Facebook’s phony claim that “you’re in charge.”

It simply isn't true that an algorithmic filter can be designed to remove the designers from the equation. That assertion melts on contact, and a New York Times reporter who receives such a claim from a Facebook engineer should somehow signal to us that he knows how bogus it is.

27 Oct 2014 12:04 pm 15 Comments

In today’s New York Times, media reporter Ravi Somaiya visits with Facebook to talk about the company’s growing influence over the news industry, especially with News Feed’s dominance on mobile devices. Greg Marra, a 26 year-old Facebook engineer who heads the team that writes the code for News Feed, was interviewed. Marra is “fast becoming one of the most influential people in the news business,” Somaiya writes.

Mr. Marra said he did not think too much about his impact on journalism.

“We try to explicitly view ourselves as not editors,” he said. “We don’t want to have editorial judgment over the content that’s in your feed. You’ve made your friends, you’ve connected to the pages that you want to connect to and you’re the best decider for the things that you care about.”

In Facebook’s work on its users’ news feeds, Mr. Marra said, “we’re saying, ‘We think that of all the stuff you’ve connected yourself to, this is the stuff you’d be most interested in reading.’ ”

It’s not us exercising judgment, it’s you. We’re not the editors, you are. If this is what Facebook is saying — and I think it’s a fair summary of Marra’s comments to the New York Times — the statement is a lie.

I say a lie, not just an untruth, because anyone who works day-to-day on the code for News Feed knows how much judgment goes into it. It simply isn’t true that an algorithmic filter can be designed to remove the designers from the equation. It’s an assertion that melts on contact. No one smart enough to work at Facebook could believe it. And I’m not sure why it’s sitting there unchallenged in a New York Times story. For that doesn’t even rise to the level of “he said, she said.” It’s just: he said, poof!

Now, if Greg Marra and his team want to make the point that in perfecting their algorithm they’re not trying to pick the day’s most important stories and feature them in the News Feed, the way an old fashioned front page or home page editor would, and so in that sense they are not really “editors” and don’t think in journalistic terms, fine, okay, that’s a defensible point. But don’t try to suggest that the power has thereby shifted to the users, and the designers are just channeling your choices. (If I’m the editor of my News Feed, where are my controls?)

A more plausible description would go something like this:

The algorithm isn’t picking stories the way a home page or front page editor would. It’s not mimicking the trained judgment of experienced journalists. Instead, it’s processing a great variety of signals from users and recommending stories based on Facebook’s overrrding decision rule for the design of an editorial filter: maximizing time on site, minimizing the effort required to “get” a constant flow of personal and public news. The end-in-view isn’t an informed public or an entertained audience but a user base in constant contact with Facebook. As programmers we have to use our judgment — and a rigorous testing regime —to make that happen. We think it results in a satisfying experience.

That would be a more truthful way of putting it. But it doesn’t sound as good as “you’re in charge, treasured user.” And here is where journalists have to do their job better. It’s not just calling out BS statements like “you’re the best decider.” It’s recognizing that Facebook has chosen to go with “thin” legitimacy as its operating style, in contrast with “thicker” forms. (For more on this distinction go here.)

By “thin” I mean Facebook is operating within the law. The users are not completely powerless or kept wholly in the dark. They have to check the box on Facebook’s terms of service and that provides some cover. The company has pages like this one on data use that at least gesture toward some transparency. But as this summer’s controversy over the “mood manipulation” study showed, Facebook experiments on people without them knowing about it. That’s thin.

Jeff Hancock, the Cornell researcher who worked on the mood manipulation study, said this last week: One of his big discoveries was that most users don’t grasp the basic fact that the Facebook algorithm is a filter. They think it’s just an “objective window into their social world.” That’s thin too. (See my post about Hancock and his choices, Why do they give us tenure?) The company doesn’t level with users about the intensity of its drive to maximize time on site. Thin.

Thick legitimacy is where informed consent, active choice and clear communication prevail between a platform and its public, the coders and the users. Facebook simply does not operate that way. Many would argue that it can’t operate with thick legitimacy and run a successful business at scale. Exactly! As I said, the business model incorporates “thin” legitimacy as the normal operating style. For better or for worse, that’s how Facebook works. Reporters should know that, and learn how to handle attempts by Facebook speakers to evade this basic fact— especially from “one of the most influential people in the news business.”

 

Why do they give us tenure?

That's what I asked Jeff Hancock, the Cornell University professor who collaborated with Facebook on its 'emotional contagion' study, which subtly manipulated the news feeds of users to see if happier inputs made for sadder outputs. I also listened closely as he spoke of being in the center of an internet storm. Conclusion: I am not convinced.

25 Oct 2014 10:20 pm 13 Comments

The event was put on by the Data & Society think/do tank in New York, organized by danah boyd. Hancock’s talk was on-the-record, and I took a few notes. His remarks tracked closely with what he said in July at a Microsoft “faculty summit,” so I will use that text to help me represent what he said.

Summary of his presentation

Hancock told us he wanted to devote the next few years of his work to moving this discussion forward, by which he meant the ethics and transparency of big data research. He said he was especially concerned about the mistrust of science that the Facebook controversy had kicked up, “which I regret very deeply.” He said he didn’t want others to go through what he went through, a reference to the hate mail and threats directed at him once the study became famous on the internet.

