Big Brother Wants You to Shut Up

Here in America, we’re big fans of touting rights that we don’t actually have. If I received money every time I was preached to about the glorious free-press of the United States, I would have been able to pay for my journalism degree no problem.  We love to look at other countries and write patronizing articles about government censorship of journalists and simultaneously ignore the censorship that goes on here at home. 

In a piece by Fox News’ Michael Park, it is revealed that Google censored journalist Matthew Lee after he posted coverage that exposed corruption within the United Nations: 

How big do you have to be to earn the wrath of the United Nations and Internet giant Google?

If you’re journalist Matthew Lee, all it takes are some critical articles and a scrappy little Web site… 

Many of Lee’s stories were featured prominently whenever Web users looked for news about the U.N. using the powerful Google News search engine, a vital way for media outlets both large and small to get their articles read.

But beginning Feb. 13, Google News users could no longer find new stories from the Inner City Press.

This should raise a red flag for anybody who believes in the notion of a free press and anyone who believes in true democracy. To de-list a publication due to an editorial disagreement is outrageous, and something that an American would normally associate with a terrible dictator “somewhere else in the world,” but this clearly shows that we need not look beyond our own borders to find government censorship. In an editorial from the St. Louis Dispatch reposted on Commondreams begins with some very poignant questions that more of us should be asking:

Should your cell phone company decide who can send you a text message? Should your Internet service provider block your Internet movie because it doesn’t like the file-sharing service you’re using?

We suspect that most consumers would say no. When people sign up for a communications service, Big Brother shouldn’t come with the deal.

 

But Big Brother is, and will continue, to be involved in the equation. As we’re censored at home by Google, an article published by AP/ the Sydney Morning Herald revealed Google’s complacency in internet censorship in China as well: 

Google promised to “obey Chinese law” and avoid linking to material deemed a threat to national security or social stability, said Zhang Feng, director of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s Telecoms Development Department, at a news conference.

Why aren’t we more alarmed? Shouldn’t this be an indication of how close the United States is getting to the very same censorship we decry in China? Why is it that everyone’s ok without complacency in censorship both abroad and at home? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I sure as hell will continue to raise them.  One thing is for certain, though: we can’t keep celebrating our free press in journalism classrooms when our free press is eroding at a rapid pace. 

A Part Way Meeting of the Minds

Earlier this week I spoke to my nervousness for hearing from the founder of Legal Insurrection, William Jacobson. While I disagree with much of the content and political views of the material Jacobson’s blog presents, I admire his drive to go against his environment and continue to report on what he thinks is morally correct. He explained that Cornell University is a fairly liberal-leaning institution and that his position as a conservative professor and blogger has garnered a fair share of criticism, with some going so far as asking the school to shut down his blog. Thankfully, Cornell University seems to value free speech and has protected Jacobson’s rights as both a blogger and an ordinary citizen to present dissident opinion without the fear of being prosecuted. 

Jacobson explained that before he started Legal Insurrection, he didn’t even know what a blog was. This is a testament to the fact that the blogosphere has, in many ways, radicalized the accessibility of journalism. It speaks mounds that someone who didn’t even know what a blog was at the beginning has witnessed so much success. (Indeed, his blog is very heavily trafficked.) It reaffirmed the fact for me that journalism should not just be something presented to the public by a ‘specialized class’ as Walter Lippmann might have liked. Rather, our journalism should be for everyone, by everyone. On this Jacobson and I agree.

But, of course, there were a number of red flags that arose to me when he spoke, the first being that Jacobson himself admitted that his blog does not produce a significant income for him that he could do it full time. This is a scary reminder, but also an important one. It’s far to easy to glorify the idea of a blog as allowing everyone to make a living off of journalism, but the truth is you still need to know how to work the system. Jacobson’s blogs are loaded with advertisements and still he says at the end of the day Legal Insurrection is breaking even (though this could be partly due to the fact that he doesn’t offer his readers any incentives to donate.)

Another problematic point, as well as a point of Jacobson and my disagreement, is that Jacobson is under the belief that all mainstream media aside from that of Fox News has a left-leaning slant. I implore him to realize there is a difference between the democratic party and left-wing progressives. Indeed, both parties since the Reagan era have shifted dramatically to the right leaving true left-wing politics out of the United States political structure. I would hope Jacobson keeps this fact in mind in the future before saying that all mainstream news outlets aside from Fox have a leftist slant. He’s wrong, but I think I’d like our media better if he were right. 

