Bill Simmons and ESPN’s Ombudsman: Is Goodell enough of a “certified liar”?

In his column on Bill Simmons’ suspension, ESPN Ombudsman Robert Lipsyte comes off as blissfully unaware of how ESPN’s action looks — parroting and even sanitizing the company line.

For those who missed the details, Judd Legum nicely sums up the silliness of the suspension: “ESPN Suspends Bill Simmons For Calling [NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell A Liar, After ESPN Reported Roger Goodell Is A Liar.”

What really happened is the network suspended him primarily for taunting and thereby implicitly criticizing his superiors, but more on that in a bit.

As for whether Simmons should be allowed to call Goodell a liar, Lipsyte insists that, until there’s “a smoking gun that proves when the NFL viewed the Ray Rice video” (emphasis added), Simmons is off base. Until and unless such a smoking gun emerges, Roger Goodell is not a “certified liar”, Lipsyte argues.

Contrast this with what Simmons actually said on his podcast: “Goodell, if he [says he] didn’t know what was on that tape, he’s a liar.” (Emphasis added.)

There is a major difference between seeing a video and knowing what is on the video, and conflating the two is exceptionally sloppy for an award-winning journalist.

To help illustrate: Thanks to several young children, I know a great deal about “Frozen”, despite not having seen the film.

If I watch Frozen this weekend and say, “Wow, I had no idea it would have so much singing!”, I would be a liar. If I were to claim that I had desperately wanted to see the film earlier, but before that point, I had had no way to see the film — you know, as opposed to deliberately having avoided some pretty clear opportunities — I would be a liar. Just like Roger Goodell is a liar. A lying liar who lies.

(Also, I dare Roger Goodell to sue me for libel.)

Simmons’ actual claim — that Goodell knew what was on the video and is lying when he says otherwise — were already well-documented by the fine investigative piece by Don Van Natta Jr. and Kevin Van Valkenburg published on Sep. 19 — that is, days before Simmons’ Sep. 23 podcast for which he was suspended.

Goodell fibbing about whether he knew what was on the tape is only part of what Van Natta and Van Valkenburg identify as “a pattern of misinformation and misdirection employed by the Ravens and the NFL since that February night.”

Of course, to accuse someone of a “pattern of misdirection and misinformation” is to call them a liar, albeit using five-dollar words.

In a now-infamous CBS interview, Goodell says explicitly that he had no idea what was on the video. Not only has ESPN reported that several insiders say otherwise, as Simmons himself pointed out in a Sep. 11 column, “back in July, two well-connected reporters (Chris Mortensen and Peter King) reported what NFL sources had told them happened in that second elevator video … and they got the details correct.”

Follow those Mortensen and King links (reproduced from Simmons’ column). For those of you who couldn’t stand to watch the video but wanted to know what was on it, Mortensen’s account is startlingly accurate. Again, this is from July and based on his insider access to league sources.

What Peter King wrote should, in hindsight, be viewed as an even bigger deal than what Simmons implies:

There is one other thing I did not write or refer to, and that is the other videotape the NFL and some Ravens officials have seen, from the security camera inside the elevator at the time of the physical altercation between Rice and his fiancée. I have heard reports of what is on the video… (emphasis added)

King walked back this claim on Sep. 8, after the video was leaked and the league denied that anyone had seen it earlier:

Earlier this summer a source I trusted told me he assumed the NFL had seen the damaging video… The source said league officials had to have seen it. This source has been impeccable, and I believed the information. So I wrote that the league had seen the tape. I should have called the NFL for a comment, a lapse in reporting on my part. The league says it has not seen the tape, and I cannot refute that with certainty. No one from the league has ever knocked down my report to me, and so I was surprised to see the claim today that league officials have not seen the tape.

Again, he wrote in July that the league and team had seen the inside-the-elevator tape. Then, over a month elapsed without anybody pulling him aside and correcting him.

To understand how significant this is, you have to know Peter King’s place in the NFL universe: one of the least critical, best-connected reporters whose rolodex of sources is a close approximation of “everyone”. King regularly takes calls from, and casually calls, league sources all year. He’s widely known as a friendly mouthpiece. (This is mostly true of Mortensen as well.)

If Peter King says something that the league doesn’t think is accurate, or even something they would like to add to or clarify, to any degree, King is essentially guaranteed to receive — and take, and respond to — a call from an insider.

The last sentence from King’s Sep. 8 correction is as close to damnation as we are likely to see from him on this point. It rightfully implies that (especially coming from him), “No one from the league has ever knocked down my report to me” pretty much speaks for itself.

Thus, Roger Goodell is a liar, on this and many other counts. Simmons says as much. Then, alluding to his past troubles with ESPN, he dares them to discipline him, and they take the bait.

Little wonder the network is being excoriated all around the web. Deadspin points out that Simmons was merely “restating conventional wisdom.”

Business Insider fairly characterizes it as a hint “at the idea of corruption and censorship” at the network.

As if on cue for their entry as the protagonist in a Greek tragedy, management has enacted a suspension that proves Simmons’ implicit point splendidly. They’ve provided pretty good evidence that certain people (management) cannot be criticized, and that others (NFL leadership) should generally be criticized only in the most high-brow language — five dollar words only, please, and only when the evidence is incredibly overwhelming.

