A Philosopher's Blog

The Erosion of the Media

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 17, 2016

A free and independent press is rightly considered essential to a healthy democracy. Ideally, the press functions like Socrates’ gadfly—it serves to reproach the state and stir it to life. Also like Socrates, the press is supposed to question those who hold power and reveal what lies they might tell. Socrates was, of course, put to death for troubling the elites of Athens. While some countries do the same with their journalists, a different approach has been taken in the United States. To be specific, there has been a concerted effort to erode and degrade the free press.

While the myth of the noble press is just that, the United States has long had a tradition of journalistic ethics and there have been times when journalists were trusted and respected. Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite are two examples of such trusted and well-respected journalists. Since their time, trust in the media has eroded dramatically.

Some of this erosion is self-inflicted. While the news is supposed to be objective, there has been an ever increasing blend of opinion and fact as well as clear partisan bias on the part of some major news agencies. Fox News, for example, serves to openly advance a right leaning political agenda and shows shamefully little concern for objective journalism. Its counterpart on the left, MSNBC, serves to advance its own agenda. Such partisanship serves to rightly erode trust in these networks, although this erosion tends to be one sided. That is, partisans often put great trust in their own network while dismissing the rival network. Critics of the media can make an argument by example through piling up example after example of bias and untrue claims on the part of specific networks and it is natural for the distrust to spread broadly. Except, of course, to news sources that feed and fatten one’s own beliefs. A rather useful exercise for people would be to apply the same level of skepticism and criticism they apply to the claims by news sources they like as to those made by the news sources they dislike. If, for example, those who favor Fox News greeted its claims with the same skepticism they apply to the media of the left, they would become much better critical thinkers and be closer to the truth.

While the news has always been a business, it is now primarily a business that needs to make money. This has had an eroding effect in many ways. One impact is that budget cuts have reduced real investigative journalism down to a mere skeleton. This means that many things remain in the shadows and that the new agencies have to rely on being given the news from sources that are often biased. Another impact is that the news has to attract viewership in order to get advertising. This means that the news has to appeal to the audience and avoid conflicts with the advertisers. This serves to bias the news. The public plays a clear role in this erosion by preferring a certain sort of “news” over actual serious journalism. We can help solve this problem by supporting serious journalism and rewarding news sources that do real reporting.

Much of the erosion of journalism comes from the outside and is due to concerted war on the press and truth. As a matter of historical fact, this attack has come from the political right. The modern efforts to create distrust of the media by claiming it has a liberal bias goes back at least to the Nixon administration and continues to this day. Sarah Palin seems to have come up with the mocking label of “lamestream media” as part of her attacks on the media for having the temerity to report things that she actually said and to indicate when she said things that were not true. It is not surprising that she has defended Donald Trump from the media’s efforts to inform the public when Trump says things that are untrue. Given this long history of fighting the press, it is not surprising that the right has developed a set of weapons for battling the press.

One approach, exemplified by Sarah Palin’s “lamestream media” approach is to simply engage in ad homimens and the genetic fallacy. In the case of ad hominems, individual journalists are attacked and this is taken as refuting their criticisms. Such attacks, obviously, do nothing to refute the claims made by journalists (or anyone).  In the case of the genetic fallacy, the tactic is to simply attack the media in general for an alleged bias and concluding, fallaciously, that the claims made have been thus refuted. This is not to say that there cannot be legitimate challenges to credibility, but this is rather a different matter from what is actually done. For example, someone spinning for Trump might simply say the media is liberally biased and favors Hillary and thus they are wrong when they claim that Trump seems to have suggested someone assassinate Hillary Clinton. While it would be reasonable to consider the possibility of bias, merely bashing the media does nothing to disprove specific claims.

