I found this review of Trump and the Media by Nicholas Carr in the LA Review of Books immensely thought-provoking. His focus is on the book’s historical contribution, contextualising the enthusiasm with which social media was greeted in terms of long term concerns about the centralisation of mass media. We can’t understand the ideal of a radically decentralised media without understanding the anxieties provoked by its initial centralisation:

Trump’s twitter stream may be without precedent, but the controversy surrounding social media’s political impact has a history stretching back nearly a century. During the 1930s, the spread of mass media was accompanied by the rise of fascism. To many observers at the time, the former helped explain the latter. By consolidating control over news and other information, radio networks, movie studios, and publishing houses enabled a single voice to address and even command the multitudes. The very structure of mass media seemed to reflect and reinforce the political structure of the authoritarian state.

It is against this backdrop that social scientists began to “imagine a decentralized, multimedia communication network that would encourage the development of a ‘democratic personality,’ providing a bulwark against fascist movements and their charismatic leaders”. Fred Turner traces these initial speculations from their originators, through the 1960s counterculture and the incipient computer industry, before it became an article of faith within present day Silicon Valley:

In the early years of this century, as the internet subsumed traditional media, the ideal became a pillar of Silicon Valley ideology. The founders of companies like Google and Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, promoted their networks as tools for overthrowing mass-media “gatekeepers” and giving individuals control over the exchange of information. They promised, as Turner writes, that social media would “allow us to present our authentic selves to one another” and connect those diverse selves into a more harmonious, pluralistic, and democratic society.

Carr frames Trump and the Media as “orbiting” around “the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy”. These are the terms in which I’ve recently tried to analyse ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’, as solutionist framings by technological, media and political elites which circumscribe a much broader set of transformations and shape likely responses to them. It’s often struck me that these represent a peculiarly populist form of reasoning in their own right: isolating an incoming element which is seen to undermine a previously stable system, whether this is ‘populism’ or ‘social media’ itself. In the process, the claims of populists and social media firms are taken at face value, vastly inflating the power they have:

One contentious question is whether social media in general and Twitter in particular actually changed the outcome of the vote. Keith N. Hampton, of Michigan State University, finds “no evidence” that any of the widely acknowledged malignancies of social media, from fake news to filter bubbles, “worked in favor of a particular presidential candidate.” Drawing on exit polls, he shows that most demographic groups voted pretty much the same in 2016 as they had in the Obama-Romney race of 2012. The one group that exhibited a large and possibly decisive shift from the Democratic to the Republican candidate were white voters without college degrees. Yet these voters, surveys reveal, are also the least likely to spend a lot of time online or to be active on social media. It’s unfair to blame Twitter or Facebook for Trump’s victory, Hampton suggests, if the swing voters weren’t on Twitter or Facebook.

This is not to say that social media doesn’t exercise influence, only to dispute the assumption that it works through one-to-many communication. The media elites bemoaning the rise of fake news and filter bubbles in the dawning post-truth age are themselves complicit in the dynamic they see as being ‘out there’:

What Hampton overlooks are the indirect effects of social media, particularly its influence on press coverage and public attention. As the University of Oxford’s Josh Cowls and Ralph Schroeder write, Trump’s Twitter account may have been monitored by only a small portion of the public, but it was followed, religiously, by journalists, pundits, and policymakers. The novelty and frequent abrasiveness of the tweets — they broke all the rules of decorum for presidential campaigns — mesmerized the chattering class throughout the primaries and the general election campaign, fueling a frenzy of retweets, replies, and hashtags. Social media’s biggest echo chamber turned out to be the traditional media elite.

What this short review suggested to me is the necessity of revisiting basic concepts (such as centralisation, gatekeepers, publics and influence) in response to the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy. We need a bleak social theory for bleak times and if it doesn’t begin by examining the assumptions inherited in core concepts, as well as their implications for making sense of the present conjuncture, it is unlikely to get very far.

In his recently released book Collusion, Luke Harding briefly discusses the media cooperation taking place behind the scenes, as media organisations grappled with a rapidly changing landscape. On loc 898 he writes:

At the Guardian we were pursuing leads from both sides of the Atlantic. Among them, how UK spy agencies had first picked up suspicious interactions between the Russians and the Trump campaign and the role played by Deutsche Bank, Trump’s principal lender. We made an investigative pod—Harding, Hopkins, Borger, and Stephanie Kirchgaessner, a talented former Washington correspondent, now based in Rome. We built up a portfolio of sources. There was healthy competition still, but reporters on different titles began working together on some stories. There were formal press consortiums and ad hoc conversations between one-time rivals. I talked to the New York Times, the Post, the Financial Times in London, Reuters, Mother Jones, the Daily Beast, CNN, and others. Such conversations took place in New York, Washington, London, Munich, and Sarajevo. Some happened in glossy conference rooms, others in the corners of pubs over warm ale. Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the New York Times, argued that the “gravity of the matter” called for a change in the press’s behaviour. Trump meant a new era. And new post-tribal thinking. Abramson wrote: “Reputable news organizations that have committed resources to original reporting on the Russia story should not compete with one another, they should co-operate and pool information.”

