Friday, October 28, 2011

McLuhan Then/Now/Next Soon

So, I'm looking forward to attending and participating in the upcoming McLuhan Then/Now/Next international conference in Toronto, November 7-10, and if you haven't made plans to join us, it's still not too late.  This is going to be more than a mere conference.  It will be an event, a happening, a McLuhan extravaganza!

The full conference registration fee is $275 or just $75 for students, and there's a one-day rate of $100, and just $35 for students.  And it's well worth it, as registration includes continental breakfast, snacks, lunch and networking receptions.

And, as it says on the conference website, there will be 4 full days of investigations and discussions on the past, present and future of McLuhan’s work and influence, both in Toronto and around the global village, featuring world-renowned scholars and lecturers (including me), plus film screenings, concerts and visual art happening all across the city.  So hey, go register, you'll be glad you did.

There are still last minute adjustments being made to the program, but I'll be on a plenary session with Paul Levinson, Joshua Meyrowitz, Julianne Newton, and Elena Lamberti on the afternoon of Tuesday, November 8th.  I'll also be participating on an event hosted by the Italian Consulate in Toronto one evening, and hosting a poetry reading on another.  But to get an idea of what's going on, take a look:

Not bad, eh?  And that's not counting all of the events taking place in conjunction with the DEW Line Festival, where artists throughout Toronto and around the world are coming together "to co-create a week of stimulating art, music, poetry and discourse that considers and probes the future of digital media and its impact on our culture and the way we live our lives."

And there's even more than that, but you'll have to be there to experience it, or else be square!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Outage Outrage

So, you may have heard about the 4-day BlackBerry outage that began in the UK, and spread to Europe, the Middle East, India, Africa, and finally North America, home of the Canadian-based company that makes that cellphone, Research in Motion.  Not for nothing those phones have been nicknamed, CrackBerry, for the addicting quality of the email service that they provided  before the iPhone and Android got into the mobile internet game.

So, this was no short-term, system is down phenomenon, this was a major communications BlackOut, and BlackEye, for BlackBerry.  And as it turns out, I was interviewed by Roger Cheng for a piece he posted on the major tech site, c|net, described as "the premier destination for tech product reviews, news, price comparisons, free software downloads, daily videos, and podcasts."  

The article appeared on October 17, with the title, Hey, RIM! Time to step it up with better BlackBerry freebies, followed by the line, "Research in Motion, is that really all you've got?"

Roger begins by noting the following:

After a critical outage that left some BlackBerry users without e-mail for as many as three days, RIM is offering customers $100 worth of premium apps for free. Enterprise customers also get a month's worth of technical support.

The problem is, the BlackBerry faithful stick with you for primarily one reason: your excellent e-mail service. If they wanted games, media apps and other whiz-bang features, they would have fled to an iPhone or Android smartphone already. You lose your e-mail, even for one day, and you lose your best reason for keeping a BlackBerry.

Okay, so here's where I come in:

"(RIM) has to do something really substantial, something that makes people go wow," said Lance Strate, a professor of communications and media studies for Fordham University.

Now, of course, I said a great deal more in the interview, and it's always the case that only a small bit of what's been said is actually quoted, but here's how Roger continues:

So here's a modest proposal: work with your retail and carrier partners to get your customers early upgrades to new BlackBerrys. For some of your best customers, hand them out for free. Already own a new BlackBerry? Throw in a Bluetooth handset or other accessory.

Interesting idea, right?  Good advice, you might say, or at least provocative, right?  I'm glad you think so, because that's what I said in the interview.   I said that offering $100 of apps won't impress most customers, they probably have all or most of the apps they want already, and anyway they're not substantial, they don't feel like you're getting anything much.  As for free technical support for a month, that's something most customers probably won't even need!  But hardware, now that would make a difference.  A free upgrade, or at least a really good Bluetooth accessory.   That's what I said. 

Let me be clear, though, that I offered the idea free of charge, and felt no special ownership of it, not that anyone can really claim to own ideas anyway. Especially as an academic, I'm used to giving ideas out freely.  So, it just strikes me as funny to see it appear without attribution, but this is not exactly journalism, is it?  It's commentary.  Anyway, the important thing is to get quoted and get your name out there, that's what the publicity game is all about. The medium is, you know, the message.

So, let's go on with the article:

Sure, giving away phones sounds like sacrilege at a company that generates the bulk of its revenue from hardware, but bear with me. Such a program would buy a massive amount of goodwill from peeved customers. You could even snatch away the spotlight from Apple's latest iPhone launch.

RIM's BlackBerry DevCon conference starts tomorrow. Just think how different the atmosphere would be if attendees were buzzing about the new BlackBerry program instead of grousing about the outage.

There are longer-term advantages, too. You can lock in customers that may have been tempted by the new iPhone or the latest wave of Android smartphone. You're so proud of the latest BlackBerry operating system? Here's a great way to get more users to try it out.

Yes, your margins would take a hit. But right now, the smartphone business is all about market share, and you're on the losing end. Keeping existing customers--particularly loyal ones--in the fold with new BlackBerrys is one way to preserve your base.

