Profanity and Politics

You may have missed the 72nd Annual Tony Awards broadcast last week…actually, based on ratings you almost certainly missed it…but even so you may have heard that movie star Robert De Niro dropped the f-bomb in a political statement directed at President Trump. Networks censors were ready and bleeped the offending word, as required by the FCC, but viewers at home still got the message.

While LA and New York are known for liberal politics, it still came as a bit of a surprise when De Niro’s condemnation of President Trump was followed by a standing ovation. The famous Michelle Obama dictum, “when they go low, we go high” was nowhere to be seen.

This is not the first time that awards programs have drawn attention for outrageous or profane statements. U2’s Bono, Cher, Nichole Richie, and others have uttered “fleeting expletives” on awards shows in the past.

Profane political speech comes with a special challenge . According to Frank Bruni, opinion writer for the New York Times,

When you answer name-calling with name-calling and tantrums with tantrums, you’re not resisting him. You’re mirroring him. You’re not diminishing him. You’re demeaning yourselves.

The stunt by De Niro reminds me of a similar statement made by the editorial staff of the CSU student newspaper, The Rocky Mountain Collegian, back in 2007. After publishing a very brief editorial very similar in tone to De Niro’s statement, reactions from the community and alumni led to the student newspaper being moved off-campus where it is now published by the independent 501(c)3 non-profit Rocky Mountain Student Media Corporation.

The paper’s editor-in-chief J. David McSwane said in response to the controversy, “While the editorial board feels strongly with regard to first amendment issues, we have found the unintended consequences of such a bold statement to be extremely disheartening.”

Many would agree that the tone of political debate has indeed become “extremely disheartening” on many levels.

First Person [School] Shooter Videogames

First person shooter (FPS)  video games have been around for quite a few years. Even if you haven’t played them, you’ve probably heard about Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake, Call of Duty, and Halo. While the idea of putting a virtual gun in the hands of young, impressionable gamers creates angst for parents and other adults, the fact that little Johnny is killing Nazis, monsters or aliens softens some of the objections.

FPS games played in more natural settings, e.g. inner cities, elevated concerns once again and games like GTA: San Andreas led to protests and calls for greater restrictions on content and labeling.

But it took a Colorado resident who created a video game based on the Columbine High School shooting to really fire things up. Danny Ladonne made Super Columbine Massacre RPG in 2005 and a documentary about his experience a few years later.

In 2011 another video game based on Columbine was released as a modification for Half-Life 2 and received equally harsh criticism. School Shooter: North American Tour 2012 was cited in the Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. The 7-2 opinion established protection for video games under the First Amendment.

Most recently, a new release slated for June 6 is renewing the controversy around FPS video games in school settings. Active Shooter is designed to give players the option of the role of S.W.A.T. team or shooter. According to a news report,

Steam said in a statement on its site that the game does not promote any sort of violence, especially any sort of a mass shooting, referring back to the phrase dynamic SWAT simulator.

However, in light of recent and strong criticism the game maker is considering removing the option to take the role as shooter.

If you believe that FPS games set in high schools is a bad idea, sign the petition at Change.org

Fake News and Press Freedom

In an attempt to preempt President Trump’s announced “fake news” awards, the Committee to Protect Journalists has released its own list of world leaders who have done the most to undermine press freedom.

According to the CPJ website,

The Committee to Protect Journalists is an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide. We defend the right of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal.

The Press Oppressor Award website identifies world leaders who have done the most to censor the press and weaken democratic ideals. Presidents of Turkey, China, Russia and Egypt are exposed for their chilling rhetoric and harmful policies.

One indicator of the global crack-down on press freedom is the record-high number of journalists who are serving time in prison…oftentimes simply for doing their jobs.

But what is unusual is the criticism leveled at a U.S. President. Other U.S. Presidents have been criticized by the CPJ for lack of transparency (Obama) or for not moving quickly enough to denounce attacks on global media (G. W. Bush), but never before has a U.S. President been singled out and recognized for the “Overall Achievement in Undermining Global Press Freedom” award. But then there has never been a U.S. President who has gone after the press quite like Donald Trump.

 

 

Televised Sports and Politics


I’m sure you’ve seen and heard the noise in recent weeks around the topic of politics and sports. From ESPN sportscaster Jemele Hill’s critique of President Trump to the #TakeAKnee protest this past Sunday, sports and politics appear to be on a collision course. LeBron James and Steph Curry have traded tweets with President Trump regarding the Warrior’s invite to the Whitehouse.