The Facebook happy/sad study (my shorthand) had its origins in Hancock’s earlier work attempting to disprove a thesis in psychology: that “emotional contagion” — where one person “catches” an emotional mood from another without being aware of it — was unlikely to happen through text communication. He disagreed with that thesis. Facebook, he said, had followed his research because text updates are so important to the company.

In 2012 researchers at the company decided to test a claim commonly heard: that when users share happy news on Facebook (“I got a new job!” “We’re getting married!”) it makes others feel down about their own shabby lives. They got in touch with Hancock because they figured he would be interested in collaborating. (As Facebook’s Adam Kramer would later put it: “We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out.”)

You can see this history reflected in the abstract of the scientific paper that Kramer, Hancock and Jamie Guillory later published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

We show, via a massive (N = 689,003) experiment on Facebook, that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. We provide experimental evidence that emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people (exposure to a friend expressing an emotion is sufficient), and in the complete absence of nonverbal cues.

And in this finding:

…the fact that people were more emotionally positive in response to positive emotion updates from their friends, stands in contrast to theories that suggest viewing positive posts by friends on Facebook may somehow affect us negatively, for example, via social comparison

By the way, that number, N = 689,003, tells you a lot about why an academic researcher might want to collaborate with Facebook. Any study with 700,000 participants — actually, “subjects” is a better term because they didn’t know they were participating — is bound to look impressive because the large number of people whose reactions are being tested means extra validity for the results.

After reviewing the research design and the findings (showing a “contagion” effect but a very small one) Hancock turned to the reactions he received after news of the study broke on social media and in the press over the weekend of June 27-29, 2014, as well as his own reasoning for why he felt that doing the study was “okay.”

Here, his main point was that he didn’t anticipate the storm to come because in his mind the very slight manipulation of the News Feed met the “minimal risk of harm” test that permits academic researchers to proceed with an experiment even when subjects have not been informed about what is happening. It was minimal, he reasoned, because the Facebook algorithm manipulates News Feeds all the time, in far more dramatic ways than the “contagion” experiment.

The problem, he told us, was that users don’t know how the Facebook algorithm works. They are unaware that Facebook is manipulating and changing it constantly. They think they’re getting everything their friends and family are sending. As he said at the Microsoft event:

I’m not sure whether this means we need to bring in an education component to help people understand that their news feeds are altered all the time by Facebook? But the huge number of e-mails about people’s frustration that researchers would change the news feed indicates that there’s just no sense that the news feed was anything other than an objective window into their social world.

The other thing that stood out for him was just how personally people were taking this! The reactions he got made it clear to Hancock that the Facebook News Feed wasn’t just entertainment or trivia but… something bigger, deeper. Here he drew a contrast between media depictions making fun of social media as “what I had for lunch today,” and what angry emailers told him during the storm. Here’s how he put it in July:

This surfaced a theme that the news isn’t just about what people are having for breakfast or all the typical mass media put-downs of Twitter and Facebook. Rather, this thing that emerged about seven years ago [Facebook] is now really important to people’s lives. It’s central and integrated in their lives. And that was really important for me to understand. That was one of the things that caught me off guard, even though maybe in hindsight it shouldn’t have.

Later, during the question period, Hancock said that if he a “do-over,” he would not choose to do this study again. His reasoning in July:

I think our study violated people’s sense of autonomy and the fact that they do not want their emotions manipulated or mood controlled. And I think it’s a separate issue whether we think emotions are being manipulated all the time, through advertising, etc. What became very clear in the e-mail was that emotions are special… If we work on one of these special classes or categories of human experience, like emotion, without informed consent, without debriefing, we could do larger harm than just harm to participants.

Hancock described a harrowing experience at the center of the storm. The police came to his home to tell him, “we have to figure out how to keep you safe.” The president of Cornell University received calls demanding that he be fired. His family in Canada was contacted by Russian journalists who were trying to get to Hancock through them. He couldn’t sleep. He wondered if he had done something deeply wrong. The academic journal that published his study was considering whether to withdraw it, which would have been a huge blow to his reputation. He said he began to breathe more freely when a panel of scholarly peers split on whether the study violated research protocol, which said to him: These are tough issues. There is no consensus.

My impressions and reactions.

Now I’m going to shift from summarizing what Hancock said to telling you what I think— and what I asked him during the question period.

Disclosure: I have been critical of Jeff Hancock (see here and here.) And while I did gain more sympathy for him by hearing about his experience, and a better understanding of his work by learning about his scholarly background, I’m not at all convinced. More on that in a moment.

Still, I give Hancock a lot of credit for coming to talk to skeptical colleagues, for permitting the session to be on-the-record, for admitting that he wouldn’t do the “contagion” study again, for acknowledging other failures of imagination, for being personable and contrite, and for recognizing that lots of people have lots of problems with what he and Facebook did. No one should have to experience threats to personal for safety for having conducted an academic study, and none of us can predict how we would react in that situation.

