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You Can't Filter Twitter: Clay Shirky TED Talk on Global Citizen Journalism
June 16, 2009 6:21 PM   Subscribe

As turmoil continues in Iran, with protesters and members of the opposition party empowered by Twitter and camera-equipped cell phones, Clay Shirky gives a TED Talk on the emerging global era of bottom-up journalism, including the phenomenon of the transfer of social technology patterns from the second and third world to the first. Previously
posted by macross city flaneur (48 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Second world"???
posted by mr_roboto at 6:23 PM on June 16, 2009


Just trying to be inclusive. I meant second world in the sense of emerging powers like Brazil and India, as it is used in books like this.
posted by macross city flaneur at 6:28 PM on June 16, 2009


The 'Second World' was the the old Warsaw Pact, IIRC.
posted by pompomtom at 6:28 PM on June 16, 2009


This BRIC countries?
posted by mr_roboto at 6:31 PM on June 16, 2009


So the term "the third world" was actually coined in france and was a refrence to the Third Estate during the french revolution. The third estate was the commoners and bourgeoisie, as opposed to the priests and nobles of the first and second estates. So "Second world" was never intended to mean developing nations or "emerging markets" half way between the first and third worlds.
posted by delmoi at 6:36 PM on June 16, 2009


So "Second world" was never intended to mean developing nations or "emerging markets" half way between the first and third worlds.

And yet, thanks to the wonders of linguistic evolution, now it does
posted by crayz at 6:39 PM on June 16, 2009 [6 favorites]


And yet, thanks to the wonders of linguistic evolution, now it does

To a rare few, apparently.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:39 PM on June 16, 2009


I think it's safe to say that these terms are in flux and used in different ways by different people and they evolve through time. This is what makes etymology interesting. I've tried to clarify the sense in which I meant it, and it's hardly material to the content of the post.
posted by macross city flaneur at 6:40 PM on June 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


LANGUAGEHAT TO THE FILTERDOME. REPEAT DR. LANGUAGEHAT TO THE FILTERDOME.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:44 PM on June 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


FWIW, folks nowadays talk about the developed world, developing countries (filled with NICs and BEMs), and LDCs, or least-developed countries. "1st/2nd/3rd world" is now considered uncouth and hegemonic.
posted by The White Hat at 6:50 PM on June 16, 2009


There's no need to argue. The important thing is, we've found a tiny nit to pick to avoid talking about the crux of this post.
posted by DU at 6:51 PM on June 16, 2009 [11 favorites]


The fact that I'm getting sick of hearing about TED?
posted by nightchrome at 6:51 PM on June 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


Second World...
posted by pompomtom at 6:57 PM on June 16, 2009


Hate TED, but I use it to look up people I want to watch on authors@google. Love Clay Shirky. I liked the thing at the end where he said it's not about whether we want to live in this media landscape it's about how to deal with it now that we are living in it.
posted by edbles at 7:05 PM on June 16, 2009


Good talk, bad thread. Not that it's any fault of yours, macross.
posted by Mister_A at 7:40 PM on June 16, 2009


How can we make the best use of this medium? We might start by considering the principles of the original Hacker Ethic. These initial standards can change and develop over time, along with technological and social advancements, into newer sets of principles .
posted by inconsequentialist at 8:03 PM on June 16, 2009


What is this guy talking about? He seems like a crazed, sweaty public-relations hitman.

TED talks should be cool. But they are not. I just can't stand the marketing synergy. The whole affair reeks of something distasteful, Ted that is.

This is what I got out of it:
"Look, we won't control you, we'll just manipulate you."
posted by kuatto at 8:20 PM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Innovation happens only where people can take for granted that we're all in this together."

Methinks this isn't just about cell phones and Twitter.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:22 PM on June 16, 2009


nightchrome: "The fact that I'm getting sick of hearing about TED?"

Forgive us. We're still a little blown away by the idea of getting real-time lectures from really smart people anywhere in the world. We'll be over it in a few weeks.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:27 PM on June 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Forgive us. We're still a little blown away by the idea of getting real-time lectures from really smart people anywhere in the world. We'll be over it in a few weeks.

Yeah fuck TED talks! I'm sick of listening to smart people say interesting things.... for free... at my own leisure... on a computer... at home.
posted by Telf at 8:39 PM on June 16, 2009 [8 favorites]


For very specific, narrow, possibly wildly inaccurate definitions of "smart" and "interesting".
posted by nightchrome at 9:02 PM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


So it automatically sucks because it happened at TED? Nice thread crapping. You've made Metafilter a better place today.

I enjoyed it because this week has really shown what it can mean when media-capturing cell phones and services like twitter are used to greatest purpose. Because of those cheap, ubiquitous phones we are able to connect to our common humanity in a way that was impossible just a few years ago. And a lot of what would've sounded like new-economy-hoo-hah a month ago, really resonated because of what's happening in Iran.

