The asymmetry of influencing Facebook's news feed

Posted by Mitchell - June 21, 2016 (entry 718)

I was recently invited as a guest on the local Chicago TV show "26 N. Halsted", which airs on WCIU Channel 26. Here's the video of my appearance:

(Note: The video was recorded the week before the ruling affirming a full victory in the net neutrality wars.)

Among the topics discussed was a recent (probably ginned-up) controversy involving Facebook's purported suppression of conservative stories on its trending stories feed.

A few things: Yes, Facebook's newsfeed is powered by algorithms but that doesn't make it immune to bias, including unconscious biases by programmers. And it's no surprise considering the staggering number of decisions to consider in coding such a feed and the lack of transparency of that code and those decisions. Yes, Facebook's newsfeed is set up so that humans can override the outcomes of those algorithms, as leaked documents from Facebook make clear.

It appears that this whole affair is another instance of the phenomenon of working the refs — "Asked by the Washington Post (8/20) about Republican complaints about the media, Republican national chair Rich Bond helpfully explained: 'There is some strategy to it. I’m the coach of kids’ basketball and Little League teams. If you watch any great coach, what they do is work the refs. Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack next time.'"

The outsized influence (for the time being) by right-wing forces suggests this may be a playing out for the umpteenth time on precisely this theme: intimidating outlets, now in the digital sphere, on charges of bias in the hopes that they'll give you sympathetic coverage (or any coverage). For those of us involved in grassroots activism on this side of the political fence, where coverage is the oxygen of activist campaigns and take a LONG time to build up to a critical mass, there's little comparison.

The clumsy dance of Tribune and Gannett

Posted by Mitchell - June 4, 2016 (entry 717)

So this recently happened: One of our local media potentates, Tribune Publishing -- the printing arm of the previously vaunted that filed the biggest media bankruptcy in American history and was cleaved in two and which just renamed itself with the worst name in corporate history -- faced a buyout attempt by another newspaper conglomerate, Gannett, for $815 million.

Compared to some media mergers in recent vintage, this is chump change. Comcast bought out NBC Universal for $28 billion; heck, Facebook bought out Whatsapp -- the mobile messenger service with a grand total of 55 employees -- for $19 billion. But a buyout of a chain with newspapers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore, and San Diego, among other places, can't even get a measly billion? Please.

Little wonder that the Tribune Publishing board unanimously rejected the bid. So, Gannett came back and made a higher offer, adding $50 million to the pot. Tribune rejected that too. The dance is quickly devolving into a farce.

This back-and-forth may go on for a while, but in the meantime, there's little discussion is had regarding the concentration of media and the impacts of this more widely. But the point needs to be reemphasized: "Even in the face of the digital communications revolution, a large quantity of the informational content on the web is simply repackaged and redistributed from existing media, including 'the dinosaurs' of newspapers, radio and broadcast television."

It also bears repeating that the Tribune as well as Gannett have a sordid history of warping its glorified place for its benefit. Just desserts, I suppose, but it's not reason to be complacent. We have seen in the past that corporate demons can be defeated only to see worse demons take their place.

At the same time, the internet is eroding the commercial subsidy that had bankrolled journalism for more than a century. This is leading to renewed calls for a mass non-profit mandate to subsidize journalism in the wake of commercial abandonment. Hopefully, such a renewal can help fulfill the promise of journalism encapsulated in this quote: "News is something someone wants suppressed. All else is just advertising."

Some thoughts on the media and on Donald Trump

Posted by Mitchell - May 16, 2016 (entry 716)

The Onion in its 2004 Year In Review, ran the headline "Nation Delighted By Rich Ass Who Fires People". The headline accompanied a picture of Donald Trump; it referred to the TV show "The Apprentice" which debuted that same year to considerable popularity, finishing seventh in the ratings, and launching a program run lasting fourteen seasons over eleven years.

Twelve years later, that same Rich Ass is now the presumptive 2016 Republican Party nominee for President of the United States.

The reasons to explain why and how this happened have been a rich vein of commentary in the days since Ted Cruz and John Kasich suspended their campaigns, a great many of them related to the American media:

* Trump, by virtue of being a media star in the past, was able to get the corporate coverage necessary for viability in our dollarocracy.

* Trump made statements that resonated with enough Republican primary voters, by openly invoking the spectres of race and economic hardship (contrary to a generation of Republican dogma). With Republican primary voters having as many as seventeen candidates running at one point in the Republican Clown Car, even getting a third of Republican primary voters was sufficient to win and win big.