As fellow faculty, a colleague, I feel I owe Jeff Hancock my considered opinion about his public performance and scholarly reasoning, even as I recognize that in the center of an internet storm we are not only professionals in a field, but human beings with fears for ourselves and our families. So here is what I think: I’m not convinced.

I’m not convinced that Hancock knew enough about Facebook and its users to even wander into this territory. It’s really kind of shocking to hear a social psychologist and scholar of communication express surprise that users of Facebook take their News Feeds very personally. That’s like saying: “I learned something from my experience. People are serious about this ‘friends and family’ thing. It’s not just a phone company slogan!” We expect you to know that about people before you start experimenting on them.

The relevant contrast is not between emailers informing Jeff Hancock that their News Feed feels quite personal to them and ill-informed press accounts making fun of social media, which is how he framed it, but between a nuanced and studied understanding of something, a pre-condition for scholarly work, and a lazy, person-on-the-street level of knowledge, which is what he essentially admitted to.

I’m also not convinced that Hancock is the man to be “leading a series of discussions among academics, corporate researchers and government agencies” about putting right what was revealed to be wrong by the Facebook study. His experience may be a case study in the need for change. It does not qualify him to convene the change discussion.

Part of the reason I say that involves his decision-making in the six-week interval between the weekend when the controversy broke, June 27-29, and August 12, when he surfaced as a reformer in this New York Times article. Hancock disappeared from the public sphere during this time, while other players made statements and answered at least some of the questions that angry users and alert journalists were asking. That’s not leadership. That’s the opposite of leadership. And this is what I asked him about.

My question to Hancock

I’m going to reproduce my question here. It’s not verbatim, I have added a few details and links, but it’s essentially the same thing I said in the Union Square Ventures conference room October 23rd.

Thanks for doing this, Jeff. My question is simple: why do they give us tenure? But it requires some explanation. In June, Cornell sent out a press release about your study. (“‘Emotional contagion’ sweeps Facebook.”) Clearly it was proud of the work one of its faculty members had done. By definition, the purpose of a press release is to invite publicity and discussion in the public sphere. I’m sure no one anticipated how much attention your study would receive, but still: the invitation was there.

When the world heard about your study, finding a lot to question in it, you absented yourself from that debate for more than six weeks. But this is the very discussion that you told us — today — you want to lead! One of your co-authors, Adam Kramer, tried to address some of the questions in a Facebook post. The editor of the article you published, Susan Fiske, spoke to the press about her decision-making. Cornell addressed the controversy in a statement it released on June 30. But you said nothing on Facebook, the platform where the research was done. You were silent on Twitter. (I was checking.) You wrote nothing on any blog. You cancelled interviews with journalists.

The issues you say you want to work on over the next few years were very much alive in that six week period. People were paying attention to them! Now I recognize that a lot of the attention was ill-intentioned, over-the-top, angry and threatening and very far from the ideal of a calm and rational discussion. I recognize that you felt under attack. But still: I don’t understand your decision-making.

So I ask again: why do they give us tenure? What’s the deal? Is it just: we can’t lose our jobs if people hate what we say? Or do they give us tenure precisely so we can participate in the debate when our work comes under scrutiny and a white hot controversy erupts in the public sphere?

In reply to me, Jeff Hancock said he had never really thought about what tenure was for before all this happened. Beyond that, his response came down to: I was freaked out, I had no training or experience with this, and didn’t know what to do. So I kept quiet. He said he asked some colleagues about whether to respond publicly, including danah boyd. He got requests to go on TV but turned them down. He added that he could have posted a public note that he would not be commenting for a while but didn’t.

I can understand all that. I can sympathize with it. I can recognize — as I’ve tried to do so several times in this post — that he was in a difficult spot, undergoing a trial that few of us can imagine. Nonetheless, I’m not convinced. Based on what I heard last week, I don’t think he knew what to say back to people who had said to him: “How dare you manipulate my news feed!” (Hancock’s paraphrase.) His thoughts on the matter (how did I dare to…?) were superficial— and unfortunately they still are. He has an account, but didn’t go on Facebook to explain, as Adam Kramer (untenured) did. Perhaps because his own ignorance of lived experience on the platform would have been revealed. He was happy to promote his work on Twitter…

…Unhappy when Twitter turned against him. I’m sorry, but I don’t think this is the deal for professors with tenure and academic freedom operating in the public sphere and conducting research about social media. Unlike most of the American work force, we can’t lose our jobs for speaking up. So we speak up when our work is questioned. If people don’t understand how we do our studies, we try to explain how we operate. When the press is suddenly interested in our research, we pick the right forum and answer the questions as best we can. If a lot of the attacks are in bad faith, we find the critics acting in good faith and respond to them.

And if we don’t have answers when the lights are on and reputations are made, well, maybe we’re not the best people to be leading a public discussion about big data and modern society.

(Other participants who were there may want to add their notes about what Jeff Hancock said or give their impressions. Please use the comments for that. And if you want to correct me about anything, please do.)

First Look Media: a personal update

In November of last year, I said that I was joining First Look Media, Pierre Omidyar's start-up, as a (paid) advisor. Today, I am announcing that I am no longer involved in First Look.