I don’t know about you, but my social media feed is overflowing with opinions as NFL players responded today to President Trump’s comments a few days ago calling out players who have protested racism during the playing of the National Anthem.

Thankfully this is a media blog and not a political blog…so I’ll do my best to limit my comments to the issues related to the mass media industries and free speech and expression protected by the First Amendment.

Televised sports has largely been a place where fans have gone to escape politically charged issues. With a highly integrated roster, pro sports teams have actually been able to avoid much of the racially divisive issues that have troubled other sectors of society. There have been notable exceptions of course: the Black Power protest at the 1968 Olympic games, Muhammad Ali’s protest of the Vietnam War, and others.

Even though we have been experiencing a highly polarized political climate of late, TV programmers (with the exception of Sunday morning political talk shows, cable news networks, and late night comics) typically avoid political debates. When advertising revenue is your bottom line, political issues are dangerous because they risk alienating large segments of viewers who turn on their TVs to be entertained, not excoriated.

To be clear, professional athletes, like all Americans, have a First Amendment right to express their political concerns. But the First Amendment does not apply to non-governmental entities. So while the government can do nothing to penalize these protests and protestors, team owners can legally enact policies that restrict players’ rights to express themselves while representing the team. That’s how MLB owners can restrict visible tattoos that contain brands, the NBA can fine Kobe Bryant for an anti-gay slur, and any team can discipline a player for his/her private use of social media. In an interesting twist, college athletes playing for a state-school are legally much more protected for their personal use of social media since the university is an agent of the state which is an extension of government. (see more here)

P.S. No matter what you’re political opinions, you might have strong feelings about the Unsportsmanlike Conduct penalty against Von Miller in Sunday’s game against the Bills! 🙂

 

Hacking, Leaking, and Weaponized Data

The press, and by that term I mean the media industries devoted to journalistic enterprise, love a good leak. Inside information not intended for public consumption that suddenly appears in a package tied with a pretty bow is a gift of great value and consequence.

Leakers come in every form imaginable, and do so for a wide variety of reasons: true whistleblowers looking out for some greater good, disgruntled employees who don’t like what they see happening behind closed doors, an injured party to a dastardly deed, or hackers looking to profit from rich corporations (e.g., the hack of HBO and threat to leak spoilers for upcoming episodes of Game of Thrones)…all find reasons to go the the press with their inside scoop.

It strikes at every level of nearly every organization or power structure. It is one of the power levelers—a way for those near the bottom to inflict damage on those near the top. Presidents, CEOs, celebrities, and clergy…all are susceptible to a well-timed leak.

Sometimes the leaker is passing along information that they came by honestly, and other times it may involve a breach of security protocol or even illegal hacking.

Recent leaks have been widely reported, including: the DNC emails hacked (or were they?) and released to Wikileaks last year, transcripts of President Trump’s phone calls to heads of state, Jared Kushner’s off-the-record meeting with congressional interns (see Wired magazine), FBI director Comey’s anonymous leak to the press,  and the leak of an internal memo at Google that ignited a firestorm of controversy over sex discrimination in the tech industry (see more here and here). The last example also raised questions about when and where it is safe to speak out when speaking out may be controversial and politically incorrect.

In all of these cases the leakers were only part of the equation. The leakers need the assistance of a willing journalist and a willing publisher to distribute the information to the public. Journalistic history is filled with stories about investigative reports that broke because of leakers; perhaps the most infamous being Deep Throat of Watergate fame. But these symbiotic relationships are risky when the motives of leakers are unclear. Leakers may be seeking revenge, or may even leak information in an attempt to promote their own agenda. Sometimes those in positions of power use leaks through intermediaries in order to advance their own version of events. Without corroborating evidence, a leak is simply a rumor…or worse.

The legality of leaking to the press is complicated. Prosecution of illegal leaks that compromise national security is rare but does happen, e.g. Chelsey Manning’s conviction and sentence, which was later pardoned by President Obama. But more often than not the leaker and the news organization escape punishment. This inclination to protect journalists, and their sources, is part of our First Amendment tradition.

For more information about leaks and the media, see this page at the Newseum and listen to this podcast at On The Media.

Free Speech for All in a Fact-Free Era?

Overheard in a newsroom: “What is journalism even supposed to be now? We reported the facts, but they didn’t matter.” In case you didn’t hear, “post-truth” is Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016. Here’s how they define it on their website. post-truth

The challenge for journalists, and really anyone who get to the bottom of things, is sorting out fact from fiction, reporting from commentary, and bias from perspective.