The suspension is feeding already-extant skepticism about the network’s ability to consistently (as opposed to intermittently) allow their talent to reach their own conclusions and share these publicly.

It is reminding many fans and writers of the network’s 2013 decision to pull out of its partnership in the “Frontline” documentary about concussions in football. Right now, Google News shows 788 results for [Simmons suspended Frontline documentary].

The message to Simmons was, undoubtedly, “You can’t criticize us publicly like this.” That is chilling enough. A substantial portion of the population, though, hears (at least in part), “You can’t criticize our content partner like this.” Even if that’s not the real motivation, the optics are (to quote Charles Barkley) just turrible.

This is where an Ombudsman is supposed to provide an outsider’s corrective — a reassurance to the reader that well-founded outside criticism will always have at least one ally in the building.

The more defensible (and, in reality, motivating) reason Simmons was suspended was for dissing management. While Lipsyte alludes to this (implying that the suspension is also due to management’s “thin skin”), he opens and closes by insisting that this story is really about whether Simmons had the goods for his claim — and he concludes that Simmons didn’t have the goods.

That takes real chutzpah from somebody who substantially misrepresents the claim in question.

Even as the hordes crash at the gates in Bristol, the Ombudsman — the Ombudsman — writes to reassure us that management basically got this one right, without even deigning to rebut claims that this sure looks like a result of the network’s conflict of interest. “Obviously I disagree” with such critics is all we get. When the very integrity of the network is being questioned, blowing off those questions is tone deaf indeed.

Goodell is a liar. Simmons was correct in calling him a liar. And ESPN was some combination of corrupt and petulant to discipline him for it.

If even the Ombudsman is this tone deaf, ESPN still has a lot of tuning up to do.

#FreeSimmons

Upworthy Is People

This is meant as a brief follow-up to last night’s post about Upworthy. Jordan Fraade responded to my critique via twitter with the following reply:

@davekarpf@ntabebe vouching for their personal goodness/awareness of injustice. i’m talking abt ed strategy, not curators’ personal beliefs — Jordan Fraade (@schadenfraade) June 10, 2014

I think this is a pretty interesting disagreement.  Fraade feels that curators’ personal beliefs are distinct from the editorial strategy/organizational model.  This lets him lump Upworthy together with copycat sites like viralnova and policymic (where, he notes, he used to work).  I think that the identity and beliefs of the curators — who you hire, essentially — is actually quite central to the model.

Swap out all of Upworthy’s curators, and you no longer have Upworthy.  Selecting the right people as curators is a crucial first step.

Digital curation sites like Upworthy move content through a three-stage process.  They gather inputs (videos, infographics, or other distinct pieces of online content) at stage 1.  Once they select something worthwhile, they move to stage 2, creating a frame.  This stage includes brainstorming 25 potential headlines for each piece of content (a process that Koechley learned while working at The Onion), then pick the best 3 or 4 headlines.  They then run those headlines through a proprietary analytics engine, nicknamed the “magical unicorn box.”  They discuss technical details of this analytics process on their R&D blog.  Then in stage 3, they promote that content through Facebook, e-mail, Twitter, and the website.

 

Slide1

Stage 3 is highly visible.  Stage 2 is harder to see, but there’s been plenty of journalism on the subject.  Stage 1, is mostly invisible, and has been left entirely unexplored.  Copycat sites like Policymic and Viralnova have mimicked stage 3 and approximated stage 2, but they haven’t attempted to adopt the same stage 1 as Upworthy (as far as I can tell, at least).  Independent Journal Review is trying to occupy the “conservative upworthy” landscape, but it sure looks like they’re just latching on to stage 3, not even bothering with stage 2.

Stage 1 is about finding the right content.  It is a subjective process, based on shared taste and values.  Or, phrased differently, stage 1 is entirely about ideology.  What topics and issues deserve a better megaphone?  What narratives and conflicts best illuminate those issues?

And that brings me back to Fraade’s critique.  He takes issue with Nitsuh Abebe’s New York Magazine feature article, “Are You Cynical EnoughTo Hate Upworthy?” (which you should really read, btw.) When Abebe asked Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley whether they were cynics, Koechley replied “have you met any cynics here?”  Fraade offers the rejoinder,

This is a skillful evasion of the question. No one particularly cares whether Pariser and Koechley are cynics. What’s cynical is the strategy of finding “meaningful” content about social or political issues, and adding an emotionally manipulative headline, monetizing the results, all the while claiming earnestly that your goal is to make the world a better place. So it is that two liberals may end up playing an outsize role in shrinking the horizons of liberalism.

I don’t think Koechley was evading the question, though. I think he was directly answering it.  Upworthy’s success rests on hiring the right people.  Many of those people come out of progressive politics, and that isn’t an accident.

You could construct a cynical version of Upworthy.  Just hire cynical people.  But the result would be a distinctly different organization, with different content, different brand concerns, different impacts and a completely different funding model.

Or, put more simply, Fraade’s criticism of the Upworthy model only holds up if we avert our attention from a big chunk of the model itself.

Another Opinion Columnist Took a Cheap Shot at Upworthy… You’ll Totally Guess What Happens Next.

