Light in the Digital Age: Media Panel

I joined a media panel September 24 at Tattered Cover in downtown Denver. There were a few sparks. I sat right next to fellow panelist Greg Moore, which was a great position to heap abuse on the Denver Post (which Moore edits). One guy treated the question period as his personal monologue time and finally was asked to leave with security.

Yet the panelists also shared much common ground, and the discussion was interesting. Here I recount much of it. (Due to the fact that I sat on the panel, I was unable to capture any photographs or video of the event.)

The event was sponsored by the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition and moderated Thomas Kelley. The other panelists were Wendy Norris, founding editor of the Colorado Independent; Dominic Graziano, editor of the campus Metropolitan; and Adrienne Russell, a professor at the University of Denver.

The title of the event was ominous: “Darkness in the Digital Age: Has the Advent of Citizen Journalism, the Blogosphere, and the Demise of Newspapers Made Us Less Well-Informed?” When Kelley asked us for our comments beforehand, I send back a note, “I do not see ‘darkness’ in the digital age, but more light. The average person can much more easily obtain quality news and views than ever before in human history.”

In case you’re wondering how I came to sit on a panel with the likes of Greg Moore, here’s what Kelley said in his introduction: “Finally we have Ari Armstrong, a writer of several prolific and eloquent blogs, some say veering toward the right. I find him to be thoughtful.” This elicited a chuckle. So I was the token conservative (even though, as I later noted, I’m not really a conservative). At any rate I was delighted to be invited, and Kelley ran an informative and well-attended event.

Prior to the event, Kelley sent out some questions to set the tone for the evening:

1. What will become of the newspaper business model in the next five to ten years? Is there any hope for advertising as a means of supporting original reporting? Is public or non-profit subsidization the answer?

2. Is what we see on the internet from sources other than mainstream media really journalism? Are we entering a “post-journalism” era? If the industry of independent reporting is dying, where are the bloggers and the cable commentators going to get their content?

3. What do we need to keep the public service component (by that I mean digging out information on all subjects of public interest and reporting it according to a code of ethics that requires disinterest) of the newspaper business alive?

4. What is the cultural effect of a post-journalism era? Are we becoming more partisan, less broadly educated, and more exposed to un-debunked bogus information?

By luck of the draw, I spoke first. Following are my (slightly redacted) comments. In a follow-up post I’ll continue with the comments of other panelists.

One of the questions that was asked of us in e-mail prior to the event had to do with what’s going to happen now — it’s kind of a “woe is us” scenario — what’s happening now that many newspapers are going out of business. I think the title is “Darkness in the Digital Age.” … To me, I see a lot of lightness in the digital age. So that’s kind of the theme that I want to focus on.

To me, there’s been no better time, ever, to be a consumer of journalism. Today I read articles from the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Denver Post, Denver Daily, Westword, Colorado Independent, and I could probably name a dozen others if I’d kept track of that during the day.

At the click of a button you can read the best quality journalism in the world, which you simply couldn’t do before [the interent]. I remember years ago, stringing a telephone line to my computer, and that was pre-internet. So now we have more opportunity than ever as consumers of news.

But then of course there’s the problem of if you’re a professional journalist. I guess we’re shipping some more of ours off to Canada these days, from the old [Rocky Mountain News] positions. So there are definitely some transitional problems here.

I’m sure other people here know more about the industry. But I just wanted to mention a few examples of how other publications are solving these problems.

So the Wall Street Journal has in fact gone to paid, online subscriptions, and then they make their editorial content available for free.

The weeklies, Westword and Boulder Weekly, seem to be doing pretty well with a combination of online ads and print ads. But they have less printing costs, obviously. And the Westword has cut back, obviously, too.

Other things like NPR, Face the State on the right, Progress Now on the left (which does some journalism), operate by philanthropy. And this is great. So I tend to be free-market oriented, but to me voluntary charity, philanthropy, is a perfectly legitimate part of the free market.

