Monthly Archives: September 2012

Can Web Culture Save The Debates?

The debates are talking-point GIFs that are strikingly terrible.  Let’s remake them to serve the public interest.

In the second to last episode of The Newsroom, HBO’s frenzied new series, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) sells a new kind of debate.  Pitching to Republican operatives, the Atlantic Cable News stages a mock forum.  As the moderator, McAvoy is a raging bull.  Against the politicians’ rote talking points, he pummels with forceful follow-up questions, piercing fact checks, and an aggressive attitude of: “are you kidding me?”  It had the feel of Bill O’Reilly meets 60 Minutes, formidable intensity fused with civic mindedness.

It’s bracing but effective.  McAvoy believes an assertive moderator fosters the thoughtful but spontaneous reactions we expect from real discussion.  Where stump speeches, campaign stops, and party conventions are staged, filled with spin, and blatantly distorting, the presidential debates should be a towering gauntlet of public scrutiny—a forceful, let’s-get-real sort of moment.  In McAvoy’s vision, sharp and persuasive politicians would thrive.  Pretenders and spin doctors would be crushed by expert journalism and intelligent debate.

The politico in charge does not buy it, of course.  He sees the risk of candidates being called out, of the moderator pressing for more honest answers, of interrupting a politician’s talking point GIF.  (A recent example: President Obama’s “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) on Reddit.  As many tech and political reporters observed, the President evaded challenging questions and robo-responded in the kind of unthinking, predictable messaging we expect from the campaign, which is counter to the whole point of the Reddit AMA.)

It suits both parties to have debates that they control.  It favors them to have moderators that they choose, and the formats that are uneventful and electorally insignificant.  That’s why the official presidential debates are not run by the free press, by a governmental body, or by some public institution.  They are run by the two parties.  In 1987 they named it the Commission on Presidential Debates.

In his definitive and unforgiving history, No Debate, George Farah documents the creation of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the private organization established and controlled by members of the Republican and Democratic parties.  It is the same entity that runs the debates today.

Formed in 1987, the CPD’s first co-chairs, Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk, were also serving simultaneously as chairs of the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee, respectively.  And while the CPD is officially nonpartisan—abiding Federal Election Committee regulations—Farah marshals convincing evidence to prove the CPD is a political cartel.

Using testimony from dozens of journalists (Tom Brokaw, George Will, Tim Russert), scholars (Larry Sabato, Jamie Raskin), and politicos (President George H.W. Bush, George Stephanopoulos, Paul Begala) Farah demonstrates the CPD’s dubious neutrality.  He quotes Fahrenkopf, the first and current co-chair, in 2001: “It very quickly changed from bipartisan to nonpartisan, and it changed that way for legal reasons.” (The commission is legally obliged to state its goals as nonpartisan, but the two parties working together to exclude dissent is hardly neutral.)

Farah’s second chapter, “Hostile Takeover,” describes how the CPD asserted control.  1976 was the first year the League of Women Voters sponsored the presidential debates.  That election pitted a peanut-farmer-turned-governor, Jimmy Carter, against the unelected incumbent, Gerald Ford, who had pardoned President Nixon two years prior.  With broad civic authority the League maintained strong discretion over the debate format (follow-up questions were mandatory), the selection of moderators, and the response time given to candidates.

The presidential debates of 1980 and 1984 were executed under their sponsorship as well.  But in 1988, in a gross display of unimpeded power, the non-partisan League was muscled out.  The unsettling October press release explains:

“The League of Women Voters is withdrawing sponsorship of the presidential debates…because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.  It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organization aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions.  The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

Facing onerous demands from the candidates—limited use of follow up questions, absurdly short response times, and a handpicked list of “acceptable” moderators—the League refused to cooperate.  Before the first debate began, the moderator Dan Rather announced to the American people:

“This will not be a debate in the sense the word is often used in the English language because all of this is so tightly controlled by the candidates themselves and their managers.  These things have developed over the years into what some people believe can more accurately be described as a joint campaign appearance or an orchestrated news conference.”

