Category Archives: Newspaper columns

Could the surge in mobile destroy what’s best about the Internet?

Back in 2004 I heard a presentation by an eminent media analyst at a conference of broadcasters in New York. He talked about “the capacity explosion”—the wild proliferation of broadband channels into and out of homes—and then offered remarkable observations about storage capabilities: The capacity to keep movies, video, and data of all kinds at home was rising 72 percent per year: What it cost to store 57 movies then would cover more than 2,000 in five years.

That sounded like fun, but my interest was in the political implications of his analysis, which were vast: A degree of communication independence for ordinary people that would have been historically unprecedented.

With immense in-house storage capabilities and blazing upload speeds, the distinction between media consumer and producer would vanish. Each of us would possess our own hope chests of content and become autonomous centers of intelligence and initiative, drawing freely from resources that lay entirely within our control, captains of our destiny, free to convene our own networks of communicants.

Too bad this forecast was almost entirely wrong. It didn’t foresee the advent of the Cloud. Now we have apps based God-knows-where that own our family photo albums and music play lists, and induce businesses to entrust even back-office operations that were always handled in-house to invisible helpmates deriving heaven-knows what shadowy benefits from the assistance they proffer.

The upshot is that we are infinitely less, not more, independent of our informational masters than we were a decade ago.

Now, a penetrating research paper presented this month at an academic gathering in Montreal suggests that perhaps the most powerful force in what can only be called the subordination of the vast majority of Internet users—their continuing downward transformation into mere consumers with only meager access to the creative potential of the digital network—is the rampant growth of mobile technology.

The paper, titled “The Emerging Mobile Internet Underclass,” by Philip Napoli of Rutgers and Jonathan Obar of the University of Ontario, opens with a surprising observation from Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google.

In a 2013 TED talk, Brin said he found his smartphone “emasculating.”

The argument is that though limber and endlessly convenient, mobile technology offers dramatically inferior Internet access to that available through PCs: slower speeds, reduced functionality, far less content availability (as of 2012 only an estimated 10 percent of the Web was mobile-ready.) Continue reading

The sliming of George Zimmerman

If it had happened to anybody but George Zimmerman, more people might have cared. But when your own lawyer calls you America’s most hated man you can’t expect a groundswell of sympathy, even when an immensely powerful broadcaster slimes you.

Zimmerman was the neighborhood watch zealot in Florida who picked a fight the evening of Feb. 26, 2012, with 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, whom he mistook for a prowler. Martin rose to the bait, they fought; Zimmerman shot him dead and claimed self-defense.

Initially police in Sanford, Fla., did nothing, reasoning that the state’s “stand your ground” law authorized Zimmerman to shoot rather than back off the confrontation he’d provoked. After a public furor—the town has a legacy of racism, Martin was African-American and Zimmerman isn’t—he was charged with second-degree murder, only to be acquitted at trial.

I thought the acquittal was preposterous. But my intention here isn’t to rehash the unavenged wrong Zimmerman did. It’s to examine the lesser known wrong that was then done to him—and how it exemplifies the license that U.S. courts have given news media to mangle facts and defame powerless individuals.

On five occasions, NBC and its Miami station WTVJ broadcast excerpts from a recording of Continue reading

As bad as Facebook’s experiment on its members seems, the reality was worse

What’s the worst thing about the news that Facebook hosted what The Atlantic aptly called a “secret mood manipulation experiment,” conducted on 689,000 unwitting members of its network? That’s hard to say. There’s so much bad to choose from.

First, the nature of the experiment: It was cruel. Researchers from Facebook itself, Cornell, and University of California, San Francisco, were looking into whether emotional states could be spread via news shared by online media. That means, without direct personal contact.

The vehicle for this “emotional contagion” was to be Facebook’s News Feed: By tinkering with the feed, researchers altered the balance of positive and negative items people were exposed to. Then, by peeking at the messages that those same people subsequently posted—some 3 million during the week in January 2012 when the experiment was conducted—and categorizing them as positive or negative, the researchers could determine to what degree the members had been influenced.

Not surprisingly, researchers found what they called “experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks.”