The Fight for Free Speech: Corporate Sell-Outs and Political Censorship

It’s a scary world for an independent journalist. On one hand, the internet has shaken up the journalistic establishment, shifting resources back into the hands of citizens so that in today’s day and age (it’s said) anyone can be a journalist. For some, this notion is exciting and I’d agree with them. Citizen journalism and blogs are what have brought us WikiLeaks and Glenn Greenwald as well as coverage that can be seen in Mother Jones or Democracy Now! who rely on tips and footage from their readers.

But, there’s a counter movement to re-assert the idea of a professional journalist and both the political and corporate establishment are seeking to trivialize bloggers and citizen journalists. Sarah Lazare argues in a piece for Common Dreams that Senator Diana Feinstein (who it’s worth noting has significant stakes in the surveillance industry) is trying to define a journalist but identifying those at Wikileaks as “flawed.”:

“The world has changed. We’re very careful in this bill to distinguish journalists from those who shouldn’t be protected, WikiLeaks and all those, and we’ve ensured that,” said Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y). “But there are people who write and do real journalism, in different ways than we’re used to. They should not be excluded from this bill.”

It’s dangerous to draw such moral lines between “real” journalism and “flawed” journalism, especially when we know that Wikileaks has revealed heaps of information pertinent to the American public about government deception. We cannot simply cast aside these revelations as “flawed” because they paint power structures in a negative light.

But this repression is not only in the political sphere. Indeed, corporations play their role as well. Take for instance, the Huffington Post which was once hailed as a beacon for independent journalists. The online news collective pioneered in independent ownership and citizen reporting, but as Guardian’s Paul Harris reports, Ariana Huffington sold HuffPo to AOL, and that raises many new concerns about the quality of their coverage:

But not so much now, especially after Huffington said she had always envisioned the HuffPo as more than just a politics website and said it had no overall ideology. To many observers that seemed like a deliberate rewriting of the past, and certainly a strong suggestion that AOL’s corporate ownership would see it tone down the site’s liberal campaigning.

Something is lost when an independent voice becomes dominated by corporate interest, and the Huffington Post isn’t the only example of this. In Hartford the mainstream daily worked tirelessly to buy up it’s alternative competitors in an attempt to restrict the dialogue again.

It’s troubling in a nation that touts in independent press and diversity of opinion that we are still trying to belittle the idea of citizen journalism. Whether it’s through the political sphere and trying to define a “real” journalist, or corporations using their resources to simply buy out and silence differing coverage, we need alternative voices more than ever.

Agreeing with the means, not with the content.

I must confess, I am equally dreading and anticipating hearing William Jacobson speak today. Jacobson’s blog, Legal Insurrection has pioneered the conservative blogosphere. His blog seems to work off a somewhat sustainable model. His voice and perspective seems to be unabashed, and he ruthlessly provides links which bolster his credibility. Indeed, Jacobson is holding power accountable and offering coverage that is often lacking in the mainstream. It would appear as if advertising is a large part of his revenue stream (given that my gaze is unable to avert the Chili’s ad blaring at the side of the page) but it warms me to know that he’s found a way to create his own independent and seemingly sustainable blog. From a technical standpoint, I greatly admire what it is that he does.

His content, on the other hand, makes my skin crawl. The bulk of his coverage appears to focus on debunking Obamacare (and beyond that still believes in the notion of death panels) despite mounting evidence that the cost of healthcare infrastructure in the United States would drop if we extended health coverage. Some of his coverage is divisive, taking swipes at people who insult the GOP  for being racist despite evidence to the contrary by way of voter ID laws.

Jacobson’s blog presents me with a lot of moral conundrums. His surveillance coverage far surpasses that of the mainstream media, and for that he deserves to be commended. His blog allows him to retain an independent and sometimes rightly critical voice but I disagree with his claims. But isn’t that the point of a free press, to promote this sort of dialogue? I guess I’ll see this afternoon if the dialogue plays out in the classroom.

