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February 17, 2011


This is a terrific post, Fiddler, and it addresses a lot of stuff I've wanted to blog myself about Wikileaks, so much of the excellent and crappy journalism about it and Assange, the lawsuit, the Icelandic aspects (a unique country, but, then they all are, and yet Iceland is fascinating in its own way, and if only they were more accepting of outsiders in some ways, a place I'd love to try living for a while, at least in theory), and much more.

Also, for some odd reason, I'm particularly sympathetic to this, for lifelong reasons, really, of having run so many volunteer organizations, from having worked on and with so many, from the top, the bottom, the middle, from collectives, from flat non-hierarchies, from, well, all sorts of positions and perspectives:

[...] I wanted a meeting. I became obsessed that we had to have a meeting to create the structures and if you don’t have proper structures and a means for people to communicate in a functional way, it’s a disaster. I couldn’t get the meeting. All the volunteers wanted the meeting except one. He didn’t feel it was necessary...
Herding cats is hard.

Open communications usually helps, but people have to be able to communicate, and then they have to have language in common, and time.

I look forward greatly to getting to know you better, and I'm very glad you're now here with us at Obsidian Wings.

I'm rather startled at how much of what you've posted in this and some other posts comes close to duplicating many points I would have made myself, including some of the same links. Naturally, I mean this as flattery. :-)

And true praise. Great job.

This is a really interesting situation, apart from the questions of censorship, privacy and US foreign policy. If I, as a person living in Japan, uses a service in another country, what rights do I have in respect to my privacy if I use a service in another country? Suppose I was a Japanese citizen, using an American service, what specific rights do I have to having my privacy upheld?

I recall that there was an attempt at raising an alarm that the government was snooping on US citizen's conversations that arose when talking to foreign persons, but my impression of the general reaction was a big yawn, I think in part because the bulk of the targets were foreigners. This is also interesting, but given the propensity for people to argue that you should treat everything that you do online as being public, I get the impression that there won't be much resistance.

Thank you, Gary. I appreciate what you've said.

Liberal (or should it be LJ?), I seem to recall seeing quite a bit in the blogosphere at various times about your first link concerning the NSA exceeding its bounds on wiretapping and spying on Americans, but less in the newspapers. One reason for that, I think, is the shrinking print news hole.

Thirty years ago, many US cities still had two newspapers, so the news hole -- the amount of space in which news could be printed -- was at least double what it is now, and advertising supported more special sections and depth reporting. Between about 1983 and 1987 the majority of the 'second' newspapers in cities were bought up, went bankrupt, or just closed down. Since advertising supports news, and much advertising has departed for Craigslist and other online venues, the newspapers have shrunk to a much smaller size overall -- with corresponding shrinkage in the news hole, but no corresponding shrinkage in the amount of news out there to be conveyed to readers. One response to this has been that local papers become more local (because it theoretically draws more advertising) and print less national and international news -- in some papers it doesn't even fill the first section but stays on page one. The public is deprived of a different voice from what they get on headline news stations on tv or radio, and not everyone who has access to a computer (it's not universal yet) is going to take the trouble to cruise news.google.com or other sources that I scan daily. Quite a bit of news travels the blogosphere and online news sources that never makes it to print in the US, and much of it never makes it to TV either. But discussing that gets into questions about news ownership and political alliances that are for another time.

I think there's still a difference between public and private in online matters. Surveillance agencies and police can always get access to financial information offline, as well as to other things that tend to be private on the Internet; it irks them that they can't get everything, all the time, whether they really should or not. But many of us still have relatives in other countries, so our calls to them are recorded without our consent or knowledge. I hope they're fascinated by the details of one cousin's opinion of the Toronto Blue Jays or another cousin's troubles with his girlfriend.

The only non-surveillance-agency person I've heard of who advocates no privacy at all online is the creator of Facebook, who has his own stalker problems now because of that.

lj is probably better, say 'Hey Liberal' and any number of people might respond...'

I might be riding my own hobby horse into this, but whenever someone gets outed, as happened at the very blog (I also link to this as sort of a bookend, as I think it is important to acknowledge the apology) there always seems to be a significant number of people who argue that they had no reason to expect privacy, and if they didn't want to be outed, they should have just shut up. I think it's not that there are people who advocate that there be no privacy online, it's that there are so many who claim there is no privacy online, so it's your own damn fault if you get outed (I'd also note that you, me and Dr Science are choosing to blog under pseudonyms here, so this certainly partakes of a bit of navel gazing)

But your idea of the shrinking print news hole is one that I hadn't thought about. It's worth keeping in mind, because there have been a number of discussions here that center on how one 'proved' the public holds an opinion, and the type of evidence that is useful to cite in that regard.