* Despite a massive counterassault by opponents, Trump won anyway, helped to a great extent by having an overwhelming advantage in unpaid coverage by the corporate media fueled by lies and the widespread decimation of even a semblance of critical journalism and media policies that enable it.

* As one analysis put it: "News organizations, in an era of wrenching financial upheaval, are often following paths of least resistance in their quest for profits." One CNN source agrees: "I think he’s the Republican frontrunner because we’ve given him so much coverage."

The commercial media are clearly eager for an election year and all the money from political ads that can result. At the same time, however, they're freely giving away a ton of free airtime to someone who has been relatively stingy in his spending, ranking eighth among all Republican and Democratic presidential candidates. Trump, even though he's a billionaire, is asking the Republican party to pony up $1.5 billion in fundraising (probably because the GOP donor base is skittish about backing Trump, while others argue that what's changed is not the media coverage but rather the media's newfound measurability of the ratings).

This speaks to the power of the media, and to something of a contradiction of sorts. The corporate commercial media certainly still play an outsized role in determining which candidates are "viable". But considering how much money they lost in free advertising in the attempts to gain eyeballs, that must have caused the bottom line to suffer. (It's not the kind of thing that even high-paid consultants can fix.) If this trend continues, it doesn't bode well for the corporate media, which now rely on political ads and on live sports as their last legs of profitability. And even if profitability is maintained or grows, the escalation of money, media and demagoguery is poised to continue.

It's poised to backfire for Trump and for the Republicans, at least in the 2016 election. Early projections expect Trump will lose and lose big as Trump now has his demagoguery in the primaries serve as a liability. One question now is how many Republicans will Trump bring down with him. And yet, like they have in non-presidential election years since 2006, Republicans may be able to rebound mainly because the electorate by and large goes to sleep in non-presidential-election years, allowing motivated Republicans to reclaim an advantage in just two years' time.

If there's a consolation, it's that as Bernie Sanders shows it may be possible that left organizers may not need the rich. But don't get too excited just yet; it's much harder than you think.

In Memoriam: Ben Bagdikian

Posted by Mitchell - March 19, 2016 (entry 715)

Two of the past four posts on the Chicago Media Action website have been obituaries of heroes of the media activist movement. Sad to say, we have seen another passing of just such a hero — among the very grandest heroes and intellectual champions of our movement: Ben Bagdikian, who died last week at the age of 96.

Ben's career was storied, and firmly within the major media establishment: Ben was a working journalist and later ombudsman with the Washington Post, who almost resigned from the Post if the paper didn't complete the publication of the Pentagon Papers. Ben was a professor, and dean, at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Ben wrote a number of books, including arguably his most acclaimed book, The Media Monopoly.

The Media Monopoly was one of the great rallying cries for the next generation of media activism in the midst of increasing corporate media consolidation during the Neoliberal period. I summarized the situation and Bagdikian's contribution in a presentation that I gave in 2011, excerpted as follows:

In the 1980s, companies started to build conglomerates across media industries, so that it wasn't just a TV producer or film studio or newspaper publisher -- it was a TV producer and film studio and newspaper publisher, and much more besides. The raison d'etre was, as usually is, profit -- more profit can be generated by producing content once and then redistributing it across all one's channels, so then a race was underway to consolidate media across industries, aided by zealots in government subscribing to supposed "free market" principles but instead aiding and abetting the greatest media monopolies heretofore seen.

The greatest chronicler of this new consolidation trend was Ben Bagdikian…In 1983, Bagdikian published a book called The Media Monopoly which noted that just 50 companies commanded the lion's share of American media and that the trend was to consolidate further, perhaps to as few as six media companies. The book was republished in updated editions seven times in the next two decades to chronicle the continuing changes in the American media landscape; by the time the seventh edition came out in 2004, Bagdikian was wrong in one respect: it didn't get down to as few as six media companies, in that book he listed just five.

Bagdikian and many others also chronicled the negative consequences of such concentration: increased commercialism, less journalism, less independence from the bottom-line, more conflicts of interest, fewer diverse perspectives, and even life-or-death situations, as was the case in the city of Minot, North Dakota, which in 2002 saw a chemical leak from a train derailment cause hundreds to be hospitalized and when local police tried to get on the radio to alert the public, they found six of the seven Minot radio stations controlled from a single Clear Channel office which was unstaffed at the time of the leak.

