Category Archives: Media

Posts that have media-related tests

Part Eight: Different Realities

This post is part of my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US.

Image of a duck, or is it?  If you look at it another way, you see a rabbit.  The duck's bill makes up the rabbit's ears.  This classic optical illusion illustrates how perception creates reality.
There are duck people and rabbit people, and nobody is allowed to be both, anymore. Public Domain, Link

My Mom and I sat down over the last two weeks and watched the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention. The experience made it terrifyingly apparent just how different our realities are as Americans. Camp Red America might as well be on an alien planet from Camp Blue America. We live in alternate universes.

So much of what the Commission recommends is dependent on people of goodwill working together independently of their tribal partisan identities. But can that be done when our differences extend beyond even our identities and determine our fundamental perceptions? If we can’t agree on what is real, how can we agree on what to do about it?

That means that quite possibly, the most critical recommendation the Commission makes is to hammer out a national story we can all accept (6.2). But this can’t just be about history. Before we can even address the past, we need to generate a coherent, unified theory of us in the present. We flirted with this at the beginning of the pandemic, back before Dr. Fauci was politicized. But we couldn’t sustain it. It didn’t take long for our conflicting realities to reassert themselves.

That, then, begs the question; if an unprecedented national crisis can’t bring our worldviews together, what can?

When things transform as radically and drastically as they have in the US over the past 20 to 30 years, one must ask what changed? What is different now that might have led to this outcome? Since this has been a time of massive disruption, it’s easy to find phenomena to blame. It’s Facebook’s fault. The internet did it. The 24-hour news cycle brought us low. One can go on and on.

And one will be somewhat right. All of these factors, and so much more, have contributed to our situation. But I’m struck by one change in particular. The other day my Mom and I talked about the giants of news when I was growing up. Everyone knew who Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings were. And during my Mom’s young adulthood, everyone knew Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, and Edward R. Murrow.

Unusual color picture of Edward R. Murrow hamming it up with a cup of coffee for the Pan American Coffee Bureau.  Murrow and anchors like him helped to create a shared reality in America.
Murrow in 1953. Copyright 1953, Pan American Coffee Bureau / Public domain

These newsmen, and they were overwhelmingly men, had plenty of blind spots. The media was complicit in marginalizing people of color and women. The news of the day didn’t tell many important stories and didn’t report critically on a lot of other important stories.

Nevertheless, the anchors of the three big networks, between them, ensured that most Americans were getting the same information with a similar emphasis. Mom and I couldn’t think of a single person in the current mediascape who has that kind of broad-based authority and gravitas. Our fractured media landscape has opened the floodgates of differing ideas and opinions. In so doing, it has had the unintended consequence of creating conflicting realities.

I’m not sure we can begin to reconcile our realities without a common trusted news source.

That may be the recommendation the Commission forgot to make.

I don’t have an answer for how to reunite our worlds, but the Commission itself gives me hope. One can still find 35 heavyweight thinkers from across the ideological spectrum who share enough reality to have a rational conversation and find a consensus. They can even gather enough people interested in civil discourse to have nearly 50 listening sessions around the country. That has to be a good sign.

Now it’s really up to us. Emergency response training tells us that if something bad happens to someone, the impulse to step in and help varies with the number of witnesses. If you are alone with someone who suddenly experiences a seizure, you will probably help them. But if you are part of a crowd that witnesses the seizure, you (and all your fellow humans) will tend to think that someone else has got it, and not help.

Right now, there are 328.2 million witnesses to America’s convulsions. We’re all making the wrong assumption that someone else has got this. No one has it. It’s up to each of us to try to help. The Commission’s strategies and recommendations are a good place to start.

Part Six: Internets in the Public Interest

This post is part of my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US.

Our Common Purpose: Reinventing Democracy for the 21st Century highlights many things that are wrong in our democracy. Our institutions aren’t as representative as they could be. Our voting system is antiquated. Our politicians aren’t responsive. Our civil society is dwindling. These issues are either long term trends or the result of baked-in functions whose time has passed. The most dramatic and recent problem for our democracy has cropped up over the last 20 years— the internets.  

Surely a network that was already so vast in 2005 should operate in the public interest.
Partial map of the Internet based on the January 15, 2005 data found on opte.org. Each line is drawn between two nodes, representing two IP addresses. The length of the lines are indicative of the delay between those two nodes. This graph represents less than 30% of the Class C networks reachable by the data collection program in early 2005. The Opte Project / CC BY

(I use the term internets because it amuses me, but also because it is more accurate to the current situation. We have a multitude of internets, each increasingly siloed from the others.)

If American democracy was on shaky ground already, the advent of social media has been an earthquake.  

