Archive for the ‘Media and Politics’ category

Good for Media, Bad for Democracy

January 23, 2010

illustration from the Sacramento Bee

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 this week that corporations and unions can spend enormous amounts of money to influence future political campaigns.

The Court’s majority calls it “free speech” under the First Amendment.

I disagree. The Founding Fathers adopted the First Amendment as a statement of individual freedoms — freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press.

Individuals vote.  Individuals determine the course of our democracy.

Corporations do not vote.  Corporations should not be allowed to use their money in unregulated ways to try to influence and buy votes in a democracy.

The case was Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Five justices on the Court became judicial activists in writing a sweeping opinion that lifts a federal ban on corporate political spending for federal campaigns, rather than issuing a ruling on narrow merits as is the norm.

Now the question is, just how much money will corporations directly pump into political spending?  A Common Cause report using data from the Center for Responsive Politics reveals that corporations spent $6 billion lobbying Congress in the last election cycle. If they put that much into political ads, it would more than double the $3 billion total spent on political and issue advertising in the 2008 congressional and presidential election.

It’s simply wrong to let corporations — which do not have the right to vote — seek to buy elections. The Supreme Court does not give corporations unlimited freedoms in other First Amendment areas. For instance, false advertising by a corporation has no First Amendment protection.

The Court’s decision on corporate political contributions certainly will benefit the media. Billions of dollars more in campaign advertising will now flow into the U.S. communication system. That will provide blessed revenue to media, but at a perilous cost to democracy.


Brian Williams vs. Jon Stewart

July 22, 2009

It’s enjoyable to watch two witty people in a verbal sparring match.

NBC News anchor Brian Williams — the one I watch most evenings — held his own as a guest on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” on Comedy Central.

Williams cited the late Walter Cronkite as the newsman he most looked up to, with the quip below about Jon Stewart’s hero:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Ironically, Time magazine did a tongue-in-cheek poll this week asking the question: “Now that Walter Cronkite has passed on, who is America’s most trusted newscaster?”

Stewart received 44% of the nationwide responses, Williams 29%, ABC’s Charlie Gibson 19% and CBS’s Katie Couric 7%.  In North Carolina (based on 136 votes statewide), the poll was closer — Stewart with 38% and Williams with 29%.

Spoofing the news and news anchors is a natural for comedy. Stewart’s wit, sarcasm and spin are enjoyable to watch as entertainment, and he occasionally generates real news as when he exposed the many errors of CNBC’s scream-master, James Cramer.

I also enjoy watching Stewart because an Elon alum, Rich Blomquist (class of 2000), is a writer on “The Daily Show” and has collected four Emmys.

Of course, when we want real news night after night, Brian Williams and similar news anchors are the ones to watch. As Williams said while on the faux newsroom set of “The Daily Show,” NBC News actually has people working in its newsroom.

Recalling an Anniversary

June 4, 2009

Twenty years ago today, Chinese tanks rumbled through Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, with tanks and soldiers killing hundreds of students and other pro-democracy advocates who had occupied the public square for weeks.

The anniversary brought back memories of when I worked at China Central Television (CCTV) in 1993, on the fourth anniversary of what is called the Tiananmen Square massacre.

My wife and I and our two children had moved to Beijing for a year in my role as a Fulbright Professor at the China School of Journalism. In addition, I periodically worked as an “English polisher” at CCTV when an American friend in that job was traveling. The “polisher” edited copy for the daily English newscast and guided the Chinese anchors on English pronunciations before they went on air.

We also watched the worldwide news feeds as CCTV editors decided which international stories would be part of the English-language newscast. On the evening of June 4, 1993, the leading international story happened to be a massive student protest in Germany. But we didn’t air that story on CCTV that evening. The editor warned that if we aired the German student protest story, his superiors would think he was trying to bring attention to the anniversary of the Tiananmen incident, which was to go unmentioned on CCTV.

It’s an important illustration of the difference between government media and a free press.

The night of the 1989 government crackdown; Chinese photo

Tiananmen Square on the night of the 1989 government crackdown (Chinese photo)

South of the Border

February 1, 2009
photo in public domain

El Angel photo in public domain

The Associated Press bureau in Mexico City overlooks El Ángel — the monument to Mexican independence that is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks.

As a former AP editor stateside, I enjoyed touring the modern AP headquarters that provide coverage of Latin America to the world. Bureau Chief Traci Carl was generous with her time in describing to a small group of us how 16 AP reporters cover Mexico today, with news copy in both English and Spanish.

Mexico certainly needs the intervention of an angel right now. Carl says a common saying in Mexico is that when the United States catches a cold, Mexico gets the flu.

The economies of both nations are sick, and Mexico also faces escalating plagues of drug trade and violence. “Police say they are outgunned,” Carl told us. “Mexico has restrictive gun laws, but guns are being smuggled across the border from the U.S.”

Mexico City was the destination for the winter workshop of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication, which consists of deans and other program leaders. The theme was understanding journalism and communication practices and higher education in Mexico.

Inaugural iMedia

January 25, 2009

When we watch a TV newscast or read a story in The New York Times, we are consuming linear media. Someone organizes 22 minutes of content for the newscast that we watch in the order it has been prescribed, and someone has written a news story that we read starting with the lead sentence.