Now, this isn’t a very nice thing to do to people—deliberately goad them into an emotional response just to show that you can. Worse still, half of the lab rats in this exercise were given an overabundance not of joyous news to make them happy, but of stories featuring dreary, gloomy, negative things. That feels very much like what qualifies as intentional infliction of emotional distress.

(Finding evidence that people share such misery, that it constitutes a “contagion,” apparently interests scholars. Why? I can’t imagine. Everybody’s been saddened by dismal news and told others about it. But some social scientists build careers by confirming the obvious.)

Second, not only was this cruel, it was deceptive. The whole appeal of Facebook’s News Feed is that it’s supposed to constitute a filtered selection of news that has been endorsed by the member’s community of “friends.” It’s meant to be what the people you care about seem to care about.

This feed wasn’t that at all. It wasn’t what your friends said was worth knowing. If you attached importance to it because you believed your network of like-minded souls had commended it to your attention, you were being tricked. Other Continue reading

Transgender suicide ignites media ethics firestorm

An ethical firestorm has flared up over an expose that ran last month in Grantland, a sports and popular culture site affiliated with ESPN, on the unlikely subject of a new golf club and the woman who invented it.

As much as any media ethics matter of recent years, the furor touched off by “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” raises compelling questions about whether conventional journalistic practices are nasty, brutish and indefensible—questions raised by an online community of newspeople who have a strikingly different ethic in mind.

The Grantland article was the product of an eight-month inquiry into Essay Anne Vanderbilt, aka Dr. V, who spent seven years developing an aerodynamically innovative putter that some respected golfers believed materially improved their games. The possibility loomed of a major technological advance—and a business triumph—in a sport that reveres its toys.

But the Grantland writer, Caleb Hannan, discovered serious fabrications in Dr. V’s academic and professional resume: She didn’t, as claimed, have degrees from MIT and Wharton; she wasn’t related to the Vanderbilt dynasty; she probably didn’t help develop the Stealth bomber. Apparently, she had been an auto mechanic, albeit a remarkably gifted one.

Then, Hannan’s background checks took an unexpected turn. While trying to figure out why he could find no trace of Dr. V before 2000, he learned she was transgender, and had lived until then—and had married twice—under the male name she was born with. “What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself,” he wrote.

That story ended some weeks after Dr. V’s last, angry, email communication with Hannan, when in late October she killed herself.  In January the story was published.

It’s unclear what pushed her to suicide—fear that she’d be exposed as transgender, the lies in her resume, or the demons that many transgender people wrestle with, which is why they attempt suicide at rates far greater than the general population. (She tried before.)

But the transgender element is what provoked furious comment after the story was published—and it’s what challenges most frontally cherished practices of textbook journalism.

Traditionally, information bearing on the capacities, character, stability and credibility of an entrepreneur would be considered fair game for a reporter, who Continue reading

Why news organizations need to credit each other

In an unusual dust-up, the top editor of the Washington Post has complained to The New York Times that it failed to credit the Post for work that preceded, and nourished, important stories that the Times later ran. Why this should matter to you is worth exploring.

The Post stories, executive editor Martin Baron wrote to  Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, included significant works of enterprise journalism—among them disclosures about the National Security Agency seeding private computers with cyberattack capabilities, and unreported details from the scandal enveloping Virginia’s former governor. The Times did stories on both without indicating the debt it owed to work that the Post had already published.

The Post wasn’t the only news organization whose work The Times helped itself to, according to its public editor, whose job it is to investigate and respond to concerns about Times journalism.  McClatchy News’ Washington bureau found material it had unearthed about crude oil spillage in rail accidents was incorporated into Times stories, without a salute. (The Times later acknowledged its error.)

Now, it’s ironic to see The New York Times criticized for using the work of other outfits, since its own journalism is routinely and unapologetically ripped off by news organizations nationwide, indeed worldwide.

The Times remains, even in the digital age, far and away the mightiest influence on this country’s news agenda, and editors everywhere quietly take their bearings from the disclosures and priorities reflected in its stories and its lineup. A considerable slice of the U.S. news industry spends a considerable slice of its time trying to either match, exceed, localize, or explore the implications of The Times’ reporting—generally without any credit to The Times given or, I imagine, expected.

So when it comes to unacknowledged takings, The Times is much more often pillaged than pillager. But the issue Marty Baron raised is, I think, an important one, and one that’s only poorly addressed in contemporary journalism protocols and codes of practice.