Rather’s words are striking precisely because they are so apt today.  A quick Youtube sampling will refresh your memory.  The 2008 moderators attempt to educate the public.  They begin by reminding us that their questions were not reviewed by anyone.  They tell us what the subject will be and how much time the candidates have to respond.  But as soon as the debates begin the sound bites spew out.  The rebuttal times seem maddeningly short.  Nothing really illuminating or informative or inspiring occurs.

What the moderators don’t tell us is that the debates are designed to be this way.  That the moderators themselves are selected by the candidates, that the restrictive response times are put in place to prevent going off message, and that the debate topics are embarrassingly predictable are miserable features of the debates.

At some point, usually very close to the start, the moderator stops being an assertive journalist.  They shrink from their role as a representative of the public and shrivel into an impotent emcee—a glorified Ryan Seacrest emitting irrelevant background noise as the candidates spew campaign nonsense and slither from specifics.  (At one point during the 2008 town hall debate, as Senators McCain and Obama jostle to respond and verbally stampede over the moderator, Tom Brokaw as if throwing his arms up in despair, exclaims: “I’m just hired help here, so I mean…” crowd erupts in laughter).

Farah outlines his three main criticisms of the CPD: its formats fail to inspire challenging questioning and genuine debate; the scope of debate topics is too narrow; and its rules unfairly exclude popular third party candidates.  And for each problem he offers solutions.

After Ross Perot in 1992 proved surprisingly capable of carving a new constituency—peeling off voters from Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush—the commission banned him from the ’96 debates.  (In ’92 Perot carried zero electoral votes but received 19% of the popular vote).  To avoid accusations of imposing arbitrary restrictions, the CPD instituted a rule in 2000 whereby only candidates polling at 15% or above were invited to debate.  Farah explains that while this number may seem fair as an objective metric, it functions as a stifling barrier to entry.

Citing the criteria of the Appleseed Citizen’s Task Force on Fair Debates, a nonprofit public interest law organization, Farah proposes a more inclusive rule where candidates become eligible if they poll above 5% or “register a majority in national polls asking eligible voters which candidates they would like to see included.”  Because more than 200 citizens file to run for president every election, potential candidates must also qualify to be on enough state ballots to theoretically win the election (270 electoral votes).  The Appleseed criteria cuts unrealistic candidates from the debates but also empowers worthy, independent voices.  (In 2000 both Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan were blocked from the debates by the CPD but would have been allowed under the Appleseed criteria.)

On debate night imagine if, in addition to a moderator, a panel of outspoken journalists, professors, entrepreneurs and cultural figures questioned the candidates (say, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Shepard Smith, Sheryl Sandberg, Ira Glass, Richard Branson, David Frum, Rachel Maddow, Colin Powell, Anthony Bourdain, Melinda Gates, and Madeleine Albright).  Imagine if the candidates were forced to ask and answer each other’s questions.  (In 2004 the commission explicitly forbade them from doing this.)  What if voting users—not Fox or CNN producers— decided what YouTube and Reddit questions to ask.  This would help drill into rhetorical vagaries and expose precise policy proposals.

Or what about a youth town hall debate, hosted by Jon Stewart and cosponsored by Twitter and BuzzFeed with live-streaming follow-up questions (the kinetic upvoting and retweeting and fact-checking would occur real-time instead of afterwards).  The topics and queries would be unscreened and unconventional, forcing the candidates out of the beltway bubble (gay civil rights, carbon tax and climate change, proportional representation, publically funded elections, warrantless wiretapping, college affordability, Guantanamo Bay, drone strikes, term limits, marijuana policy, military spending and prison reform).

Farah makes a compelling case for unpredictable, novel formats.  They would force candidates to think instead of recite.  They would debate instead of word-vomit.

