Dynamist Blog

Media Bias Panel--Update

C-Span has moved the start of our UCSB panel on media bias (see item below) to sometime after 9:00 p.m. Eastern, to accommodate a replay of the presidential press conference.

Consumer Innovation

I've been reading Neil Gershenfeld's new book Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop--From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication. It's an interesting complement to Eric Von Hippel's Democratizing Innovation, which I wrote about in my April Times column. While Von Hippel looks at how and why users generate so many innovations, Gershenfeld explores the possibilities of low-cost, (relatively) easy-to-use fabrication technologies.

Gershenfeld's experience with students and workshops from Ghana to South Boston confirms von Hippel's central point: In many cases, people want things they can't currently get and, given the tools to make them, will create new inventions. "The killer app for personal fabrication is fulfilling individual desires rather than meeting mass-market needs," he writes. (For more info, see his website here.) I admire Gershenfeld's enthusiasm, but he overstates the case for making stuff yourself. I already have the equipment and (rusty) skills to fabricate my own skirts, and by making them myself I could get exactly the right fabric and fit. But I don't. Making stuff yourself can be fun and satisfying, but it can also be time-consuming and frustrating. The theoretical question is who has the scarce knowledge. User innovation taps unique or unarticulated desires, but specialization allows expertise and gains from trade.

After writing the column on Von Hippel's work, I found coverage of user innovation popping up everywhere. Fortune published this piece on the "do-it-yourself economy," leading with a stay-at-home dad who's inventing an MP3 player that looks like a Pez dispenser. The neologism-crazy trend spotters at Trendwatching.com posted a nice roundup of examples.

Meanwhile, O'Reilly has launched a fat new magazine called MAKE, devoted to the goal "that all of us can learn to become makers, just as we might learn to cook or use woodworking tools." MediaBistro featured a profile of the new magazine. An excerpt:

It goes without saying that nearly every review of MAKE references the long-cancelled ABC show, MacGyver, and the magazine/mook itself is unable to resist the impulse. (In Michael Rattner's review of Victorinox's Swiss Army Cybertool, he writes, "I've used it to open my PowerBook for a memory upgrade, gain access to a stubborn remote control's battery compartment, slice through an untold number of letters and packages, remove a tiny ingrown hair and to escape certain death by drowning using the can opener as a hook to unlock the door to a room that was being filled with water. [Oh wait, never mind, that was a MacGyver re-run.]) And it was precisely that appeal that made me buy the magazine last week while browsing the shelves at a Barnes & Noble. I'm not that technically oriented, but I had enough fun taking apart major appliances as a kid to appreciate the idea of doing it usefully and purposefully as an adult. (Besides, you never know when you'll be forced to evade a couple of guys with AK-47s using only a box of matches, a stick of gum, and some aluminium foil.)

But the beauty of MAKE isn't so much the practicality of it, but the way it translates what is nominally a subculture for a general audience, in much the same way Wired (wittingly or un-) did as it adapted. While many of the projects therein require a modicum of technical knowledge, culturally, MAKE is about everyday hacking — which is of increasingly greater interest to a general audience as consumers place higher premiums on customization. Music mash-ups, TiVo programming, made-to-order Nikes are symptoms of larger demand for a wide of consumer choices.

On a more radical note, The Speculist interviews Adrian Bowyer, whose working on a self-reproducing rapid-prototyping machine.

And for all you would-be inventors, Jeff Taylor points me to this contest, noting that "SOMEONE has to take $125K off of MS and ISDA........"

Media Bias Panel

Earlier this month, I co-moderated a panel in Santa Barbara on "media concentration and media bias," featuring Bill Keller of the NYT, Lionel Barber of the Financial Times, and Jacob Weisberg of Slate. The discussion was quite lively, and the participants were refreshingly honest (though Lionel did exaggerate his criticism of blogs for the sake of argument). C-SPAN will show the discussion at about 9:00 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday. You can also listen to KCRW's radio version here.

NOTE: The time above has been moved forward to accommodate President Bush's press conference.

Fighting Spyware

Glenn Reynolds has been complaining about all the time he has to spend removing adware from the InstaDaughter's computer. Now, via Good Morning Silicon Valley comes embarrassing, or perhaps strategic, advice from Intel CEO Paul Otellini, who spends an hour every weekend doing the same thing: "If you want to fix it tomorrow, maybe you should buy something else." In other words, a Mac.

The Register report is here and free. The WSJ report, from which all the others are derived, is here. (This link should work for a few days.)