And, as usual, what Gary said.

Fiddler, this was another great post. Tis a pleasure reading you.

Thirty years ago, many US cities still had two newspapers, so the news hole -- the amount of space in which news could be printed -- was at least double what it is now, and advertising supported more special sections and depth reporting.

Is this true? It seems not quite right to me: two competing newspapers may have twice the surface area to print news, but when it comes to national/intl news, they're going to be filling it with the exact same content from the Associated Press or Reuters. Newspaper editors don't design their products to be complementary; they don't say 'eh, we won't include this breaking Reuters story on Egypt because the other paper will cover it but we will include this AP story on Libya because we know the other paper won't'.

Beyond that, its not clear that bigger budgets actually supported more news per se as opposed to more profits for newspaper owners or nonproductive journalists or non-news content like an awesome comics page. I mean, what exactly is the benefit we gain by having every medium size city newspaper staff a bureau in Cairo? Do all those extra reporters really contribute anything more than the NYT/AP/Reuters bureau?

My sense is that newspapers aren't interested in things like mass NSA spying because their core demographic, old people, are conservative and to some extent, authoritarian. Authoritarians don't know how to even make sense of a story like that: how could it be wrong for the government to do things that keep us safe? If the President orders it, it is not illegal. Besides, everyone knows that government malfeasance never harms the right kind of people, nudge nudge wink wink.

Alternatively, you could look at it structurally: if I really love my local paper I'll subscribe and...that's it. I won't subscribe 5 times because I really really love it. Whereas, if I really love a movie, I might go 2 or 3 times and buy the dvd. But if my local paper pisses me off, I'll unsubscribe. So the dynamics of the business compel bland coverage that avoids provoking strong emotions either way: strong positive feelings are useless and strong negative feelings kill subscriptions. There are a lot of people in the US who agree with Nixon that when the President orders it, it is legal and coverage of NSA wiretapping pisses those people off, so best to avoid such coverage.

LJ, I've also run across people in cities who think nobody should expect privacy there, and people in small villages who think nobody should expect privacy there, either. Maybe it's just a trope within society now, and we're noticing it more. However, just because people say something "should" happen doesn't mean it's happening.

Turbulence, when there were multiple newspapers in most cities -- small and medium ones included -- there were also multiple wire services. The same AP news did not go in each paper. One might have AP, the other UPI or Reuters or a different service, and each service had its own slightly different way of reporting. Salaries were lower, so it cost less for the larger papers and wire services to have their own reporters "on the scene" at events, which also provided more diversity in coverage. Multiple papers in the same city often sided with different groups or political parties. And there were many differences in style and coverage: for a current example of this, consider the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post.

As for coverage that avoids strong emotion -- strong emotions sell papers. That's why newspapers put murders, big court cases, tornadoes, emergencies, wars, peace declarations and presidential assassinations on page one. Watergate ran on page one. So did Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech from the Lincoln Memorial. So did the Challenger disaster, and John F. Kennedy's death in Dallas. Any newspaper that avoids news because of strong emotion is a newspaper that is run by people who are missing the point.

I disagree with your view of newspapers' core demographic being "old people" because that's a pretty broad generalization. It's important to specify things like what "old" means -- over 20? over 40? over 80? -- and what size of newspaper you're considering. The age of readership for a community newspaper in a smaller city may be much different than in a larger city; if it's the only place in town where people will get their coupons for 20 cents a pound off ground beef, they'll buy the paper. (Coupons and advertising support circulation in a lot of ways.) In smaller newspapers, when the school band wins an award everyone in town who knows a kid in the band buys a paper -- and there's always something going on with some community group (YMCA, Scouts, Women's Club, Elks, Moose, firefighters, American Legion) that is getting coverage, which also supports papers.

There are also the business-oriented and sector-based newspapers, like The Chronicle of Higher Education or the Rochester (NY) Business Journal, or The Sporting News, which are read by people of all ages within their area of interest. They may not be general-interest newspapers, but they're still newspapers.

As for the benefit of having reporters in Cairo (or anywhere else), personally, I'd rather have more feet on the ground and more eyes watching events and more people there writing stories than fewer. No two people's news coverage will be identical, and each one will pick up something another misses. If everyone covered exactly the same thing about Wikileaks, do you think I'd have so many links in this post?

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