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Should I Stand or Should I Kneel?

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Are the NFL players who kneeled in protest at the National Anthem to be reviled, or were they being courageous?

Did they insult our nation, or is their freedom to action what our flag stands for?

Were the protesting players disrespectful or patriotic?

These questions vexed the nation in recent days. People argued and took sides. Tempers sometimes flared. Angry posts or tweets were exchanged. And somewhere in a Russian troll farm cyber warriors were smiling.

This National Anthem flap is a perfect example of how we are being manipulated by higher powers in the media sphere every day. Some of the bad actors are foreign, such as the Russia operatives at the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, with its army of automated bots, who took to Twitter once again to polarize our public discourse over the NFL protest flap.

The truth is that Russia has been doing this type of thing for years; Using social media platforms on the internet to post extreme and inflammatory messages on opposite sides of every issue. This is just one of Russia’s many methods to sow discord and to splinter our national unity. Their goal: Polarize our politics, widen our political fault lines, pit us against one another and make America ungovernable. Russia is targeting other democracies this way in Europe as well.

But Russia isn’t the only player fomenting disunity and despair. They may even be minor players next to some of our own “stateless” oligarchs who benefit from governmental paralysis at every level. These billionaires don’t want to pay any taxes, support the public commons or be told what they can and can’t do. They are among a oligarchs from around the world who control more wealth and power than most countries. They see self-governing entities as obstacles to be overcome in pursuit of wealth, or as competition in their exercise of power, and some have been messing with our politics and social perceptions for years.

To borrow from a prior article:

… there is strong evidence that the rogue interests of certain Western billionaires and Russian oligarchs have converged. Breaking down the economic barriers that keep wealth and power in check under civilian controlled democracies, and the goal of undermining the strength and unity of Western democracies (strengthening Vladimir Putin’s global influence) are essential aligned.

This is the bigger picture. It is a picture so large it’s hard to take in and even harder to accept as true. Yet here we are, confronted by a clear case where a foreign power used Twitter to influence the personal conversations we are having with each other.

Mainstream media also has its part to play in this NFL protest story and countless others like it. It is the “for-profit” news outlets that select what we will be talking about tomorrow. NFL players protesting during the National Anthem is a real money topic. It attracts a much wider audience compared to another story about race relations. It’s important to remember here that we are the commodity the broadcast media delivers to advertisers. What they choose not to cover, we don’t talk much about. A simple internet search for “NFL protests” proves this point. Lost in the hoopla about the flag is any discussion of why there is a protest.

So what was the protest about?:

1. Police in this country kill too many civilians.

2. If your skin is black, you are twice as likely to be one of those killed.

NFL players were trying to bring attention to these issues, one superimposed on the other. On average, police kill about two people per day. For perspective, in all of Great Britain police kill about two people per year. If the rate of police homicides were that low in the US there wouldn’t be enough of them to reveal any sort of pattern. But a pattern does exist, and African-Americans are too often the victims.

These same racial patterns come up time and again in the American justice system because we have a pervasive and persistent problem with race. Whether we are looking at statistics about arrests, convictions, incarcerations, police stops, etc., the same pattern is superimposed on the data. Racial disparity, by far, is the more stubborn of the two problems listed above. We do need to address it. The other part of the problem, the high number of police killings, is a more solvable problem. We can all agree that the fewer number of civilians killed the better. That might mean better police training, better vetting of applicants and changes in police tactics or philosophy.

But here’s the thing. When we try to have that discussion, the social media platforms light up with extreme, emotionally charged messaging that polarizes our public discourse. Conversations quickly become adversarial. Efforts to separate one issue from another to make problem solving easier are sabotaged. Fake news stories begin popping up to further cloud the issues and crazy websites emerge to sustain the divisions thus created. These are often organized disinformation campaigns to reinforce political disunity. They can be so successful that we sometimes can’t even agree on the same set of facts. We get locked into an ideological battle and don’t how we got there. We can’t see the nefarious forces at work behind the scenes.

