Thursday, July 5, 2007

Actually, It IS News

If it needs to “break pots in public” or “tear off your clothes” or “bray like a donkey” to get attention, just do it. ~ from Sanskrit Quotes About Blogging

The quote is supposed to be related to blogging, which is a bit of a stretch, but it certainly does seem to apply nicely to the media environment these days.

I was prompted to think about this the other day when I came across some selected quotes from Drew Curtis' book,
It's Not News, It's Fark: How Mass Media Tries to Pass Off Crap As News. Drew Curtis, for the terminally uniformed, is the creator of Fark.com, a news aggregator that provides links to all sorts of news items, some weird, some wonderful, some just news. You can find headlines about politics, sports, science, and just strange stuff about naked people getting arrested. The tag lines are often much more interesting than the items themselves, often written in a code familiar only to regular visitors to Fark.

The mainstream media, with its fascination for the Internet, is always ready to jump on something hot, and Fark has been hot. People used to get Slashdotted; now they get Farked. Both terms refer to one's blog or website being brought down by a huge influx of traffic thanks to a reference on one of the news aggregators. At any rate, Drew Curtis has been the subject of endless interviews, and now he has his book. Because Fark is so successful, Mr. Curtis is now a recognized media expert. At least, he is recognized as an expert by the media he purports to despise.

But, Mr. Curtis is himself a bit confused about how people perceive the mainstream media. Consider these quotes:

  • "Readers assume information carried by Mass Media is true solely because it appears there. While Mass Media asks its audience to treat all media matters with a degree of skepticism, no one actually does. People expect Mass Media to do that for them, but it doesn't. Whether it should is another issue entirely." -- P.95-96

    Then there's this:
  • "In theory, "Equal Time for Nutjobs" should be harmless. The people being interviewed are obviously out of their gourds. The problem is that a Mass Media mention gives them instant credibility. The media audience automatically assumes that the Mass Media wouldn't give coverage to anything they knew was patently false." -- P.131

    But, then there's this:
  • "Mass Media will respond that media issues are of great importance because they impact the public trust in news organizations. This ignores the fact that most people already believe Mass Media either makes stuff up, is biased one way or the other, or constantly gets information wrong. Finding out that journalists sometimes invent stories just confirms their preexisting viewpoint." -- P.248
Well, Drew, make up your mind. Either we believe everything the mainstream media dishes out, or we don't believe any of it. The fact is that people believe what they want to believe. The problem is that Internet sources and the mainstream media have so much space to fill that they are putting huge amounts of pure dross in front of us. Both are adept at making up facts and stealing liberally from each other. The trick is for us to try to tell what is legitimate and what isn't.

The Internet has proved to be a little better at filtering than the mass media. While the Internet is often the source of outlandish stories that prove to be false, the falsehoods are discovered reasonably quickly. In the case of the mainstream media, it may be months or years before we find out, although the presence of so many readers on the Internet is beginning to cut down the lag.

This is why the mainstream crowd is getting nervous.

This nervousness manifests itself in the constant drumbeat of criticism by "journalists" toward blogs. I normally enjoy reading "The Luddite", but a recent attack of his on Web 2.0 (which deserves derision) in general and blogs in particular is typical of this kneejerk reaction to Internet content. But at the top of page 2, Tony Long (aka The Luddite) says:

First, a caveat: Journalism is in trouble as much as it is in flux, and the professionals bear their share of the blame. The mainstream American media, bloated to unimaginable size across the worlds of print, broadcast and cyberspace, is largely under the thumb of corporate interests more concerned with profit than mission. Largely because of this, it can be accused of failing, in varying degrees, in two of its age-old mandates: to inform the people and to watchdog the government.
In other words, the professionals aren't doing the job any better than the amateurs are.

I like the immediacy of blog and on-line commentary reactions. If you read something stupid, you can quickly respond, not pen a letter to the editor that may never see the light of day. Not only can you respond, but you can get a quick response from the author (should he/she elect to do so) or from others who may agree or disagree with you. Consider a couple of recent examples.

Michael Tierman, a VP at RedHat, was shocked, SHOCKED I say, to discover that AT&T was asking for Social Security numbers when people were activating their beloved iPhones. Apparently, Mr. Tierman has never applied for a loan, started utility service at his home, or applied for a credit card. He also apparently thinks (although in a comment he amends himself) that AT&T could pass this information on to the--GASP--Federal Government.

Last I heard, they already had that information, since I got my SSN from them.

Then, there's Steve Tobak, a consultant, who considers what happens when "founding CEOs go bad". Now, aside from demonstrating a particularly poor understanding of how Boards of Directors work (especially when he thinks they are poorly paid), he misses the point that entrepreneurial CEO's are often lousy at running an established company for reasons that have been discussed since I was taking business courses back in the Dark Ages.

I think the point that he is trying, poorly, to make is that boards are too often in bed with the CEO's. In fact, he has the cart before the horse. It's the CEO who is along for the ride with the corporate directors. Sometime I might dive into that subject, but all one has to do is look at the fiasco at HP to realize that the Board of Directors is still very much in control.

Both authors were ripped mercilessly by comments.

Now these guys are not journalists, but magazines and newspapers have used people of their stripe (executives and consultants) to write columns for years. Just because C/Net chooses to call their contributions blogs rather than columns doesn't change the type of writing they are doing. Had these pieces appeared as columns in a publication, a week or a month later, we might have read some rebuttal. Thanks to the immediacy of the Internet, we could see that the majority of readers out there regarded both writers as being so far out in left field that they had left the park.

On the one hand, these articles would support Tony Long's assertions, but I would answer that the ability to respond quickly and directly to the authors demonstrates how well the Internet and blogging software can work. On the other hand, Drew Curtis can look at these pieces and realize that the Internet is as full of misinformed opinion as the mainstream media. He can, though, take some pleasure in the self-correcting nature of the blog format.

That doesn't mean that there aren't lazy people out there who use a single news source and believe everything they hear. But they existed long before the Internet. William Randolph Hearst and Horace Greely owed much of their success to these sorts of people. It's just possible that crazy news aggregators and equally nutty bloggers might be able to reduce the number of gullible types out there.

It could happen.

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