Like most TED talks (except for that one about the crows, which blew my mind), I wish it was deeper and more technical.

Thanks Macross.
posted by gofargogo at 10:15 PM on June 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


http://blog.ted.com/2009/06/qa_with_clay_sh.php

Shirky on Iran & Twitter.
posted by k8t at 10:19 PM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


kuatto: What is this guy talking about? He seems like a crazed, sweaty public-relations hitman.

Sorry, Clay Shirky is a professor at NYU and author of Here Comes Everybody who is much more popular on Metafilter than you are. Previously...
posted by gen at 10:48 PM on June 16, 2009


Those of you who crap on TED, show us the video of you sharing some compelling information with a global audience.
posted by gen at 10:51 PM on June 16, 2009


So you're not allowed to criticize the quality of something unless you yourself have done the exact same thing? Interesting.

Also, not trying to demean Mr. Shirky personally or anything, but he is an adjunct professor, which is quite a different thing altogether. His highest educational accomplishment is a Bachelor degree in Art. My issue is with TED in general, and the sort of circle-jerk circus that it appears to be, not with him in particular.
posted by nightchrome at 11:00 PM on June 16, 2009


TED is a little up its own ass once in a while, but aren't we all?
Overthinking a plate of beans for an audience can be fun. See: Metafilter.
posted by scrowdid at 11:17 PM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


nightchrome: My issue is with TED in general, and the sort of circle-jerk circus that it appears to be

Please see l33tpolicywonk's comment up thread.

If you're not interested in TED, don't watch the videos and don't comment in the thread that references TED. Simple.
posted by gen at 11:20 PM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


So, anywho, on the whole social media vis-a-vis Iran.....one thing that I've been thinking a lot about in recent days, on a meta-level, is how it's possible for me to be riveted by this, checking in with Andrew Sullivan and The Lede and the Huffington Post once an hour, for me to be loading up a twitter feed with a 1,000 updates every ten minutes, reading a student tweeting from the roof of a Theran University dorm, talking about the security forces forming a ring around the building....and at the same time it's entirely possible for my friends that I know in real life to know nothing about this. I feel like I'm experiencing a major news event, top 20 lifetime scale. And they feel nothing, or perhaps a mild interest. This is disturbing to me.....this fragmentation seems to change the nature of "news" in as much it destroys its universality....obviously this isn't a trend that started yesterday or nothing, there's always been stories which were only of regional interest, and especially in the last few years there's been the phenomenon of stories which were huge matters of controversy and interest on one side of the political divide and almost totally unknown and un-discussed on the other ---there was a story about two border guards arrested for shooting a suspect that was like this---but this is not necessarily a partisan story. It's just an international story. The phrase that keeps coming into my mind is that we are now living in an age of sought news, and I'm not quite sure what I mean when I think that.....
posted by Diablevert at 5:17 AM on June 17, 2009 [4 favorites]


I feel like I'm experiencing a major news event, top 20 lifetime scale. And they feel nothing, or perhaps a mild interest.

At times like this Twitter reminds me of nothing so much as a newswire for the rumour mill. And when you're trying to sort out news from rumour, a machine that amplifies the bullshit is not to be viewed as a massive boon (see also What if we are all wrong about Iran?).

No editors? No gatekeepers? "Hurrah!" they say. But no goddamn trust, either.
posted by fightorflight at 6:07 AM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


if only ted weren't blocked at work. and twitter.
posted by Gregamell at 6:17 AM on June 17, 2009


And after Jayson Blair and Judith Miller, fightorflight, we also know that we can't trust traditional journalism. We know that professional reporters will fabricate facts to meet deadline pressures and advance their careers. We know that they will quote unnamed sources in the halls of power, only to have those same people, in circular fashion, cite such "reporting" as a justification for war. We know that network news, cable news, and newspapers are utterly impotent to expose a faulty case for war and an administration that lies to us routinely. This is so because these reporters and their editors are too invested in the culture and personal connections that give them access to power in the first place.

We know that these are not fringe problems, or a problem of neophyte reporters. We know that they are problems that go to the core of the mainstream news business, and that they are perpetuated by the "best" reporters at the most respected journals.

In short, there's no trust anywhere. And a big reason why is the internet. Not because it has made reporting worse, but because it has exposed faulty reporting wherever it rears its ugly head.

That only testifies to its power as a debunker as well as a "rumor mill". And so, is the internet the first self-correcting, self-exposing news medium?

God knows newspapers and cable news are not.
posted by macross city flaneur at 8:43 AM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I was put down this morning by the first dozen or so comments, none of which has to do with the content of the post. Shirky is one of handful of people who not only has an overview of what is going on but he also talks and writes simply and clearly about complex issues. So first I'd like to thank those who have rescued this thread from obsolescence.