Mr. Blevins, Please Stay Out of School

Surely only the most determined readers made it to the very end of the very last article in the NYT series on class. Fortunately, Professor Postrel was one of those rare readers.

The story is on college dropouts, focusing on a Virginia man named Andy Blevins, who makes a decent living, including good benefits, as a supermarket produce buyer but feels insecure about the future. If you make it to the end of the article, you discover that Blevins, who got C's and D's when he attended college and disliked class, has decided to go back to school and pursue a new career. And what might that career be?

In the weeks afterward, his daydreaming about college and his conversations about it with his sister Leanna turned into serious research. He requested his transcripts from Radford and from Virginia Highlands Community College and figured out that he had about a year's worth of credits. He also talked to Leanna about how he could become an elementary school teacher. [Emphasis added.--vp] He always felt that he could relate to children, he said. The job would take up 180 days, not 280. Teachers do not usually get laid off or lose their pensions or have to take a big pay cut to find new work.

So the decision was made. On May 31, Andy Blevins says, he will return to Virginia Highlands, taking classes at night; the Gospel Gentlemen are no longer booking performances. After a year, he plans to take classes by video and on the Web that are offered at the community college but run by Old Dominion, a Norfolk, Va., university with a big group of working-class students.

"I don't like classes, but I've gotten so motivated to go back to school," Mr. Blevins said. "I don't want to, but, then again, I do."

Blevins sounds like a fine man, the kind of person who makes communities--and supermarkets--work. Too bad the Times won't honor him for his real accomplishments, including finding a demanding career he's good at. (Most of his buyer colleagues have college degrees.) Instead, he's portrayed as a victim and the "happy ending" is that he's going back to college so he can get a job he's totally unsuited for. A guy who hates school this much doesn't belong anywhere near a classroom, least of all in front of one.

On a related note, here's a column I wrote on why the best female students no longer become teachers. Bottom line: "In hiring teachers, we get what we pay for: average quality at average wages."

Freedom to Report

Is freedom of the press a basic liberty or just a special-interest protection? In the Boston Globe, Alex Beam calls out journalists and First Amendment advocates for their tepid--or nonexistent--defense of Nicholas Ciarelli, whom Apple is suing for reporting truthful information about the company's plans.

Where is the outrage?

Apple Computer sued 19-year-old journalist Nicholas Ciarelli in January for disclosing trade secrets on his Apple news website Think Secret. A typical Think Secret annoyance: The site correctly predicted the appearance of the Mac Mini, a small, low-cost Macintosh computer, two weeks before the product was officially announced.

Ciarelli is accused of doing exactly what reporters all over America are supposed to be doing: finding and publishing information that institutions don't want to reveal. Do you think the Pentagon would have released additional details about football hero Pat Tillman's death by friendly fire in Afghanistan unless pressed by Washington Post reporters? No, I don't think so either. To think that a 19-year-old man should face trial for engaging in behavior that is the cornerstone of our democracy is sickening.

Where are the always-vocal guardians of the First Amendment? Where is the American Civil Liberties Union? Where is the American Society of Newspaper Editors? Where, for that matter, is Harvard's Nieman Foundation? They have publicly supported the higher profile case of The New York Times's Judith Miller and Time magazine's Matt Cooper, who have been ordered to reveal the sources of their reporting on the contentious Valerie Plame case. But I found not a word about Ciarelli -- a Harvard undergraduate and a beat reporter for the Harvard Crimson -- on the Nieman Watchdog website.

Maybe it's time for the Niemans to stop playing footsie with the butchers of Beijing and start standing up to the control freaks of Cupertino. The Ciarelli case "really hasn't come to our attention in any significant way at all," Nieman curator Robert Giles says.

It gets worse. Read the whole thing.

The Greater Divide

Here's a thought experiment. Suppose, like Megan McCardle (among others), you think that Newsweek should have distrusted the Koran-in-the-toilet story, because it's hard to flush a book. But you'd like to know if your instincts are correct. So, in a CSI-style experiment, you buy a Koran, tear out some pages (my assumption, though not Megan's, is a two-step desecration), flush them down your own toilet, and see what happens. There are no Muslims present, you don't plan to advertise your actions, and your intentions are purely scientific. How many Americans would think this behavior is outrageous?

