As close readers of this blog know, I spend just about all my time on two hard things: My day job is fixing the disinformation crisis and my hobby is fixing Daylight Saving Time.
Every once in a while they coincide.
When I’m working on Daylight Saving Time I work with a politicians who are all over the map. Right here in Colorado the two biggest names in fixing DST are about as opposite as they could be politically. In fact, they are so far out there that they are a little bit out there within their own parties. But they both believe in fixing it so that the government-controlled clock isn’t killing people.
My approach to dealing with politicians who I may or may not agree with is to never talk about anything other than Daylight Saving Time. That approach has served me well, and we’ve gone from zero states with any kind of bill passed to 15 states, and we have gone from zero federal interest to two bills with lots of bipartisan support.
I would continue to work that way, but after the attack on the Capitol on 1/6, I just can’t.
But what should I do? What is the right response?
I’ve sincerely struggled with this, and had some long talks with my family about it.
Then because of my day job, I saw an answer from one of my professors from a long time ago when I was in what was then called the "J-school" at NYU:
This is amazing. Public radio station @witfnews in Harrisburg, PA, recognizing "these are not normal times," takes a stronger stand for truth and accountability. Here is the spirit we need after January 6. Read their statement.
My first reaction that made it on to the Twitter was that it didn’t go far enough.
I think this is great, but they could also refuse to cover any of those politicians, except in the case of them either apologizing, or taking other authoritarian actions. All other activities get ignored. Why give any air to those who undermine democracy?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the people at this public broadcaster were right. (Thinking while Tweeting doesn’t always lead to the best result.)
So, in that spirit, I’m going to do the same thing. I’ll keep interacting with politicians who sought to undermine democracy, but every time I write about them, I’ll put an asterisk next to their name, and say what they did, and I’ll link to this post.
I know that what happens on my #LockTheClock blog may not be the most important vehicle for defending democracy, but I figure we all need to do our part, and this is what I’m doing.
So, thanks WITF. If nobody else has called it the WITF Rule, well, allow me to be the first, and I hope that many other publishers will follow your lead.
I don't know exactly where she is, but I know she is somewhere safe, and she certainly looks healthy.
That’s not my question.
What I am wondering is where the real Rachel Maddow is.
You see, many times over the last few years when I just couldn’t deal with the reality of the day, I would watch her show.
I would watch it not because I agreed with her politics. Nor would I watch because I thought I would learn some headline of the day that I hadn’t heard a bunch of times before.
No... I would watch her because I needed to know that I wasn’t alone.
I needed to hear it from another human being that things going on in the world were so crazy that, well, that I was not the only one who thought it was crazy.
It’s one thing to just give the headlines of what the craziness is. It’s another thing entirely to stand back and make a human connection to understand the insanity of it all.
For a long time, I didn’t know how she did it. I knew she was good at starting with bits of history, and weaving those bits into the current narrative. I knew she was better than anyone at just having a conversation with us, the viewers, rather than talking to other talking heads.
(In that way, she reminds me Vin Scully, perhaps the greatest radio announcer of all time. While sportsball announcers always—always—work in at least pairs, and often in even larger groups, Scully worked alone. He said that what he wanted was a conversation with the listener. We felt that, and that was a huge part of the reason Scully was so beloved. With everyone else, we are observers. With Scully, we were participants in the conversation.)
So, I had those observations, but I wasn’t alone in thinking Rachel Maddow was great. But what really made her different?
I never did figure it out, but my son did.
(Do the Germans have a word for that feeling a parent has when an offspring figures out something before you do, some mixture of pride and wonder and... annoyance?)
What did he figure out?
Well, for that you need a bit more back story.
Here in isolation, our family started a little book club. (My wife’s idea, nothing but admiration for this idea.)
We all read something, and then talk about it. My contribution of reading material was Tom Wolfe's introductory chapters in The New Journalism.
For those of you cursed with a life where you haven’t read that, it is an amazing look at the state of journalism from the 1960s through to when it was published in 1973. It still reads as fresh and vibrant today as I imagine it did at the time.
One of the main thrusts of the text is the explication around the notion that some journalists adopted the tools and techniques of the novel writer, and used it for feature stories. That is, working journalists would do reporting in the way it has always been done, but instead of writing “news” with the "most important" fact at the top and then supporting material after that, the writing would be done using a number of techniques that had come down from Balzac to Dickens, and right through to Steinbeck and other renowned novelists.
