seeking knowledge and laughter, putting a bullseye on inaccuracy


Learning to Love the New Media

I have long been discouraged by how easy some (Fox News) are able to spread lies and disinformation. How does one counter the rampant disinformation and misinformation in modern America? Obama is a Muslim Socialist from Kenya... Saddam Hussein attacked the US on 9/11... Our taxes have never been higher and we are taxed to death... Scientists are divided over global warming... and so on.

And how do we usually respond to this all-too-common conventional bullshit? By trying to use actual facts and logic as though anyone cares about those things. I think James Fallows, from a recent article in The Atlantic, offers an alternative approach.

“But what if the answer to a false narrative isn’t fact?,” Denton says. “Or Habermas? Maybe the answer to a flawed narrative is a different narrative. You change the story.” Which is what, he said, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have done. They don’t “fact-check” Fox News, or try to rebut it directly, or fight on its own terms. They change the story not by distorting reality—their strength is their reliance on fact—or creating a fictitious narrative, but by presenting the facts in a way that makes them register in a way they hadn’t before.

I'm going to keep this in mind and try to come up with some better narratives.

Toppling Saddam's Statue

Remember that iconic video of Saddam Hussein's statue toppling when we were all amazed at the unstoppable might of the US military?

At the time, many of us knew it was a fraud... not so much faked, but a fraud. Wide shots of the square where it happened showed only a few Iraqis, not the many that were suggested by tight shots framing the small groups (I know about this stuff, one of my jobs is to make half-filled sports events look like they are filled to capacity).

But to suggest it was an organized event planned and executed by a cynical military psy ops or the Bush Administration was always a conspiracy too far for me. Finally, we know what exactly happened there: On the Media did a segment on it. Listen to it or read the transcript.

The upshot is this: US media was invested in the war and wanted to portray it in certain ways -- or risk being the odd outlet out. We have serious problems in this country, largely because of how we have organized the dissemination of media. The outlets tasked with spreading information must focus first and foremost on profits. Not just making profits, but increasing profits every year -- and that does not lend itself to good journalism. The result is a public embarrassingly uninformed public, who are increasingly more confident of how much they know even as they know less and less.

As for this segment, it reminds us that truth is far stranger than fiction.

The Death of the Facts

Jonathan Chait's review of The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America's Future in The New Republic, demolishes the absurd premise of the book -- that Obama is spearheading an attack on markets and entrepreneurship. Of course, it is this author, American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Books, and his allies like the Chamber of Commerce that have led the attack on the market in a successful attempt to maximize the power of the world's largest companies.

Chait's review does everything one would want a review to do, but I want to add that I don't think Brooks spends much time being disingenuous. I continue to believe that he and others like him are simply deluded. They do not understand the world as it is, and are fooled the tools they have created to spread their message -- talk radio, Fox news, the Wall Street Journal, etc. At one time, these were meant to spread right wing values such as free market principles and less government. But over time, they have come to work for one goal: winning. They have no principle and defend no values, which makes debating them impossible. As we have seen from the recent right wing pile-on around Obama's Asian trip, they will lie about anything.

October Atlantic and the Media

As I continue to plow through the magazines I set aside during my sports shooting season, I wanted to note the 2009 October issue of The Atantic. It focused mostly on media issues, but also featured one of the best discussions of U.S. Torture Policy in Andrew Sullivan's letter to former-President Bush that offers perhaps the only real solution for moving forward on this important issue.

I was struck by a quote from Mark Bowden (an author I almost always enjoy reading, regardless of subject matter) in his "The Story Behind the Story" that really gets to the heart of why Fox News bothers me so much:

Journalism, done right, is enormously powerful because it does not seek power. It seeks truth.

Fox News has blazed a path of subverting what journalism should be. They weren't the first - but they have blown away the competition. And it bothers me to the extent that other networks copy that approach in an attempt to gain viewers rather than educate viewers.

I was pleasantly surprised by Robert D. Kaplan's "Why I Love Al Jazeera," (which was about Al Jazeera English, not the arabic sister-channel). AJE is basically a BBC-style program if Howard Zinn ran it - it focuses intently on the perspective of the powerless.

