North Korea kills, NYT chill

November 25, 2010

The actions of the shadowy rulers of North Korea are rarely transparent, but the general outlines of Monday’s violence in Yeongpyeong island are clear enough.  North Korean artillery lobbed over 200 shells into the island, which hosts a military base and a population of fishermen and their families.  Two South Korean marines died in the attack.  Many homes burned to the ground, and the charred bodies of two civilian victims were discovered Tuesday.  Eighteen people suffered injuries.

The South Koreans, who had been conducting a military exercise on the island, returned fire.  There’s no indication of any casualties by the North.

For all its antic reputation, the North Korean regime is quite adept at murder and blackmail.  It represses, imprisons, and starves its own population into submission.  In March, it torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors on board.  Earlier this month, it revealed to an American scientist a sophisticated and hitherto unsuspected capability for enriching uranium – threatening nuclear Gotterdammerung to an appalled world.

There’s a history here.  Yeongpyeong is the latest in a long list of atrocities perpetrated by the North Koreans for reasons best known to themselves.

Unless one looks at the world through the eyes of the New York Times.

The NYT’s tendentious “coverage” of the incident, committed by Mark McDonald, stands out as an atrocity of the journalistic kind.  In his initial report, McDonald seems perplexed about who fired first – although a literal reading might indicate it was the South Koreans.

The North blamed the South for starting the exchange; the South acknowledged firing test shots in the area but denied that any had fallen in the North’s territory.

One side says this, the other that, who’s to tell what happened?  Only the South, suspiciously, is forced to “acknowledge” anything.

The same approach is used when referencing the torpedoing of the South Korean warship.  The North’s responsibility for the attack has been established by a panel of independent experts, and accepted by most of the world.  But this is how the Solomonic McDonald comes to judgment:  “Seoul blamed a North Korean torpedo attack; the North has denied any role.”  How can an honest reporter decide?

Later in the report, McDonald rambles on at length about how “analysts” believe the artillery attack was really a desperate North Korean plea for food aid, which has been “strangled” by US sanctions.  One “analyst” gets more space than any other voice in the report:

“It’s a sign of North Korea’s increasing frustration,” Mr. Choi said.

“Washington has turned a deaf ear to Pyongyang and North Korea is saying, ‘Look here. We’re still alive. We can cause trouble. You can’t ignore us.’ ” [. . .]

“They’re in a desperate situation, and they want food immediately, not next year,” he said.

Here at last we are told who is to blame:  we are.  The North Koreans, led by their “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il, feel frustrated, ignored, and finally driven to desperate acts by America’s indifference and strangling power.

McDonald’s report on the following day is even more egregious.  Once again he appears to wash his hands in the matter of blame:  “The Koreas blame each other for instigating the artillery barrages on Tuesday afternoon,” is his coy starting proposition.  But it soon becomes clear, from listening to McDonald’s “analysts,” that in fact the South bears the brunt of responsibility for being attacked.

“What has been missing in all the analysis is that we’re not listening to what North Korea says,” said Michael Breen, the author of a book about the two Koreas and a biography of Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader. “Because of the blustering language the North Koreans always use, you tend to dismiss it.

“But if the North was holding live-fire exercises five miles offshore from South Korea, it wouldn’t just be business as usual. These waters, they consider theirs. What’s the point, anyway, of doing these live-fire drills so close to North Korea?”

The point of the live-fire drills, of course, might be to defend the island against just such an attack as took place – but this isn’t the kind of logic “analysts” indulge in.  Anyway, a South Korean Defense Ministry official “acknowledged Tuesday night that the South had fired artillery close to North Korea,” and all that acknowledging probably adds up to a guilty verdict.

McDonald fairly sputters over news that, in a gesture of support, the US will be sending an aircraft carrier group to South Korea.  Yet another “analyst” gets trotted out to do the NYT’s vicarious opinionating:

Mr. Breen called it “foolishness.”

“The whole idea is just to give them the bird,” he said.

North Korea scholars in Seoul said the arrival of the aircraft carrier, as a potent symbol of gunboat diplomacy, would likely bolster the hardliners inside the North Korean regime.

“These guys want aircraft carriers,” Mr. Delury said. “This is exactly the response they want.”

