Flames, infosec shenanigans, Policy, work

On journalism, “fake news,” and the business of news media

I tweeted most of this last night. But as several people have requested, I’m re-posting this here for the purposes of readability, illumination, and annotation.

Journalism is (supposed to be) a search for the truth. It’s not (supposed to be) easy. Like science, sometimes the results are imperfect. Only through peer review, conversation, revisions and (occasionally) corrections does journalism more closely approach the truth.

This is why the drive to make news generation more efficient is so horrible for actual journalism. We’ve already repeatedly seen the problems created by what people call “the news cycle,” particularly on 24-hour cable news networks, but the problem has become more widespread as news media goes “digital.”

The problem with television journalism (especially cable) is that it is transactional, disposable and low fidelity, making quality even harder.  TV journalists are largely generalists thrown at stories with perceived mass appeal, and are expected to quick-read themselves into instant experts on topics they have little if any background in.  (For more on this, see the story I wrote on Sharyl Atkisson in November 2014). It is not a crucible for truth.

If nobody does a sanity/fact check on a story or forces the reporter to defend each sentence, and the focus is on volume, the results will inevitably be lower quality. Narratives will get forced. Facts will be bruised and bent. It’s even worse when there’s a war against truth being waged, and the sources of truth are being destroyed or obscured by bullshit. When you are time-limited and don’t have a review process on story selection and production, bad things can and will happen.

So that’s why it’s especially disheartening to see the New York Times cutting copy editors, and others trading quality for quantity & efficiency. The “digital” process adds more roles for reporters and “preditors” (producer/editors), and by focusing on producing more digital content at the expense of quality control and editorial dialogue, media companies are creating more opportunities for error–and more opportunities for the enemies of truth to exploit those errors to discredit journalism writ large.

The truth can hardly ever be found with efficiency at scale. I’m lucky because Ars is sort of artisanal about journalism. Even so, I know and acknowledge that I make mistakes, especially when thrown headlong into a breaking story. But I make a lot less of those mistakes when I have another editor checking my stuff.

Given how people are actively working to derail journalism and destroy truth, we need to acknowledge how hard a job this is. And we really need to take a step back and look at what “efficiency” and speed in news production actually costs us.

Unfortunately, we’re being driven by a business model that is anathema to deliberateness and reflection. But we need to realize that the more automated, efficient and digitally optimized “news” becomes, the more vulnerable it becomes to manipulation and attack. Journalism needs to take a deep look at its threat model, and harden itself against the forces aligned to bring it down.


Administrivia, Flames, General Chaos

Hiccups and Hokum

Had a little bit of a web config hiccup, so the page was mysteriously absent over the weekend. Whoops. Not that there was anything new, folks.

And speaking of nothing new, I tried to watch the first part ofEmpire Falls, the two-parter on HBO this weekend. And, God it was awful.

It was stilted. It played out like a frikkin’ cliche from the first minute. Ed Harris was wooden. Paul Newman was interesting, but generally over the top. There was no subtlety or grace. And it. just. got. worse. every. minute.

Plus, all we need is another story about a heart-of-gold damaged goods type guy trying to escape a dying New England town. Christ.

buzzword compliance, Flames, General Chaos

Just who has a credibility gap: journalists or bloggers?

In a few days,at an invite-only thinkfest, bloggerati and journalists will meet under the auspices of Harvard Law’s Berkman Center to discuss “Bloggimg. Journalism, and Credibility”. I have some friends, former colleagues, and aquaintances who will be attending, including Ed Cone.

In the run-up to this event, Ed blogs about the shoddy piece of journalism from the New York Times about blogs and Iraq.

What’s funny about the article is that it’s a lot like the blog posts that most journalists who deride blogs point to as evidence of how bad they are–a single original source, relying on third-party comments on another weblog, failure to do simple fact checks. By the end of the story, I was wondering, “OK, so what exactly was the point of this?” The reporter raises lots of doubts, address only a few, and ends it so lamely that she might as well have used the cliche: “Only one thing is certain–life goes on.”

It’s been at least a couple of years since anyone thought the New York Times was infallible. But you’d think that the experience of a public witch hunt would have chastened the editors at the Times and made them pay more attention to process.

