Frontiers in Working for Free, New York Review of Books Edition

New York magazine interviews Robert Silvers, co-founder of the New York Review of Books, about how it all started 50 years ago. It's a long, fascinating read; this little bit bears on recent debates here. The NYT Book Review had gone stagnant, and then a newspaper strike put it on hiatus for more than three months, so some editors at Harper's decided to start their own. They called on some writers they knew to provide the content:

The first issue appeared dated February 1, 1963. It has been called the best first issue of a magazine ever published. Looking at these names glittering on the cover, it’s astonishing how many, from W. H. Auden to Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy to Norman Mailer to William Styron, John Berryman to Robert Lowell to Robert Penn Warren, and on and on, are still recognizable.
I remember Jason called his friend Wystan Auden. Lizzie called Fred Dupee—Lizzie and Barbara both. Lizzie called Mary McCarthy, and so did I. Barbara called Gore Vidal. I called Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and Norman Mailer. In the next two days I talked with Jonathan Miller, who wrote on Updike, and then with Philip Rahv, and Dwight MacDonald, who wrote on Arthur Schlesinger.

What did you say?
I said, we’re starting a new book review, and would they write on the book I was sending? They had three weeks. There was no question of payment. No one asked about it. Sometimes they said, “I’d rather do another book.” They all just assumed a new book review was needed.

Read the whole thing.

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More on the Exploitation of Volunteer Athletes

Here’s more on the exploitation of Kevin Ware, the injured volunteer athlete. TL;DR: The Louisville team’s corporate master, Adidas, merged Ware’s uniform number with its latest ad slogan on some T-shirts it then sold for $25.

Selling a T-shirt that capitalizes on an injury to a college kid, who lives under strict rules inline with the NCAA's definition of "amateurism", is undeniably loathsome. However, that didn't stop adidas from immediately taking it to market, of course. When has it ever cared about anything except the bottom line?

The distaste was so obvious U of L said it was refusing any proceeds from shirt sales and instead adidas would donate to the school's general scholarship fund. That is proof the school knew this is wrong in the first place but didn't step up to stop it. It is also just a smokescreen to hide the larger point: adidas doesn't pay millions to Louisville because of T-shirt sales. Any revenue generated that way is a pittance and not the point of the partnership.

Ware wasn't chosen because he was the Cardinals' best player. He was a reserve who averaged 4.5 points and 1.8 rebounds a game. Only hardcore U of L fans had ever heard of him.

No, Ware was placed directly into adidas' massive advertising push for its new slogan solely because he broke his leg on live television. That's it. His injury was deemed a marketing opportunity by a billion-dollar multinational company and neither his university nor the NCAA dared to protect him from the exploitation.

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The Madness-Nomics of Working for Free

courtesy flickr user ilianov cc: by-nc-sa

Courtesy Flickr user Ilianov cc:by-nc-sa

My journalist friends have spent the past few weeks arguing the utility and ethics of working for free — whether a professional or aspiring pro journalist should ever work for exposure or for practice without pay. It’s a stirring debate touching on the conflict between professional norms and pragmatism in a hard economy. But this weekend millions of eyes are gazing lovingly on one of the biggest spectacles of unpaid labor in America, and the differences are stark.

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Hed writers: Don't do this


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Bad Math: Wrong Numbers Don't Help

Image courtesy flickr. user mstewartphotography under a CC license

Image courtesy flickr. user mstewartphotography under a CC license

Journalists and academics both need to check our numbers, both those we come up with and those we get from news releases. Josh Benton flags the opening graf of this study announcement:

COLUMBIA, Mo. ­— Obesity rates have increased dramatically in the last few decades. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, African Americans make up more than 60 percent of the overweight and obese population, while only 13 percent of the total population.

As Benton points out, if every black American were overweight, that would mean the U.S. overweight rate was no more than 22 percent. In fact it’s more like 67 percent, or about 211 million of us.

Some better numbers from the government here. In short, black Americans are about 12.6 percent of the population, or 38.9 million, and about 75 percent are overweight. 38.9 million x .75 = 29.2 million overweight. 29.2 / 211 = 13.8 percent. So black Americans are 13.8 percent of the U.S. overweight population.