Beyond boilerplate statements by the US military, no contrary voice is heard anywhere in the report.

Nor is consideration given to the difference in character of the two governments, North and South.  One is a brutal and aggressive despotism, the other a democracy lately inclined to appeasement:  no matter.  The only discussion of character McDonald engages in is a vigorous defense of Kim Jong Il’s.

“He’s not a foolish man at all,” Mr. Breen said. “He’s not crazy, not at all. He’s not nuts. That’s a very shallow analysis.

“If he was here on a conference call with us, he’d say, “Look, if there’s a war, my country will be finished within a week. I know that. I’m not trying to start a war, I just don’t like enemy states holding live-fire exercises within stone-throwing distance of my coast.”

So there we have it.  The US is foolish for giving North Korea the middle finger.  Kim Jong Il, however, is not foolish – he’s a reasonable guy, concerned about those live-fire drills.  Killing four people and destroying a fishing village is just his personal communications style, the Dear Leader equivalent of a conference call.

A Manichean vision seems to inspire the NYT approach:  self-loathing and self-abuse on one side, generosity if not admiration for moral monsters on the other.  Those who recall the work of Walter Duranty while “covering” Stalin’s purges will understand that the vision long ago conquered the soul of the newspaper, and like a cognitive affliction controls the facts its staff can process and regurgitate.

Print all the news which fit the mold.

Death of news, Ted Koppel edition

November 16, 2010

Ted Koppel reached the zenith of his career as part of an effort to exploit the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.  Four days after Islamist thugs took over the US embassy in Tehran, Koppel set up shop in a 15-minute national ABC News broadcast which followed the local news.  It began with ominous music and the dread-inspiring words, intoned by Koppel, “AMERICA HELD HOSTAGE.  DAY 342…”

The crisis lasted so long, Koppel stayed on for 20 years or so.  The hostage crisis, it bin bery bery good to him.

Now he has returned to steal one of this blog’s signature lines.  Ostensibly, the subject is the media fuss surrounding the political donations of MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, about which I have absolutely nothing to say.  In reality, Koppel wants to brood on the death of news.

To the degree that broadcast news was a more virtuous operation 40 years ago, it was a function of both fear and innocence. Network executives were afraid that a failure to work in the “public interest, convenience and necessity,” as set forth in the Radio Act of 1927, might cause the Federal Communications Commission to suspend or even revoke their licenses. The three major broadcast networks pointed to their news divisions (which operated at a loss or barely broke even) as evidence that they were fulfilling the FCC’s mandate. News was, in a manner of speaking, the loss leader that permitted NBC, CBS and ABC to justify the enormous profits made by their entertainment divisions.

On the innocence side of the ledger, meanwhile, it never occurred to the network brass that news programming could be profitable.

Allow me to translate:  the atmosphere breathed by the titans of broadcast news was composed in equal parts of government compulsion and public indifference.

Koppel omits a third element:  information monopoly.  He was, after all, an odd-looking, bizarre-sounding man with no discernible expertise in Iran, hostage-taking, or foreign affairs.  ABC News just threw his face and voice at the crisis and sneered at the American public, “What are you going to do instead, read the blogs?”

His conceit is that he told us what we didn’t want to hear, whereas hacks like Olbermann just rant to the converted.  But again:  what were his qualifications to tell us anything?  What did we not hear, because of what he chose to talk about?  Where was he before the Iranian crisis exploded?

As long ago as 1922, Walter Lippmann knew that news only dealt with eruptive  events rather than their context or causes.  “Journalism” has always been in business to exploit, not  explain.  Keith Olbermann isn’t deep enough to have invented the shallow narrative.

In the petrified forest of Koppel’s mind, however, it is always 1979, and Keith Olbermann is a Ted Koppel who has sold his integrity for a bigger audience and the profits it brings.  The reality is that nobody watches MSNBC – Olbermann, the biggest draw, barely gets a million viewers in a country of 300 million.  On its worst nights, Koppel’s show did better.

Why?  Because it partook of a monopoly.  Where have all the viewers gone?  To other information platforms, every one.  The news are dying not because of a loss of integrity by newsmakers, but because the public has other options, and won’t necessarily put up with an odd-looking, bizarre-sounding man of no discernible talents just because the networks say so.