10 Oct 2014 12:31 pm 2 Comments

There is no drama and not much of a story to it. After the first six months of giving shape to the new company, the founders and editors simply didn’t have a lot for me to do. Meanwhile, it was difficult for me to comment or write about First Look because I was officially involved in it. I had joined in confidential discussions and was occasionally paid for my participation in planning. Over the summer that kind of work trailed off because First Look has a much clearer sense of where it is going now.

What did not change is the atmosphere of mutual respect between me and Pierre Omidyar, Glenn Greenwald, John Temple, Dan Froomkin, Bill Gannon, Andy Carvin and many others employed by this growing enterprise. I was never an employee, only an advisor but I felt honored to be there as it took shape. I recently concluded that I could do more for First Look by writing about it from the outside, and I met with John Temple — president of the company — to let him know that.

So this parting is entirely amicable. And it was my initiative. Now I am eager to see what First Look becomes as it emerges into fuller form. Special thanks to Pierre Omidyar for letting me hang around and contribute to his idea for a new kind of news organization. I wish him and everyone he brings on board the best of luck as they bring that (still fascinating) idea to life.

UPDATE, Oct. 30, 2014: Yesterday, Matt Taibbi left First Look Media. He was supposed to debut soon his new site about corruption in finance and politics called Racket. Today, The Intercept published The Inside Story of Matt Taibbi’s Departure from First Look Media. I am glad this happened. It shows that editorial independence is not just a concept, but a reality. I agree with Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Jeremy Schahill and John Cook that “the departure of the popular former Rolling Stone writer is a serious setback for First Look in its first year of operations.”

As a former adviser to the company, I want to take slight issue with one part of that post, while welcoming the rest as a much needed act of transparency. This is the part I mean:

A few months later, over the summer, Omidyar told employees that he was “re-tooling” the company’s focus and building a laboratory environment to foster the development of new technologies for delivering and consuming news—the idea, he said at the time, was to orient the company more toward “products,” as opposed to “content.”

I don’t think the relevant distinction was “products” vs. “content,” although it’s possible those terms were used. Rather, the key difference is between starting with the journalism that deserves to be done, then finding the maximum number of users for it, and starting with a community of users that is poorly served, then figuring out what kind of journalism — what sort of news product — might best meet their needs. In both cases, the quality of the editorial work is vital to success. But the content is derived in a different way. For more on this distinction, go here.

I could be wrong, but I think Pierre Omidyar and John Temple want both approaches to characterize First Look.

“Talk to the critics…” The Chuck Todd plan to restore trust in Meet the Press.

A disgusted viewer and longtime critic of the Sunday shows — that would be me — interviews NBC's Chuck Todd about his attempt to remake the most famous of those shows.

9 Oct 2014 8:06 pm 26 Comments

1. PressThink: You told Breitbart that your interview with them was “a step in the rehabilitation of my business… Talk to the critics. Talk to the skeptics.” We’ll get to the other steps in that rehabilitation later, but what’s the thinking behind this step? What are you hoping will happen if you do “talk to the critics, talk to the skeptics?”

Meet the Press - Season 67Chuck Todd: I think there are too many folks in my business who are too defensive and desperately hope things return to the so-called “good old days.” The media landscape has changed. We need to adapt. We need to acknowledge new players. When I say it’s time to talk to the critics and the skeptics, it means engaging, hearing new ideas. Perhaps incorporating some or dismissing some but at least explaining why. Have the two-way conversation. A lot of media critics don’t know what happens behind the scenes and sometimes that does matter. For instance, just because we don’t air a story, doesn’t mean we didn’t report it out. Just didn’t deem it worth airing.

2. PressThink: You mean the “good old days” of one-way media without a lot of choice for the users?

Chuck Todd: Exactly. Look, I have an incredible platform, I get that. But that doesn’t mean we are the only game in town. We have to acknowledge the entire landscape, maybe even change how we report. For instance, in the “good old days,” not reporting a story that didn’t pan out was enough to make sure an untrue story didn’t make it into the eco-system. Now, there are a number of ways untrue stories can go public. We in the so-called MSM should be willing to report what is not true, rather than ignoring and claiming that “well, we didn’t deem it worthy” and therefore don’t have a responsibility for debunking someone else’s rumor. I’m not sure we can defend not sharing publicly what we know is true and false.

3. PressThink: Would you agree with me that “he said, she said” reporting (and “he said, she said” roundtables!) have been a disaster for public confidence in the press?

Chuck Todd: Of course. I think there is no such thing as “fair and balanced.” It’s simply “fair.” As for whether it is a disaster? I think the disaster is how the politicians play into this. It’s a two-way street. My philosophy is trying to make sure different perspectives are represented when it comes to opinion about the political landscape, but this should not get in the way of facts.

4. PressThink: The words are said to be Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s, “You have a right to your own opinion. You do not have a right to your own facts.” But if there’s one place on the dial where it seems that important people do have a right to their own facts, it’s the Sunday morning talk shows. How did that happen? Where did it go wrong? What was the fatal moment or crossing point?