Another standard tactic is to claim that the media never criticizes liberals—that is, the media is unfair. For example, when Trump is called out for saying untrue things or criticized for claiming that Obama founded Isis, his defenders rush to claim that the media does not criticize Hillary for her remarks or point out when she is lying. While an appeal for fair play is legitimate, even such an appeal does not serve to refute the criticisms or prove that what Trump said is true. There is also the fact that the press does criticize the left and does call out Hillary when she says untrue things. Politifact has a page devoted to Trump, but also one for Hillary Clinton. While Hillary does say untrue things, she gets accused of this less than Trump on the very reasonable grounds that he says far more untrue things. To use an analogy, to cry foul regarding Trump’s treatment would be like a student who cheats relentlessly in class complaining that another student, who cheats far less, does not get in as much trouble. The obvious reply is that if one cheats more, one gets in more trouble. If one says more untrue things, then one gets called on it more.

Not surprisingly, those who loath Hillary or like Trump with make the claim that fact checkers like Politifact are biased because they are part of the liberal media. This creates a rather serious problem: any source used to show that the “liberal media” has the facts right will be dismissed as being part of the liberal media. Likewise, any support for criticisms made by this “liberal media” will also be rejected by claiming the sources is also part of the liberal media. Bizarrely, even when there is unedited video evidence of, for example, something Trump said this defense will still be used. While presented as satire by Andy Borowitz (clearly a minion of the liberal media), the fact is that Trump regards the media as unfair because it actually reports what he actually says.

While the erosion of the media yields short term advantages for specific politicians, the long term consequences for the United States are dire. One impact of the corrosion of truth is that politicians are ever more able to operate free of facts and criticism—thus making politics almost entirely a matter of feelings unanchored in reality. Since reality always has its way eventually, this is disastrous.

What is being done to the media can be seen as analogous to the poisoning of the village watchdogs by a villager who wishes to engage in some sneaky misdeeds at night and needs the dogs to be silent. While this initially works out well for the poisoner, the village will be left unguarded.  Likewise, poisoning the press will allow very bad people to slip by and do very bad things to the public. While, for example, Trump’s spinning minions might see the advantage in attacking the press for the short term advantage of their candidate, they also clear a path for whatever else wishes to avoid the light of truth. Those on the left who go after the media also deserve criticism to the degree they contribute to the erosion. The spurning of truth is thus something we should be very worried about. Merlin, in Excalibur, put it very well: “when a man lies, he murders some part of the world.” And without a healthy press, people will get away with murder.



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Same Sex Wedding Announcements

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 26, 2010
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While same-sex marriage is legal in New Hampshire the state’s largest newspaper, The Union Leader, refused to publish a wedding notice for a same sex couple. The publisher of the paper, Joseph McQuiad, claimed that the paper is not anti-gay. However, he noted that the paper’s position is that marriage should be restricted to being between a man and a woman.  Not surprisingly, he also made reference to the First Amendment.  Also not surprisingly, some people were critical of the newspaper’s decision and stance. For example, Democratic Senate candidate  Paul Hodes asserted that the paper should change the policy because same sex marriage is legal.

It does make sense to side with freedom of expression in regard to the paper. After all, as has been pointed out by others, the folks running the newspaper have the moral right to decide what they will and will not print. Naturally, this can have repercussions and consequences, but freedom of expression does seem to include the right to not express things as well. Since the paper has a stance on the issue of same sex marriage and publishing such an announcement could be taken as endorsing the practice it certainly seems reasonable that they can refuse to do so. Also, the newspaper has no obligation to serve as the vehicle by which the wedding is announced and, as such, the newspaper folks would not seem to be acting incorrectly in this regard.

It can also be argued, as some people have, that the newspaper folks have a right to decide what they publish because they are a private business. As such, they have the right to refuse such a request. While this does have a certain appeal, this does seem like a problematic line.

This is because it seems immoral for private companies to discriminate in regards to their services. After all, stores cannot refuse to sell to people on the basis of their sexual orientation nor can lenders refuse to loan based on race. Imagine, if you will, that the newspaper had refused to publish a marriage announcement involving a white woman and a black man on the grounds that the newspaper held that marriage should only be between people of the same race. This would, obviously enough, generate considerable outrage and would seem to be a wrongful act of racism.

