Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Reuters et al in Africa


This could be a test of how professional and amateur journalism can cohabitate. It may provide some intriguing insights on how the public perceives the difference between "pro" and "am" content -- if it does -- and which of the two readers tend to prefer in times of crisis vs. calm.
Reuters has considerable assets in Africa, a woefully underreported continent with a disproportionate share of suffering and underdevelopment, and is quite capable of parachuting in anything it needs to should the need arise.

So its new Africa website, with a fairly balanced mix of news from trusted sources and information and opinion from external blogs, is an interesting experiment in going not only where it has not before but didn't necessarily have to. Rather than just take an overdue opportunity to play to an obvious strength, Reuters seems to be treating this as living laboratory of the pro-am philosophy, putting its money where its mouth is.

Africa is difficult (read: expensive) to report from. It is hard for most Western MSM to justify the expense of keeping boots on the ground there given the general (lack of) interest in the West in African general news, even when terrible things are routinely happening to innocent people, which seems to be pretty much all the time.

Among the news food groups television still has an unusual power to focus collective attention. But not much from Africa finds its way onto the evening network news programs or even cable's we-never-close channels. Unless perhaps Brad and Angelina or maybe even Madonna have something to say.

Already doing a great job in this space was the BBC, whose Africa section is deep and wide and varied and rich in multimedia. Now Reuters has waded in, unleashing its considerable news pool from Africa. And it is doing it with a differentiator, by including Global Voices blogs. What it lacks in organization it attempts to make up for in diversity and a pro-am approach that could raise topics before the MSM, including Reuters, picks up on it.

A pet lament of Reuters Editor in Chief David Schlesinger-- I think he would say it is an observation -- is that "You can’t force people to read something they just don’t care about." But Reuters serves many markets, many internal to Africa and about half having nothing to do with the United States. It is on solid economic footing with permanent presences throughout the continent and does not need to justify its existence as purely US news outlets would.

So Reuters is giving excellent billing to non-traditional reporting even though traditional content won't be in short supply. It isn't filling what would otherwise be a half-empty glass; Reuters seems to be saying that while its considerable reporting assets would have been the last words a few years ago, the advent of citizen journalism means that is no longer true.

It isn't doing less, it is just that what it does is no longer enough anymore.

This could be a test of how professional and amateur journalism can cohabitate. It may provide some intriguing insights on how the public perceives the difference between "pro" and "am" content -- if it does -- and which of the two readers tend to prefer in times of crisis vs. calm.

This is risky business. Places like Reuters, with generations of institutional knowledge, a long history of respected professionalism and a reputation it aggressively defends, are exactly the right kind of venues for this kind of experiment in journalism to be played out. I, for one, wouldn't trust the newbies or amateurs on this one.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

I'm So Terribly Ashamed -- But Keep It Down


Perry Mason this is not. This is a scary combination of the OJ Simpson trial, whose judge also lost control before a national TV audience, and the Clarence Thomas hearings, where former boyfriends were brought in to testify about bad dates with Anita Hill.
There is just no denying it: guilty pleasures are the best.

For the past couple of days I have been glued to the set watching the bizarre courtroom of Broward County Circuit Court Judge Larry Seidlin. I'm not even sure what the proceedings are about anymore. I think it has something to do with someone named Anna Nicole Smith and who gets to decide where she might get buried.

She, apparently, was a Playboy model who came into a lot of money (or didn't) after her billionaire husband (60 years her senior) passed on a few years ago, and she too died recently, leaving as her sole heir a six-month-old daughter the identity of whose biological father is in dispute. In case you haven't heard.

But whatever prurient interest this saga might have held for a tabloid-obsessed audience all on its own, the court proceeding has turned into a spectacle of the wheels coming completely off a car whose engine is on fire as it speeds down an icy, unlit road on a moonless night with no brakes.

Witnesses are being asked to reveal their income and means of support and are volunteering that people not party to the proceedings have had vasectomies. Lawyers are angrily insisting that the court order other lawyers to sit down and not stick out fingers in their general direction.

