Media theorist Jay Rosen’s forlorn list

A current list of my top problems in pressthink, April 2019. Updated from time to time. Ranked by urgency.

1. Absent some kind of creative intervention, 2020 campaign coverage looks like it will be the same as it ever was. Who’s ahead? What’s it gonna take to win? The debacle in 2016 has not brought forth any dramatic shift in approach. The “savvy style” remains in place

2. The Correspondent, with which I am publicly identified, met its crowd funding goals and now has to deliver on these principles. That will not be easy. 

3. With his hate campaign against journalists, Trump has been successful is isolating about a third of the electorate in an information loop of its own. These are people beyond the reach of journalism, and immune to its discoveries. Trump is their primary source of information about Trump. The existence of a group this size shows that de-legitimizing the news media works. The fact that it works means we will see more of it. 

4. Fox News is merging with the Trump government in a combination unseen before. We don’t know what that combined thing is, or even how to talk about it. The common shorthand is “state media.” But that’s only half the picture. It’s true that Fox is a propaganda network. But it’s also true that the Trump government is a cable channel— with nukes. 

5. Around the world, so called populist movements are incorporating media hate into their ideology— and replicating. No one knows how to stop or even slow this. 

6. Now in its 15th year, the business model crisis in journalism is still unsolved. (But at least we know that except in rare cases digital advertising is not going to be the answer.) 

7. Membership models in news need to be participatory to work, but we’re behind in our understanding of how to make that happen. With ad-supported media, we know what the social contract is. And we know how it works with subscription. For membership, we do not know what that contract is. 

8. The harder I work on some these problems (1, 3, 4, and 5 especially…) the more cynical I get. The more cynical I get, the harder it is to believe that any of this work matters.

Jay’s #8 is truly shocking to me. I have faith that his work really does matter.

Reposted with permission.

Stopping the page from being blank …

In the mid-1990s, shortly after I moved to Vancouver, I got a job doing Investor Relations for a public company drafting news releases, presentations, brochures, and the like. I would put drafts of these items together and present them to management and staff. During these meetings one sedulous and normally silent colleague would typically tear my work to pieces: “What about that, and this. And you forgot that,” etc. I did my best to address all these concerns and fill in the lacunae and maintain my professional demeanor.

One afternoon during such a meeting the company President evidently guessed that this regular show was beginning to make my smiling responses seem a tad bit forced, and he asked my colleague, “Where were you when the page was blank?” (I believed at the time that this utterly marvelous sentence was original with my client. It wasn’t, alas.)

While this remark later became my unofficial job description on basil.CA — “Essentially what I do is stop pages from being blank” — it completely silenced our sedulous colleague forever after, sometimes to the detriment of our company’s IR activities.

I tell my students that colleagues and teachers who edit their work have the same goals they do: To make prose on a piece of paper (or on a computer screen) more correct, concise, complete, convincing, and current. “It’s about the paper, not you. Don’t take it personally. And certainly never feel hurt by this process.”

Addendum: The company President mentioned above needed no more than three or four elliptical sentences by me on a draft news release to compose a detailed, two-page revision himself. But he was helpless before the blank page. My mentor at Prometheus Books Inc., Doris Doyle, was the same way. Each could compose blemishless prose themselves, by fixing the work of others. My sometimes lame drafts served as “generative devices” to get their own prose going.

“Generative Devices,” wrote my Stanford professor Gil Sorrentino, “are consciously selected, preconceived structures, forms, limitations, constraints, developed by the writer before the act of writing. The writing is then made according to the ‘laws’ set in place by the chosen constraint. Paradoxically, these constraints permit the writer a remarkable freedom. They also serve to destroy the much-cherished myth of ‘inspiration,’ and its idiot brother, ‘writer’s block.'”

I rather like knowing that I was the “preconceived limitation” that got my colleagues’ writing engines humming.