Of course, it could be replied that the newspaper is not denying a paid service when it refuses to publish a free announcement. However, the newspaper does sell Wedding Notices and refusing to sell those to a same sex couple would seem to be on par with refusing to sell any other good or service because of a bias or prejudice. Now, it could be argued that marriage is a special case. After all, a person cannot buy a wedding notice to announce something that is not a wedding and the newspaper defines weddings as involving one man and one woman. Of course, the state defines this otherwise and this would seem to create a bit of a problem in terms of justifying excluding same sex couples in a way that is not actually discrimination. It is, no doubt, just a matter of time before some clever lawyer figures a way to work out a law suit on the grounds of discrimination in regards to selling notices.

Naturally, the newspaper can fall back on a right to refuse to sell. However, always refusing to sell notices for same sex couples would, obviously enough, create a clear pattern of discriminatory. It would be like a restaurant saying that they have the right to refuse service to anyone and then always excluding Hispanics.

As far as respecting the law of New Hampshire, declining to publish the announcement has no connection to the legality of same sex marriage. The fact that something is legal does not, obviously enough entail that newspapers are obligated to publish announcements for such activities. Also, the law that makes such marriage legal does not mandate that newspapers publish such announcements.  As such, there seems to be no legal problem in regards to Hodes’ claim.

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Posted in Business, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on August 11, 2010
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The word on the street is that the traditional newspaper and news magazine are on the way out. Their successor is, of course, supposed to be internet news in general and blogs in particular. Since the business of news is the business of making money, there is the question of whether or not the rising blog system will be able to make money. I am tempted to manufacture a term like neblog (for “News Blog”) or IN (Internet News), but will resist that temptation and just misuse the term “blog” to cover all that sort of stuff.

Individual blogs are generally not moneymakers in any significant sense. Most folks make nothing (or even lose money on what they pay for hosting and internet access). A few folks do make it big with a somewhat ironic book deal and many more pull in a bit from various ads. However, the individual blogger is something of a  side note here. What matters, it can be argued, are the big players. To use an obvious analogy, while individual authors of books do matter, it is the book publishers that are the big players.

Blog sites that are part of traditional media companies can subsist on the profits garnered via the traditional media aspect of the business. As such, there is less need to worry about the blogs themselves generating income for the company. In fact, there is the concern that the blogs might actually be the cause of lost revenue. As one might argue, there seems to be little sense in subscribing to Newsweek when the content is available for free on the web.

When it comes to blog sites that lack a revenue stream from a supporting company, there seem to be two main options for making money. One is to charge for content. This runs into numerous problems. First, people are conditioned to expect free content. Getting over that conditioning is not impossible, but it remains a formidable hurdle. Second, the web is awash with high quality free content. Since sensible people will not be inclined to buy milk when they can get equally good milk for free, this is also a serious problem.

Companies might be able to deal with these problems by transitioning from the free model to the paid model, provided that enough companies make this transition. This, of course, is a classic scenario. The media companies all gain if all of them switch to this model. This is because people will have to pay for the top content and there will be little in the way of free alternatives of comparable quality. This means more revenue for these companies, which is the goal of business. However, companies that switch early run an obvious risk-if they charge for their content while other companies provide free content of equal quality, most people will go for the free content.

It might be wondered what good this will do the companies that stay with the free model. After all, getting more “customers” who pay nothing is hardly a win. However, it can be an advantage in two (or more) ways.

One is that the company with free content can make some money through advertising revenue. While selling internet advertising is not currently nearly as profitable as traditional media advertising, it is a source of revenue. More visitors means more income. As Google shows, making a few pennies here and there can add up when there are many heres and plenty of theres.  Of course, if there are not enough heres and theres, then such ad revenue will be rather meager. The challenge is to generate enough traffic so that those pennies are dropping in by the millions.

