of populist demagoguery was understood to be dangerous.

I love words like “envy,” concepts that human beings have struggled with since the beginning. We seldom talk about these kinds of things, preferring instead to leave that to the clergy, “where it belongs.” That’s a shame, because concepts such as this undergird many other things that we do talk about, and the dangerous assumption in those conversations is that we all agree on the properties, practices and consequences of such big ideas. When was the last time you thought about the role that envy plays in your life, or in anybody else’s life?

This is the kind of 30,000 foot, big thought process that often drives conservative thinking. I find it fascinating, because while I find his conclusion erroneous, Mr. Folks isn’t stupid, illiterate, or full of crap. He’s followed the thing back to word root origins, and has put his honest and sincere beliefs out there for anybody to read. If you want into the collective mind of conservative intelligentsia, you must occasionally drift into this kind of reasoning, because a logical path that produces illogical results has to begin at a twisted point. Challenging arguments on this level will help your results in debating all contemporary issues, because these underlie and provide motivation for arguments that many miss, because they simply don’t see it. But here we have it, spelled out for us by a very smart fellow.

I wish no disrespect to Mr. Folks or any of the people at American Thinker, but his argument avoids one very important piece of ancient literature in order to arrive at its conclusion. Finally — and forgive me — I have reached the point of this treatise. To accuse Mr. Obama of “wealth envy” disregards the role of envy in the amassed fortunes of those wealthy people that Democrats are alleged to envy and even hate. As much as Mr. Folks believes the President’s words to be “populist demagoguery,” he is himself engaging in a non-populist form of demagoguery, one that appeals to those who are rich, the ones the Democrats are supposed to envy.

The book of Ecclesiastes is clear on this matter.

4:4 — “And I saw that all labor and all achievement springs from man’s envy of his neighbor.”

So here, the author, presumed to be King Solomon himself, notes that in his observations of life, he’s discovered that human achievement (skill at work) has its roots in envy, which puts a different spin on the use of the word to disrespect only one swath of the political spectrum. The rich exploit envy and are filled with it themselves, for the competition to have the biggest this or that or more of this or that is, in fact, an expression of envy. Moreover, envy flows through every pore of those inside the velvet rope, those who wield power and influence and work to keep others outside its lure of being in control or even “in the know.” How hypocritical is it, then, to argue that one’s envy is the evil “infernal serpent” while another’s is simply dismissed as irrelevant, pointless or worse, not a part of the argument whatsoever?

Wealth envy, it seems, is the flip side of the coin of position envy and very much the same thing. The carrot and the stick is a good thing to those in power, because they are the ones holding the stick. This is not only envy; it’s a form of every one of those seven deadly sins: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. Those chasing the illusive carrot are rarely allowed to get it, and when some do, they are held up as examples of now envy works for the good of all.

Mr. Folks goes on:

All of Obama’s talk about “fairness” is nothing but an attempt to gin up a sense of grievance and exploit it for his own purposes. The rich should be taxed more, he says, not because it would bring in more revenue or because they are not taxed enough already, but because they need to be punished. We hate them because they have succeeded and we have not.

This is the logical conclusion of thinking that begins in the wrong place, and it’s rampant among today’s popular conservative intelligentsia. It’s not that the rich believe themselves better than others; it’s that they believe they can be different than others (e.g. above others), because they’ve earned the right to be so. This is the existential battle between conservatives and liberals, and arguments justifying either position aren’t helped by logic that begins in the wrong zipcode.

By being classified as one of the seven deadly sins, envy is, therefore, a part of human nature and present in us all, not just one group. At the very root of colonialism, for example, is the envy of resources, and justification for seizing such resources in the name of God is a sham disguised as nobility. All colonialist institutions are corrupt in this way, and the protection of one’s place within the hierarchy is likewise self-centered. The French saying noblesse oblige (nobility obligates) undergirds the community chest, but is it really not today simply a tax exemption?

I don’t claim to understand rich people. I grew up in the home of a World War II veteran who settled back home in Michigan as a worker in the furniture factories. We were Adlai Stevenson supporters in the 50s, which carried with it a natural disdain for the “silk stockings” of the old GOP. “Fringe” in the GOP these days points to religious zealotry, but in my youth, it was more about the party of management, corporations, and the wealthy. Today, the religious right is a clever straw man thrown at the opposition and a recruiting tool for the “real” GOP — the fat cats of my dad’s era.

I’m in that 30% tax bracket, and I can’t help but cringe upon hearing that a guy like Mitt Romney doesn’t pay more that 13%. The “deadly sin” that I’m feeling, therefore, is anger, not envy, and there’s a big difference. I don’t want his 13%, because I honestly feel that paying my fair share is just that, fair. Would I like to pay less? Sure, but not at the expense of others, because I really do think we’re all in this together. And what I find illogical is that anything that justifies such a discrepancy is, on its face, contrary to the best interests of the whole.

Jeffrey Folks represents a part of our culture that judges the motives of others based on its own character defects. It’s human to envy others, especially those who have the whirling, sparkly things the have-nots don’t. But it’s foolish (and sloppy thinking) to assume that this has anything to do with the real motives of those who exist beyond the iron gates that separate one from the other. Out here, it’s about survival, not the easy life.

Remember, the Morlocks didn’t envy the Eloi; they ate them.