Putin’s Cock, Colbert’s Mouth, and Pai’s Tongue

The FCC is back in the news—this time for a possible action to fine late night funny man Stephen Colbert for lewd humor aimed at the President.

The FCC almost certainly isn’t fining CBS or its affiliates over Colbert’s tirade, but FCC Chair Ajit Pai definitely could have handled this issue more deftly in a talk radio interview this week. Combined with his poor net neutrality messaging last week, Pai has shot himself in the foot twice, in rapid succession, with poor messaging.

It would be easy to read Pai’s interview answers on Colbert as an implicit attempt to chill edgy criticism of the President. After a careful listen to the interview, I don’t think that was his intent, but it shows that Pai has a lot to learn about the current media environment.

Last Sunday, April 30, President Donald Trump gave an interview to the CBS news show Face the Nation. In it, he described the show as “fake news” and said that he calls it “Deface the Nation.”

The next night, in retribution, Colbert unleashed a string of insults of the President, including, “the only thing [Trump’s] mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.” The phallic first part of that last phrase—a phrase that is new even to this profane soul—is bleeped out, and Colbert’s mouth is blurred out as well. (Colbert is receiving legitimate criticism that this trope is homophobic.)

Colbert’s show airs on broadcast TV. This level of edginess—even with the bleeping and blurring—might draw a fine before 10 pm. Before 10, kids are presumed to be in the room, so “indecent” material is forbidden by FCC rules. These rules thus forbid naughty language and even partially naked people—but permit all but the most graphic violence. These standards have been vetted and shaped by Supreme Court precedent, but they still stand.

After 10 pm, though, material must be “obscene” for the FCC to bring the hammer down. “Obscene” material is way worse than “indecent” content. The First Amendment doesn’t go away merely because material is indecent, but the Supreme Court has held that obscene material isn’t protected at all. So the feds can stop distasteful stuff just because kids might be around (before 10 p.m.), but it has to be utter filth before the state can try to stop adults from seeing it.

The agency’s own website states, “The Supreme Court has indicated that this test is designed to cover hard-core pornography” and not material with any artistic merit. So Basic Instinct (with its merely softcore sex scenes and nontrivial plot) would likely be okey-dokey on your local NBC affiliate starting at 10:01 pm—as far as the FCC is concerned.

Some people complained to the FCC about the Colbert bit. This is not news. In fact, anyone can do this without any basis in fact or court precedent. I could file complaints accusing Daniel Tiger of cursing like a sailor; the online system would accept the complaint, and the FCC would make some token investigation pending available staff resources to do so.

In other words, the fact that someone has complained, and that the FCC will investigate a complaint, is not at all the same thing as there being any real threat of a fine or other penalty.

On Thursday May 4, FCC Chair Ajit Pai gave an interview with Philadelphia-based AM talk show host Rich Zeoli. In it, Pai acknowledged the complaints and said that the agency will investigate. He noted that mere indecency is fineable before 10 pm, but that it takes full-on obscenity to get a fine for late night content.

Yet he didn’t actually clarify these legal standards.

Pai was invited to share his opinions on Colbert’s bit, and he declined in an effort not to prejudice the investigation. (Kudos, of course.) He also said that their goal is actually to complete these investigations instead of letting them sit on the shelves, which is what has mostly happened with them in the recent past.

None of this is actually news, either, except that the news media have made it news. (With their margins being what they are, I can’t even blame them.)

The Hill’s Friday headline reads, “FCC to investigate, ‘take appropriate action’ on Colbert’s Trump rant.”

Rolling Stone raves (I always wanted to say that), “FCC Considers Fining Stephen Colbert Over Controversial Trump Joke.”

Countless similar headlines abound. They’re all fair, too. It’s what Pai said, on the record.

So by this weekend, some folks are fearing an imperious, censorious FCC might shut down some criticism of the administration. On first read, I even assumed Pai’s intent was at least to chill some criticism of the President. Instead of settling for reading the excerpts, though, I decided I had to listen to the interview myself and see what he actually did with his words—instead of what others have done with them.