Chuck Todd: Where to begin. I think the advent of advocacy TV interviewers being available helped accelerate this a bit. Then you have the coordinated campaigns on the left and right to pressure news organizations on balance. ChuckMTP3And too many executives in general felt the heat enough to then decide “make everything he said, she said” because it was deemed politically safe. Realize: there is an industry out there that feels their job is to try and create doubt about the MSM with partisans, and it really is a business decision in order to drive folks to their own POV programming.

I think there are some true disagreements over facts that we shouldn’t pretend don’t exist. For instance, when it comes to tax policy, the disagreement on facts comes from assumptions about consumer behavior that can change over time and not be something you can pin down as factually accurate. And let me add one more thing. As for the change on Sundays over time, I think the overall pressure from cable when cable went daily with political discussions pushed folks in charge of Sunday shows to emulate cable.

5. PressThink: Which is how Jon Stewart became your most effective critic. His show is essentially about the excesses and stupidity of the cable news formula.

Chuck Todd: Cable news has become an easy target, that’s for sure. I prided myself on how little my cable show ended up as an example. Of course, you don’t get credit for that.

6. PressThink: You said this to the Daily Beast:

I think there is this perception that the American public has about Washington right now—and they’ve thrown all of us in the media with it—that we’re out of touch. We don’t understand what’s going on. We’re all caught up in the process of the Acela Corridor. Being in Washington, we’re not experiencing what the folks ‘between the Fives’ are experiencing. We got caught up in that Washington-New York mind-set.

From what I can tell by doing my homework and by watching the show you have four answers to this problem:

One is: you’re not a Washington insider yourself, by background at least. Middle class kid from Miami, not a creature of the Acela corridor. “I’ve got my own kitchen cabinet of relatives who’ve had to live through some of the hard realities of this recession,” you have said.

Second answer: Political journalists can regain credibility by showing that they “get it,” which for you means listening to people beyond the Fives (Interstate 95 on the East Coast, I-5 in California) and then translating — that’s the key word for you, translating — their anxiety and frustration into tough questions for public officials.

A third answer is to hear more often from people involved in politics “out there” between the Fives, who are not close at hand in Washington, as with your conversation with three mayors from other cities about what’s working elsewhere.

Fourth answer: Diversify the guest list. No more “elected pundits,” office holders who are simply repeating what they read on the op-ed page. Broaden the mix, as with John Stanton of Buzzfeed or Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas.

So I have several questions about the Chuck Todd plan to restore trust in Sunday morning political television. First. What did I miss?

Chuck Todd: You have done your homework. Relevancy— that’s the only other thing I’d add. Try to make sure we’re relevant to what the country should be understanding about what’s going on.

7. PressThink: How do you think political journalism, your profession, became over-identified with the politicians and insiders themselves? You’ve said that voters and viewers now lump you and your colleagues in with the people who have made a mess of politics. How did that happen?

Chuck Todd: The one-two punch of the Iraq War and the recession. Basically two huge things that the folks in charge blew and we in “the media” appeared to go along in only explaining the government’s side of “why.” So Iraq started eroding trust, then the recession nearly finished the job on trust erosion, thanks to the glorification of Wall Street by the media in general over the ’90s and early 21st century. Toss in the fact that we in the media lived in the two areas of the country that did not experience the recession, and it’s a toxic stew. Since the folks who were at fault never got punished, the media didn’t appear to be on the public’s side, but instead looked to be collectively on the side of the elites.

8. PressThink: So if I understand that answer, smart people in political journalism should have realized that the near total lack of accountability for these huge disasters was going to come back on them, that they weren’t doing enough to perform in the watchdog role they hold out for themselves. Is that a fair summary?

Chuck Todd: Yes. And let me stipulate, perhaps it is easy for me to backseat drive. I wasn’t covering the White House at the time. I was covering the political landscape, covering elections for a trade publication, then behind the scenes here [at NBC News] doing similar work. I’d like to think that when given the opportunity, I would have been more skeptical; but sometimes for beat reporters, seeing the forest can be difficult, no matter how hard you try. I now have an opportunity to constantly be the person that is hopefully seeing the forest too.

9. PressThink: I would remind you that your predecessor, David Gregory, said several times that he thought the press did a fine job in the run-up to the Iraq War, that all the important questions were asked, that criticism including Washington journalists in the list of institutions that failed is misplaced. I found that astonishing, that he would continue to say that in retrospect. Did you?

Chuck Todd: He was a daily beat reporter. I’m sure he and others did ask plenty of skeptical questions. But that skepticism didn’t always make it on air or in print and then I don’t know how editors and producers were treating those questions once the reporters made it on air or in print. It’s not an excuse, just explaining that there is a way for both things to be true.

Let’s also remember, this doesn’t happen without a slew of political leaders all marching to the same drum, all using the same sources to justify their positions. But this is where the anger at the press began. We’re mad that the politicians lied or misled us either on purpose or accident. But sadly, maybe the public expects politicians to lie or mislead. What they want is a press corps to help them hold these folks accountable, especially after the fact.