Every month or two, it seems like the same cranky opinion piece gets written about Upworthy.  The latest, “Upworthy’s unworthy politics” comes from Jordan Fraade at Al Jazeera America, bears all the hallmarks of the genre: There’s (1) the glib references to “you won’t believe what happens next” headlines, (2) the equating of A/B headline testing and “clickbait,” (3) the pretend-OUTRAGE that the site is neither a non-profit advocacy organization nor a venue for traditional journalism, and (most importantly) (4) the lack of any actual understanding of what Upworthy is trying to achieve.

Here’s the worst passage from Fraade’s think-piece:

To the extent that Upworthy has stated goals, they basically run along the lines of “We want to help you share things that are meaningful,” and “We want viral content to be a tool for social good.” (Upworthy also has actual goals, which involve making money for itself and its investors.) The site leans left; its 30-something founders both worked at MoveOn.org during the 2008 presidential campaign. But the ideology of the site and others like it isn’t a recitation of the Democratic Party platform. It’s not really a cohesive liberal worldview of any sort. Upworthy liberalism is liberal politics stripped of any awareness of systemic barriers or perverted incentive structures. It’s what happens when liberalism is treated as merely a set of lifestyle preferences.

There are two head-smackers in this paragraph.

First, describing Upworthy’s founders (Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley) as having “worked at MoveOn during the 2008 presidential campaign” is a bit like saying San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich “worked for the Spurs during the 2012 NBA lockout.”  Pariser was the Executive Director of MoveOn from 2004 through 2008, and was central to turning the organization into a progressive juggernaut.  He’s also the author of The Filter Bubble, an excellent book about the danger of online echo chambers (close readers might recall my shoutingloudly review of the book, incidentally).

Upworthy was created as a partial solution to the Filter Bubble problem.  This is pretty important contextual information for anyone who wants to actually understand the site.

Second, Fraade asserts that “Upworthy liberalism is liberal politics stripped of any awareness of systemic barriers or perverted incentive structures.”

Bullshit.

I’ve met a lot of Upworthy staff.  Every one of them is deeply aware of systemic barriers and perverted incentive structures.  I’d go so far as to say that this sort of awareness is one of the things they look for in the hiring process.  And I’ve watched a lot of Upworthy videos.  Nearly every one of them deals, in one way or another, with systemic barriers to social change.

They just don’t deal with it in  Fraade’s preferred format.

Though Fraade never gets around to describing a solution or preferred model, his complaints all center around the supposed lack of nuance in Upworthy content.  Upworthy does not promote 6,000 word essays on mass incarceration.  It doesn’t produce two-hour documentaries on race in America.  Its vision and values aren’t neatly arrayed in a platform or manifesto for our perusal.  And, since it has become massively successful, it is now a convenient vessel for us to place blame for the failings of the broader media system.

Here are four basic things you should actually understand about Upworthy:

1. Upworthy is curation, not journalism.  Upworthy isn’t meant to replace The New Republic, MSNBC or The New York Times.  They don’t hire journalists or film crews.  It plays a strict curatorial role.  They find quality content, tinker with the headlines and visual frames, and try to help videos about the health care system get as much traffic as videos about kittens.**  If you’re pinning your hopes for the future of journalism on Upworthy, you’re going to be disappointed.  They aren’t journalists.

2. Upworthy reaches beyond the echo chamber. I wrote about this last year, but it bears repeating.  Outside of elections, the politically-attentive segment of the American public is vanishingly small.  The biggest barrier for activists trying to engage in a public conversation about inequality, or fracking, or racism isn’t that the other side is reframing the debate; it’s that almost no one is paying attention.

Upworthy reaches between 40 and 80 million individuals per month.  That’s between 10 and 30 times larger than any program on MSNBC.  What Pariser and Koechley have done seemed downright impossible.  They have found a way to reach large segments of the American public with substantive progressive content.  It may not always be the specific content you or I would choose, but I would argue that it is the most dramatic change in the political information landscape of the past 5 years.

3. (High clicks)x(High shares) = virality. Upworthy has been surprisingly public about their model.  One of the most important elements is their “virality equation” (see below).

Upworthy Virality

 

“Clickbait” generally refers to headlines that draw a lot of clicks, often in a misleading fashion.  That isn’t an accurate representation of Upworthy’s model, though.  Upworthy measures both shares and clicks.  If shares and clicks are both low, the content isn’t particularly exciting.  If clicks are high but shares are low, then you’ve probably caught people in a “clickbait” trap.  When shares are high, but clicks are low, it indicates that the content has the potential to engage a large audience, if and only if it is framed correctly.

And that’s where Upworthy’s vaunted A/B testing regime comes into play: they fiddle with headlines for highly-shareable content, helping it to get clicks.  The Upworthy model doesn’t work for clickbait junk.

4. Upworthy is a force multiplier.  Upworthy is not meant to be political activism.  But it is activism-adjacent.  One of the biggest evergreen problems for social movement organizations lies in reaching beyond the choir and gaining the attention of the broader public.  Upworthy doesn’t solve this problem on its own: the most popular videos on the site don’t end with a stirring call-to-action or even with a “donate” link.  But when advocacy groups create polished, high-quality content, Upworthy potentially serves as an engine for mass appeal.