Diablevert: this fragmentation seems to change the nature of "news" in as much it destroys its universality...
Interesting perception, but not really: it makes you a media to your friends. This is not new: in any group some people are informed about events sooner than others. What the internet has done is to extend our reach: we receive news from further and from more people and we can transmit them further and to more people. And everything faster too: the MSM (main stream media) are still there to offer a filter (what you call "universality"), only later.

macross city flaneur: sure; this damning story doesn't help. But the multiplicity of sources has always been the only guarantee of approaching the truth, so you are probably right: the internet (is) the first self-correcting, self-exposing news medium because it contains so many different sources.
posted by bru at 9:34 AM on June 17, 2009


From the Jayson Blair article at Wikipedia, citing to the New York Times:
"On April 28, 2003, Blair received a call from Times national editor Jim Roberts, asking him about similarities between a story he had written two days earlier[6] and one written by San Antonio Express-News reporter Macarena Hernandez on April 18.[7]...Blair's plagiarism of Hernandez’s article was so flagrant that it led to further pressing by Times editors, who asked him to prove that he had, in fact, traveled to Texas and interviewed the woman in his article. After being unable to provide proof, Blair resigned from The Times on May 2, 2003. Following the resignation, a full investigation of all of Blair’s articles began.

An internal report was commissioned by Times editors, with a committee consisting of 25 staffers and three outside journalists, led by assistant managing editor Allan Siegal. The Siegal committee discovered that 36 of the 73 national news stories Blair had written since October 2002 were suspect, ranging from fabrications to copying stories from other sources."

So...the reason we know that Jayson Blair was a liar and a plagerist was because of the Times, the scandal led to the resignation of two of the paper's top editors, and the paper then reported extensively about the scandal in its own pages.

The internet did play a role, in the a reporter at a San Antonio paper was able to easily see and compare an article she had written with one of Blair's. But then again, the Times is nationally distributed and the San Antonio reporter had interned there; it's certainly possible she would have picked up a hard copy and noticed the same similarities.

The MSM has problems. But I think it's a mistake to go all Napoleon-style, "Internet good/MSM bad." Because the MSM is a broadcast medium, from the one to the many, it needs to cultivate a reputation. You anger above points to it --- you snarl because the Times failed to live up to its august reputation in the Blair and Miller affairs.

On the internet, it's much easier to create sock puppets, to knowingly or unknowingly pass along incorrect information. An individual Twitterer or blogger can pop up or drop out of discourse with a snap of a finger, and worse, individual communites can wall themselves off, self-selecting sources. That's a natural and inevitable tendency --- but it gives tremendous oxygen to stuff like the 9/11 truthers. Practically every time I sign into Wordpress one of the featured hot community posts is by a global warming denialist with a large following. Conventions about journalistic objectivity arose as journalism was becoming a mass medium. It's the fragmentation of he media which is breaking it down.
posted by Diablevert at 10:10 AM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


And so, is the internet the first self-correcting, self-exposing news medium?
God knows newspapers and cable news are not.


That might have more weight if your own example didn't disprove it: Jayson Blair was exposed and corrected, on the front page, by the New York Times itself. Compare this to "omg Amazon censoring teh gays #amazonfail!!1!", where I'm pretty sure there are still some twitterers out there who think Amazon was up to something shady.

It's like my earlier link says: rumour and confusion is a fundamental part of the newsgathering process. Twitter and things like it are exposing people who didn't realise this to the full effect, and so they're willingly passing on information that's horseshit. Journalists sometimes do this too, but in the general they do at least try not to.

It's not a new problem, it's only a new kind of problem when we elevate the equivalent of your mom's email forwards about poison in diet coke to the status of real journalism/new media/whatever you want to call it. There's no Snopes for Twitter (yet?)
posted by fightorflight at 10:48 AM on June 17, 2009


I'm not angry, Diablevert. And as a rule, I don't snarl. I am, however, impressed by your ability to creatively assemble so much rich gestural and aural context from a text-based medium.

But anyway, beyond that, I should also note that I don't expect the Times to live up to its reputation, such as it is, because I recognize that that journalistic reputation is a marketing tool designed to sell newspapers, first and foremost. I am not disappointed by any fall from grace, because I was never a believer in, only a consumer of, that grace.

I do, however, feel compelled to point out the hypocrisy and, well, intellectual laziness, of the (sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit) pretense of idealized journalistic integrity in an environment where traditional news is increasingly commoditized and compromised by its need to "buy" access to officials and leak sources through explicit or implicit exchange of favors/favorable coverage, etc.

The image of the paper's intellectual "above-the-fray"-ness has now been punctured by its financial vulnerability. It's made it impossible to bandy about the pretense that the Times was ever free from a core foundation of market concerns. And frankly, I can't say that doesn't feel like a step forward for journalistic self-awareness.

