One Nation Under Fox

If anyone thought that old-style media power was over, then Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox, is the living refutation of that comforting hypothesis. Fox News, according to the New York Times “has been the most watched cable news network for 15 years, but depending on the hour, the news narrative it presents to its large and loyal conservative audience can sharply diverge from what consumers of other media outlets may be seeing.”

Times reporters watched Fox News from 6 a.m. until midnight last Thursday to see how its coverage varied from that of its rivals on a day when cable news was dominated by the health care debate in Congress, the terrorist attack in London and the investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election.

One notable way Fox News stood apart from its competition, as it has been known to do for years, was in the stories it chose to highlight and the tone — in some of its opinion shows, unapologetically supportive of Mr. Trump and his agenda — with which it covered them.

There was extensive coverage of the health care vote, for example, but there was also considerable time given to topics, like a rape case in Maryland, that viewers would not have heard about if they had turned to CNN or MSNBC. The rape case, which involved an undocumented immigrant and went virtually uncovered on most networks, received almost hourly updates on Fox, and at times was used as proof that Mr. Trump’s calls for tighter borders and a crackdown on immigration were justified.

The key role played in the US election by TV is also a cautionary tale for those who thought that the Internet would eventually wipe out TV. This is the most common misconception about new communications technologies: what John Seely Brown calls “endism” — the belief that new media wipe out older media. That’s why I’ve argued for many years that a better metaphor for our communications environment is ecological. New media don’t wipe out older ones; but new relationships (many of them symbiotic, and sometimes parasitic) evolve. Broadcast TV has, of course, been eroded by the rise of ‘on-demand’ viewing, Netflix, etc. But TV hasn’t gone away, and Fox’s dominance confirms that.

Is Snapchat the canary in the post-literate mine?

This morning’s Observer column:

To the average grownup [Snapchat] seems weird. And it is. Just when we’d got used to the idea that digital technology never forgets – that there’s no way of being sure that the embarrassing photograph you posted to Facebook five years ago will not stay on some server somewhere for ever – here’s a digital service that runs completely counter to that. And of course Snapchat’s wild popularity must owe something to the ephemerality of its messages.

But some perceptive observers are beginning to think that there’s more to it than that. One clue can be found in something that Evan Spiegel, the chief executive of Snap, recently said to a reporter. “People wonder why their daughter is taking 10,000 photos a day,” he said. “What they don’t realise is that she isn’t preserving images. She’s talking.” Another clue is hiding in plain sight in the name of the app: “snap” (the term introduced by Kodak for the act of taking a photograph) plus “chat” (which has connotations of oral conversation). So, in some strange way, is Snapchat beginning to assume the qualities of an oral medium?

Read on

Understanding Snapchat

Now that the IPO has valued Snap at $30B, perhaps the adult world will grasp that there’s something interesting here. Joel Stein has had a pretty good go at explaining it for them. Here’s the gist from his piece in Time:

Snapchat makes visual communication so frictionless that, according to Nielsen, it is used by roughly half of 18-to-34-year-olds, which is about seven times better than any TV network. Those who use it daily open the app 18 times a day for a total of nearly 30 minutes. Last fall, Snapchat passed Instagram and Facebook as the most important social network in the semiannual Taking Stock With Teens poll by the investment bank Piper Jaffray. Tweens used to count the days until they turned 13 so they could open a Facebook account; now they often don’t bother. And just as Facebook matured years ago, Snapchat is starting to be used by adults. The company says the app is now used by 158 million people daily, though that growth has slowed a bit lately.

Snapchat’s ethos is largely about the seemingly contrary values of control and fun: the company prospectus is one of the few in Wall Street history to use the word poop, employing it to explain just how often people use their smartphones. Snapchat gives users such tight control of their disappearing messages so that they feel safe taking an imperfect photo or video, and then layering information on top of it in the form of text, devil horns you can draw with your finger, a sticker that says “U Jelly?” or a filter that turns your face into a corncob that spits popcorn from your mouth when you talk. Snapchat is aware that most of our conversations are stupid.

But we want to keep our dumb conversations private. When Snapchat first launched, adults assumed it was merely a safe way for teens to send nude pictures, because adults are pervs. But what Spiegel understood is that teens wanted a safe way to express themselves.