Interactive media is not linear. It allows a consumer to choose content more freely and to interact with that content in fresh ways.

For example, have you seen CNN’s interactive image from the presidential inauguration where you can move your cursor to see thousands of faces up close? Or the Times photo that gives you the name of an inaugural platform guest as you hover over a face?

These interactive tools give us the ability to interact with media in new ways, and a number of iMedia techniques are on display at the “10,000 WORDS” site.


I particularly enjoy “word clouds” that can be created using Wordle.

The New York Times has created word clouds for every inaugural address (available at the “10,000 WORDS” site). For example, the three most-used key words in George Washington’s first address in 1789 were “government, public, country.” Thomas Jefferson, in 1805, used the word “reason” far more than any President before or since.

Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address emphasized “constitution, law, union” whereas his second inaugural address emphasized “war, God, offense.” You could tell what was on William Howard Taft’s mind in 1909 when his address placed greater emphasis on words such as “business, tariff, railroads.”

In a time of crisis, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inaugural language highlighted “help, discipline, recovery.” Ronald Reagan said “believe, hero, dream” significantly more in his first inaugural address than other presidents. For Bill Clinton, he spoke a lot about the “world, change, renewal.”

George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, in 2005, was unusual in that he never used the words “Iraq, Afghanistan, Sept. 11 or terrorism” and instead cast the crises and wars as a struggle in defense of his most-used word: “freedom.”

So we come to Barack Obama’s inaugural address. His three most-used key words were “nation, America, people” — not unlike many Presidents before him. But the words that he used in much larger proportions than his predecessors included “crisis, hard, endure.”

I spent more than an hour clicking on the faces of Presidents and seeing the language they used to address the American people at their inaugurations. It’s a case of taking something linear — a speech — and making it come alive through interactive media techniques.

Election Dissection

November 3, 2008

Candidates IraqThis is the day before the election.

In recent days, Elon participated in a scientific survey of college students in swing states conducted by CBS News, UWIRE and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The random-sample survey of 1,150 Elon students revealed that about two-thirds support Barack Obama and one-third support John McCain.

Because emotions on both sides have been running high, a campus organization asked about a dozen faculty members and administrators to offer advice on what to do in class the day after the election.

A gentle English professor wrote that her first-year class has the theme of individual responsibility, “so one of the things that we will talk about is how exercising individual responsibility is important but does not always result in the outcome that we want.”

Conversely, a no-nonsense business professor said his class will follow the syllabus as planned, adding, “If people act out, I’ll rein them in. If they’re depressed, I’ll notify counseling.”

Here is my response on the eve of the election:

“If I were teaching the day after Election Day, I would spend the opening minutes in class addressing the importance of a national event such as a presidential election. One way is to engage students in a conversation about media coverage or their own media consumption patterns on election night. For instance, television historically has been ‘our national gathering place’ for events such as 9/11 or presidential elections. Is that still true for today’s students, or were they instead following the election online or through handheld devices while engaged in other activities?

“This approach keeps the conversation on a neutral plane rather than focusing on winners and losers. Virtually every class at the university will contain students on both sides. Those who supported losing candidates most likely will be quiet the day after, and they certainly don’t want to hear gloating from the winning side. That’s the benefit of acknowledging the importance of Election Day in class and looking for a way to talk about it from a learning point of view rather than a political point of view.”

The Palin Protester

October 17, 2008

Elon hosted Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin this week, six months after hosting former President Bill Clinton speaking on Hillary’s behalf during the primary season.

These days, protests accompany campaigns just as the moon follows the sun. During the Palin campaign rally, an Elon sophomore who held an Obama sign and began shouting was arrested for disturbing the peace.

Elon’s student newspaper, The Pendulum, did an excellent job in covering Governor Palin’s speech and related stories (see the video of the student’s protest and subsequent arrest at the bottom of this entry). In the Pendulum story, the student is quoted as saying in his defense: “I think that we have a freedom of speech.”

In that particular context, did he?

Legally, the answer is no.

Elon was a neutral host, permitting the Republican Party to use the baseball field for a ticketed event. Those who secured free tickets were told in advance they could not bring posters into the ballpark.

The First Amendment generally protects free speech in a public setting (limited by time, place and manner restrictions). Free speech rights are stronger on the Mall in Washington than on the baseball field at Elon. Free speech is not a “right” in someone’s private setting, unless expressly granted. In this case, Elon designated a “free speech zone” for those in opposition, and protesters there received substantial news coverage as well.

The student protester, then, had a choice. He could come to the Palin rally without his sign or go to the free speech zone with his sign.

The campus appearance by former President Clinton last spring was not a ticketed event, and no prohibition on signage was announced. I remember seeing opposition signs in the crowd. Even so, if someone had started shouting during Clinton’s speech and did not stop, that person would have been hauled away, too.

We need to think deeply on matters of free speech. A court would ask if a person has ample opportunity for political expression, short of disrupting someone else’s free speech.

Precipitating the scene shown in the video above was an effort to halt the student from holding up an opposition poster at the ticketed event, which can be seen here.