My guess is almost none. After all, nobody got hurt. While many Americans believe it's wrong to shock and humiliate Muslim prisoners by violating their religious taboos, very, very few Americans--mostly Muslims, of course--would themselves be horrified by the mere idea of flushing a Koran. And that, I think, is the real bias of the Newsweek report. American reporters, whether secular or religious, simply don't feel instinctive rage at the idea of Koran desecration and, hence, don't expect such reports to generate riots. Diversifying reporting staffs to include more red state types couldn't change that bias. By Western standards, it is, after all, completely idiotic--not to mention highly immoral--to kill people over the treatment of an inanimate object, however disrepectful the symbolism. The American idea of a "culture war" is an entirely verbal debate over whether it should be constitutional to impose a small fine on someone who burns the American flag or whether art like Piss Christ should get federal subsidies. We don't actually believe in killing people over these things. And, of course, few Americans, least of all religious Americans, think the Koran is terribly special.

With its Western biases, Newsweek thought it was writing about allegations of prisoner abuse, a human rights issue. Its overseas audience had a different reading. The differences between us and them really are bigger than the differences between us and us.

Daniel Okrent on Journalistic Outsourcing

In his parting column, NYT public editor Daniel Okrent had this to say about people like me:

7. If you've been noticing more and more unfamiliar bylines in the paper, it's no accident. Additional sections, the demands of The Times's Web site and its television operation, and generalized economic pressures have spread finite staff resources across the requirements of a much wider mission, and have increased the paper's dependence on freelance writers.

Now, I've got nothing against freelance writers; I've been one myself, and tomorrow morning I'll become one again. It's a respectable way to make a living (even if a fiscally preposterous one). Though Times freelancers agree to abide by the paper's ethical rules and professional standards, there's no way someone who's working for The Times today, some other publication tomorrow and yet another on Tuesday can possibly absorb and live by The Times's complex code as fully as staff members. Unrevealed conflicts, violations of Times-specific reporting rules and a variety of other problems have repeatedly found their way to my office over the past 18 months.

The economic pressures on all newspapers are real, of course, and no modern newspaper can thrive unless it commits resources to new forms of distribution. I'm sure The Times devotes a larger share of its revenue to reporting than any other paper in the nation. But the price of stretching a staff too thin, and of patching the weak spots with day labor, could be much, much more expensive.

Damn straight I don't "live by The Times's complex code," since I have my own personal integrity--and brand--to worry about. I do, of course, abide by the provisions of my contract. Those provisions are not identical to those by which staffers are governed; if they were, I would have to quit, since I subsidize my writing with speaking. But Okrent is right about one thing: The Times does get my labor, and the labor of its other freelancers, dirt cheap (with no raises!). We also generally pay our own expenses. The upside is that we get to be independent thinkers and don't drown in a giant, semi-functional bureaucracy.

Likely Explanations

If I told a hard-nosed journalist that I saw a blimp hovering slightly west of downtown Dallas on Friday night, that journalist might be a little skeptical. Sure, the Mavericks were playing the Suns, but you can't see through the roof of American Airlines Center. Why send a blimp? A careful reporter wouldn't take my word for it. He'd check it out.

But, assuming he knew me to be a reliable source in the past, he wouldn't be completely negligent simply to take my word for it and report that a blimp was in the Dallas sky, or at least that some people had seen one. And the story would in fact be true. There was indeed a blimp over American Airlines Center on Friday night, as the game telecast confirmed.

But suppose I told the same journalist that I saw a flying saucer from outer space hovering in the same place. A mainstream reporter won't believe me at all. Unless he heard the same thing from a lot of other people, he probably wouldn't even look into the story and debunk my tale with the blimp explanation. He'd just think I was delusional.

Much--though by no means all--journalistic bias lies in reporters' assessments of what's likely to be true. Those assessments are based in part on experience with sources and in part on how the reporter understands the world. What do you believe about political motivations? What do you believe about the way the economy works? What do you believe about the likely behavior of U.S. soldiers in combat, or of business executives, or of the clergy, or of Republicans, or of Jews? What do you believe about human nature in general? About political institutions? About the corrupting influence of money? About the power of ideology? About the relative importance of genetics versus culture, nature versus nurture? About the prevalence or sustainability of discrimination? About the influence of violence on TV? About the effectiveness of conspiracies?

Journalists make such judgment calls all the time. So, in fact, does everyone. We can't make sense of the world, or evaluate new information, without some mental model of how things work.That's why audiences gravitate toward media that share their worldviews, and it's why journalists can be fair or accurate, but we can never be unbiased unless we treat every source, and every claim, as equally credible. Like most mainstream American reporters, I'm reluctant to believe in UFOs, apparitions of the Virgin Mary, Jewish plots, or a radio transmitter in George Bush's jacket. Call me biased, but these widely believed phenomena simply don't comport with either my life experience or with my mental model of how the world works.

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