Politifact Chose the Vice of the Year but They Called it a Lie. That was Dumb.

You can get mad at your friends, right? I mean... that's allowed. I am mad at my friends at Politifact because I believe in what they are doing, I think it's important work, I've even helped them do it in a couple of small ways, and now they've gone and made it impossible for me to defend them when they're getting slammed.

22 Dec 2011 2:34 pm 6 Comments

By choosing as its lie of the year “Republicans voted to end Medicare,” Politfact took an arguable point and tried to turn into a lie. Big mistake. They hurt the Politifact project by doing that. I wish they hadn’t.

The reason I think they were wrong is not that I see the statement, “Republicans voted to end Medicare” as indisputably true. It’s more the opposite: this is a very disputable claim. Jonathan Chait’s analysis matches my own:

The Republican budget would very dramatically change Medicare. The plan would turn a single-payer system into vouchers for private insurance, and the value of those vouchers would fall steadily behind the cost of that insurance, so that within a relatively short time it would cover only a small fraction of the cost of insurance.

Is that “ending Medicare?” Well, it’s a matter of opinion. At some point, a change is dramatic enough that it is clearly ending the program. If you proposed to replace Medicare with a plan to give everybody two free aspirin on their 65th birthday, I would hope Politfact would concede that this would be “ending Medicare,” even if you call the free aspirin “Medicare.” On the other hand, small tweaks could not accurately be called “ending Medicare.” Between those two extremes, you have gray areas where you can’t really say with certainty whether a change is radical enough to constitute ending Medicare.

Does the Republican plan indeed end Medicare? I would argue yes. But it’s obviously a question of interpretation, not fact. And the whole problem with Politifact’s “Lie of the Year” is that it doesn’t grasp this distinction

Right. The Economist pointed out another problem, which is that Lie of the Year says something about an intention to deceive. “The finalists are presented as lies rather than inaccurate statements or misinterpretations.”

This is an important distinction because, with regard to the Medicare claim, both sides could well be sincere: Democrats believe Republicans are trying to kill Medicare, and Republicans believe they aren’t. And while both sides have a political interest—senior citizens are diligent voters—let’s posit that there are Republicans who sincerely believe the best way to steward the country, and to guarantee some health care to the future elderly, is to reform the system to bring down entitlement costs. In other words, if insincerity or deliberate deception is a defining feature of a lie, then it may be that neither side is lying, regardless of who is correct.

It’s fair for Politifact to point out that “Republicans voted to end Medicare” isn’t as accurate as it could be. It’s fair to observe that adding a qualifier like, “Republicans voted to end Medicare as we’ve known it…” makes it more kosher. It’s fair to criticize those Democrats who have spoken less precisely than they could have about the change that Congressman Paul Ryan proposed. It’s fair to point to the inglorious history of scaring senior citizens rather than solving real problems. And it’s fair to hold up as virtuous more cautious statements, as Politifact did here:

President Barack Obama was also more precise with his words, saying the Medicare proposal “would voucherize the program and you potentially have senior citizens paying $6,000 more.”

My verdict: I don’t think Politifact chose a lie of the year in 2011. Their sights were set on something different, and they erred by calling it what they called it. They wanted to point out how far from virtuous the behavior of some Democrats was in reaction to the Ryan plan. They were standing up for the idea of scrupulous debate. They were saying: Be more careful! Because if you are not careful, you can scare people unnecessarily. Don’t go for the easy line! Be strict with yourself! Stay virtuous…

But the object of their criticism wasn’t a lie, it was a vice. They chose the vice of the year, and they called it a lie, which violates one of the ideas Politifact stands for: if things cannot be called by their right names, public discussion itself becomes impossible.


The Ten Best Things I Wrote in 2011

My version of a year end review. These are the highlights from my writing and posting life this year. They are in chronological order: earliest to latest. I have included Facebook likes as a rough proxy for reader interest

18 Dec 2011 3:52 pm 8 Comments

1. The “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” Article (PressThink, Feb. 13, 2011) “Almost everyone who cares about such a discussion is excited about the Internet. Almost everyone is a little wary of being fooled by The Amazing and getting carried away. When we nod along with Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators we’re assuring ourselves that our excitement is contained, that we’re being realistic, mature, grown-up about it.”

One of my favorite forms of criticism: the genre analysis. In this case, a genre that drives me up the wall. The context is the Arab Spring and social media’s role in it.

Facebook Likes: 219.

2. They Brought a Tote Bag to a Knife Fight: The Resignation of NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller. (PressThink, March 10, 2011) “The people committed to NPR’s destruction are greatly emboldened, its staff is demoralized, the board has shown that it can be rolled, and as far as I can tell no one with any platform within the public media system is willing to take on the people committed to its destruction.”

Made more significant for me by the fact that later in the year, I faced the same kind of culture war attack, engineered by the same person. (Link.)

Facebook Likes: 476.

3. The Twisted Psychology of Bloggers vs. Journalists: My Talk at South By Southwest. (PressThink, March 12, 2011) “Disruptions caused by the Internet threaten to expose certain buried conflicts at the heart of modern journalism and a commercialized press. Raging at bloggers is a way to keep these demons at bay. It exports inner conflicts to figures outside the press. Also–and this is important–bloggers and journalists are each other’s ideal ‘other.’”

In this piece I try to explain why the tension between bloggers vs. journalists hasn’t gone away.

Facebook Likes: 209.

