Sunday, October 19, 2014

Why It Feels Like Entropy is Everywhere

View from the Leopold Museum, Vienna
A few days away from Toronto did some good.

Instead of the relentless bad news about ISIS, Ebola and the Ford brothers, I spent the time visiting friends, seeing some art in London.

In Vienna, more "Wiener Werkstätte" art plus an evening hearing some Mozart in Mozart's house. A little sachertorte didn't hurt either.

But it was impossible to escape reality entirely.

While I was in London, The Guardian published an amazingly sharp critique by a young Indian essayist and novelist, Pankaj Mishra. In a long article, Mishra explains why his confluence of disasters is the logical outcome of economic and political missteps by western countries and western culture. Entitled "Once Upon a Time In the West" it is well worth reading.

Mishra claims that the West has lost the power to shape events in its own image, "as recent events from Ukraine to Iraq make all too clear." He asks why does the West still preach the pernicious myth that every society must evolve along western lines?

Ebola is both a disease and a metaphor. It continues to horrify and fascinate the Europeans as much as it does for North Americans.

While the epidemic is serious and still remains a danger (mostly to West Africans), the anxiety especially in America seems disproportionate and a good example of the media sowing moral panic.
  • CNN's Brian Stelter tweeted that his on his show, Reliable Sources, the ratings went up 50% when they talk about Ebola.
  • Even the CBC has been infected. On Tuesday, October 21st, the CBC is having an day of programming about the disease which, according to one manager is a chance for the CBC to show "there is great value in creating a brand around our Ebola coverage and reinforcing for our audiences that we are THE destination for Canadians to go to for the Facts behind the Virus."
The mind reels at the heartless cynicism of this.

I was encouraged to watch the BBC's World Service television in my hotel in Vienna. An interview with a Canadian doctor pointed out that 1) the epidemic is slowly getting under control and 2) countries such as Ghana and Nigeria have excellent methods of containing the outbreak, thus demonstrating that Africa is still capable of handling this issue without the help of the West.

Media organizations in the West seem to need Ebola to reframe the question about the hapless and hopeless Africans. And if the ratings get a bounce while they are at it, even better.

Pankaj Mishra may be more prescient than he knew.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Why Toronto Should be "Grateful" to Rob Ford

Now Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has stomach cancer and has withdrawn from the mayoralty campaign. His brother Doug will run for mayor in his place, but like his brother, seems unlikely to win. Rob Ford announced he is running for his previous seat on council. At least in theory. Right now, his cancer is the defining issue for him and his family.

Ford is now receiving chemotherapy to treat his particularly virulent form of the disease. He will undergo two bouts of chemo and each will last three days. After each, there will be 18 days of recovery. He will emerge from this treatment on October 30. The election is October 27. Whether he will be in any shape to take his seat as city councillor (there is no doubt that he will win), is another question.

Assuming that Rob Ford's political career has ended at least for now, it's worth looking at the legacy of the Ford years.

Even before he was elected as Mayor, Rob Ford, as a sitting councillor for the previous ten years, was an affront to right-thinking Torontonians. His public displays of drunkenness, drug use and bully tactics may have offended the elites. For many suburbanites, that mattered less. His instinct for retail politics played well. He never met a pothole he didn't want to fix. Even with a tenuous understanding of what constitutes a conflict-of-interest, his frequent displays of mis-behaviour garnered quiet approval simply because he so easily offended the FOOFs (Fine Old Ontario Families) and the media that back them up. More to the point, he didn't give a damn who condemned him.

As mayor, Rob Ford accomplished very little. He was only one vote among 40 + councillors. His objections to various bills were regularly ignored. He claimed to have halted reckless spending, but not so anyone noticed. He said he kept taxes low, but in fact they rose while he was mayor.

What Rob Ford accomplished over the past four years, more than anything, was to demonstrate that Toronto's thin veneer of inclusiveness and diversity was not much more than an urban myth, perpetuated by the same downtown elites that used to run Toronto until Ford became mayor.

Toronto is a city whose race and class divisions are now more exposed than ever before. And Rob Ford is responsible for that. Ford in his coarse and vulgar way, flipped the bird at the old WASP establishment (to which, it must be said, he is somewhat connected), and working class suburbanites love him for that. They may tut-tut his "drunken stupors" as he himself described them, but they were prepared to overlook them as long as he was able to "épater les bourgeois." And did he ever épater them.

Those class and racial division suddenly occurred to me: A few weeks ago, I was walking along Bloor Street West at Spadina Avenue, on the edge of the tony Annex and the downtown campus of the University of Toronto.

At that corner, there are three Heritage Plaques placed by the City of Toronto. They commemorate historical events around the city.

