Saturday, May 08, 2004

A Revolution in Media Affairs? [draft] 

The ever essential Orcinus has had enough and issues a manifesto here. I hope this post from him is one day known as Orcinus's "Long Post", following George Kennan's "Long Telegram," since both will have inspired a strategy for a winning another long, cold war.

Memo to the SCLM: We're coming.

UPDATE: I'd like to respond to Orcinus's manifesto with a lengthy posting of my own.

Alert readers as good citizens
I'll begin with the notion of "alert reader." I started using this phrase for contributors in the comments who shared information I thought was especially useful or interesting, when filling in for the mighty Atrios. I stole the phrase from Dave Barry, partly to honor him, and partly to honor the readers and their efforts.

But after reading Orcinus, I'm thinking that being an "alert reader" is one qualification for being a good citizen. It takes a lot of alertness and desire to be informed: To get the real story, if that's even possible, from reading our "free press." Why is that? What can we do about it? And can the blogosphere help? I think so, through a "Revolution in Media Affairs", whose ethical, business, and technical foundation I will sketch below. Readers, your feedback will be greatly appreciated. I hope the spark that Orcinus struck with his manifesto roars into life quite quickly.

"Beautiful plumage!"
We the People can't "form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity" if we aren't informed, because if we don't know what's going on, we can't exercise our responsibilities as citizens. The First Amendment establishes a free press for this very reason: To keep power in the hands of the people by keeping them informed. A long train of abuses shows that press has shamefully abandoned its responsibilities to inform. I don't care whether this is due to corporatization, media concentration, or millionaire pundit values: Despite the best efforts of dedicated individuals like Seymour Hersh, the free press, institutionally, is pushing up the daisies.

There's an old Navy saying: "You can't buff a turd." And, really, that's what I was going to do today, and maybe what I've been doing for the last year: To follow along after the Unfree Press, trying to clean up the distortions, make the unmade connections, read between the lines for the real story, hiss the villains, and cheer the heroes and heroines. Trying to clean up our discourse by buffing one turd at a time. It can't be done. Too many turds, and not enough hours in the day.

A Revolution in Media Affairs (RMA)
What is to be done? The question brings us at once to the blogosphere. Orcinus, if I summarize correctly, hopes to intensify the role of the blogosphere as a "central clearinghouse for information in the media revolt," a "media watchdog", an uber-ombudsman, campaigning to bring pressure to bear on the legitimate media and thereby freeing real journalists—they do exist—to do the jobs they need to do, campaigning for the reinstatement of the Fairness doctrine, and so forth.

I disagree. With Carlyle, recall the words of the courtier Liancourt to Louis XVI: "Sire," answered Liancourt, "It is not a revolt, it is a revolution." Revolt would mean that the blogosphere would help the Unfree Press to be a little more free, so they can do their jobs better. Revolution would mean mean the blogosphere would become the Free Press that the SCLM can no longer be.

What needs to be done: Gut the Unfree Press by taking our discourse back from them, and create a Free Press to bring our stories forward.

Creating a Free Press
The requirements for creating a free press fall into three categories: Ethics, Business Model, and Infrastructure.

Ethics. Since the beginning of the slow-moving, Unfree Press-fuelled winger coup that began with Whitewater and ended with Florida 2000, we've seen—with the exception of a few shining individuals like Seymour Hersh (back)—a complete collapse of journalistic ethics. See The Daily Howler, day after day after day. Orcinus summarizes the relentless and corrosive trivialization of our discourse relentlessly in his "Long Post". The Unfree Press simply doesn't cover the story! Rather, as the Howler shows, the Unfree Press recycles the same old scripts (example) [1].

The remedy is an ethic with two parts: (1) Facts rule, and (2) Theories are disclosed.[2] This should be the contract of Free Press bloggers with their readers.

Facts rule. A simple example: I just read a story in the print Atlantic about oppo research, and there, right in the lead paragraph, was the false meme that Gore claimed he invented the Internet. Obviously, a publication with an immune system too weak to defend itself against that meme is doomed to die—eviscerated by faster, smaller, smarter creatures—like thecreatures living in the blogosphere. To defend my interests as a citizen, I should have put $4.95 in a blogger's tip jar, not given it to an enterprise that's corrupting my discourse.