4. What I Think I Know About Journalism. (PressThink, April 26, 2011) “It comes down to these four ideas. 1. The more people who participate in the press the stronger it will be. 2. The profession of journalism went awry when it began to adopt the View from Nowhere. 3. The news system will improve when it is made more useful to people. 4. Making facts public does not a public make; information alone will not inform us…”

To mark 25 years of teaching journalism at NYU I decided to write down the four things I think I really know about it.

Facebook Likes: 587.

5. The Internet is Making Journalism Better: Opening Statement. (The Economist, July 12, 2011) “The internet is replacing a system in which a small number of gatekeepers employed by a heavily capitalised industry that tended towards monopoly held almost all the powers of the press. In that system the ‘job’ of the audience was to remain in their seats, atomized and inert, as the professional journalist delivered news, entertainment, politics, sport, understanding, debate: public life in a package.”

Part of a debate I had at The Economist site with skeptic Nicholas Carr. I took the side that the Internet is making journalism better. Carr said: no, worse.

Facebook Likes: not available.

6. Why Political Coverage is Broken. (PressThink, Aug. 26, 2011) “This is what’s so odd about savviness as a political style performed for the public. It tries to split the attentive public off from the rest of the electorate, and get us to join up with the insiders. Under its gaze, other people become objects of political technique. In this sense savviness is an attack on our solidarity with strangers who share the same political space.”

This talk I gave at the Melbourne Writer’s festival is part of the background for the announcement this month of my collaboration with The Guardian to improve campaign coverage. (Link.)

Facebook Likes: 876.

7. We Have No Idea Who’s Right: Criticizing “he said, she said” journalism at NPR. (PressThink, Sep. 15, 2011) “According to this report, NPR has no idea who is right. It cannot provide listeners with any help in sorting through such a dramatic conflict in truth claims. It knows of no way to adjudicate these clashing views. It is simply confused and helpless and the best it can do is pass on that helplessness to listeners of Morning Edition.”

This critique of NPR brought a response from the ombudsman that allowed me to add to my criticisms.

Facebook Likes: 624.

8. “Low information voters” and the political press. (PressThink, Nov. 17, 2011) “What if journalists sense that their work never reaches the voters whose inattentiveness is being exploited? What if they somehow know that voters are getting screwed but they’ve lost faith in their ability to do anything about it?”

Pro journalists don’t have a lot of patience for theory. Which means they if they have a broken theory, they wouldn’t necessarily know it. That’s what this post is about.

Facebook Likes: 87.

9. Occupy PressThink: Tim Pool (Nov. 20, 2011) “Being a livestream he acts as ‘eyes and ears’ for the viewers. Literally. People will tell him to move the camera somewhere and he’ll do it. They’ll ask for interviews with someone, and Tim will go over and do so… The viewers will ask him questions and he won’t rest until he gets them their answers.”

Citizen journalism takes a lot of abuse. But here’s a case where it shines, fulfilling the Max Headroom prophecy. (Link.)

Facebook Likes: 138.

10. News Corp is Bad News (The Drum, Nov. 21, 2011) “News Corp is not a news company at all but a global media empire that employs its newspapers – and in the United States, Fox News – as a lobbying arm and intimidation machine. The logic of holding these ‘press’ properties is to wield influence on behalf of the (much bigger and more profitable) media business and also to satisfy Murdoch’s own power urges or, in the case of Australia, his patrimonial legends.”

Wherein I unfold my theory of why Murdoch’s news properties are so thinly committed to telling the truth.

Facebook Likes: not available.

Bonus links:

* Columbia Journalism Review ran a huge feature on what it called The Future of News gurus: primarily Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky and myself. The article is mostly, though not entirely, critical. See Confidence Game: The limited vision of the news gurus.

* In this 18 minute video, I explain how I follow the news on my “beat” (trends in journalism, press criticism, new media, digital culture) and curate my Twitter feed.

* This video (5:14) is my Ignite talk at Newsfoo 2011 in Phoenix. Ignite is a format where a speaker gets 20 slides that auto advance every 15 seconds. The title is The Abyss of Observation alone. It’s a kind of parable about the limits of objectivity in journalism, based on an old blog post of the same title.

The Citizens Agenda: A Plan to Make Election Coverage More Useful to People

I'm teaming up with The Guardian to try something different in campaign journalism. Here's the announcement post, with my commentary after it.

8 Dec 2011 8:05 am 16 Comments

The Citizens Agenda: Making Election Coverage More Useful
Co-published with The Guardian.

by Amanda Michel and Jay Rosen

In a few weeks, the Iowa caucuses will officially kick off the 2012 campaign for president and we’ll begin to get answers to the questions that obsess our political press: who’s gonna win? What is the winning strategy?

We’re equally obsessed with a different question: how can Americans get a “win” in the election of 2012? Meaning: the kind of dialogue they deserve, a campaign that connects to their deepest concerns and helps them make sense of the cascading problems now before the United States. And if you share our obsession, you can help us get started or follow along.

Presidential elections are a race – a marathon, as the exhausted candidate often says. They are national spectacles, not around the edges but at their core. Elections are comedies, too, a rolling entertainment. And so there has to be a place for horse race polls, game day coverage, personality journalism, political carnival, and even for front-page stories on the guy who cuts the candidate’s hair.

But we think it will be a loss for the public, and the press, if no revision is made in the master narrative for election coverage, which treats politics as a strategic game in order to ask – endlessly – what it’s going to take to win in 2012. That engine is by now exhausted. It cannot do the work we need the press to do if Americans are going to get the kind of debate they deserve. But what are the alternatives?

