Tag Archives: Columbia Journalism Review

Expertise Not Welcome

The Showtime network introduces a new series this month called Years of Living Dangerously.  It’s no threat to Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, or any of the high-tone fare produced by cable networks.

In fact, it’s not even a threat to Psych.

Years of Living Dangerously is a series about climate change.  It will consist, in effect, of weekly documentaries on different aspects of climate change, and it’s being produced by two refugees of CBS’s 60 Minutes.

But what’s different about Years of Living Dangerously is that instead of using seasoned reporters and experts to guide the experience, it’s using celebrities.  On tap so far are Harrison Ford, Michael C. Hall (okay, The Curmudgeon admits he has no idea who this person is), Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Olivia Munn, Jessica Alba (okay, now they have The Curmudgeon’s attention), and others.

Why celebrities instead of broadcast professionals?

The January/February edition of the Columbia Journalism Review explains that

… celebrities, unlike journalists, conduct interviews without the pretense of expertise that [series co-producer Joel] Bach thinks might turn off viewers.

Of course.  Heaven forbid that the people presenting supposedly important information to the viewing public actually know what they’re talking about.

Could He Mean Another Facebook?

While The Curmudgeon is a writer by both vocation and avocation, he has never aspired to be a journalist; reporting never appealed to him as a profession.  Even so, he believes the press is arguably, with the possible exception of the church, the most important institution in the country, and for this reason he reads occasionally about journalism – its history, its exploits, its challenges, its successes, and its failures.

For those same reasons, he has been a reader of the Columbia Journalism Review for more than twenty years.  It’s a bit of a love/hate relationship:  there are times when The Curmudgeon grows unhappy with the magazine and wanders away from it for a few years, but at least so far, he eventually finds his way back.  The Review is currently on probation:  The Curmudgeon is displeased that such a significant portion of each edition is devoted to whining about the state of the newspaper industry.  The whining is so objectionable for two reasons:  first, because it’s unseemly to whine so in print; and second, The Curmudgeon – as his name suggests – is predisposed to do a bit of whining himself and doesn’t need to hear the whining of strangers as well (unless they’re sick, injured, or hungry – and not “when’s dinner, I’m starved?” hungry).

Much of the November/December edition of the Columbia Journalism Review was a paean to itself:  it was the publication’s fiftieth anniversary, so it spent much of the issue congratulating itself.  Here’s hoping the muscle strain they no doubt suffered from patting themselves on the back so vigorously eases soon.  Much of the issue was fairly unreadable, but one article caught The Curmudgeon’s eye:  a piece called “On Facebook and Freedom,” by Justin Peters.

Truth be told, The Curmudgeon is not much of a fan of Facebook.  He understands Facebook’s appeal as a diversion but is not terribly amused by it himself.  He has a Facebook page but views it erratically and has yet to ask anyone to be his “friend.”  Mostly he’s there because, well, all the other kids are doing it.  (And no, if all the other kids were jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, The Curmudgeon would not jump, too.)

While The Curmudgeon hardly fancies himself an expert on Facebook, he found some of Mr. Peters’ observations pretty laughable.

How did a frivolous website with few apparent practical applications come to so disproportionately overshadow the American digital economy?  By tapping into the fundamental human need to communicate with other people; by allowing you to stay in touch with everyone you’ve ever known, all at the same time, without having to call them or send them Christmas cards or remember the names of their children.  Facebook utilizes the power of networks to provide the most useful tool for easy sociability in generations.  And, as it does so, it rejects the lessons of the living web.

First of all, The Curmudgeon has no idea what the “living web” is or means and cannot fathom how Facebook “overshadows the American digital economy” when it’s free to use and doesn’t sell anything.  But overlooking these minor assaults on common sense, isn’t it clear how this “frivolous website” has achieved the status it enjoys today?  People like Facebook.  They like playing with Facebook, like visiting Facebook, like rummaging around in Facebook.  It’s a combination of a class reunion, a neighborhood block party, and peering out the window to see what’s coming out of the new neighbors’ moving van.

