Media mergers and hanging on

I need to step away from book promotion for a minute to make a comment the current state of local media. First, there’s the merger/sale this week between Sinclair Media and Tribune Media that will give Sinclair over 200 local stations in the American TV world. In that world (mass marketing/mass media), the bigger the footprint, the greater the profit, for the core competency of media companies is the ability to produce an audience for marketers. Secondly, an interesting article today in the Columbia Journalism Review about the fiscal health of Gannett and its future headlines this way: “Gannett and the last great local hope.”

Sinclair and Gannett will take their places in the halls of commerce as the last buggy whip makers for the mass media industries of television and newspapers, and while there’s certainly nothing wrong with this, there’s a much bigger problem ahead for local communities, and that is the loss of local advertising. I’ve been harping on this for so many years that I’ve grown weary of the sound of my own voice, and while the prophecies of 15 years ago are now coming to pass, the industry still doesn’t understand what’s really taking place.

The old saw about business disruptions goes like this: “If the railroads had known what business they were really in, they would have owned all the early airline companies.” The railroads were in the transportation business, not “the railroad business,” and that was their Waterloo. In like manner, media companies are in the advertising industry, not the radio, television, or newspaper industries. Follow the disruptions in advertising, and you’ll see the downfalls in local media.

But it’s even worse than you think, for the ascending advertising giants are all digital ad exchanges and ad networks. They have the ability to serve ads to any and every browser anywhere and at any time, so the collection of data about those individual browsers (you don’t need a person’s name) has been the task of anyone wishing to remain relevant in the ad space. Local media companies have simply turned away from this most important task (“It’s not our business model.”).

One of the most significant obstacles that the net overcomes is geography, and so local advertisers – who used to spend their money with all sorts of local media companies – are now spending that money outside their markets with people who can do this browser-level targeting.

Gordon Borrell

Ask Gordon Borrell about how much money – real money – is moving from businesses in your community to advertising companies outside your market. You’ll be shocked, or you won’t believe it. These outside interests pay no taxes, support no community chests, employ no local people, and support no local organizations such as youth sports and so on. The money goes straight out of your community and into their pockets. It doesn’t pass go. It doesn’t collect $200. It just strips your community of a vital part of what makes it a community in the first place.

And yet, there is silence where there ought to be cries for help, because local media companies have badly failed the communities they used to serve by assuming that one can remain an analog mass marketing vehicle in the age of digital competition – not for the content they create (which is all we talk about) – but for the money that supports the production and creation of that content.

And so Sinclair grows and Gannett hangs on, both victims of their own corporate malfeasance. One thing they will never be able to say is that they weren’t warned.

You may now return to your regularly scheduled programming.

War Propaganda as “Weaponized Narrative”

Weaponized Narrative Is the New Battlespace is a fascinating and highly perceptive take on the use of manipulating narrative to impact culture. The idea is that individuals, institutions, and nations are using disinformation campaigns to manipulate others to their bidding through the creation of easy-to-understand stories that support the interests of the storyteller. Technology is the bad guy.

Weaponized narrative seeks to undermine an opponent’s civilization, identity, and will by generating complexity, confusion, and political and social schisms. It can be used tactically, as part of explicit military or geopolitical conflict; or strategically, as a way to reduce, neutralize, and defeat a civilization, state, or organization. Done well, it limits or even eliminates the need for armed force to achieve political and military aims.

The efforts to muscle into the affairs of the American presidency, Brexit, the Ukraine, the Baltics, and NATO reflect a shift to a “post-factual” political and cultural environment that is vulnerable to weaponized narrative.

The writers, however, Brad Allenby and Joel Garreau, oo-directors of The Weaponized Narrative Initiative of the Center on the Future of War, a partnership of Arizona State University and the Washington think tank New America, make four critical errors in their own narrative.