While the first step is to bring attention to the self-serving CPD and its candidate coddling, Farah advocates replacing the CPD with a nonpartisan organization whose explicit goal is to educate the public: The Citizen’s Debate Commission.  With mounting intellectual support and the potential for robust engagement from Buzzfeed, Google, Twitter, Branch, Facebook, Tumblr, Wikipedia, and the dozens of innovative media companies that are disrupting journalism’s landscape, how long could the two parties withstand a coordinated protest?

While scholars and politicians have called for reform within the CPD for years, President Obama and Mitt Romney have already entered into a secret agreement with the CPD.  Farah’s nonpartisan group Open Debates put out this press release in August:

“Robert F. Bauer of the Obama campaign and Benjamin L. Ginsberg of the Romney campaign negotiated a detailed contract that dictates many of the terms of the 2012 presidential debates.  The Commission on Presidential Debates…has agreed to implement the debate contract.  In order to shield the major party candidates from criticism, the Commission on Presidential Debates is concealing the contract from the public and the press.”

For 24 years the American public and the legacy media has let this embarrassing trait of our democracy endure.  In our age of innovative Web culture, of bewildering connectivity and a heightened awareness of political machinery, will the new social Web allow this to continue? Or are we all content with President Obama’s AMA, where he ducked accountability but let us know that Jordan is his favorite basketball player.

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Warentless Facebook Stalking, Government Style

Declan McCullagh writes on CNET

Documents the ACLU released today show police are using a 1986 law intended to tell police what phone numbers were dialed for far more invasive surveillance: monitoring of whom specific social-network users communicate with, what Internet addresses they’re connecting from, and perhaps even “likes” and “+1″‘s.

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Beyond The Check In: Foursquare And Social Cartography

On your foursquare social map your preferences are the topography, your friends’ tastes, the contours.

Drew Olanoff writes on TechCrunch

Partnering with the reservation service, OpenTable, foursquare’s “explore” feature allows users to quickly find a restaurant nearby, check what their friends have said about it, and then snag a reservation without leaving the app.

As I’ve said before, I’m using foursquare way more than I use a service like Yelp to find new places as I explore new cities. Explore is even handy in San Francisco, where there are hundreds of restaurants that I haven’t even discovered yet. Bringing all of this functionality into one place is a brilliant move by foursquare, and makes other services obsolete. Throw in tips, photos and past check-in information from your friends and this whole thing is really shaping up to be huge.

As I’ve written, these new features represent a trend away from the Facebooky check-in, and towards something like a personalized search engine.  Foursquare wants to be the interactive guide to your your social scene.

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Uber Clashes With DC Council…Again

Brendan Sasso Reports in The Hill

During a speech today in Washington, Julius Genachowski, The Chairman of the FCC, gave his support to the taxi start up, Uber.

There’s a debate right now in Washington about rules that could discourage the innovative on-demand car service company Uber. Not hard to guess which side I’m on — I’m on the side of innovation.

This is a bit of political placating, as Genachowski has been trashed by conservatives who disagree with the FCC’s regulation of ISPs and net neutrality.  Still, the Chairman’s trite shout-out helps frame the discussion of Uber’s entrance into the DC cab market.

As the DCist explains the DC Council held a “daylong” and bizarre” hearing today formally debating the future of Uber and “public vehicles-for-hire.”  Travis Kalanick, the CEO of the San Francisco based company, was one of 42 witness called to speak on the issue.

Where many in Washington view local taxis as unresponsive, filthy, expensive and all around shitty (you can tell I’m neutral, right?), Uber represents a luxury of convenience: a cab service you summon through a mobile app and pay for with the credit card stored on your profile. The service is known for its reliability, efficiency and fresh take on the outmoded taxi-cab.

The issue for City Council is that Uber falls outside of the traditional taxi-cab regulatory regime.  Where cabbies in DC are bound by certain rules (providing handicapped accessible vehicles, metered fares, credit card machines) Uber is not yet bound by its own special class of regulations. Before December the Council needs to figure out how it will treat Uber.