The public can now talk back.  Information now flows in a wide-open marketplace.  Industrially produced formats – what we have come to call “news” – are too expensive and unprofitable, add nothing of value to the information consumer, and will soon become extinct.

Look, I admit to a sneaking fondness for Koppel and his late-night horror show.  By making us perfectly safe stay-at-home Americans feel like we were bound and gagged by Iranian crazies, they pushed the country to get rid of Jimmy Carter, and – no doubt to Koppel’s dismay – assisted in the rise of Ronald Reagan.

Unintended consequences aside, the only difference between Koppel and Olbermann is the context of the marketplace.

Death of news – $1 edition

August 3, 2010

Calling a publication Newsweek is laughable for many reasons, but out of compassion I will list only two.  First, it takes for granted the existence of an important category of information – objectively different from other information – called “news.”  Second, it assumes that, in the age of Twitter and the iPhone, people are happy to wait a week to learn about these unique, important “news.”

Wrong on both counts.  According to this nice roundup (HT: Instapundit), the Washington Post Company has agreed to sell Newsweek for $1.  For the WaPo, it’s a good move – for the buyer, not so much.  Apparently the latter, Sidney Harman, is 91 years old, which would explain a lot.

I was raised in a home which subscribed to Time Magazine and Newsweek.  I read both faithfully, and I can still remember the growing sense of dissatisfaction, of intellectual shadow-boxing, of something missing at the core of the Time and Newsweek pieces I consumed ever more infrequently.  That something was precisely what the magazines promised:  information – fact, insight, “news,” whatever – I didn’t already know.

Instead I choked on reams of purple prose.  At some unmarked moment, the news magazines decided they could trump their lack of timeliness by going literary.  Of course, given the talents on display, this merely compounded their decline.

Andrew Ferguson, a believer in newsweeklies, reflects on this self-indulgent strategy, personified by Newsweek’s editor Jon Meacham.

The reinvented newsmagazine has pursued a fantasy life of its own. The fantasy is a reverse of the one the old editors enjoyed. The expense accounts may be gone, the bureaus may be shuttered, and not even Meacham gets to travel first class. But editors and writers have dispensed with the necessity of satisfying a large and reliable readership and can indulge their literary aspirations at last. They get to write long “argued essays” and make “original observations” and lace them with their own (minority) opinions on politics and culture. They have released themselves from the obligation of giving readers what readers came to them for: that straightforward and comprehensive account of what just happened.

Interestingly, the buyer wasn’t selected for business reasons, but because his political opinions coincide with the WaPo’s.  The term used is “centrist,” but that is a meaningless term serving as a smokescreen.  What WaPo means is that the new crowd will worship at the altar of the ideology of news, which holds that editors and journalists are transcendentally superior to, and must never be confused with, ordinary people.

Good luck with that business model.  It’s worked great so far.

The fifth wave

July 26, 2010

Information expands in great waves which sweep over the human landscape and leave little untouched.  We stand at the earliest moment of what promises to be a cataclysmic  expansion of information and communication technologies:  the fifth wave.

Much of the old dispensation still remains.  Because it has been useful to people in authority, it will die hard.  In Cuba, bloggers are beaten.  In Iran, Facebook and Twitter get shut down while regime thugs shoot protesters.  Violence and bloodshed will accompany the agony of top-down, I-speak-you-listen modes of information.

The fourth wave, now nearly spent, was that of mass media.  Its organization was industrial, its orientation commercial or propagandistic, but its most radical innovation – the difference between what transpired before and after – was the demand for a silent public.  Whether print, radio, or TV, the mass media is always in broadcast mode, one voice speaking to many.  This has been true in the US no less than in North Korea.

Governments and mass media shared in God’s work:  telling the public what to think and how to behave.  Yet the partnership was wholly unequal, with governments easily controlling or manipulating the media, in many cases turning it into a department of state.   Mass media everywhere has thus assisted the rise of powerful, intrusive governments:  the silence of the public, for both, signified consent.