Listen for yourself. I think you’ll hear a high-level administration official being a bit cagey and giving no definitive answer, even though an implicitly clear answer is what’s called for here.

What he should have done is highlight the agency’s own clarification—that a finding of obscenity requires that the content consist of hardcore pornography. Within that context, he could have demurred about whether Colbert’s bit qualified, but it would have answered the question well enough for the listening public without prejudicing the investigation.

Something like, “We haven’t determined whether it’s obscenity, but the Supreme Court has ruled that it basically has to be hardcore porn to be obscenity, so that’s the standard we’ll use as we investigate.”

If he says that as part of his answer, this interview is likely a non-event, nobody gets upset about possible FCC fines, and Pai looks a lot better by not getting bad press. Being against censorship in this case is a pretty easy, bipartisan stance; even the conservative host says he doesn’t want Colbert fined over this. Instead, in a hyper-partisan and hyper-paranoid (justifiably or otherwise, depending on your politics) political environment, Pai is cast as potentially censorious.

It’s ironic that the Federal COMMUNICATIONS Commission head would fail to adapt to the current media environment in this way.

This follows on another, more substantial error in media strategy, on an issue about which Pai actually cares. Late last month, he practically described network neutrality as a Communist plot, pushed through by the NGO Free Press. He radically misrepresented that group’s goal as the nationalization of the internet, when they want no such thing.

Further, he blatantly hides the massive multi-sector coalition behind this push. The coalition ranges from legal scholars (most of whom support at least the Title II classification the last FCC orchestrated) to major industry players (such as Google and Facebook) to a broad range of nonprofit actors and more.

Not only was this intellectually dishonest, it’s a genuine strategic mistake. The biggest threat to Free Press isn’t that Pai badmouths them; it’s obscurity and the resulting inability to raise money and mobilize internet activists. If he hates them so much, his best move is to ignore them, not to cast them as the heroes of network neutrality. (Along with Public Knowledge, they are especially prominent members of the NGO wing of that side of the debate, but these groups are in pretty good company.)

Moreover, network neutrality is an incredibly complicated technical issue that’s hard to mobilize around, but the pro-network neutrality crowd has the stronger incentives to mobilize. This is exactly what Minjeong Kim and I found in our research on the issue, and the finding was duplicated by Lee, Sang, & Lu in 2015, and by a team at Harvard’s Berkman Center in 2016. The more the net neutrality debate is brought into the public sphere, the more the pro-net neutrality side mobilizes.

This is why the last anti-net neutrality crusading FCC head, Michael Powell, made it as boring as possible. He basically parroted industry talking points about congestion and economic incentives. (A funhouse mirror version of these talking points can be heard in then-Senator Ted Stevens’ wonderfully incoherent 2006 rant about the “series of tubes.”)

Phrased in these terms, the debate would put anybody to sleep, and even those who try to make it exciting often struggle. This is not just my opinion. I met Chris Hayes at a house party some years back, when he was still subbing for Olbermann. Just weeks before, Hayes had done an interview with a major net neutrality advocate. (I won’t name this advocate, but they are an exceptionally good communicator, and I was impressed by their performance in the segment.) I brought this up, and Hayes said that their ratings had dropped by HALF versus the previous segment.

“Comcast might censor the internet” is the only framing that sparks enough interest to mobilize the public. Everything else pushes it deep into wonk territory. And that’s where Pai wants it!

By throwing out easily disproven character assassinations of his opponents, Pai instead draws it further into public view, where the public can better be mobilized. He invites people to see what Free Press has to say on the issue.

This is an obvious strategic mistake, and (again) the head of the Federal COMMUNICATIONS Commission should know at least that much about political communication and political mobilization.

So, to recap:

The FCC is almost certainly not going to fine Colbert for his bleeped-out “cock holster” comment.

It is almost as certain that they will strip away the network neutrality protections that took a Sisyphean decade of work to enact.

And Ajit Pai is cocking up the messaging for both.

On DeflateGate, Statistics, and Reasonable Inferences

[I’m not a sports analyst, and this is not a sports blog. We’re scholars, especially of political communication, politics, and media policy. But I do crunch numbers, and I thought I could help add something to this debate.]