The DC Taxicab Commission predictably sees Uber as an industry disrupting enemy. And because of that, the DCTC advocates onerous regulations including: stipulating that Uber drivers must have at least 20 cars in their fleet, charging customers a minimum service fee, and prohibiting pick ups and drop offs outside of the city proper (Arlington people, sorry, you’re screwed).

While Uber is exempt from these DCTC rules until December, some form of regulation will need to be implemented before then.  Two key issues discussed at the hearing: establishing a minimum price floor and seeking clarification on Uber’s practice of “surge pricing.”

The minimum price floor, set at $15, seems to be a purely anti-competitive policy to protect traditional yellow cars.  Uber’s Kalanick sees it that way, and he wants it lowered to $10. “Surge” or dynamic pricing is the practice of upping rates during high demand.

One of the DCTC’s proposed regulations would also outlaw an increase in sedan fares during periods of peak demand. For Uber, Kalanick said that’s a situation that happens many weekends and on holidays like New Year’s…

Once a minimum price floor is negotiated and a transparency is established for surge pricing, it seems that the DC Council will be more accommodating to Uber’s presence, rejecting the more stringent restrictions proposed by the Taxicab Commission.

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Check Ins Are For High Schoolers, Pussy Whipped Boyfriends, And For The Old Foursquare… What’s The Future Foursquare?

Think for a moment on the concept of “checking-in.”  “Call me when you land!” mom says.  “Let me know when you’re on the road,” your girlfriend commands.  “Text me when you get there,” you’re annoying, psuedo-friend from college begs, because he knows that you’ll inevitably flake, but it doesn’t really matter because you’ll just say “sorry, I was totally smashed” the next time you run into him.

Most view these kinds of check ins as cumbersome chores, annoying reminders that your tab is being kept, that your leash, however long and unseen, is still snugly fastened.

I used to think foursquare was a horribly shitty, pointless app.  I used to think that their kinds of check ins involved vexing friction like calling dad after his 3rd “Are U OK? I miss you” guilt-text.  But it seems that the company wants to head in a different direction: One in which your phone, and its GPS technology, becomes a passive, ambient, knowing-guide to your social life.

While foursquare’s 25 million users continue to check in, the discovery company’s co-founder and CEO, Dennis Crowley, sees a trend in the way new users interact with the service. In an interview with Om Malik of GigaOm, Crowley talks about a future for foursquare.  Where the companies initial user base actively checked into restaurants, bars and coffee shops, many new users sign up with no intention of checking into establishments.  Instead, these people utilize foursquare as a guide to their local social scene. Where’s a good sandwich place around here? What bar is gonna be crazy tonight? Which bookstore did my roommate recommend?

With over 2.5 billion check ins already logged, Crowley believes that many people simply want to “consume” the reviews of their friends rather than checking in and creating their own.

Moving from active usage, explicitly stating to the digital public where you are and what you thought of a particular steakhouse, Crowley believes future foursquare will be a passive, ambient service, like your phone unobtrusively suggesting a sushi place that your girls love.  Or, you’d receive notice of a hilarious happy hour special because your foursquare knows, from previous experience, that you are a self-sabotaging, Jager-bombing binge drinker.

Alluding to Harry’s Potter’s, Marauder’s Map, the GPS geek complains about the sad state of map apps.  They are blank, Crowley says.  You are a pathetic, lonesome dot.  Why not populate a map with many other dots representing your friends?  You could see where the bros are draining Sunday pitchers, what club all the high heels are click-clacking towards.

Foursquare wants to become a hyper specific search and discovery tool, an app that uses your  friends’ taste (your trust) to become “contextually aware” of your preferences.  The company could be your silent cartographer, your local search engine who knows, without you saying, just where you want go.