In 2008, the two of us teamed up with the Huffington Post to try to improve election coverage by broadening participation in it. We called that project OffTheBus. It relied on the public, people who were not political journalists, and thus not inside the campaign bubble. Who’s gonna win? was not their typical starting point. More like: where and how does this campaign touch my life? They covered those connecting points from small towns to big cities, offered a look inside their local campaign HQs, analyzed campaign expenditure data, sifted through campaign material for trends and anomalies, and profiled almost all of the so-called “super delegates,” who had a big role in the nomination battle that Barack Obama won. Just as Obama’s campaign empowered the grassroots, OffTheBus “let the roots guide its coverage.”

OffTheBus brought networking methods to campaign reporting and commentary. We eventually enlisted 12,000 people, partly on the strength of a simple idea: democracy is about participating, so let’s extend that principle to the campaign news system and see if we can make it work. We learned that there’s great potential in this kind journalism – imagine the expertise and observational powers of 12,000 pairs of eyes and ears – but also a long way to go. Fortunately, the Hufffington Post is going to continue with OffTheBus in 2012. We look forward to seeing what they do with it.

Meanwhile, we have another idea. We want to go right at the problem of an exhausted master narrative. It’s time to attempt a replacement – or replacements. So that is what Guardian US and NYU’s Studio 20 program in journalism are going to do in 2012, using some of what we learned from OffTheBus and also from The Guardian’s own experiments in pro-am and crowdsourced journalism. The alternative to who’s going to win in the game of getting elected? is, we think, a “citizens agenda” approach to campaign coverage. It starts with a question: what do voters want the candidates to be discussing as they compete with each other in 2012? If we can get enough people to answer to that question, we’ll have an alternative to election coverage as usual.

The Guardian’s over-arching commitment to an open and collaborative newsroom makes it a natural home for the citizens agenda. It recently unveiled guardiannews.com, announced its plans to report for a US audience, and has begun staffing up (We’re looking for a social media editor and a community coordinator). Here’s how Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of Guardian US, puts it:

Although The Guardian has had talented correspondents in the US for some time now and has covered many elections here, they have always been foreign correspondents, reporting back for a UK audience. Now we’ve launched in the US and are publishing to US readers, we wanted to make sure our coverage was distinctive and added something to the general noise and swirl of an election campaign. Our starting position was, ‘We’re new in town. How could we possibly pretend to know what the US electorate wants to hear from its prospective representatives?’ Best, in that circumstance, to ask the question, we thought.

The citizens agenda is a simple concept, and our approach is fairly straightforward: we aim to identify and articulate the citizens agenda, and to help set up The Guardian for its general election coverage by experimenting with citizens agenda features and approaches. Studio 20 students will work alongside The Guardian’s journalists in brainstorming, designing and managing features on guardiannews.com through early May 2012. Together we will arrive at the picture of how people want journalists to cover the election through a number of traditional and non-traditional methods, including sampling science, internet polling, web forms, social media, old fashioned reporting, discussions and debates, experimental features, plus staff and user-generated content. Starting in late January, when students are back in session and the primaries are presumably winding down, we will launch our first features. Between February and May we will iterate and edit our approach.

Working parallel to The Guardian’s project will be local newsrooms doing essentially the same thing, but for statewide and local elections. The Media News and Journal Register companies, under the joint management of Digital First Media, plan to develop the citizens agenda approach in their own election coverage, collaborating with The Guardian on the best ways to discern what voters want the campaign to be about.

We hope that other local news organizations will want to join in as the experiment takes shape. The more that do, the better our chances for learning how to do it right.

“For any local news organization to be successful down the road, it needs to engage its citizens in meaningful ways, and to me, this is a perfect example of how we can and should do that,” said Jim Brady, editor-in-chief of Digital First Media.

I think the partnership with The Guardian is a model for national-local media partnerships that I hope will continue to evolve. The Guardian will take on the huge national piece of the citizens agenda, and at Journal Register Company and MediaNews Group papers, we’ll localize it. So, in every city or town where we have a news organization, we’ll be able to find out what citizens are most interested in discussing and try and get them the answers they need to make an informed decision when they show up to vote.

The initial goal of this kind of journalism is to expose the demand for news and views around problems the voters see as real and urgent. In other words: What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in 2012?

Or: what should this campaign be about? Social media and the two-way nature of the Internet make it possible to ask that question of many more people than you could reach in a poll, although polling is important for reliability.

The answers that come in form the basis for the citizens agenda. It won’t be a single issue, of course, but a basket of top concerns broadly shared by respondents – six to ten, or perhaps as many as a dozen priorities that originate not with journalists or campaign managers, but with voters. Some may be different from the issues the operatives see as advantageous to their candidate, or maybe not. The point is that we won’t know until we ask.

Once synthesized, the citizens agenda can be used as an alternative starting point for The Guardian’s campaign journalism. When the candidates speak, their promises and agendas are mapped against the citizens agenda. Reporters assigned to cover the campaign can dig deep on the items that make up the citizen’s agenda. In questioning the candidates, The Guardian will ask about things that flow from that agenda. Explainers should try to clarify and demystify the problems named in the citizens agenda.

What the voters want the candidates to be discussing is not a static thing, nor is it easy to determine. So we will have to keep working at it until we get it right, which is part of the reason The Guardian is collaborating with a journalism school. This is an experiment. Last spring, Studio 20 worked with ProPublica.org on how to create better explainers. That project will feed into this one.

The ultimate goal of a citizens agenda is to bring the candidates to it, so that what people want the candidates to be discussing is actually addressed. Campaign coverage gains a clear purpose: information and access that is useful to people in getting their priorities addressed.