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Herbert Gans on Journalism and Democracy

How, exactly, should news organizations approach the changing times? The media sociologist Herbert Gans has some suggestions. One graf jumped out at me (emphasis mine):

Journalists also have to consider how American politics has changed since modern journalism first formulated the conventions and norms for covering politics. Part of that discussion must include the criteria of newsworthiness that now apply and should apply, both to politics in general and to the problems of U.S. democracy specifically.

One big hurdle for traditional news organizations in the 21st century has been overcoming the habits of mind formed when the world was a different place. Longtime journalists tell one another that the way they’ve always done things is the way it shouldbe done, and seeing the old ways as just a set of conventions they are free to re-examine is anathema to some. Gans has spent his career studying these conventions, so his perspective as a well-informed outsider is valuable.

The suggestions themselves — re-examine the relationship between journalism and democracy, extend political coverage to important nongovermental groups and movements, call politicians on their BS when appropriate, do more analysis — are not new, but taken together they make plenty of sense.

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Cover Local News Radio-Style

Local news by flickr user edd, CC BY-NC-SA

Image courtesy Flickr user edd under a Creative Commons license

John Robinson has some good suggestions for improving local news. Among them is restructuring news beats so that reporters don't feel obliged to attend every city commission or county council meeting. I've lately been working part time in a local radio newsroom, where a small handful of full-time reporters cover a city of nearly half a million. And I can say that it mostly works by using the same strategy Robinson outlines: We don't send a reporter to every city council or school board meeting, most of what happens there is the grinding gears and turning screws of municipal government and not really radio-worthy. We do pay close attention if an important matter will be receiving a public hearing or a close vote is expected. But for the most part, we take a wider view of the goings-on and address the issues as they reach stages requiring close scrutiny. Ditto for the state legislature, which meets barely a mile from our newsroom.

It's not perfect, and like everybody else we'd like to have more people out producing stories, for the air and online. But it's something, and we do it reasonably well. Local newspapers have believed for generations that their role is to watch closely and constantly as the wheels turn. But as Robinson points out, the days when we had the resources to fill that role are pretty much gone. The nimble, more selective newsroom can still provide the monitorial function with a new, nimble approach that smaller organizations such as the nearby radio newsroom have been using for years. It can be done, and done reasonably well.

Another benefit of this approach that Robinson also covered: It's not nearly as boring as the old way. "Let's have 500 words on the city council meeting, whether they did anything interesting or not" is a saturation approach to covering the government that unfortunately doesn't keep the news user in mind, since that sort of story is deathly dull. (One virtue of local radio news is that the stories tend to be short; long features have to earn their way.) A less heavy approach may seem less information-dense but also may keep more people's attention and do more good in the end.

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Story Laundering

Say you're a political candidate and you want to say something inflammatory and false, but you don't want to tell a categorical lie in public. Try story laundering!

Start with an unremarkable news story, such as that Jeep is thinking of starting some production in China so it can sell vehicles there.

Let some bloggers on your side make the false claim that Jeep is going to shut down its production lines in the U.S. and move them all to East Asia.

Now you can say, “I saw a story today that one of the great manufacturers in this state, Jeep, now owned by the Italians, is thinking of moving all production to China.” You're done! Wasn't that easy?

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Reality, Shmeality

Michael Tomasky has an important post pointing out that the Republican Party and the Mitt Romney campaign are trying to construct an alternate reality where their candidate is the favorite to win the presidential election Nov. 6. This is a sophisticated version of the tried-and-true "working the refs" strategy the GOP is so good at, which involves immediate and forceful criticism of any media piece that doesn't favor them. In that scenario, reporters eventually start tilting toward the Republican view as the path of least resistance. Nothing comparable exists on the left.

Image courtesy Flickr user jim_and_kerry under a Creative Commons license

In this case, after Romney barely registered a presence in the third presidential debate, Republicans are united in contending that just by speaking in complete sentences, Romney solidified his status as the favored candidate and presumptive president-elect.

Factually, this isn’t remotely justified. At worst from Obama’s perspective, the thing is tied. As far as we know, looking at all the averages, on a state-by-state basis he’s ahead. If you assume seven or eight states in play and go through all the permutations, Obama often wins by taking just two or three of them. Yes, a lot hinges on Ohio. But he can win even without it (he needs a strong inside straight, but it’s possible). Romney absolutely cannot.