Wolfe even lays out exactly what those tools and techniques are.
Scene by scene construction
The third-person point of view
My son pointed out that he has seen all four of those elements in Rachel’s opening segments.
She often starts out (or did, before Covid) with an elaborate description of a scene. It might be the room where the foreign minister is holding a hearing, or the committee room during the Watergate era. Then she jumps from one scene to another, one that is part of the news of the day.
One of her favorite things to do is read at length transcripts from court hearings. Anyone in TV would tell you that this is not “Good TV” to just have a person reading text that is also on the screen. Sometimes there’s a bad courtroom artist sketch, but that’s it. And still, it is riveting.
Rachel quite often will use a third-person point of view, but not when she is interviewing people. She will use other evidence of a person’s internal monologue, gleaned from interviews or court transcripts. For instance she could talk at length about Michael Cohen, laying out exactly how he felt about his motivations in the context of acts he was doing at the behest of the President because he described them so vividly. To have those descriptions in a vacuum fall flat, but to have them placed in the scene of having conversations with President Trump about his relationship with adult film stars... That’s a literary technique that sets tenterhooks into anybody who is passing by a television.
And even Wolfe pointed out that status details are little understood in the abstract, but we all know them when we see them. And Rachel is a master at getting just the right little details and inserting them in her descriptions. I think Wolfe himself would have smiled watching her talk about how much money he spent on his suits, and really would have admired this segment, No Suit for you!:
That is Rachel Maddow.
That is the person who is now missing.
Her shows over the last few weeks are probably better than most of the rest of cable news. I don’t know, I don’t watch a lot of it.
But I know I haven’t been able to watch Rachel most nights the way I once did. She’s just giving me facts.
(That’s to be commended, the giving of facts. If only we had a president interested in that instead of making a buck off this crisis.)
Why is she unable to be more like herself in delivering the show? I don’t know. Maybe she’s just scared.
Just like the rest of us.
She is human.
But this is my message to you, Rachel.
Remember back to the day after the election in 2016. Everyone was in full freak out. The world was completely turned upside down.
And yet, you went deep inside yourself, and deep into a little bit of history, and you came up with a monologue that helped me so much. I am certain I was not alone.
Now, every other newscast that day in the world used the name “Donald Trump” in the first sentence of the newscast.
You went the other way. I watched it again just now. I remember sitting in a hotel room in Boston watching that thinking Where is she going? What is she doing?
And when she got to her main point, I felt like I could take a deep breath for the first time in 24 hours.
Night after night since being quarantined, I have tuned in hoping to get a story... a story that has some novelistic characteristics. I want and need a story that will help me make sense of the world when nothing makes sense.
There’s lots of great journalism being done. There are plenty of people being very creative and giving us distractions. All of that is great.
But we need one other thing. We need Rachel to be Rachel.
So, Rachel, if you are reading this... (And anyone else who is stuck doing work that they know isn’t really their best work because they are feeling all the feels that go along with this mess) ...
Take a deep breath. Close your eyes. Say to yourself: I’ve got this.
And then go out there and do the kind of thing you are capable of.
If you are reading this, you may have heard something about the Journalism Trust Initiative, maybe because you saw it on the agenda of the SPJ’s Excellence in Journalism conference or some other event.
It’s hard keeping all the misinformation-fighting efforts straight, and the ground keeps shifting.
But if you are at all interested in the world of misinformation (you won’t catch me using “fake news” because I don’t want the inimitable Claire Wardle to bollox up my knickers, or whatever it is the Brits do when they are unhappy with you) then you will want to know about the JTI, as you will be hearing a lot more about it in the months and years to come.
The short version is this: It’s a standards effort, a real one. There are lots of things called “standards” in journalism. But they aren’t really standards in the way that every other industry in the world understands them. Those aren’t ISO-compliant. They weren’t developed by a cross-section of industry. They’re great, sure, but they aren’t really standards.
Real standards are the kind of thing that makes it so you can use wifi at any hotspot around the world. Did you ever stop to think how all the hundreds of different manufacturers agreed to one system of making wifi work?
The answer is standards.
If you wake up, have a glass of water, brush your teeth, have breakfast and then go somewhere in a car, bus, train or airplane, you’ve had hundreds of standards that have been a part of your life without even thinking about it.
And if you are saying, “I just woke up and went for a walk, so no standards touched my life.” Well, if you walked on a sidewalk, there were standards involved. If you locked the door when you left… heck, even if you stayed in bed and looked out a window, standards touched your life.