So yeah, I said some of these things too, about creating goodwill, and keeping your customers, preserving your base, locking people in.  But Roger has put his personal spin on it, no question there, and he does a good job of it, as he continues:

Unlike other analysts and bloggers who think the outage sounds the death knell for RIM, I think there's still time to repair your image. While customers may be angry, service contracts, business ties and other impediments keep most people from leaving right away.

A stepped-up giveaway program is another way to get some of your other BlackBerrys out in the wild. While the BlackBerry Bold flagship smartphone is performing well, the rest of the lineup has fared poorly.

"(RIM's) other BlackBerries, namely its aging Curve line and new models including the pure touchscreen Torch 9850 appear below plan," Sterne Agee analyst Shaw Wu said in a recent research note.

If they aren't selling well anyway, why not create incentives to get some of these devices into your customers' hands?

Hey, you're already giving away PlayBooks to developers at DevCon. Why not expand that program to some of your best customers? When the iPhone 4 launched, AT&T allowed customers to upgrade their phone after just one year. You could work with the carrier partners and provide incentives to them to enable similar early upgrades.

For now, the apps and the promise of a month of technical support--which leaves your non-enterprise customers out in the cold--just don't cut it.

And now, back to me:

"It's definitely too little, too late," Strate said. "I think they're really not recognizing the magnitude of disconnecting people at a time when we have come to expect connectivity 24-7."

And that is really the key point here, the fact that we are accustomed to being online all the time, constantly connected, dependent on that sense of electronic contact and the presence of a digital safety net, addicted to it, some would say.  To be disconnected, then, is traumatic, and that's what RIM has failed to recognize, the psychological trauma that BlackBerry users experienced. 

And so, Roger returns to the theme of the inadequate response:

Are BlackBerry customers really going to be satisfied with a free copy of puzzle game "Bejeweled" or shooter "N.O.V.A."? These are trinkets that many would have never downloaded in the first place.

"We are grateful to our loyal BlackBerry customers for their patience," RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis said in a statement today. "We have apologized to our customers and we will work tirelessly to restore their confidence. We are taking immediate and aggressive steps to help prevent something like this from happening again."

But you can't guarantee that customers will be safe from another outage. Despite your claims of superior reliability and security, your network has suffered from its share of problems, including a previous e-mail and messenger outage just last month.

Your customers will be a lot more understanding if they're using a new BlackBerry. RIM, it's time to step up your game.

Great way to conclude, with strong words and a dramatic challenge.  And this piece did quite well, as it was also picked up by Scientific American's website, where it appears under the same title, Hey, RIM! Time to step it up with better BlackBerry freebies.  But Scientific American, hey, that is very cool!  

And there is an entirely strange, weird, alternate reality version appearing on, under the mutated title of Hey, RIM! Time to step it up with improved BlackBerry freebies – CNET News, with the piece reading like someone made strange minor alterations throughout.  To give just one example, my first quote in the article is rendered thusly:

“(RIM) has to do something unequivocally substantial, something which creates people go wow,” pronounced Lance Strate, a highbrow of communications as good as media studies for Fordham University.

 I'm not sure if this was some program that randomly substituted synonyms for some words, or if it was sent through Google translate into another language and then was translated back into English.  But hey, a "highbrow of communications," I kind of like that title. Please use it from now on, okay?

Anyway, the piece was picked up by quite a few aggregators out there, including the following:

Dallas, October 17th, 2011

Daily Me, October 17th, 2011

Tech News AM, October 17th, 2011

Text Telephone, October 17th, 2011

Phone, October 17th, 2011

View, October 17th, 2011

Mobile, October 17th, 2011, October 17th, 2011

Donald Schwartz, October 17th, 2011

Breaking News Now, October 17th, 2011, October 17th, 2011

Thunderfeeds, October 17th, 2011

Technology Feed Today, October 17th, 2011

Popular Gaming, October 17th, 2011

Bourne Computer Centre, October 17th, 2011

Life While, October 17th, 2011

Xydo, October 17th, 2011, October 17th, 2011

Buzz Tracker News, October 17th, 2011

Feeds on Floor, October 17th, 2011

Techno Tree, October 18th, 2011, October 18th, 2011, October 18th, 2011

Brad, October 18th, 2011

The list was compiled by some interested PR folks, not me, in case you're wondering how I'd have the time to find all of these links, or why I'd care to.  I include them here because this is all of interest from a media point of view, cell phones and connectivity, journalism and commentary, publicity and diffusion.

So, to return to the topic with which this post began, is this the death knell for the BlackBerry?  Unless they suddenly take my advice, I think it is the beginning of the end, and they'll soon go the way of the PalmPilot.  And me, I've had an Android, and now I have an iPhone, and there simply is no comparison, it's the iPhone hands down, it's superiority is crystal clear.  Android is the cheap alternative to the iPhone, and I don't think there's much room in the market for a third party line.