10. PressThink: I have been a faithful viewer of the Sunday shows for more than 20 years, and I felt my own frustration grow during that span. One thing that jumps out at me as a critic who switches among them is the unbelievable uniformity of these shows, not only in basic format but in the guest list, the questions, the topics. When Fox and CNN entered this derby with Chris Wallace and Candy Crowley, their shows were almost carbon copies of Meet the Press, Face the Nation, and This Week on ABC. It’s like a single mind is producing them, but it has 50 pairs of feet. If you’re going to change that, it seems to me the first step is to figure out: how does that happen, that kind of group think. So why do you think it happened?

Chuck Todd: Well, TV has a history of copying what works. When CNN and Fox came along, they looked at what was working (in this case MTP was number 1) and that became the formula to copy. This has happened in the radio and TV biz (both news side and entertainment) since the day after Marconi invented it (I kid, sort of.) Now, the issue of booking has become a lot more complicated, even more than I realized before I took this job. An amazing number of folks simply are afraid to go out on the Sunday shows, so there’s that.

As for the topics, I am trying to change that. I think there is an expectation (and as a viewer, I would have it) that the Sunday shows delve into the most important issue of the day or week, and we are living in a big news period so I imagine you won’t see the diversity of topics for the leads of these shows. ChuckMTP4But where I’m trying to do things differently is at least have diversity of topics in the middle of the show. Use that space, frankly, to experiment with what works and what doesn’t. But to not be afraid. I did the tax cuts segment (using Kansas as the backdrop) a few weeks back, about a week before the New York Times and others did. Don’t think any other show has even done it yet. Specifically, the issue of how the Kansas governor’s race could actually change the tax debate. That’s a big deal and could change the tax debate in Washington and all 50 states.

11. PressThink: Here’s another thing that really puzzles me about the Sunday shows. I get why you have the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee on when Obama is about to go to Congress for authorization. He’s a player. I don’t get why a certain class of insiders — professional operatives, paid manipulators, official mouthpieces, “party strategists” — are regularly invited on. I don’t think they should ever be on.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Reince Priebus. Mike Murphy. Bob Shrum. Four names that stand for many more. We know going in they’re not going to be anything but boosters for their side. I mean, if you wanted to stoke people’s frustration with politics, a perfect medium for that would be a “he said, she said” segment with Wasserman Schultz and Priebus, which has happened in past years on Meet the Press. You just had Priebus and Murphy on last month. I don’t get it, Chuck. The whole practice makes no sense to me. Can you explain?

Chuck Todd: I think it’s unfair to lump some of these folks into one category. Priebus is the head of the GOP; he attempted to release a series of principles that I think was designed to be the GOP’s message for the midterms. He’s the head of the party. The party is trying to win the senate, so it seemed appropriate to probe that. He was relevant that week. I agree, you don’t just put him on because, well, “I need a GOPer,” why not him? There has to be a reason. He unveiled something that appeared to be an attempt to be a sequel to the 1994 Contract with America. So it’s worth questioning him.

As for the use of political strategists, some are good and plugged in and have information that will help the viewer understand the why. For instance, why a party or a candidate is doing something. Murphy is someone who isn’t predictable when it comes to assessing his own party. And he understands campaigns at a granular level that can be helpful to the viewer who wants clarity and the answer to the question “why.” I understand your larger complaint, and that is, folks who spout the most predictable answers. If I thought Murphy was doing that, I wouldn’t use him.

12. PressThink: Do you think you are part of the professional political class? Would you include yourself in it?

Chuck Todd: I don’t think any political reporters should be categorized in that, and I wouldn’t want to be classified in that group. I’m not an operative. I’m a reporter and analyst.

13. PressThink: Amy Davidson of the New Yorker said something I found interesting in a review of your first show:

“Meet the Press” has been on the air since 1947; Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan each appeared on it seven times, Obama a dozen. It trades in a sense that it’s an important thing for important people to do. Todd, too, has probably been reminded more than once that a large part of his job is theatre. And Todd is good at it, in a character-actor sort of way, which is probably the best approach; it leaves open the possibility of acting up.

What I found interesting is her suggestion that Meet the Press is theatre, not in the negative sense of “show business” when it should be serious, but more in the positive sense of: drama, urgency and an acting out of the country’s passions through politics. So my question is: can Meet the Press be good theatre and how do you make it so?

Chuck Todd: I can’t escape the fact that most folks will only judge the show’s success by numbers, not by content. I happen to think the content will drive the numbers over time; so that’s my bet and clearly my bosses are making that bet. I’m not exactly someone who was created in a TV lab. But right now, there is a tendency to try and be splashy and so urgent that it risks actually under-cutting what a Sunday show should be and what viewers actually want, which is content and clarity. That said, you have to be watchable.

Mary Poppins had it right: just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. I love politics and I respect the potential our democracy provides us. I want more folks to care about what’s happening. Part of that is to help them understand the game (when necessary) and then help connect the game to the impact on their lives and on the Republic as a whole. So, I want to make the show watchable and fulfilling. Does that mean some will think we are creating “good theater?” Perhaps, but if that so-called theater helps give context and clarity, then it’s worth it.

14. PressThink: It seems to me that one of the most powerful things a show like your could do is bring into legitimate debate people, causes, ideas and problems that have been placed in the “sphere of deviance” or marginalized by the rest of the political class and by journalists. As in literally never spoken of in power circles. Is this something that has occurred to you, since you are overhauling Meet the Press?