Things started with such promise! Back when my household got its first computer, circa 1995, the internet was going to make everything better. Surely a more connected society would be a more democratic society. Surely the chance for individuals to know people from all over the world and from all walks of life would render our society fairer, more just, and more equitable. Early adopters saw a bright future ahead for all of humanity.   

Back in the early days, we all thought the internet would just automatically serve the public interest.
The early days. Microsoft / Public domain

That was before everyone was online, and we discovered that human vitriol and relative anonymity are a combination forged in hell. Before we all learned how shockingly credulous we are in the aggregate. Before bad actors figured out what spies have known forever: the most effective hack is done on hearts and minds, not machines.  

It is boggling even to begin to think about how to fix the ensuing mess. But the commission rightly points out that we, as humans and as Americans, have created these systems. There is no reason (bar a lack of political will) we can’t change them for the better.  

Perhaps the first step touches on the commission’s second (5.2, tax the advertising online and create public platforms) and third (5.3, regulate private platforms to dedicate spaces to public interest applications) recommendations. Before we can get down to business, we have to reengage with the ideas of a public good and the public interest. When TV started, it was understood that broadcasters were using airwaves that belonged to the public. That is, to every person in the country. Therefore, they owed it to the public to produce programming in the public interest, and they paid for the privilege.    

Somewhere along the line, we lost sight of this principle. And with the advent of the internets, we seem to have lost track of it entirely.  

Perhaps it is because the public good is a little harder to identify. Facebook, Google, and Twitter don’t use the public airwaves, so what right have we the people to regulate them? I submit that our collective data is every bit as much a public good as airwaves, national forests, BLM land, and our coastal fisheries. We may sign away rights to our personal data when we sign up for an account, but our collective data belongs to the public as a whole. And if a company is going to monetize it, they should incur both taxes and fees, and an obligation to provide for the public interest.  

All that is without even getting into the idea that the internet itself is a sort of international public good.

Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, and What's App (pictured as keys on a keyboard) should serve the public interest, since they are taking advantage of public goods.
They may not use the airwaves, but they use the public’s information. Today Testing (For derivative) / CC BY-SA

Once this is understood, taxing these companies to fund public alternatives (a PBS of social media platforms, if you will) and regulating them to serve the public interest on their platforms is fair. They’re using data that belongs to we the people. They should pay for the privilege and use it in a way that benefits us, or we’ll sell it to someone else.  

The commission’s other recommendations in this strategy (5, Build Civic Information Architecture that Supports Common Purpose) have to do with: 

  • how we determine that public interest (5.1), 
  • how we gather data to see if it is being met (5.4), 
  • and developing a data source and clearinghouse for research that supports social and civic infrastructure (5.5).  

These are by far the most technical of the commission’s recommendations. A working group (5.1) to “…articulate and measure social media’s civic obligations…” would be a great start. The commission uses the analogy of railroad gauges when talking about creating interoperability between social media platforms. That recommendation (5.4) is primarily concerned with giving researchers and the government access to the data social media platforms are garnering on us. The final recommendation in this strategy is to create the Democratic Engagement Project, a space hosted by a university or consortium of institutions where extensive data gathered on democratic engagement can be studied, including longitudinally.  

In his 1961 speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, then FCC Chair Newton N. Minow (pictured) called TV a vast wasteland, and extolled programing in the public interest.
Newton N. Minow, JFK’s Chair of the FCC, described TV as a vast wasteland in a speech in 1961, laying out the need for more broadcasting in the public interest. The words are certainly apt for the internets. Today Testing (For derivative) / CC BY-SA

Unfortunately, the United States has become so polarized that even ideas like a public good and the public interest are political. That makes implementing at least three of these ideas (taxes and fees to fund public social media, regulations providing for public areas in established social media, and interoperability and access to data) hopes for the future. In the current political climate, they are going nowhere.  

Our polarization stymies some of the steps to fix our polarization.  

But perhaps this situation won’t last forever. At the end of the day, it is up to us. We think of ourselves, the public, as powerless before the titanic forces unleashed by the internets. We resign ourselves to a toxic sea of misinformation, slander, hatred, and aggrieved whining as if there is nothing we can do about it. In reality, the internets and everything we put into them are ours. We should take them back.  

Duties, Rights, and Responsibilities

In the States, we are framing our national debate around our freedom to (leave the house, shop, get haircuts, go to work) versus our freedom from (COVID19, the unmasked, germs, non-essential risks). But what if this isn’t about our right to get a haircut, or our right to be safe? What if this isn’t about our rights at all? What if we’re asking the wrong question?

I’ve been thinking a lot about duty lately. It isn’t something we talk about much in the States anymore. It isn’t something we have talked about much for a long time. Maybe this is the time to re-emphasize that democratic citizenship and patriotism don’t just bestow rights, they also incur responsibilities.