Facts rule! Not stories about hair cuts, peanut butter, interns, cute children, "court news, ... who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out", and all the other phases of Operation Steaming Load. The Media Revolution has to follow the facts wherever they lead, as a Free Press should do. Maybe that's going to contradict some cherished beliefs. Fine. If it turns out that the earth really is 6000 years old, as the fundamentalists claim, then we had better be prepared to accept and deal.

Note, with Orcinus, that the blogosphere has "just in time fact checking" built in. Get a fact wrong, and alert readers write in at once with links to the correct information.

Disclose theories. By "theory" I don't mean bias; I mean a picture of how the world works that is testable. Where necessary, the theory (if any) under which a news story is being told should be disclosed. Example: In my role as Sultan of Snark, I slammed Bush as a narcissist and a sociopath (blog). [Readers: comments on this are OT.] Alert reader Rebecca Allen commented that the two were quite distinct, and as a professional, ethics restrained her from making a diagnosis without having met the man. She fully disclosed the theory under which she was operating, and that raised the level of discourse and moved the story forward.

Here again, the blogosphere, in the person of Rebecca Allen, had "just in time theory checking" built in.

Checks and balances I think I'm getting this twin ethic—that facts rule and theories are disclosed—from the academic/professional notion of the footnote: Footnotes provide alert readers with a check on the authors. (One of Anne Coulter's worst perversions is her abuse of the footnote mechanism.)

Here again, as we have seen, the blogosphere excels. With links and URIs, facts are checkable, and theories can be named and disclosed. For example, when we cite the PNAC plans for a series of wars beginning with Iraq, the militarization of space, and so forth (PDF), we can link to their report, and use "PNAC" as a shorthand for what that picture of the world is.

Note, however, that this ethic requires some revision to existing editorial practice in the blogosphere. Now, a blog is all about authorial voice in the present. Granted, there may be several authors. And granted, the present may mean anything from "the top post" to "this week's posts." But the ethics outlined above mean that there must be more voices than the author's: the alert readers will have voices, too. And fact and theory checking are based on linking, perhaps into the deep past. This means that rich links within, between, and outside of the blogosphere will take on great importance.

Readers, thoughts?

Business Model
The difficulty with the blogosphere—and possibly why Orcinus confines its effect to that of revolt, rather than revolution—is that at present it is still dependent on the Unfree Press. For the most part we are, like it or not, parasites on a news stories generated by others. There are matchbook covers for truck driving, art school, and so forth, but none with "Get paid to blog!" on them.

Reportage means funding. A business model is needed to sustain a Free Press, RMA-enabled blogosphere. A Free Press can't create all its own content for free. Commentary is reasonably easy. All the blogger needs for commentary is a laptop and a connection. Reportage, however, is key. If we have an ethic that facts rule, facts are something we need to go get, not allow to be brought to us. And reportage takes sustained effort, involves travel, may involve liability, and can involve a lot of risk—from nobody taking the story up all the way to getting killed. If there is no reportage in the blogosphere, there is no RMA, and we're still buffing the turds. Finally, in the case of a massive, RIAA-style assault on the blogosphere over "fair use" issues, generating our own, unencumbered content will become critical.

Existing practices. To take the story away from the Unfree Press, and replace it with a story based on the ethics of a Free Press, at least some story writing in the blogosphere has to be funded; no other solution will scale. How can work in the blogosphere be made to pay? Existing practice (besides foundation money and patronage) for funding falls into the following categories:

  1. Make the leap to mainstream journalism.

  2. Sell site advertising and promotional items. The money right now can be "beer money," but could become substantial with time.
  3. .
  4. Solicit donations to cover costs: the server, and so forth.

  5. Solicit donations to cover a story: the Iowa primaries, for example.
  6. Open a tip jar; use PayPal, or some similar service.

Model 1 ("mainstreaming") is all to the good, but not revolutionary. It does not take the stories away from the Unfree press.

Models 2 ("advertising") and 3 ("cover costs") enable revolution—"Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one"—but are not in themselves revolutionary, since they are neutral in regard to the relation of writer to reader (see "Ethics", above).

Model 4 ("cover a story") is genuinely revolutionary: Imagine! Readers funding the writing they want, with no intermediary.