As an example, consider John Oliver’s EPIC net neutrality segment on Last Week Tonight.  Oliver is also activism-adjacent.  He educates his viewers on Net Neutrality — a major, but-also-boring matter of public importance.  He is funny and informative.  He ends with a call to all internet commenters to do what they do best: leave angry comments on the FCC’s website.  Originally airing on HBO, the segment drew about 1 million viewers. It was then rebroadcast via digital links, embedded in blog posts, facebook walls, and tweets.  It quickly galvanized a torrent of FCC input, crashing the government agency’s comment site.

Upworthy is now helping to give Oliver’s segment an extended boost, under the headline “John Oliver Goes Off On An Epic, Fact-Checked, Mic-Dropping Rant For 13 Minutes That You Need To See.”

…I guess Jordan Fraade doesn’t see much value, or nuance, in posts like this.  I do, though.  I think it’s significant that a curation site like Upworthy can help drive public engagement with substantive policy issues.

The site isn’t a replacement for high-quality journalism, or for high-quality activism.  But it isn’t supposed to be.  It’s filling a vital niche in our patchy public discourse — a niche that no one else has been able to fill.

That ought to be celebrated.  Or, at least, it ought to be accurately described before we critique it.

 

*Fun fact:  Upworthy.com never actually uses that phrase.

**Related note: kittens are stupid. Dogs are amaaaaaaazing.

Facebook at 10, and Internet Time Revisited

Robinson Meyer has a nice piece at TheAtlantic, discussing Facebook’s web publishing surge.  Websites within the Buzzfeed Partner Network now get nearly 4x more traffic through Facebook than through Google.  That’s… a pretty big deal.  Google used to be synonymous with the “attention backbone” of the internet*.  Now, it appears as though the Facebook “wall” is overtaking the Google search.

It’s a particularly timely piece, because Facebook just turned 10.  And Facebook’s digital publishing surge is not a natural outgrowth of its ten years of success.  As Meyer puts it:

“The kind of traffic surge from Facebook—so vertiginous to be almost hockey-stick-ish—wasn’t an accident. Facebook didn’t grow at that rate in 2013, especially among U.S. users, and “naturally” eclipse Google. As I’ve written before, Facebook’s directing that kind of traffic because it wants to direct that traffic—it wants to be a digital publishing kingmaker.”

I remember learning about Facebook in 2005.  I was in grad school, and a teaching assistant for a large undergraduate intro-to-politics class.  All of my students had created Facebook accounts to go along with their Myspace accounts.  Since I had a university email address, I created one too.  But I didn’t see much point to the site.  It was an exclusive, barebones version of Myspace.  No one I wanted to socialize with was on the thing, and “poking” seemed innately stupid.

Facebook-as-digital-publishing-kingmaker was not foreseeable in Facebook’s initial years.  Hell, it wasn’t even foreseeable two years ago.  Facebook changed as it grew, and as other parts of the World Wide Web grew around it.  That change doesn’t occur along a single vector, or in response to a stable five year strategic plan.  I’ve written on this subject before.  It’s a concept that I call “Internet Time.”

In secular time (normal human being time) a decade isn’t really that long.  Ten years ago, everyone was watching J.J. Abrams shows on television (and Lost hadn’t disappointed us yet), and watching Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien on the big screen.  Hollywood was being awful about copyright, and environmentalists were warning that it was long-past-time that we got serious about addressing climate change.

By comparison, 10 years is an eon in Internet Time.  Blogs were still in their nascent stage ten years ago.  The iPhone wasn’t invented until 2007.  The iPad was science fiction. Hell, YouTube didn’t even exist in 2004.

This is a pretty important distinction.  It means, when we study Facebook use over time, the object of analysis is unstable.  Facebook in 2014 performs a different function than Facebook in 2009.  And this isn’t simply because people have started to use it in different ways.  It’s because Facebook’s engineers have modified the system itself.  In its first few years, the Facebook Wall didn’t exist.  Then it provided you with status updates from your friends.  Now it provides you with news and opinion pieces, and steers you away from low-quality content farms, and charges companies to boost their wall content.  All of these engineering decisions and policy decisions matter.  They make Facebook at 10 something different than Facebook at 7 or 5 or 1.

When we study Facebook’s role in politics, or news, or entertainment, our empirical research has a relatively short half-life.  By the time an article makes it through peer-review and publishing, the object of analysis may have changed in ways that invalidate  many of the findings.  (Example: if someone conducted a solid study of Facebook and digital publishing traffic in 2011, it likely wouldn’t be published until this year.  Those findings would be robust for Facebook circa 2011, but inaccurate for Facebook circa 2014.)

This all reminds me of a passage from Kurt and Gladys Langs’ classic 1968 book, Television and Politics. (further discussed at QualPoliComm).  the Langs discuss how television does not reflect reality, it refracts reality.  The introduction of the tv camera alters and helps to create the scene.  The Langs write “Refraction inheres in the technology, but the particular angle of vision rests on the decisions and choices within news organizations and how an event is to be reported.”

Facebook is also a refracting media technology.  And the angle of vision rests on the decisions of engineers and A/B testers.  But that angle of vision is also constantly changing, constantly evolving.