I just looked up the Christian Science Monitor. They’re going from a print publication to a strictly online publication. But they do have a subsciption-based weekly publication, and they also will charge you for a “Daily News Briefing” for $5.75 per month. So I don’t know if that’s going to work for them, but there are certainly people who are trying to find the balance between philanthropy, online advertising, print advertising [and subscriptions].

I’m going to jump now to one of these points that was mentioned prior to us coming on, which is: What’s going to happen if the flow of journalism stops going from established newspapers to bloggers? I want to say that that whole premise is basically false.

There’s not a one-way flow of information. There’s a two-way flow of information. Now it’s true that a lot of bloggers tend to focus on commentary, which means they’re integrating news facts that they’re reading around them, such as Mike Littwin might do at the Denver Post or the editorial staff might do. So it’s a similar function.

But that’s not the only function. Just like Mike Littwin might do original journalism, original investigative work, so bloggers might do the same thing. And often the journalism flow is coming back to the newspapers. So I’m just going to give a few examples here.

Last year, Katy Human of the Denver Post wrote an article about health insurance, and about the effects of children and health insurance, and the effects of not having any. And she mentioned these studies that prove her point. Well, the studies sounded a little bit fishy to me, so I sent her an e-mail and said, hey, why don’t you send me what the list of your studies is. And she hemmed and hawed, and finally I sent an e-mail to David Kopel and Jason Salzman, because at the time they were the media critics at the [Rocky Mountain News], and finally she was persuaded to hand over her studies.

But then David Kopel wrote up a follow up for the Rocky, pointing out that none of the studies supported her point.

So this is an example I thought of bloggers and people on the editorial side sending feedback to the journalism side of the news.

I’ll just give one more example. The Denver Post published an op-ed by a guy named T. R. Reid (again on the health policy issue, since that’s what’s hot). [Read my critique.] And he completely misstated international comparisons on waiting times for elective surgeries. Now I know this because I looked it up. I did the research, I looked at the original sources, and I found the real stats. He simply misstated them. And he also omitted stats on emergency visits and specialists. Unfortunately, the Denver Post chose not to run my letter correcting that piece. But nevertheless the flow of journalism goes both ways.

I wanted to quickly run through a few examples of some real journalism being done by bloggers. And I also contribute to a group of vaguely right-wing, conservative bloggers called the People’s Press Collective. So I want to mention several examples.

If you want to hear what people are saying at some of these rallies — the tax rallies, Tea Party rallies — there’s really no other place to look, if you want extended interviews with the actual participants, than my web page. [Listen to interviews from 4/15, 7/4, 7/28, 8/6, and 9/12.] Because I got my video camera, interviewed them extensively, and had a lot of them published online. The Denver Post maybe quoted one or two people in very short snippets (and that’s just the nature of the medium). So that’s one example of positive journalism.

When an economists named Thomas Woods came to Colorado to speak about his new book on economics, I looked up some of his older articles in which he blasted abolitionists and was praising antebellum culture. So I thought that was a little odd. I thought that was worth looking up as a journalistic enterprise.

Earlier this year, in response to a CNN report, I conducted my own “Low-Carb Food Stamp Diet.” Now this was more proactive, obviously — I was part of the story. But I thought it was a fun way to illustrate some of the facts surrounding the story.

In 2007, I solicited and published a letter from Mark Udall about the separation of church and state, which I thought was a pivotal issue in that election.

So you heard about the vandalism at the Denver Democratic Headquarters. Thankfully Denver police caught the [alleged] perpetrator, the name of Schwenkler. One of my friends, Michael Sandoval, did some searching online and found that this character had been paid by a left-wing organization to do Democratic campaign work. So this was an important break in a big story.

I’ll just give one more. A guy named Todd Shepherd, who actually works for the Independence Institute, recently found that Jared Polis, the congressman up in the Boulder area, was investing in medical tourism, meaning companies that specialize in taking people to other countries to get medical treatment. Which I thought was an interesting detail given the current national debates.