—–

I’m upping my Internet game.  If you enjoyed my style come feast on my tweets.  @PlanetHozz

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VentureBeat VS PandoDaily: A Twitter Tiff Over Attribution

  1. Journalists prize scoops.  It allows them to claim temporal ownership of a story, to say, with authority, “Look what I found!”  It expresses a reporter’s acumen and cunning, her connections and foresight.  But online, news aggregation is the new “reporting.”  Repackaged headlines are the new “fresh” angles. And for many sites, news scoops and insightful essays are less important than an endless drip of content — even if it’s someone else’s.
    VentureBeat and PandoDaily are not the shithole domains I’m talking about.  VB provides hard tech news and awesome, nerd-tastic game reviews.  Pando covers tech and start ups but also specializes in thoughtful commentary — on Valley business culture and trends in the social Web.  In fact, Sarah Lacy, the EiC of Pando, makes a special point of separating her site’s original reporting from stories curated from other websites.  Perhaps this is why she took issue with a story on VentureBeat that hat-tipped a Pando writer, but did not initially link to the Pando piece.  Here is the play-by-play on Twitter:
  2. sarahcuda
    wow great article on @venturebeat about my wifi costing me $60 on this flight. did they remember to delete @paulcarr’s byline? #shameless
    Tue, Sep 18 2012 14:06:03
  3. Here, Sean Ludwig, the author of the VB story fairly covers his butt.
  4. paulcarr
    The correct phrase, @seanludwig, is “as first reported by…”. But, y’know, w-ever.
    Tue, Sep 18 2012 14:09:46
  5. But Pando’s Paul Carr is still annoyed that Ludwig didn’t link him.
  6. sarahcuda
    @seanludwig @paulcarr wow that was magically deleted in my browser. guess it’s a feature of this $60 internet…
    Tue, Sep 18 2012 14:10:15
  7. seanludwig
    @paulcarr Updated the story with better attribution. Just trying to get the message out there. These changes are outrageous.
    Tue, Sep 18 2012 14:14:09
  8. It’s settled, right?
  9. dylan20
    @sarahcuda @paulcarr No conspiracy here. @seanludwig saw Paul’s tweet, took the tip, & did reporting/writing before seeing your story
    Tue, Sep 18 2012 14:18:31
  10. Shit gets real when Dylan Tweney, the Executive Editor of VentureBeat, gets involved.
  11. dylan20
    @sarahcuda @VentureBeat @paulcarr But now we’ve seen your story, we’re happy to add a link. Not trying to be dicks or anything. But w-ever
    Tue, Sep 18 2012 14:19:21
  12. The male humanoid displays passive aggression.
  13. sarahcuda
    @dylan20 @paulcarr @seanludwig didn’t suggest conspiracy. suggested “shameless”
    Tue, Sep 18 2012 14:19:33
  14. Lacy stands her ground.
  15. dylan20
    @sarahcuda @paulcarr @seanludwig Not that either. Just working from a Twitter tip combined with not refreshing Pando every 15 minutes
    Tue, Sep 18 2012 14:26:22
  16. Tweney throws in some sarcasm, essentially saying: look, Sarah, I don’t freaking scan Pando every second to see if my reporters have overlapped their reporting with your reporting.
  17. paulcarr
    @dylan20 Actually, if the initial tip was grabbed from twitter, one assumes my link to the pando story was also seen. No refresh required.
    Tue, Sep 18 2012 14:27:18
  18. The writer of the original story, Carr, calls Tweney out by saying: you saw my initial tweet and the link to the story, but your writer still did not link to me.
  19. Boom! Tweney hits back with the original thought that Carr tweeted, which was not a link to a story, but the initial scoop, the kernel of what the story would be.  “Details to come,” it read.
  20. dylan20
    @sarahcuda you might encourage your writers not to tweet about stories they haven’t written yet. ;)
    Tue, Sep 18 2012 14:32:36
  21. And to finish it off, Tweney does his best impression of Varys from Game of Thrones.
  22. sarahcuda
    note to self: if my “reporting” job is ever watching competitors’ twitter feeds hoping for stories, find new line of work
    Tue, Sep 18 2012 14:45:16
  23. PWNage!  Lacy is no push over.  She clowns on Tweney for conducting a kind of journalistic twitter trolling.