Photo by Miles Basil

Catastrophe

I have always considered being a bit of a catastrophist an important part of my mental hygiene. This started in my undergraduate days when I took a lot of classes in probability and statistics. The most important word in the question “What could possibly go wrong?” was “possibly” rather than “wrong.”

My mathematical imagination failed me in the early years of social media. I could not see how Twitter and Facebook and YouTube could possibly provide nests for Nazis or White Supremacists. Or anti-vaxxers.

I had no excuse, having studied zines, the precursor of today’s blogs, for years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I had a large library of hate and ignorance. I should have known these authors and their progeny would fly to new media platforms.

The website Healthline.com has just published an article called “How Major Tech Companies Are Handling Anti-Vaccine Content.” Its tone is perhaps more optimistic than is warranted by the facts, and by the histories of some of these companies.

Earlier this month, the American Medical Association issued a public letter to the CEOs of Amazon, Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Twitter, and YouTube.

The central questions posed to tech companies: How are these platforms spreading anti-vaccination rhetoric and what, if anything, is being done to stop it?

“While misinformation is spread in many different ways, we know that social media is a leading source of how Americans are getting their information today,” AMA President Dr. Barbara L. McAneny, told Healthline.

McAneny explained why experts are worried that more and more parents than ever before get health information from social media.

“We are concerned that the proliferation of this type of health-related misinformation will undermine sound science, further decrease vaccinations, and persuade people to make medical decisions that could spark the spread of easily preventable diseases,” she said.

Pinterest is blocking “vaccination-related searches.” Amazon’s removing some anti-vaccination titles. YouTube’s “demonetizing” anti-vax videos and channels. Read the whole article here. Pray for the best.

Pretentiousness done right

God bless Janet Malcolm.

What books are on your nightstand?

I take it you mean the imaginary Doric column that supports a teetering pile of current and old books that the interviewee wants to bring to the reader’s attention. My actual nightstand is a small wood table with a box of Kleenex, a two-year-old Garnet Hill catalog and a cough drop on it. When I go to bed I bring with me the book I am reading during the day. Right now it is the British edition of Sally Rooney’s brilliant, enigmatic new novel, “Normal People.”

How do you organize your books?

I organize them by genre. The largest section is fiction, which I alphabetize. I also alphabetize poetry. The other sections — biography, autobiography, theater, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, history, classical literature, literary criticism, art, photography, books by friends — are not alphabetized. I can find my way around them. I have been doing a lot of rereading in recent years. Why have a large library and not use it? Why keep books, if you are not going to read them more than once? For the décor? The answer isn’t entirely no. A book-lined room looks nice.

Naked Security

The “Naked Security” blogs published by Sophos remind me how vigilant online publishers – and all organizations, really – have to be to protect their content, their data, even their names. Indeed, the word “vigilance” needs to at the top of our whiteboard every day – and never erased.

When I moved to Vancouver in 1996, I saw that almost no small-cap companies in the exploration and mining business had online presences. This was a good business opportunity. I knew my way around the Internet – coming from Stanford, you had to be – but hadn’t created websites myself. I found a couple of partners who did, and we found a bunch of clients right away.

The first order of business was registering URLs for each client. This typically involved registering four or five: client.com, client.net, clientresources.com, clientresources.net, and clientinvesting.com, for instance. We wanted to make sure that we covered the bases, so to speak. We would use the main URL and make sure that the others “pointed to” the main one.

For a couple of years, on the Internet there was the equivalent of the 19th-century American land rush. Promoters, IT whizzes, managers, communications pros, publishers, inventors, entrepreneurs – everybody, it seemed to me – were staking out their claims to URLs, in essence buying names and making them their own. Whether or not these names were used for actual websites, for some it was just as important that their competitors *didn’t* have these names.

I have a spreadsheet to make sure that I never forget to re-register the “stable” of URLs I own or manage (a few dozen). Two times I missed a deadline; I lost one URL (this still bugs me, as you can imagine) and miracle of miracles I got the other one back.