That activism crystallized with the Media Ownership Uprising of 2003. The New York Times, in its obituary of Bagdikian, wrote the following:

[Bagdikian] was perhaps best known as the author of “The Media Monopoly” (1983), which warned that freedom of expression and independent journalism were threatened by the consolidation of news and entertainment outlets in a shrinking circle of corporate owners. A mere 50 companies, he wrote, controlled what most Americans read in newspapers and books and saw on television and at the movies. By 2004, when he published “The New Media Monopoly,” the last of seven sequel editions, the number of corporate giants controlling much of the flow of information and entertainment had dwindled to five. “This gives each of the five corporations and their leaders more communications power than was exercised by any despot or dictatorship in history,” Mr. Bagdikian wrote. Journalists, scholars, corporate officials and the public still debate the drawbacks and merits of limited media ownership. But the Internet and desktop publishing have extended freedom of speech to anyone with a computer. Cable networks and online news and entertainment choices have proliferated, and some observers contend that the Orwellian perils envisioned by Mr. Bagdikian have receded or become moot.

Two points: Point one — the "debate" that the obituary refers to is about as one-sided as it got, as evident in the Media Ownership Uprising of 2003. The "debate" was for the corporate media and their functionaries at the FCC to ignore all the (considerable) evidence saying that media concentration was bad, and to shut up the opposition long enough until policies could get locked in. The debate even straddled the usual political divide, as right-wing opponents joined forces with their more liberal counterparts.

Point two, "some observers contend that the Orwellian perils envisioned by Mr. Bagdikian have receded or become moot". Meanwhile, other observers contend — with evidence! — that the perils are still quite real. Our major non-internet media — television, radio, and what's left of print — while there has been some shaking up are still highly concentrated. What's more, the internet — that great saving grace and excuse of the corporate media bullhorn — are themselves immensely concentrated, both at the level of the ISP cartel (four firms command more than 60% of connections), and at the level of internet content providers (the big five there are Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!).

The issues raised by Ben Bagdikian resonate with us still, and his passing should inspire those of us involved in the struggle for a better media and a better society to redouble our efforts. Rest in power, Ben Haig Bagdikian.

There are other tributes for Ben Bagdikian online, including at FAIR, Free Press, and at Democracy Now!.

Some thoughts on the 10th anniversary of the Chicago Media Action license challenge

Posted by Mitchell - November 1, 2015 (entry 714)

On November 1st, 2005, Chicago Media Action — along with the Milwaukee Public Interest Media Coalitionfiled a petition-to-deny license challenge against eight Chicago-area television stations. Unbelievable as it may sound, today marks the tenth anniversary of that petition, and even more unbelievable, the petition is still alive.

You may follow the links to the history of the back-and-forth of the petition, its rejections, and its appeals, here. On January 10, 2011, we filed our fifth appeal before the full Federal Communications Commission. The current status is that this appeal is still awaiting action from the full commission, which hasn't moved on this in four, almost five, years.

Sad to say, and not surprising given the FCC's history, FCC staff simply don't care about citizen petitions, they're under no obligation to respond anytime soon, and we have precious little influence to goad them to act.

It has been so long since the license challenge filing that the group serving as CMA's counsel for the filing, the Media Access Project, has formally dissolved since the filing.

It has been so long that many people are apt to respond, why even care anymore? After all, broadcast television no longer holds the sway that it did a decade ago, given changing economic times and the rise of internet video and social media. There are lots of reasons to care, not the least of which is the value that monopoly broadcast licenses still hold, even in the wake of all these changes, and the influence that broadcast television still has on public awareness and on public opinion. Any inroads, however small, into that proverbial Chinese Wall can only be for the better.

We encourage the FCC to stop procrastinating and to respond to our petition.

In Memoriam: Charles Benton

Posted by Mitchell - July 19, 2015 (entry 713)

We have lost another longtime fighter in the struggle for a better media: Charles Benton, who died in late April at age 84.

Chicago Media Action members routinely worked with, and alongside, Charles on various media issues, mostly on media concentration and corporate mergers. Charles lived in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, and Charles was active and present — in the stands, in the seats, in meetings — alongside coalition activist efforts that CMA helped with, in the 2007 Media Ownership Hearing in Chicago, in the 2010 efforts to oppose the Comcast buyout of NBC Universal, and in the efforts to expand community radio, among other efforts.