Mr. Peters notes that

Facebook succeeds by disempowering its users, most of whom did not realize they were ceding powers that they had never actually exercised.

Really?  The Curmudgeon has been disempowered because he ceded powers he never knew he had?  What does that mean – that someone stole his cape and sprayed him with liquid kryptonite?  The nerve of those Facebook people!

But he continues.

Daunted by and suspicious of a decentralized communications medium that gave them unlimited choices, these new web viewers found themselves willing to swap freedom for a more coherent online experience; more than willing to accept Facebook’s limitations and reductive emotional grammar, because the site is free, usable, and everyone else is already there.

Please give The Curmudgeon a moment; he felt a wave of nausea when he read about Facebook’s “reductive emotional grammar.”

Thanks, that’s better.

Daunted, perhaps, but suspicious?  Really?  And suspicious of “a decentralized communications medium”?  Again – really?  Yes, that’s it:  The Curmudgeon wanted to surf the web but said to himself, “Damn, I’m starting to wonder about this decentralized communications medium.”  As for “swapping freedom” – please, give us a break.  It’s a web site, not an agreement to waive the bill of rights.  Also, doesn’t this assertion assume that all Facebook users don’t do anything else on the web except play with Facebook?

And then Mr. Peters gets sillier.

Though the company might not define itself as such, its users have certainly come to think of Facebook as a news source – a place they come to get data and information of external and personal import.

Again, The Curmudgeon asks, “Really?”  People think of Facebook as a news source?  A news source?  The Curmudgeon cannot claim to know what everyone thinks, but he finds the notion that anyone – anyone – thinks of Facebook as a “news” source as utterly ridiculous.

Maybe this is a matter of semantics and what constitutes “news” to most people.  True, Facebook has proven useful as a central clearinghouse for information during some recent events like the Arab Spring, but The Curmudgeon has trouble picturing someone coming home after a hard day’s work and hollering to his wife, “I’ll be down in a few minutes, honey.  I want to log onto Facebook to see what’s going on in the world today.”  Does anyone think Facebook is a substitute for thirty minutes with Brian Williams – or even Jon Stewart (or even, heaven forbid, a newspaper)?  The only “news” most people want from Facebook is whether Uncle Rick’s knee surgery went well or whether their favorite niece is going to the prom with that new boy she likes.  Is that “news”?  If it is, The Curmudgeon is all wrong about this – but he thinks it’s not, and he’s not.

Occupy Wall Street, at least among the people in my circle, gets a lot of attention and support on Facebook.  It coordinates many of its events using Facebook.  And it is a metaphor for the flaws inherent in Facebook.

Well, at least in your circle, Mr. Peters, but can we agree that out of hundreds of millions of Facebook users, that’s an awfully small circle?

And – a metaphor?  Really?  How so?

Facebook is raising awareness of news like Occupy Wall Street is raising awareness of issues, insofar as they’re both raising awareness that (some) issues exist.  The difference is that Facebook itself is in prime position to be an informational leader.  It would not be impossible for Facebook to program a function that would let its users identify the most trusted, most-verifiable updates on any given topic from any given source; it would not be difficult for Facebook to let interested users do this work for them.  But Facebook has shown little interest in anything other than being all things to everyone; little interest in empowering its everyday users to participate in the news in any way other than ‘Like.”  Link.  Comment. Click.

Sorry, but except in isolated instances – Occupy Wall Street is a good example – Facebook isn’t raising awareness of news; it’s showing that the cute girl from high school appears to be sporting a mustache these days and serving as a gathering place for sharing dismay over the latest antics of some (very un)real housewives.  And yes, Facebook is very interested in being all things to all people – it’s a business, and popularity is a great way to make money.  Why on earth would Facebook jeopardize that by seeking to “empower” people who just want to share their vacation photos?