Many teens are so worried about projecting perfection on Instagram that they create Finstagram (fake Instagram) profiles that only their friends know about. “Teens are very, very interested in safety, including something they call ’emotional safety,'” says San Diego State psychology professor Jean Twenge, author of the forthcoming iGen: The 10 Trends Shaping Today’s Young People–and the Nation. “They know on Snapchat, ‘If I make a funny face or use one of the filters and make myself look like a dog, it’s going to disappear. It won’t be something permanent my enemies at school can troll me about.'”

The Economist also has a kindly explanation for baffled oldies.

Trump’s media strategy: “darkly brilliant”

Bret Stephens of the WSJ gave the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture this week at UCLA. It’s well worth reading in full, but this bit is really fine:

Ideologically, the president is trying to depose so-called mainstream media in favor of the media he likes — Breitbart News and the rest. Another way of making this point is to say that he’s trying to substitute news for propaganda, information for boosterism.

His objection to, say, the New York Times, isn’t that there’s a liberal bias in the paper that gets in the way of its objectivity, which I think would be a fair criticism. His objection is to objectivity itself. He’s perfectly happy for the media to be disgusting and corrupt — so long as it’s on his side.

But again, that’s not all the president is doing.

Consider this recent exchange he had with Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly asks:

“Is there any validity to the criticism of you that you say things that you can’t back up factually, and as the President you say there are three million illegal aliens who voted and you don’t have the data to back that up, some people are going to say that it’s irresponsible for the President to say that?”

To which the president replies:

“Many people have come out and said I’m right.”

Now many people also say Jim Morrison faked his own death. Many people say Barack Obama was born in Kenya. “Many people say” is what’s known as an argumentum ad populum. If we were a nation of logicians, we would dismiss the argument as dumb.

We are not a nation of logicians.

I think it’s important not to dismiss the president’s reply simply as dumb. We ought to assume that it’s darkly brilliant — if not in intention then certainly in effect. The president is responding to a claim of fact not by denying the fact, but by denying the claim that facts are supposed to have on an argument. [Emphasis added]

He isn’t telling O’Reilly that he’s got his facts wrong. He’s saying that, as far as he is concerned, facts, as most people understand the term, don’t matter: That they are indistinguishable from, and interchangeable with, opinion; and that statements of fact needn’t have any purchase against a man who is either sufficiently powerful to ignore them or sufficiently shameless to deny them — or, in his case, both.

This is brilliant. Really nails it.

Why fake news won’t be easy to fix

This morning’s Observer column:

The debate about “fake news” and the “post-truth” society we now supposedly inhabit has become the epistemological version of a feeding frenzy: so much heat, so little light. Two things about it are particularly infuriating. The first is the implicit assumption that “truth” is somehow a straightforward thing and our problem is that we just can’t be bothered any more to find it. The second is the failure to appreciate that the profitability, if not the entire business model, of both Google and Facebook depends critically on them not taking responsibility for what passes through their servers. So hoping that these companies will somehow fix the problem is like persuading turkeys to look forward to Christmas…

Read

Sad but true: ‘Digital natives’ can be, er, naive

This morning’s Observer column:

If Facebook thinks it can outsource the detection of fake news to its users (and thereby avoid accepting editorial responsibility) then Stanford University has some bad news for it. Over the past 18 months the university’s history education group has been testing the ability of 7,800 “digital natives” (ie at middle school, high school and college students) in 12 states to judge the credibility of online information…

Read on

Why the moral panic about fake news might have an unpalatable outcome

Jack Shafer is right: the moral panic about fake news on social media — especially Facebook — looks like becoming serious. But, he warns, the cure (Zuckerberg becoming the world’s censor) would be worse than the disease.

Already, otherwise intelligent and calm observers are cheering plans set forth by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to censor users’ news feeds in a fashion that will eliminate fake news. Do we really want Facebook exercising this sort of top-down power to determine what is true or false? Wouldn’t we be revolted if one company owned all the newsstands and decided what was proper and improper reading fare?

Once established to crush fake news, the Facebook mechanism could be repurposed to crush other types of information that might cause moral panic. This cure for fake news is worse than the disease.

As we applaud Facebook’s decision to blue-pencil the News Feed, we need to ask why fake news exists and—as I previously wrote—why it has existed for centuries…

Good question. And the answer:

The audience for fake news resembles the crowds who pay money to attend magic shows. Magic-show patrons know going in that some of what they’re going to see is genuine. But they also know that a good portion of what they’re going to see is going to look real but be phony. Like a woman sawed in half. Or an act of levitation. Being shown something fantastical that is almost true brings delight to almost everybody. People like to be fooled…

Spot on. That’s why millions of people in the UK pay good money every day to buy the Sun and (worse) the Daily Express. It also partly explained why they liked Trump. Sad but true fact about human nature. Or, as Shafer puts it, “Deep in the brain exists a hungry lobe that loves to be deceived.” Sigh.