The problem with the newsroom quote above is that too many “journalists” DIDN’T report the facts. Or when they did, they didn’t put the facts in proper context. Added to that is that reality that nearly anyone can become a de facto journalist thanks to the wonders of modern digital media and social networks. Given a place to stand and a megaphone, the most strident voices have suddenly found themselves with the ability to sway opinions…even, perhaps, influence elections.

If it seems that this blog is stuck on this topic (see recent posts about fake news and fact-checking), you’re right. But this is important…and if we don’t get this right we’ll have to live with the consequences. What consequences you say? Well, for starters how about a future where ideological conflicts spill over into the streets…where discourse and discussion give way to hate-filled rhetoric designed to alienate and subjugate the opposition?

Unfortunately some of the proposed solutions may turn out to be worse than the problem. Giving social media platforms a reason and permission to edit users’ posts is a dangerous and slippery slope. Do we really want Mark Zuckerberg’s algorithm and a team of editors deciding between fact and fiction, bias and perspective? We’ve already witnessed the failure of that approach earlier this year.

Recently Twitter booted accounts from those connected to the alt-right movement for “harassment and ‘hateful conduct,’ which includes “non-consensual slurs, epithets, racist and sexist tropes” and “behavior that incites fear about a protected group.”  This led the editors at Slate to ask if Facebook or Twitter might possibly ban President Trump. Twitter responded that it wouldn’t rule it out. As Slate said, “That’s a tough line from a company that once declared itself the ‘free speech wing of the free speech party.’” (BTW, the click-bait headline for this post might have been: “Twitter considers banning President Trump!”)

So where are we now? Some of the ejected Twitter users have moved to a new platform that promises greater freedom of speech. Gab.ai is, according to the New York Times, the far right’s “new digital safe space.” It’s much too early to tell if Gab has any legs, but if it does it will likely do little to advance dialog and understanding between those contending for the future of our country. Amanda Hess of the NYTimes sums it up nicely, “It’s the next logical step after all the blocking and muting on Twitter and filtering and unfollowing on Facebook split America into two social media realities. Where there once was a bubble, now there’s a wall.”

The Sky is FALLING…And You Won’t Believe Who’s Responsible!

misleading-fake-news-sitesThere’s been a lot of discussion lately about the potential danger of fake news. Apparently we’re a lot more gullible and susceptible to misinformation than anyone imagined, and IT IS KILLING DEMOCRACY! Okay, that conclusion may be overstating it a bit, but the number of media and political analysts who are wringing their hands over the outcome of the recent election seems to be growing. And seeking an explanation (or scapegoat), some are pointing the finger at fake news.

The proliferation of satire, fake news, clickbait, propaganda, and commentary masquerading as news is undeniable. While there have always been people with an agenda spreading lies and hearsay, the dynamics have changed in recent years. Social media platforms provide opportunities to people who, before social media, had to work a lot harder to gain an audience. For those familiar with Ryan Holiday’s “trading up the chain” approach to media manipulation, this should come as no surprise.

There have been quite a few excellent summaries of the issue. Some have questioned whether media platforms like Google and Facebook bear responsibility (here, here, and here); others have reported on specific case studies (here, and here), and efforts to combat (or at least categorize) the growing number of questionable sites (here). A new report from Stanford suggests that we have a lot of work to do while MediaShift proposes a role for journalism programs.

I have a few suggestions of my own.

  1. In a world where anyone can be a source of news, what we need is for everyone to behave like a journalist when confronted with new information. Remember the motto of skeptical journalists everywhere: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out!” We need more skepticism and less single-source research.
  2. For those of you who prefer social media for your news…because it’s free, quick, and often fun…remember that you get what you pay for. Unless you read in-depth from multiple and diverse sources you can’t consider yourself an informed consumer of news.
  3. Learn about confirmation bias and make a commitment to discovering your own vulnerability. Until we take a long, hard look in the mirror we have no right to point out the bias in others.
  4. And finally, don’t share anything on social media unless you’re willing to vouch for its accuracy and authenticity. That rule alone will do wonders to improve the overall news IQ of our democracy.

Not Safe for Advertising?

We’ve all seen the acronym NSF, which stands for Not Safe for Work. YouTube has generally been pretty careful to ensure that content on its site is devoid of overtly offensive material. But now they’ve gone a step further to protect advertisers who may be squeamish about appearing alongside content that pushes the boundaries. A new policy announced by YouTube allows them to remove certain videos from their monetization program if the contents of the videos is potentially offensive to advertisers.

YouTube producers are pushing back claiming the new policies are too strict and have a chilling effect on their creative output. According to AdAge, “On Wednesday, YouTube video creator Philip DeFranco, with 4.5 million subscribers, said he was put on the no-ad list after he mocked ‘political correctness.'”

