Tuesday, October 17, 2006

I Was Never Here ...

About 10 years ago it was considered heresy at Reuters to propose building a web site with real-time news and rich multimedia content. So the North American Editor secretly conspired to build one even though he had been specifically told to do no such thing.

Of course, our prescient leader knew a thing or two about the company and guessed -- correctly, as it turned out -- that it was just a matter of time before his superiors told him that what they had meant was build a web site with real-time news and rich multimedia content.

So it is with some amusement that I read this week -- 155 years later in Internet time -- that Reuters has "opened" a news bureau in the virtual world, Second Life. Reuters is getting scads of press attention -- all positive, for a pleasant change -- and the company seems to have made genuine inroads at establishing the street cred which had not so much eluded it as they seemed to intentionally evade. Now, with all the positive reinforcement, can a decision to embed a reporter with some team in World of Warcraft be far behind?

Everything is timing, as they say, and it helps to have a CEO who at least says he is into these things to get everyone to agree to what is then clearly a great idea.

None of this may be as loopy as it sounds, and it does sound odd. This could be pure science -- brainstorming and riding the wave and trying to be hip and cool, looking for new ways to reach a new and soon-to-be influential audience, just like doing business with Yahoo and AOL was in the early and mid 1990s. Or could it be purposeful R&D to engineer the perfect business model for a news gathering organization? Let's see:
  • Offshore packaging desks (only reporters need to be in expensive places)
  • Citizen journalism (we don't need reporters in all expensive places)
  • Cover the story from your room (we don't need reporters in any expensive places)
Naturally, if Osama and Bernanke decide to make news in The Matrix, everyone is off to the races. Or the whole thing could be killed off if Congress decides to tax it.

Either way, this is the sort of idea that will eventually make a lot of people look either like geniuses or dopes. And it is a little tough for a journalist to justify covering non-events in a place that doesn't exist.

In fact, I think there was a time when doing that would have gotten you fired. But maybe only if you put in for travel expenses.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Ask Osama

"What I say to the American people when I am out there is, all you got to do is listen to what Osama bin Laden says."
-- President Bush, 10/11/06

Taking his acclaimed truth-telling to the next level, Osama is now here to help you understand life, love and relationships. Letters of no more than 250 words are welcomed – no calls please! Due to the heavy volume of material received, personal replies are not possible.

Dear Osama,

I'm a little reluctant to use email again, but my sponsor says getting used to doing the little everyday things again is a big part of the rehabilitation process – so (deep breath) here goes!

I recently decided to quit my job and left Washington on the same day after someone special – someone to whom I thought I was special -- "humiliated" me in public. I feel very "betrayed" but mostly I am "hurt" because "we" meant more to "me" than to "this person." I guess I was "mature one" in this "relationship" but right now it is all I can do not to cry into my pillow all day long.

My family tells me that I should "move on." Some people who used to "advise" me in my "old job" say the last thing I should do is "get in touch" with my "special someone."

But I feel like have to know "for sure" if this could be the "real thing." Or even if we could "just" "be" "bff."

MAF from FLA

PS: Congratulations on that endorsement from the president! I can't tell you how much one of those would mean to me. Mostly
now my former "friends" want me to eat shit and die.
****** ****** ****** ****** ******
Dear MAF,

Don't get me started on family – mine will have nothing to do with me, so you are up one up on Osama there. Friends are also mercurial, although you know who
really only loves you for you when you have a $25 million price on your head.

I guess you know what my advice is -- Oh So Go For It, Boyfriend! Remember: you only regret the things in life you didn't do! It sounds like we both have So Much Unfinished Business :)

Death to America,

Dear Osama

I have a government job which which carries a unique and awesome responsibility. I can't really say what my colleagues and I
do or how we do what we do, but every month or so we get together and then announce an important decision at 2:15 p.m.

Here's my problem: When I was a professor at an Ivy League University a little while ago I could pretty much do whatever I wanted and nobody cared. Even though I was still pretty important it wasn't like I was living under a microscope. Now I can't even make small talk with a cute CNBC reporter without it leaving Vegas – Hello! What happened to cocktail party confidential!

I know I haven't given myself much time to get used to the way things are now
, but I hate the spotlight. I'm not happy, but I don't think I can go home again.

Alone in a Crowd
****** ****** ****** ****** ******
Dear Alone in a Crowd,

My heart breaks for you. It is so telling that you would quote Thomas Wolfe's final novel before he died unexpectedly. And surely you know the novel's historical backdrop, when the United States endured near economic collapse and annihilation (what my posse calls the "good old days").

Listen carefully, because you don't have much time: you need to quit your job and leave Washington immediately – don't let anybody know, don't look back, don't worry about the repercussions and whatever you do, don't answer your phone. The world will get alone fine without you. And, anyway, what's life like without a little mystery?!
Remember, it is all about you.

