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

In his column today, David Brooks frets about legalizing marijuana, because it’s bad for society.

As an exercise, I changed every reference of marijuana to beer, and smoking to drinking (and Colorado to the United States). Here’s the Brooks column with those edits:

For a little while in my teenage years, my friends and I drank beer. It was fun. I have some fond memories of us all being silly together. I think those moments of uninhibited frolic deepened our friendships.

But then we all sort of moved away from it. I don’t remember any big group decision that we should give up beer. It just sort of petered out, and, before long, we were scarcely using it.

We didn’t give it up for the obvious health reasons: that it is addictive in about one in six teenagers; that drinking and driving is a good way to get yourself killed; that young people who drink go on to suffer I.Q. loss and perform worse on other cognitive tests.

I think we gave it up, first, because we each had had a few embarrassing incidents. Drunk people do stupid things (that’s basically the point). I drank one day during lunch and then had to give a presentation in English class. I stumbled through it, incapable of putting together simple phrases, feeling like a total loser. It is still one of those embarrassing memories that pop up unbidden at 4 in the morning.

We gave it up, second, I think, because one member of our clique became a full-on drunk. He may have been the smartest of us, but something sad happened to him as he sunk deeper into alcoholic life.

Third, most of us developed higher pleasures. Drinking was fun, for a bit, but it was kind of repetitive. Most of us figured out early on that drinking beer doesn’t really make you funnier or more creative (academic studies more or less confirm this). We graduated to more satisfying pleasures. The deeper sources of happiness usually involve a state of going somewhere, becoming better at something, learning more about something, overcoming difficulty and experiencing a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

One close friend devoted himself to track. Others fell deeply in love and got thrills from the enlargements of the heart. A few developed passions for science or literature.

Finally, I think we had a vague sense that drinking beer was not exactly something you were proud of yourself for. It’s not something people admire. We were in the stage, which I guess all of us are still in, of trying to become more integrated, coherent and responsible people. This process usually involves using the powers of reason, temperance and self-control — not qualities one associates with being high.

I think we had a sense, which all people have, or should have, that the actions you take change you inside, making you a little more or a little less coherent. Not drinking, or only drinking sporadically, gave you a better shot at becoming a little more integrated and interesting. Drinking all the time seemed likely to cumulatively fragment a person’s deep center, or at least not do much to enhance it.

So, like the vast majority of people who try beer, we aged out. We left beer behind. I don’t have any problem with somebody who gets high from time to time, but I guess, on the whole, I think being drunk is not a particularly uplifting form of pleasure and should be discouraged more than encouraged.

We now have a nation that has gone into the business of effectively encouraging beer use. By making beer legal, we are creating a situation in which the price will drop substantially. One RAND study suggests that prices could plummet by up to 90 percent, before taxes and such. As prices drop and legal fears go away, usage is bound to increase. This is simple economics, and it is confirmed by much research. The end of prohibition, in other words, is producing more users.

The people who debate these policy changes usually cite the health risks users would face or the tax revenues the state might realize. Many people these days shy away from talk about the moral status of beer use because that would imply that one sort of life you might choose is better than another sort of life.

But, of course, these are the core questions: Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I’d say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being drunk.

In legalizing beer, citizens of America are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.

So here are a couple of questions for David Brooks. Do you use alcohol? Was Prohibition a good idea?

Most of the smartest people don’t work in journalism.

There’s an enormous amount of R&D going on in digital media. Most of it isn’t happening inside the news industry.

As Clay Shirky and others have pointed out, the low barrier to entry is fueling an enormous amount of experimentation. Most projects fail, but that’s a good thing, because when so many are being tried the small percentage that work will be a relatively big number.

Where is all this happening? Everywhere: universities, corporate labs, open-source repositories, startups, basements. The experiments are taking place inside and outside of companies, inside and outside the news industry (mostly outside), in Silicon Valley and out in the larger world. Many if not most of the valuable ideas, technologies and techniques are coming from projects whose creators have no journalistic intent — but whose work could and should be used in the journalism ecosystem.

Connecting dots

There’s a need for a new kind of initiative to help sort things out. It’s not a traditional Center or Institute.

Imagine the inverse of a big corporate R&D center, which tries to pick winners and makes relatively “safe” bets. Imagine, instead, a small team of, for lack of a better word, “connectors.” They identify interesting ideas, technologies and techniques — business models as well as editorial innovations — inside and outside the journalism sphere, but mostly outside. Then they connect these projects with people who can help make them part of tomorrow’s journalistic ecosystem.

Who are the connectors?

They understand technology at a reasonably deep level. It’s not necessary to be a programmer. But it’s vital to know how to a) ask the right questions of the right people; b) recognize innovative technology and business models when they see them; and c) have a sound sense of the difference between cool and useful.

They appreciate journalism’s essential role in society, and how the craft is changing.

They have a broad array of contacts in the technology, business, education, philanthropic, investor and other sectors; the ability to have an intelligent conversation with any of them; and the desire to follow the dots to wherever they lead.

They’re capable of being evangelists, selling all these people not just on the need to combine great ideas with journalism, but also to take risks in new areas.

Some principles of operation

  • An open process. Honor requests for NDAs prior to product launches, but the bias should be toward making everything available to anyone who’s interested. This would run contrary in many ways to the news industry’s traditional approach, but the tide is turning in a lot of shops where openness is correctly seen as an advantage.
  • Meet anyone, anywhere. Hold small news-focused workshops or mini-conferences to encourage more independent cross-fertilization. Might not be necessary given the explosion of startup camps, incubators, etc.
  • Measurement: Get the data, publish it and explore it as you go, and work with academics who are (at long last) turning to the real world for a lot of their research.

Audience/users

Traditional news organizations could really use this. I’m not saying they should stop doing their own R&D, but this would provide some better leverage for those budgets, to the extent they still exist. Only a few major organizations have what it takes to do this in-house.

Who else could use this?

Investors outside the journalism business. Angel investors and venture capitalists think “entertainment” when they think about media. They may be willing to place some of their high-risk, high-reward bets on projects that meet community information needs if they can be persuaded that there are also serious business models.

Non-media enterprises. More and more corporations and nonprofits of all stripes are creating media. If they can help support innovations that also serve journalistic purposes, everyone wins. If they can be persuaded of the value of applying journalistic principles to what they produce, all the better. (If newspapers can sell advertorials, uh, native content, by the bushel, why can’t they — transparently — partner with some of these other entities?)

Individual (or small-team) media creators who can invest only their time. An essential part of the connectors’ role would be to identify open-source and other such projects that regular folks or small teams can put to good community-information use. (This includes communities of interest, not just geography, but if something useful for one it’ll almost certainly be useful to the other.)

The catalyzing opportunities here are fairly amazing. It is definitely worth the effort, because the payoff for journalism could easily dwarf the investment.

I recognize that those latter entities are competing with newspapers and traditional media. But my goal isn’t to see newspapers survive — much as I still love what they do when they do it well and hope they’ll survive in some form. It’s to see that whatever comes out of this messy period has value to communities, investors and everyone else in the emerging ecosystem.