But, as to the larger point, in the end, I do think we won't be satisfied with anything less than complete and continual connection, for better or for worse, and system failures and outages will become increasingly less tolerable, more traumatic, for all of us. 

And you can quote me on that!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

More Scenes from the Center

Some more shots taken at the Media @ the Center Marshall McLuhan Centenary at Fordham University.  Note the satisfied purchaser of a copy of Media and Formal Cause by Marshall and Eric McLuhan in the first picture--that's Stacy Zeifman, who earned her MA at Queens College in Media Studies back in the day.  And speaking of which, there's Gary Gumpert in the red scarf in a couple of the shots.

And last but never least is the Model Media Ecologist on the right, Bob Blechman, the author of the forthcoming Executive Severance, a mystery story composed on Twitter, with added illustrations, being published by NeoPoiesis Press, publishers of such fine works as, you guessed it, Media and Formal Cause by Marshall and Eric McLuhan.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Radio Free McLuhan

Please note that I do not mean radio free of McLuhan in the title of this post.  Rather, it's a play on the old Cold War days when we sent our propaganda (and I mean that in a good way) broadcasts over and beyond the Iron Curtain into Eastern Europe, via Radio Free Europe.  And there has been an Iron Curtain of sorts that kept McLuhan out of public discourse for a long time, but we have been in the process of tearing down that wall ever since the Media Ecology Association was founded in 1998.

So, last Monday evening I was a guest on Benjamen Walker's radio show, Too Much Information, on WFMU, which is an independent, freeform radio station, one of the last of its kind, listener-supported, community-oriented, and the longest running freeform station in the USA. 

WFMU started out as the student-run radio station of Upsala College in New Jersey, but when Upsala went upside down and bankrupt and kaput, WFMU was set free and is still alive and kicking, broadcasting out of Jersey City to the New York Metropolitan Area on 91.1, and via WMFU, a repeater station in Mount Hope, New York, to the Hudson Valley and lower Catskill area in New York State as well.  And of course, you can also tune in on the internet.

Anyway, what kind of show is Too Much Information?  Basically, it's a talk show, and here's the description they have on the web:

Too Much Information is the sober hangover after the digital party has run out of memes, apps and schemes. Host Benjamen Walker finds out that, in a world where everyone overshares the truth 140 characters at a time, telling tales might be the most honest thing to do.

What the hell does that mean?  Well, how the hell should I know?  But it sure sounds like fun, doesn't it.  Maybe the cartoonish illustration that accompanied this mission statement will help:

And that does look a little like Benjamen Walker, if he were a cartoon, I guess, maybe...

Well, anyway, we did have some fun with our show, I can say that much, and here's how it's described on the TMI site:

October 10, 2011: Live Show - medium / message/ massage
A rare live broadcast! First we hear a segment about Marshall Mcluhan, then we learn about WFMU's upcoming Radiovision festival and then we hear from Marshall Mcluhan expert Lance Strate and we check in with Occupy Wall Street.

The live part was so we'd get some call-ins, which didn't work out, unfortunately.  But we did have a scheduled phone call with Beka Economopoulos, one of the leaders of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which led to an interesting exchange, but I'll let you listen to it and see for yourself.

The show is about an hour long, starting with the 10 minute podcast that Benjamen Walker prepared for the UK Guardian newspaper's website this past July (as noted in my previous post, Standing on Guardian for McLuhan), followed by a few minutes of promotional messages, and then we get into the nitty-gritty of the show.

You can download the MP3 and listen to it, or access it directly here:

Listen to this show: MP3 - 128K |  Pop‑up player!

Or head on over there and check things out: 

Playlist for Too Much Information with Benjamen Walker - October 10, 2011

And hopefully we'll have a chance to do another show together before too long.  In any event, I hope you enjoy this bit of radio daze...

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Off to Oakland

Tomorrow evening, I'm off to the left coast to give a public lecture at Saint Mary's College of California, which is somewhere in the vicinity of Oakland.  I'll be doing my Binding Biases of Time talk, based on my book On the Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology.  In case you don't have a copy yet, or still haven't gotten a second copy, you can order it over on the right of this post, assuming you're reading this on the actual website.  Or come to the talk, and pick up a copy, and I'll sign it for you, if you want.

Anyway, my host, Ed Tywoniak, did up a pretty cool flyer that he shared with me, and that I'd like to share with you:

Cool, and informative, too!  And if you're in the area, come see me, if you care to, I'd like to see you.  And come over and tell me that Blog Time Passing sent you!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Ram's-Eye View on Steve Jobs

So, as you may know, the mascot of Fordham University is the ram, which makes sense, when you think about it, Fordham being linked to the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, and the ram being a biblical beast (e.g., Abraham sacrifices a ram in place of Isaac in Genesis).  

Our sports teams are the Fordham Rams, except for the women's teams which are called the Lady Rams (it wouldn't sound so great to call them the Ewes, or the Sheep).  We have a van service that shuttles back and forth between our Bronx, Manhattan, and Westchester locations that we call the Ram Van.  And the student newspaper at our Rose Hill campus (it wouldn't sound so great to call it the Bronx campus) is also called, The Ram.