Because journalistic ethics, such as they are, will not ever secure "objectivity" for us in a literal marketplace of ideas. It remains to be seen whether the systematic multi-vocality and many-to-many model of the internet can. But it is certain that journalistic ethics cannot.
posted by macross city flaneur at 11:40 AM on June 17, 2009


It's not a new problem, it's only a new kind of problem when we elevate the equivalent of your mom's email forwards about poison in diet coke to the status of real journalism/new media/whatever you want to call it. There's no Snopes for Twitter (yet)

So, the measure of the internet as a journalistic medium is not whether your Mom is, or can be, Bob Woodward. That represents the classic mistake of measuring the new medium according to the specific strengths of the old one. You've narrowly defined at the outset what "real" journalism is, and then unsurprisingly discovered that the medium you quite deliberately did not use to create your definition fails to live up to it.

The measure of the internet's success as a journalistic tool ultimately will be whether it can 1. develop ways of delivering the information it quite naturally vetts in a findable, digestible form, and 2. finds new models of reporting that exceed the old ones.


On the first score, I think it's doing quite well. Whether anyone wants it or not, the internet now vetts everyone and everything, and there are many blogs which allow the cream to rise to the top for our consumption - HuffPo, TPM, etc.

On the second score, it remains to be seen whether it can succeed. On one hand, it is no secret that most bloggers lack the kind of access to public officials that characterizes the workaday business of traditional reporting. But seeing that as a strength assumes that regurgitating the talking points of officials and PR reps is actually an effective way of getting information.

Imagine this situation for me, if you will. Imagine a situation in which it is considered tacitly and utterly unethical for any government agency to prevent its employees from twittering, blogging, and forum-posting about their jobs. You would get up to the minute updates from potentially every employee of the EPA, the IRS, or the FCC. Many perspectives at many levels. In this climate, the idea of an agency "spokesperson" ceases to make sense. All employees and officials are spokespeople at all times. If you want to know what's happening in a given area of the government at any time, you just go to the agency blog and see what the top threads are for that day (or that week or that month, if you like, search being what it is), or you view favored blogs within that community to get the most influential 5 takes on whatever happened that day.

This is a new world. It's going to continue to surprise us. And by the time we're done the "real" journalism we've known may look shockingly "unreal".
posted by macross city flaneur at 11:58 AM on June 17, 2009


(Do you mean to be so desperately patronising to everyone? It does make it difficult to respond fairly)

Journalism -- be it in any of the mediums it has adapted itself to -- for me is defined in part by whether or not I can trust its practitioners to be my surrogates. Trust isn't a "strength" of the old model so much as it is a prerequisite. Without a trust mechanism you don't have journalism, regardless how much you stretch the definitions.

Imagine, too, the consequences of your hypothetical. You create a world of such voluminous information that it is no longer possible to sort fact from mischief-making, and all hope of exposing the agenda behind a given tweet or blog post is virtually impossible. There are two alternative outcomes here that strike me immediately:

1. Finding out the truth from this morass of information is going to be a deeply involved task, a combination of data-mining and quasi-historical investigation. And everyone will have to do it for themselves, because the results of any one person or set of persons investigations will be utterly lost in the noise -- especially the noise generated by other people who don't like those results. Since it's a lot of work, most people won't bother. It's Amazon vs the Gays on a massive scale of confusion and ignorance.

2. Your "Favored blogs" will amass authority and prestige, and the return for their authors will be increasingly good, while the others will be ignored, and those authors will give up. Over time, a few key people will be the go-to guys on a given topic. Oh, hello, we've just recreated spokespeople.

This is not a new world (and 1995 would like its hyperventilation back, please), it's just the old world with some things made much easier. There's little fundamental difference between a blog or Twitter stream and publishing yr newsletter on a LaserWriter. The only ones that matter are that it is orders of magnitude easier to publish and distribute.

The content however, remains as difficult as ever to do, and, vitally, the same old world corruptions and pressures are as present as they ever were -- perhaps more. Why should your internal bloggers favour some ideal of journalism over saying what the hell the boss wants them to say? For every Tweet from a whistleblower, there's five from people spouting the company line.

The problems of journalism have never been a shortage of sources. All your imagination has gifted us is an explosion of untrustworthy ones.
posted by fightorflight at 1:05 PM on June 17, 2009


Because journalistic ethics, such as they are, will not ever secure "objectivity" for us in a literal marketplace of ideas. It remains to be seen whether the systematic multi-vocality and many-to-many model of the internet can. But it is certain that journalistic ethics cannot.

There has yet to be a set of ethics which eliminates sin. The reason to develop an ethic is to create a sense of higher purpose among the practitioners of a craft so that they feel obligated to something beyond their immediate self-interest. "First, do no harm." "I vow to uphold the Constitution of the United States." "Semper Fi." "You shall have no gods before me."

But the Isrealites were smelting a golden calf practically as soon as Moses' back was turned, and the pressures of the moment which would inspire unethical behavior have never ceased to be.