The Fidel Castro regime could run his speeches endlessly on TV, and praise his ideas in newspaper and magazine articles:  and the people could be said to have spoken.  Even in the US, in the heyday of mass media, a president needed access to only three TV networks and a pair of newspapers to command the electorate’s attention.

That has changed forever.  New technologies and dissemination platforms are the necessary cause, but the change itself pertains to the public.  It has largely stopped listening, and it has started talking back.

The mass public, in the view of the media and government elites, was just that:  an undifferentiated mass, a monstrous lump brimming with appetites.  Public opinion was what the public was told on CBS Evening News and the front page of the New York Times.  Silence implied consent.

The question is what happens to the public as such – to public opinion and to the governments which brandish it for validation – when the monster acquires a human face and a subjective voice.

Part of the answer is fragmentation, leading almost to disintegration.  The mass public was an invention of the mass media.  What actually exists is a variegated patchwork of people and groups with a long list of motivations:  specific beliefs, interests, ambitions, hobbies, fears, hatreds, sympathies, fantasies, physical and emotional needs.  Once crushed into the shapeless lump of mass humanity, these motivations have reappeared at the center of gravity in niche, mostly online, information communities.  The content can range from baseball to pornography, legal or economic blogs to LOL Cats, fan fiction to jihad:  the old hierarchies of information, with formal politics always at the top, are meaningless to a public able to choose for itself.

There are exceptions.  Under despotic regimes, the process of disintegration aborts at an early stage.  When the public talks back – as done, for example, by Egyptian bloggers – rulers respond with a show of brute force.  In the short run, I imagine, power trumps information, but despotic power, which has no stomach for niche tastes, must force the public into a binary choice:  with us or against us.  In this way, unofficial voices in countries like Cuba and Venezuela, which might have been happy talking baseball, are driven together in political opposition.

Countries not burdened by the despot’s choice have seen the public assume a fractured shape consistent with its actual preferences.  In the US, it is probably more accurate to speak of the public in the plural:  many publics, speaking with many voices.

The fragmentation of the public has caused a shattering of opinion along many planes, which, like an animated cubist painting, cohere into a complete but puzzling whole.  Presidents and other government figures, used to requisitioning mass attention from a few sources, can only stumble awkwardly through this strange new landscape, uncertain of who is listening to them, and to what effect.

Every niche – every plane in the dynamic painting – is a contested space, for obvious reasons.  Established authority, by definition, is satisfied with the status quo.  Marginal players have seized on the new technologies to increase their audience and influence – only to collide with political and professional hierarchies horrified by such barbarian invasions into their proprietary fiefs.

Confronted by insurgencies from the long tail of information, established elites in government and mass media often scream some version of the despot’s choice.  Fidel Castro, a true despot, has labeled the most popular Cuban blogger a treasonous agent of US imperialism.  Similarly, a CNN commentator – Castro-like in extremis – recently cried out for laws muzzling US bloggers.  Lamentations about a “daily me” also find their source in the offended professionalism of the media.

Such conflicts now play out in every niche and specialized field – even pornography, I would suppose, has an established hierarchy capable of outrage.  The end can only be the discrediting of authoritative elites, again for obvious reasons.  When the Nobel laureate economics commentator of the New York Times feels compelled to debate an obscure professor, a judgment has been rendered independent of the argument itself.

Fifth wave insurgents inhabit the long populous tail of the information chart.  They can rely on support from the loud new voices of public opinion:  Glenn Reynolds’ “army of Davids” taking down establishment Goliaths.  Thus the altered US information environment, cubistic in content, is nonetheless suffused with oppositional, anti-authority sentiment.

The rebellious character of the articulate public has encouraged some to see, in the enabling technologies, a democratization of information.  If democratization means anything like universal access, however, this is surely wrong.  Barriers of literacy, education, and leisure keep billions in primordial silence.

Rather, the new technologies have given the power of speech to a silent public, to players marginalized by the media monopoly over the information space.  To a large extent, these players aren’t peasants or street revolutionaries but talented and affluent amateurs like Reynolds, a law professor.  In Iran, the tech-savvy opposition is mainly urban and well-educated – and led by former members in good standing of the clerical regime.