I bring all this up because I wanted to add one more entry to my previous posts, Steve Jobs, Media Ecologist, and Jobs, Disney, and the Future of Apple, as last week I was interviewed by one of our many bright and talented student reporters, Karen Hill, for an article about Steve Jobs that appeared online on The Ram's website:  Fordham Community Reacts to the Loss of Steve Jobs.

The piece begins by placing the news of the death of Steve Jobs in the context of our school:

The big question on campus has been "Did you hear about Steve Jobs?" On Oct. 5, 2011 Steve Jobs, the revolutionary co-founder of Apple, passed away from complications of pancreatic cancer.

His loss has hit the world of technology, and Apple consumers, hard. Many are left wondering how the company will continue to thrive with the loss of such a unique figurehead as Jobs.

For years, Fordham University classrooms have been lit by the glowing apples on MacBooks. With the prevalence of Apple's technology on campus, Jobs has had an inevitable impact on the students and professors alike.

"My MacBook is my life," Noelle Bohlen, FCRH '12, said. "I work on it, which brings me income. I write computer programs on it for school and design posters or build Web sites."

And here's where I come in.  Please note that I am erroneously identified as an associate professor--I have not been demoted, I'm still a full professor, or full of something, anyway...  [Actually, they have since corrected that error, and also the name of the department, which is Communication singular, not the plural Communications.]
Apple products have proven to be more than just a fad used for solely entertainment purposes. They are serious machines built for serious workers. According to Dr. Lance Strate, an associate professor in the communications and media studies department, Mac computers have been used on Fordham's campus throughout his two decades as a professor here at Fordham.

Now, the point was that our Edward A. Walsh Media Lab (which was set-up by my colleague, friend, and fellow media ecologist Edward A. Wachtel, in the mid 90s, and funded by Rose Hill alumni who remember their old professor from our department from back in the 50s and 60s, Ed Walsh, with enormous fondness) was set up as a Macintosh lab, the only computer lab at Fordham that used Macs rather than PCs.  If you want to do video, audio, graphics, multimedia, art, creative work or media work, Macs are the way to go.  

Me personally, I've had a Mac since 1991, when the printer for my old old Atari 800, on which I wrote my dissertation, broke down in the middle of printing out the final version, and I couldn't get it repaired or replaced, a crisis resolved by retyping the whole damn thing!  So, it's been Macs ever for me ever since.

But I digress...

"Mac users are known for their loyalty despite all the trouble that went along for the first 10 years or so of the product [Mac computers]," Strate said.

This period of "trouble" was due to Job's resignation as CEO of Apple in 1985, when he left to work for a hardware and software company, NeXt. In 1997, Apple bought NeXt and Steve Jobs returned to his position as CEO; thus, the revival of Apple began.
Some may have forgotten this, or might be too young to know, but Apple almost went under at one point.  In fact, Bill Gates even helped out right around the time that Jobs returned to Apple.  It was only the loyalty of Mac users that kept it going during those dark years.  If Jobs had not come back to Apple, I think the Macintosh would have gone the way of the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST, both of which used graphical user interfaces (GUIs) similar to the Mac.

I think the loyal Mac users deserve some credit here, don't you?  But of course, so does Jobs himself.

For Apple customers, Jobs' products are popular because of their advanced and innovative technology, which maintains usability.      

"He understood early on that computers are not merely tools or appliances but tools for communication that culminate into a compelling experience with pleasurable aesthetic," Strate said. "Steve Jobs was one of us – super representative. Being a leader isn't be[ing] separated from everyone else, but being a part of everyone else."

This is a point I made in some of the previous posts.  So now, let's hear from someone else, say, my colleague, friend, and fellow media ecologist, Paul Levinson:

Jobs' determination was a large portion of what made him a success and inspiration to budding entrepreneurs, inventors and even the average Joe.

"It is one thing to have a dream, and another to make it happen," Dr. Paul Levinson, an associate professor of communications and media studies, said.

Here too, Paul is also mistakenly identified as an associate professor [this too has been corrected].  Oh well, at least they're being consistent!  Anyway, back to the article:

Jobs clearly made his dreams happen. He moved from building computers in his garage to becoming CEO of the world's second richest company.

While Jobs was a college dropout, he still serves as inspiration to college students.
This is something that, amazingly, comes up in McLuhan's work, notably his 1972 book, Take Today: The Executive as Drop-Out, co-authored by Barrington Nevitt (and note that they also collaborate on one of the chapters in Media and Formal Cause, which, as I've mentioned before, can be ordered just to the right of this post).  Dropping out is a common characteristic of many of the executives of the new media age, Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg, etc.

But kids, if you're reading this, don't be a fool, stay in school:

"As students at Fordham University, it is understood that college betters the students," Levinson said. "However, even without a degree, Jobs has provided a lesson that everyone, including students, must follow their inner most powerful dreams [...] But every student must evaluate what they really want [...] and if they have a real dream to peruse then they do what they must."

"If I had never dropped in on that single calligraphy course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts," Jobs once said.