Conservatives know all this. But they’re constructing an opposite reality. This is at the heart of everything going on right now, I think. It’s what they can do that liberals can’t really do. They've always done it.  “Romney is going to win” in 2012 isn’t so different from “We’ll be hailed as liberators” in 2003. They say something and try to make it so, and the media go for it time and time again.

Tomasky, if anything, understates the situation. The construction of an alternate reality extends well beyond the political campaign of the moment. Large numbers of people, disproportionately Republican, live in a world where Barack Obama is a Muslim, born in Kenya with an agenda of turning America and the world into a socialist totalitarian state. A vast conspiracy of thousands of scientists — 98% of climatologists worldwide — is peddling falsified studies of climate change in order to … take over the world or something. Oil companies that foul the Gulf of Mexico and powerful Republicans who shoot old men in the face are owed abject apologies. Women cannot get pregnant in the course of being raped. Slaves had it good. There is no one left to speak for the oppressed white man.

Julian Sanchez noted the “epistemic closure” of conservative media back in 2010:

One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)

The alternate reality, of which Romney's inevitable ascendance is but a part, ought to have a name. Other such constructs do. In the comic books I read in my youth, there existed a second Earth known as Earth-Two that was similar to the one I was familiar with. Another universe was Bizarro World, the opposite of the usual reality. That would be a good name if it were not already a cliché. So, inspired by Jeff Jarvis's Internet, Schminternet post about proprietary online spaces that resemble the open Internet but are not, I suggest that the real and the fake worlds be known as Reality and Shmeality. (Or "Schmeality"? Either spelling works for me.)

So the New York Times, CNN (mostly), and other mainstream news organizations live in Reality. Fox News is based in Shmeality; it is the most visible source of Shmeality construction, though perhaps not the most pervasive. Talk radio has for decades served up Shmeality to listeners across the country, mainly in the suburban strongholds of the imaginary.

And these media outlets can be radicalizing for a couple of reasons. One is that they substitute for community judgments the judgment of the host. There’s no cultural back-and-forth where more liberal members of a community can mediate the harsh judgments of the bigger assholes in a community. And second of all, despite the intimate feeling of listening to the radio, the people on it are basically strangers.

Through emotional manipulation and sheer repetition, well-known talkers such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and their less celebrated but no less influential brethren do more than deny reality, they build their own, a sprawling tree house of the absurd, somewhat resembling our world, but full of fear and sinister plots, usually carried out by women in slacks, men with graduate degrees, dark-skinned foreigners, and Frenchmen.

We got some warning about Shmeality in 2004 when one GOP operative (thought to be Karl Rove) dismissed realism as a footnote to history, as Ron Suskind wrote in the New York Times:

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

The term "reality-based community" became a catch phrase on the Left to draw a distinction from Shmeality, but it didn't stop or even slow the pace of construction.

Shmeality has wings devoted to the Left Behind mythos, whose readers are invited to contemplate the destruction of those who think differently from themselves, and the aspirational Ayn Randian fantasies of a world where even servants are no longer needed by the rich, white elite. These constructs certainly inform the shape of the world.

We all have our fantasies where we can retreat from the world for a time to recharge or simply rest up. But Shmeality isn’t just a mental spa for the resentful suburbanite. As we see in the presidential campaign, it bleeds into Reality and infects our public discourse. With Shmeality, working the refs progresses past a play for political advantage and becomes a takeover attempt. Journalists and other commentators and activists are outnumbered and have only finite resources with which to resist. It’s been said that we make our own reality, but others make theirs as well, and when they get organized, they can try to replace ours with theirs, by hook or crook. Shmeality is a harsh, oppressive world. It cannot replace the physical world — denying climate change won't stop it from happening — but it can overwrite our social relations, replacing community with paranoia, science with superstition, aspiration with resignation, and democracy with bullying oppression.

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Reddit: The Front Page of the Internet, Boys Only

Photo courtesy Flickr user vandalog under a Creative Commons license

So Reddit’s number-one troll has been exposed, along with the good-old-boy culture that enabled his perversions. The exposure of such a high-profile pervert as Michael Brutsch, better known as Violentacrez, is a good thing. But the environment he leaves behind at Reddit is likely something the proprietors of the it-forum of the participatory culture would prefer stay out of sight.