And not all the new voices are anti-despotic or benign.  The young assassins who terrorized Mumbai in November 2008 employed GPS navigators, Google earth, satellite phones, and anonymous email:  their voice was heard in the blood of innocents.

This isn’t a trend toward democracy, informational or otherwise.  It’s an often-deadly struggle over attention, influence, and political power.  Those elites who always had a voice wish to deny outsiders theirs.  In many countries, the elites also have the guns, and are willing to use them.  Eventually, however, the despot’s choice must raise oppositional pressure to the point at which an explosion becomes inevitable.

Power trumps information in the short run:  but winning political arguments with the rhetoric of violence will, in time, strangle despotic regimes in the coils of their own falsehoods.  That was the fate of Russia’s Leninists and Spain’s Franquistas.  Reality, long term, can’t be pummeled into submission.

In liberal democratic nations, the struggle will favor whoever can reintegrate the fractured public along common terms of reference which endure beyond the reach of information flows.  Culture generates many such terms of reference:  religion, morality, and the Declaration of Independence, for example.  Popular culture generates even more.

Hierarchies of information value will vary wildly from moment to moment, and from group to group.  Laws and policies discussed at the highest levels of government, once the great recurring drama of mass media, will constitute but one of many forums – by no means the most interesting – in the multiple deliberations of the newly articulate public.

It’s early days.  The transformation has barely begun, as many from the old generation, accustomed to silence, linger on the sidelines of the struggle.  Before long, they will be gone.  A little after, their children will inherit.  Digital natives, riding the fifth wave, will then burst upon the world as breakers of governments and overturners of elites – a problem and a threat to every claim of authority on earth.

A brief history of information

July 24, 2010


Information expands in sudden bursts or waves which sweep over human communities and wreak havoc with existing relationships.  If we discount the birth of culture 40,000 years ago, there have been five such waves, all in historic times.

The first was the invention of writing, which raised to power a caste of scholar-priests.  The second was the development of the alphabet, which broke the priestly monopoly on literacy and made possible the citizen republics of Athens and Rome.

The third wave of information began with Gutenberg’s printing press, and immediately presented a new and daunting problem.  Until then, information had been extremely scarce.  Titles were few and known.  The great ancient libraries, like that of Alexandria, worried about authoritative texts, not the qualifications of the author.

After the printing press, this changed forever.  Books multiplied without end – at first the old familiar titles, but soon these were buried under an avalanche of strange new books, many of uncertain provenance, by authors of doubtful authority who made outlandish claims.  The unsettling effect on European society can  scarcely be imagined.

The first Gutenberg bible was published in 1455.  Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in 1517.  Without access to the persuasive power of the printed word, Elizabeth Eisenstein argues, the Reformation might not have spread or fractured into so many disputing sects.  The printed bible stands at the center of the Protestant ideal of an individual conscience wrestling with the word of God.

Too much information, of wildly unequal value, spilled from the printing presses.  How to tell good from bad?

The princes of Europe understood the difference between submissive and subversive, and after the turmoil of the wars of religion they established censorship regimes to preserve purity of discourse.  Yet the censors showed uneven zeal in different countries – banned material reached France from Holland, for example – and, beyond politics and religion, judgments needed to be made on publications which dealt with science, manners, and the arts.

So arose, spontaneously, the “republic of letters,” among the most important institutions of knowledge in history – and probably the least known, in part because it wasn’t an institution at all.  It was an informal exchange of correspondence, journal articles, and full-length books within a group whose members, by mixing erudition with style, became the arbiters of informational value over many domains.  Because of its unofficial character, the republic of letters began the liberation of information from the organs of political and religious authority.

Those who wish to learn more about this neglected movement should turn to Eisenstein and to McNeely’s and Wolverton’s Reinventing Knowledge.  Here I’ll touch – briefly! – on its most interesting features.

The republic of letters far more resembled today’s environment than the world of industrialized information which succeeded it.  It was headless, structureless, powerless, and virtual – an international “network without nodes,” according to McNeely and Wolverton – and it was staffed by amateurs rather than paid academics or journalists.  While small in numbers, and an unquestionably elite group, it was based on merit, and included courtiers and artisans, men and women, Protestant pastors and Catholic abbots.