That’s a goal worth obsessing about. So, now it’s your turn: how do you recommend we get started? Where do we look for inspiration? And what do you see as the campaign’s core issues? Please join us in the comments below or add #citizensagenda to your tweets.

* * *

Additional notes and commentary by Jay Rosen

1. Amanda Michel is the Open Editor of The Guardian US. She started there in November. We worked together on Assignment Zero, OffTheBus, Building a Better Explainer and now The Citizens Agenda. All of them are attempts to include the users more effectively in the practice of journalism.

2. We’re hoping to interest other news organizations in taking this approach to the 2012 elections. Whenever you try something different like this, there are lots of problems. The more sites the experiment runs at, the more likely we are to solve those problems. If you’re an editor or news executive and want to try the citizens agenda approach, email me or leave a comment here.

3. This project comes directly out of an earlier post of mine: The Citizens Agenda in Campaign Coverage. That post was in turn inspired by a 1992 project at The Charlotte Observer, by a 1990 project at the Wichita Eagle, and by the words of David Broder, the most revered political reporter of his generation, who said in a 1991 speech:

…If we are going to change the pattern, we in the press have to try deliberately to reposition ourselves in the process. We have to try to distance ourselves from the people we write about–the politicians and their political consultants–and move ourselves closer to the people that we write for– the voters and potential voters.

That’s what we’re doing. It’s not revolutionary. It’s what Broder thought necessary twenty years ago. The campaign should be treated as the property of the voters, he said, for they “have a right to have their concerns addressed and their questions answered by the people who are seeking to exercise power.” Yeah. Exactly.

4. What I like about this project is that the whole thing pivots around a single question: What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in 2012? That’s easy to state, and only 16 words. But it’s going to be hard to do. I think we’re going to need all methods known to woman and man: random sampling to provide statistical validity, old-fashioned reporting, blogging and citizen journalism, web forms we ask people to fill out, the polling of networks, social media of course including the Twitter hashtag #citizensagenda, SMS, voice mail even, and several methods we have not devised yet. Got ideas? Hit the comment button.

The citizens agenda, as we’re picturing it, will be an editorial product, made by The Guardian newsroom from the answers received to our “master” question. It will require interpretation. It will involve an editor’s judgment. But mostly, it will be a creative act of listening.

5. I am on the advisory board of Digital First Media, which will be bringing the same approach to local elections. (A feature on its CEO, John Paton.) “While coverage of the overall election — from the horse race to the conventions to the political theater — will remain part of our coverage, we agree with the idea that citizens should have a larger role in determining the issues that are discussed and covered,” said Jim Brady, Editor-in-Chief of Digital First Media. “Taking this community-driven approach to elections fits right into our overall philosophy of combining traditional journalism values with new, bold experiments.”

6. Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian in London, in a speech last year.

Many of the Guardian’s most interesting experiments at the moment lie in this area of combining what we know, or believe, or think, or have found out, with the experience, range, opinions, expertise and passions of the people who read us, or visit us or want to participate rather than passively receive… It is not about replacing the skills and knowledge of journalists with (that ugly phrase) user generated content. It is about experimenting with the balance of what we know, what we can do, with what they know, what they can do… There is a mutualised interest here. We are reaching towards the idea of a mutualised news organisation.

This project participates in that.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…

NiemanLab covers the announcement: Civic journalism 2.0: The Guardian and NYU launch a “citizens agenda” for 2012.

Once you know what people want from political journalism, how do you go about creating that journalism? What’s the right balance between competition-based, and issue-based, coverage? What’s the right balance, for that matter, between journalists determining coverage and the public determining it?

“We applaud your goal and will be interested in how you assess the citizens’ agenda. Our newspaper in Florida is attempting something similar…” That’s the spirit.

Me, on Twitter:

#citizensagenda: What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in 2012? OK, I’ll go first. jr.ly/7ndb

You can play too. The format is..
1. the #citizensagenda hashtag
2. what you want the candidates to be discussing
3. a link that can inform us about 2.)

Isn’t this just focus group research, like the campaigns conduct in order to sell their candidates? Well, uh… no, not really.

The professionals call them “cycles.” Civilians call them elections. From the last cycle, 2008: Why Campaign Coverage Sucks.

I think a case can be made that improving campaign dialogue–the news, as well as the discourse–is not just a problem, but a wicked problem.

This is the way the horse race should be done. Then assign reporters and editors to a better master narrative.

Official press release from The Guardian on this project.

Occupy PressThink: Tim Pool

"Being a livestream he acts as 'eyes and ears' for the viewers. Literally. People will tell him to move the camera somewhere and he'll do it. They'll ask for interviews with someone, and Tim will go over and do so... The viewers will ask him questions and he won't rest until he gets them their answers."

20 Nov 2011 1:26 am 18 Comments

Recently, Alexis Madrigal, the technology editor of The Atlantic and pretty much the smartest young journalist ’round these parts, re-described occupy Wall Street as an API, or Application Programming Interface.

What he meant is that one of the distinctive features of the movement is its “open” design. “From the beginning, the occupation was meant to take on a life of its own. Organizers and occupiers alike have not tried to maintain control of the message or methodology for spreading ideas or occupations. Anyone who wants to support Occupy Wall Street can just do something, trusting they’ll be able to connect to the movement. Hence OccupyHistory and hundreds of like sites.”