According to Google’s guidelines, videos with the intent to “inform or entertain” and more likely to get a pass than those intended to “offend or shock.”

This is nothing new for websites and apps that rely on user-generated content. Again, according to AdAge,

The video site is just the latest to find itself embroiled in a social media battle with voices that oppose “political correctness” or claim free-speech violations over any pushback to their activities on a given platform. Last month, right-wing advocate Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter for allegedly leading a bullying blitz against “SNL” and “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones.

Here’s a link to a somewhat lengthy video (the first 4 min is about this issue, but the rest is pretty informative on related topics) from DeFranco that explains his position. (warning: graphic language)

 

What’s NOT Trending on Facebook?

TrendingWell, for starters there’s less conservative news from conservative sources than one might expect. A recent report by Gizmodo reveals that the Trending feed on Facebook may be less objective than many thought. One might fairly assume that these are organic results based on what is popular and being shared on Facebook…and you would be partly right. But the revelation that has the media world talking is that insiders say that Facebook intentionally directs human curators to leave out conservative news and opinions while injecting other news stories that are not actually trending.

Now, just to be clear, we fully expect traditional news sources to make decisions regarding what is news worthy and which stories to place on the front page. This is standard practice and any debate about the ethics of this practice is only to the extent that the editorial policies of any given news organization are consistent and transparent. The objection here is that Facebook appeared to be suggesting that the Trending stories were simply the result of algorithms analyzing Facebook for popular results. But if that’s not the case, and Facebook is injecting some stories and holding others back, then there is a real problem that deserves a response.

Sure, the news industry has long been viewed as an uneven playing field where liberal voices have had an upper hand. More recently talk radio and Fox News tilted things back towards the other side. The rise of the internet was seen as a solution for the potential threat of big media controlling access to information. But if Facebook (or Apple, Google, Microsoft, or any other new media mega-corporation) is willing to inject their own biases into their products and platforms, the playing field will become a swamp where no one will dare to venture. This idea that platforms ought to be agnostic is at the very core of the argument in favor of Net Neutrality.

Social media is increasingly becoming a source of news. While mainstream news media (broadcast and cable TV, newspapers, and news magazines) struggle to remain relevant, social media has stepped up to offer bite-sized morsels of news for the highly-distracted audience. Facebook, Google, Snap Chat, and others have been competing for the attention of this audience.

The enormity of the power that can be deployed by a company the size of Facebook is staggering. Just a short time ago Facebook was caught manipulating the emotional state of its users by selectively posting content to their wall intended to make them feel certain emotions. An earlier experiment was designed to discover if manipulating a person’s news feed could make them more inclined to vote in an upcoming election. Now, imagine for a moment if that same persuasive power were exerted for one side or the other in an ideological or political contest.

In response to the allegations Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has denied the charges but has offered to meet with conservative leaders. That meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, May 18th and one of the conservative leaders who will meet with Zuckerberg is MCCNM alumnus Dana Perino, former White House Press Secretary.

Freedom of Expression Has Limits

FreedomOfExpressionESPN’s decision to fire baseball commentator Curt Schilling is not an infringement of Schilling’s rights under the First Amendment. Companies have parted ways with high profile employees for all sorts of public statements or deeds that were at odds with the company’s image. A few that come to mind are: Justine Sacco, Sergeant Gary Stein, Paula Deen, Adria Richards (this one is complicated), and don’t forget shock jocks Anthony Cumia and Don Imus. Even when your job is to be outrageous and over-the-line, apparently there is still a line that must not be crossed.

Schilling’s offense (reposting an anti-transgender meme on Facebook) comes at a difficult time in America as social norms are changing at a dramatic pace. Remember that just a few short years ago President Barack Obama and candidate Hillary Clinton were both opposed to same-sex marriage. And now that same-sex marriage is the law of the land, transgender rights have become the next big issue. While people evolve on where they stand on the issue, companies, political figures, celebrities and other entities are making statements about where they stand. In this case ESPN decided to take a stand that put Schilling on the wrong side of the issue.

In countries that do not have an equivalent of the First Amendment, public statements can quickly lead to government action. Just this week German Chancellor Angela Merkel allowed a court to proceed with prosecution of  a German comedian for defaming Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to a report in the Washington Post, similar laws exist in Sweden, Monaco, and Spain…countries not typically thought of as repressive regimes. In some Muslim countries, blasphemy laws allow for punishment up to and including death.

These events raise questions and concerns about just how much freedom of expression exists within certain corporate or political cultures.