As the New York Times points out, life is a lot easier if you can plug in any socket. This is something I learned up close at CableLabs, which is involved in dozens of standards that make the internet safer and faster. (It was the team there that helped me to see that misinformation could be battled with the time-tested tool of standards.)
But somehow all of the gathering and reporting the news, editing it, and publishing over the internet… all of it somehow gets done every day without an independent standards group having any part of the process.
How did that happen?
There’s an easy answer there, especially in America: Thomas Jefferson.
There were others, of course, but Jefferson is the one who said that if he had to choose between a government with no press or a press with no government, he would surely choose the latter.
Of course, that was before he was president and tried to crack down on coverage he didn’t like. But by then, the free press was free, and they weren’t going back. And properly so.
So, what’s the problem?
Well, the problem is 2016.
During the Brexit election and during the presidential election in the U.S., foreign governments were able to undermine democracy. They did that because they were able to take advantage of new technologies and newish social networks. It’s not just me saying this, it’s the law enforcement and national security experts who studied it closely and said that’s exactly what happened. They said that in January of 2017.
My question today, here in 2019, is this: What’s changed? What’s really actually changed?
It’s hard to point to any one thing that is actually different in the actual structure of the way that news is delivered, other than the fact that a lot of local news providers have gone out of business, which of course makes it even easier for misinformation to fester and grow.
I pay a lot of attention to a lot of the efforts to fight misinformation, and most of them are great.
But after studying it really closely, I’ve come to be convinced that there’s one thing that will make more difference than anything else, and it’s standards.
And there’s someone who agrees with me, a guy by the name of Sergey Lavrov.
He’s the Russian Foreign Minister.
To understand how he agrees, first you’ll need some background on the Journalism Trust Initiative.
You see, like me, people at the group Reporters Without Borders agreed that we need to bring real standards to journalism for two main reasons:
To keep misinformation out of the system, and,
To help improve the economic situation for actual journalists.
The way this will work is by having real standards, so the people of RSF has been doing the heavy lifting of making real, ISO-compliant, standards. First they applied, successfully, for an official standard setting process with CEN, the European subset of ISO and contracted Afnor and DIN, the two independent French and German standardization bodies, to run it.
They’ve hosted a long series of meetings where journalists and others have gathered to craft the actual standards.
The people working on those standards have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours hammering out exactly what should go into the standards. It has been a lot of hard work, and nearly all in the background. The way the process works is that the proposed standards, in general, stay private as a way encouraging full participation. Then at an agreed-on time, the standard becomes public, and anyone can comment on it.
Now this is the point where a part of you is going to want to stop reading. It’s similar to how you feel when you go to an event at a school, and someone starts talking about “the mission” or whatever and you know that you are going to get cornered into donating or, even worse, volunteering.
But keep reading, just for a moment please, so that you can understand exactly what is being asked of you, and what it might mean.
If these journalism standards get wide acceptance and use, then the original goals of the JTI will start to happen. First it will be harder for misinformation to infiltrate the newsfeeds of the world.
Second, the platforms and the advertisers will have a new tool to encourage legitimate journalism. They will be able to see who has gone to the trouble of applying for and getting certification under a set of voluntary standards. People from Google and Facebook have been a part of the JTI process at various stages. We’ll have to wait and see if they use the tools provided to them to make things better, but I am hopeful.
Look, nobody’s a bigger critic of the platforms than me, but in some ways I do feel sorry for them. They just have gotten so big so fast they don’t know how to fix the messes they’ve created. And while it’s easy to say that they should be able to, in some areas they really just can’t, and we wouldn’t want them to. I mean, in the same way that we don’t want government saying who is — and who isn’t — a journalist, well, do we want Facebook doing that?
I say the only one who should get to decide who’s a journalist is other journalists. The way that works practically is if they come together and declare themselves some kind of group as diverse as The Associated Press or as niche as a group of publishers in one city or state, well, then they get to do that.
And then those groups can, if they themselves want to, go on to be a part of a legitimate standards operation. That’s why we need real standards, so that the groups have something following an accepted process that they can use.
That’s why the standards themselves are so important. And that’s why we need you, especially here in the U.S.
I’ve been involved with the JTI since it’s earliest days. I’ve been to, I think, every meeting there was to go to. I was one of only two guys from North America in the first meeting in Paris in a stuffy room at Agency France Presse. I think for the most part the people involved have been very well meaning, but there’s no question that the document in its current form has a European sensibility. That may never change completely.