Chuck Todd: 1,000 percent. I have a list of these issues that I want to get to. It is why I keep bringing up the middle of the show concept. So the show doesn’t change at the top with the important news of the day/week, but [we] use the platform to also introduce topics that haven’t been touched (or dealt with in a while.)

Look, on this, you are preaching to the choir. The challenge I’m discovering: it takes time to produce the show you want. This is an aircraft carrier. I’m turning it. Come back in six months and let’s assess how I’ve done.

PressThink: Fair enough!

* * *

My commentary: I think you have to give Chuck Todd some credit. He realizes the Sunday shows have failed. He knows they have to change. If he doesn’t change Meet the Press enough, he can be criticized for that. He understands that viewers and voters regard Washington journalists as part of the political class, even though he does not see himself that way. What interested me most was his reply to question 7. Journalists as a class failed to appreciate how they participated in the utter lack of accountability for the failures in Iraq and after the financial crisis, he said. Most people in his profession are still in denial about that. Chuck Todd is not. I was disappointed in his answer to No. 11 on the “professional operatives, paid manipulators, official mouthpieces, and party strategists.” I think that’s where he showed himself to be trapped in his professional skin. He didn’t understand my question about “good theatre” (no. 13.) He treated it as: how do you get viewers to eat their vegetables? (Spoon full of sugar, natch.) But that was my fault. I should have clarified it, and re-asked. Slipped up there. He had a robust reply to No. 14 on “the sphere of deviance,” pledging to — in effect — give voice to the voiceless. That’s impressive, and something we can hold him accountable for. Amy Davidson’s characterization is right on. Chuck Todd is more of a character actor than a “leading man” type. That makes him less predictable. But it leaves open the question of what kind of character he intends to be.

Photo credit: Pete Williams, NBC. Used by permission.

Some old-fashioned blogging in the link-and-comment style

Bring back the fun. Scott Rosenberg — who literally wrote the book on it — says blogging is enjoying something of a revival lately.

6 Sep 2014 10:42 pm 9 Comments

Nicholas Carr senses a mood of exhaustion with what he calls Big Internet.

By Big Internet, I mean the platform- and plantation-based internet, the one centered around giants like Google and Facebook and Twitter and Amazon and Apple. Maybe these companies were insurgents at one point, but now they’re fat and bland and obsessed with expanding or defending their empires. They’ve become the Henry VIIIs of the web. And it’s starting to feel a little gross to be in their presence.

“Bring back personal blogs. Bring back RSS. Bring back the fun. Screw Big Internet,” Carr writes. In a follow-up post, Rosenberg speculates that as “waves of smart people hit the limits of their frustration with Twitter and Facebook, many will look around and realize, hey, this blogging thing still makes a great deal of sense.”

After this episode — Twitter flirting with a filtered feed — I am feeling that way myself. One good thing about a revival, as against a trend: fewer journalists rushing to declare the revival “over.”

Hit piece bombs. Almost everyone who has tried to “take down” Glenn Greenwald, as opposed to just criticizing him, has wound up looking bad in front of his journalistic colleagues. Memorable examples include David Gregory and Andrew Ross Sorkin. This week Politico published an embarrassing attempt at a take down by Michael Hirsh. Has Greenwald, Inc. Peaked?

“Politico Magazine’s Michael Hirsh has written a hit piece on Glenn Greenwald. It is terrible,” wrote the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple. For example, the headline “signals that Hirsh doesn’t want to stand behind his convictions but just wants to trial-balloon them for clicks.” Gawker’s Tom Scocca explained what Politico was up to:

Under the rules of the buzz process, once a person or entity—Mike Huckabee, The Help, the panoptical security state—has been established as the subject of sustained public attention, the eventual next step is to inform the public that the public is no longer interested. This generates new attention. Ups and downs.

Just as Politico wants to be the first to say something is a trend, it wants to be first to notice what’s “over.” This is rather different from trying to figure out what’s actually going on. (Disclosure.)

You cannot be serious. I’ve been marveling at this all week. On Sep. 1, Frank Bruni, who occupies expensive real estate on the op-ed page of the New York Times for no reason I can detect, dropped on us a column claiming that Obama was weak in responding to the threat from ISIS. Nothing remarkable in that; dozens of other columnists were saying the same thing. But watch:

He’s adopted a strange language of self-effacement, with notes of defeatism, reminding us that “America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything”; that we must be content at times with singles and doubles in lieu of home runs; that not doing stupid stuff is its own accomplishment.

This is all true. It’s in tune with our awareness of our limits. And it reflects a prudent disinclination to repeat past mistakes and overreach.

But that doesn’t make it the right message for the world’s lone superpower (whether we like it or not) to articulate and disseminate. That doesn’t make it savvy, constructive P.R.

Dig it: Obama is speaking truthfully, treating us as adults, and being prudent, but there’s a problem because Bruni wants better P.R. Is this what we need journalists for? He quotes two other journalists, Karen DeYoung and Dan Balz of the Washington Post, making the same point. Obama, they said, was speaking candidly but in no way projected “an image of presidential resolve or decisiveness.”

