Saturday, October 19, 2013


            It started in 1980 with a manic idealist’s most idealistic dream, CNN, the Cable News Network, as conceived by Ted Turner, would be the global television news channel which would bring to the world, if not peace and harmony, civility and as he titled his made-for-TV, almost-Olympic games, Goodwill.   CNN was meant to change the world, to a place which had no “foreign” countries, and it did and it didn’t.

Turner’s CNN used traditional journalistic values and the latest communications and video technology to show the people of the world the reality, in particular and in general, they live in.

            A shambolic piece in the Washington Post by Henry Farrell, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, somehow never mentions Turner in his analysis of the “big news for journalism,” that eBay founder Pierre Omidyar is jumping into the news business.  Omidyar has hinted he’s ready to match the $250 million Jeff Bezos paid for the Post to fund his own new venture into news on the internet.

            The money alone has Professor Farrell certain it will be “a serious journalistic enterprise.  Capital of USD $250 million can hire some very good people.

Perhaps.  But, also perhaps Farrell has never heard of Rupert Murdoch, who started Sky News in the UK in 1989, and has seen his huge investments into video journalism turn into profits and power, but not, at least where his Fox News is concerned, into a serious journalistic enterprise.”

But Fox News has been a dead serious expression of Murdoch’s unbridled, “robber baron” capitalist values, and it has been more successful, or at least more sustained, in selling Murdoch’s POV than the one-time Chicken Noodle News has been for one-worlder Ted’s. 

Then there is the also Farrell-ignored Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, the founder of Al Jazeera Arabic in 1996. The Emir’s investment has not yet turned a profit, but it has greatly magnified his power and influence, and without doubt has transformed (if painfully incompletely) the politics of the Arabic speaking world.

These guys, like Bezos and Omidyar are avatars of the Age of the Super-Rich, Millennial Media Moguls, phenomena you would think would be of interest to an academic who “works on international and comparative political economy.”

Apparently not, although in Omidyar’s case Farrell jumps directly from a promised investment to a series of unsupported conclusions about what it will produce.  First, he asserts that Omidyar’s great wealth will free him from “the kinds of political relationships that most newspapers are embedded in.”

Farrell deduces this from the E-Bay guy’s anti-establishmentarian first 3 hires: investigative reporters Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, of the ongoing Edward Snowden, NSA revelations, and Jeremy Scahill, whose world-class reporting has ranged from Serbia and Iraq, to North Carolina and the Blackwater military contracting company he shamed into Bogus Corporate Name Protection Program.

The trio represent a great start but –.  Bill Paley, quite the fabulously rich media man of his day, hired his most famous CBS radio and TV newsman Edward R. Murrow for journalistic reasons, and tossed him aside over politics.

And, for all Farrell’s cheese-paring quotations from former NY Times editors Bill Keller and Max Frankel, gaming political pressure to kill stories down to, “You win some, you lose some,” and his hints that Wikileaks’ Julian Assange found working with mainstream news organs to be “difficult,” those “kinds of political relationships” did not prevent the Times from publishing The Pentagon Papers or James Risen’s more recent explorations of high-tech domestic spying by the NSA and international covert actions by the CIA.

 Nor has Greenwald ever complained that editors at The Guardian, under enormous political pressure in London, hurt his Snowden journalism.  Even he and Poitras and the team from the Post have all agreed that government deserves both notice of and an opportunity to respond to Snowden’s revelations, and that some secrets should stay secret.  This has not kept them from doing great work alerting the public to the security services’ penetrations of privacy and their lies about them.  Farrell’s insinuations to the contrary are inflated or simply false.

 Of all the telling stupidities in the Farrell article, none of them can top this: he doesn’t even get what the NSA stories are all about.

Snowden,” he says, “has revealed [no] truly surprising and damaging information.  European and South American governments already knew that the U.S. was spying on them. China was certainly aware that U.S. agencies were trying to hack into its systems.”

Henry, the lead never was, “the NSA spies on other countries.”  It was, despite legal constraints and public denials, “The NSA spies on you,” on us, on Americans by the dozens and hundreds, and potentially, hundreds of millions!!!

Students of George Washington University, Rise Up!! Get out those pitchforks and torches!!  Well, no, not that, but golly, … it’s when the Professor gets to the heart of his lecture, the part he condescendingly cues for you, “(but bear with me — our argument is a little complicated), that his remarkable ignorance really shines..

