Friday, March 14, 2014

Vox Media and "understanding the news": Is this like "connecting the dots" or "keeping them honest" or even my own "do ask, do tell"?

I remember that in eleventh grade history class, the teacher, himself a Korean war veteran, made a point of giving pop quizzes on current events.   We were expected to have glanced at the newspapers that morning before coming to class. 

That all comes to mind in reading Ezra Klein’s comment recently that the re-invented Vox Media site would focus on “understanding the news”.  He gave some analogies to eating your vegetables (which can be cooked badly), and mentioned there was a like time in history class when the felt that news stories were supposed to make him feel stupid. 
I can’t tell yet from the site how it is going to look in its final form (it rather resembles the look of Google-Plus right now) but the phrase “understanding the news” sounds a bit like Anderson Cooper’s “Keeping them honest”, or Homeland Security’s “Connect the Dots”, or my own “Do Ask, Do Tell”. 

I sounds a bit condescending to say this, but people tend to interpret “news” in relation to how it might affect them directly and immediately.  Partisan interests organize fundraising around this experience.  This all comes from the day that knowledge was handed down with social and political authority, a process that even my own father had believed, but which started to change after World War II, even in the 1950s, before McCarthyism had blown over and the Civil Rights Movement began to take more form. In other parts of the world, the “propaganda” model still applies.  Just listen to Vladimir Putin (or please don’t!)

I think my original impetus to write my first “Do Ask, Do Tell” book illustrates the idea.  I felt motivated by the particularly pointed way the debate on lifting the ban on gays in the military had taken shape in 1993, and how President Clinton had been so unaware of the now obvious arguments that would be thrown against it – because these arguments were so personal and untidy.  They concerned “privacy” in situations of forced intimacy.  Just under the surface, but not honestly stated by politicians, was the idea that physical closeness (and not just propinquity) can be demanded of young men by the practical needs of defending the community.  This quickly linked back to the irony of my own life:  I had been thrown out of a civilian college for admitting homosexuality in 1961 over very similar concerns in dorm life, and yet had later dealt with the military draft – which had been repealed but which could come back again some day.  The privacy argument was generalized (rather like relativity) an expanded to consider “unit cohesion”, and idea that social conservatives today post in terms of shared goals and eusociality – and eventually “the natural family”.
Issues are indeed linked the way lives were connected across time in the movie “Cloud Atlas”.  The policy debates on eldercare (including Medicare and Social Security and even the debt ceiling) relate to an aging population, and lower birthrates in certain peoples.  The birthrate issue (“demographic winter”) is in turn an irony:  richer populations don’t replace themselves, where as poor people have “too many children”, inevitably leading to enormous political and social tensions. Eldercare and birthrate questions also invoke the existence of state filial responsibility laws, which the media has rarely reported (except in May of 2012, when a bizarre case in Pennsylvania turned up).  But if filial piety could really be enforced, that would have a profound effect on the way we see marriage and parental responsibility, turning the debate on gay marriage upside down (although we saw some tortured arguments along these lines ten years ago when Massachusetts outlawed its own ban in gay marriage, paying a way). 

On Internet censorship and freedom, the most critical concept still seems to be protecting service providers from downstream liabilities of various kinds (as we see with Section 230, DMCA Safe Harbor, and the problems with Protect-IP and SOPA).  The downstream liability protection allows self-broadcast, a boon for me, but that raises a question as to whether people should be able to exert asymmetric effects on policy with the long-lived speech without actually having more responsibility for others than I do.  Self-broadcast has given way to a more modern view of social media, where content distribution is supposed to be whitelisted, but the effect it still that of broadcast.  Moreover, social media has made the old idea of a “double life” impossible.

I could pose another question: "Who should bring the news?" I set myself up to do so, starting with my first DADT book in 1997, setting up the websites to support the content, and finding that my content connected to everything else.  I took myself out of ever peddling anybody else's specific message for pay for ever; no longer could anyone else "give me the words."  That has consequences, for livelihood and even longevity.   More on this later.  

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