These plaques commemorate when a tunnel called the Spadina Expressway was stopped by a concerted effort of locals and environmentalists. The Expressway would have connected the suburb of North York with downtown Toronto. It would have brought a lot more traffic to the city and it would have massively disrupted life for residents of the Annex with its artists, intellectuals and professorial classes. The great New York urbanist Jane Jacobs had moved to Toronto and she was instrumental in stopping the project in 1971. Downtowners were thrilled and still point to this event as a highpoint in urban integrity and activism.

Symbolically, those Heritage Plaques must personify what Rob Ford dislikes about downtown Toronto: they tell suburban fellow-citizens, in so many words, that "we don't want your kind around here...stay on your own side of town..."

It's the same sentiment that stopped the DC Metro in Washington from being extended into Georgetown. And the same resistance stopped (temporarily) the building of the New York subway into the Upper East Side.

Rob Ford may be on the verge of departing the political scene. But Toronto owes him a curious debt of gratitude for exposing the real divisions in this city. And whoever wins the office of mayor will face an enormous task.
  

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Are Western Journalists Missing the Story from Ukraine?


The editor of the Kyiv Post, Euan Macdonald has been critical of western media in their coverage of the Ukraine-Russia conflict:
"The Kremlin propagandists know that Western journalists are risk-averse when it comes to reporting - they know that while each one of them is desperate to get the story FIRST, it must also be CORRECT. Mistakes will haunt you long after the story has broken and the brief glory of the breaking story has faded. This risk-aversion can be exploited by simply tearing off the shoulder patch of a Russian soldier. Western journalists can no longer report "Russian soldiers are in the process of annexing Crimea." They can't identify the soldiers for sure - they can't risk being wrong, even though it's completely obvious, even to themselves, who these soldiers are. Ditto unmarked Russian T-72 tanks in Ukraine. They can't report what they know personally to be the truth."
A friend and colleague from my CBC days, Alex Sprintsen posted this on facebook:

What Western journalists need to remember about covering the situation in Ukraine: there AREN'T two sides to every story and sometimes if you see what looks like a duck walking, it IS a duck. Will a time come when media managers adjust? Not their principles and values, but their approach to reporting the truth when the rules of the game are different from the norm.
Alex asked me for a response:

Alex - what part of the story has not been reported by western media? As I have been following it (mostly in the NY Times and the BBC which seem to have a ringside seat to the story), the issues that Mr. Macdonald raises are ones that have been covered. I don't sense any particular attempts to paint Russia in some neutral way. There is a Russian perspective (you may not agree with it) that has been reported, even by the CBC. That's the view that Putin has revived a spirit of pan-Slavism (just in time for the anniversary of WW1). It has elements of Sovietism and evoking Mother Russia. Obviously that makes former Soviet republics very nervous. 

And for good historical reasons. Putinism is also an expression of the new Russian crony and statist corruption. And the new Russian imperialism is designed to cover up various failures of Russian politics, economy and society. Nationalism has served that role for quite some time, as we know. So what am I missing here? I'll tell you what I haven't read: the return to a bipolar balance of power. 

Putinism may be a crude counter to the failures of American policies that began in 1989 and took an odd and troubled turn after 9/11. I leave these analyses to the Council on Foreign Relations et al, but we might consider that we could be on the verge of not only a new cold war, but a new international balancing of reinvented imperialisms...one that which might presage a new era of international stability, punctuated as before by small clashes but no open warfare. 

This would likely happen at tremendous costs to political freedoms and human rights. But there would be great power stability and that's something both the US and Russia are moving toward. As for the journalism, I think that the art of reading the Russians was shelved back in 1989, (end of history etc.) but it is now being revived. We need more journalists like you Alex to figure this out. And yes, Stephen Cohen, you can come back in now...

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Should We Ban Laptops from the Classrooms?

It occurred to me that one way to get my students' attention is to remove their digital distractions for a couple of hours.

I am teaching a first year course called Introduction to Journalism. The learners in this class at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus are 18 or 19 years old, mostly from the area, very computer savvy and as I suspected, easily distracted.

Now in my fourth year of teaching at UTSC, I noticed I was competing with whatever they were looking at: facebook postings, twitter feeds, websites that were evidently more appealing than what I was talking about.

But journalism is about, among other things, listening. What if I insisted that they close their laptops and shut off their cellphones for two hours, once a week? Would they listen more closely? Would they be more or less engaged in what the discussion was about?

(Prior to each class I email the notes for that week's discussion or the powerpoint.  There is no need to take detailed notes in class).

Some colleagues said it would be a losing battle on the fields of pedagogy. The lure of the laptop is just too great.

Other thought it might be worth a try.

Yesterday was my first class for the term. In a class of almost 90 learners, I took a leap of faith and told them to close their laptops.

There was some surprise but almost no protests. I also said that since newsroom journalism is a contact sport, they have to talk - forcefully - about what we will discuss. In previous years, I found the students were reluctant to voice an opinion. Partly this is because (I believe) they come from a conformist high school culture and being (mostly) Canadians, they are polite and deferential to a fault. International students, even more so.