  1. The most glaring is that the entire concept is framed within a modernist world view where top-down, one-to-many-communications is the operating mechanism for communicating deceit. This embraces the worship of order, the vision of a psychopath (benevolent or otherwise) seated at a command and control desk pushing levers this way and that with a sinister smile enveloping a cigarette that appears to have been there for at least a week. Elevating this to an act of war is old wine in new wineskins, because reality isn’t nearly as Orwellian as the fear-mongers would have us believe.
  2. The second error works with the first. It’s a blindness to the disruption created by the bottom of today’s communications pyramid being able to talk with each other and back “up” to the top. This ability turns mass marketing on its head, although you’d be hard-pressed to find any institution that will embrace it. Some political types are tapping the space, but it is always with the assumption that it can be used to get others to pass their narrative around. This is just more modernist thinking, and the future will include educating the bottom in such a way that fooling them will get more and more difficult. I realize some will call this utopian, because it’s too chaotic and we still live in a time where a disruption to order can only be dystopian. I reject this assumption. At best, therefore, this “weaponized narrative” is temporary and not systemic, as the writers believe.
  3. Thirdly, while presented as something new, it really isn’t. Controlling narrative has been around for centuries. It was practiced by the Roman Church until the printing press allowed the laity to access that which had been reserved for the priesthood, and everything changed. It was called “propaganda” by the father of public relations Edward Bernays, a social engineer who used a form of weaponized narrative on behalf of his clients, including the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Bernays was a member of the Creel Committee, organized by Woodrow Wilson to help America justify getting into World War I. If this isn’t “weaponized narrative,” I don’t know what it is.
  4. Finally, how does one pen an article about weaponized narrative without mentioning the real experts at the practice, Israel? The fear of being tagged antisemite blocks all reason when it comes to investigating this phenomenon, for not only is Israel writing the book on how to weaponize narrative, they are doing it in full view of everybody. Within the public information office of the State of Israel are special departments who work with companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to quash anything they view as “incitement” against the crimes they commit daily in the Middle East. This is a frightening reality, for Israel can turn any event into self-defense, regardless of the heinousness of crime. It truly boggles the mind that two highly intelligent people can publish an introductory article on a concept so important without even a mention of the successful efforts of hasbara.

The article also presents America as behind other players in the world in this skill, but the jury is still out on that one. It’s self-serving in the spirit of the Shirky Principle, for the effort the writers are leading attempts to understand weaponized narrative and present solutions. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt here, for the article really does present some brilliant thinking and prose:

Narrative is as old as tribes. Humans are pattern-seeking storytelling animals. We cannot endure an absence of meaning. Rather than look up at the distribution of lights in the night sky and deal with randomness, we will eagerly connect those dots and adorn them with the most elaborate – even poetic – tales of heroes and princesses and bears and dippers. We have a hard-wired need for myth. Narrative is basic to what it means to be human.

It’s easy to critical, but this is not nitpicking. The solution to any form of totalitarianism is along the bottom of the new communications pyramid, and I don’t think these manipulative storytellers can count on ignorance forever.

BONUS LINK:  U.S. To Build A “Weaponized Narrative” Into The Future Of War

Just the facts

Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday

The principal assumption of modernity – the human era governed by logic and reason – is that there is an attainable objectivity when it comes to facts, even when applied to historical narratives. This is arguably false, however, when the postmodern practice of deconstruction is applied to any event or occurrence involving multiple narratives. It is perhaps the single most disruptive force of the current era, for a networked citizenry is able to seek out, create, and approve its own narrative while rejecting that of any self-serving hierarchical authority. The election of Donald Trump as President in 2016 was, in part, a reflection of this, for Americans find themselves in a season of questioning facts presented by any group through one-to-many (mass) media, including that which is highly political. Even the top-down messaging from the President of the United States to the citizens of the nation is becoming less and less “factual” with the citizens’ ability to deconstruct any presented narrative.

I view this as a good thing; many others don’t. It would be quite foolish, of course, to assert there are no “facts” in life, but those that drive narrative establishment are fewer and father in-between than you might think.