By detaching their judgments from official doctrines, members of the republic invented a “private public”:  what we now call public opinion.  They set the informational agenda for what became an increasingly important court of last appeal, beyond the grasp of state power.

Inevitably, members turned their critical faculties to politics and religion.  This is the story told – in deadly dull Marxese – by Jurgen Habermas.  The republic of letters justified the rise of Parliament in Britain, housed the philosophic and encyclopedic movements of the eighteenth century, and set the table for the French Revolution.

The path from Gutenberg to Robespierre is roundabout – but, again, a fresh wave of information cleared the ground for a new social and political dispensation.

Improvements in printing and communications, along with a spectacular rise in literacy, propelled the next wave:  the age of industrial information, which lasted roughly from the middle of the nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth.  Relative to a vast new reading public, information remained scarce enough to be valuable, and a class of mediators arose to profit from this circumstance:  the mass media.  Media barons bundled bizarrely disparate stuff – comics, box scores, stock market quotes, war reports – mass produced it on a schedule, and sold it at a profit to an undifferentiated public.

Until only yesterday, newspapers ruled the earth, and a TV news anchorman could be the most trusted man in America.  Much has been said about the death of news, not least by me; some historical context might still be in order.

Unlike the denizens of the republic of letters, the new mediators knew little of substance.  They dealt in stereotyped, arbitrarily foreshortened narratives, in a style crabbed by the author’s desire to appear invisible.  They set the agenda because they owned the printing presses and broadcast stations in a near-monopoly market:  and if the terms “fourth estate” and “objective journalism” came into currency, it was because they in their vanity had coined them, and the public lacked a voice to talk back.

The public was also different from earlier times:  far larger and more diverse in its interests and appetites.  Whether any part of it actually followed the media’s lead remains uncertain, but the mediators behaved as if they doubted it, and treated their public like a skittish beast to be caged and tamed.  Walter Lippmann famously despaired of the task.  Public opinion, for Lippmann, had not only wrestled free of government compulsion – it had become unmoored from any authority, and was dangerously prone to rages and stampedes.

Contempt for the paying customer corrupted the way mass media handled information, particularly in connection to government.  Rejecting commercial reality, the mediators assumed the role of guardians over public opinion:  they fondly imagined they could save the public from itself.  Relations with government were tainted by this Platonic dream.  Mediators had always paid disproportionate attention to politicians, with whom they felt a strong kinship; now they sought a “higher objectivity” in which the political information they peddled in the marketplace coincided with their ambition to command the public’s mind.

In plain language, the mass media promoted and suppressed information for nakedly political reasons.  Politicians took note, and learned to play the media like a fiddle.  The result, so far as the purveyors of mass publicity are concerned, is a situation closer to Old Regime censorship than to the critical observations of the republic of letters.  Any who doubt this should consider the stark differences in the media treatment of Sarah Palin and John Edwards.

In fact, the fifth wave of information – really a digital tsunami – rendered the mass media politically irrelevant.  New platforms made information more abundant and accessible than ever, reducing its cost to zero.  Consumers and producers of the stuff became one and the same.  The public, offered a choice, abandoned the old mediators and engaged in a long migration to an uncertain destination.  The effects on public opinion will likely be huge, but are as yet unknown.

I will cover the fifth wave in a separate post.  Let me finish here with a few thoughts on the last wave, just now spent:  the Jurassic Age of information.

The rise of mass media paralleled the rise of powerful and intrusive governments.  This was no accident.   Strong structural parallels exist between media and government.  Both work top-down.  Both deal in monopolies – one of power, the other of information.  Both require the silence of the public, and expect to shape the public’s view of the world.

Of the two institutions, however, government is far and away more powerful:  except in times of revolution and chaos, it will play the tune to which the media must dance.  Different versions of this one-sided relationship can still be found across the world.

In the US context, it bears repeating that all players during this period have been paid professionals.  “High” information devolved to university professors.  “Official” information belonged to government workers.  Everything else fell by default to the profit-seeking media, employing salaried editors and journalists.

The role of guardian of public opinion has become more appealing to the mediators in proportion to their crashing failure in the marketplace.  But we should always remember that calls for “professionalism” in communicating information are of recent vintage – and, rightly understood, can only be received as a confession of conflict of interest.