Trust me – you need to live for the now. Can you even be sure you won't be dead tomorrow? (I'm just sayin').

Death to America,

Dear Osama,
I have a friend who, let's say, likes to play this video game. He keeps playing it the same way over and over again even though he keeps on losing. We have acquaintances in common who have played this game (and even won) but my friend just gets agitated and defensive and pretty nasty when I suggest we all go out for coffee or something and brainstorm about alternative strategies or maybe even, you know, just not play anymore and concentrate on other, more important things (like dealing with this guy who keeps setting off bigger and bigger firecrackers in our neighborhood – another letter!).

We're close, but my friend is very sure of himself and dismissive of everyone he says doesn't understand this "very different video game."

Many of us are beginning to think it is time for an intervention. I feel somehow responsible for my friend's obsession but I'm also really tired of all the stress of dealing with him. What should I do?

A Friend Indeed
****** ****** ****** ****** ******
Dear "Friend"

Heal thyself, asshole.

The obsession you should be concerned about is your obsession not to deal with your own issues while you worry about everything and everybody except your own empty sinkhole of a life.

Confront this: you are both a pathetic excuse for a friend and a human being. You disgust me.

Death to America,

Monday, October 9, 2006

Don't Ask, Don't Tell?

Joe Maguire, an editor at Reuters, has lost his job. That fact may be the only one not in dispute; while neither Reuters nor Maguire say he was dismissed, the proximate cause was the imminent publication of his book, Brainless: The Lies and Lunacy of Ann Coulter.

Reuters has an iron-clad editorial policy requiring freedom from bias but it does allow its employees write books. As the New York Times reports, Maguire got "conditional approval" for his and it quotes him as saying: "I thought I had met the conditions, and proceeded accordingly. As a result, I no longer work there.”

Freedom from bias in one's reporting is not a debatable point at Reuters, and it shouldn't be anywhere journalism is done. Still, some critics of MSM see it everywhere and some of those do so, I believe, to justify taking sides in their own "reporting."

When I was a reporter at Reuters neutrality was just one of those things that permeated the air. Tiny transgressions of the "She looked smart in a grey suit as she descended the courthouse steps" variety were held up to merciless ridicule by the editing desk.

But during those many years I (and I presume everyone around me) voted in every election. I never shied from a no-hold-barred political discussions with peers, superiors or competitors and they didn't either.

In 1992 I got a letter published in the New York Times about what I thought was weak network television coverage of that year's Democratic National Convention. A letter by (CBS network anchor) Dan Rather on the same subject came right after mine. His affiliation was printed. Mine was too -- I was Reuters' Boston Bureau Chief at the time. I don't think Dan got any grief, though he did have to leave his job under a cloud 14 years later. I, however, was severely rebuked that very dayby the top editor in the United States, who put a letter in my file which included the phrase, "I have decided not to end your assignment at this time." (Conspiracy buffs should also note that I left Reuters almost a year to the day before Dan left CBS.)

The purpose of a policy against biased reporting isn't to weed out people who have opinions, which would be impossible even if it were legal. It is meant to help convince readers that neutrality matters to the publisher and to be on the record with reporters that opinions are to be kept out of reporting. Professionals know how to do this even if amateurs can't understand how it can be done, and opportunists pretend not to comprehend.

So I wonder what Maguire's offense is. His opinions did not rise up as if fertilized by his book project. Reuters surely never asked him to swear he had no opinions on anything. Publishing an opinionated book doesn't lead to biased reporting, and it couldn't seriously provide anyone with an "Aha!" moment. His book isn't about killing babies or praising Nazis (by the way, protected speech anyway). It neither criticizes a client nor is promoted as being written from his perch as a Reuters journalist, as my letter to the Times could be construed as having done. And its subject matter isn't remotely related to what he was doing for Reuters: running a desk covering financial markets.

Anyway, like the Times says, at least he'll have plenty of time to promote his book now.

Friday, October 6, 2006

Mark Cuban, ONA Conference Keynote

YouTube is toast (when copyright holders decide to enforce their rights)
Google would be crazy to buy YouTube (or moronic, as Cuban subsquently blogs)

Best line of questioning:
Does it pass the smell test to:
  1. do private research into a tradeable company,
  2. take a position in that company based on your private research that will likely result in a gain if the facts were disclosed,
  3. disclose the information and simultaneously,
  4. disclose that you have taken a position for the purpose of making a gain,
thus creating, end to end, the conditions to benefit financially from the research you commissioned?

Best question after the event:
"Wasn't that a keynote Cuban was supposed to deliver?"