It seems as though Jobs and Apple are so iconic that everyone looks up to him, and that the only people without Apple products are Bill Gates and his family.
Now, I would bet good money that Gates has a Mac, probably quite a few.  But that's besides the point.  And now, Karen being a good journalist, looks to other points of view on the passing of Jobs:

When MacBook Pro owner, Amy Gembara, FCRH '14, was asked how she felt about the loss of Jobs, however, her innocent response was "Who's that?"

Besides those who simply are not aware of Jobs, anti-Apple students exist.

"[Jobs] was incredibly rude and insensitive in business relationships. I own no Apple products. Their history with DRM, closed source and standards non-compliance leave me ideologically opposed to the company," Jeff Lockhart, FCRH '13, said.

Regardless of one's personal opinions, Apple and their products will never be quite the same.
"Jobs was unique and quite possibly irreplaceable," Levinson said.

While some fear that Apple will face a downfall, loyal customers have faith in the legacy Jobs built. Others doubt the quality of products to come.

And that is the six billion dollar question, isn't it?  And only time will tell, after all.  I do like the fact that Karen brings the article to a nice closing at the end, and back to the local angle:

Jobs was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, and planned his business in direct response to that diagnosis. The Apple University was formed in 2009 to train future employees. In addition, Jobs resigned from Apple in Aug. 2011, due to the progression of his illness. While Apple will not be the same, it will be well equipped with Tim Cook as the new CEO.

Ultimately, Jobs' death came as shock, especially since the iPhone 4s was released one day before his death. The Upper West Side Apple store, a few blocks from the Lincoln Center campus, was decorated with flowers, sticky notes and real apples with a single bite taken out of them. Jobs may be gone, but he still lives in the legacy of Apple and hearts of consumers, including students and professors of the Fordham community.

And through this small, close-up view of the impact of Steve Jobs on our community, we gain an intimate view on what his passing means (or doesn't mean) to the similar communities throughout the nation, and the world.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

All Foxxed Up!

So, last week I was asked to write an opinion piece about Fox News, for a point/counterpoint feature in a little newspaper called Metro, which publishes editions in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, and distributes them free in subways, on streets, etc.  I chose the con rather than the pro, and you may recall my previous post, Murdoch on the Orient Express, where I expressed my negative view of Rupert Murdoch and his New Corporation, owners of the Fox TV network, and Fox News, and if you do, you would not be surprised at my taking this stand.

So the op eds were published in the last weekend edition, dated Oct. 7-9.  I had them scanned so I could show you what they looked like in print, and it came out a little uneven, as the scanner in our office wasn't big enough to do the entire page at once, so it's in two pieces, but you can get a pretty good idea:

To get a clearer picture of the text, you can also read all about it online, on the Metro site:  15 Years of Fox News.  But, let me provide you with the brief introduction to this point/counterpoint paring:

Fox News Channel is 15 years old this week, having changed the face of TV?news (though it still considers itself an underdog). Since 1996, Fox has caused plenty of controversy with its often caustic, center-right viewpoint. To the chagrin of liberal critics, its audience is twice that of the combined figure of CNN?and MSNBC. Fox News has always divided opinion; and here, two commentators tell us what they think.

I won't bother to reproduce or rebut the pro piece by Figiola here, we both wrote our pieces separately, and his view is just another example of what Neil Postman referred to as, amusing ourselves to death.  But I'll give you my text here, on my official blog of record:

Opinion against Fox: Lance Strate Professor of communication and media studies, Fordham University

Fox News: A Blot on the Media Landscape

The recent series of phone-hacking scandals facing Rupert Murdoch have conclusively demonstrated that HIS News Corporation is devoid of journalistic ethics. No doubt, the vast majority of broadcast journalists in the United States regard Murdoch's troubles as long overdue comeuppance for the permanent damage they inflicted on the American media landscape.

For more than a century, journalists have adhered to an ideal of objectivity — admittedly, one they could never quite live up to. Still, they were intent on serving the public interest by providing objective, factual descriptions of events. Journalists proudly proclaimed that the criticisms and complaints they received from both left and right proved that they were maintaining the correct level of professional detachment and impartiality.

Fox News represents a radical break from this tradition, as it is profoundly partisan in its reporting.
Fox's political bias would not be so damaging if the organization would be honest and up front about the fact that it favors conservatism and the Republication Party. That would be perfectly legitimate.
The problem is that Fox keeps its political agenda hidden and obscured in a manner that blurs the distinction between journalism and overt propaganda. Instead, Fox News presents itself as part of the tradition of objective journalism, claiming that its deliberately biased newscasts somehow represent “fair and balanced” reporting.

This smokescreen has the effect of tainting all reporting with an air of political bias and pressuring other organizations to compensate for the imbalance in the media ecology. MSNBC has more recently eschewed the objective ideal to become the liberal counterpart to Fox. 

And so, like a zombie plague, the infection spreads!