The 2016 presidential campaign brought to light purveyors of “fake” news, those websites disguised as news websites with deliberately false reports designed to gain pageviews without a conscience. More than for purely economic gain, these sites exploited the zeal of mostly right wingers who were motivated to pass along their lies via social media. One can argue the degree to which such false information influenced the election, but it certainly wasn’t zero. The term “fake news,” however, was too catchy for conservative commentators to ignore, so – in a remarkable feat of doublespeak – they simply applied it to their long time straw man, the so-called “liberal press.” This is the most dangerous leftover from the feast that put Mr. Trump in the White House, and it threatens every single one of our liberties. Since the birth of the Fourth Estate in the French Revolution, the press has served as a check on power in Western Civilization. They did not become such by pleasing the status quo, and this was a given for many centuries. To successfully label the watchdogs as “fakes” through political hackery is a result that could only come from the strategic use of propaganda.

Liberal political bias so dominates the mainstream press, the thinking goes, that it requires a deliberate conservative balance. This is a clever lie that I was partially responsible for spreading during my work as executive producer of The 700 Club in the 1980s. It’s a lie, because it presupposes that whatever we’ve historically known as “the news” is, in fact, politically motivated at core and therefore requires – no, demands – a corrective or “balancing” political response. The mind that drives President Trump’s strategies, Steve Bannon, repeated his description of the press as “the opposing party” in his appearance at this week’s CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) conference.

White House chief strategist Steve Bannon mocked the media for how it “portrayed the campaign, how they portrayed the transition and now they’re portraying the administration,” saying “it’s “always wrong,” during Thursday’s speech at CPAC …

… Last month, Bannon told the New York Times, “The media here is the opposition party,” adding, “They don’t understand this country.” The former Breitbart executive and other Donald Trump surrogates have been combative with the media, often calling CNN “fake news.”

This is a political talking point and nothing more, The problem is that conservatives have hijacked the brand “liberal” and redefined it to suit their wishes, They’ve framed the press into an indefensible corner, a false hegemony that requires more than denial to escape.

The truth is that while “the news” may indeed cover politics, it cannot be political at core, for the proper word for that is propaganda, the toy of the public relations industry, not journalism. Granted, there has been a destructive blending of the two over the past 100 years, but there are a great many journalistic enterprises that remain untainted, and they are nearly all newspapers. Ethics matter in journalism, and I say that as a former ethics professor. The First Amendment, which gives the press a unique liberty, requires self-policing. Speech may be free, but consequences, economic or otherwise, are not, and no journalist in her right mind would dare venture beyond ethical protections. This is why newspapers created the editorial page, where leaders and members of the community could express political views based on “the news.” As one who has practiced journalism for over forty-five years, I can state emphatically that there is no liberal conspiracy or political slant to the news. By definition of the word “news,” what is considered news is, well, new, and by that measure, one could accurately state that “the news” is progressive by design. But that does not make it political, and therefore, a political response isn’t justified whatsoever. This is my beef with so-called “right wing news,” for it was created as a political response to the mainstream press, which makes it false by definition. There is no such thing. Its purveyors are living an illusion, and its followers are a mislead group, for the very best one can say about it is that it is propaganda disguised as “the news.”

As it exists today, this group has little regard for facts and has partially fueled the rise of the postmodern culture’s desperation to find, for themselves, order within the chaos that threatens their peace. The mainstream press is astonished at being labeled “fake” or Bannon’s “opposition party” and doesn’t yet have a strategy for fighting the label except to deny it. They cling to the long-established assumption of “objective historical facts,” while the social engineers on the right argue for alternative meanings. While I believe this is all quite necessary for our culture’s advancement, we’re going to have to eventually agree on this business of facts. Rather than addressing ignorance in productive ways, we’re hung up on yelling at each other, although I believe this will pass eventually.