Hands wearing blue medical gloves sew a calico cloth face mask on a white sewing machine.  Three other masks are on the table.  There is a stack of fabric on the table.  Many saw sewing masks as a duty.
Many undertook mask making as a voluntary duty at the beginning of the pandemic. Is it our duty to wear them? Image via Adobe Stock.

What are our duties in a democracy during a pandemic? What obligations do we have to our fellow citizens? To our government? To the economy? To essential workers? What duty do we owe to our most vulnerable populations, to our neighbors, to our friends and families? What should we be doing for our states, towns, and cities? For our healthcare workers?

We are in the midst of an existential debate about the role of government while in the midst of a pandemic. Should our federal and state authorities prioritize our freedoms from or our freedoms to? What is our government actually for? This debate has always existed in, and to an extent defined, the United States. But in the last 30 or so years the debate has increasingly come to define us as individuals. It has become particularly loud, aggressive, and destructive, and it has become about poles rather than a spectrum of ideas and opinions.

We’ve become so caught up in this debate about what government ought to do, we’ve forgotten about what we ought to do.

Wikipedia defines duty as follows:

A duty (from “due” meaning “that which is owing”; Old French: deu, did, past participle of devoir; Latin: debere, debitum, whence “debt“) is a commitment or expectation to perform some action in general or if certain circumstances arise. A duty may arise from a system of ethics or morality, especially in an honor culture. Many duties are created by law, sometimes including a codified punishment or liability for non-performance.

I posit that duties also arise from systems of government and social expectations. The duty to vote and be informed arises from democracy. Our duty to say ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes is entirely a social norm. (Now, of course, we all have a duty to try desperately hard not to sneeze in public at all.)

A Louisiana National Guard soldier on duty puts a box of food into the back of a white SUV at a food bank.
Louisiana Army Guard Soldiers with the 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team help package and distribute food to the local community at the Food Bank of Central Louisiana in Alexandria, La, March 24, 2020. Soldiers are assisting the food bank to ensure the supply of food for the needy is maintained and distributed during the increased demand from COVID-19. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Thea James)

Our challenge now should be to sort out, as individuals and as a society, the tangled priorities of our own personal responsibilities. Does our duty to stimulate the economy and support local businesses outweigh our personal responsibility to save for all the rainy days we are in for? Does our onus to maximize self-sufficiency surpass our obligation to leave some toilet paper for the next customer (hint, no!)? How do we balance our economic needs with our responsibility to protect our neighbors, coworkers, and families? Is it our duty to utilize our essential services to keep people employed, or to minimize our use to try to protect workers? What can we do? What should we do?

The people who sat at their sewing machines making mask after mask have been asking the right questions. The people putting bags of groceries into trunks at the local food banks are doing or exceeding their duty. The essential workers who keep us all fed and tend to our health are what a retired Royal Navy man of my acquaintance once referred to as ABCD. Above and beyond the call of duty.

Now, more than ever in most of our lifetimes, it is about what we can do for our country. It isn’t about us and our freedoms and rights, it’s about we. We the families and neighborhoods, the towns and cities, the states and the United States, the world. We the people, not we the persons.

Day Twenty-Seven: Aquaman

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good superhero movie. That being said, Aquaman, which I watched the other night with my elderly mother, was objectively terrible. The CGI was lovely, I’ll give them that. But the acting and the plot were better suited to remain in the comics. And I don’t mean a graphic novel. I mean comics.

That being said, it was perfect.

The thing about living in the golden age of television is that there seems to be some kind of unspoken agreement that for a movie or show to be good, it has to be grim. And I understand that. I’ve mentioned before that humans are neurologically wired to give attention and weight to negative events and experiences. Perhaps this is why happy people seem so boring. No one is going to watch a show, or read a book for that matter, where nothing bad happens. Interesting plots feature people overcoming adversity, not failing to experience it at all.

But all these grim plots do take a toll on us psychologically, maybe even physically.

Incredibles 2 wins the daily double —
superheros and Pixar!

Living through a time when the state death toll pops up on my news alerts every afternoon, followed by the national toll on The News Hour, I’m not sure any of us can afford too high a toll from our entertainment.

So, and I’m a little sheepish to admit it, I am seeking wholesome programming. I’m not a particularly wholesome person, though if you take the word at its roots, it’s not a bad thing to aspire to. But now is the time for Anne of Green Gables, Call the Midwife, Pixar, and bad superhero movies with hulking protagonists, gaping plot holes, and swelling, blaring over-dramatic soundtracks. Yes, please, the Incredibles 2. Yes, please, Despicable Me. Yes, please, Professor X. Yes, please, nature documentaries, Hop, and Parks and Rec.

Signing off. Take Care, and take care of one another, with a wholesome show, and many some hot cocoa.