Cynicism abounds; and is it any wonder that when news becomes a joke, comedians become our most trusted journalists? How can we not look to Jon Stewart or Jay Leno as voices of reason and truth, when all that Fox brings us is an endless parade of programming that favors confrontation, conflict and angry exchanges?

Fox News is to journalism as professional wrestling is to sports. Murdoch is guilty of nothing less than strip-mining the media landscape, and it will be a long time healing from the damage that he has caused.

— Lance Strate is a professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University.

In response to this, I received three emails, two negative, one positive.  The two negative messages began with typical conservative put downs of liberals, and college professors, but I responded to them in reasonable fashion, resulting in a cordial exchange.  So, I'm going to share with you some of the comments I made in these private emails, just as an elaboration on the editorial, nothing personally revealing about the individuals I was corresponding with.

To the first individual, my initial response:

You are entitled to your views...   My objection to Fox is the dishonesty in their claim to be practicing a form of objective journalism.  If they made it clear that they were a partisan organ, that would be fine.  Objectivity in journalism is far from perfect, there is much to criticize much that has been criticized. But what Fox represents is much, much worse.

By the way, I was asked to write the anti-Fox op ed, to accompany a pro-Fox op ed. These pieces are clearly presented as opinion, not news reports.  That is the distinction that Fox fails to make.  Over the years, I have enjoyed reading and found myself agreeing with many conservative columnists and editorials, and even when I disagree, I respect the position they take.

It's a question of process, of honesty and integrity.  Of character.

And in a follow-up exchange:

Mass communication theorists have long been criticizing the myth of objectivity, and the fact that there is bias in the news.  But it's bias due to a variety of factors.  Journalists pay attention to sudden events, and ignore long term gradual change.  They try to tell stories, which require some kind of beginning and conclusion, and heroes and villains.  They focus on individuals, and tend to personalize, rather than look to groups and organizations (for example, the president and other world leaders, as opposed to congress and other legislative bodies).  There is bias coming from the medium, for example television favors visual images, so you get the "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality.  They are biased towards their audiences, so they tend to reflect concerns of the audience, they want to keep their audiences after all.  They are biased towards their advertisers, at least to some extent, because they have to stay in business.  They are biased towards their owners, at least a little, which means they'll reflect the biases of corporate boards and stockholders, as well as idiosyncratic individuals like Murdoch, or Ted Turner in a previous era.  And there is bias in the profession of journalism, not so much political as bias towards what is and isn't news, about going to official sources for quotes, which tends to result in formation of relationships between reporters and politicians.  And I could go on, but the point is that there is a multitude of biases, some may say that they cancel each other out, some say that they amount to a liberal bias, others say that they amount to a conservative, pro-corporate capitalism bias.  But behind it all, in traditional journalism, we still have reporters and editors who are trying hard to report the facts and hold back their personal views, and are not trying to push a political agenda, as opposed to Fox's cynical attempt to play politics while claiming to be impartial.

So, I would agree that MSNBC, now that it has embraced liberal politics, should make that up front as well.  I think CNN is still trying to adhere to traditional objectivity.  They may make good or bad decisions, and folks have every right to criticize news organizations for what they do and don't report.  I just don't think it's good for democracy to have news organizations passing off political persuasion as objective reporting.

No question that Fox is entertaining.  But let me recommend to you the book Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.  Postman was my mentor, and his argument is with television as a medium, and how television news trivializes important matters because its primary emphasis is entertainment.  Fox takes Postman's criticism as a formula for success.

Now, here's an excerpt from my initial response to the second critical response:

You are entitled to your opinions, although I would have preferred them to have been expressed in a more civil manner. 

I was invited to write an opinion piece against Fox that would accompany one that is in favor of Fox, and it was clearly labeled as opinion.  I have no objection to conservative media, and in fact find that I agree with conservative columnists quite often.  I do object to any news organization passing itself off as objective and impartial while following a political agenda.  I believe that the ability to separate fact from opinion is vital for a democracy.

You might note, by the way, that the position I've been taking is one in defense of professional journalism, and based in part on general semantics, which the journalism ethics scholar John C. Merrill recommends as the basis for an ethical approach to objective reporting.  Anyway, in the follow-up exchange, I provided a more comprehensive statement of my position (you can infer from this some of what I was responding to):

Metro put out a call for individuals to write pro and con pieces, I was asked if I'd be interested in doing one or the other, and I said I could write the con.  They didn't reach out to me because of my previously stated views, but I assume they selected me because of my academic credentials.  I did write one post on my blog earlier this year critical of Murdoch, and the despicable practice of News Corporation, which owns Fox News.  Are you aware of the phone hacking scandal, how they hacked the cell phone messages of 9/11 victims, or gave the family of a young girl who had been kidnapped and killed false hope because their hacking generated cell phone activity that the parents and police though were signs she was still alive?  Do you know that Murdoch broke the law when he bought television stations in the US to start the Fox network while he was still a foreign national? The fact that he became a US citizen, a transparently cynical business move, after the fact doesn't alter the fact that he broke the law, but was never forced to divest himself of the stations he bought.  Special privileges for the rich.  So, I don't believe Murdoch or his holdings are deserving of your sympathy or support.