Google freedom

April 6, 2010

This blog is about the relationship between freedom and morality.  If I’ve posted often on the death of news, it’s because of the connection to this theme.

Here I intend to make the connection explicit – first, with a little history, and second, with a current example, that of China.

The history is one of monopolies in decline.  Scarcely two decades ago, the power elites around the world were sitting pretty.  They controlled the flow of information, and set the boundaries of acceptable debate.  They owned the TV stations, newspapers, and book publishing houses, and could outspend – and, if necessary, outmuscle – any would-be interloper to chase him out of the club.

The only points of view they heard, consequently, were their own, which they came to identify with all that is morally good and right.  This was as true of the US as it was of North Korea – though the volume of information available, and access into the elites,  obviously differed in the two countries.

The ideology and style of news favored one-way, top-down, authority-to-mass public communications.  Walter Cronkite wasn’t Kim Il Sung but in many respects the assumptions of both men were similar.  They knew, while others didn’t.  They told their fellow citizens what was important to know.  They didn’t expect anyone to talk back.

For this reason despots and elites everywhere have found the death of news hugely problematic.  The digital big bang multiplied information for practical purposes to infinity, making sorting and control impossible.  Access was free.  Borders were penetrated.  Message senders could be anyone, good or evil.  Message receivers could talk back.

Bred to the ideology of news, elites found the promiscuous spread of information immoral.  Free news was like free love, and they reflexively sought to combat it.  The truly amoral content of the new information – the pornography, slander, vituperation – gave a cover of legitimacy to self-appointed guardians everywhere.

The strategic question was how to impose control.

The short answer is you can’t, at least not entirely.  But degrees of control can be enforced.  A nation’s grid can be disconnected from the web, for example.  Information then stops at the border, creating a scarcity of the stuff inside.  Of course, information poverty means the same for the economy.  North Korea and Cuba – a pair of economic basket cases – have embraced this strategy.

A more sophisticated approach is to go after the mediators:  the infrastructure companies, service providers, search engine sites.  Regimes which depend on growing economies, and understand the power of information to generate wealth, have take this approach.  Their goal is a “just right” level of information control:  sufficient to smother political and social deviance from elite standards, but not enough to slow the economy down.

Middle Eastern countries like Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, have tried different versions of “just right” censorship.  But the undisputed champion of the method is the People’s Republic of China.

The death of news presents an existential crisis for the Chinese ruling elites.  Members of a Marxist-Leninist party running a cowboy capitalist economy, they are caught in a contradiction which must, sooner or later, render them superfluous to their own people.  The only way to buy time is to grow the economy – but the only way to do that is to throw wide the doors to education, information, and innovation.

Today the online population in China is larger than the entire population of the US.  Most of these web dwellers are focused on work and entertainment.  But occasionally they gather in “human flesh search engines” – online mobs which track down and ruthlessly harrass individuals, including arrogant officials, perceived as wrongdoers.  And occasionally, too, they mock their rulers’ attempts at censorship:  any who doubt it should look up “grass mud horse” in wikipedia.

The Chinese regime has a reputation as the cleverest and most sophisticated information guardians in the digital age.  It’s undeserved.  The “great firewall” is a massive investment to limited effect – tech tricks for anxious totalitarians.  Even the famous “internet police,” supposedly 40,000 strong, seems to me an indicator of fear and loathing rather than cleverness.  Elites unsupported by any logic or legitimacy are terrified of what might happen if deviant ideas are allowed to spread.

That is the background to the quarrel with Google.

Google is a creature of the death of news – it arose when information escaped the grasp of “authoritative” mediators like government censors, TV anchors, and newspaper publishers.  It has itself become a gigantic global mediator, but of a different kind.  Google is driven by the information needs of its customers, and relies on its customers to find this information.  It’s the opposite of authoritative – it’s vulgar.

Because the company’s motto is “don’t be evil,” Google was mocked when it negotiated a form of censorship with the Chinese, to be allowed into that enticing market.  For once it yielded to authority in a grab for money.  Yet Google gave away far less than other US firms, and I thought at the time the agreement could turn out to be morally defensible (“trying to minimize its evilness” is how Rebecca MacKinnon put it).

