Thursday, December 30, 2010

New news

I posted a while ago about Fallow’s Why Americans Hate the Media. I was reading along in the comments that follow this story by Ta-Nehisi Coates – which I’d been doing off and on all day – when it occurred to me that that post and its comments, and another story I’d read earlier today, plus something that happened months ago pretty much summed up exactly why so many people like me have abandoned newspapers, TV news, and newsmagazines.

This is about the story I read earlier today, and this is about the thing that happened months ago.

This is TNC's original post:

'My Whole Desire Was to Choose Him for My Companion'

In 1867, Carrie Hall, a white woman, married Sandy Alexander Hall, a black man. They were, like many interracial couples, tormented by whites in fear of the fall of white supremacy. Here is Carrie Hall's appeal to the local Freedman's Bureau

Dear Sir,

As you are the Bureau agent of this county, I have some advice to ask of you, if you please, concerning myself and my husband. I am a White woman and my husband is a Colored gentleman. Some two or three years ago, I became very much attached to this colored gentleman for whom my desire grew stronger and stronger every day of my life, and my whole desire was to choose him for my Companion and my Husband through life,and he was the only one on this earth that I desired for a husband and I never would have been happy without him.

But of course we had to keep all of this a secret to ourselves, fearing that the white people would trouble him about me and I would not have him hurt on my account no way in this world, for my respect and love towards him was too great for anything of that kind to trouble his mind, and I would stand up in any crowd to save him from any trouble if I had it to do, or if I have it to, for it is me that is the cause of this being carried on as far as it is so, for me charging him to marry me.

We came to the conclusion some two or three months ago that we would get married and see what would be the trouble with us anyway. So he got his licenses and paid for them and we were married by an ordained minister of the Gospel, though our marriage was somewhat secret we are lawfully and honestly husband and wife before God and Man and would be one of the happiest couples in the world if it were not for this: Some of the white people have learned some or the other that we are married, or at least that I have married a colored gentleman and I hear they are making great talk of what they are going to do and my mind is in great trouble fearing they may try to carry out some of their plans.

I have no relations near me to interfere with us and besides I am an orphan and have been working for my self ever since I was eleven years of age and now I am twenty-six years of age no one has any right to interfere with me or my husband or at least I don't think they have under the circumstances as he was my choice.

And now my dear sir the advice I ask of you is this: If you please to let me know if anyone has any rights or law or Authority to interfere with us and if not will you be kind enough to give each of us, from your hand a writing that will save us from any trouble--that is, if it is in your power to do so. If it is not and you can not attend to to it for us, will you please inform me who to apply to. If you can, please give us two notes--one for me and one for my husband. My husband is living in Ala. and I am living in Ga. The reason we are not living together is he is in a contract on a plantation and can not leave until the end of the year. I left the neighborhood knowing that the white people would be against me for marrying this colored gentleman.

I am living with my husband's Uncle in Georgetown, Ga. If you can understand my trouble by this letter and can help me out, please do so as soon as you can and I never can thank you for as long as I live. I will now give you my husband's name--Sandy Alexander Hall lives near Eufala Barbour Co., Ala. My name is Carrie Hall living in Georgetown, Ga. I write you confidentially. Please answer this as soon as you can and excuse my bad writing and spelling and also the letter. I wrote it in the best of my knowledge, and hope you might understand it.,

Very Respectfully,
Carrie Hall

The letter itself is moving, and infinitely more interesting than anything one might find on the TV. But it's the comments to this story. . . . TNC's place is famous for the quality of its commenters, but there's more to it than that this time. No spoiler here, Just go read.

There are a lot of comments. The part I'm so amazed by is near the end of them, but . . . Worth It. Definitely.

Also typical

Months ago was I found myself trapped in the waiting room at the car dealer’s place while the car was getting its checkup, etc. The TV was tuned to some cable news channel – I don’t remember which one – and the “story” was about the level of transparency of Venus Williams’ underwear. Evidently it was not opaque enough to suit someone or other, and the pretty, young, blond anchorperson was going on hysterically – and endlessly – about it. Sometimes consulting her sidekick about whether or not he agreed (which he emphatically did, of course).

Now not only was I completely uninterested in Venus Williams underwear and pretty appalled that a discussion of same was considered “news,” she really only had three things to say about it: You could practically see through it! Isn’t that Awful! And doesn’t it set a Terrible Example for The Children! So she just kept repeating those three points over and over making the whole thing excruciatingly boring on top of everything else.