How is Occupy Wall Street “like” an API? Madrigal explains:

API is an acronym for Application Programming Interface. APIs allow data to be pulled from an online source in a structured way. So, Twitter has an API that lets app developers create software that can display your Twitter feed in ways that the company itself did not develop. Developers make a call to that API to “GET statuses/home timeline” and Twitter sends back “the 20 most recent statuses” for a user.

What an API does, in essence, is make it easy for the information a service contains to be integrated with the wider Internet. So, to make the metaphor here clear, Occupy Wall Street today can be seen like the early days of Twitter.com. Nearly everyone accessed Twitter information through clients developed by people outside the Twitter HQ. These co-developers made Twitter vastly more useful by adding their own ideas to the basic functionality of the social network. These developers don’t have to take in all of OWS data or use all of the strategies developed at OWS. Instead, they can choose the most useful information streams for their own individual applications (i.e. occupations, memes, websites, essays, policy papers).

I think it’s a beautiful way of describing the movement. Madrigal’s section on social media:

GET Strategy/social media: Occupy Wall Street had a social media strategy from the beginning. They encouraged all protesters to record their experiences with cell phones and cameras and then used that media to drive awareness of the protest in its early days. Since then, a whole network of social media has emerged from Twitter accounts to Facebook pages to wikis. This web is woven together by a media team as well as outsiders who have begun to act as signal amplifiers and filters. A particularly effective outside effort was the WeArethe99Percent tumblr, which presented stories of everyday people who were struggling despite their hard work.

The social media API works in tandem with the Big Media “interface,” a portion of which is:

GET Decentralized leadership structure: Repeat mantra that the movement is ‘leaderless.’ In practice, have no single leader on whom the media and/or public can focus. Avoid profiles of organizers….

That’s all background to this letter I got. It’s a perfect example of… “Anyone who wants to support Occupy Wall Street can just do something.” The letter tells of an adventure in citizen journalism unfolding around Occupy Wall Street. Chris Fornof explains it as well as I could, so I am going to shut up and let you listen to him.

Nov. 18, 2011


This is Chris Fornof. You likely don’t remember me, but I was involved briefly with Assignment Zero. I’m a huge supporter of citizen journalism and try to help out in little ways where I can.

I’ve been glued to media coverage of #Occupy, and I saw something this week that I thought you’d be interested in.

Tim Pool.

Something very special is happening here.

Basically he’s a protester-turned-reporter with a cell phone who is doing some very uniquely awesome things with his streaming ustream coverage. He’s been doing 20-hour live reporting marathons, but what’s extremely powerful is the feedback loop that he has with his viewers (numbering in the 15k+ live, 100k+ daily).

There’s a unique symbiosis happening. Being a livestream he acts as “eyes and ears” for the viewers. Literally. People will tell him to move the camera somewhere and he’ll do it. They’ll ask for interviews with someone, and Tim will go over and do so (taking extensive feedback, questions, and commentary from the channel viewers). The viewers will ask him questions and he won’t rest until he gets them their answers. There is no delay or time to press. It’s instant. And it’s awesome.

But it goes both ways.

When his camera battery goes low, people swarm into action. Purchasing batteries, locating someone on the ground to deliver, and coordinating delivery. He’s got a dozen batteries, pack and chargers just donated to him so he can keep recording. He mentions he’s getting hungry and somehow people make sure he’s fed with a constant stream of random strangers exactly what he needs when he needs it. This also extends to a few thousand people that will devour twitter and live news feeds to give him active intel so he can stay safe.

The goodwill he’s engendering is ridiculous. Beyond the participation, there’s relationships happening here. I have never seen this kind of support for a journalist before. He logs off for the night and hundreds of people stream in their “THANK YOU!”s and undying gratitude.

He’s got some TIME people following him for the past few days. I expect you’ll hear more about him soon. (Link.) I strongly feel that the kind of reporting he’s doing represents the future of what citizen journalism could be.

There have been a few dozen livestreams of the protests that have been fascinating to watch, but Pool has been one of the first to engage viewers like this.

I was hoping sometime that you may be able to get in touch with him. Perhaps advise him. You are well connected in the field of journalism and can likely appreciate the uniqueness of what is happening here. From watching his interactions, Tim seems very level-headed and could likely serve as a good case-study for citizen journalism in action. Who knows?


Thank you for your tireless support for citizen journalism over the years. It’s a long-haul trip but I think the world is finally waking up to the things you’ve been saying. Keep up the great work!


Occupy PressThink (see how well that API works?…) has a few comments about this.

1. Since I know how the term enrages people, I am going to quote my definition of citizen journalism:

When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism.

Tim Pool is a perfect example. In fact, I can’t think of a better illustration of what I was trying to get across in sculpting that definition.

2. It’s hard to overlook the fact that his name is Pool. In pressland, a “pool” report is what happens when the entire press corps can’t have access to a news event, so a representative team of 3-4 reporters is sent and their accounts are then shared with the whole gang. They have to be the eyes and ears for others. They have to ask what others would ask. They can’t keep what they find out to themselves. In a way, that’s what Tim Pool does.

3. In his epic post, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, my colleague Clay Shirky writes: “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place? The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did…”

Yes. And one of the things we need to experiment with is the relationship (sorry, can’t think of a better word) between journalists and the people who depend on them for reports. “When his camera battery goes low, people swarm into action…” is just that: an experiment in what this relationship could be like: We’ll help you, we’ll feed you, just keep the reports coming.

I wrote about an earlier example of this kind of relationship here: They’re Not in Your Club but They Are in Your League: Firedoglake at the Libby Trial (2007.) As Shirky says, we need more experiments in how the (dependent) users can support the (independent) reporters.