    I respect both editors for fiercely defending their writers. Too many editors throw their underlings under the guillotine after shitty blogging mishaps.  Still, this case is strange because the attribution in question was based off a twitter scoop, not a published story.  I think Lacy wins the argument, but if you take Tweney at his word, he didn’t really do anything wrong (except come off a bit hormonal).

    —–

    I’m upping my Internet game.  If you enjoyed my style come feast on my tweets.  @PlanetHozz

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Hooters Wants Women… As Customers Too

Jordan Weissmann writes in The Atlantic

As a regular customer of Hooters in Chinatown, I always find it odd that it’s sort of a family restaurant.  On the Saturday or Sunday afternoons I go to watch football and slug their “big daddy” beers, there is usually a strange amount of children in the bar.  It’s strange because the restaurant is also filled with female servers with breasts and thighs on radiant display.  (When Michael Scott and Jim go to Hooters for lunch, Michael can’t help himself and asks the buxom server about the quality of the breasts… he then orders a grilled cheese.)

The waitresses are incredibly friendly and are encouraged to sit at the table with you and chit chat (a practice known affectionately as “table time.” eg: “Wow dude, I think Tasha likes you, she was giving you mad table time.”) Hooters allows their customers to think of themselves as total bros and enables blatant, shameless ogling.

But the total-bro bar makes for shitty business.  The company has seen 4 years of sliding revenue.  So what if Hooters catered to more than just men?

…CEO Terry Marks believes that by tweaking the menu with more salads and fresher ingredients, lightening up the beach shack decor, and adding space for a bit of nightlife, the company can at least make its franchises an acceptable destination for more wives and girlfriends. As of now, about two-thirds of their patrons are guys.
 

So it seems that my being weirded out by children at Hooters is actually a corporate business decision manifesting itself through a more diverse clientele.

For families and couples who want to watch the game, Hooters’ new menu and vibe makes perfect sense. And without alienating the total-bros who make up the bulk of their user-base, the new business strategy seems spot on.

Compared to the average sports bar or bland American restaurant (Applebee’s, Chili’s, or any other shit establishment with barf listed as the main ingredient) Hooters is pretty fucking fun.

It’s the uniforms.

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Toys R Us Reveals Its Own Kids Tablet And Undeveloped Business Strategy

Ann Zimmerman writes in the WSJ:

In an effort to compete with the Amazonian online juggernaut, and the price mongers Wal-Mart and Target, Toys “R” Us wants to offer products that only it can sell.  One of these new gadgets is the Tabeo, a children’s tablet equipped with Wi-Fi, 50 preloaded games and priced at $150.00

According to Zimmerman, the strategy of offering in-house products was developed to combat the shopping trend known as “show-rooming.”  This is where consumers check products out at the store only to buy it online for cheap.  (I think this is how 68% of Americans buy shoes).

The odd fact about this story is the incredible risk Toys “R” Us is taking by churning out its own hardware.

If the Tabeo doesn’t sell well, Toys “R” Us will have a problem. Toy makers often guarantee the price of their products and will make up the difference if retailers have to discount the toys to goose sales. “The downside to private-label products is if they flop, and have to be discounted, the retailer can’t beat up the manufacturers,” said Sean McGowan, a toy analyst at Needham & Co. “That’s not an insignificant part of the toy business.”

So if little gremlins aren’t begging their strung out parents for a Christmas Tabeo, Geoffrey and his boardroom of giraffes will have to eat the losses. Considering that all three of the children’s tablets on the market dropped their prices to match the Tabeo, this seems very likely.