I tried unsuccessfully to tune it out for about 30 minutes until I finally fled to stand out in the parking lot even though it was cold and rainy that day. Someone who worked there asked why I was standing out in the cold and rain and when I told him, showed me a blessedly TV-free waiting room that I hadn’t known about before. It was lovely.

So this is the other reason I don't watch TV news. If it's a marginally important or relevant story, they get it appallingly wrong. The rest of the time they're going on about something totally ridiculous. I don't know if they were wrong about Venus Williams' underwear.

I.Don't.Care. about it.

[posted on 12/30/10]


This is a blog post about a story that was widely reported on the TV news. Note that a local TV news channel is the source of the blog post, but if I didn't read blogs, there's no way I'd see a story done by a San Diego TV station.

Still Making An Innocent Man Look Bad
by Conor Friedersdorf

There’s a guy named Juan Carlos Vera. He worked at an ACORN office in San Diego, California. One day, James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles walked in with a hidden video camera, and pretended to be a pimp and prostitute. They asked for help smuggling underage girls across the Mexican border so that they could work in a brothel. Confronted with what appeared to be a sex trafficking plot, you’d hope that someone would play along, get as much information as possible, and call the police. And guess what? That’s exactly what Mr. Vera did! Unbeknownst to O’Keefe or Giles, he called his cousin, a police officer, shortly after they left his office.

Perhaps you know what happened next. Having cut his teeth editing The Drudge Report and its notoriously misleading headlines, Internet entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart published the ACORN videos, which fooled me at the time – I praised them, and even encouraged Breitbart to pressure attorneys general into investigating the organization. I’ve never felt like such a fool. Some of the ACORN tapes reflect very badly on that organization, but taken as a whole, they are misleading in a lot of ways.

The San Diego ACORN video was particularly misleading.

Put another way, Andrew Breitbart published videos that made an innocent man look as if he was complicit in a plot to traffic underage girls across the border. Granted, he didn’t do this on purpose. Still, it happened. And it cost the guy his job:

A man fired from ACORN’s San Diego-area office for discussing human smuggling with a fake pimp and prostitute;reported the incident to police two days after it happened, according to information released by the police. Juan Carlos Vera was fired by ACORN after a videotape was aired on Fox News showing him discussing with a couple posed as a pimp and a prostitute the best ways to smuggle underage prostitutes into the U.S. from El Salvador.

It’s better if it’s in Tijuana, Vera is heard saying in the video. Because I have a lot of contacts in Tijuana.

But police said in a press release that Vera reported the incident to his cousin, a detective with the National City Police Department. Vera worked in ACORN’s National City office. The detective contacted a federal task force that deals with human smuggling, and an officer from the task force asked for more details.

After publishing videos of Vera that made him look like a sex trafficker and costing the man his job, did Breitbart explain how the mistake happened, apologize and correct the record? Did he alert his readers to the truth? Having expressed outrage at the media on countless occasions for trafficking in serious accusations that weren’t grounded in facts, did he behave better after realizing that he’d done exactly the same thing?

Nope. As far as I know, neither an apology nor a correction has ever appeared. The vast majority of his readership remains misinformed. The San Diego videos remain posted at Big Government, misleading as ever. I’ve attempted to get Breitbart and O’Keefe to address this. No luck. But Breitbart has a habit of having long, often profane arguments with his detractors on Twitter. A guy named Frank Vayan Walton raised the subject of Vera. And here is how Breitbart responded on December 27, 2010 (brackets are my added context):

Juan Vera called [his police officer] cousin LONG after videos were filmed - when James [O’Keefe] refused to hook up w him to help girls over border. Try again!

After examining phone records and conducting interviews with two police officers, the California Attorney General’s Office reported [PDF] this about O’Keefe and Giles’ visit with Vera: "Immediately after the couple left, Vera telephoned his cousin, Detective Alejandro Hernandez, at the National City Police Department.

