The debate over news and new media is too often tribal. And though it may make for lively debate, tribalism impairs judgment. Yesterday, Jeff Bercovici blamed a 21-year-old stringer for the violent deaths of 24 people, including seven United Nations workers in riots in Afghanistan, after AFP published his account of a Koran-burning in Florida by Terry Jones, the unhinged pastor. The context, according to Bercovici: the report went against an informal media consensus to ignore Jones’s antics. This has been rebutted elsewhere, so I won’t go into detail on it. But there is a basic problem in arguing that journalism – communicating information about something that happened – is by definition a provocation, or that people looking to provoke, and people susceptible to provocation, won’t find some instrument to express themselves no matter what AFP does. In addition, old media is not a cartel; media outlets cannot collectively agree to “disappear” an event any more than investment banks can all agree buy stocks in order to make the market go up. And if they could, what standards are they supposed to use?

But there’s another issue here. This post – which took shots at Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis – was also reminiscent of Bill Keller’s attack on Arianna Huffington and the Huffington Post. As Bercovici’s subject was citizen journalism – or journalism outside the old media cartel and its values and standards – Keller’s subject was aggregation. The problem here is that “aggregation” wasn’t Arianna’s idea. It is a technological and economic feature of the web as it currently exists. It’s very easy to set up a website or an app and pull in content from many sources. This is a useful service. Sometimes this occurs illegally, and/or without permission, and the HuffPo has done some things with NYT content that the NYT doesn’t appreciate. But if that’s really the problem, a magazine column isn’t the place to deal with it.

By personalizing the issue, Keller trivialized it. Aggregation is a force that that legacy media must grapple with. (Indeed, the NYT does some aggregating of its own.) Markets, technology, clicks and eyeballs aren’t personal. Attacking individuals instead of acknowledging this reality is unserious. The problem here is oversimplifying and anthropomorphizing complex forces, putting a human face on uncontrollable trends the writer disdains. This a common feature of politics – which should tell you something. It’s a terrible way to do journalism. For journalists, anecdotes can carry great power, but in each of these instances the anecdote collapses under the weight of the subject it’s supposed to exemplify. The broader problem here is viewing new media from a position that is simultaneously both defensive and dismissive. That is not a good frame of mind to bring to bear on a rapidly emerging global economic and social phenomenon. The forces being unleashed by new media and social media are formidable. And for journalists, worthy of respect and a sincere effort to understand them. Even if they piss you off.

We live in a very data-rich era. And that means fantastic opportunities for journalism. But can journalism rise to the occasion?

I refer to the WikiLeaks release of a trove of 92,000 U.S. documents detailing efforts of the U.S. Army and Special Forces in the war in Afghanistan, published simultaneously with interpretive accounts from the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel. As soon as this went up, you could feel the ground shifting under the media and governments: their traditional relationships were suddenly upended by this new architecture of information flows. From anonymous leakers to seemingly invulnerable transnational secret-exposing organization to journalists and to the public.

To those who say “there’s nothing new here,” I suppose that’s right in the general sense. But if you read some of these documents (or their excerpts), I don’t think they are so easily dismissed as old news. They paint a vivid picture of a daily reality that is absurdly complex, baffling and possibly hopeless. The sensation you get from reading through them is different than if you just read the words “complex, baffling and hopeless.” More different than if you read a policy paper on it. And more different still than if you watch the Pentagon’s daily briefings. There’s no substitute for primary sources, and the volume of information and breadth of topics creates an overwhelming sense of the drift of the war effort.

Does this represent an emergent form of journalism? (more…)

Image representing New York Times as depicted ...

Image via CrunchBase

Every so often, the establishment press unintentionally reveals how it works. It’s as if you suddenly put Big Media through an fMRI that showed not only its internal structures and their connections to the government, business et al, but how this system actually works, dynamically – and also pinpoint where something has gone wrong.

I’m referring to James Risen’s New York Times story on Afghanistan’s apparently vast mineral resources. I wanted to wait a little while before writing on it, because such a story has a kind of lifecycle, and I wanted to see how this one played out.

At first it appeared to be a geopolitical game-changer, perhaps heralding the arrival of a the next big 21st conflict, like the “Great Game” in 19th century Central Asia between the Russian and British Empires. And maybe it is.