Judge Seidlen seems to be referring to one attorney by the nickname "Texas." He has invited a witness with a stake in the outcome to give his "impressions" of the frame of mind of another witness -- who also has a stake in the outcome (these are, ahem, two of the men claiming to be the natural father of the Golden Child). Seidlin, who commandeers the questioning so completely that attorneys need to remind him to allow time so they can question their own witnesses, encouraged a lengthy line which led to how much money one witness's retired father makes.
I love this to death. But I also think that live TV coverage is exacerbating an exercise in the atrocious.

Perry Mason before the US Supreme Court this is not. This is a scary combination of the OJ Simpson trial, whose judge also lost control before a national TV audience, and the Clarence Thomas hearings, where the meaning of pubic hairs on Coke cans were debated and former boyfriends were brought in at the midnight hour to testify about bad dates with Anita Hill.

Here's my problem: I love this to death and am grateful to MSNBC for crowding out other guilty pleasures for this. But I also think that live gavel-to-gavel TV coverage is exacerbating an exercise in the atrocious. The journalist and defender of First Amendment freedoms in me can't object, the weak human in me is delighted, the grownup appalled.

I watched 80% of the Simpson trial and believe the verdict was affected by the currents and eddies created by the live TV coverage. I also saw virtually all of the Thomas hearings and think that the successful nominee, in a singular TV moment, ensured his fate by being able to stare down his attackers for all to see, and accuse them of subjecting him to a "high-tech lynching."

In a filtered news environment would the accusations of sexual harassment by Hill have resonated louder than the angry denials?

Journalists need full access to these events, but does everyone? And, more to the point, does this kind of transparency produce an observer effect, altering the outcome of proceedings that are important to real people for the sake of informing, but more likely just entertaining, the masses?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Anna Nicole Coverage -- The Good News

"The bosomy blonde’s demise consumed a staggering 50% of the cable newshole PEJ examined on February 8 and 9. Those are levels reminiscent of those pre-9/11 celebrity sagas—think Princess Di and JFK Jr." --
Project for Excellence in Journalism
It seemed to me that the story was sucking all the oxygen out of the room (for as long as I could bear to watch) but the PEJ News Coverage Index for Feb 4-9 calculates that the death of Anna Nicole Smith was only the third most covered story overall -- 10% of the newshole, compared to 12% for "Iraq Policy" and 11% for "Events in Iraq."

Even better: ANS comes up 5th online (behind even The Runaway Astronaut). In newspapers -- with a much tougher news hole environment -- the story isn't among the top 5.

Even worse: ANS was 8% of the tiny network news hole and a whopping 50% of the limitless cable news hole on Thursday, the day she died, and Friday.

But the Iraq War continued to fundamentally dominate.
Even in a week of such Anna Nicole mania, the war in Iraq remained a media priority. The debate over Iraq strategy was the biggest story for the fourth time in six weeks. Yet the situation on the ground in Iraq (at 10%) generated its highest level of overall coverage and was the leading story in both the newspaper and online sectors.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Anna Nicole Mania

Way too much coverage of this story, so this distant planet will not be piling on (or getting in line to claim paternity of the Golden Child).
"... And over the course of the next hour ... there will be no reporting ... beginning at the top of the hour... on the passing of Anna Nicole Smith. We hope you'll join us... Wolf, back to you."
I'm sure the presidential candidates breathed a collective sigh of relief for not being in the kill zone of the evening cable shows for one night. Maybe they won't even get back to Pelosi bashing when the ANS story dies down. And who is Lisa Nowack again?

This tale is guaranteed to have legs for a while yet since not even all the knuckleballs have been pitched: the latest is a claim of paternity by Prince Frederick von Anhalt, the 59-year-old husband (of 20 years) of 90-year-old Zsa Zsa Gabor. "She was a very big fan of Zsa Zsa and wanted to be like Zsa Zsa," the prince tells the AP of ANS. "She wanted to be a princess."

OK. But now back to our regular programming.