We can be confident that social media refracts, rather than reflects.  But Internet Time means we constantly have to revisit just what is being magnified or obscured.

 

*”Attention Backbone” is Yochai Benkler’s term.  I love it and am borrowing it for a slightly different context here.  You should read his recent paper about the SOPA mobilization, though.

On PRISM: Orwell’s or Huxley’s America

It’s been a whirlwind news cycle over the past 48 hours.  Welcome to the 21st century surveillance state.  We’ve been living here for some time, but no one bothered to say so until now.  In grappling with it all, I keep returning to a few literary classics.

Neil Postman begins his magnum opus, Amusing Ourselves to Death, by ruminating on two distinct visions of our dystopic future, portrayed in George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

“Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophecy the same thing.  Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression.  But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history.  As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo the capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books.  What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.  Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.  Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.  Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us.  Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.  Orwell feared we would become a captive culture.  Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture…  In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain.  In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.”

(emphasis added)

On a Thursday afternoon panel at Personal Democracy Forum, Zeynep Tufecki argued that big data in campaigns is paving the way for a future that is equal parts Orwell and Huxley.  The threat comes less from electoral campaigns themselves than from well-financed economic players who will replicate and enhance the new market techniques in other arenas.  Our powers of monitoring and distraction are growing at an outlandish pace.

Through cosmic coincidence, the first news about PRISM broke just after her panel.  Along with monitoring all of our phone calls through Verizon, it seems the NSA is also capable of accessing all communications via Google/Gmail/YouTube, Microsoft/Skype, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, Aol, and Paltalk. According to the career intelligence officer who leaked the information, “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type.”

PRISM is Orwell’s America. Really, what else can you call it? If, two weeks ago, Someone told me that the government was soaking up all our online data, capable of reading things while we type them, I would have backed away slowly, wondering where they left their tin foil hat. Then the Washington Post told me instead.  The depth and breadth of this domestic spying program is just astonishing.

But Huxley’s vision is the reason this Orwellian architecture can be constructed.  Consider:

RT @AdamKilgoreWP Friday on A1 of WaPo: The govt is reading yr email. Saturday: The Nats’ season has been a real drag http://wapo.st/15JSxGU 

And it’s not just the front page of the Washington Post.  Tune in to your Twitter stream tomorrow, around 9:30PM EST.  I guarantee you that no one will be discussing PRISM.  They’ll be talking about Daenerys Stormborn and Arya Stark.  They’ll be talking about Lebron James and Tony Parker.  They’ll be trading jokes about Don Draper and Joan Holloway.  It’s like Kurt Cobain said, “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous. Here we are now, entertain us.”

I see room for just a bit of anti-Huxley hope.  Also at Personal Democracy Forum, Sara Critchfield talked about Upworthy.com.  Upworthy has only been around for a year and a half, and it already reaches 2/3rds of all Americans.  Their business model is surprisingly simple: find “socially positive” stories, repackage them with more engaging headlines, and help them go viral.  Eli Pariser founded Upworthy after he wrote The Filter Bubble (see my review here).  It was founded on the premise that people actually want more than cat videos and celebrity gossip.  Provide engaging, inspiring, thought-provoking, or enraging content and people will read it, share it, and discuss it.  We just have to get better at marketing the quality content as well as we market the junk content.

Upworthy’s success gives reason for hope.  Sunday night, I’ll be watching the NBA Finals and Game of Thrones.  But Monday, I’ll probably see some PRISM-related content from Upworthy in my media stream, and I’ll share it and participate further in the public conversation.  How much hope we should have is directly proportional to how large of a niche companies like Upworthy will eventually occupy.  How widely are those diverse preferences for substantive and entertaining comments spread?  Can we sustain national attention around issues like PRISM for long enough to demand answers and action from public officials, or will we quickly flip to the next story?

I don’t know.  But, as we marvel at this newly unveiled Orwellian surveillance state, it’s these Huxley-esque questions that will concern me most.

We don’t arrive at this surveillance regime through a perpetual state of fear.  We get there through perpetual distraction.

Shut It Down, DailyCaller. Shut. It. Down.

Wow.

I didn’t have any respect for Tucker Carlson to begin with.  But I assumed he was above this, at least.

On November 1, days before Senator Robert Mendendez (D-NJ) faced reelection, the DailyCaller led with a story of two prostitutes in the Dominican Republic who claimed they’d slept with him.  They produced video testimony from the two women, with faces blurred to allow anonymity.

Dominican authorities now have a sworn affidavit from a woman who says she was paid to lie about those claims on tape.  They have unearthed a string of middle-men who were paid to provide the woman with a script.

And the DailyCaller’s response is “that’s some other prostitute!

ABC news has weighed in as well: “Last fall, Republican operatives, who insisted on anonymity, helped arrange the woman’s appearance, along with two additional women, in back-to-back, on-line interviews with ABC News and a conservative news website, the Daily Caller.”  … “ABC News did not broadcast or initially report on the claims because of doubts about the women’s veracity and identity.”

