A few more miscellaneous thoughts on Martin Luther King Jr. on this day of remembrance.
One: King was a troublemaker. In many ways, he became more of a troublemaker as he progressed through his life. In key ways, in the final years and especially the final year of his life, he was being abandoned by key supporters and sidelined because he was focusing not solely on race (on which the country was then beginning to build at least a notional elite consensus) but on poverty and democratic socialism and the Vietnam War, issues that divided many of his supporters. It is always important to remember that King died in Memphis because he was there to support a strike not an integration march, though racial discrimination and labor rights were and are impossible to separate. Read More →
I am not sure it’s possible to fully appreciate the implications of this sort of thing. Basically all democratic theory is built around the idea people have a roughly accurate and shared view of what’s going on. What if they don’t? https://t.co/dfmG5fQ3va
In the tweets above, leading journalists Ezra Klein and Anne Applebaum reflect the accepted wisdom, raison d’être, and foundational myth of their field: that journalism exists to align the nation upon a common ground of facts, so a uniformly informed mass of citizens can then manage their democracy.
The idea that the nation can and should share one view of reality based on one set of facts is the Cronkite-era myth of mass media: And that’s the way it is.Butit wasn’t. The single shared viewpoint was imposed by the means of media production: broadcast uniformity replaced media diversity.
I’ll argue that we are returning to a media model that existed before broadcast: with many voices from and for many worldviews.
We are also returning to an earlier meaning of the word “mass” — from “mass market” to “the masses” as the political mob, the uninformed crowd, the ruly multitude … Trump’s base, in other words. That’s what the tweets above lament: a large proportion of the nation (at least ≈30%) who accept what is fed to them by Fox News and fake news and come out believing, just for example, that Obamacare is dead. What are we to do?
The answer isn’t to hope for a return to the Cronkite myth, for it was a myth. Mainstream media did not reflect reality for countless unreflected, underrepresented, and underserved communities; now, thanks to the net, we can better hear them. And mainstream media did not uniformly inform the entire nation; we just couldn’t know who all was uninformed, but now we have a better sense of our failings.
In 1964, E.V. Walter examined the shift from “the masses” to “mass” in his paper, Mass Society: The late stages of an idea in Social Research. He wrote (his emphases):
In the historical course of the idea, the decade 1930–1939 is a watershed. Before those years, thinking about mass behavior was restricted to dealing with the “mass” as a part of society, examining the conditions that produced it, the types of actions peculiar to it and their implications. After that time, the characteristics of the “mass” were attributed to society as a whole. This change was associated with significant historical events. One was the development of mass media…. The other was the more traumatic development of totalitarian systems…
Mass media, mass marketing, and mass production turned the ugly masses, the mobs, into the good mass, the marketplace-of-all to whom we sold uniform products (news, deodorant, politicians), convincing them that everyone should like what everyone else likes: the rule of the Jones. Well, good-bye to all that.
And so we are properly freaked out today: The mass isn’t a cohesive whole anymore (or now we know better). The masses have re-emerged as a mob and have taken over the country. We’ve seen how this played out before with the rise of totalitarian states riding on the shoulders of unruly, uninformed, angry crowds. “[T]he masses, by definition, neither should nor can direct their own personal existence, and still less rule society in general,” José Ortega y Gasset properly fretted in 1930 in The Revolt of the Masses.
So what do we do? Let’s start by recalling that before the 1920s and radio and the 1950s and television, media better reflected the diversity of society with newspapers for the elite, the working class, the immigrant (54 papers were published in New York in 1865; today we can barely scrape together one that covers the city effectively). Some of those newspapers were scurrilous and divisive. The yellow journalism rags could lie worse than even Fox News and Breitbart. Yet the nation survived and managed its way through an industrial revolution, a civil war, a Great Depression, and two world wars, emerging as a relatively intact democracy. How?