And as for the media…

Election 2016 has been a disaster for both pollsters and mainstream media. Bracing stuff from Micheal Wolff:

And it was a failure of modern journalistic technique too. It was the day the data died. All of the money poured by a financially challenged media industry into polls and polling analysis was for naught. It profoundly misinformed. It created a compelling and powerful narrative that was the opposite of what was actually happening. There may be few instances, except perhaps under authoritarian regimes, where the media has so successfully propounded a view of events not only of its own making but at such odds with reality. Trump is a simple proof: forget polls — they say what you want them to say.

And then there was the wholesale destruction of what is perhaps the most important media assumption: that advertising matters. A not inconsiderable portion of the profitability of most media companies comes from the extra many billions of dollars that’s poured into local television every four years. Clinton spent the usual quota (buying, for instance, almost 80 percent of the more than 120,000 campaigns ads during the general election in Florida), Trump only a fraction thereof, redefining not only how to run for office, but the symbiotic relationship of the media to politics.

The irony is too painful: Trump the media candidate turns on the media. The flat-footed media became for the nimble Trump his punching bag and foil (while all the time the media assumed Trump was the flat-footed one). It gave him his singular, galvanizing and personalized issue — it’s the media, stupid. If Trump makes good on his promise to oppose the Time Warner and AT&T merger, that will be an indication that his war with the media, once his most reliable alley, will go on.

Jack Shafer goes further:

Trump’s secret was almost exactly the opposite of what even the best-paid consultant would advise. He has run a media campaign directly against the media, helping himself to the copious media attention available to a TV star while disparaging journalists at every podium and venue. Other politicians before him have aimed some anger at the press. President Lyndon Johnson schemed to manipulate reporters; once when asked a tough, one-on-one question by a reporter, Johnson responded, “Here you are, alone with the president of the United States and the leader of the free world, and you ask a chickenshit question like that.” Richard Nixon loathed the press, but delegated the attack-dog job to Vice President Spiro Agnew, who gave speeches denouncing the network news. Ronald Reagan’s image-makers subverted the press by producing heroic prepackaged visuals while keeping their man from having to answer any inconvenient questions. George H.W. Bush’s disdain for journalists inspired the popular 1992 reelection bumper sticker: “Annoy the Media; Vote for Bush.”

But Trump has taken press-baiting further than anyone else in public life would have imagined possible. He has isolated the press as his genuine rival, campaigning harder against it sometimes than the other candidates. He’s fought it on a personal level, ridiculing reporters—often by name—as “sleazy,” “extremely dishonest,” “a real beauty,” “unfair,” and “not good people.” Until recently, he blacklisted individual reporters from campaign access. He mocked a disabled reporter; he called Brit Hume and Maureen Dowd “dopes.” He’s fought it institutionally, slathering CNN with a barrage of insults, and castigating the New York Times and the “mainstream media” scores of times.

Why the Web is making high-quality journalism unsustainable

From Frederic Filloux:

Today, the economic value of a journalism item stems from its popularity, i.e. the number of clicks (or views) it generates. A well-crafted listicle put together by a clever Millennial will generate more revenue that any public-interest piece, this in total disregard for who actually reads it, for how long, etc. That’s the absurdity of today’s system.

Yep. Insightful piece, well worth reading in full.

So what if all the assumptions about ‘digital first’ have been wrong?

Wow! Here’s the abstract of a fascinating paper by two academics at the University of Texas at Austin:

Twenty years into US newspapers’ online ventures, many are stuck between a shrinking market for their print product and an unsuccessful experiment with digital offerings. Since readership is the foundation for subscription and advertising revenue, this study, through a longitudinal analysis of readership data (2007, 2011, and 2015) of 51 US newspapers, provides an up-to-date review on these newspapers’ online and print readership. Results indicated that the (supposedly dying) print product still reaches far more readers than the (supposedly promising) digital product in these newspapers’ home markets, and this holds true across all age groups. In addition, these major newspapers’ online readership has shown little or no growth since 2007, and more than a half of them have seen a decline since 2011. The online edition contributes a relatively small number of online-only users to the combined readership in these newspapers’ home markets. These findings raise questions about US newspapers’ technology-driven strategy and call for a critical re-examination of unchecked assumptions about the future of newspapers.