You made the claim that the internet had helped reveal the unethical behavior of Blair and Miller. In Blair's case, this does not seem to be so. Instead, the Times investigated it, revealed it, and punished upper management involved and reported on all of the above. It would seem to have checked itself, discovered and ethical lapse on the part of its employee, and moved to correct it. There's probably something to quibble with in the exact circumstances how it reacted there. But it would seem to counter your suggestion that the internet is the first self-checking medium.


I do, however, feel compelled to point out the hypocrisy and, well, intellectual laziness, of the (sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit) pretense of idealized journalistic integrity in an environment where traditional news is increasingly commoditized and compromised by its need to "buy" access to officials and leak sources through explicit or implicit exchange of favors/favorable coverage, etc.

The use of the word "increasingly" implies a previous state of affairs when this was no so, or was so to a lesser degree. When do you think this was?

For myself, I'd argue that in as much as this was once the case, it was the case when there were fewer media sources. The vast majority of news winkled out of institutions is gotten out of talking to people. The most important bits of news usually come from talking to people, and getting them to tell you stuff they're not supposed to tell you, stuff that could get them in trouble. Sometimes people want to talk to you because they have a message of their own they want to get out. The only other weapon you have is the ability to say, "So and so declined to answer our questions." When you had Walter Cronkite saying it to an audience of 1/3 of the country, "So and so declined to speak with CBS news," was powerful. The more fragmented the audience becomes, and the greater the ability of an institution to reach an audience directly, the less and less powerful this threat becomes. The fiercer the competition among media entities, the greater the leverage the source has, to demand concessions such an anonymity in return for exclusives, or to seek out the particular entity he finds philosophically congenial. Greater competition also inspires philosophical differentiation as well --- you got to give 'em a reason to like your version better.

Or in other, perhaps shorter and simpler words: The reason to get it right the first time is because everybody is paying attention to you. If nobody's paying attention, then your first task is to acquire their notice. The greater the competition, the more incentive to sex up your angle, to be inflamatory, and to pitch your material to a carefully cultivated niche, flattering their biases.

Damn, this way too long. Ob this is something I have a lot of opinions about. Oh, and snarl --- v. tr.
posted by Diablevert at 1:11 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Answering fightorflight...

desperately patronising

Your projection does not make it harder for me to respond fairly to you.

Without a trust mechanism you don't have journalism

What is this trust "mechanism" you think is at work in mainstream journalism? Is it managerial? Is it based on professional associations? Documented processes of peer review? Tests? Now, answer this. How did these "mechanisms" fail to stop Jayson Blair for so many years? They didn't. Because they don't exist. Journalistic ethics, such as they are, are enforced sporadically and in an entirely politicized and ad hoc manner.

It's precisely the strength of the new medium - of the internet - that it mechanizes (again through its multi-vocality and many-to-many model - its formal/structural aspects) what we formerly relied on ethical frameworks to supply. I (nearly explicitly) claimed that in a world where power is "mechanized" by the market, such ethical systems represent a fragile and increasingly unreliable bulwark against Blair-ish fabrication. I think you have it precisely backwards when it comes to "mechanisms" of trust.

a world of such voluminous information that it is no longer possible to sort fact from mischief-making

I will re-articulate my argument that the internet manages complexity quite well. It does so by putting many eyes on an issue, and spontaneously empowering watchdogs based on their interests and local experiences. The reason your "massive confusion and ignorance" scenario is mitigated is that there are simply too many (interested) eyeballs on the relevant issues. The lived proximal experience of a thousand interconnnected people will outflank, out-contextualized, and out-expose lies, mis-characterizations, and incompetent conceptions far faster than 10 reporters with sophisticated research tools.

Your "Favored blogs" will amass authority and prestige

I would grant that this is possible, but it is most likely to occur among the content aggregators. In general I would argue the internet guards against this by creating a diffusely tiered authority. Thus, the authority of a top level clearinghouse for information, like HuffPo or Wikipedia (yes, it's not just about "news" sites), is not as great in a specific area of expertise as a information resource with a narrower or more local focus. The authority of the network news to speak about polling data was quickly ceded to Nate Silver when it became apparent during the last election that his analysis was superior, for example.

The problems of gradually centralizing authority and prestige will certainly not disappear any time soon - but again, the many-to-many model of the internet seems like the best check on it ever invented. This is precisely Shirky's point - without cell-phone cameras, right now the Iranian authority's word on the size of protests and the violence committed by protesters vs police would be the last word. Because of the internet, it's not the last word. Who are you going to believe? The "trusted authorities", or your lying eyes?

Why should your internal bloggers favour some ideal of journalism over saying what the hell the boss wants them to say?