It is tempting to consider ignoring and writing off as hopeless the masses, the third of Americans who take Fox and Trump at their words. Clearly that would not be productive. These people managed to elect a president. That’s how they showed the rest of us they cannot be ignored. I worry about an effort to return to rule by the elite because the elites (the intelligent and the informed) are not the same as the powerful (see: Congress).
It is tempting, too, to pay too much attention to that so-called base, reporting on the lies and myths they believe without challenge. This presents two problems. The first, as pointed out by Ezra Klein, is that the election hinged not on the base but on the hinge.
I've written this before, but the idea of these "Trump country" stories is you can't understand Trump's win, or his 2020 chances, unless you understand his diehard voters. That's backwards. Trump's political success depends on his least diehard voters. https://t.co/PTKkVhAq6s
The second problem is that by paying so much attention to that base, we risk ignoring the majority of Americans who don’t believe these lies, who don’t approve of Trump’s behavior, who don’t approve of the tax bill just signed. As my Twitter friends love to point out, where have you seen the empathetic stories listening to the plurality of voters who elected Hillary Clinton?
The problem is that we in media keep seeking to cadge together a mass that makes sense. We don’t know how to — or have lost from our ancestral memory the ability to — serve diverse communities.
I argue that one solution is not just diversity in the newsrooms we have but diversity in the news and media ecosystem as a whole, with new and better outlets serving and informing many communities, owned by those communities: African-Americans, Latino-Americans, immigrant Americans, old Americans, young Americans, and, yes, conservativeAmericans.
We need to work with Facebook particularly to find ways to build bridges among communities, so the demagogues cannot fuel and exploit fear of strangers.
We need to work on better systems of holding both politicians and media to account for lies. Fact-checking is a start but is insufficient. Is there any way to shame Fox News into telling the truth? Is there any way to let its viewers know how they are being lied to and used?
We need to listen to James Carey’s lessons about journalism as transmission of fact (that’s what the exchange above is about) to journalism as a ritual of communication. This is why we need to examine new forms of journalism. (This is why we’re looking to start a lab at the CUNY J-school and why I’m leading a brief class next month in Comedy as a Tool of Journalism — and Journalism as a Tool of Comedy.)
What makes me happy about the Twitter exchange atop this post is that it resets the metric of journalistic success away from audience and attention and toward the outcome that matters: whether the public is informed or not. “Not” should scare the shit out of us.
I’m working on a larger piece (maybe a book or a part of one) about post-mass society and the many implications of this shift. A slice of it is how the mass-media mindset affects our view of our work in journalism and of the structure of politics and society. We need a reset. The bad guys — trolls and Russians, to name a few — have learned that talking to the mass is a waste of time and money and targeting is more effective. They have learned that creating social tokens is a more effective means of informing people than creating articles. We have lessons to learn even from them.
The mass is dead. I don’t regret its passing. In some ways, we need to learn how society managed before media helped create this monster. In other ways, we need to recognize how we can use new tools — the ones the bad guys have exploited first — to better connect and inform and manage society. Let’s begin by recognizing that the goal is not to create one shared view of reality but instead to inform discussion and deliberation among many different communities with different perspectives and needs. That’s what society needs. That’s what journalism must become
In late 1990 and early 1991 I spent four and a half months as the production manager for The Pilot, the Archdiocese of Boston’s venerable weekly newspaper. It was a difficult time in my life, and I was happy to take the job. They didn’t ask if I was a Catholic; I didn’t tell them I wasn’t.
One of my responsibilities was to proofread and lay out Cardinal Bernard Law’s weekly column. There wasn’t much to that particular task. As I was reminded in reading Law’s obituary this morning, he had spent the early part of his career as the editor of a Catholic newspaper.
Of course, Law’s facility with a typewriter is not the first thing we think of when we look back upon his legacy. Law was an evil man — evil in the way of people who accept the realities of whatever bureaucratic environment they happen to find themselves in, carrying out their tasks without regard for morality or humanity. Law facilitated the serial rape of children, and if that made him not much different from others in his position, that doesn’t exonerate him, either.