Of course, if you thought that, you would be wrong. The NY Times, and the newspaper business in general, is an archaic institution that wraps itself in the glory of the First Amendment while continually selling off the good china of its reputation to pay the bills. In other words, general audience print journalism is the Wizard of Oz of modern media–pay no attention to the declining talent and energy behind the curtain.

Despite the advanced technology available to journalists of all walks today, many newsrooms have until recently totally escewed having actual Internet access in their newsrooms. Until recently, for example, only a select few reporters at the Baltimore Sun (based on my conversations with Sun reporters on the topic) actually had access to the Internet (or even their e-mail) at their desktop–reporters filed copy from terminals plugged into an archaic editing and layout system. At least they aren’t printing thermal “slicks” and doing manual paste-up of mechanicals any more.

And even now that they have the resourcves available, your average newspaper reporter doesn’t have a solid grasp of how to use them–or the time to use them properly.

But that’s hardly an excuse for not properly attributing sources. Even we in the technology news business know how important proper attribution is to the credibility of a journalist. People who cobble quotes together and manufacture what they can’t get firsthand quickly get a reputation for being hacks, and nobody will talk to them.

And reporters just seem to get twice as stupid when they write about bloggers, or practically anything about the Internet. They seem openly hostile to bloggers, and treat the Internet like something to be alternatingly feared and mocked.

There are several big lies that general audience journalists pull out whenever they want to go after blogs:

1) Objectivity. Because blogs are run by opinionated individuals and not by big, safe editorial operatons that screen stories carefully, they are inherently less objective than professional news media.

Bullshit. Print objectivity is a lie. All stories are written from a point of view–the hook for the story presents a particular point of view, and it’s usually that of the journalist (or the editor who rewrites the story), filtered through the experiences of the writer or editor. And an editorial process never helped Fox News, or stopped NYT and USA Today reporters from making up entire stories without getting caught.

2) Resources. Professional journalists lay claim to a wealth of informed sources that somehow make the quality of their information better than what individual bloggers can pull together.

Again, bullshit. Bloggers often have deep experience in the areas they write about, an Internet full of assignment editors and ready sources to help them build stories, and the ability to revise on the fly as new information becomes available. General assignment reporters often start with a press release; bloggers start more often with first-hand experience and established connections in their niche.

3) Credibility. This lie is built on the other two–because they are objective and have well-established resources, the traditional news media claims that they are more credible than independent sources like bloggers. Plus, they’ve been around longer. They’re institutions. You can trust them.

Total bullshit. The news media have been around a long time, and they’ve been screwing up for just as long. There was no “golden age” of print journalism any more than there was a “golden age” of strip-mining; since their formation, media organizations have been playing sleight-of-hand with the truth when it benefits them, just by the nature of their organizational culture. The people who have exposed greater truths were always iconoclasts within or outside of those organizations, and their bext work was often in the individual form. Take Upton Sinclair, for example.

If Upton Sinclair were alive today, he’d probably be a blogger, not a NY Times reporter.

Administrivia, Flames

Hatefests all around

So much to say, so little time to say it.

I've been ranting about topics only software development geeks could love over at my blog-for-food gig, root access. The politics of open-source software are closing in on Arab-Israeli relations in terms of complexity and nastiness these days, particularly in the world of open-source Java projects. And as usual, the fighting is rooted in the root of all evil: money.

Meanwhile, here in Baltimore, we've got a hate-fest of our own going on over the firing of one police commissioner and the hiring of another. Let's just say that Mayor Martin O'Malley does not have a future in the executive search business–or as a management consultant. Ed Norris–hired, quits with a big severance package, gets indicted. Kevin Clark gets canned for…well, being Kevin Clark. And the latest bullet on the hit parade, Leonard Hamm, apparently was a little fast and loose with a bankruptcy filing (though considering how little he was getting paid as chief of the school police, people should cut him some slack).

All I can say is that politics is a bitch, no matter what kind it is.


Screw Healing

The United States is bitterly divided. John Kerry and George Bush both paid lip service to healing that divide, and bringing America together.

Well, screw that. It's time to rip that sucker wide open, and create a few more while we're at it.