[Also, corrections and updates at the bottom, appended Jan 28, 2pm-ish.]

We’ve all spent the last week hearing a lot about Tom Brady’s balls. Patriots fans and Pats haters are fighting online with a viciousness that’s hard to overstate. A good number of you have also seen the use of statistics to try to sort out whether the Pats have a measurable advantage in something that would be directly related to the inflated pressure of footballs — namely, fumble rates. Statistical analysis is only good, however, if the data are correct, if we are testing what we think we are testing, and if we are using the right statistical tools for the job. In this case as in so many, we need more good analysis that asks the right questions and uses the correct data.

This post has a lot to say, so here’s a summary: Continue reading

Posted in Fun

NBC and the End of the Broadcast Era

The news broke yesterday that NBC will be canceling 30 Rock, Parks and Rec, and Community.

(…On the bright side, I suppose I’ll be more productive next year when there’s nothing interesting to watch on television.)

As a media consumer, I was shocked.  Everyone who watches Community knew the show was in ratings trouble.  But the other two shows have been a Thursday night tentpole and didn’t seem to be in danger.  Considering the hit-or-miss quality of most NBC programming, does anyone believe that they’ll find three replacements that are better?

As a media analyst, this strikes me as evidence that NBC just doesn’t understand (or accept) how the tv game has fundamentally changed.  The network has the attention of a valuable niche audience, but insists upon wasting it.  NBC was once the most popular television network in America.  But that was during the era of broadcast television, when limited consumer choice meant that three or four networks enjoyed the luxury of competing over an entire national audience.  NBC was home to The Cosby Show and Cheers in the 1980s, Friends and Seinfeld in the 1990s.  Those hit shows brought in a whole national audience.  Today’s NBC shows attract an appealing niche audience rather than the whole nation.

The difference is cable tv and the Internet.  Cable television existed in the 1980s and 1990s, but had a different texture.  Cable stations offered niche programming, while the networks offered staples.  Many households did not have cable back then.  While HBO started developing its own programming relatively early, we were still a long away from AMC competing for “best drama” Emmys with Mad Men.  Lacking the social web, audiences were passive.  Lacking the rich online data environment, advertisers settled for coarse metrics of audience interest.

Today, NBC fills a pretty sweet niche with its programming.  Parks and Rec, 30 Rock, The Office*, and Community anchor a lineup of generally pretty-smart comedies.  They attract devoted fans who riff on the shows constantly online.  My students at Rutgers frequently mention that they watch 30 Rock or Community.  They never mention Two and a Half Men.  My friends and colleagues are the same.  Amongst the social clusters who watch Mad Men and The Wire, NBC is the broadcast network that we most often tune in to.  NBC could choose to be happy with that audience.  It’s a tech-savvy crowd, with enough spending power and cultural capital to keep advertisers happy.  But that would mean relinquishing the dream of recapturing 1980s audience-share.  Apparently the network decided to go another direction.

If some upstart competitor is smart, they’ll view this as an opportunity. Cult favorite  Arrested Development is already heading to Netflix.  Netflix or another outlet (Current TV 2.0, anyone?) ought to round up these shows and corner the market on creative-class cultural favorites.

Arrested Development is a great example of the broader trend: how can a show that is so intensely popular not be worth airing?  In the era of broadcast, when there were limited timeslots, I can understand that logic.  You cancel it because the “real estate” of prime time television is too scarce and too valuable.  But can anyone honestly argue that Arrested Development wouldn’t attract a solid niche audience on a weekly basis?  Now that we have hundreds of channels, plus hulu, plus netflix, plus youtube for remixes, plus tumblr for memes, plus twitter for riffs, no channel is going to attract Seinfeld-sized audiences.  But that also means there’s expanded opportunity for quality programming.

If you can’t make money off of Arrested Development or 3o Rock, Parks and Rec or Community, it’s time to get out of the money-making business.


*The Office is sticking around for another full season.  I will pay cold, hard cash if someone can explain the logic of that move.