Yes, why should they? They shouldn't. They should favor speaking what they feel. What they feel is bound to be complicated. It's bound to be informed, in part, by what the boss thinks. And in the near term, once bosses realize their employees can easily speak out using the tools the internet provides, they will put pressure on their employees not to do so, or to say favorable things.

But then there will be pushback and lawsuits, because even the most persuasive bosses can't control what their employees think all the time. People will demand the right to speak what they feel and not be fired. And when those lawsuits come, we should be smart enough to be on the right side of them. And you know what else? Their coworkers will support them too, and there will be many many coworkers. They will, on all sides of every issue, be people demanding to speak what they wish. And the outflow of demand to use these technologies will be so strong in the end that it is the bosses who will feel the pressure, not the employees.

All your imagination has gifted us is an explosion of untrustworthy ones.

Many untrustworthy voices is the only objectivity we will ever have. Everything else is religion, or self-deception.
posted by macross city flaneur at 2:26 PM on June 17, 2009


I should clarify something about Blair vs Miller. Because each case testifies to different things, and I've clumsily failed to emphasize the right things in each case.

Ultimately the Blairs of the world tell us that there are few checks on accuracy. His plagiarism, the thing that got the most attention, is an internecine issue. I don't usually care whether I'm getting my news from the AP or a staff writer, so the fact that one plagiarized the other hardly matters to me, as a consumer of news. It DOES matter to journalists, who are part of a business and professional enterprise. What most matters about Blair is that his case shows the pressures journalists face and what they are willing to do to meet those pressures, and that there's no one minding the store. That he got away with, not plagiarism, but complete fabrication for so long is the most shocking thing as far as I'm concerned. Blair shows that the news is literally a simulacra.

It's the Miller case that is really more relevant, and troubling, despite the fact that this thread has not focused on it. Because what Miller shows us is how the "best" professional reporters, armed with little more than the word of officialdom, can completely mislead a country. It shows the way that news is compromised by power and coziness - and again, the pressure to manufacture "stories".
posted by macross city flaneur at 2:35 PM on June 17, 2009


Answering Diablevert...

There has yet to be a set of ethics which eliminates sin.

Point well taken. And if anything I wish professional ethics in journalism were more and not less codified. That said, even a suitably self-regulating journalism would be completely and rightly upended by the immediacy, scale, and decentralization of what's happening now with news on the internet.

You made the claim that the internet had helped reveal the unethical behavior of Blair and Miller.

Not so. I made the claim that those two cases demonstrated the untrustworthiness of the mainstream media. And secondarily I made the claim that the internet was an excellent vetting tool. I did not cite one in support of the other, though in fact the internet was an important factor in distributing these stories to a wider audience and therefore putting pressure on the Times, in the case of Judy Miller, to take action.

It is currently difficult for internet sources to provide a check on claims citizens no way to verify or disprove. Once citizens get access to the means of verification, however, the internet immediately becomes effective. Again this is unsurprising. It should not cause doubt about the internet as a vetting tool. Rather, it should cause us to demand greater transparency to the citizenry on the part of government, and protection for government employees to speak out about what they and their organizations do. Early on, government transparency was something Obama's campaign was very interested in. It remains to be seen what they will accomplish on this score.

The use of the word "increasingly" implies a previous state of affairs when this was no so, or was so to a lesser degree. When do you think this was?

I would certainly agree that there was no prelapsarian state when the government had no influence over the news. But the process by which the "market" for leaks and sourcing has calcified has taken place over time. Really Watergate was the great rupture in the transition from an old system in which, not just journalists, but the citizenry at large, accepted a great deal of paternalism and latitude from their public officials. The news was really cozy then. Since Watergate, public relations, reporting, and the system of leaks have developed into a increasingly systematic and regularized market.

The general outlines of this market is that reporters tend to be that reporters now only get exactly the information that government institutions want them to hear, except when someone has an axe to grind or a career to defend. In which case, there are leaks, as you mentioned.

At one time, everyone leaked, and leaks were spontaneous. People told you what they really thought. Call it the "golden age" of investigative journalism. Now there are systematic ways to minimize leaks, and people have grown savvy about how to use them to advantage, so leaks are much more targeted and politically motivated. The ultimate source of most leaks now is a highly placed official who has an agenda, not a yappy bureaucrat who wants to shoot the shit.

The Bush administration cracked down on leaks like never before, but even the President's office has an interest in preserving the leaks system to some degree, since it allows them to seed information they want to see in the newspaper surreptitiously.

But where the government is concerned, the days of "investigative journalism" are mostly over. You'll note that Pulitzers for investigative reporting often have gone in recent years to journalists overseas, and often the issues they report are tangential to the primary stories of the day. It's because we live in a closed system, where everyone understands the stakes and everyone understands how things work.

If it weren't for disruptions like the internet, it's hard to see how this situation might ever change.
posted by macross city flaneur at 3:01 PM on June 17, 2009


Jayson Blair was exposed and corrected, on the front page, by the New York Times itself.