The first class starts at the beginning and is called "What is Journalism?"

Within the first ten minutes, I saw that they were listening. Really listening. And it wasn't long before hands started to go up to discuss, argue and question. They couldn't use the laptop screen as a buffer to avoid being engaged.

It was, thanks to the absence of technology, the best first lecture I've had and the expressions of appreciation from the students at the end of the class, confirmed this.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Did the Media Get the Israel-Hamas War Right?

Not very well, according to a former AP Jerusalem correspondent Matti Friedman.

In his blistering critique, Friedman claims that his own organization blew it. Big time.

Friedman blasts his former employer the Associated Press news service for a variety of sins. These include, over-covering the story ("The agency had more than 40 staffers covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories...more news staff than the AP had in China, Russia or India, or in all of the 50 countries of sub-Saharan Africa combined...").

He questions his editors' editorial judgment: "The AP's editors believed, that is, that Syria's importance was less than one-40th that of Israel..."

"Every flaw in Israeli society is aggressively reported...I counted 27 separate articles, an average of a story every two days."

"A story on Hamas intimidation...was shunted into deep freeze by...superiors and has not been published..."

"...A significant peace offer to the Palestinian Authority (in early 2009)...but the top editors at the bureau decided that they would not publish the story."

These are damning accusations. So I asked the AP for a response. In a polite email from the AP's director of media relations, Paul Colford wrote "we'll refrain from commenting on the piece and the writer in question."

I tend to agree with much of what Friedman writes....or at least I recognize some of the thinking...
The media's obsession with Israel tends to be exaggerated in many cases. And there is a media bias in general toward any group in the conflict that advocates for a peaceful outcome.

But Friedman's essay evoked a couple of thoughts: one, the murder of James Foley has now I believe, shifted opinion in a significant way. More people are stating (quietly thus far) that the values of Hamas and the IS are not so different. Criticism of the war on Gaza and of Israel's prosecution of the war, is declining, in part because the worst of the TV images have ended, but also because to do otherwise runs the risk of being lumped in with the IS barbarians.

Two, aside from the appalling European anti-Semitism which one ignores or downplays at one's peril, there is a growing fatigue with the Israel story. There is a sense that the situation is truly hopeless and the parties are unable to settle this either militarily or otherwise. The next step seems to be an American imposed deadline for a settlement, followed by the imposition of an agreement. 

Finally, Friedman's observations are - to my way of thinking - very much from the shop floor. Decisions made by editors and managers (who often don't communicate very well) have a way of appearing to be thoughtless or deceitful. At their worst, they give an impression of being anti-journalistic at best and craven capitulation at worse.

It sounds like Friedman did not do a lot of reporting on his bosses. He may not have asked them why they took the positions they did. That way, it's easier for beleaguered journalists to believe the worst of their bosses and the role of aggrieved-reporter-as-vicitim-of-management gets further petrified.

My bias stems from years in the management trenches, with my motives and decisions often being second guessed by the reporters and editors. Explanations from the corner office can be dismissed as self-serving and unduly defensive. 

So while Friedman makes some interesting observations, it feels a bit short-sighted to me and plays just as effectively into the trope of mendacious media management as much as he wraps himself in the victim flag.

I've known a few AP managers. It is an excellent and trustworthy news organization. Like all news orgs these days, I'm sure there are the usual assortment of characters - some more beleaguered than others, whose motivations may be less pure than Friedman's. 

But his unproven assumptions about those motivations feel like the musings of a disgruntled ex-employee thus reducing the value of an otherwise interesting column.



Friday, August 22, 2014

James Foley and the Rise of News Adventurism

The youtube execution of James Foley has revealed just how vile and repulsive his killers are.

The same could be said for how digital media now serves the purposes of these despicable excuses for human beings.

The ubiquity of visuals and the willingness of young journalists to employ them now makes for a range of reporting that can be quite overwhelming.

Some of the freelance materials are terrific and media organizations like Vice have produced some remarkable reporting. Vice's recent reporting on ISIS is strong, only because we know so little about this group. But Vice has been known to allow its journalists to engage in risky behaviour, both for its employees and more seriously, for the people they interview.

Vice did a series of reports from Aleppo in Syria in the midst of a Syrian Army bombardment. Gritty stuff. Vice identified anti-regime civilians without understanding how those interviews might put these people in danger.

Recently a group of so-called journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan reported on Facebook, that a number of women who had been kidnapped by ISIS had hidden cellphones under their abayas, so they could let family know where they were. No evidence was given that the women had done this. But the implications of what might now happen to these women are horrifying...as it the stupidity of posting that information online.

As for the media organizations that allow anyone who self-describes as a journalist to wander around war zones, this is also unconscionable.