The most damning feature of this story is DC Executive Editor David Martosko’s interview on CNN (below).  CNN offered Martosko an out: “is it possible that you were duped?”  Rather than admitting the possibility that anonymous Republican operatives may have tricked the Daily Caller, Martosko instead doubles down.  He calls the Washington Post story “ginned up” and “uncritically reporting” a sworn affidavit (?!?).  When asked directly “have you gone back to your source here and said ‘hey, is it possible that these women were paid to do this?'” (minute 3:21), he ducks the question twice, and then says “we’re doing that today.

 


We’re doing that today.”

The Washington Post story broke yesterday.  The DailyCaller immediately went on the counter-offensive.  Today, their Executive Editor goes on CNN to defend their reporting, and they hadn’t bothered to double-check their sources yet.”

Simple question: is that how a journalistic outfit would operate if they weren’t involved in manufacturing this faux scandal?  Would any honest journalistic organization not immediately check their sources a second time?

This is a lot worse than just blowing up a small story into a big one.  This is the Daily Caller actively crafting a major lie about an elected official with the express intent of swinging the election to his opponent.  The first amendment does not protect Tucker Carlson et al’s rights to slander or libel, and it looks pretty damn clear that’s what his team has done here.

Shut it down, Tucker.  And pray you don’t see the jail time you likely deserve.

 

Googling Isn’t “Investigative Journalism,” Tucker!

You might remember Tucker Carlson as the bow-tie’ed cohost of Crossfire.  That show ended after Jon Stewart’s appearance, when he asked Carlson to “stop hurting America” with the two-bit hackery he was passing off as “journalism” on CNN.

After leaving Crossfire, Carlson decided to start a website for serious conservative journalism.  It has not gone well.  He’s lost the bowtie, but he still hasn’t grown into his supposed profession. (…like the time he bought the domain name keitholbermann.com, then impersonated Olbermann in inquiries from reporters sent to keith@keitholbermann.com.  Funny!  Also awful!  And probably illegal.  And unquestionably unethical.) Carlson’s website, The Daily Caller, is an exercise in raw pageview-hunting that barely masquerades as journalism.  It’s like the Drudge Report, but with reporters and no breaking news.

Take yesterday’s article, “Liberal Astroturf Group Offering $9 to $11 per hour to join its gun-control campaign.”  The article is by “investigative journalist” Patrick Howley.  Howley found evidence that Progressive USA Voters is “offering an hourly wage of between $9 to $11 to join its gun control campaign in Chicago.”  He found this by reading reddit.  Some poster on reddit labeled this “progressive group paying people to agree with them on gun control” or “astroturfing.”

It seems that what passes for “investigative journalism” at the Daily Caller is, y’know, Googling stuff.

Here’s the problem: this isn’t even astroturfing.  It’s a normal canvassing gig.

“Astroturfing” is the practice of paying people to show up at public events and pretend that they’re volunteers who agree with you.  Big companies will often hire people, give them a t-shirt, $20, and a sandwich, and ask them to take part in counter-demonstrations or fill up public hearings to show “public support” for the company’s position.  The key feature that makes this astroturf is that people are pretending to be grassroots.

Progressive USA, by contrast, has made an endorsement in an Illinois Democratic primary.  One candidate is endorsed by the NRA, another is endorsed by Michael Bloomberg/DailyKos/Progressive USA.  The organization wants to hire canvassers as part-time staff to go door to door and talk with voters about the gun control issue.  This is standard practice, as described by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen in Ground Wars. Electoral campaigns hire part-time staff.  That staff doesn’t pretend to be grassroots volunteers.  They just help the political group reach out and make contact with voters.

Howley doesn’t realize this because he’s paid not to realize it.  The Daily Caller wants to reinforce conservative perceptions that liberals are mean cheaters who cheat all the time.  That’ll attract pageviews, and that’s their business model.  Lazy googling fits that narrative, where actual reporting would have unearthed this reddit thread as a non-story.

In the long run, conservatives would be a lot better off if they hired and trained actual journalists to do actual investigative journalism.  They’d have a better-educated base, less inclined to vote for unelectable conspiracy-mongers in the primaries.  They’d also be able to pursue real accountability among Democratic office-holders, instead of shouting “Solyndra!  Fast and Furious! Benghazi!” on repeat.  This is what Carlson promised he’d be doing when he launched the DailyCaller. But he’s just not up to the task.

The next generation of conservative journalists is being molded in the image of Tucker Carlson.  They’re learning to be whiny, lazy, and momentarily profitable.  Conservatives could do a lot better.  But they’d have to try.

Dear Commissioner Copps: Thank You for Your Public Service

On Monday evening, the Hunter College Roosevelt House is hosting an event on media policy and reform, featuring former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. Sadly, it’s in the middle of my Monday class, so I will be unable to attend — and it’s oversubscribed, so I can’t urge you to attend either.

Still, I’m really excited for my colleague Andrew Lund, who is leading the conversation with Mr. Copps, as well as the many Hunter students and faculty who will be able to attend. Thus, I wanted to share a bit about what I’d like them (and the world) to know about this great public servant.

To fully appreciate how exceptional Copps was as an FCC Commissioner, a role he fulfilled from 2001 to 2011, you need to know how thoroughly the Commission has traditionally been a “captured” agency — that is, generally doing the bidding of the industries that it was constructed, in principle, to regulate.