I missed this line earlier. The whole point of the Blair story was that his lies and plagiarism went on for so long without correction. The story was not "Look at how great the Times is at policing itself." It was just the opposite. Dramatically so. It was shameful. And the Times said as much in their response.

And the story of the Amazon non-censorship non-debacle was that within a few days the massive reaction of a host of bloggers to something seemingly minimal Amazon had changed about their data - essentially a non-story by traditional journalistic standards - demanded a public response from a huge company. And then, even more miraculous, that company was given a chance to clarify what had happened and that clarification was quickly distributed through the network. The Amazon case is perhaps one of the best testaments yet to the power of internet journalism.

I can't imagine someone getting these stories more backwards.
posted by macross city flaneur at 3:29 PM on June 17, 2009


What is this trust "mechanism" you think is at work in mainstream journalism?
You wholly misunderstand me. The trust I speak of is between me and the publication. I trust that the papers will adhere to a system of ethics that means they won't knowingly print outright fabrications, won't print rumour as fact, and will endeavour to meet what we can hand-wavingly call journalistic ethics. (This trust in objectivity doesn't, as you seem to think, mean some naive boundless belief in every printed word -- I trust my girlfriend not to cheat on me, but that doesn't mean I take for granted the assumption that she never will.)

It's what all journalism boils down to: you either do the legwork yourself, or you trust someone to do it for you. My justification for placing my trust in newspapers is a different matter, but that question applies equally to a newspaper run by a private company as it does to an agreggator, or a website with a thousand contributors. If you think there are valid justifications for trusting any of the online sites, then those reasons can equally well apply to traditional media. If you think there are systematic reasons to doubt traditional media, they'll apply equally to sites.

This is precisely Shirky's point - without cell-phone cameras, right now the Iranian authority's word on the size of protests and the violence committed by protesters vs police would be the last word. Because of the internet, it's not the last word. Who are you going to believe? The "trusted authorities", or your lying eyes?

Shirky's point is ludicrous. You genuinely think without cellphone cameras we'd be bereft of information from Iran? Sure, some pictures are coming out from cellphones, but many are coming from press photographers. What's more, it again comes down to trust: what reasons do I have to trust a cellphone picture from a biased participant of either side?

In fact, events have run counter to his claim. The Twitter consensus has been of protests running into 3 million – but working journalists in the area peg the figures far lower. Who are we to believe? And why?

Again, there's absolutely nothing new about this phenomenon. There aren't any more eyewitnesses, they just have a bigger audience. That audience appears drunk on the novelty, but it's nothing new to working journalists. They have a history of sifting conflicting reports to find the truth; the new audience doesn't. Rumour is going halfway around the world, but it's also stolen Truth's boots.

The lived proximal experience of a thousand interconnnected people will outflank, out-contextualized, and out-expose lies, mis-characterizations, and incompetent conceptions far faster than 10 reporters with sophisticated research tools.

You're were talking about religion and self-deception? These would be implausible predictions even if you had a shred of evidence for it, or even for the roots of it beginning. But it isn't happening, and hasn't been happening for the past 10 years. You think people will do the legwork of journalism personally rather than trust others? There aren't enough hours in the day. You also think people are going to sue their companies to be allowed to write blogs? Try making that claim when American workers get more than 10 minutes of vacation time a year. If they can't unite to fight battles that matter to them physically, they're sure as hell not going to do it for the right to tweet.

Instead of your vision, what is actually happening is expertly delivered lies and mis-characterizations are rapidly filling the void left by proper reporting, and the forces behind that have absolutely no problem co-opting the proximal experience of thousands. My vision is of our news becoming ever more like TechCrunch. I'm hopeful I'm wrong, but betting against things going to shit sure hasn't been a winner in the past.

on preview:
The Amazon case is perhaps one of the best testaments yet to the power of internet journalism.
Hooo, you're a loon. This wasn't a testament, it was an embarrassment. The thing wasn't a non-story by "journalistic standards", it was a non-story full stop. That bullshit rumour can gain so much credence so quickly that the company has to speak about it isn't a strength of the medium, it's an indictment, a pretty damning one. And the fallout lingers: rather than the "clarification being quickly distributed", instead the second Google result on "Amazon Gay" is a call for a boycott to continue.

As for Blair: of course it was shameful. And the Times shamed itself, with massive coverage. I can't think of an online equivalent -- at best you get buried "UPDATE: all this was rubbish" at the bottom of a post, at worst you get Arrington vs. Last.fm. Blair got away with it for so long because a lot of it was fiction, and virtually impossible to contradict except by auditing his movements. What mechanism would have ever caught him if he'd been blogging?
posted by fightorflight at 4:06 PM on June 17, 2009


The trust I speak of is between me and the publication.

