Journalism watcher and professor Jay Rosen’s “How to be literate in what’s changing journalism” is a solid list of things tomorrow’s journalists will need to understand, and in many cases adopt. As he wisely does in his PressThink posts, Jay asks at the end what he’s missing.

From my perspective, there’s one more major element that every journalist, today and tomorrow, truly needs to grasp and deal with: who’s in control.

The answer, increasingly: Not us.

I’ve written many times in recent years about the dangers we face as a society as centralized entities, primarily governments and corporations, are taking control of the Internet away from those of us who use technology from the edges of the network of networks. The promise of the Net, and of the personal devices that emerged starting with the PC, was a radically decentralized system of computing and communications. Conversations and innovation, in that system, started and thrived at the networks’ edges, not in the center.

Some vital functions are being recentralized, through technological developments and political fiat. Governments that feel threatened by technology increasingly use our devices and systems to spy on us, and much worse.

In many cases, governments act (read: are paid) to protect legacy industries that loathe the liberty that technology can spark. Industries like Hollywood push harder and harder for laws giving them the authority to determine what innovations will emerge, especially if these breakthroughs threaten legacy business models that no longer make sense in a networked arena.

Meanwhile, corporate centralization is burning through the ecosystem. Facebook and Google, in particular, have taken control of wide swaths of the Internet’s key functions. Facebook is becoming what amounts to an alternative Internet — literally so in some countries where mobile dominates — and its growing power over content, along with Google’s search dominance, should worry everyone. (Jay alludes to this in his first point, I should note.)

That centralization may pale next to what telecommunications carriers are attempting: control over how information moves in and across our networks. In the U.S. wired-Internet market, local duopolies of cable and phone companies — the cable companies are effectively monopolies when it comes to actual broadband, not the pathetic imitation that phone-line DSL service provides — are insisting on the right to decide what bits of information get delivered to our devices in what order and at what speed, or whether they get delivered at all. Mobile service is completely deregulated on this score. Federal regulators, claiming the opposite, give the carriers more and more power, and the FCC’s pathetic mutterings about restricting carrier dominance tell us network neutrality is on its last legs.

All of the above trends are relevant to journalism. Which is why journalists need to understand at least these key points (among many others in this context):

  1. Carrier dominance is the ultimate in media consolidation. If they get away with their power play, they will determine almost everyone’s future in the media world. They will decide which content, and to some degree which innovation, lives or dies.
  2. Facebook and Google — with Twitter looming on the horizon — are not just incredibly powerful and ubiquitous platforms. They are competitors for advertising, eyeballs and time. Journalists who use Facebook to promote their material — or, with supreme stupidity, as a host for their material — are also feeding a beast that intends to consume them.
  3. Government surveillance and censorship are acts of control that threaten all serious journalism.
  4. The Copyright Cartel’s efforts to restrict deployment of technology that threatens traditional business models is a threat to all innovation of the future.

Again, Jay is entirely right to push journalists to understand the items he mentions. It’s a great list. I hope he’ll add “who’s in control” as another.

Last weekend, like a lot of other people, I watched from afar as the Hong Kong protests took over the city’s Central district. I spotted a tweet showing a photo of hundreds of people holding their hands in the air, and I immediately recalled the prior (and ongoing) protests in Ferguson, Missouri, where people had held their hands up as well.

Here’s what I put on Twitter:

Hong Kong protests tweet

I quickly got some Twitter replies from people who were enraged that I was — if I correctly understood their “logic” — taking the side of hoodlums against always-right law enforcement. I ignored them.

Then, however, I got some pushback from people who said I was completely wrong — in one person’s words, I was an “idiot” — in what I was suggesting.

Looking back, there was indeed a problem with what I posted: the word “emulating” in my original tweet. It was a careless word, and didn’t exactly reflect what I was thinking: a deep admiration for what the Hong Kong protesters were doing, and how the “hands up” gesture was the same as demonstrators in Ferguson (whom I also admire) had used. But even though I wasn’t certain it was a conscious channeling of the Ferguson protests, my tweet did connect the two situations, and it did strongly suggest the Hong Kong demonstrators had chosen to use common body language.

How could I possibly know that? A journalist at the Guardian asked, and I couldn’t disagree when he said I was creating an unproved connection.

I retweeted several news articles that asked this question and came up with inconclusive answers — and no compelling evidence that the Ferguson protests had been a major spark in Hong Kong.

So I considered removing the original tweet and replacing it with something much less declarative — something along the lines of “Amazing image, and wondering if there’s a connection to the Ferguson protests” or words to that effect — or posting a new tweet retroactively modifying the first one.

Too late. Hundreds of people had retweeted my tweet within hours.

twhk2

Meanwhile, U.S. news organizations started using this notion as a mini-meme. Some of the coverage strongly suggested there was a connection; other coverage made it clear that this wasn’t known for sure.

I got in touch with a friend in Hong Kong and asked him. His reply:

I’d argue that the similarity in gesture with Ferguson is entirely coincidental.

Ferguson was simply not covered much here in Hong Kong, not in msm [mainstream media] and not in social media.

I don’t take it for granted that my Hong Kong friend was right. But I did trust his judgment. Which is the reason for this post: to express regret at my careless language — an unconscious reflection of my inevitably western view of the world — and hope the probably incorrect meme, which I helped push along, won’t be the one that survives.

I say this especially because of my admiration for the people of Hong Kong, where I’ve spent a great deal of time over the years. They are trying to save a (somewhat) democratic system of government, and preserve the relative freedom Hong Kong has enjoyed for many years. They know it is part of China now, but they also hoped the Beijing government would honor its “one country, two systems” pledge longer than it seems to be doing. What they are doing in the streets of their amazing city is profoundly important. It is history in the making, and they are making it for themselves.