The report goes on:

He left a voicemail message for Detective Hernandez stating that some “crazy people” were in his office providing information. Vera did not explain the substance of the conversation and did not make reference to prostitution or human smuggling on the message. He asked his cousin to call him back. Later that day, Vera also reported the incident to fellow ACORN employee Cruz Acosta. Acosta had been away from the office while the couple was present. Vera explained to him what happened. Vera also reported the incident, either the same day or shortly thereafter, to Mar Murrillon, an ACORN board member. Vera told Murrillon that he had reported the incident to the police. (Vera Interview.) Vera eventually spoke with Detective Hernandez on August 27, 2009.

So Breitbart is factually wrong. He is also still insinuating than an innocent man was willing to be complicit in the transnational smuggling of underage prostitutes. All this seems like a story to me! Something that would be of interest to folks on the press beat like Howard Kurtz or Jack Shafer or others. And shouldn’t all the press outlets that wrote about the ACORN tapes from San Diego note this development? . . .

Well, yes. They should. But they won’t. Which is why I no longer read, watch, or listen to any of them. Note that although I already knew this part of the story (from an online source)

Let's review their story:

O'Keefe, dressed as a pimp, and Giles, disguised as a prostitute, visited ACORN offices where they asked for assistance purchasing a home. They claimed to have difficulty documenting income derived from the streets. But they had so much money! In fact, it wasn't just the two of them -- they had a whole crew of underage girls from El Salvador turning tricks for them. Hell, they had so much money, they needed help laundering it for the pimp's run for Congress.

Now let's tell the truth.

The truth is that O'Keefe never wore the pimp outfit into an ACORN office. Instead, he posed as a candidate for Congress that wanted to help a young woman caught in the trappings of prostitution. Supposedly, he wanted to help her, and her fellow prostitutes, escape the clutches of a brutal pimp by finding a place for them to live.

I didn’t know the part about the San Diego ACORN worker reporting the incident to the police. Immediately.

And even Conor, above, omits this part:

For instance, a much-publicized recording of a visit to the San Diego office, in which an employee is purportedly seeking information to help smuggle underage girls from Mexico into the United States to work as prostitutes, did not mention that the employee's 'contact' in Mexico was actually a police official. The employee collected as much specific information as possible, then contacted Mexican police, warning them of the plot.

Anyway, all that seems pretty typical of how the traditional media works. Get all hysterical about something scandalous (transparent underwear! pimps and postitutes!) and then never bother to do any actual research or follow up. And even when there’s plenty of correct information out there – gathered by others, of course, because they can’t be bothered . . . OMG there’s another scandalous thing to share with our viewers! – they never make a correction. They just let people go on believing the wrong thing that they reported in the first place.

As I said this is why I no longer read, watch, or listen to any of them.

[posted on 12/30/10]

Friday, November 26, 2010

They think you're stupid

People who take politics seriously, who have strong opinions about political issues, more or less universally think anyone who has a differing opinion is stupid.

We tend to believe that we arrive at our political views by examining the facts and drawing logical conclusions from those facts. We think that people who don’t know the facts we are working with are ignorant, and people who know these facts (perhaps because we have just pointed them out) who persist in having a different opinion – well, the only explanation must be that they can’t think logically. In other words, they are stupid.

A lot of people have analyzed political opinions and how people come to have the opinions that they do and have determined that facts and logic have precious little to do with it. But even those who agree with these analyses – and I do – can’t really help themselves when confronted with someone who stubbornly persists in disagreeing with us.

We feel compelled to share our facts with them. And we can’t help ourselves from thinking that the person we’re arging with is stupid when they don’t immediately agree with us. Even when we know that this person is not actually stupid. (Well, some people are stupid, often by choice or laziness, but the majority of human beings are not, in fact, stupid. In my opinion.)

Liberals and conservatives seem to be equal opportunity offenders here. Conservative commentators call liberals “libtards” as often as possible. Liberals love this right-winger’s sign so much that “moran” is the liberal in-joke for stupid conservative.

Get a Brain Moran Pictures, Images and Photos

But what seems to be different is that conservatives seem to take this back and forth much more seriously. There’s real anger, real emotion, about being called stupid by those who think differently. While liberals are more, eh whatever, when called a libtard, for example.

Why? Liberals don’t have a constant drumbeat of “conservatives think you’re stupid” poured into their ears. If you’re a liberal who’s not passionate about politics to the point of reading conservative blogs, comments on YouTube, etc (to see what the other side is up to, ya know), you’ve probably never even heard the term libtard.