To understand how this is happening we have to consider the massive social media platforms though which we can broadly and anonymously communicate with millions of strangers. Never before have we had a cyber presence where everything we write or reveal about ourselves exists forever and is available to anyone. The whole internet is a gigantic, ever growing database that can be searched and analyzed. It’s a mercurial universe of ones and zeros. Yet, to an ever greater degree, our world view is molded by our social media experiences. Even as we become more enmeshed in the cyber world, this new medium is increasing falling under the influence of powerful people with weaponized information technologies and the motivation to alter our perceptions, our behavior and our culture. Our vulnerability to manipulation by bad actors has never been greater.

We need to educate ourselves about this new virtual world in which we find ourselves. We have lost control over our public discourse and need to win it back. We have to learn how to recognize when we are be targeted with propaganda messaging and how to resist falling victim to it. We mustn’t let our authentic narratives become hijacked by those who would alter our perceptions to serve their own ends? If democracy is to survive, if America is to survive, we have to overcome our differences and fight back against those who want to see our people’s Republic fail.

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Professional and Citizen Journalism in the Age of Fake News

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

With all the talk of “fake news” in the news lately, people are starting to look around for guidance on how to judge news worthiness. Some folks are all to happy to supply it, which has led to some homegrown efforts to make sense of news bias and the wildly tossed around accusation of “fake news”.  Below is a graphic that recently turned up on the internet to classify news, and quasi-news outlets.

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This graphic, which attempts to depict the quality and bias of news media outlets, appeared on Facebook. It may look interesting, but it is really misleading on many levels. The creator of this work is unknown That is enough to dismiss all credibility.  Furthermore,  nothing is known about what criteria the graph maker used or how vigorously those criteria were applied?

The very premise behind this depiction is flawed as well. The editorial leanings of a news outlet is an independent variable. It isn’t directly related to journalistic accuracy. Accuracy is a less subjective measure than political leanings. It is also objectively measurable, unlike the idea of quality, as the term is used on the Y axis. It would be a mistake to assume, for example, that the Wall Street Journal has biased or poor quality reporting just because it has a conservative editorial board. Some conservative bias is evident in its editorials and also in what it covers or considers newsworthy. But the choice of content is a bias that is present in every news outlet. In fact, the choice and treatment of content are the leading criteria for judging a news site as conservative or liberal. This bias, however, does not render the content false or inaccurate. Any two witnesses of any event will give different accounts. This doesn’t mean they are lying or making it up. It is only when obviously important facts or events are intentionally ignored, as in a news blackout, that the omission becomes an egregious bias error.

There are also sites included above, like The Daily Kos, that aren’t strictly news sites. It has a very left-leaning following for sure. Some of the writing on this site comes from professional journalists, or freelance professionals, but a lot of often accurate reporting comes from non-professional journalists as well. Hybrid information websites like The Daily Kos blur the line between professional journalism and citizen journalism. This blurring of the line between the professional and citizen journalist is happening more broadly as well. Amanda Harper’s article, Citizen Journalism vs. Professional Journalism, is a good primer on this topic.

Why does it matter if a journalist is a professional or not?

The theoretical distinction is sharp, even if the practical distinction is sometime blurry.  A profession, any profession, is characterized as a field of employment requiring specialized skills where members abide by a common set of standards and moral principles that are monitored and enforced by peer review and peer pressure. To be a profession there must be an organizational structure to review , refine, promulgate and enforce standards among its members. Being a member of a profession is a broader obligation than being an employee of any particular business or agency. Professionals are obligated to push back against employers or clients who would compromise their professional principles or standards.

So even, if I, as a blogger, hold myself to the same high standards as professional journalists, I am still not a professional journalist. I am not subject to the same journalistic peer review and enforcement procedures.  I am not under editorial supervision and I am not under a news agency’s employment. I am merely a citizen journalist. I am on my own.