4. From Wikipedia: Pool broadcasts using his 4G Samsung Galaxy SII. See this report on Pool for more on his tech.

5. This might be a good time to mention that Tim Pool is clearly an activist and supporter of Occupy Wall Street as well as a reporter of it. If you believe those things can’t possibly go together, fine, I know where you’re coming from. But don’t expect me to freak out or even care that you wouldn’t call Pool a journalist. As I’ve said before, we should focus less on “who’s a journalist” and more on valid acts of journalism. When we can recognize the act, the “who” becomes easier: anyone committing the act!

6. When young people ask me what they should do if they want to become a journalist, here is what I normally tell them: the most important thing is not to go to J-school, or start a blog, or get a newspaper to hire you (though all those things are good!) but to get yourself into a “journalistic situation.” A journalistic situation is when a live community is depending on you for regular reports about some unfolding thing that clearly matters to them.

If you really want to be a journalist the best experience you can have is to be depended on by people who need you as their eyes and ears, their interviewer, their man or woman in the field. Tim Pool: he’s in a journalistic situation, classically so. And I bet he’s learning a lot from it.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…

See also my Tumblr post: Tim Pool, the man behind @TheOther99, is bringing the Max Headroom prophecy to life.

GigaOm: Occupy my TV: The birth of the citizen video reporter. Follows up on this post with a trend story.

Fast Company: Tim Pool And Henry Ferry: The Men Behind Occupy Wall Street’s Live Stream.

NPR’s On the Media: Q and A with Tim Pool.

Mathew Ingram: What happens when journalism is everywhere?

Photo by Paintballbudd. Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

You can follow Tim Pool on Twitter and get word on when he’s live streaming that way.

“Low information voters” and the political press

What if journalists sense that their work never reaches the voters whose inattentiveness is being exploited? What if they somehow know that voters are getting screwed but they've lost faith in their ability to do anything about it?

17 Nov 2011 3:32 pm 26 Comments

Last week, Ezra Klein, the Washington Post’s policy wonk who is rapidly becoming their most valuable journalist, brought to our attention a fascinating paper by six political scientists. It’s called A Theory of Parties. I am going to take a little time here to summarize what it says:

“Parties no longer compete to win elections by giving voters the policies voters want,” they write. “Rather, as coalitions of intense policy demanders, they have their own agendas and aim to get voters to go along.”

In the United States, at least, parties are not politicians of a similar mind banding together to win elections, but “coalitions of narrow interests in pursuit of policy demands” that aren’t necessarily in the interest of the broader public. They “only strive to please voters when necessary to win elections.” But this constraint often doesn’t amount to much “due to voters’ lack of information about politics.” The goal, sometimes conscious, sometimes not, is to “cede as little [influence] to voters as possible.” The need to win elections occasionally requires “genuine responsiveness,” but parties mainly push their own agendas and try to get voters to acquiesce.

Interest groups pushing policy demands at odds with the interests of most voters have an especially large advantage at the nomination stage of elections, the authors write. “Most citizens pay little enough attention to general elections and even less to nominations. The few who vote in primaries lack the anchoring cue of candidate partisanship, rendering them open to persuasion. Media coverage of primaries is also generally less than in general elections, further increasing the expected impact of small amounts of paid communication.”

Here is the part that intrigued me as the author of PressThink: “To explain the substantial autonomy we believe parties enjoy, we posit an ‘electoral blind spot’ within which voters do not monitor party behavior.” Through various institutional devices, like complex party rules and procedural votes that no one understands, the major parties “seek to exploit lapses in voter attentiveness” and “keep the electoral blind spot as large as possible.”

To be sure, parties must tread carefully. As V.O. Key famously argued, voters are not fools. Even the poorly informed find cues and heuristics that allow them to make sense of politics and respond with a degree of rationality. A candidate with a reputation for extremism will fare poorly among voters who lack a coherent ideology but still know they don’t like extremism. Candidates who attack popular programs like social security, or promote unpopular ones like busing to achieve racial integration of schools may likewise arouse the ire of voters not usually attentive to politics.”

“Yet, while voters can recognize and resist some kinds of extremism, our main point here is that voters, especially those who swing between parties, know dramatically little about politics. In the competitive world of elections, this makes a difference. We try to capture this difference as an “electoral blind spot” — a policy region within which aggregate electorates do not enforce preferences even when they have stakes.”

So the blind spot is where voters get screwed because they don’t know what’s going on. Far from being a problem for the two major parties, it’s actually their goal to find these spots and enlarge them. The blind spot is the point at which voters stop paying attention because the costs of figuring out what’s really going on are too high. When the parties discern where that point is, it’s open season for the interest groups who know how the system works.

As long as parties stay within the electoral blind spot, they are effectively free to nominate any candidate they want. They have nothing to gain from further compromise, nothing to lose from sticking to their guns. In reality, however, the blind spot is neither clearly demarcated nor fixed for all time. What voters notice, or fail to notice, depends on media coverage, campaign dynamics, suddenly salient events, and how candidates express themselves. In the face of this uncertainty, parties continually test the limits of the blind spot…

This isn’t what political science normally teaches:

√ “A reader who went from our above discussion to leading textbooks on parties and elections would experience a severe disconnect. She would find no hint that parties seek, consciously or otherwise, to exploit voter inattentiveness. Her main impression from the textbook account would be that parties work very hard to win elections…”

√ “In sum, the textbook party puts office-seekers and professional staff at the center and policy demanders at the periphery. This is a much different animal than the one we have theorized, which puts the coalition of policy demanders at the center…”

√ “To posit that American politics is mainly organized by election-minded politicians, as the dominant school of American politics does, is to miss its essence. Organized combat among groups who aim to get more than their fair share of government policy is closer to the heart of the matter.”