Brutsch/Violentacrez gained forum fame as the creep behind the subreddit r/jailbait, which featured sexualized photos of teenage girls, most of them either taken without the subjects’ knowledge or pirated from their social-media accounts. Reddit eventually shut the forum down when it started drawing public attention. But Brutsch’s other projects continued, in particular moderating r/creepshots, where members posted surreptitious photos of unsuspecting women.

Brutsch also has started subreddits glorifying racism, violent misogyny, and anti-Semitism just to enrage his critics. He was effectively an unpaid functionary of Reddit, moderating dozens of subforums and mentoring other moderators. He was quite friendly with Reddit's paid staff.

So when Adrian Chen's article revealed him as a 49-year-old programmer for a debt-peonage company in Arlington, Texas, meaning his neighbors and employer would know about his free-time perversions, Reddit sprang into action. Brutsch 2012 was Sandusky 1998, and the moderator community closed ranks. First the popular r/politics subreddit, followed by dozens of others, banned all links to Gawker. The article itself was banned sitewide for a day, and many subreddits blocked links to articles that even mentioned the affair.

Excuses for Brutsch's obsessions with underage girls, and with bad behavior in general, took the tack that it was OK because it wasn't illegal. “The idea of free speech is sacred to many Reddit users, a product of the free-wheeling online message board culture from which Reddit springs. If you criticize someone else for posting something you don't like, you are a whiny fascist.” (Chen)

Of particular relevance here is that r/politics participated in the Gawker blacklist. That board is where al Jazeera English turned for reactions to the first presidential debate. It's an exemplar of participatory culture — except that now its embrace of freedom is in question.

I had been planning to turn to Reddit as a part of a study of journalistic values in participatory spaces for my dissertation. It seemed ideal: Open membership, high participation, encouragement of linking, crowdsourced feedback in upvotes and downvotes, and so forth. But now that it's revealed to be willing to carry out vendettas against perceived enemies, it requires a second look.

What this means is – to quote Susan Werner (@pyroshy) – if our response to Chen’s exposé is to focus solely on Michael Brutsch, “we’re letting all the systems that enable him off the hook,” and losing sight of the broader culture of complicity in attitudes that lead to extreme cases like Violentacrez/Reddit’s creep culture. In fact, I’d argue that the real story in Chen’s piece is not so much the disclosure of Violentacrez’ identity as it is the culture at Reddit that enabled him – and the parallels to how our culture as a whole produces and consumes sexualized and exploitative images of girls and women.

What does the Gawker vendetta tell us about participatory spaces in general? Clearly such spaces need some sort of moderation to be useful to a broad range of users, otherwise 4chan, the second-largest English-language Internet forum, would have dominated the genre for years. Effective moderators reflect and promote the shared values of the site where they work; these values may be transmitted as directives, if the space is part of a top-down hierarchy such as a comment forum on a news website, or as an emergent ethos of a more horizontal social structure. Mods on Reddit have generally used a light touch, since the community itself can self-moderate to a great extent via those upvotes and downvotes. The result is an almost-anything-goes space where anti-normative behavior goes unrewarded.

Now, though, we see that creepiness and, yes, rape culture are not anti-normative on Reddit, which is overwhelmingly male. The contributions of r/Politics and related fora must be seen as coming through this filter. Much as we'd like to see an egalitarian participatory space with such large numbers of contributors, we have to see Reddit as explicitly gendered.

That's unlikely to change anytime soon. Many more eyes are on Reddit these days, so it's putting on at least a show of good behavior. But whether the culture shifts even a little bit remains to be seen, and the chances of an influx of women joining the site are basically nil. Reddit remains an important online space, but we need to recognize it’s not a representative one.

I wasn’t sure where to put this quote from Deanna Zandt, so I’ll close with it:

This is ultimately the issue that I have with insisting that Reddit, the service, has a role simply as an agnostic player. We are starting to learn now, 20 years after the Web started hyperconnecting us all together, that there is no such thing as an agnostic, neutral service. I keep thinking of the title of Howard Zinn’s autobiography, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Social services are moving trains, organisms that we’ve created and infused with our own humanity. That means we have to take great responsibility for them. They are, in many ways, our children. When our kids behave badly, we can’t shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, I’ve raised my kid to be neutral, I can’t help it if this is what the kid decides to do.”

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