A second way a company can do well with free content is to use at as a way to beat the competition in the long term. Companies that start to charge will lose much of their audience to companies that do not and eventually many of these sites might simply fail. The companies that have the resources to endure the income drought of the free content phase can then switch to charging after their competition has been eliminated or severely weakened. So staying free for now and soaking up losses can be a way to win in the end, provided that the competition has less endurance.

Another way a company might be able to make money with free content is to find ways to mine their audience for data to sell. This can be done the obvious way by making use of tracking. It can also be done by examining the content of audience comments for useful information. While this is rather questionable, I suspect it can be a rather nice source of income.

As such, while a collective switch to the paid model would be good for all, being able to use the free model to bleed the competition might prove even better for some. Of course, this might end up in disaster-companies that keep the free model going in the hopes of making a profit in the end might find that they cannot survive this process.

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There Was the News

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 24, 2010
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The news, it seems, is in danger. The most obvious sign is the fact that printed news media is not doing as well as it once did. However, other forms of news media are facing challenges as well.

One obvious factor is the web. Newspapers, which were having a hard enough time competing against TV, have not fared very well against this medium. Part of this is simply the way advances in technology work (when was the last time you heard a town crier or received a telegram?). Part of this is due to the  disease of “freeitis” that infects the web. For some odd reason, many of the folks driving the expansion of the web were able to sell business on the idea that they could make money by providing stuff for free. While this has helped Google (they make good money putting ads among all that free content), this has not worked out so well for the news providers. After all, it makes little sense to pay for news that you can get for free on the web.  Amazingly enough, few of the geniuses behind this realized that free stuff generally does not generate much in the way of profits without there being stuff that is not free.

Obviously enough, news companies need to find ways to monetize the news on the web. While it will be difficult to cure people of freeitis, it can be done. People will, after all, pay for content. The success of iTunes, Kindle and so on have shown this. However, the news folks will need to step up to the challenge.

Another factor is consolidation. Most of the media is now owned by a very few large corporations and this has helped reduce the number of news sources. While this allows large news companies to exist and gain the advantages of having considerable resources, it does tend to thin out the alternatives. This can, as some have claimed, lead to media bias due to a lack of diversity.

This challenge is a tough one. After all, getting the news can be an expensive operation and this seems to require that news companies be large. For example, a small town newspaper or blogger probably cannot afford to send journalists to Iraq to cover the war or even to Washington to report on politics there. That said, smaller news operations can do well, provided they find a niche. Interestingly enough, local bloggers and news has been doing quite well in some places. After all, CNN is not going to cover a local clam festival in Maine or the local events in Tallahassee, Florida.

Yet another factor is that the news business model is based primarily on advertising. As such, the news has to provide what will attract an audience. One effect of this is the existence of partisan (biased) news services. Fox News  and MSNBC rather clearly present a political agenda and even CNN has been accused of a liberal bias.

But, someone might point out, Fox News is doing great. How is this a problem? The problem is not that Fox News and others are not providing content. Rather it is that they are not really providing news. While a degree of bias is unavoidable, there is a clear and meaningful distinction between news reporting and commentary masquerading (often very poorly) as news. We are in an ocean of news, but it is a case of  “water, water all around…but not a drop to drink.”

In terms of fixing this, the fix lies with mostly with us. The media folks give us what we want and if we want pseudo-news, that is what they give us. As such, we need to be more critical of the news and push the media folks towards being fair and balanced. We also need to push for higher quality content.

It might be wondered why this matters. That is, why worry about the news? Why not just let the news media become partisan fluff and let the blogs take over?

One selfish answer is that most bloggers need the news. After all, it is rather hard to write about current events, politics and so on without a source of information. Like most bloggers, I shamelessly make use of the news. I am, however, careful to credit my sources and provide links to the originals. I also make a point of subscribing to news magazines even when I could get the information for free.

That said, much of the information in the news is provided to the news companies by governments, businesses, press agents, and non-professionals (like the iReporters of CNN). In reality, news companies devote few resources to investigative journalism. As such, bloggers and their kin could do a lot of what the news folks do now (that is, get emails from politicians and companies).