In mid-December of last year, the company was subjected to an attack from Chinese hackers, which resulted in the “theft of intellectual property.”  Gmail addresses of activists in China and their correspondents were also compromised.  The regime was on an  informational warpath.  It meant to make Google into a tool of control rather than a pathway for deviant information.

Such episodes are business as usual in China.  The unusual twist is that Google pushed back.  It decided to not be evil by yielding in silence to a sinister regime.  In January, the company went public with its complaint.  In March, it ceased all censorship on its Chinese search engine, routing users to servers in Hong Kong.

At present, Google and the People’s Republic are in a state of cold war.  Google has called for US government support – and, indeed, Secretary of State Clinton gave a rousing speech criticizing China and advocating online freedom of expression worldwide.  But there’s little our government can do.  We won’t stake our relationship with China on the matter, and their hackers, I’m reasonably sure, are better than ours.

Nothing human is irrevocable, but certain choices determine others.  The ruling elites of China will win their war with Google, but the real choice is whether they wish to sustain prosperity and growth.  Since this is a political imperative, they will be compelled to allow volumes of information far beyond their ability to control.  Other paths to deviancy will found by the Chinese people after Google has been defeated.

The consequences are impossible to predict.  Information isn’t revolution.  Despite the hopes of well-meaning people, the internet isn’t democracy.  If the political heirs of Mao Zedong were overthrown tomorrow, it is possible, even likely, that they would be replaced by an even worse crowd.

My aim was to show that the death of news involves – more accurately, is a symptom of – a fundamental conflict about freedom and morality.  One-way, top-down communication is the way of the elites, and when this breaks down the reaction,  predictably, is moral outrage.  Whether the breakdown will entail an increase in freedom and honesty, and a better way of life – this, too, is a choice, not a given.

And that’s the way it is

April 3, 2010

Audiences far prefer entertainment to news.  But among those hardy souls who consume news, many more prefer TV news to the dead tree stuff – newspapers and news magazines.  For this reason TV news, while not a killer business, has been respectably profitable in the past.

I’m not sure how much longer this will be the case.

Overall, interest in news is declining, a demographic trend that will soon wipe out all but a handful of newspapers.  The problem for broadcasters is that their relatively larger share of the news audience is fragmenting as well as deserting.  With cable, satellite, and online versions of video news available, people have more choices – and they are taking all of them.

Pew Internet

What does the future hold?  Here are early returns:

With buyouts and layoffs in progress, the mood at ABC News cannot be good. It was probably not enhanced by the ratings report for the first quarter of the year showing that the network’s evening newscast, “World News,” had sunk to the lowest numbers the program has had in a first quarter since the People Meter was introduced by Nielsen in 1987.

The same situation prevailed at CBS, where the “Evening News” also hit a new low for the months of January through March.

The NYT article notes that the three network newscasts together reach an audience of 24 million, by far the largest news audience in any format.  But the networks have always owned the largest news audience – and 24 million in a country of 300 million strikes even my math-challenged brain as an unhappy number.

Of course, if you are CNN, you are looking at audiences of under a million, and wondering whether Larry King is worth his salary.  In fact, cable newscasters as a whole have been left in the dust by Spongebob Squarepants, who can, on a good day, get over 5 million viewers.

Let me finish with an observation from one of my intellectual heroes, Clay Shirky:

About 15 years ago, the supply part of media’s supply-and-demand curve went parabolic, with a predictably inverse effect on price. Since then, a battalion of media elites have lined up to declare that exactly the opposite thing will start happening any day now.

To pick a couple of examples more or less at random, last year Barry Diller of IAC said, of content available on the web, “It is not free, and is not going to be,” Steve Brill of Journalism Online said that users “just need to get back into the habit of doing so [paying for content] online”, and Rupert Murdoch of News Corp said “Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use.”

Diller, Brill, and Murdoch seem be stating a simple fact—we will have to pay them—but this fact is not in fact a fact. Instead, it is a choice, one its proponents often decline to spell out in full, because, spelled out in full, it would read something like this:

“Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.”

And that, quoth Walter Cronkite, is the way it is.