But it doesn’t mean that we can’t make sure that it will at least work for us here in America.
To do that, however, we have to show up. We have to be involved in the process. We have to do the admittedly hard hard hard hard work of reading a proposed standards document, all of it, and then making some comments.
If you want to comment in writing, you certainly can, or if you want to participate in a workshop we’ll be putting on in Austin, Denver, Washington or New York, you can do that. If you are attending the EIJ, the APME, or the ONA conventions coming up in September, that will work, too.
I’m asking you to do this because I’m convinced that standards are the thing that can do more than anything else to fight misinformation. I’m asking you to do this because with your participation the standards will get stronger, will work for more diverse journalists, and they will be a great new tool to finally do something to improve the economic reality for publishers.
And I’m asking you to do it to let the Russian foreign minister know that you are not going to play his game.
What is his game?
The Russian government has been pretty much absent in the battle over misinformation. Putin jokes with Trump about “Fake News” but other than, you know, killing and jailing journalists, the Kremlin has not tried to fight or even comment on any of the international efforts to fight misinfo.
With one exception: the JTI.
This is Sergey Lavrov, who went to Paris last year and made a big speech, and in that speech in front of the French Foreign Minister and the press and in the hometown of the JTI, criticized the JTI, by name. He then went on to say this:
“Такие подходы наводит на очень неприятные мысли о том что мы имеем дело с разновидностью политической цензуры.”
“This approach leads to very unpleasant thoughts that we are dealing with a kind of political censorship.”
Now, this is laughable in an awkward way. We’re talking about a very high ranking Kremlin official saying that the government shouldn’t be involved in news content. It’s as if Weird Al Yankovic announced that singers should not be involved in parody.
But to me it’s instructive. No less than the Russian foreign minister is preemptively fighting an otherwise obscure standards effort. Why? I can only think that this is the one thing that the Kremlin is worried about, the only thing that might stop their massive and sophisticated misinformation effort. (If you haven’t seen the NY Times video series, featuring the aforementioned Claire Wardle, it’s really worth a watch. The Russian efforts are massive. And the only thing that’s changed since then is that now China, Iran and other countries are doing the same thing.)
So, what is Lavrov worried about?
I think he’s worried that standards could actually work. I think he’s worried that the things he’s been able to do in the past would be a lot harder with standards in place. Maybe he’s worried about what the Kremlin wants to do next, the thing that nobody even knows about, and that standards would create a roadblock.
So, taking some time to work though the language of the JTI standards may not feel like fun, but it may just help. It might help keep some of the crap out of the newsfeeds. It may help strengthen the economic situation of legitimate publishers. And it may just be the one way you — personally — can stick it to the foreign governments that think they can get away with undermining democracy, and spammers who want to cloak themselves with an aura of legitimate journalism.
Pew recently did a survey showing that people don’t really blame journalists for the current misinformation crisis, but they do think journalists need to fix it. I say they are right on both counts. We didn’t make this mess, but we are the ones who need to clean it up.
If you believe that, too, but have been trying to figure out what you, personally, can do, well… now you know. You can come to one of our workshops, or try taking a beta version of the approved, official questionnaire once it’s available.
Standards are boring, but they work. If you participate now, when your non-journalist friends and family ask you what you are doing to fix things, you can tell them about this. Not sexy, just hard work, but it’s the only thing that we have any proof might actually work.
Tis the season to reflect, and plan for the next year.
(And to use the word “Tis” apparently.)
I’m currently working on a plan that is complex, and just a pain in the ass to get done. It’s the kind of thing that is so new that if you were to lay odds, you would bet against it.
Of course, that was true about me when I started a new business back in 2001. The odds were against me, and still somehow I launched the business, and then sold it in 2006. The odds were not great when I started another business right after that. I’m no longer involved in that one day-to-day, but Bill Track 50 is thriving to this day. Same story for the blog writing service now known as Verblio, which is also rocking thanks to the staff and the writers making it happen.
The language is a bit obscure, but Wilser does a great job of breaking it down.
The “Projector” is you. You are the one who is projecting what the future will be. If you project yourself into the future and you create it, then you can succeed.
But it just takes hard work to make it happen. That’s the “constant” part.
Be nice if I could just have great ideas and then sit back and watch them take off. But... no.