At the end of the day, fightorflight, you're a Catholic/Royalist on this issue. And I'm a protestant/republican. You think the priesthood will save you; I think they'll molest your children and cover it up for centuries. You think the printed word makes a lot of tin pot authorities who couldn't interpret scripture to save their lives. I think the printed word means democracy and literacy. You like unity and top-down regulation. I think schism is just fine, and that crazy sects are a fine price to pay for the right to an individual relationship with the news.

Catholicism isn't going away. But at the end of the day, you're on the wrong side of history.
posted by macross city flaneur at 5:07 PM on June 17, 2009


Sure, some pictures are coming out from cellphones, but many are coming from press photographers.

The Iranian authority has banned outside reporting.

What's more, its hard to demonize massive amounts of video taken by your own citizens as "outside meddling by the United States".
posted by macross city flaneur at 5:21 PM on June 17, 2009


I'm really not projecting about the patronising bit, am I? Coo.

Not one of the things you just said applies to my views. What I'm against is not online news, or distributed news, or the ability of anyone to set up their own outlet and have it find its feet. I'm all for these things. I'm certainly not for some awful Catholic few-outlets trust-us-because idea of journalism.

What I am against is the fanciful notion that suddenly "we'll all be journalists"; that "bottom-up news" is even a coherent concept; that journalism is even possible under a model where everyone's yelling into the void and no-one's listening; that crowdsourcing is anything more than comfort-zone-reinforcing divisiveness; that because "sources can go direct" it'll be impossible to cover anything up and all the rest of the utter nonsense that's espoused by new media revolutionaries who have no understanding of either what they're trying to replace or of their own place in history. I'm against them partly because they're drivel, but mostly because these pie-in-the-sky "it will be like this, really, honestly!" visions prevent us from coming close to solutions that will let us replace tired and broken old models with something better.

On the terms of your own metaphor you're not protestant; you're anarchist. You are tragically like all too many of those would-be revolutionaries before you: wilfully ignorant of pragmatic realities and certain that human nature will change to fit you. History knows how to deal with that.

on preview: and a babysitting threadsquatter to boot, too. 12 posts? gyob.
posted by fightorflight at 5:29 PM on June 17, 2009


threadsquatter ... gyob.

I'm only answering criticisms. If there were more people defending my point of view, I would post less. You could always quit posting here yourself, couldn't you? Or maybe this tactical jibe is a mild capitulation on your part to the temptation to be, yes, "desperately patronising".

I'm really not projecting about the patronising bit, am I? Coo.

I don't happen to think that the Royalist/Catholic label is pejorative, nor do I think that being on the wrong side of history is a bad thing. Often it's quite admirable. Heroic even. Like Hobbes arguing with Boyle. And heck, arguments like the Catholic/protestant one have a way of resurfacing again and again, sometimes in surprising forms, as, I would argue, the current discussion attests. And I totally agree that this issue is far from simple and that it is far from "settled". Nonetheless, my opinion, that you are on the wrong side of history, remains unchanged. But please don't misunderstand my tone.

What I am against is the fanciful notion that suddenly "we'll all be journalists"

But the point is that, under the current definition of journalist, we won't need to be. And even if we do, it was a lot more of a stretch to think that most of Europe would become literate after the invention of the press than it is to think that most Americans might learn to be journalists after the invention of the internet. Not that either could happen overnight.

that journalism is even possible under a model where everyone's yelling into the void and no-one's listening

Do you think that what we have now is a model of reasonable and informed discourse? Frankly, I see a lot more intelligent discourse on MeFi than on New York Times comments pages.

that crowdsourcing is anything more than comfort-zone-reinforcing divisiveness

Charles Krauthammer recently praised Fox News for creating an "alternate reality". The privileged Times reader implied by the overall editorial voice of the paper seems disgustingly out of touch to me. Comfort zones aren't going away, but the internet didn't invent them either.

Crowdsourcing makes it easy to create ideologically narrow information outlets, but the argument that it's easier to ignore opposing opinion that's a click away, rather than paying the cost of a subscription to a journal with an opposing viewpoint, just doesn't hold water. Instead we get "balance", or watered down he said/she said from one-size-fits-all newspapers and networks. Gail Collins and David Brooks. Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson. Laurel and Hardy. That's what passes for diversity in most people's mainstream media diet today.

impossible to cover anything up

Sorry, that's a straw man. It will always be possible. But the landscape will change.

new media revolutionaries who have no understanding of either what they're trying to replace or of their own place in history

I'm not a new media revolutionary. I have no place in history. I'm just a guy with an opinion. One of millions. On the internet.

you're anarchist

Again not to self-aggrandize (Luther was an anti-semite and a mediocre theologian anyway, so it's hardly flattering), but only to make a point - Luther looked the same way from a position in St. Peter's Square. Actually, like a heretic. An outlaw. An instrument of the devil.
posted by macross city flaneur at 6:32 PM on June 17, 2009


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