So is it OK to call myself a citizen journalist? I think so, providing I am aware that there are serious caveats. The question brings up a very tricky point worth exploring.  Do “civilian journalists” have the same constitutional protections as other working journalists? Specifically, are bloggers protected by their states shield law?

Shield laws allow the public press limited ability to protect the anonymity of its sources. This protection is a constitutional interpretation of what a “free press” implies. Some form of shield law exists in every state with the exception of Wyoming. If there was not respect for the confidentiality of their sources, journalists could be reduced to law enforcement snitches. That would severely hamper their ability to gather the news. In fact, without this protection the press could not serve as a check on government power. It is because of this freedom that the press is sometimes referred to as the fourth estate. Regardless of how you feel about the press, their ability to protect their sources is really the last barricade between the us and government tyranny.

While the courts may show some deference to citizen journalists on a case by case bases, as a class they do not have the same constitutional standing. Specifically, there are currently no shield law to protect a blogger’s sources in the United States.  This is partly because they cannot be held to the same high standards as professional journalist who work in a peers group within a recognized news outlet. The editorial supervision and peer milieu help to challenge and reinforce professional standards.

While I may hold myself to the same high standard as professional journalist, you have no reason to believe me. I am not subject to the same peer review and peer pressures.  And governments, have some reasons to draw a bright line between professional journalists and current events bloggers. It would cause chaos if every person engaged in shady dealings could simply start a blog and claim journalistic privileges as a way to thwart law enforcement. That said, all of us have significant constitutional protections of free speech, free association and unreasonable searches and seizures. So if I respectfully videotape police publicly arresting someone on the street, for example, I can’t be forced to stop videotaping to to destroy the recording.

On the other hand, if you are a whistle blower and want to assure anonymity you had better talk to a professional journalists. You might first want to check on the shield laws in your state as well.

Given the changing nature of society, the internet and the press, it may be time to rethink ways to strengthen protections for citizen journalist who increasingly provide invaluable news reporting to the more traditional news organizations.  As financial constraints continue to shrink the size of news bureaus around the country, citizen journalism have become an increasingly important supplement. Who knows? Maybe in the future citizen journalists might be trained and licensed to establish their integrity.  Until then it’s reader beware.

Is Rachael Maddow a News Anchor?

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Here is what a bias news watch organization has to say. I’ve added my comments. What’s yours? Please feel free to comment here.

Over the past several years, MSNBC has run a series of “Lean Forward” ads promoting its various liberal hosts’ television shows as well as the network’s numerous liberal causes. While many of them have been downright ridiculous…
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I think of her more as a news commentator, or news synthesizer, who occasionally breaks important stories that are ignored by the mainstream news media. She and her producers report conventional news items, but they also search the internet for local news stories that should be of national interest, stories that are too often ignored. They do their fact checking and they develop their own news gathering contributions to these stories. They serve as both a filter and amplifier. The choice of stories they pursue does reveals a liberal bias which they take pains not to hide. But most importantly, they almost always get their facts right. They don’t make stuff up to fit a biased political narrative as happens on the Fox News network
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But if you criticize Dr. Maddow for not being a serious news anchor, than what must we say about the utterly silly and insignificant news that serious “news anchors” toss out to their fickle public every day? Doesn’t this low information drivel make them illegitimate news anchors as well?

I no longer watch the “legitimate” news shows because these outlets are not providing me with the critical information I need every day to understand what’s really happening in our world. Too often they report as news the bias statements of people in power. They fail to connect the dots when local stories form national patterns. This latter problem is what allowed ALEC to fly so long under the radar of the main stream press,

Corporate national news outlets have their own agenda, and it is usually about market share and advertising dollars, not reporting news that might anger key market segments. If viewer share on the Rachael Maddow Show grew significantly, so would the pressure to conform to standards that would not risk loosing those viewers.