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

A "4" on the Foley Scale

photo by jsmjr

Former U.S Rep. Mark Foley has now hit for the cycle:
  1. I'm am alcoholic
  2. I'm gay
  3. I was abused as a teen,
  4. By a clergyman
None of these are excuses, of course, his lawyer says, for his client's having made a number of provocative overtures in emails and instant messages to a number of teen pages. Whatever.

What needs to happen is this:
  1. Nobody turns this into a gay-related scandal. This is sexual abuse of the most garden variety type: a man in a position of power trying to seduce subordinates.
  2. Nobody proposes legislation to restrict email or instant messaging.
  3. Nobody says "molested over the Internet" anymore. Democratic Rep. Patty Wetterling has already done so in an election ad.

Free Speech is Good, Right?

No, that is not me making a comment about Brian Rohrbough's comments. That is what the embedded YouTube player does all by itself. Isn't it ironic ...

The new CBS Evening News feature Free Speech can I suppose be seen as an honest attempt to bring an aspect of community to what is an ivory tower enterprise -- nobody is calling it guest video blogging yet. I am not going to hold my breath -- but I think it is one of those things that will be difficult to declare a success, and there are two reasons they probably shouldn't even try.

One is the admittedly losing argument that network TV news programs have precious little time anyway and anything not devoted to news is wrong. It may be wrong but there is nothing wrong with success, per se, and the new CBS Evening News is successful, with an audience that the networks aspire to have, even though its total numbers have declined since Katie Couric took over. If, to continue to be a viable delivery mechanism that draws attention to at least some "important" news, one must draw in a new kind of audience that has different expectations from their parents, who is anyone to bemoan the way of the world? But I do anyway.

Empowering the Powerful

My other gripe was that the segments, until the last couple of days, seem to be granted only to people who already had a platform: Rush Limbaugh, Rudy Guiliani, Natan Scharansky, a conservative Israeli politician and former Soviet prisoner of conscience who gently scolded Americans for likening the United States to regimes who rationalize the use of torture. We are nothing like the USSR because we can publicly protest that our government mistreats prisoners of war and because have a free press, he reminds.

It could be that the Floyd Turbos of the world just aren't telegenic enough and that we viewers place far too high a premium on this quality whether we realize it or not, and that CBS does. It could be that it is difficult to choose among the clammering fray and risk -- by making rope-line decisions about who gets to exercise CBS-branded Free Speech -- the wrath of blogging spreadsheet statisticians poised to expose bias. The matter of balance has already been taken up by the CBS News blog "Public Eye," which responded to criticism that there were no Democrats or progressives among the earliest Free Speech invitees. It can only get worse.

But the "regular person" issue was addressed a bit the other day when the father of a Columbine victim was given the nod within the early news cycle of the Amish school shooting.

Despite my misgivings about this whole thing, CBS didn't shy from letting Brian Rohrbough weigh in and assert as a cause of school violence some things that just hadn't occured to me. Like teaching evolution.
"This country is in a moral free fall. For over two generations, the public school system has taught in a moral vacuum, expelling God from the school and from the government, replacing him with evolution, where the strong kill the weak, without moral consequences and life has no inherent value. We teach there are no absolutes, no right or wrong. And I assure you the murder of innocent children is always wrong, including by abortion. Abortion has diminished the value of children."
Phew! Say what you will, but I don't hear stuff like that very often, and I pay close attention to conservatives like Pat Buchanan and George Willjust so I can hear arguments my brain can't make itself. So where else are people like me going to hear these dots connected the Rohrbough way?

The decision to go with Rorbough -- his piece pre-empted another which was scheduled for that evening -- has generated quite a bit of criticism, some within CBS, Howard Kutz reports in the Washington Post. Katie Couric, in her blog, alludes to the considerable mail they have received and how many times the word "Shame" has been used (and makes what I think is an inappropriate attempt at humor -- it isn't necessary in every post, after all: "We took a few packages that were ticking and threw them in the creek…)" That would be the creek yonder at the fork in the road on West 57th St., I guess.

A Slippery Slope

Couric goes on to say that support of Rorbough is picking up. This is part of the slippery slope, CBS. It doesn't matter how many people agree or disagree. Entertaining these numbers just gets you into the "fair and balanced" game, which has nothing to do with free speech.

I'm still not sure Free Speech is a good idea, partly because since it cannot and ought not be democratically vetted it will generate more heat about process than content, and will be dropped at exactly the wrong moment, when it is deemed to have gone too far.

But it also doesn't seem to be exactly a public interest imperative to take a minute or so from the mere 22 available for what I still think should be a solid summary of the day's top stories and longer pieces about important things that don't provide breaking news angles.

But if CBS intends to bar no holds, at least it will be intriguing television from time to time.

The Rorbaugh clip as hosted by CBS is here, and RealPlayer is required.