I don't believe that it's a dodge to say it's an opinion piece.  There is a long tradition of editorials in journalism, and they are clearly labeled as such, often segregated from news on an op ed page in major newspapers, and in this case labeled as opinion.  If I had been asked to write an article about Fox, I would have been more even-handed in my assessment.  The fact that I'm a college professor is a credential, yes, and I am entitled to have and express opinions, but the readers who are predisposed to grant me credibility for my status are probably those who are already on the liberal side of the divide, and those who are predisposed to dismiss me for the very same reason are probably, like yourself, on the conservative side.

Yes, it is well known that Fox is conservative, but their insistence that they are engaged in "fair and balanced" journalism makes all attempts at objectivity suspect, creating a cynical attitude that is very bad for democracy.  You're right that what happened with Dan Rather was a scandal, it was clear that he had trouble keeping his personal views out of his reporting, and this was noticed and criticized.  When the forged documents incident occurred, heads rolled, Rather's top assistant was fired, and he was allowed to continue on for a limited period to save face for the longtime anchor (and to save face for CBS itself), and then replaced.  And that's the point.  We're talking about a human, fallible attempt to be objective, where errors are made and attempts made to correct them.  But where, in a real news organization, that sort of behavior is seen as deviant and repugnant, and punished, with the attempt to eliminate it, on Fox News that sort of behavior is the actual policy of the organization.  They encourage it.  They don't try to eliminate political bias, they make it the basis of all that they do.
At his point, I included the paragraph I wrote earlier, seen above, beginning with, "Mass communication theorists have long been criticizing the myth of objectivity..."  So I won't include here for a second time.  Now, on to continue on:

Yes, journalists went easy on Obama's pastor, and no doubt concern about racial issues played a part, given that most journalists are white (which could be seen as a another source of bias). But they also went easy on George W. Bush's past of drug abuse and alcoholism.  The Tea Party movement took a while to take off, and yes, there has been negative coverage at times.  The Occupy Wall Street movement is just getting started, and is much less organized, so there's no one to interview yet, no one to personalize it for the TV cameras. Folks on the left accuse mainstream journalists of not giving it the attention they have given the Tea Party movement.  On the liberal and left side of things, mainstream journalism is seen as biased in favor of its corporate owners, whose main interest is the bottom line.
I did say that some of my colleagues are ideological.  I think less of them are than is often portrayed in the media.  I don't like that approach because it starts with conclusions and then tries to show how facts fit into the conclusions.  That's not objective.  But I do grant that ideological critiques make some important points, and make an important contribution to our understanding of society.  What makes America great (and I do believe the USA is exceptional) is the ability to engage in vigorous debate, allow different views to be expressed, but only with the understanding that we can weigh the alternatives and come to the best possible conclusion about what is really going on, and what we ought to do about it.  And to do that, we need to be able to separate fact from opinion.  Facts can be examined, tested, verified, or at least proven false.  Opinions cannot. If we're confused about what is going on, how can we make appropriate political decisions in a democracy? And maybe that's no longer possible, but I'd like to believe it still is.
You mention a statistic that 90% of college professors are liberal. That is a fact that could be checked, but whatever the number may be, I would certainly grant that the vast majority are.  Why might that be? For one, when you are engaged in education, as most professors are, you believe in the possibility that human beings can be improved upon, can be made better than they are, can be fundamentally changed. That's a liberal view. We have to believe that way, or else why are we doing what we're doing? We do by and large favor open minds and being open to new ideas, and that goes along with liberalism.  And we participate in an enterprise where we are required to make distinctions between better and worse performance, grading students, sometimes failing some, distinguishing between individuals based on degrees that they earn, bachelors, masters, doctorate.  This is an elitist view, no question about it, although one based on merit, not entitlement. And contemporary liberalism does favor granting special status to educated elites--I'm not saying that's always the best thing to do, just noting that this is another reason why professors tend to be liberal, and it's also a reason why professors tend to be portrayed negatively in the media.  All this applies to most of us who are educators, the exception being the minority at elite institutions where research and publication is their sole emphasis, but many of them receive research money from the government, including the Defense Department, which makes their work suspect to others engaged in ideological critique.
So my bottom line is that however bad American journalism was before Fox News, Fox News has made it worse by making people doubt the possibility of obtaining relatively objective reports of the facts.  If that were truly impossible, we would not have the science and technology that we enjoy.

Since this individual has ended his second message to me with "God bless you and your family, " I concluded with, "my best to you, and your family, and may God inscribe you for blessing in the coming year."

So there you have, and that about wraps it up, but wait, oh yeah, I mentioned that I did get one favorable email message.  As it turns out, it was one from a Fordham student!  I'm quite proud of that, in fact. 