My main point here is that journalism works both ways. Independents and bloggers can feed back journalism to newspapers, and they can do their own original investigative reporting. And this is a great thing. So, while it stinks if you were an employee of the Rocky Mountain News (and I don’t know if the Post is looking at any layoffs, hopefully not), in the world of independent writing and blogging, there’s been an explosion of great content.

Fake Scandal de Jour

Talk about ridiculous. The Denver Post’s crack reporter Tim Hoover reports:

Sen. Shawn Mitchell said he was just poking fun at Democrats, not race, when he directed a comment today at Senate President Peter Groff and Sen. Ken Gordon that some lawmakers found insensitive.

Mitchell, a Broomfield Republican who is white, was speaking on a medical malpractice law bill sponsored by Groff, a Denver Democrat and the Senate’s first black president.

Groff and Majority Leader Ken Gordon, who is white, were standing near the podium as Mitchell argued in opposition to the bill. At one point, Mitchell mistakenly addressed Gordon as Groff, prompting him to correct himself and say to Groff, “Excuse me, Mr. President. You all look alike to me.” … Groff said that Mitchell had come and apologized to him. “I didn’t take offense when I heard it (the remark),” said Groff…

Hoover mentions ColoradoPols.com, which had this to say about the incident:

Mitchell Statement to Groff Draws Questions
by: Colorado Pols
Thu Feb 28, 2008 at 11:04:41 AM MST

We’re hearing about an exchange in the Colorado Senate this morning that culminated in supposedly racially charged words from Republican Sen. Shawn Mitchell to Senate President Peter Groff, as in, “you all look the same to me.”
Numerous people have confirmed that this exchange took place, but as the first comment below indicates, this could have been said/heard in a different context than it was intended.

Here’s the audio clip of the remark–we think Mitchell was genuinely trying to make a joke, though perhaps one in poor taste. He appears to have confused Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon (happens to be white) with Senate President Peter Groff (happens to be black), and the “joke” was made while correcting himself. Some people who were there seem to think that it was not so innocent, but we’ll let you decide for yourself.

And here is Mitchell’s reply:

What Really Happened
Hey Pols, Shawn Mitchell here. You’re being misled by someone with an agenda. Here’s what happened. During a debate on medical malpractice insurance, I mistakenly attributed a comment by Peter Groff instead to Ken Gordon. Each of them started in instantly with the jokes, along the lines of “I’m taller” or “I’m better looking.” Since one is tall, young, and black, and the other is short, middle-aged plus, and white, I made a quick jab at absurd humor and said, “Well they all look alike to me,” referring to Democratic leadership. In case your informant is unaware, Groff is Senate President and Gordon is Majority Leader. So, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but you can chill the scandal siren.

Here are pictures of Senators Groff and Gordon, taken from their official web pages:

Quite obviously, Mitchell’s comment was not remotely racist. I do not think that his comment had any racial element whatsoever.

But let’s say, hypothetically, that Mitchell’s comment had some distant connection to the racist comment that people of Heritage X “all look alike.” Then the force of Mitchell’s comment would be to make fun of that racist comment. It’s not racist to make fun of racists.

Have any of Mitchell’s critics seen Sarah Silverman’s film, “Jesus is Magic?” This film is filled — absolutely filled — with overtly racist comments. Except that Silverman is obviously making fun of those comments by exaggerating them to the point of absurdity. How many left-wingers have condemned Silverman for this movie? Come on — how many? The answer, to my knowledge, is zero. Instead, this film vaulted Silverman’s career. Variety calls it “Explosively funny, unnervingly shocking and perversely adorable!”

I submit that anyone who blasts Mitchell for his comment, but who does not condemn Silverman a thousand fold, is a hypocrite (and an idiot to boot).

‘Studies Have Shown’

In a February 10 article for The Denver Post, Katy Human wrote, “Children with health insurance, studies have shown, are less likely than uninsured kids to end up in emergency rooms, more likely to get key vaccinations and less likely to be absent from school.”

The article promoted tax-funded health programs and included not a word from critics, but I was first interested in Human’s claim about the studies. Which studies did she have in mind? I asked Human via e-mail, “Is the lack of insurance causing the problems mentioned, or is the lack of insurance itself a symptom of having poorer and less educated parents (on average)?”