This style of analysis is so common among American journalists that it passed by without comment. As your blogger, I cannot allow that. Worrying about image projection and the degree of savviness in the Administration’s P.R., asking “Where are your infantilization skills, Mr. President?”— these are signs of a press corps that can be deeply unserious about international politics.

And there’s another problem. Bruni’s column, which couldn’t have taken more than 45 minutes to produce, is a sign that people at the New York Times still don’t get it. By “it” I mean the economic age they are living through. The value added for this kind of writing is essentially zero. It does not bring a new perspective. It does not add any previously unknown facts. There is nothing distinctive in the analysis. It is all professional reflex (which is why I wrote about it.) The New York Times thinks it can still afford commodity opinion on its op-ed page. That is incorrect.

When quoting both sides and leaving it there is the riskier call

If the weight of the evidence allows you to make a judgment, but instead you go with "he said, she said," you're behaving recklessly even as you tell yourself you're doing the cautious thing.

19 Aug 2014 5:23 pm 12 Comments

It’s my job to notice when a piece of standard brand pressthink “flips” around and no longer works as intended. I have one.

For a very long time, the logic behind “he said, she said” journalism, and “get both sides,” as well as, “I’m sorry, but we’ll have to leave it there” was that operating this way would reduce risk to a news publisher’s reputation. (See my 2009 post.) When you have both sides speaking in your account, you’re protecting yourself against charges of favoring one or the other. By not “choosing” a side — by not deciding who’s right — you’re safer.

You’re safer because you could be wrong if you choose, so why choose? You’re safer because even if you’re not wrong you can be accused of bias, and who needs that? You’re safer because people will always argue about [fill in some bitterly contested narrative here] and you don’t want to be a contestant in that. In the middle is safe. Neither/nor is safe. Not having a view of the matter is safe… Right?

Increasingly that is not right. More and more — but not always — the “no position” position is the chancier move, especially when disputes turn on factual questions and checkable claims. A newsroom that goes with “he said, she said” when a call can be made is engaged in reckless behavior that may easily blow up in its face. That wasn’t true ten years ago. But it is now.

Let me illustrate. On August 4, the New York Times ran this story: Reagan Book Sets Off Debate. It’s about Rick Perlstein’s new book, “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.” Much of the story talked about accusations of plagiarism aimed at Perlstein by Republican operative and Reagan biographer Craig Shirley. The Times used the classic “he said, she said” form. Shirley and his lawyer make accusations. Perlstein and his publisher defend themselves. The Times stays in the middle:

Mr. Perlstein, 44, suggested that the attack on his book is partly motivated by conservatives’ discomfort with his portrayal of Reagan. Mr. Shirley is president and chief executive of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, which represents conservative clients like Citizens United and Ann Coulter.

But Mr. Shirley and his lawyer contend that Mr. Perlstein paraphrased original research without properly giving credit. “The rephrasing of words without proper attribution is still plagiarism,” Mr. Shirley said in an interview.

The problem here is that the Times had what it needed to make a call. “Perlstein plagiarized Shirley” was a checkable claim. Shirley’s accusations were online. Perlstein’s source notes were online. The Times knows what plagiarism is. Its writers and editors have to guard against it every day. Under these conditions, “leaving it there” amounts to malpractice, even though it still feels like normal practice and, as I said, the safer choice.

The risk the Times was taking was exposed the following week. After receiving complaints from readers, the public editor, Margaret Sullivan, took a closer look. “We wrote about it because it was out there and thought we could take it head-on in the story,” said deputy media editor Bill Brink. “We did that in the most responsible way possible, and put it in context.”

The most responsible way possible? In Brink’s mind, maybe. But that’s the problem! “The Times conferred a legitimacy on the accusation it would not otherwise have had,” Sullivan wrote.

And while it is true that Mr. Perlstein and his publisher were given plenty of opportunity to respond, that doesn’t help much. It’s as if The Times is saying: “Here’s an accusation; here’s a denial; and, heck, we don’t really know. We’re staying out of it.” Readers frequently complain to me about this he said, she said false equivalency — and for good reason.

The readers are ahead of the editors. The old standard isn’t good enough. But that news hasn’t reached the middle managers in newsrooms who grew accustomed to reducing risk by leaving it there. Climate change is probably the most famous (and most serious) example of the shift I’m talking about. Where the weight of the evidence makes it possible to render a judgment, but instead you go with “he said, she said,” you are behaving recklessly even as you tell yourself you’re doing the cautious and responsible thing.

Last month, the Telegraph in the UK reported that 200 senior managers at the BBC had to be re-trained not to insert “false balance” into stories like climate change, where a call could be made. “The BBC’s determination to give a balanced view has seen it pit scientists arguing for climate change against far less qualified opponents such as Lord Lawson who heads a campaign group lobbying against the government’s climate change policies.” That’s a form of distortion, practiced by the BBC against itself. But instead of favoring one side, it pushes the account toward a phony midpoint. Still distortion, but it looks more innocent.

Editors have to be on the lookout for those points. They’re dangerous, as I’ve been telling the New York Times for… oh, about five years.