Kudos to Lou Dobbs, the uber serious CNN defender of US borders, for his tease on Thursday's Situation Room:
"... And over the course of the next hour ... there will be no reporting ... beginning at the top of the hour... on the passing of Anna Nicole Smith. We hope you'll join us... Wolf, back to you."
And a raised eyebrow to the New York Times' article, properly on page 12 and referenced on the front page, which contains this passage:
She appeared in several movies, among them “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994) and “Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult” (1994). Her other cinematic credits include “Playboy Video Playmate Calendar” (1993); and “Playboy’s 50th Anniversary Celebration” (2003).
"Cinematic" strikes me as a snide choice, especially when "screen" is available ("movies" is spent earlier in the graf). IMDB lists these two works as, you will pardon the expression, documentaries, so that would have been acceptable as well. Too bad that choice sticks out in what is otherwise among the straightest and sanest coverage of this story.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Next Answer, Please?

photo by phillieg

The two most important answers from last week:
Now, I understand that for many these facts are not new. To those, my apologies for stating -- repeating -- the obvious.

But both of these subjects stopped being about winning over politicians, scientists, thinkers, the general public and kindergardeners a long time ago. We've had plenty of Perry Mason moments and the jury has been in for quite a while.

No, these debates persist only to convince those powerful few who cling to opposing views for reasons that satisfy only themselves.

Winning over a person whose point of view resides in a hardened bunker worthy of Saddam is hard work, as our president might say. A preponderance of the evidence falls laughably short. Evidence that is beyond even a reasonable doubt simply will not suffice.

No, to convince someone that she is totally, disingenuously wrong requires an irrefutable proof that washes away even the unreasonable doubts. You must suddenly find the truth tucked away in footnotes of the Prophecies of Nostradamus as well as in both the Old and New Testaments. Discover it sealed in a mayonnaise jar on Funk & Wagnalls' porch, just where she put it at noon today.

Or, you can expose this person as a fraud: find a reloadable gift card to Five Guys in the wallet of the King of the Vegans and 12 consecutive Burger King "Customer of the Month" award certificates framed above his bed. Bring Marshall McLuhan along wherever you go, just in case it comes up.

Failing that, you can recruit The Unassailable Ally: have his mother switch to your side. From the grave, if possible.

Well, we are almost there.

The National Intelligence Estimate, reflecting the consensus view of the US Intelligence community says that while the term "civil war" doesn't adequately capture the complexity of the situation it "... accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict ... "

Defense Secretary Robert Gates still rejects the term but also seems to check and raise. "It's not, I think, just a matter of politics or semantics. I think it oversimplifies ... It's a bumper sticker answer to what's going on in Iraq," Gates told a news conference.
These debates persist only to convince those powerful few who cling to opposing views for reasons that satisfy only themselves.
"There are essentially four wars going on in Iraq," Gates continued. "One is Shia on Shia, principally in the South, the second is sectarian conflict principally in Baghdad, third is the insurgency and fourth is al Qaeda."

So, um, the fighting-that-we-still-won't-call-a-civil-war part is the good news, I guess.

Will the White House go so far as to assert that the intelligence community is as wrong now as it was when it declared the existence of WMDs in Iraq a "slam dunk." Or will it continue to search the floor for any more hairs to split?

On global warming, the White House is urging a global discussion since, it says, the United States is only part -- a very small part -- of the problem. If GE's declaration of "game over" nearly two years ago didn't provide enough of an impetus then it is hard to see how some namby-pamby diplomats meeting in Paris -- Hey, isn't that in France?! -- will have any impact on US policy.

Fortunately, the US response was swift, and unequivocal.

"We are a small contributor when you look at the rest of the world," U.S. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman said of greenhouse gas emissions. "It's really got to be a global discussion."

Reuters reports that the United States is responsible for one-quarter of the world's emissions of carbon dioxide and uses one-quarter of the world's crude oil. According to the Population Reference Bureau, the United States accounted for 4.6% of the world's population at the end of 2006.

Well, that clearly is minority status. The Big Boys surely need to step up first.

Where is mom when you need her? And what is that spinning in the ground over there?