Friend or Foe: The Non-Profit

 

 

On the surface, a not-for-profit alternative media model appears to be a flawless alternative to the corporate model we see today. Say, for example, you’re a newspaper that caters to LGBTQ issues and advocacy, under this model you would be funded by prominent gay rights activists, maybe a George Takei or Cynthia Nixon, or you could get funded by a deep-pocketed non-profit foundation such as Freedom to Marry or Human Rights Campaign. It’s a sort of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” situation in which it would appear the funders and news-makers have the same interests in mine. Seems great, right? Wrong. An article on Slate.com elaborates:

 

But before we get out the party hats and noise-makers to celebrate the rise of nonprofit journalism, here’s the bad news. In the current arrangement, we’re substituting one flawed business model for another. For-profit newspapers lose money accidentally. Nonprofit news operations lose money deliberately. No matter how good the nonprofit operation is, it always ends up sustaining itself with handouts, and handouts come with conditions.

Indeed, here we can see a familiar problem being reborn. Though funding from a non-profit foundation or prominent activist may upon first glance appear to be benign, much in the same dynamic of the corporate media, news-makers are now beholden to the will of their funders. Say our hypothetical paper wanted to publish an opinion piece by a gay activist who believes the fight for marriage detracts from the overall fight for equality, if Freedom to Marry was a funder they would be opposed to this sort of coverage. The potential in this hypothetical is that Freedom to Marry could then withhold funding based on a political agenda and depending on the paper’s financial standing, they may need to alter their coverage to accommodate this agenda. It’s a sticky situation, because for many new independent media organizations, non-profits and activists are the main source of funding and prove to be more morally sound than corporate sponsorship. Yet the potential still exists for there to be negative impacts on the content of the news organization. Perhaps it’s time to re-invent media funding mechanisms altogether? 

Your Greatest Resource: Your Audience

Independent media outlets pioneer, time and time again, in audience supported funding mechanisms. Whether it be I Can Has Cheezburger or Talking Points Memo, audience participation and generosity play a crucial role. Robert Greenwald and Brave New Films are yet another shining example of this:

The pitch? Gilliam wrote: “To start shooting, we need money. Overall, the film will cost $750,000. We can expect about $450,000 to be offset by DVD sales, selling foreign rights, and an advance from our retail store distributor, but we still need $300,000. A generous donor just stepped up and will contribute $100,000 if we can match it with $200,000 from someone else. That someone else is you! 4000 people giving $50 each. We’ll put everyone’s name in the credits.”

They got $267,892 in 10 days.

The Washington Post article hi lights that left-leaning non-profits were reluctant to fund Greenwald and Brave New Films, but the audience base was dedicated enough that they were able to provide the film company with all the funding they needed. Indeed, they were passionate enough about the content that they were willing to fund journalism they wanted to see. In fact, The Technium goes so far as to assert that all that is needed for fiscal success is 1,000 dedicated fans.

 

A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living…Assume conservatively that your True Fans will each spend one day’s wages per year in support of what you do. That “one-day-wage” is an average, because of course your truest fans will spend a lot more than that.  Let’s peg that per diem each True Fan spends at $100 per year. If you have 1,000 fans that sums up to $100,000 per year, which minus some modest expenses, is a living for most folks.

The idea that the fan base can propel your independent media outlet offers a lot of inspiration to me especially as a soon-to-be journalist. If the audience is your means of funding, then your responsibility is always to your audience and your accountability is based solely on your merit. It’s an exciting idea to know I could take my professional skills and career into my own hands and perhaps, it could be a financial feasible way of leading my life without compromising my morals. Only time will tell. 

Welcome to the Blogosphere.

Blogs are a unique product of our time. They shift the power of free speech back into the hands of anyone with an internet connection. They house some of today’s hardest hitting news, as well as some of todays most blatant misinformation with sprinkles of bizarre memes, fashion, humor and basically anything else you can imagine. Blogs are what make it possible for people like Glenn Greenwald to deliver hard-hitting news without being beholden to the corporate media structure.

A slideshow from Bloomberg’s Business Week shows the true scope of topics that blogs can cover an that how, with a little bit of ambition, a blog is an achievable and sustainable dream. It goes back to the core ideas of independent media: filling in a niche, or a silence that the mainstream is leaving.

Indeed, all the blogs listed in the slideshow cover a very wide array of topics, but every blogger pioneer was attempting to fill a silence they saw in our media culture. Most of them have seen great success. 

At the same time, it has to take a large amount of guts to dedicate yourself to being a professional blogger. In the beginning, the financial resources are limited. You are left to make a name for yourself off your own innovation, but as we can see what happened with Talking Points Memo, if you’re truly dedicated to good journalism and establish a dedicated reader base, your readers will also be your trustees.

But how to take that leap of faith? That’s a question we each must answer on our own.