You should also know how the “revolving door” of government works: After working in government in a position of any real importance, many former public servants often take plum jobs in the private sector where they can leverage their regulatory knowledge and even their interpersonal connections to the advantage of their new employers.

Once he started his term at the FCC, Commissioner Copps knew that, after his time in government, he could easily walk into a plum job in the private sector. After all, this had been the route taken by many of his predecessors — as well as many of his colleagues who stepped down in the interim.

Unfortunately, when looking at the decisions that many of these FCC folks who turned that experience into very-well-paid private sector jobs, one could be forgiven for wondering whether many of them truly had the public interest at heart. Some of their decisions suggest that they were, at least in part, also thinking about their long-term earning potential. I won’t name names, but all of us who follow communication law reasonably closely know the most obvious examples.

When looking at Commissioner Copps’ decisions, however, nobody could possibly doubt that his true allegiance really was with the public for the full decade of his service. Media reform groups like Free Press and Public Knowledge finally had an unabashed, reliable ally with his hand on the levers of power, on issues from broadcasting to telecommunications to pluralism and diversity.

Want a sense of where Copps stands on the issues? Go listen to this interview with Democracy Now. Or this one. Read this collection of speeches or this collection of op-eds. Over and over again, you see him supporting the importance of using the power of the state to shape a more democratic, fair, and representative media system.

Copps is probably best known for his opposition to consolidation in ownership between media companies. He “was the one vote against approving Comcast’s takeover of AT&T’s cable systems in 2002” (p. 261), but this was just a warm-up.

The real sea change on ownership came in late 2002 and 2003, as then-Chair Michael Powell proposed a substantial roll-back in the rules against media consolidation. Copps and fellow Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein pushed to have substantial public discussion around the proposal, including multiple, well-publicized hearings. Powell said no — allowing just one hearing — so Copps and Adelstein went on tour, holding 13 unofficial hearings.

Through this and other efforts, working alongside public interest-minded NGOs, Copps helped bring major public attention to Powell’s proposal, ultimately bringing it to a halt. This slowed (though certainly did not stop) the process of media consolidation, through which ever fewer companies control ever more of our media landscape.

Copps has continued to be known for his opposition to media consolidation — though unfortunately, when Adelstein stepped down in 2009, Copps lost an important ally in the fight. Echoing the 2002 vote, Copps was the only Commissioner to vote against allowing Comcast to purchase NBC-Universal in 2011.

I would love to say a great deal more about Copps’ time at the FCC, but I’ll say just a few more words on one more issue: broadband regulation. He came in just in time to dissent from the FCC’s decisions to give away the keys to the kingdom on broadband interconnection, in the decision that led to the Brand X ruling by the Supreme Court.

The FCC ruled that broadband infrastructure companies — the folks who’ve used imminent domain and massive public subsidies as key tools as they’ve laid the cable, phone, or fiber lines over which broadband is transmitted — are not obligated to share their “last mile” systems with competitors. (This requirement for “interconnection” was already in place for landline local and long-distance telephone service, which led to an explosion of competition and plummeting prices.)

The Supremes held that the FCC was within their rights to make the decision, not that it had to come out that way; if Copps had won the day, we wouldn’t be dogging it in the horse latitudes of poor service, high prices, and slow broadband speeds as the world runs past us on all three counts. In the years after, Copps made the best of a bad regulatory position, serving as the most reliable vote for for mandatory network neutrality.

Again, though ownership and broadband policy are among his best-known issues, Copps was a tireless voice for the public interest on virtually every issue imaginable that came before the Commission. Even though he stepped down from the Commission over a year ago, he continues the work today.

Even as a former Commissioner who spent a decade being the thorniest thorn in the sides of those seeking to make a quick buck at the public’s expense, Mr. Copps could still quickly make a quick buck himself working for industry. There are a large number of companies, industry trade groups, and swanky D.C. law firms that would be quite happy to give him a huge salary, cushy office, and first class travel budget to speak on their behalf.

Instead, Copps has moved on to work for Common Cause, one of our nation’s strongest voices fighting for the best interests of ordinary people. This is just the latest in a long line of decisions in which he has chosen to fight for the public interest, even though it’s easier and more lucrative to fight for those who already have disproportionate money and influence.

For public interest advocates, Michael Copps was, at a minimum, the greatest FCC Commissioner since Nicholas Johnson retired nearly 40 years ago — and perhaps the greatest ever. His work at the Commission will be missed, but I look forward to seeing him continue to have a major role in pushing for a fairer, more just media system for many years to come.

One more point, for anybody who’s read this far: As of now, Copps’ Wikipedia page is a mere stump — the Wikipedia term for an article that is too short and needs to be expanded. In this case, a great deal more needs to be said in order to do its subject justice. I call on you to help me do this in the coming weeks. Mr. Copps was and remains a tireless and effective servant of the public, and this is but a small favor we can do in return.

Dear Free Beacon: Please Stop Hurting America

Free Beacon is the worst.  Take a minute to read Jonathan Chait’s latest column at New York Magazine, “Hitler Alive and Well, Owning Liberal Magazine.”  While  relaunching The New Republic, Chris Hughes removed 12 contributing editors from the masthead.  Five of them were jewish.  None of them had written anything at TNR in years.  Free Beacon decided that this merited an article titled  “Hughes Drops Jews” and called it “a move that may signal the publication’s continued drift away from a staunchly pro-Israel standpoint.”