Then, instantly, the story came under fire for overhyping known facts and what looked like too-convenient timing. The U.S. military mission in Afghanistan – set to end next year – is faltering, Hamid Karzai is acting odder than usual, Congress is growing restive. Suddenly, the NYT runs a story quoting David Petraeus saying: Afghanistan has enormous strategic importance. (more…)

Steel sheet pile pulled from the 17th Street Canal floodwall breach, New Orleans

The Deepwater Horizon disaster has put a renewed media and political focus on the significant government failures of Hurricane Katrina, including the collapsed, flawed floodwalls and levees that put most of New Orleans underwater. There’s also an HBO drama now featuring John Goodman’s impassioned, expletive-laden speeches on that man-made disaster. The New York Times Public Editor recently devoted part of a column to discussing the subject.

But a selective amnesia still dominates for some reason. Take a look at this blogosphere exchange between NRO’s Yuval Levin and MoJo’s Kevin Drum:

Levin says, essentially, Katrina was an act of God for which no government could have been prepared, and, under the circumstances, things weren’t so bad: (more…)

What is a “natural disaster”? The question is important, not least because arbitrary, imponderable “nature” wreaking havoc on humans and our fragile civilizations is such an archetypal predicament.

Today, though, there’s a big problem: we can’t tell any longer where nature leaves off and civilization begins. And that’s confusing.

Start with global warming and work your way down. Mankind is now causing what used to be called “natural disasters.” The Gulf oil spill is not a natural disaster in the traditional sense: nature didn’t cause it. But it is a natural disaster in that it’s disastrous to nature.

Or take the oft-litigated (in the courts and the media) case of Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans levee system. I’ll repeat this here, for clarity: most of the devastating flooding of New Orleans occurred because faulty floodwalls collapsed because of errors in their designs approved by the Army Corps of Engineers – i.e., the U.S. government. Natural disaster? Not really, though obviously nature had a hand in it. John Goodman’s character Creighton Bernette articulates this eloquently in the first episode of Treme.

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This week we’ve been treated to two unseemly corporate spectacles: the finger-pointing between BP, Transocean and Halliburton over responsibility on the Gulf oil spill, and the squirrelly changes in Facebook privacy settings and the subsequent temporizing by Facebook when people complained.

Facebook, Inc.

Image via Wikipedia

Maybe it’s ridiculous, even offensive to compare the actions of energy industry companies – whose screwups are having catastrophic impacts on the ocean environment, the economy, the people of the Gulf of Mexico – with Facebook’s relentless quest to open up, and squeeze more revenue from, your personal information. One is “real,” the other virtual, even trivial. But on some level, they’re exactly the same problem. (more…)

I have forced myself to read the late flood of profiles, stories and columns about Rahm Emanuel and I can confidently pronounce: they are all deadly dull. Do not read them! While they offer some insight into the workings of the Obama presidency, they’re simply not interesting. They reveal more about the media than our current political predicament.

It apparently started in February when Dana Milbank penned a Rahm-boosting column.  Then over the past week we got another pro-Rahm piece from the Washington Post, which self-consciously regurgitated the opinions of Emanuel defenders into an “emerging narrative” that we shouldn’t blame him for the White House’s political problems. And in recent days we got longer, more ambitious profiles from Noam Scheiber of The New Republic and Peter Baker of The New York Times. (If there are others, I don’t want to hear about them.)

Having read all of this, here’s the takeaway: Rahm Emanuel is loyal to Obama and a team player. He takes direction from the president and doesn’t freelance. He sometimes argues for more “pragmatic” positioning on issues, going for incremental wins at the expense of the dicier long ball. Sometimes Obama follows this advice, sometimes he doesn’t. (And on health care reform, Obama appears to have done both.) He swears a lot. He is all business. He is also 50 years old. And thin.

“At 50, Emanuel has the lean, taut look of a lifelong swimmer, with broad shoulders and distractingly prominent quadriceps.” – Scheiber

“At 50, he has the coiled energy of aides half his age, still as wiry thin as he was during his improbable days as a ballet dancer.” – Baker

Why is all of this so formulaic and un-illuminating? (more…)


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