Ablogalypse and Internet Time

Today’s comic from xkcd is titled “Ablogalypse.”  Randall Munroe shares his work under a Creative Commons License, so I’m reposting it below*:

Three things about this chart:

1. Notice that mentions of “blog” haven’t declined much.  People are still blogging.  People are still talking about blogging.  But people are also finding new uses for tumblr sites, and many of those uses are absurdly shareable.

2. We saw a similar process a few years ago with social network sites.  Several public commenters looked at the rise of facebook and suggested it meant a decline of blogging.  Chris Bowers (I think, can’t find the post) responded that instead we were seeing finer-grained niches.  Blogs used to be the only self-publishing game in town (’01-’04ish).  So early adopters used blogs for all sorts of communicative purposes… even ones which a medium designed for instantaneous default-public, default-permanent writing is poorly-suited.  As the social web has developed, new platforms have been created with different affordances.  The more sophisticated users have started to select the right tool for their communications purpose.

3. Tumblr sites are particularly good for fun viral stuff.  Last week’s phenomenon, Texts From Hillary Clinton, is a great example.  Two netroots politic0-types came up with the lolcats-style idea over beers.  A few years ago, they would’ve launched it as a blog.  That would’ve worked alright, but blogs are a little clunky if you just want to post images and short commentary.  So today they use a tumblr site instead.  To the extent that images-and-captions are more viral-friendly (or “upworthy“) than their text-heavy equivalent, we ought to expect a spike in tumblr’s google rankings.

Last Friday at the Midwest Political Science Association Annual Meeting, I gave a presentation of my latest paper, Social Science Research Methods in Internet Time.  It’s essentially an extended rumination on the phenomenon associated with this graph.  New features of the social web emerge fast.  It creates a novel research problem — our most robust social science methods are based in the ceteris paribus assumption that the communications network we sample at time X will be basically the same as the network in existence at time Y**.  I argue that, in the face of the ongoing adoption and adaptation practices, our best research options often involve embracing the messiness, being transparent about our data limitations, and hacking together kludgy research designs that provide some analytic leverage on how the system is evolving, and how it all fits together.  …In light of this week’s comic, maybe I should have added “keep a sense of humor” to that list.


*Please tell me you’re already regularly visiting XKCD.  New comics come out on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  There is no such thing as a person who would enjoy shoutingloudly.com but dislike xkcd.

*Where X = the time when you conduct the research and Y = the time when your research is published.  It’s a reasonable assumption most of the time, and hellishly problematic when it proves unreasonable.

Jim Gilliam’s “The Internet is My Religion”

One of the runaway highlights of this year’s Personal Democracy Forum was Jim Gilliam’s talk “The Internet Is My Religion.”

I’ve known Jim for a few years, but never known his full story.  The talk is moving and powerful and thought-provoking.  Click the link above and watch it.

Kudos to Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej for putting together such a solid event.  Talks by Larry Lessig, Eben Moglen, and Dan Sinker (@mayoremanuel) were also clear highlights.  Oh, and Clay Shirky was wearing a 3 Wolf Moon t-shirt.  That’s basically an internet meme wearing an internet meme.  Whoa. Meta.

How I Use My Kindle

Via Facebook today, I had yet another cause to discuss how I use (and why I love) my Kindle. This isn’t a Gizmodo-style tech lust blog by a long shot, but other folks—especially other academics—often want to know if this device can improve their lives. The short answer is: Maybe. For me, Continue reading

Posted in Fun

Reflecting on Convergence Culture… the good and the bad

[This is more of a holiday-cheer post than my usual academic blog entries.  ‘Tis the season…]

In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins’s excellent work on the various effects of digital media on media production/culture, “convergence” takes on multiple meanings.  Part of what makes it such a good book is that all of these meanings are true.  Media convergence includes both the rise of mass media conglomerates and the rise of read/write culture.  It is the interaction of those forces that determines the shape of media power in the 21st century — we can’t just focus on one or the other.