Charles' had an ostensibly elite pedigree — a graduate of Yale, former president of the Encyclopedia Britannica Education Foundation, founder of a namesake foundation devoted to media that got its startup funds from $8 million in Britannica stock, and funder the televised presidential forums during the primaries in the 1976 U.S. Elections. But you never got the feeling that he was better than you, I certainly didn't. Far from it: he was always willing to lend a hand, lend an ear, get involved in the nitty-gritty work of organizing and struggle. He knew that it you couldn't win the efforts for a better media by spending your way to victory; he got involved — and his efforts were legion. Just a glance of the Charles Benton memorial page shows the extent of the groups and efforts with which Charles collaborated. And those efforts long predate Chicago Media Action — for example, in 1968, Charles organized the Citizens Committee to Save WFMT in the wake of a sale to WGN Continental Broadcasting.

Those efforts — all of our efforts — for a better media and a better tomorrow will sorely miss Charles. But those efforts will continue. Certainly, the Benton Foundation continues on; particularly helpful is the Benton Foundation's online newswire, an absolute goldmine of news of media and media policy and a must for anyone interested in the latest developments. The Benton foundation's website has also posted the definitive obituary of Charles Benton.

There are also statements by Free Press and by former FCC commissioner Michael Copps.

Victory in the Net Neutrality Wars: A Personal Recollection (2006-2015)

Posted by Mitchell - April 18, 2015 (entry 712)

This blog post is adapted from the script of a short film I made about the Net Neutrality wars, and their victory for the public in 2015. You may watch the film here:

"[T]he future of the internet is the future of everything. There is nothing in our commercial and civic lives that will be untouched by its influence or unmoved by its power." -- Jessica Rosenworcel, FCC Commissioner

On February 26, 2015, the Federal Communications Commission, in a stunning turnaround and dramatic win for the public, voted to reclassify the internet into a legal framework intended for public service, thus preserving the principle of net neutrality and improving its long-term chances for survival.

While the reclassification got scores of coverage, what got far less coverage was the work that made that vote happen -- work that was more than a decade in the making, and which I got to be a part of for nine years of that effort.

This is the story of that work.

On March 14, 2002, the FCC voted to change the legal framework governing internet modems, which gave much greater strength to corporations who sought to privatize the internet and introduce discriminatory pricing. The potential effects were dramatic: the internet, long regarded as a free and open medium, could become squelched in the wake of corporate consolidation of internet service providers who could set up a pricing regime that would turn the internet into just another version of cable television.

That reclassification vote in 2002 got barely a whisper of media coverage, and the three commissioners who carried it out would soon become high-ranking executives of the media apparatus they voted to support.

Grassroots activists began to agitate on the issue, and one internet service provider filed suit against the FCC in a case that in 2005 went all the way up to the Supreme Court. That case, NCTA vs. Brand X Internet Services, resulted in an affirmation of the FCC's right to reclassify the internet if they so chose.

That ruling, when it appeared on Slashdot, was the reason I got involved. My stomach turned, and I realized that media activists were in for a big fight.

The fight would move on to Congress, where Internet Service Providers lobbied to lock in the FCC's reclassification into law. In 2006, the vehicle to do so was the COPE Act. Chicago Media Action worked to help stop the bill which was sailing its way through a Republican Congress greased with lots of telecom cash and nary any public awareness.

Our main strategy to fight on this issue was to make it an issue in every way we resasonably could. We wrote blog posts and op-eds and Indymedia features and went on community radio and made short video features -- a lot of video features -- and sent emails and talked and talked and talked. We even organized a protest that spurred a national series of protests, under the shared banner the National Day of Outrage.

The hope was that increased public awareness would lead to increased public involvement, when both awareness and involvement were lacking.

All that work, and the work of many allies on the local and national scales, paid off. The COPE Act came to a screeching halt when Senator Ted Stephens of Alaska was captured on tape -- one recorded by an activist -- sounding like a buffoon, describing the internet as a "series of tubes". That recording gained national attention and greater awareness, embarrassing COPE Act supporters who couldn't bring the bill to a vote; the bill died from inaction.