And Kaplan also zinged Fox News - noting:

I have spent the past two years reporting from the Indian Ocean region, dealing predominantly with Muslims and indigenous nongovernmental organizations; watching Al Jazeera is the vicarious equivalent of engaging in the kinds of conversations I have been having. One of the multitude of problems I have with Fox News is that even its most analytically brilliant commentators, such as Charles Krauthammer, seem to be scoring points and talking to their own ideological kind rather than engaging in dialogue with others. Watching Fox, you have to wonder whether many of its commentators have ever had a conversation with a real live Muslim abroad.

Too Cheap to Meter, 2009 Edition

Chris Anderson gets it. The editor-in-chief at Wired magazine, I find him uniquely insightful when it comes to describing modern technology and its effects on culture and society. This article, Tech Is Too Cheap to Meter: It's Time to Manage for Abundance, Not Scarcity explains why we need to change the way we think about technology - particularly when it comes to communications and data storage.

When scarce resources become abundant, smart people treat them differently, exploiting them rather than conserving them. It feels wrong, but done right it can change the world.

The problem is that abundant resources, like computing power, are too often treated as scarce.

And then there is YouTube -- where some folks recognized what is scarce and what is abundant and how each was changing over time. Though the bandwidth that site consumes is quite expensive, it is becoming less so over time, allowing the owner (Google) to gamble that it will be able to get more benefit from it despite the increasing popularity and traffic (and no obvious means of generating revenue without sacrificing popularity).

But then there are the critics - the gatekeepers (sometimes self-appointed, sometimes not) - who say that most people are incapable of producing "good" content ... perhaps music or movies or amateur porn. Anderson has an answer to them:

Perhaps the best example of a glorious embrace of waste is YouTube. I often hear people complain that YouTube is no threat to television because it's "full of crap"—which is, I suppose, true. The problem is that no one agrees on what the crap is. You may be looking for funny cat videos and think my favorite soldering tutorials are of no interest. I want to see funny videogame stunts and couldn't care less about your cooking tutorials. And clips of our own charming family members are of course delightful to us and totally boring to everyone else. Crap is in the eye of the beholder.

This is the power of abundance! I love television shows that are often cancelled because most Americans do not share my views. Fortunately, as video content distribution goes from being scarce to being abundant, the need to capture a mass audience actually diminishes. So I can have my Dollhouse and someone else can watch their bullshit unscripted brain-numbing "unscripted" television (not that I would judge).

We have less of a need for high minded critics that just don't get the appeal of Transformers II and more of a need for finding others we trust to get our reviews. The future of newspapers may be dim, but I would hope there is a brighter future for local reporters than local movie reviewers. I actually like the local Star Tribune movie reviewer, but I would rather see the Strib investigating local government than reviewing movies released nationally.

Of course, many thought that electricity would soon be too cheap to meter. It isn't there yet. But it is damn close - why else would we have so many inefficient devices that few care about? Your computer, television, and cell phone charger are sucking electricity even while turned off? Big deal! It is more of an effort to unplug them than to pay the extra $.02 they rack up each month. These inefficiencies do add up, but so do all the inefficiencies resulting from treating an abundant resource as though it were scarce. Sometimes you just have to revisit your assumptions.

Talking to our Enemies

I realize that I may be wasting my time by responding to Fox News pundits as though they were making an argument in good faith. Fox News, being an organ of the Republic Party (as opposed to the conservative movement), will attack anyone for any reason if they are deemed fair game (not unlike the Wahhabi terrorist lovers in Saudi Arabia) and therefore seldom makes an argument in good faith.

Nonetheless, responding to them can be a "teaching moment." I have often heard conservatives lamenting the supposedly liberal media coverage of war. A typical rhetorical question is what would have happened if CNN was at D-Day? Would their coverage have soured the U.S. popular opinion on the war? This is a legitimate question. However, toward the end of this clip, Jon asks the same question of them - what if Fox News was there to attack Reagan for talking to the Soviets?

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