Even arguing the opposite – a “distortion of objective historical facts” – is committing the same error of reason as relying on those same facts in one’s arguments. Those who do are trying to make a case for said facts without evidence. They are merely attempting to make an inarguable argument over often highly questionable assertions they are trying to prove, and it doesn’t work anymore, because people can make up their own minds with just a little research. The idea of objective facts has served our Western culture well, because modernity refined the concept of top-down rule based on this assumption. If the rulers said it was fact, it was fact. It doesn’t matter if the hierarchy is dictatorial or democratic, for both ultimately rely on the power to control narrative in matters of fact. When such hierarchies are revealed as self-serving, however, those on the lower rungs are free to question the narrative or narratives that gave the top its authority in the first place.

What Donald Trump represents is the figurehead of one of these deconstructions, which is reasonable and understandable. Many Americans view their current circumstances as the chaotic fruit of those despicable liberals in charge who always act in opposition to the best interests of their conservative thinking. This would be completely acceptable in a postmodern universe were it not for the false assumptions that created its propagandistic narrative in the first place. Postmodernity doesn’t “replace” modernity, and that’s the problem. One does not give up his ability to think and reason simply because participation and experience suggest otherwise.

The postmodernist may discard historical narratives in her quest for truth, but she must in the process investigate the facts that the authors used to create the narrative in the first place. This is the proper role of deconstruction, for one may reject the conclusions of her predecessors, but she may not do it at the expense of truth, whether objective, absolute, or chaotic.

Facts, we must always remember, do not exist solely to create order, for order, as Henry Adams so brilliantly put it, “is the dream of man,” while chaos is the reality of nature. Therefore, the postmodern mind embraces the idea of factual chaos, while the modern mind must consider such as functionally unreasonable. Thusly, the right wing narrative is as false as the left wing narrative, because neither represents the entirety of chaos. Time and chance do not suit the modernist mind, but these are part and parcel of the postmodern reality and beyond.

Upon consideration of the above, the modern mind will default to its versions of absolutism and especially the nature of expertise that is gleaned from an educational system designed to promote the hierarchy. This boxlike structure rejects anything outside as undesirable and attaches labels that dehumanize through mockery and disdain such people. This includes the “liberal” moniker, which has been defined over the last thirty years as anyone or anything that wants to take away what one has or prevent one from getting what they believe they deserve. It’s neat. It’s simple. And it’s also utterly self-serving, for the hierarchy must protect itself at all costs. Anything else is assumed chaotic, and chaos is never to be accepted in the governance of humans, even though John Wycliffe wrote upon completion of his common English language Bible, “This book shall make possible government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Wycliffe knew that an internal governor was preferable to an external governor, because humans are so easily drawn away through self-centeredness, especially those with power over others.

The real American dream is self-governance, and without it, there is only the nightmare of the bayonet.

Donald Trump is by no means the end of this cultural shifting, but he is quite likely the beginning. For those of us in the trenches of life, we must do three things that are quite necessary in order to assure a bright future for our progeny.

First, we must protect at all costs our ability to freely connect. The web is open, for example, but Facebook is not, and this will drive darknet and backbone development in the decades to come. Net neutrality is the most important issue facing our culture, but most people don’t even know about it, which will enable corporations to steal the net from us. This will favor the haves, and we will be worse off than before.

Two, our day-to-day activities must include the recognition of narrative in those with claims of truth, any truth. This will be a challenge, for the education must begin with children. It is, however, an opportunity for someone. The dream that if we just work hard and keep our noses clean, we will be rewarded is a self-driven illusion of the ruling class, the only ones who really reap the rewards of a satisfied, lower-class labor force.

Finally, we must prepare ourselves and our children for an era of work very different from our parents. They’ll probably work at home or a home office of sorts. That means space, tools, a stout internet connection, and privacy. I agree with Mark Cuban that creative expression – and especially the ability to interpret data and provide creative analysis – is the job skill that will be most coveted downstream and especially in the near future. If you’re going to opt for college, move basic liberal arts to the top of the degree list, but it would also be useful to consider options outside college that will stretch the creative mind.

In essence, I view all of this as a necessary evil that we must get beyond. My entire life has been lived in a growing slough of bull crap, and humanity – free humanity – will never reach its potential in such muck. Life is certainly hard enough without being forced to trudge through the senseless nonsense designed to trap us all forever at the bottom of order’s pyramid.