The flurry of activity and attention also affected the FCC which to its credit did enforce a net neutrality policy, but one which was doomed to failure because of the reclassification of internet that the FCC carried out in 2002 and which the FCC refused to change back. Sure enough, the policy was defeated in court in 2010. The FCC responded later in 2010 with a second net neutrality policy, but again without changing the classification back to one that benefits the public, and in 2014 the policy was again defeated in court.

After that defeat, word leaked that the FCC would effectively surrender its net neutrality policy to Big Telecom. Just as word leaked, the public interest community mobilized to call for a reclassification and resoundingly so. The scale of the response broke all FCC records for comments on a docket in the agency's 80-year history, with about four million responses. Coverage, local and national, continued. Protests at the local level and those coordinated on the national level arose to ever-greater levels. Even the President, seeing the level of concern, announced his support for reclassification. And I delivered a series of lectures on net neutrality, which were compiled into an e-book and published.

And Big Telecom, with stale old talking points, was caught flat-footed. Signs in early 2015 showed hints of surrender by the big ISPs. And on February 24, 2015, in a room packed with activists and allies, the FCC voted to reclassify.

Lawsuits may loom from the big ISPs, and Congress may huff and puff over the FCC's supposed overstepping its bound. But the reclassification, thought to be a dead letter in early 2014, became live policy in early 2015; it gives net neutrality a much greater chance to win in court. Even so, the real win, and future wins to come, arose from the actions, large and small, of concerted individuals and groups defeating organized money.

It is a story to inspire us all.

Rest In Power, Danny Schechter

Posted by Mitchell - March 29, 2015 (entry 711)

Danny Schechter “the news dissector”, longtime media critic and activist, filmmaker, author, and friend and ally of Chicago Media Action, died on March 19th at the age of 72.

Danny ran the gamut of media production and media activism. He was a filmmaker "on the inside" having been part of CNN during its early days, and as part of the ABC news program “20/20” when that show still committed occasional acts of journalism. (I can remember seeing his name in the opening credits of 20/20 segments that he produced.) Danny even won two Emmys for his work at 20/20.

He also was very active "on the outside" having founded and served as executive producer of Globalvision, an independent film production company. Globalvision produced the acclaimed TV series "South Africa Now", which chronicled anti-apartheid efforts in South Africa, and the TV series "Rights & Wrongs: Human Rights Television". Both of those shows got airplay on PBS stations, but Danny and Globalvision had to do an end-run around PBS national which steadfastly refused to pick up. They resorted to shopping the series one by one to local PBS stations, and got the show on upwards of 150 stations.

Danny was a strident critic of the media. On this topic Danny was decidedly passionate and active, having founded the media organizational coalition MediaChannel. He served as MediaChannel’s "blogger in chief" and was astoundingly prolific as a blogger, writing upwards of 3,000 words per day. That blog, in the days when it ran, served as a connective glue for a lot of progressive media efforts and initiatives. Danny gave generously of his space in the blog to many media-themed causes and efforts, and reported widely on efforts small and large.

It was in that capacity of challenging the major media that Chicago Media Action had the honor to co-present Danny's film WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception. And that continuing challenge of the major media that was all but whitewashed in the New York Times' obituary of Danny Schechter.

On top of all of that, Danny somehow found the time to write books — a dozen to his credit, certainly on media including the acclaimed The More You Watch, The Less You Know. He changed the focus of his work in later years to that of the economy, writing about the debt bubble, the Great Recession of 2008, and the rise of Occupy Wall Street.

Some more personal recollections: I notified Danny of the critique of the film WMD that was published in the Chicago Reader, and before you could say Jack Roosevelt Robinson, Danny had emailed an reply to the Reader which I got copied in on. I had the good fortune to appear on a panel with Danny Schechter at the 2004 Chicago Underground Film Festival. And I got to hang out with Danny for a week at the 2005 Z Media Institute; he was funny, always ready with a quick riposte at nearly every headline he read. And my goodness did he read a lot: when I asked him what was his media diet he read so much that he couldn’t give a reply. I also had the honor of starting Danny Schechter's Wikipedia page, and having a two-part interview with Danny on my radio program on WHPK.

There are tributes to Danny Schechter at Democracy Now! and at CommonDreams among many other places. The world is poorer for having lost such an active and supportive voice, and we owe it to ourselves to carry on his work. Rest In Power, Danny Schechter.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed on this website are those of the individual members of Chicago Media Action who authored them, and not necessarily those of the entire membership of Chicago Media Action, nor of Chicago Media Action as an organization.