And this was a student I had never met, a political science major studying at our Lincoln Center campus, and a German citizen going to college here in the United States.  He expressed his great satisfaction in the piece, and in fact his relief in seeing that not all Americans liked Fox News and believed what was being said on that cable channel.  To which I can only say, ach du lieber! 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Steve Jobs Was One of Us

So, it's time for some more on Steve Jobs (see my previous post, Jobs, Disney, and the Future of Apple), this time coming from the Business section of The Washington Post website, and an article entitled Why does Steve Jobs inspire this kind of reaction? If you click on the link and go over to the website, you can take a look at the cool photo galleries they included with the article, but otherwise, stick around and you can read the piece, written by Hayley Tsukayama, right here.

And in case you're wondering who Hayley Tsukayama is, she

writes for The Washington Post’s “Faster Forward” and “Post Tech” blogs, covering consumer technology and technology policy. A Minnesota native, she joined the Post in 2010 after completing her master’s degree in journalism. She lives in Washington D.C. where she sings alto with a local choir and plays video games in her copious free time.
                                                               And here she is:  

But let's not make the reporter part of the story, shall we, except to note that she probably wouldn't be doing what she's doing if not for Steve Jobs.  Well, maybe she would anyway. But maybe not.

So let's get started, shall we?

Candlelight vigils. Sympathy cards left at Apple stores. Prayers and flowers. As flags flew at half-mast at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., Steve Jobs’s death inspired the kind of reaction across the country that’s normally reserved for the world’s most famous pop stars and celebrities.

An excellent point.  Jobs was a celebrity.  It's true, he kept his private life pretty private, which was not typical for a celebrity, but it also was due to the fact that he never got involved in a sex scandal, or drug or alcohol related incident, or political of financial controversy, or legal trouble.  He just worked hard, and kept his life relatively clean.  

Sure, he was wealthy enough in the last decade or so to keep his life and health relatively closed to the public, and it is also true that if you're having health problems, you have less of a chance to get into trouble in other parts of your life.  But the main point I'd make is that he was Apple and Apple was him, a degree of personal identification rarely see in the business world, Walt Disney being one exception (again, see Jobs, Disney, and the Future of Apple).

Okay, back to Hayley:

“It’s so sad,” Manish Ramji, a customer visiting from London, told The Washington Post’s Michael Rosenwald. “He understood people, and he wasn’t like one of these other CEOs who you never see. He was always out there.”

Some might say he was way out there, but you might be saying, c'mon already, get to the good stuff.  And your wish is my command:

According to Lance Strate, a professor at Fordham University’s Communciations and Media Studies department, that sentiment is exactly why Apple fans are reacting to this death in this way. Jobs inspires this kind of reaction, Strate said, because his approach to technology spoke to a generation that initially saw computers as the domain of unapproachable IT experts. Jobs was able to quickly establish himself as someone different, someone on whom the average user could project their attitudes about computing.

“He understood that the computer is not simply a tool or an appliance,” Strate said. “He understood that it’s not just a thing, it’s an experience. And that was the genius behind him.”
You see, my point is that he was one of us, someone we could relate to and project ourselves on to, someone to identify with, getting excited by our gadgets, and still wanting to be cool about it all.  And he understood that the computer is a medium of communication when most were talking about using personal computers to balance checkbooks and file recipes.  He understood that, as media, computers are environments that we immerse ourselves in, environments that we experience, and Jobs understood that the interface is the key to giving users a compelling experience.

But back to the point that he was one of us, what we used to call "the common man" (McLuhan once said that charisma is looking like everyone else), but the one among us who made good, and thereby proved that success is possible for any and all of us, if we have the right combination of pluck and luck. That's the myth of the American dream, the Horatio Alger myth, or the Cinderella story, rags to riches:

Jobs’s own personal story may also have something to do with the devotion he’s inspired, Strate said, noting that the often-repeated narrative of how he was forced out of Apple only to return as its savior has echoes of the classic American dream.

“That anyone of no particular means can, through hard work and talent, reach great success...that’s what we really want to believe,” he said. The belief in this narrative, Strate said, could also explain why people are willing to gloss over the executive’s well-documented personality faults — excusing his volatility because they admired his perseverance.

In this sense, is he any different from anyone else who made it big?  Does anyone get to the top of the game by being nice?  Ambition goes hand in hand with aggression, after all.  But in American culture, we admire those traits, to a point.  We like winners, but we don't like cheaters.  Jobs seemed to get there fair and square, and to keep at it despite setbacks, and through adversity get to the stars, so to speak.

Hayley ends the piece by noting the global reach of the reaction to the news of his passing:

Reaction has been similar around the world. Apple users have said repeatedly that Jobs has both improved their lives and stood as a role model. In Syria, where Jobs’s biological father was born, a 22-year-old student named Sara told the Associated Press that, “This shows that this country can produce geniuses, if only we had freedoms instead of a suffocating dictatorship.”

Impromptu tributes also popped up at stores in Tokyo, Moscow, Hong Kong, London and others around the world. Perhaps most fitting, the bulk of remembrances appeared online through social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, where thousands commemorated Jobs’s life by using the devices he invented.

Fitting indeed.  The social networks are the media where there is no distinction between producers and consumers, performers and audience, writers and readers, where we are all together as one group, and where we all can mark the passing of one of us, Steve Jobs.