In 2001 I had the privilege of sharing a pod at The Boston Phoenix with Kristen Lombardi, one of the country’s great investigative reporters. Kristen, who’s now with the Center for Public Integrity, wrote a series of detailed articles showing that Law was reassigning and covering up for the pedophile priests under his command. The following year, The Boston Globe began its remarkable Spotlight series, which resulted in Law’s resignation and a well-deserved Pulitzer for the Globe — not to mention the movie “Spotlight.” (Walter Robinson, who oversaw the Spotlight Team’s coverage of pedophile priests, spoke with WGBH Radio earlier today.)
After fleeing Boston 15 years ago, Law lived the good life in the Vatican. I don’t know if he understood the horror of what he had done, but surely he understood that he was a reviled figure. It’s too bad that, when he was still alive and healthy, Pope Francis didn’t fly him back to Boston under armed guard and order him to fend for himself in the city where he did so much harm. But not only did Francis not take such action, he’s honoring him with his presence at the funeral.
The phrase “banality of evil” is unavoidable in thinking about Law. I doubt he even realized he was doing anything wrong until it was too late. His life demonstrates the importance of exercising our individual conscience and of never putting the needs of an institution ahead of human lives. It would be easy to describe his fall as a tragedy, and I’m sure it was to him. The real tragedy, though, was in the suffering of his victims.
With issues like net neutrality and digital news curation in headlines every day, we’re seeing the effects of the growing role that technology has in our lives more than ever. From how we educate our children about new tools to how we decide to regulate internet service providers, we have a set of vitally important questions in front of us. To answer these questions, we’ll need a meeting of the minds—one that brings together the perspectives of government officials, business owners, developers, and citizens from all over the world. This global discussion is the only way we’ll progress toward appropriate solutions and the right balance in refocusing technology on humans. Here are four trends that will shape that discussion next year and beyond:
Net neutrality and the rise of technology populism
We haven’t seen major changes to internet regulation since 1996, when Congress passed legislation that sought to protect infant internet service providers from perceived risks to a “free internet” like the Communications Decency Act. Twenty years later, we’re seeing—and will continue to see—the pendulum shift from internet company exceptionalism and protectionism to greater control and regulation. In 2017, we saw massive changes to net neutrality, service provider immunities, and increased scrutiny on security and privacy issues. Next year, approximately four billion people will be internet users, many of them so-called “digital natives”, with different and evolving expectations for their online personhood. We should expect digital populism to gain steam alongside traditional party populism and to become a standard feature of mainstream politics, reflecting a broader cultural rise in consumer awareness regarding data privacy, security, and the ubiquitous role of technology in our day-to-day lives.
A new world of platform governance
With a greater push for regulation and increased awareness among consumers about how their data is used, we can expect to see a rise in policy standardization and transparency in how platforms govern themselves and their users. This shift is vital if internet service providers hope to continue to “regulate themselves.” Imagine a world in which there are standard policies companies could redlinediff against. Now imagine as-yet-to-be-founded companies that could displace primary movers in search, social networking, or online retail spaces based on their more consumer-friendly data collection, security, or privacy practices.
Tech policy goes global
Regulators in Europe, China, and elsewhere are increasingly setting the agenda on issues ranging from data protection to cybersecurity and AI. Their decisions will set the tone on where—and how quickly—the U.S. will net out on flipping traditional dynamics on their head. These are some of the most important topics of our time, and we have a moral imperative to keep fighting for net neutrality and other policies that keep the internet open to innovation and competition. The consequences of not doing so could be devastating to the developer ecosystem.
Open source goes local
Expect to see major open source initiatives at the city and municipal level. Not only is this essential to government transparency, but it’s also an important way to recruit engineering talent, which has historically been challenging for local government organizations. This trend has been building for years, especially in Europe, and through collaborations like Code for America. In 2017, the centrality of mayors as leaders for the common good was recognized. In 2018, tech policy will be firmly added to their portfolios. Additionally, look for an increase in public sector investment to incentivize more people to become developers.
However these conversations evolve, we’ll be following along closely and speaking up when they affect our community.