That said, there’s also the normative question of “is it a good thing or a bad thing?”  Social scientists are trained to duck this question, but we all have our opinions.  And particularly for those of us who deal with YouTube and other “user-generated content,” it’s easy to get swallowed up by the junk and the horrendous comment threads and bemoan the lack of quality that comes as we move from a filter-then-publish world to a publish-then-filter one.

And then there’s the “JK Wedding Dance.”

You’ve almost certainly seen it.  It’s been viewed over 33 million times, making it the third most-visited YouTube clip of 2009.  Cute couple.  Wedding in a chapel.  Chris Brown’s “Forever” starts playing.  The groomsmen and bridesmaids start dancing down the aisle, followed by the rest of the wedding party and ending with the bride and groom.  It’s engendered numerous spoofs, and was directly referenced in The Office’s wedding episode.  It’s hard not to smile, watching this outpouring of joy and affection.  These people were having fun.

I can’t help but compare the JK Wedding Dance to “The Real Wedding Crashers.”  This was a short-lived reality show on NBC in 2007.  It’s pretty much the perfect antithesis to the wedding dance.  Launched after the Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson pic, “Wedding Crashers,” the premise of the show was that soon-to-be-married couples would secretly sign up to have their nuptial events ruined by the “crashers.”  Hidden cameras would capture the crowd’s disgusted reactions, and we the people could watch and entertainment.  After months of constant/heavy promotion, the show lasted 4 episodes before joining the rotting husks of so many of its fellow bad-idea reality shows.

“Real Wedding Crashers” always left a bad taste in my mouth.  You can just imagine the pitch meeting: “it’s just like the movie hit, but with real people!  Imagine a cross between Survivor and Wedding Crashers…  It’ll cost nothing to promote and be a cross-platform event!”  This is 15-minutes-of-fame at its worst, taking one of the most storied moments in a relationship and turning it into a mean prank on friends and family.  It’s crass, it’s mean, and it appeals to the worst in each of us.  Oh, and it’s over-promoted on primetime television, probably replacing a cult favorite broadcast television show that had high production costs and a niche, devoted fan base.  It’s hard to think about “reality” shows like this (which are, in actuality, the antithesis of “real”) and not wish a speedy collapse upon the media conglomerates who visit them upon us.

And then there’s the JK Wedding Dance.  Semi-spontaneous, joyful, fun, making a special event more special and more memorable for the community that’s present.  Zero production costs, zero promotion, and reaching a viral audience of 33 million.

I don’t want to make too much of the juxtaposition — just share it because it so often occurs to me.  These are only two cases, interesting because of their symmetry.  But when I consider the normative question of whether the paired rise of participatory media and destruction of revenue streams that supported cherished older media, I cannot help but reflect on this pair of examples.  Most of YouTube is a combination of junk user-generated content and clippings from the mainstream media.  There are very few gems like this one, and bountiful examples of the fundamental flaws in the human character, I’m sure.  But the same is true for network television.  Given the choice, I find YouTube and other social media far less depressing than the economic logic of mainstream media convergence.  Democratizing production allows for more beautiful ideas to see the light of day.  As a researcher, I’m not sure how to count, prove, or disprove any of that.  But as a citizen, it sure does bring a smile to my face.

Thanks to Newsweek for Having Me at News/Geek

Just a quick, 24-hours-overdue thanks to the folks at the Newsweek Dev Team for hosting me last night at their third News/Geek event.

I had a rollicking good time, the questions were awesome, and the post-talk celebration was even better. If you want the Powerpoint, it’s here in all its 12.2 MB glory.

Further discussion welcome.

ShoutingLoudly Welcomes Paul Falzone

It is with a joyous heart that I welcome our latest co-conspirator contributor, Paul Falzone.

Like the rest of us, he has a big “Penn” stamp on his arse, having earned his PhD from Annenberg in 2008. He started in 2003 (same year as Jason and me), and it quickly became apparent that he was a genuine radical. Little wonder we got along so well!

Paul’s now at Green Mountain College, as good a home for him as I could have possibly imagined.

I look forward to seeing his insights appear with the same unreliability that our 3.5 readers have come to expect from the rest of us.