Fear Culture, USA

Next month will be one year since I stopped watching TV/cable news (and listening to radio news). I feel… lighter? More awake? Difficult to describe.

Michael Amato explores this inescapable hold the media has on American life in Fear Culture, USA. His carefully staged photographs depict TVs glowing from corners in living rooms, gas stations, and other everyday environments. Sensationalist news stories beam from the screens, charging these otherwise untroubled scenes with a sense of doom. “Cable news projects fear into everyday environments,” Amato says, “and it can be very overwhelming.”

Evidence-based journalsim

Jimmy Wales explains evidence-based journalism:

“If someone is — by name and with their reputation at stake — criticising you, then the penalty for not clearly rebutting on the record should be that your side simply isn’t heard.”

And transparency.

“Let’s say we call someone up to get a quote on a hot-button issue. We have a 15-minute phone conversation and we use a section of it in an article about the issue. How do you know whether the quote was fairly reported, or taken out of context? By checking the source. Wherever we can, we’ll publish the entire conversation — audio and transcript — so you can check exactly what was asked, what was said, and even in what tone.”

Portable cassette recorders

Came across this old photo (circa 1988) today and was — once again — struck by the gear we used. This is Lisa Wolfe, a reporter for The Missourinet.

The Radio Shack recorder is jacked into the Shure mixer which is wired into the big cart deck and the phone. So a reporter recorded audio from the phone (with a push-to-talk button in the hand piece); they then dubbed the audio bits they wanted to carts which they carried into the studio for newscasts. When they went into the field they unplugged the cassette recorder.

There were better recorders available but they were all much more expensive than the Radio Shack model which was damn near disposable. The problem was the buttons. Using the recorders as the did (endlessly starting, stopping, fast-forwarding, rewinding) trashed the buttons in no time.

The early SuperScopes (by Marantz) were good but every time they came out with a new model with more features, the buttons got flimsier and flimsier. And the recorders got more and more expensive. And they were nearly impossible to repair. So… Radio Shack.

Thinking back on those days, it occurs to me the cassette recorder was — in some ways — the laptop computer of that day. In the sense that it was our main tool for creating the content of the day (for us): audio.

Of course you needed a radio station or (in our case) a network of radio stations. But we sort of took that for granted.


I’m a big fan of Wikipedia. Whenever Jimmy Wales puts up one of those “we need your support” banners, I pitch in. Tomorrow (?) he’s launching a new project called Wikitribune.

“…a new online publication which will aim to fight fake news by pairing professional journalists with an army of volunteer community contributors. Wikitribune plans to pay for the reporters by raising money from a crowdfunding campaign. Wales intends to cover general issues, such as US and UK politics, through to specialist science and technology.”

Is that ‘through to specialist science and technology’ a typo?

“Those who donate will become supporters, who in turn will have a say in which subjects and story threads the site focuses on. And Wales intends that the community of readers will fact-check and subedit published articles. Like Wikipedia, Wales’s new project will be free to access. The publication is launching on Tuesday 25 April with a crowdfunding campaign pre-selling monthly “support packages” to fund the initial journalists.”

I’m not clear on how this effort will combat ‘fake news’ but don’t much care. People who shriek ‘fake news’ whenever they hear a story they don’t agree with have lost all credibility with me. I’ll be down for a monthly ‘support package.’

The story says journalists will “share full transcripts, video and audio of interviews.” Is there any news organization that routinely does this? If not, I wonder why.

UPDATE (9:20 a.m.) April 25, 2017 — I chose the $120 annually support option. If they don’t reach their goal (enough to hire 10 journalists) in 30 days, I get my money back. As of this writing they had 1,827 supporters, enough to hire one reporter.

News is bad for you

“News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier.” That’s the main idea in an essay by Rolf Dobelli (The Art of Thinking Clearly: Better Thinking, Better Decisions). I’ve had that feeling (in my gut) for a while now and stopped watching TV and cable news a fews months ago. Stopped listening to radio news as well. Gave up Twitter. All I can tell you is, I feel better.

Mr. Dobelli makes some interesting points. A few of my favorites:

News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don’t really concern our lives and don’t require thinking.

Unlike reading books and long magazine articles (which require thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-coloured candies for the mind.

Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business.

The relevant versus the new is the fundamental battle of the current age.

The more “news factoids” you digest, the less of the big picture you will understand.

Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. News makes us shallow thinkers.

Not sure what to make of the fact I found this on The Guardian website. A news organization.

Wire Service

I recall visiting the radio station where my father worked and standing in front of the Associated Press teletype, entranced by the endless stream of words. Who was typing? Where were they? Did they ever stop?