On the other hand, there seems to be no end to it in the conservative mainstream media. Fox news, talk radio. It’s constant. Liberals think they’re better than you. They think you’re ignorant, stupid, hicks.

I got to thinking what this does to a person, constantly being told that there are a lot of people who think you’re stupid. Those people, those right over there, your neighbor with the sign for the Democratic candidate in their yard, your co-worker who makes the case for conserving energy and abortion rights (clearly a liberal). They think you’re stupid. So you’re told. And told, and told, and told, and told.

Isn’t it kind of like an abusive husband, who repeatedly tells his wife something like, “Most people think you’re ugly. They make fun of how fat you are behind your back.” But then he’ll say, “But not me. I see your inner beauty. I like a woman with a little meat on her bones. No skinny chicks for me!”

It’s classic manipulativeness. Make her feel worthless and bad, and then make sure she knows the only relief from how bad she is feeling is you. If she doesn’t feel worthless and bad, if she really felt beautiful (inside or out) she might run off with someone else. It’s about power. It’s about control.

Otherwise, why tell her the bad things other people are saying? If you really love her, if you really see her inner beauty and that’s what matters to you, if you really prefer a woman to be voluptuous rather than looking like an emaciated fashion model, why not just say, “Wow honey, you are so hot!” Why preface that with the nasty things “other people” say?

So why don’t conservative anchors on Fox news and conservative talk show hosts just say, “This conservative proposal is better. Here’s why. The liberal ideas on this are wrong. Here’s why.”

Why the need to always present it as, well, of course, you know that (insert conservative proposal here) is better, but the liberals – who think you’re stupid - want to do (insert liberal proposal here).

Except to insinuate in their viewers’ and listeners’ minds that they are, in fact, stupid. Or at least to make them doubt themselves. When you’re told over and over that a lot of people think you’re stupid (or ugly) doesn’t that plant the seed somewhere in your mind that maybe they’re right? So that it feels really good when the person that just told you that other people think you’re stupid, says, “But I don’t!”

[posted on 11/26/10]

Sunday, August 1, 2010

We are not their customers

In 1996 I read James Fallows’ Why Americans Hate the Media. It was one of those experiences that alters where you stand as you look at something. Since you are standing in a different place, what you are looking at looks different. It’s what we mean, I guess, when someone has said something thoughtful and true and you say, “Well, that gives me a different perspective on the matter."

I never saw The Media quite the same way again.

It didn’t instantly transport me to the view I have of it now, but it started the process of asking questions that I hadn’t even known were questions before. And it started a fascination with the question of how do we know what we think we know? How close is what we think we know to reality?

I should add that when I read it I was teaching a class in critical thinking. And sometime not long after I reread Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, written in 1957.

I think a lot of things about the media these days, but all of what I think about it is shaped by what I think is a fundamental fact that’s often missed - we are not their customers.

So many discussions of the media about how frustrating, infuriating, outmoded, misleading, shallow, etc it is – and why we hate it - end up with someone saying, well, if they can’t deliver what their customers want, we’ll stop buying.

Note the “we.” And that’s the problem. We are not their customers.

The customers of a business are the ones who literally buy the product, who hand over money for a good or a service. We may hand over fifty cents for a newspaper or a few dollars for a magazine, but any newspaper or magazine publisher will tell you that the income from subscriptions and newstands won’t keep the lights on. And we get radio and TV news for free. We may pay a cable bill, but Time Warner or Comcast aren’t forking over millions of dollars to keep NBC or Fox News in business.

Who are their customers, who pays them, for what service?

Advertisers. Other businesses, who enlist their help to recruit customers for their business.

So what is The Media selling?

Not the Nightly News, or Morning Joe, or American Idol. They’re selling eyeballs (print, TV) or ears (radio), which is shorthand for our attention.

They’re selling us. To their advertisers.

Consider a commercial fisherman, trawling for cod or tuna. The fish are not their customers. The wholesalers who buy their catch are their customers.

We are the fish. The newspaper and magazine stories, the TV and radio programs are the bait, not the product. Our attention is the product, what is being sold.

If mass media is in trouble now, if it’s not selling what their customers (advertisers) want to buy, it’s because more and more of us fish are not finding the bait as tasty as we used to. Do we really want to demand that they provide better bait? Or do we start to ask ourselves if we want to be sold?

[posted on 8/1/10]