Model 5 ("tip jar") is also revolutionary, since again the contract between reader and writer is altered by disintermediating the Unfree Press.

Proposal. I would like to propose the following extension of the "tip jar" model:

A tip jar for every contributor

This model is also revolutionary, since it insists that any alert reader can become an informative writer. Hopefully, this will create a virtuous cycle, as writing communities develop in which more and more readers support more and more informative writers.

Readers, thoughts?

Finally, let's turn to the technical infrastructure that would underpin an RMA. Without speaking of particular technologies (this or others) I would like to throw out some thoughts, which experts (I am not one!) may wish to clarify:

Storage. Storage needs to decentralized and permit replication. We have to assume that people are going to want to take the system down. If storage is decentralized (yet retrieval from store is transparent) that will be much harder. Similarly, information needs to be stored redundantly (with retrieval again transparent). If the Free Press goes down in country A due to attack, it should be able to switch seamlessly to country B. It may be that P2P techniques have their place here.

Licensing. Creative Commons. Part of me wants to be able to have writers own their material, a la Xanadu. But I'm not sure that's possible with the storage model above. It may be that the answer is in the ethical realm: Material put into the blogosphere belongs to the blogosphere (modulo "fair use" material). The tip jar takes care of compensation.

Protected identity. It will be best for the Free Press if contributors are identifiable. Readers will find it easy to return to contributors they trust, and writers will find it easier to build their tip jars and increase their congtributions to the story the Free Press is telling. (It may be that the tip jar is sufficient reputation system, but of that I am not sure. Readers?) This does not at all imply that contributor's "real world" identities should be revealed; quite the reverse. [3]

Open source blog tool. The Free Press will be much less vulnerable to attack if it runs on open source software. For example, if the Free Press ran using proprietary software on servers owned by a large corporation, no matter how benevolent, one may easily imagine a text-based algorithm built into the software for detection of certain word clusters in certain blogs, with the identities of the contributors data-mined and forwarded to the relevant authorities. If the software on which the Free Press runs is open source and widely distributed, and the storage and identity features listed above are in place, this nightmare scenario is much less likely to happen.

Plug-in architecture. The "facts rule" and "disclose theories" ethics of the Free Press demand a lot of linking, as we have seen: The self-correcting nature of the blogosphere depends on this. Smarter links may be needed for sites that handle particular kinds of stories, facts, and theories. It's highly likely that existing linking techniques are not robust enough to meet these requirements on a global scale. Is it sufficient to arrive at a page without knowing why? Probably not; certainly not in the case of a speaker whose native language is not English. The "class" attribute in the (X)HTML <a> attribute seems to be ripe for exploitation here. (Readers?) In addition, different media must be accommodated. I would like to be able to blog from my mobile phone, send pictures from my phone, send voice, etc. A plug-in architecture would accomodate these different media types.

To summarize: For the safety of the Republic, a Revolution in Media Affairs is required to re-establish a Free Press, and as a consequence disintermediate and gut the SCLM and its MWs. The RMA will not be televised, but will take place in the blogosphere, where a lot of people have "had enough." The RMA needs a foundation in ethics, business, and technology. The ethical foundation: Facts rule; Disclose theories. The business foundation: All contributors can get a tip jar. The technical foundation: Decentralized and replicating storage, creative commons licensing, protected identity, and open source software with plug-ins that support robust linking and content submission in multiple media types.

That's my thought today. I put "[draft]" at the top in case there's sufficient interest in developing these ideas further.

Readers? Thoughts? Post them to the comments or mail me here.

[1] As farmer (back) shows, we're seeing one such story now on CNN with Rumsfeld: A story named by the authors of Military Misfortunes "The Man in the Dock."
[2] The distinction comes from a wonderful story by Adam Gopnick, who explains how his Parisian friends were astounded by the idea that The New Yorker would have a "fact checker." On the other hand, New Yorkers would be astounded to hear of a "theory checker," which wouldn't give the Cartesian French a moment's pause.
[3] We might, following current practice in the executive branch, call this "Blogosphere Privilege": In the current climate, citizens will not feel free to give "unfettered advice and counsel" to their government unless their identities are protected.

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