The notion that Facebook would allow its users to identify trustworthy sources for anything, let alone news, also seems far-fetched.  Facebook doesn’t really “allow” its users to decide much of anything; the company seems to consist of utter control freaks intent on telling users what’s good for them and imposing their will on their customers.  It has proven absolutely tone deaf about its users’ interests; it succeeds because it’s an absolutely irresistible idea for many, not because anyone trusts the people behind it.  Does anyone, for example, trust Facebook on privacy issues?  Are there people out there who really believe Facebook isn’t doing things with their data that we don’t know about and wouldn’t like if we did know about them?  Facebook is going to trust people to make decisions regarding news sources?  People are going to trust Facebook with the same?  Not a chance.

While Facebook may be in “prime position to be an informational leader,” is there any reason to believe it aspires to be an “informational leader”?  It’s one thing to criticize an entity for failing to live up to its promises but quite another to blame it for failing to achieve something it never set out to do.

It’s hard to see this vision of social news as any sort of informational evolution for which we should eagerly prepare ourselves.  It’s not leading to greater precision or better data or more widespread understanding.  And if specific understanding isn’t your goal, then, in the end, you’re just standing on the banks of the commons, spitting into the river of news.  The social function of news is to give people things to talk about.  The civic function of news is to make its users better citizens.  Facebook excels at the first and fails, miserably, at the second.  It will lead to a more informed public.  But there’s no reason to think that it’ll lead to a better-informed public.

Where to start?  Facebook as a tool for greater precision of information and data?  Why on earth would anyone look at Facebook as a source for such things?  If, as Mr. Peters suggests, Facebook is failing to make its users better citizens, it’s certainly failing at something to which it has never aspired.  Is it even fair to call that failure?  Again, The Curmudgeon thinks not.

So is Mr. Peters suggesting that anyone who comes to Facebook for anything other than “specific understanding” is wasting their time (or “spitting into the river of news, as he rather nauseatingly describes it)?  People aren’t allowed to do something for the sheer pleasure of doing it, Mr. Peters?  Enjoying, say, baseball is a lot of fun and a lot of people enjoy it, but it certainly isn’t a pursuit of “specific understanding.”  Does that make it a waste of time?  Are all baseball lovers nitwits?  Are we wasting our time and essentially bad citizens if our every moment isn’t devoted to pursuing “specific understanding?”  What a joyless life you must lead, sir.

But primarily, Facebook and news organizations have few common values.

Did anyone ever think, suspect, or suggest that they did?

Mark Zuckerberg also wants to change the world – and the evidence indicates that he wants to change it into a blander, more homogeneous place, where people express themselves within limits and are reduced to their affinities and preferences; where stories double as market-research reports; where everybody knows something about one another; and where Facebook knows everything about everyone and uses that knowledge to enrich itself in manifold uncomfortable ways.

Mark Zuckerberg wants to change the world?  Really?  Wouldn’t it be more accurate, and more realistic, to suggest that Mr. Zuckerberg wants to change the world into one great big market for his product and go on to lead a very successful business and make buckets of money?

The Curmudgeon thinks some people are taking Facebook waaaaaaay too seriously.  Facebook is part toy – think wiffle balls and jacks – and part party line – think the telephone hour scene from “Bye Bye Birdie” (“Hello Mrs. Miller, this is Harvey Johnson, can I speak to Debra Sue?”).  It’s a way to send messages and pictures and more to all your friends and family without the need to type in their email addresses and upload those photos.  It’s a way for the whole family to see photos of cousin Sarah’s newborn twins down in Florida.  It’s Barbie, not a real baby, an Easy Bake Oven, not a Kenmore.  Facebook is a toy, something to play with, and anyone who takes Facebook more seriously – other than as an investment or an advertising medium – will inevitably be disappointed by it.  Their disappointment, though, will be based on their own expectations, not on anything reasonable people believe and not on anything even the most disingenuous people at Facebook may try to tell us or sell to us.

It’s just…Facebook.