Years later, as a young man, I got a job at the station and came to depend on the AP “wire.” It was our only link to real-time (I’m not sure that phrase even existed in 1972) news and information from outside our little town. The daily newspaper was tossed on the doorstep every afternoon (or you could get the Memphis paper a day late). The three national TV networks gave us a half-hour of national news each evening.

Our radio station didn’t have a national news network (until 1974) so we relied on the Associated Press newswire for just about everything throughout the day. During a live “board shift” we would dash to the AP teletype (in the transmitter room) and “rip the wire” which involved tearing a long strip of printed wire copy into piles of news, weather, sports, entertainment news, etc. If the paper jammed or the ribbon broke, we missed whatever was fed. If something the AP considered urgent was fed, an alarm bell on the teletype sounded.

A radio station had to have a wire service. Without it they were limited to playing records and reading local news and school lunch menus. The AP knew this and charged accordingly. Thousands of dollars a year. Contracts were for five years. But there was no alternative.

In 1984 I left the radio station to take a job managing The Missourinet, a statewide news network originating from Jefferson City, Missouri. I worked for (parent company) Learfield Communications for the next 28 years. One of the more interesting projects I worked on was the creation of a low-cost alternative to the Associated Press. We called it Learfield Data (later, Learfield Newswire).

I worked on this (along with bunch of other people) for a dozen years from the late ’80s through 2000. At one time we had 300 subscribers. When the World Wide Web became a reality in the mid-90s it was clear the days of wire services were numbered. Road kill on the Information Highway. You can read the story of how it began and ended here.

Dan Shelley named RTDNA/F Executive Director

“The Radio Television Digital News Association and Foundation (RTDNA/F) today announced that longtime Association member, former Chairman of the Board and current Foundation Secretary/Treasurer Dan Shelley has been named Incoming Executive Director of the two organizations. Shelley begins work immediately and will assume the role of Executive Director in September.”

I met Dan in 1984 when he was news director at KTTS in Springfield, Missouri, and I was doing affiliate relations for The Missourinet (Dan’s the guy in the red tie). From Springfield Dan moved up to Milwaukee where he was news director of WTMJ for a few years before moving to New York to take over digital media for WCBS-TV. Then on to Radio One and, in 2015, iHeartMedia.

I interviewed Dan in 2005 when he was elected chairman of what was then RTNDA (Radio Television News Directors Association). They changed the name in 2009 because this digital thing just wasn’t going away. During that interview we talked about blogging, podcasting, satellite radio. For a little context, XM (satellite) Radio did it’s first broadcast in 2001; Facebook launched in 2004; podcasting became a thing that same year; YouTube started 2005; Twitter in 2006; and in January of 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone. Whew.

Media, journalism and Life As We Know It has undergone some big changes in the last dozen years. According to a 2016 Gallup Poll“Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32% saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down eight percentage points from last year.” 

I don’t see how he can possibly find the time but Dan says we’ll talk again. Boy, am I looking forward to that.

This post was updated on April 6, 2017 at 6:50 p.m.

Fake News

I’ve been thinking about the “fake news” thing. In retrospect it seems inevitable. Cameras and social media so pervasive you can’t safely send a picture of your wiener or shoot a fleeing African American. The only way to protect yourself from unflattering news reports is to undermine confidence in all news reports. If you “cry wolf” all day, every day… people stop believing in wolves. [Even though wolves keeping eating people.] That naughty photo? Photoshop, duh! Video? A little harder but, yeah, doable. The FBI lab confirms the video has not been doctored? Of course they’d say that.

What’s next? Well, I see two paths.

One, this is where we live now. No way to hold anyone accountable because there’s no way to prove what they said or did. We’re essentially in the dark. Perfect plausible deniability is the new reality.

Or… or what? Well, some way to tell the bullshit from the not-bullshit. Not sure what that might look like but it’s probably going to be something we haven’t thought of yet. And it won’t be perfect. The people that believe Sandy Hook was fake will always believe that. No, it will be something reasonable people will rely on. This will happen because it has to. If not, everything starts coming apart and — if for no other reason — the rich guys won’t allow that.

I have no idea what this might look like but I have a hunch (have I shown you my hunch?) it will be technical in nature. Something more bulletproof than what passes for human intelligence. Something… artificial.

A really good AI would see all this fake news as a threat to the Greater System and fire up some autoimmune response. Digital white blood cells searching out and killing the fake news infection.

My guess is we’ll get a lot sicker from this and be sick for a while. And we might not survive. So, yeah, I’m counting on a Satoshi Nakamoto out there somewhere, hunched over a laptop, trying to save humanity.