However, the professional news agencies do engage in journalism and investigation that the bloggers and their kin lack the resources to do. Additionally, the professional organizations have (or often have) credibility that arises from a review process that bloggers and the kin generally cannot match. Naturally, their are bloggers who are professional grade and news organizations do make serious mistakes (and suffer from bias). Interestingly, bloggers who become professional grade often transform from being just bloggers to true news folks and editorialists. As such, what might occur is not so much an extermination of the news in favor of blogging, but an evolution of both blogging and news towards a somewhat new form of information and commentary. After all, the traditional news folks have moved towards the web and many bloggers have started moving towards the roles played by the traditional news folks.

Another answer is that the news, despite its problems, is a critical part of democracy and having informed citizens. It is no accident that the founding fathers provided protection for the press and also recognized the importance of the news. The folks in the media often serve a vital role in exposing problems and dangers-such as corrupt politicians, dangerous products and so on. As such, the news folks are an important part of our society and social system. Professional news and professional commentary are well worth preserving. While times seem tough now, I have confidence that this is primarily a transition and evolutionary phase for the news-rather than a slide into extinction.

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Media Error & Bias

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 18, 2009

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 29% of Americans believe that news organizations get their facts straight while 63% claim that news stories often are lacking in accuracy. This is a change from the results of a similar survey in 1985. In that survey, 55% regarded news stories as accurate while 34% took them to be inaccurate. The change from 1985 to 2009 has been a gradual one with people increasingly regarding the news media as lacking in accuracy.

Another interesting finding is that 26% claim that news organizations are careful to avoid politically biased reporting. 60% of those surveyed claimed that the news organizations are politically biased.

Obviously, the fact that people believe that the news organizations have problems with accuracy and bias does not prove that these problems exist. After all, what most people believe and what is actually true are two distinct things. However, it is interesting to consider why there is such distrust of the media.

One obvious possibility is that the media is prone to error and is also biased. Obviously, folks in the media make mistakes and there have been some rather famous (or infamous) cases of the media fouling up. Perhaps the best known example of this was the incident involving Dan Rather and the infamous memo.

Of course, whether or not the media has significant problems with accuracy is something that can be tested. The method is, in theory, quite simple: take the claims made by the news folks and test them objectively to see if they are accurate or not. Naturally, the implementation of this testing would require an objective testing agency.

In regards to media bias, the natural thing to do is to turn to the experts. Unfortunately, the experts disagree. For example, Eric Alterman argues that the liberal bias is a myth (What Liberal Bias?) while Bernard Goldberg contends that the bias is a fact (Bias). Fortunately, bias can also be investigated. One way to do this is to consider news reports and assess them in an objective manner for favorable and unfavorable slanting. What the news organizations report also can indicate possible bias. For example, if a new organization regularly covers misdeeds by Republicans in depth while providing little coverage of comparable misdeeds by Democrats, then there are grounds for suspecting bias.

It is, unfortunately, well established that the news media is influenced by the government and this results in biased reporting. During its first four years the Bush administration spent a quarter of a billion dollars on fake “news” about Medicare, Iraq, Social Security, and No Child Left Behind. It should be noted that the Clinton Administration was also active in manipulating the media.

In some cases biased reporting is purchased. For example,  between 2004 and 2005 three editorialists were exposed for taking money directly or indirectly from the Bush Administration to promote its policies and programs. Armstrong Williams received $200,000.

Another infamous example of government manipulating the news is how in 2007 FEMA held a “press conference” in which FEMA staff members asked the questions. The White House spokesperson replied by saying that the practice was not employed by the White House and was not something that was condoned. This reply was reported uncritically by the White House Reporters, despite the fact that the White House has done the same in the past. This might indicate incompetence on the part of reporters rather than bias, though.

Thus, the media does make errors and does suffer from bias. Of course, the question remains as to the amount of errors and the degree of bias that each specific news organization suffers from.

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Are Newspapers Doomed?