True, if you’re not a journalist, you’ll be tempted to view this scrap as little more than dueling vanities. But what’s at issue here goes beyond pique, it’s the overall transparency of the news process—the way that significant information comes to light—and that’s not a trivial thing.

I suppose it matters less when the news organization whose enterprise was filched is The Washington Post, a great outfit whose reputation and reach remain unimpaired. Its editors may have been miffed, but The Post was hardly injured by what The Times failed to do.

The obligation to acknowledge previous work is more consequential if, say, the work is done by a tiny news site that ferrets out a hard-to-get scoop. If you, as a reader who sees that story only after it’s redone by a larger competitor, knew where it originated, you might want to pay attention to the upstart site. You Continue reading

Edward Snowden deserves a stronger defense than the media are offering

The news media’s silence while some of their boldest sources are prosecuted or jailed is something I’ve been protesting for some time, so naturally I was pleased when The New York Times, in an eloquent editorial on New Year’s Day, urged the White House to show leniency toward Edward Snowden, the former contract worker for the National Security Agency, whose leaks continue to expose the NSA’s monumental, intrusive and illegal monitoring of civilian communications here and abroad.

The Times recounted the broad impact of Snowden’s defiance, including widespread outrage, critical court rulings, internal investigations and even a grudging nod from the White House. President Obama nonetheless invited him to return from asylum in Russia to face whatever justice the administration is currently offering, the president apparently hoping that Snowden wasn’t paying attention when fellow whistleblower Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, having shared similarly dirty laundry via Wikileaks, was manhandled and held in solitary for nearly a year and finally sentenced to 35 years by a military tribunal.

Who could turn that down?

The Times argued that Snowden deserves either clemency or some minimum-punishment plea bargain, and concluded: “When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government.”

Now, The Times never said much on Manning’s behalf. Nor has it opined in favor of Manning’s helper, Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder who’s languishing in an ersatz house arrest in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

For his part Assange is ignored, when he’s not reviled, by the same news organizations he fed truthful and explosive information. The received wisdom among elite media, near as I can tell, is that he’s a weirdo and an egomaniac and therefore earned his current captivity, ensured by a months-long police siege outside the embassy in Knightsbridge that’s supposedly intended to get him to return to Sweden to answer allegations of sexual misconduct, murky stuff with which he has never been charged.

The police response is grossly disproportionate and reflects far more serious concerns than a busted condom, but the media prefer to look the other way.

So amid this practice of source abandonment, The Times’ plea is welcome.

But in several regards, the pro-Snowden case is troubling. It doesn’t go nearly far enough toward ensuring a fair shake for whistle-blowers with vital stories to tell.

First, the idea that Snowden should get a break because his “disclosures have Continue reading

Coverage of ‘moral injury’ among U.S. vets masks disregard of civilian war suffering

Just before Christmas I heard a report on public radio concerning “moral injury” among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. That’s the psychic trauma caused by acting or witnessing acts that conflict with core values—brutalizing prisoners, for instance, or killing children.

A push is on to recognize moral injury as a distinct condition within Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and treat it with customized interventions.  The pain that the soldier in the report suffered, after he and his buddies wiped out an Iraqi family of five whose car inexplicably failed to slow for a checkpoint, needs a different label and more calibrated care than other post-combat miseries that afflict soldiers.

My reaction to this account was layered. I was heartened by the sensitivity and ingenuity mental health professionals were bringing to healing the thousands of U.S. military scarred by their service in these wars.

I was also impressed, once again, by how serious the news media’s coverage has been of today’s veterans. As early as 2007 conditions in the Army’s flagship Walter Reed Hospital prompted Pulitzer-winning coverage by The Washington Post. The problems of brain injury, suicide rates, prosthetics, unemployment, psychological impairment, and the adequacy of the Veterans Administration’s response, continue to get sustained, compassionate news treatment unlike any that Vietnam-era veterans ever saw.

That’s all for the good.

But there was also something disturbing about how this report on moral injury among our soldiers exemplified this country’s boundless capacity for self-absorption. It comes amid a gaping absence of media attention to the horrendous damage suffered by others in the same wars. Continue reading