I showed a draft of this post to my ASU Online digital media literacy students this week before putting it up here. I’ve spent a lot of time in the course telling them about the dangers of high-velocity information, and here I’d gone and done what I told them they should avoid. Their comments were useful, and I wanted to quote one in particular. In a media environment like the one we have now, the student advised us all, as media creators, to ask before we post:

Will someone who just glances at this understand my intent?

Not always, of course, no matter how hard we try. But I plan to keep this question in the back of my mind from now on.

In the Atlantic, I look at Twitter’s entirely reasonable decision to remove the James Foley snuff videos — a decision not to allow murderers to use the service for their PR. But, like others who’ve sounded off on this in recent days, I have major misgivings.

My deepest misgivings are less about Twitter’s (and Google’s and Facebook’s, etc.) right to be editing what’s posted. They’re about the power these services are accruing over online content.

Excerpt from the Atlantic piece:

Who gave them this power? We did. And if we don’t take back what we’ve given away—and what’s being taken away—we’ll deserve what we get: a concentration of media power that will damage, if not eviscerate, our tradition of free expression.

Let’s wake up, and re-decentralize the Internet, before it’s too late.

For more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks and America’s sometimes criminal response — torture, perpetual imprisonment, kidnapping, pervasive surveillance and more — the New York Times and almost all other American news organizations demonstrated journalistic cowardice on an epic level. Most served as cheerleaders for a war that was launched under false pretenses. Some withheld news of surpassing importance.

And, almost universally, they refused to call torture what it is, substituting language like “harsh interrogation methods” for this evil and flatly illegal practice.

The New York Times has decided, at long last, to tell the truth about torture, at least in future news columns. (Its editorial page has, for some time now, been calling torture what it is, for which it deserves kudos.)

But in explaining this move, the Times’ editor, Dean Baquet, only compounds the damage, by holding to the fiction that there was any remote justification for the paper’s years of craven kowtowing to White House and other (mostly) right-wing bullying. Baquet wrote:

While the methods set off a national debate, the Justice Department insisted that the techniques did not rise to the legal definition of “torture.” The Times described what we knew of the program but avoided a label that was still in dispute, instead using terms like harsh or brutal interrogation methods.

The “dispute” was a concoction. It was a deliberate propaganda ploy by a government that relentlessly lied about its methods and motives.

Our news media bowed to the Bush administration’s Orwellian insistence that the United States wasn’t torturing people, even though this was one of the most wanton lies. America had even convicted others of war crimes for some of these same acts, but that went down the memory hole.

Cowardice alone doesn’t explain the news media’s continuing failure on torture. Washington journalists’ penchant for stenography over actual journalism — and the lazy, pernicious “report both sides of the issue” (even when one is lying) methodology of modern political and business reporting — has been part of the problem. What Jay Rosen and others have called the “view from nowhere” has given us “journalism” instead of the real thing, and I’m sad to say it’s still the rule rather than the exception among people who continue to choose access over honor.

The New York Times is doing the right thing by deciding to tell the truth in the future. But, sadly, Baquet’s explanation is no less craven than what his colleagues have been doing for years.

He, and the Times, would earn a lot more respect if they did something simple, right now: Apologize.

 

It’s not too late to send a comment to the FCC regarding its moves toward creating a “fast lane” on the Internet — thereby handing control over innovation and speech to a tiny group of corporations that have amply demonstrated their intention to abuse it. I discussed much of this in my new Guardian column this week.

And here’s what I sent to the FCC separately:

Please reclassify ISPs as common carriers under Title II, with an exemption for small wireless providers.

It is unconscionable for the FCC to permit the monopoly/oligopoly ISPs — specifically the cable and phone companies (the latter via newer fiber deployment) — to decide what bits of information reach end users’ devices in what order and at what speed, or even whether the information reaches them at all. The ISPs insist they will not abuse this power, but there is no record of monopoly/oligopoly businesses NOT abusing power.

It is even more unconscionable that the telecom companies take this position even though they were built initially on the backs of helpless customers who had no alternative to the carriers’ government-granted monopolies.

In addition to Title II reclassification, the FCC should pre-empt all state and local laws forbidding ISP or other telecommunications competition from the public sector. The carriers’ successful lobbying to prevent this kind of service is testament to their anti-competitive motives.

The future of American innovation and free speech could well depend on your decision. Please make the right one.

The Knight, Ford and Mozilla Foundations are collaborating on the latest edition of the long-running Knight News Challenge. This one asks, “How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation?” — or risk losing the Net to the ever-more-powerful players that want to re-centralize (i.e. control) speech and, ultimately, innovation.

As you’ll see when you read the entries, folks are coming up with some terrific answers. I hope you’ll take a look at mine — I call it “The Open Internet MOOC” — and offer support if you like it. (Hint: There’s a little “Applause” button on the side that you can click.)

More important, I hope you’ll recognize the threat we all face, and get involved in saving/restoring the open Internet we all need.

I’ve created a new course for the Arizona State University’s online program, on digital media literacy. It’s a follow-up to an earlier course that focuses on media “consumption” (a word I dislike in this context even though it’s so widely used); I urge students to be active users of media rather than mere consumers.

This course, based in part on my last book, Mediactive, focuses on media creation, and its natural extension, given the digital tools we’re now using: collaboration. Among the requirements will be registering a domain name; contributing to Wikipedia, blogging, and more.

Unlike standard university courses, the online program runs for 7 weeks at a time. Here’s an outline of what we’ll be doing this spring — and if you see something I should add, please let me know: Continue reading