Posted in Business, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 7, 2009
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When I was a kid, my family got the Bangor Daily News every morning. I’d start with the comics and read most of the paper-especially the stories relating to politics and science. When I go back home to Maine to visit, I still read the Bangor Daily and the Portland Press Herald. Although I now live in Tallahassee, I’ve only read the Tallahasse Democrat a few times and do not subscribe. Given that many newspapers are in dire straits and experts are talking about the death of print, I am clearly not alone.

So, why are some newspapers doing so poorly?

In some cases, the answers have nothing to do with newspapers but with poor business choices and management. For example, a newspaper might have failed to keep up with the times or not done a very good job selling advertising. While these are obviously problems, they are not specific to newspapers.

One of the sweeping reasons put forth is the internet. This relatively new media impacts the newspaper in many ways and is perhaps the most serious threat to newspapers (although TV has long been nibbling away at them-especially 24 hour cable TV).

First, running a print newspaper is fairly expensive: the paper has to be printed, reporters need to be paid, the papers have to be distributed and so on. In contrast, delivering information via the web can be much cheaper and people are willing to provide content for free (although much is of dubious quality).

Second, there is the speed of distribution. When I was a kid, you got your local newspaper in the morning. If you wanted a national newspaper, you would have to wait because it moved at the speed of delivery. Today, the web provides instant access. As such, this advantage of the local newspaper is long gone.

Third, the existence of internet based advertising and classified ads (such as craigslist) has cut into newspaper revenue, making it harder for them to survive.

Fourth, there is the fact that the web provides a much richer and more interactive experience. You can see videos, conduct searches, follow links and so on. A static newspaper cannot compete very well with that.

Fifth, people’s habits have changed. When I was a kid, many people would linger over the newspaper while eating breakfast or read it while commuting. Today, people live a more rapid lifestyle and the newspaper is perhaps just a bit too slow for that. Also, many folks carry around smart phones or laptops, so they have no need to also carry a newspaper.

A fairly small reason is that as people become more inclined to look green, they might be less inclined to buy newspapers. They are, after all, made from dead trees.

These factors and others have caused some people to predict the end of newspapers and this does have some plausibility. After all, if people can get all their news and such instantly via their smart phones and computers, there would seem to be little reason to buy a newspaper.

Of course, there are some reasons why newspapers will endure for a while. One is habit and tradition. People around my age and older grew up with newspapers and may well still like them. Of course, as we die off, the digital generation will lack that habit and tradition.

A second reason is that a newspaper is cheap and disposable-you can just pick one up, read it and then toss it (hopefully into a recycling bin). So, you can take a newspaper places were you would not want to break out a laptop of smartphone. Of course, we will probably see super cheap descendants of the Kindle that will eliminate this advantage.

A third reason is that newspapers are actually pretty good technology: they do not need batteries, they have high resolution, they do not crash, and they are easy to hold and read. As a comparison, try reading a newspaper on the toilet and then try the same with a laptop. Of course, devices like Amazon‘s Kindle are trying to break that advantage. Also, newspapers have uses after you are finished reading them: wrapping things, stuffing into wet shoes, and serving as packing filler. Of course, that last bit is really reaching.

So, will newspapers die eventually? My guess is yes-once there is a reader machine that is cheap, tough and easy to read on the toilet. That will mark the end of the printed newspaper-unless, of course, some other factor keeps it going.

However, the newspaper will not really die-rather, it will change mediums. Instead of having a paper newspaper, we’ll have the same sort of content only in digital format. There will still be a need for professional writing, professional journalism, and so on in the future.

There will almost certainly be a very rough transition as old newspapers fail to shift mediums and fall behind the times. Also, people will probably be quite enamored of the free content of blogs and amateur reporting for a while. However, people will probably realize that the old saying is true: you get what you pay for.

So, the newsfolks who are able to create and adapt to the new model of newspapers will do quite well eventually. The Kindle might be an excellent model of how this will work: people will buy content to download wirelessly.  Or it might flop. That is the thing about the future-you never know what it will bring until it drops it on your head.

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