Let chaos reign, at least for awhile.

Understanding “Alternative Facts”

Here’s a little perspective on the matter before us: Marketers have been lying to us since the days of the snake oil salesman. I’ve told the story before of the TV commercial I witnessed many years ago during the grapefruit diet fad. The ad was for so-called grapefruit pills that would help people lose weight. At least that was the assertion of the creator of the commercial. One scene featured a guy washing a horse who turned to the camera and actually said, “It’s so darned easy, it’s GOT to work!” If the FTC ever wanted to crack down on false advertising (they won’t), it would open the eyes of consumers everywhere.

There are many, many ways for marketers to lie. There’s lying by omission. When tissue companies, for example, sell the same sized box with fewer tissues inside for the same or slightly reduced price as before, they are lying to increase profits while giving the impression of holding the line on consumer costs. Welcome to the world of Madison Avenue and the secrets of mass marketing.

Well guess what? People are slowly catching on to these lies, and they’re sharing their knowledge with their families and friends, some of it via social media. It’s getting harder and harder to get away with such, even though there are still a substantial number of folks who’ll believe that it’s so darned easy it has to work. This is where we find ourselves today with all forms of mass media in the worlds of politics and news.

I have an ongoing study, for example, of events in the Middle East, thanks to my family living in Amman, Jordan. There are publications working to deconstruct the Zionist narrative that has been the public face of Israel since 1948. We all need to learn more about narratives, and especially those that undergird even our most basic assumptions of life, for very often these narratives are propaganda and very definitely false, at least to the point where they deserve regular review and often deconstruction.

All of this is to say that KellyAnne Conway’s “alternative facts” is really a fruit of what’s been taking place for years, that is the struggle of those who need to maintain narrative control in a media environment that questions narrative as self-serving propaganda. This is the beauty of our newly connected universe, for it’s impossible now for an institution (and government is certainly an institution) to maintain its own version of truth at the expense of those at the receiving end of their “service.”

This is going to get much worse in our culture, until we all learn that such falsehoods begin with lying to ourselves. Shakespeare wrote: “This above all, to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as night the day, that thou canst not be false to any man.”

May that day come quickly.

1968 just called, wants its mood back

Puppet masters are at work online

Puppet masters are at work online

As Donald Trump continues his effort to seize the law and order position in the wake of continuing violence on America’s streets (“Make America Safe Again”), the whole mood of the country is reminding me more and more of 1968. Prophecies of anarchy were the news back then, as the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King triggered violence in the streets. But the riots in Los Angeles and elsewhere were just a part of the overall scenario, which included Vietnam – with its Tet Offensive and My Lai massacre and campus protests. The sitting president, LBJ, decided not to run. Chicago police overreacted to demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Internationally, there was “Bloody Monday” in Paris, demonstrators were slaughtered in Mexico City, and the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia.

The end result was the election of Richard Nixon who ran on the position of ending the chaos by restoring law and order. Of course, he then went on to resign his presidency for maintaining a slush fund through which he financed illegal operations against his political enemies. So much for law and order.

Today feels very familiar to me and apparently others who lived through 1968. It’s an election year, and the news is filled with nastiness with each candidate proclaiming the other to be crooked or moronic. Violence in the streets has everybody panicked. Police are killing blacks. Police are being killed. Muslims are under attack. Terror is winning the war for the minds of free people, and mostly, there’s a sense that a rigged political and financial system is public enemy number one. “What’s the use?” is the overarching dark cloud that governs the hearts of Americans today.

The American dream, it turns out, is not wealth, but the appearance of wealth that can be obtained through debt. Television shows us that possessions equal happiness and that we can have them before we pay for them. Hard work and dedication means allegiance to the rigged system, for “the rich man writes the book of laws that the poor man must defend.”