Jim Foley was an experienced reporter who due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, got himself kidnapped and murdered.

Yet media organizations who encourage risk-taking are also complicit.

Global Post who hired Foley, may or may not have done enough to support him*. And other media organizations who hire ambitious young journalists, eager to make a name for themselves in this digitally crowded landscape, also need to figure out the best ways to hire and support journalists on dangerous assignments.

Even as the news from overseas this past summer has been relentlessly grim (two Malaysian Air jetliners gone, a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq, Syria...), the amount of reporting of international events is in decline.

Media organizations in a struggle to gain financial stability have been cutting foreign reporting for years. As they look for ways to strip out their budgets, eager young people rush to fill in behind repatriated correspondents from shuttered bureaus. Some of these would-be correspondents will find their niche inside established media once they prove their worth.

Others will not be so lucky and we will be seeing the unhappy results of their recklessness in the weeks and months ahead.  

* I am informed that Global Post does a significant job in supporting its reporters in the field.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Gaza, Social Media and The Odyssey

Homer, early journalist
The war in Gaza appears to be winding down. It may just moving into another phase - one that hopefully, might include peace talks. Regardless, this awful war with its dreadful visuals of murdered children has been one in which the role of social media has changed how legacy media have reported this conflict and possibly, in future wars as well.

Israel has been accused of using disproportionate force and the tally of dead Gazans compared to dead Israelis has allowed for a powerful international denunciation of Israel and its policies toward the Palestinians.

The emotional tone of the coverage has reduced any attempt by Israel and its supporters to justify its position to mere sputterings. Rocket attacks by Gaza were met with a much more violent reply. There was no military equivalence, despite attempts by the Israeli government to claim that it was the first victim. In the realm of public opinion, the Israelis have lost this round. Even if Hamas were to disappear tomorrow, Israel's ability to respond in this heavy-handed way in future battles, will be even more strongly resisted.

Media organizations especially in the US and Canada (and to a lesser extent in the UK) have come under heavy criticism for their perceived pro-Israel coverage. My sense is that the coverage in this instance was less pro-Israel than in the past.

It is now considered part of a reporter's obligation to tweet and post on Facebook at least five times a day. The goal is all about marketing - to attract (younger) eyeballs on social media and drive them to the newspaper or the broadcast.

My sense of the tweets from Gaza is that they were highly emotional, deeply descriptive and utterly anguished. If there was a sense of perspective, or context (difficult to achieve in 140 characters), that sense was absent in those digital despatches.

Watching the nightly television newscasts, the reporting was equally powerful and emotional. But the intensity of the tweets often found their way into the standup closers.

This may have been the reason why so many people on the pro-Israel side found yet again, more reasons to condemn legacy media.

Which leads me to The Odyssey, Homer's immortal tale of Greek war, passion and struggle.

I am grateful to Martha Bayles and her book entitled "Through A Screen Darkly." Ms. Bayles talk about how public diplomacy in the United States has failed to convey the better angels of America's nature. After 9/11, the issues were stark. But the ability to tell the story had been weakened by an overdependence on Hollywood values and the quest for ratings and profits.

In her book, she describes teaching about Odysseus in her Humanities class at Boston College. That's when it occurred to me that Ms. Bayles isn't just talking about the failure of public diplomacy. She is speaking about the weaknesses of modern-day journalism as well.

She refers to a Greek concept called sophrosune which means "shrewdness, gutsiness, persistence and grace. Mostly it mean knowing what to do in the right situation...Above all it means alertness: the capacity to read the situation, fathom the other guy's motives, grasp the moral imperative at work, and act. The personification of sophrosune is Odysseus..."

But our hero also has a flaw (he's human after all and the Greeks understood this well): he lost sight of his long goal which included listening to those with whom he disagreed. Odysseus was brought down by hubris - again a Greek concept meaning pride and overconfidence that usually results in punishment from the gods.

In Homer's reporting of the story, Odysseus is held captive by a one-eyed giant called The Cyclops who eats several members of the crew and washes them down with red wine! Odysseus comes up with a clever plan: he drives a stake into the eye of The Cyclops then as the giant is writhing in pain, the Greeks escape by hiding in the fleece of the monster's sheep. They get into their boat and begin to row away to freedom and safety.

Bayles again: "But then Odysseus trades sophrosune for hubris. Looking back, he can't help taunting the raging Cyclops: 'If ever mortal man inquires how you were put to shame and blinded, tell him / Odysseus, raider of cities, took your eye!' This is a mistake, because the Cyclops complains to his father, the sea god Poseidon, who sends a mighty tempest to blow Odysseus off course and delay his homecoming for ten years."

Did reporters from Gaza hype the story and trade their sophrosune for hubris? While there was much great reporting, the emotional tone was very high. Twitter and Facebook (and possibly an absence of editing) helped drive it there.