What Dr. Farrell really wants to talk about is what he says journalism is all about: “Established newspapers like the New York Times, The Washington Post and the Financial Times play a crucial sociological role in deciding which information is important and trustworthy, and which is not. When one of these newspapers publishes information, it is legitimated as knowledge — which people are not only more likely to take seriously themselves, but may have to take seriously, because they know that other people are taking it seriously.”

Bzzzt.  Bzzzzt.  Bzzzzzzt.  Hello Professor Farrell, it’s 2013.  You know, the Twenty First Century, and the world no longer gets its news, its information, from the newspapers.  They no longer define what is credible and important.  But the ever-more-dominant contemporary sources like TV news do not appear on Farrell’s radar.  Neither do the already-active internet news and information distributors.  Yikes!

The process of selection of “what matters” has not only spread across media, it has spread across the globe.  Millions of people get their info from China’s CCTV, and Russia’s RT, even Iran’s Press TV, not to mention global platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Weibo.  Oh yes, and there are John Stewart and Steven Colbert and a string of daring political comics from Russia and Kyrgyzstan to Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia (check ‘em out on YouTube while they last).

And what they refine information into is not “knowledge.”  It is “common knowledge” or “conventional wisdom,” neither of which is the same thing as knowledge, which is something tested by experience and evidence.

Also, if you’re gonna profess on “knowledge,” you might want to consider what’s new and different about how it is acquired today.  Most people today see information on screens, not pages, from video, not from text. This helps account for the instantaneous global spread of facts and ideas. 

From these disparate, dispersed sources, people today often gather “evidence” on their own.  They hunt down internet sites with their own two to 10 fingers; they literally see the video with their own eyes, and thus, they tend trust their judgments and conclusions more deeply than those validated by the professional reporters, editors and presenters of the brand-name media.  They might call what they derive “knowledge,” but often it is mere supposition. It is not helpful to confuse the two, but it absolutely necessary to note that the “common knowledge” conferred by mainstream media often feels pallid compared to the analysis of internet-derived video and text assembled at home.

What would be “big journalistic news” would be a real assimilation of the deep investigative reporting of people like Greenwald, Poitras and Scahill, along with the shorter-turnaround observations of both professional reporters and editors and the millions of “citizen reporters” who are both literally and immediately “on the scene” with their cellphone and video recorders.  Hopefully, this could restore the working consensus of “common knowledge” from which informed judgment, real “knowledge,” proceeds. It sounds like that may be what Pierre Omidyar has in mind. 

But, with all due respect to those 3 remarkably admirable journalists, achieving that will take more than they can deliver.  It will require an editorial infrastructure of old-fashioned researchers, reporters and editors, combined with new-fangled outreach and collation of visual information “from the ground.”

What Omidyar and his colleagues will build will not be especially new.  News media, old or new, still depend on direct observation, contextual knowledge, and presentational production.  What is new is this: the sources journalists have always depended upon now operate long-distance, in real time, and their testimony, which still must be collated and evaluated and ordered can be not just self-asserted, but self-published.  Thus the inherent questions sources raise, of accuracy and balance, context and value are both more difficult to define, and more immediate in their impact than ever before. 

And all the slipperiness of endless dispersion and often-unknowable dependability slides to the receiving end as well.  Today’s information consumers can seek out and assemble their own dossiers on stories they care about, forcing every  news product, every news producer or distributor to compete for credibility as never before.

It’s an incredible multi-media, global competition Pierre Omidyar and his staff will be jumping into.  Let’s wish them luck, and figure the questions of how true he will be to the intellectual honesty and editorial independence of his people and his platform will be answered for all to see.

And as for Henry Farrell, here’s how he closes his piece: “If governments start to lose control over public knowledge in the information age, it won’t be because information “wants to be free.” It’ll be because of the creation of new ventures like this that create public knowledge without adhering to the old rules about how government has a voice in deciding what gets published and what doesn’t.”

Uh, Professor?  There ain’t no “if” here. 

Governments have already lost control over public knowledge precisely because information is free.

 Ventures like this one exist in a world of hundreds, if not millions of competing voices supplying what each calls information, which is why the old rules of government deciding what gets published are as dead as a doornail.  If they can stop a story here, they can’t stop it there. 

The UK Government has forcefully shown that it doesn’t want The Guardian UK publishing any of the Snowden materials.  But The Guardian (US) in New York, or the Washington Post or Pro Publica or Der Spiegel (or Al Jazeera, or RT or France 24, or…or…or) make that wish, and the forced destruction of digital copies of the Snowden files in The Guardian’s London office, a ridiculous, futile anachronism.

And transforming common knowledge into knowledge particular and true will still be the job, not of the writer, editor or videographer, but the customer.  May the best reporting win his or her trust.


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