Chait appropriately demolishes the article, so I don’t have a lot more to add on this particular incident of drive-by hackery.  It isn’t the first from the Free Beacon, and it surely won’t be the last.  But I think it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider just how awful the Beacon’s self-described devotion to “combat journalism” is for American politics.  Editor-in-chief Matthew Continetti describes this “new approach” thusly:

Andrew Breitbart pioneered the new approach. His websites were dedicated, impassioned, and broke news. Glenn Beck exposed White House czar Van Jones’s radical, 9/11-Truth past. Guerilla journalist James O’Keefe performed sting operations that led to ACORN, Planned Parenthood, and NPR having very bad days. Tucker Carlson’s website, The Daily Caller, published excerpts from the Journolist, which showed liberal writers coordinating their party line.

Breitbart, O’Keefe, and Carlson… Man, in the hallowed annals of awfulness, Free Beacon isn’t just terrible, it’s downright derivative.

The inclusion of Carlson is particularly instructive, because he’s been called to task for “hurting America” before.  Tucker and his bowtie were the centerpiece of Crossfire, CNN’s arguing-talking-heads program that represented the final reductio ad absurdum of kneejerk “objective” news.  He has since lost the bowtie and launched a more opinionated online outlet, but he’s no less of an embarrassment.

To Continetti and his staff, Carlson is revered instead of ridiculed.  “Combat journalism” combines the worst features of Gotcha journalism  with the worst features of the partisan echo chamber.  O’Keefe’s selective misrepresentation of ACORN is a feature of this “new approach,” rather than a bug.  Every opportunity to frame liberals or the mainstream media as threatening enemies should be exploited, regardless of whether the sentence-level blame holds up at the scale of a paragraph.

Bravo to Chait for ridiculing these dangerous jokers.  They deserve our scorn.  Their readers deserve our admonishment.  Their advertisers deserve our angry e-mails.  The health of our media system can be judged as inversely proportional to the health of media organizations like this one.  The Free Beacon only succeeds in a dangerously polarized, informationally unhealthy America.

We can do better than this.  And self-respecting conservatives ought to be demanding better as well.

How To Deal with a Breitbart “Reporter”

I spent this afternoon at a protest CREDO organized outside the NRA’s DC office.  It seemed only appropriate.

As the protest ended, a woman with a Flipcam approached me, hastily identified herself as being with Breitbart TV, and then launched into a few interview questions designed to provoke an outraged-liberal reaction (“do you really believe only police officers should be allowed to carry firearms?”  “what about the shooting in Oregon last week that was stopped by a citizen carrying a firearm?  Couldn’t armed citizens have saved those children’s lives?”).

I’m proudly confident my interview won’t appear on any of the Breitbart websites.  I didn’t give the “reporter” what she was looking for.  As I walked away from the interaction, I noticed someone in an outright shouting match with another “reporter” from Newsbuster/Media Research Center.  (“I didn’t say that!  Stop twisting my words!”)

As a public service of sorts, I thought I’d outline the steps you should take when dealing with a camera-wielding conservative jackass:

1. Stay calm.  The goal of a rightwing interviewer is to get some material that reinforces their biases about liberals.  You’re supposed to be an angry radical America-hater who doesn’t understand the constitution.  Don’t give them that material.  Use a calm voice and patiently explain what motivated you to attend the protest today.  This is neither a debate nor an argument that you can win.  You win the interaction by eating up their time while giving them no useable material.

2. Stay on message.  This is media training 101, I know.  But it’s even more important here.  My first answer to the Brietbartian was “I think it’s time we had sensible gun regulations in this country.  I think we should regulate guns as much as we regulate Sudafed.”  Every other answer circled back to this same Sudafed point.  I stayed polite about it, so she wouldn’t just give up and find an easier mark.  But I didn’t take any of the bait she laid out for me either.  We attend protests because any reasonable person ought to be outraged at the state of society.  When confronted by rightwing attack-media, be that reasonable person.  It makes you utterly unfilmable.

3. The Interview Ends When You Want It To End.  Around the eighth question, I could see that she was getting frustrated and was trying to push harder.  Most of the other protesters had already dispersed.  So as she started in with another don’t-you-think hypothetical, I politely replied “that’s all the time I’ve got, it was nice talking to you,” then turned and walked away.  Again, the point here is to control the terms of the engagement while giving them no good material to splice later on.

You use similar tools when interacting with real reporters, of course.  But the difference is that, when engaging with real reporters, both sides are acting in good faith.  The real reporter wants to know what the story is, and wants clips that help to animate this story.  Anger can be a helpful visual.  A Breitbart/O’Keefe/MRC “journalist” already knows what the story is (liberals are terrible stupid hypocrites who must be prevented from endangering our freedoms!).  So you deny them the visual instead.  Occupy them, remain pleasant, act reasonable, and then politely finish the interview whenever you like.

It won’t stop the hate-mongers, but it’ll at least deny them some pageviews.  That’s a small victory, and sometimes that’s all we can hope for.