But 2016 isn’t 1968, and while the similarities may be striking, there’s something at work today that wasn’t even imaginable back then. I’m talking about The Great Horizontal and the disruption of culture by the advent of the digital network. Culture’s bottom – you and me – are connected and can communicate without going through one of the information filters of top-to-bottom communications. This makes the situation in real life both worse and better, but regardless, it’s here to stay. Of course, the day could come when “the authorities” decide it’s just too dangerous for them, and they’ll move to disconnect us in the name of our own safety. They will somehow shift the blame to “incitement,” which is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s favorite weapon against those who would dare to lift a finger against his expansionist efforts. If it can happen there, it can happen here.

You see, people have always known the system was rigged, but postmodernism and its practices allows people now to better understand the hows of the rigged system, and they’re angry over it. We’re all angry about it – some of it is pretty absurd – and we’re demanding change. Most importantly, we have the power today to do something about it long after the noise of 2016 is over. When I wrote “The Evolving User Paradigm,” I was looking through this lens. The network will never stand still and not just because technology keeps evolving. We’re evolving with it, as more and more people learn how to use it.

Freud’s theories, which ultimately led to the manipulation of the people through the industries of public relations and professional journalism, are at the bottom of much of our angst, and this can only be overcome through knowledge. The problem is that those who benefit from this knowledge are the last people to ever teach us, which is why fact-checking is such an important industry for tomorrow. I used to ask why Snopes became the authority on this until I began to realize that media companies want nothing to do with the business of separating fact from fiction. Driven by the human need to climb the cultural ladder, journalists today rub elbows with those they cover and, whether consciously or not, participate with those who have much to lose by disturbing the status quo. This is why I continue to proclaim that straightening the crooked path is the duty of everyone who participates in bottom to bottom communications.

Instead, we’re using the bottom to bottom path to pass along the rantings of those who still exploit the emotions of everyday people to meet their special interests. The production of outrageous Facebook and Twitter memes that are purely propaganda are a throwback to the methods of Edward Bernays and those who learned from him how to manage public opinion with whatever tool they could find. We’re taking messages from the top and passing them along the bottom, so nothing has really changed just yet, although the evolving user paradigm suggests hope for the future. Only the people can stop this, but it’s going to take the knowledge of being duped by special interests, including religion, which is a very, very big task.

To my friends who regularly place outrageous, false, and nasty memes in front of me, regardless of political position, please think about what you’re doing. You are being used, no matter how strongly you feel, for it is those feelings that are being tapped to manipulate you and everyone in your path. You’re angry, and we all get that, but you are also very much a part of a very old problem.

BONUS LINK: Tom Brokaw’s 1968 (YouTube)

A birthday message for media

Today is my 70th birthday, and while I should be using the occasion to kick back and relax, I’m writing a birthday message to my old media pals.

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 7.20.37 AM

The above image is my Google home page for the day. It’s a birthday greeting from Google served only to me and, I suppose, all the other people who have a Google account and were born on this day. The reason this is significant to media companies is it reveals the anachronistic, archaic nature of online mass marketing, which remains the only model that media companies know. They still sell their online “inventory” as if it had value against the purchase of advertising on individual browser screens. It doesn’t. Google not only recognizes my browser as me, but they can follow me virtually anywhere I go on the network. The giant ad exchanges can serve individualized ads to me directly; they don’t need Wanamaker’s “hope” to reach me in a crowd.

The question then becomes, why does an advertiser need your online mass if it can cull out only those it wishes to reach? The advertiser doesn’t, unless you happen to be a part of the ad exchange or network the advertiser is using. Geography is a simple matter when you have access to every browser anywhere. That is what media companies are up against. Media sites, mobile or otherwise, are just dots on somebody else’s detailed map, and it gets worse every single day. The extent to which media companies fight this is truly astonishing, because nothing they can do or offer can slow it down.

Meanwhile, as each day ticks by, another local advertiser wakes up to the realization that this can be done, and the value of your online mass sinks deeper into the abyss. The money drain from your community is far beyond what you realize, and so you’re doubly screwed.

Happy birthday to me.