This projector needs to be constant.
That’s going to be really important to remember in the coming year. All signs are that between the economy and the current occupant of the White House, 2019 is going to be a rough year, full of distractions and annoyances and everything that can give any of us an excuse to not remain constant.
So for me in 2019, my theme is for the Projector to stay constant.
Big news in the world of “Fake News” recently is that both the French and British governments are united in fighting it.
Not the problem, unfortunately, just the name.
The French have come out against the name “Fake News” for no reason other than their long history of hating any words that are Anglo-Saxon.
What should we call it?
Even for the French, that seemed like a mouthful, so they also coined a new made-up word that they think will be catchy: “Infox.”
I wouldn't count on that word lasting long.
And the Brits are not offended by the Queen’s English but they are, as always, offended by Americanisms, so they, too have banned “fake news” from official documents.
There is no such thing as American English. There is English. And there are mistakes.
— A tweet quoted in the excellent The Prodigal Tongue by Lynn Murphy
The problem is that they could not agree on what word to use in its place.
We recommend that the Government rejects the term ‘fake news’, and instead puts forward an agreed definition of the words ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’. With such a shared definition, and clear guidelines for companies, organisations, and the Government to follow, there will be a shared consistency of meaning across the platforms, which can be used as the basis of regulation and enforcement.
— From the report of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee to the UK Government
So in very clear terms the government has said that there will be a “shared consistency” with one word, it just isn't sure which word that should be.
Look, both governments are right, the term “Fake News” is horrible, and is being used to mean everything from News I don't like all the way to organized propaganda designed to destabilize democracy.
But the problem for those of us inside the battle is this: Every time we tell people who are not working on this all day every day what we are working on, no matter how we describe what we are doing, they will invariably say:
“Oh! You are fixing fake news! That’s so important!!!”
That’s when we smile wanly and say thanks.
Luckily, for those who are working on this so hard, the part about defining the problem is pretty much done. In reality, it’s been done for a long time.
As helpful as that is, it still uses both the mis- and dis- forms of information.
So, which is it?
I’m going to say that misinformation has won the day, in no small part thanks to the Cyrillic alphabet, and whichever clever person it was that came up with the coolest logo for a conference, maybe ever.
Of the hundreds of conference badges I’ve gotten in my life, this is one of the few I’m hanging on to:
This is serious stuff, and thoughtful people are hard at work trying to make a difference. I’m totally engaged in working on my particular slice of the solution, one that is working to strengthen many of the other efforts going on by making certain that news publishers do in fact have the imprimatur of the standards-based bodies they profess to follow. You can see more about that on the Certified Content Coalition page.
But lest you think the people themselves are all humorless, I present here my own captions to some pictures from the D.C. Misinfocon.
While I won’t be at the London event, I will be looking for photos that I can use for my next post.
Nobody knows more about this than Alex, and he’s highly respected. (And I personally find it a bummer that he’s out of the trenches and is now an academic.)
But it got me thinking: Are the U.S. Elections really the World Cup of Information Warfare?
I mean, he is talking very specifically about the U.S. Elections, and the US didn’t even get into the last actual World Cup. Americans are famously blasé about soccer, so making that analogy here may actually minimize what a big deal misinformation is.
So, with all due respect to Alex, here’s a better breakdown:
U.S. Election Misinformation
While it seems like there is actual competition, at least recently there really isn't. Everyone knows the team coached by Bill Belichick will win, and that he will cheat.
Similarly, everyone knows that the Russians cheated in trying to influence the U.S. elections. But in this case because of their influence, the one person who might stop the cheating is now in charge, so nothing will happen.
U.S. Election Hacking
World Series of Poker
This is different than misinformation, this is actually trying to manipulate votes. Anyone can get in, anyone can win.
Much as with Olympic teams made up of people without much of an actual connection to the country they compete for, there are spammy operators all over the world pretending to be from somewhere else.
And there are so many different forms of competition that nobody can keep them all straight.
And just as we all know about, say Michael Phelps or the time that Google News showed a story about how Las Vegas Shooter Was a Rachel Maddow Fan, most of these competitors toil in obscurity. (Bonus: Just as with the actual Olympics, we know the Russians will cheat.)
People Claiming “Fake News”
People who believe a politician who claims that stories he doesn't like are “fake” are the same people who believe Pro Wrestling is not fake. (By the way, it is not fake to report that Donald Trump is in the WWE Hall of Fame.)