√ “We would also agree that business groups, which pour huge amounts of cash into politics, get more than their fair share of government policy. How could it be otherwise? But numerous other groups, from Christian fundamentalists to gun advocates to environmentalists to civil rights activists, behave similarly. They differ from business in the type of resource they pour into politics: more manpower, less cash. But they are trying to do exactly what business groups try to do – pursue their policy demands, which they regard as just and fair, whether most voters agree or not.”

So that’s the theory. What if it’s right? (And I think it is right in the sense of being descriptive; so does Ezra Klein.) This would permit us to say with greater precision what the job of the political press should be: To shrink the electoral blind spot as much as it can. To prevent politicians from exploiting voter inattentiveness by paying closer attention than the voters normally do and sounding the alarm. To point out who’s trying to get “more than their fair share of government policy” and alert the electorate in watchdog fashion. To raise the costs for political actors trying to operate within the blind spot and perhaps restore some accountability to the system.

But. What if those who operate the political press don’t think they need a theory of parties in order to cover partisan politics? (After all these are intensely practical people, right?) What if “the press,” a loosely organized and fairly mindless institution to begin with, barely an institution at all, is simply unable to recognize that it already has an implicit theory of parties that is badly in need of revision?

Or, switching problems, what if political journalists sense that their work never reaches those “low information voters” whose inattentiveness is presently being exploited? What if down deep they don’t actually believe in their power to correct for the blind spot? What if they somehow sense that the voters are getting screwed but they’ve lost faith in their own ability to do anything about it? What if they have long ago accepted that the watchdog role is a myth and they’re only talking to “political junkies,” the highly informed and attentive pubic, anyway?

In all of those cases, we might expect them to retreat to something they can do. Something I have tried to give a name to: cultivating their savviness and tutoring the attentive public in that sensibility.

Take the most generic “savviness question” there is. One journalist asks another: how will this play with the voters? Listening to that (how will this play with the voters?) haven’t you ever wanted to shout at your television set, “hey buddy, I’m a voter! Don’t talk about me like I’m not in the room when I’m sitting right here watching you.” This is what’s so odd about savviness as a political style performed for the public. It tries to split the attentive public off from the rest of the electorate, and get us to join up with the insiders. Under its gaze, other people become objects of political technique. In this sense savviness is an attack on our solidarity with strangers who share the same political space.

In campaign coverage, for example, nothing is more common that a good lesson in candidate strategy: how Mitt Romney plans to capture the nomination by skipping the Iowa caucuses. Or: Julia Gillard’s plan for taking Sydney’s western suburbs. That’s what fascinates the pros, the insiders. But think about it for moment: should we give our votes to the candidate with the best strategy for capturing our votes? Something is off there, or as I said earlier: circular. Misaligned.

The blind spot is the point at which voters stop paying attention because the costs of figuring out what’s really going on are too high. But we could also define it as they point at which the press reverts to savviness because engaging the broader electorate is beyond its means or intention. When the parties discern where that point is, it’s open season for players who know how the system works.

A note to my conservative friends

A few things about the practice of journalism and the American news media on which the conservative movement and I agree.

30 Oct 2011 12:31 pm 52 Comments

The attempted “sting” against me and my NYU colleague Clay Shirky by James O’Keefe (which you can read about here and here) had its intended effect. It sent even more culture war resentment my way than is normally sent my way. (“The most striking thing about this is the lack of any ethical consideration whatsoever…”)

So I thought it might be good time to address my conservative friends and readers, not on the differences I have with them but on a few areas of (possible) common ground.

I don’t think this will change a thing. It won’t increase mutual understanding, correct for caricature or open space for honest dialogue. There is no such hope for such in the culture war climate we have in the United States, especially around the performance of the news media. But it’s worth doing anyway. Here, I am going to speak to what I take to be common attitudes within the conservative movement generally, based in part on things I hear coming at me from the right. So when I say “you” I really mean tendencies, not individuals.

1. You think the New York Times is “a liberal newspaper” and so do I. In 2004 the New York Times public editor, Daniel Okrent, said just that: The Times is a liberal newspaper, in part because it reflects the city in which it is edited. Here’s what I wrote about Okrent’s column:

One Sunday morning he called the New York Times a liberal newspaper. And even though he meant “…on social issues only!” it was still a profound moment in the history of the Times— and I believe a liberating one. He said it was his most important column and he’s right.

Recently Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the Times, endorsed that view. He also said it’s extremely important for journalists to try to distance themselves from the beliefs they have going into a story.

2. You think the mainstream press should stop claiming it has no view of the world and so do I. The way I read them, conservatives often get exasperated (get real, Jay, they are regularly enraged…) at the way mainstream journalists present themselves as viewless and “above it all,” such that if you’re dissatisfied with their portrait the likely reason is that you refuse to face reality as it is, because that’s what news reports from mainstream journalists do: they depict reality, not the way you see it or I see it but simply “…the way it is.”

I think this attitude is corrosive and mistaken. Not only have I criticized it, under the heading The View from Nowhere, I have tried to suggest what might take its place.  This is what I wrote:

I could be wrong, but I think we are in the midst of shift in the system by which trust is sustained in professional journalism. David Weinberger tried to capture it with his phrase: transparency is the new objectivity. My version of that: it’s easier to trust in “here’s where I’m coming from” than the View from Nowhere. These are two different ways of bidding for the confidence of the users.