Day Twenty-Five: Instagram

I posted my entry to Dorian Mases’ #challengemirrorimage Instagram challenge today. These challenges are everything social media is cracked up to be, but often isn’t. I’m not sure how Dorian, in Lincolnshire, ran across me in Colorado, but he invited me into a great group!

In an online world where tides of toxic sludge lap on shores of hatred, and grievously cynical manipulation is almost a given, how cool is it to find a community that highlights the wonderful potential of our technologies? Through these challenges, I have had rewarding interactions with people all over the world, from diverse walks of life, from multiple generations, and in an endlessly fascinating array of professions. I get positive feedback on my images, and the opportunity to give the same to others.

So often, our online life increases alienation. It can feel like the whole world is full of cyberbullies and ugly political agendas. I feel so lucky to have found a refuge where the internet actually does what it is supposed to, connecting people across our divisions. And I strongly suspect there are many more such communities out there.

The human brain is wired to focus on the negative. It makes sense — too much looking on the bright side and not enough attending to danger can get you knocked right out of the gene pool. But it also makes us prone to missing all the things that are going right.

Looking for the positive is especially difficult right now. It almost feels disrespectful to the people who have been hit the hardest. But it is a really important way to protect our own well-being, and likely even our immune systems. And the more that people can turn themselves to optimism, despite the buffeting of this virus, the better chance we have of putting our economies back together.

So it is worth turning our attention from all the negativity and just general ickyness online, and looking for the communities that are getting it right. I bet there are a lot more of them than we have been led to expect.

Share the good stuff you find. Use your likes and comments to positively reinforce content of decency. And please post links in the comments.

Signing off. Take care, and take care of one another.

Day Twenty-Two: Cheap Thrills

Is anybody else both weirded out and little thrilled to see inside all these famous people’s houses?

I know what David Brooks’ home office looks like. It suits him:

His colleague Mark Shields is my current hero for daring to have a slightly messy office on show. The stack of papers in front of the chair on the right helps me feel better about myself:

Stephen Colbert has a really nice bathroom:

John Oliver lives in a white void:

Paul Krugman has a cool painting, but his blinds aren’t to my taste:

Kids have been invited into their teacher’s kitchens:

Chris Cuomo also has a white void in his basement apartment:

And Bill Mahar has a whole forest in his backyard (with a tiki bar!):

As oddly titillating as I find it to see where all these people go at the end of the day, when they are done being public figures, it definitely does say something about the Volvo-driving, Starbucks-sipping elite.

I’m sure people more tuned in to popular culture can find lots of interesting glimpses into famous private lives. Send ’em my way in comments.

Signing off. Take care, and take care of each other.

Day Six: Socially Distant

Cars line the road at Alderfer/Three Sisters Park.

There is something very strange about living through this global crisis in a relatively small, semi-rural community. It feels very far away. It feels like something that is happening to other people.

This is dangerous, and we must all be on guard against not taking this seriously enough.

My town is incredibly fortunate. Most of the folks up here have money. Most of the rest of us have been here for a long time. We have yards. We have neighborhoods that are optimal for taking walks. We have quiet dirt roads, where drivers know to look out for hikers, bikers, deer, elk, dogs, foxes, coyotes, etc. We have dogs to walk, and plenty of space to stay six feet away when we catch up with our neighbors, walking their dogs.

Self-isolating in a community like this is essentially an enforced staycation.

The more you stay home, the more distant things seem. It makes me wonder if the massive wars of the last century felt this far away from the folks back home. Perhaps they did until the dreaded telegrams began to arrive. This will get a lot more personal for all of us it hasn’t hit yet when it impacts someone we know. It certainly doesn’t feel distant to people in New York City.

It also feels a lot closer to home when you watch good reporting. This is our first really large national crisis with such a plurality of media sources. I find myself missing Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw. The voices of authority for me are Judy Woodruff and Hari Sreenivasan, but there have been several excellent pieces on the NBC and CNN apps on our firestick.

I think we have to give a lot of credit to our reporters, bringing us into the real situation. It is essential for those of us who are fortunate enough to be untouched so far. Reporters are doing a difficult job without the many of the tools of their trade, and often remotely. On the whole, they have risen to the occasion.

But still, in an era where we can all broadcast, it is hard to know who to trust. Are you reassured by the Cornell doctor who said in an online Q&A that if you follow all the rules, and sanitize your hands relentlessly, you are unlikely to get this? Or do you take your cues from news stories advising you to sanitize your groceries? It’s confusing.

There is a danger that, as things get more confusing, people will tune out. This will seem more, instead of less distant, and they will relax their vigilance. I don’t know how you keep this from happening, but I fear the consequences. Keep tuning in to reputable news sources. Keep making this real to yourself (without going overboard and throwing yourself into the morass of anxiety and depression, of course!)

Signing off. Stay safe, everyone, and take care of each other.