Aside from these rival gadgets, Toys “R” Us faces daunting challenges as online shopping renders large box-stores obsolete. Writing for Slate earlier this year, Farhad Manjoo describes the same obstacles facing Best Buy. He argues that the giant electronics vendor should scale down their operation, sell far fewer products, and cultivate expert, knowledgeable customer service – Apple Store style.

While I don’t think the same argument can be made for a toy store, (isn’t part of the appeal of Toys “R” Us the kind of boyish wonder it’s endless aisles inspire? Tom Hanks knows exactly what I am talking about.) the giant-warehouse style will eventually be squeezed out by Amazon.

Something needs to change.  But manufacturing an unremarkable children’s tablet doesn’t seem like the game-changing strategy needed to save  Toys “R” Us.

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From Spaceships and Sagan to Mobile Apps and Zuckerberg: The Limits Of Venture Capital

Josh Lerner writes in MIT’s Technology Review:

But claims that venture capital is a driver of true innovation, or even of positive financial returns to investors, face some hard questions. With the industry facing a hangover from its recent flurry of social-media investing and the disappointing stock-market performance of firms such as Groupon, Zynga, and Facebook, the skeptics have been rarely been as loud as they are today.

Quoting the power investor, Peter Thiel, Mr. Lerner reflects on the state of innovation and investment: “We wanted flying cars. Instead, we got 140 characters.” Citing the concentration of investment in narrow market-categories, the frenzy to invest in fad industries (social media), and the short-sightedness and volatility of public markets, Mr. Lerner argues that venture capital is not the spark of innovation that we think it is.

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Jon Stewart As Debate Moderator: Fact-Checking, Subjectivity And A Future For Political Journalism

CNN’s Candy Crowley will moderate the 2nd presidential debate.  It will be in the infamous “town hall” setting, the one where “everyday” Americans (shitty haircut + struggling small business +  improbable accent) ask pre-vetted questions and the candidates stare into their mom-jean souls as they spit back slightly personalized rote talking points and reveal to the audience at home just how compassionate, intelligent and beer worthy they are.  (I’ll initiate the first Twitter joke: What the hell is a town hall?)

On Thursday night,  after Mitt Romney’s convincing “Robots can cry, too!” speech, CNN cut to Ms. Crowley and foreshadowed the tone of the incoming October debate. Paraphrasing here: “Well, the speech was good, but not earth shattering, and I spoke to two Romney camp people and they told me that convention speeches are supposed to be kinda shitty like this and, yeah, so what if he didn’t propose anything susbtantive…he doesn’t have to.”  It was as if she was doing an E! red carpet fashion critique with Joan Rivers, instead of, you know, making sense of the speech from a man who may become president. 

Watching her report on the convention, in the way that too many journalists do, commenting solely on the efficacy of campaign marketing and saying precious little on the validity of policy arguments, it wasn’t hard to imagine how she would moderate the debate: Wow, Mr. Obama, that was an eloquently phrased answer on not closing Gitmo, but who am I to evaluate the truth-claims of your legal policy? I’m just a political journalist, after all!  …Mr. Romney, who is your favorite character on Modern Family?” 

Given even more attention recently through the development of the fact-checking fiasco radiating from the Romney/Ryan campaign, media writer Mathew Ingram and journalism professor Jay Rosen’s critiques on political coverage are essential reading.  To summarize:

Romney and Ryan have been talking serious amounts of shit about Obama, much of it outright lies.  Rather than reporting it as: “Romney camp said this, but Obama camp said that,” several news outlets have explicitly called out the Romney camp: LIARS!  While you may think this is not unusual, most political journalists (Rosen says 95%) write and speak in what is called “he said/she said journalism.” 

This brand of coverage adopts a view from nowhere, and hides behind something called “objectivity” which, after watching too much CNN, reporters take to mean endlessly qualifying everything you say so that you end up saying nothing but what other people have said.  (After watching someone barf at a frat party Wolf Blitzer’s “objective” report would sound something like: “Good evening. I just spoke to two expert party-goers and they told me that a person just produced a pile of unprocessed food debris on what appears to be carpet.  However, after speaking with the person who allegedly vommed, he told me that the giant stain from undigested beer and cheeseburger was already there when he got to the party.  I, of course, was here as well, but in my pathetic attempt to appear balanced and objective I will rely on other people’s accounts even when their comments are blatantly self serving  and do nothing to help the viewer understand what is going on…Back to you.”)  