The Democratic Party is a huge failure. It's deteriorated into a regional party of the two coasts, and its platform is almost purely defensive–defend the Great Society programs, Social Security, and so on from Republican cuts; defend against encroachment on abortion and other keystone issues, and sometimes–when they get agressive–they start thinking, “Oooh, maybe we can come up with some byzantine public-private health care system.”

You can just smell the despair in the platform. Jefferson is spinning in his grave. It's time to get back to Jeffersonian roots (aside from that little slavery problem) and civil liberties–and ditch the rest of the baggage. Either that, or someone has to start a new party.

There's a new party lurking within the GOP. Just below the surface,there are divisions between the hard-right and the old center of the party that are just waiting to be exploited. And the same goes for the “Red” states themselves–there are plenty of divisions in NASCAR America; they just need to be found and exploited.

This country has reached the point where we need to tear down the political status quo before we can move forward again. And there's nothing like a little bile to help with demolition. So screw “healing.” Let it bleed.


Crybaby cultural criticism.

In response to my rant on Six Feet Under, some anonymous Mike wrote:

i felt my time sucked by this blog entry. what a pompous pseudo intellecutal over-generalization about TV. there are good and bad tv shows like there are good and bad newspapers, books, songs, etc. the whole darn medium in not useless and the fact that you personally don't like and tv shows tv is about you not that medium. do you think it makes you sound hip or intelligent to knock tv? that's such a 80s yuppie thing to do.
perhaps you don't like tv for other reasons maybe you don't like passive media and prefer active media, if so then this is a preference so consider this before knocking and judging an entire medium.
mike 07/25/04 10:15am MT

Well, Mike–waaah. Waaah fsking waaah.

1) This was a personal statement, not some intellectualized bullshit. The point is, I have a very limited amount of time to spend on entertainment right now, since I work so fucking much and have children to tend to. There is TV I like; I *did* enjoy, for example, previous seasons of Six Feet Under, The Shield, and a number of other shows. I just don't miss them when I don't watch them. I don't feel so engaged with any show on TV right now that I get upset about missing an episode.

The fact that I am a disaffected Gen-Xer choking on what purports to be high culture TV is the whole frigging point of the post–I don't claim some intellectual superiority to morons who live for their TiVo.

2) I'm not one of those “TV is in decline” sorts of people. I personally think those people have some romanitcized image of prior TV culture, or some culture-war agenda. TV is a reflection of our culture's current state–splintered, stovepiped and with a lot of interesting undercurrents.

3) It is about me. I've said in the past, I get physically uncomfortable watching many situation comedies because I recognize where the script is going because of a childhood spent watching situation comedies in syndication before going to school in the morning. Lucy, Mr. Ed, and Gilligan were my day care providers. I recognize the plotlines from those shows in everything I watch, which leads to deep-seated feelings about my childhood, and it gets all Freudian. Can't deal with it. Since the family mostly gathered around James Burke's “Connections” series on PBS, the History and Discovery Channels are like TV comfort food for me.

4) It was your personal choice to spend your time responding to that post, so saying you felt your time sucked by reading it indicates you made a poor web-surfing decision based on your personal tastes. And next time, at least leave an address so I can respond in a less time-sucking, more reasoned manner. Idjit.

But do come again.

Family, Flames

Six Feet Under My Tolerance Level

Tonight's Six Feet Under sucked.

I haven't been watching much of it this season, as I usually have other things to do on Sundays at 9 (like peel my three-year-old off the wall and get her into bed), but Paula has insisted on watching it every week. At first, she taped episodes in the hope that I would actually get a chance to watch them. But that was pointless. I've pretty much come to the point where NO television show is important enough for me to watch it time-shifted. Or, at all.

But Paula insisted that I sit down to watch this episode with her. I did, for a while, and then felt time being stolen from me by something that sucked. “I can't believe you made me watch this,” I said. “I can't believe I sat through it,” she replied.

The whole David – picks – up – psycho – hitchhiker – who – steals – his – money -and – forces – him – to – do – crack – with – him – before – dumping – gasoline – on – him subplot just totally drove me nuts, to the point where I couldn't bring myself to watch any more of the stupid show. David has just gotten more nerve-grating over time; maybe they should have set him on fire–it might have brightened up the rest of the season.

I'm kidding. Really. Maybe.