In the old way, one says: “I don’t have a horse in this race. I don’t have a view of the world that I’m defending. I’m just telling you the way it is, and you should accept it because I’ve done the work and I don’t have a stake in the outcome…”

In the newer way, the logic is different. “Look, I’m not going to pretend that I have no view. Instead, I am going to level with you about where I’m coming from on this. So factor that in when you evaluate my report. Because I’ve done the work and this is what I’ve concluded…”

If the View from Nowhere continues on, unchallenged, trust in the news media will probably continue to decline.

See also Conor Friedersdorf, Stop Forcing Journalists to Conceal Their Views from the Public.

3. You think NPR should stop supporting itself with taxpayer dollars and so do I. Writing about an earlier stunt by James O’Keefe, which resulted in the forced resignation of NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller, I advised NPR thusly:

* Abandon viewlessness as the official ideology at NPR. Replace it with pluralism. Meaning: NPR acknowledges that the people who work for it have a diverse mix of views and starting points. It is unreasonable to expect that these won’t factor into their work, but it is perfectly reasonable to hold everyone at NPR to basic standards: accuracy, fairness, intellectual honesty and transparency. That means you can click on the name of any editorial staffer and find out where they’re coming from

* Renounce the two percent or so of its budget that it gets directly from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or other federal agencies, eliminating that as an hot button issue. (NPR finances are explained here.)

4. You think I should just admit I’m a liberal. So do I. I try to practice what I preach to journalists: that it’s easier for people to trust in “here’s where I’m coming from” than the View from Nowhere. I don’t pretend to be a person without political views or starting points. Since 2004 I’ve had an FAQ at my blog that includes this statement.

Politically, where are you: left, right, middle of the road, liberal, conservative?

My views on issues would be standard Upper West Side Liberal Jewish babyboomer— even though I don’t live in that neighborhood. I am a registered Democrat. I supported Rudy Giuliani, a Republican, over David Dinkins (D) and I am fan of the job Bloomberg has done as mayor. I’ve written for Harpers, the Nation, Columbia Journalism Review, Chronicle of Higher Education, New York Times, Washington Post, Salon and Tompaine.com, to list a few, but not the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard or the Washington Times. I was media editor at Tikkun magazine for a while. That should be enough to place me on your spectrum.

Update: April 2008. As I mentioned here, I am a supporter of Barack Obama for president and I hope he wins. I haven’t given money, or donated time, or been in contact with the campaign, but I voted for him in the primary and intend to do so again in November, 2008. Just thought I should make that clear in this space.

5. You think Dan Rather engaged in outrageous misconduct back in 2004 and so do I. Every conservative who participates in media critique remembers the episode in the fall of 2004 when CBS aired a deeply flawed documentary on George W. Bush’s Air National Guard record. Dan Rather, then the anchor of the CBS Evening News, not only defended the work but attacked the people who were questioning it. I thought Rather was very, very wrong and I wrote about it repeatedly. A representative clip, from the day after CBS released a big report on the episode.

Dear Dan Rather: “Lest anyone have any doubt,” you said in your statement yesterday, “I have read the report, I take it seriously, and I shall keep its lessons well in mind.”

I still have my doubts. Perhaps these would be lessened if, for example, you had bothered to spell out which lessons you saw for yourself, and for CBS News in the review panel’s report.

  • Was it the lesson about the deadly consequences of dismissing criticism because you think you know the motivations of the critics?
  • Was the lesson that a prudent journalist ought to fear and respect the fact-checking powers of the Internet?
  • Or was it that by stretching yourself thin you had stretched thin the credibility of the very network you thought you were serving by taking so many assignments?
  • Maybe the lesson is not to apologize when you think you did nothing wrong.

We have had post-mortems that were published before, but not as detailed as this. What lessons are in the report for you, Dan Rather, will be established in public discussion, as the findings sink in. Today, for example, we are discussing, in rhythm with the news cycle, whether CBS News showed political bias in its mishandling of the Air National Guard story. Tomorrow it will be some further refinement.

I would not go so far as to say that you, Dan Rather, need to write a blog. You don’t. But take the money you spend on the person who is sometimes called your spokeswoman, and hire yourself a skilled blogger, to do a Dan Rather Reports blog. Here you post additional source material, put tapes of your interviews, and also explain yourself, react to crtics and follow up on stories aired by 60 Minutes.

Participating in debate around the blog and online journalism worlds could be as simple as lose the spokesperson and meet with your personal blogger for 20-30 minutes a day. He does the rest. Morning talks are turned into posts quoting you; your blogger gets the links to go with them and “runs” the blog, including comment sections. Whenever you want to write, you do.

The blogger is a feedback loop and fail safe device. Part of what she does is monitor the online world for what is being said about Dan Rather and his reporting. Such a person, well connected to the discussion, would have been extremely valuable to you during the twelve-day period, Sep. 8-20, 2004. After six months of your blog, statements like this from Linda Mason, your new vice president for standards: “Dan does think he’s constantly attacked. If we backed off every story that was criticized, we wouldn’t be doing any stories…” would be rendered inoperative by reason of being inane.

One more: a bonus agreement between you and me. You think heavily-edited programs like 60 Minutes should release all the footage from their interviews so we can judge how fair the final product is, and so do I.

That’s five-and-a-half patches of common ground. If I think of more, I will add them to this post.