Miserable political reporting manifests in other ways too: You are already familiar with “horserace” coverage, where polls and tactics are privileged over all else.  There is also reporting on “insider gamesmanship,” (or, what Rosen identifies as the entirety of Politico.com’s content) where all reporters talk about is how effectively politicians fooled us, how deftly they dodged criticism, how slick their incoded messages were, how easily they manipulated the audience into focusing on some side issue instead of, ummm… how the oceans are about to boil. 

So, the media took one Jon Basedow baby step forward by calling out Romney, but then Romney’s people essentially said: “Yes ok, you caught us, but shitting on Obama with lies is working.  Now go beat off into a sock, media! ”  The question for political writers and readers then became: now what?

If most coverage is nothing but slurping up the savvyness of campaigns, can we eventually develop a type of journalism and viewership that cultivates not deference but critical thought? Rosen thinks so, and he sees a small but important change brewing, he calls it #presspushback .  (It’s when the lies or deceptions of politicians becomes its own story, when the press begins to see itself less as a purveyor of campaign information and more like an arbiter of the nation’s conversation.) 

We view it most nights with Rachel Maddow, in many of Frank Rich’s political columns, and we see it, in glimpses, on The Daily Show  (The interviews where Stewart gnaws on Jim Cramer’s bulbous skull or pisses on Tony Blair’s royal grin are especially good.  Consider also the famous clips during Katrina when Shep Smith goes bizerk on Sean Hannity or when Anderson Cooper and Tim Russert absolutely pwn incompetent government officials.)

This type of political journalism is aggressive, assertive and honest.  Rather than pretending to be inanimate observers, using the spectre of objectivity as an excuse to act dumb and not form conclusions, this kind of journalism is concerned with evaluating truth-claims, it treats the viewer like a critically thinking student rather than a consumer of political marketing product.  This type of political journalism is unafriad of bias accusations; we know Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart are liberals but they do their best to guide us through their internal deliberation; they are transparent about being intelligent adults with deeply held opinions (this is the essential role of the reporter: to go on an investigation and turn private discoveries into a public education).  This contrasts sharply with the mind-eroding, toxic drivel that oozes from the panels of Fox News and CNN, with the reports of Chuck Todd (NBC) or Wolf Blitzer.  They can only be relied upon to tell us what political operatives want us to think.  This has its use, but there’s a lot more to politics.     

A more assertive and open journalism, one that has more in common with a professor and her students than a reporter and her ill-formed conception of objectivity, could also be expressed in the official presidential debates. 

In the season’s penultimate episode of HBO’s Newsroom, this exact scenario was imagined.  (If you haven’t watched any Newsroom, its just like Game of Thrones minus the swords, the plot, the dragons, and none of the characters have functional genitalia.)

The lead, Jeff Daniels (Fly Away Home), tells some Republican operatives what we’ve all been thinking.  With too much structure, too little time, and too much power given to the candidates, the debates are more like talking-point GIFs, repeated over and over regardless of the question being asked.  Why not have a moderator who is more like a professor or a judge, one who has dominance over the debate and is most concerned with illuminating the most useful or persuasive arguments rather than desperately trying to appear fair. This boss moderator would say things like: Mr. President, nobody who just listened to that believes what you just said, or, Governor, I have a team of fact checkers streaming on my computer and that is a lie, care to answer again?  Someone like Jon Stewart would be perfect for the job.  (Eventually, as a society, we’ll have to correct the fact that the official debates are run by a shell company which is run by the two parties.)      

For now, fact-checking and boldy calling people out should become the new normal.

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