Human responded on February 12:

Oh, I know you know the answer to this, Ari. There are many many many studies on this — and all, of course, control for factors such as income and education of parents. There are also studies showing before-and-after for same kids and same families, once the families make a change (adding or dropping insurance.)

But what Human did not do is provide me with a single citation regarding these “many many studies.” I suppose that at least some of the studies that she had in mind do contain the sorts of controls that she mentioned. However, I wanted to look for myself, not take Human’s word on faith. Moreover, not only did I want to see for myself whether the statistical controls are adequate, but I wanted to learn what is the magnitude of difference. How much difference is there between the insured and uninsured?

I asked Human on February 12 and again on February 13 for her citations. I was hardly being overly demanding in my request; I wrote, “You mentioned that there are many such studies; citations for the two or three that you find most persuasive would suffice.” This would have taken only a minute or two of Human’s time, as obviously she is already familiar with the studies in question.

I have yet to hear back from her.

I suggest that The Denver Post adopt the following policy. If reporters, for lack of space, mention but do not specify studies or other sources, the reporters should be required to provide the names of those studies or sources to interested readers. Otherwise, readers have no way to verify the reliability of the studies or sources.

February 21 Update: In response to this post, Human send me a list of citations:

Here you go. I won’t be doing this for you again – you can do it yourself, and I don’t have time to repeat these types of searches for everyone who asks.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15121980?ordinalpos=1&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_RVAbstractPlusDrugs1

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18219242?ordinalpos=2&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18045482?ordinalpos=10&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17805222?ordinalpos=9&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum

ADULTS: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18096863?ordinalpos=5&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum

I replied, “Thanks! However, you are incorrect that I can correctly guess the studies that you have in mind on my own.” After all, I am not a mind reader. Moreover, I do not regard my request as an imposition, given that Human already knew which studies she had in mind. I could have spent hours trying to guess the studies to which Human was referring and still not guessed correctly, while it took Human perhaps a minute or two to send me the links.

If Human does not wish to respond to readers about her citations, then she is free to include them briefly within her articles. In this case, all of the links point to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Including that information would have added seven words to Human’s article, including the worlds “by” and “the.” Even that brief citation would have pointed readers in the right direction.

I will evaluate the studies within the next couple of days and then discuss the political implications of them. February 22 Update: I’ve started to work on this, but it will take me some days to write up the results, which I may release with a co-author and perhaps first through another outlet.

Harsanyi Moves to Editorial

I don’t know whether David Harsanyi is happy about the move or not, but I hope it works to his advantage. The Denver Post announced today that Harsanyi, who has been writing columns for the paper’s news section, will join the editorial team. The article announces:

… David Harsanyi… will move to the Post’s op-ed pages. …

Harsanyi, who joined The Post’s staff in May 2004, in part to provide some ideological balance to [former columnist Diane] Carman and then-columnist Jim Spencer, has done his job well, Moore said. Often offering a libertarian “live and let live” take on the policies and practices emanating from city hall and the statehouse, he also has roamed the city for interesting tales of regular folks rubbing up against unforgiving bureaucracies or just plain silliness, Moore said.

His new book, “Nanny State,” is a critique of efforts by local, state and federal governments to regulate numerous aspects of our lives.

I am a bit worried about the phrase, “op-ed pages.” Does that mean that Harsanyi will have no input in the paper’s editorials? Whether or not he helps decide and write the content of editorials, will he write frequent articles under his own name? If the purpose of the move is to balance out the Post’s often-shrill left-wing politics, then that’s great. But I hope the point is not to limit Harsanyi’s voice on the paper.

Meanwhile, William Porter will write a column for the news side. He promises, “I plan to write slice-of-life columns about Denver and the state. No screeds. No term papers. Stories.” In other words, he plans to write non-ideological soap-opera-style stories. That’s great — that means that I can safely ignore yet another section of the paper. But we’ll see if his columns in fact become ideological pitches that pretend not to be.