Forgetfuless is one way to lose control of your URL. Having it stolen is another. The other day Sophos blogger John E Dunn published an article called “US gov issues emergency directive after wave of domain hijacking attacks.”

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has issued an emergency directive tightening DNS security after a recent wave of domain hijacking attacks targeting government websites. …

Domain hijacking has been a persistent issue in the commercial world for years, a prime example of which would be the attack that disrupted parts of Craigslist in November 2014.

In that incident, as in every successful every domain hijacking attack, the attackers took over the account used to manage the domains at the registrar, in this case, Network Solutions.

The objective is to change the records so that instead of pointing to the IP address of the correct website it sends visitors to one controlled by the attackers.

This change could have been made using impersonation to persuade the registrar to change the domain settings or by stealing the admin credentials used to manage these remotely. …

Dunn recommends that you verify your company’s IP addresses and “change passwords on all accounts used to manage domain records.” Read his entire post for a longer list of important safeguard measures.

Free at Last

United States copyright law was changed repeatedly in the last century to grant copyright extensions to entire classes of works of literature and entertainment. This meant that such work could not be referenced at length in works of scholarship without incurring substantial permission fees; it also meant that lots of books were much more expensive than they would have been otherwise.

As of yesterday, the copyright on many thousands of works had expired. This is very good news.

“The drought is over,” proclaims Duke Law School’s Center for the Public Domain, highlighting some of the works which are now available royalty-free, by authors from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Kahlil Gibran, PG Wodehouse to DH Lawrence, Edith Wharton to ee cummings. It’s not only books: copyright in the US is also expiring on a host of films, paintings and music.

“The public domain has been frozen in time for 20 years, and we’re reaching the 20-year thaw,” the center’s director Jennifer Jenkins told the Smithsonian. The magazine predicted that the release’s impact on culture and creativity could be huge, because “we have never seen such a mass entry into the public domain in the digital age”. Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, told the Smithsonian: “We have shortchanged a generation. The 20th century is largely missing from the internet.”

The expiration means anyone can publish an edition, to take one example, of Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links. That novel, alongside thousands of other books, will become part of the repository of texts on sites such as the Internet Archive and Google Books. Writers will be able to use it as inspiration, creating new works or sequels based on it. Students will be able to quote freely from it; theatre producers will be able to adapt it.

As an editor, I have been very concerned about the viability of book and magazine publishing. And I know that several publishers do benefit from having a robust backlist. That said, overall these restrictions have stymied the publication of creative and academic work for many decades.

 

“The Personal Essay”

From the wonderful Atrios:

Generally, when any part of education rewards students for being confessional, you are going to attract/reward students who are comfortable with the genre of personal confession. It’s a weird thing to ask of students, and a weird thing to prioritize so highly. People convinced that The Kids Today (which means kids in elite universities because that’s all anybody ever really talks about in our elite media) are narcissistic twerps might start with this particular entry hurdle as a reason why.

My university doesn’t require such nonsense.

10% and “the crisis in knowledge”

Writes Jonathan Mayhew:

Knowledge is under attack from several fronts at once. In science itself, it is due to corporate corruption and the inherent bias toward interesting but possibly false results. There was that paper about how most scientific findings are false. 

In social science, there is a replicability crisis in social psychology and various forms of p-hacking and statistical overstatements. Then there are entire fields that just don’t seem that rigorous in the first place, the typical things people look down on like management studies and education. Economics is corrupt because of its upholding of the economic status quo.  The humanities have their own well-known problems.

What all these things have in common is that institutions are self-perpetuating, and that there are greater incentives for various stake-holders in having the system we have than in having a system guaranteed to produce a better variety of knowledge. Sturgeon’s Law would say that only 10% of everything is going to be of value, so in order to have the 10%, we need to reconcile ourselves to the 90% of crap.  We can’t just cut out the 90% because then we wouldn’t have enough critical mass to even keep going institutionally.