This has been one of many such collaborations. The most prominent have been the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers but others have taken place without receiving such prominent coverage. I’d like to understand the process by which (potential) competitors become (actual) collaborators and how this is enacted through day-to-day processes of collaboration. Does anyone know of first-person accounts of working on these projects?

The formation of the International Consortium of Investigate Journalists has been a central part of this process, with media partners and supporters from around the world. This is how they describe their organisational mission:

The need for such an organization has never been greater. Globalization and development have placed extraordinary pressures on human societies, posing unprecedented threats from polluting industries, transnational crime networks, rogue states, and the actions of powerful figures in business and government.

The news media, hobbled by short attention spans and lack of resources, are even less of a match for those who would harm the public interest. Broadcast networks and major newspapers have closed foreign bureaus, cut travel budgets, and disbanded investigative teams. We are losing our eyes and ears around the world precisely when we need them most.

Our aim is to bring journalists from different countries together in teams – eliminating rivalry and promoting collaboration. Together, we aim to be the world’s best cross-border investigative team.

Their work relies on a complex ecosystem of organisations, teams, media partners, co-researchers and supporters, including possibly unexpected elements such as analytical support from Palantir. They have published their methodology and workflow for one of their investigations, providing a fascinating level of transparency. Is this a worthy project which sits at the periphery of journalism? Or can we see in it the lineament of what journalism will look like in the future?

Special Issue: Electronic Journal of Communication
Journalism in The Age of Partisan Politics, Political Protests, and President Trump

The current news environment is saturated with political tension and divisive issues.   Legacy news media and contemporary news outlets race to publish compelling content as they struggle to maintain their audiences.   Political leaks have become a staple of modern news. Journalists have found themselves covering ideologically charged protests involving immigration reform, Black Lives Matter, the KKK, environmental issues, and Civil War statues, while at the same time finding their authority and credibility challenged by persistent accusations of ethical violations, bias, and corruption.
Meanwhile, social media sites provide an avenue for the public to present their own coverage and commentary related to all of these issues. Indeed, President Trump has turned toward social media as a way of presenting his own perspective on daily events.  Further, online media and traditional news providers  compete with the rumors, conspiracies, and “fake” news that permeates information space.  Increasingly, social media readers fail to distinguish fabricated news from authentic news.
This special issue will focus on journalism during this time of social upheaval and political partisanship. All theoretical and methodological perspectives are welcome.

Possible topics for papers might include, but are not limited to:

*   ethical coverage of politics
*   journalistic credibility/ audience trust in the current political climate
*   political cartoonists’ response to political protests
*   The challenges of “fake news” to legacy and online news sources
*   The relationship between journalists and politicians
*   The role of political leaks in news coverage
*   Journalistic safety while covering political protests
*   Citizen journalists’ use of social media to share political content
*   The use of social media as a newsgathering tool
*   Audience perception of news coverage
*   The role of objectivity/fairness in political coverage
*   The significance of political experts as news sources
*   The role of the news pundit in political coverage
*   The value of political news and information

Deadline: Submit manuscripts through EJC’s online submission system at http://ejcojs.cios.org<http://ejcojs.cios.org/> by January 15, 2018 for consideration. Please be sure to submit to the journal section entitled:   Special Issue: Journalism in The Age of Partisan Politics, Political Protests, and President Trump.

Format: Papers should be prepared in APA 6th Ed. Style. Remove all author-identifying information from the main manuscript for blind review. Manuscripts should be single spaced with tables/figures inserted where they belong; double-space between headings, subheadings, and adjacent sections; avoid breaking tables across pages. Please send manuscripts in .doc, .docx, or .rtf formats (not html).

Questions: Please address any questions to the Special Issue Editor,  Jenn Burleson Mackay, Va Tech,  email: jemackay@vt.edu.  The call can also be found at:  http://www.cios.org/www/ejc/calls/mackay.htm

Practitioners of social philosophy regard what they do as valuable, imbuing it with a sense of importance which is reflected in the often scholastic way in which readers cite and engage with such work. How seriously should we take this judgement? Does social philosophy have intrinsic worth? Or could it be considered a peculiar form of speculative journalism?

Reading a recent book by Matt Taibbi led me to reflect on this question for the first time in a while. After enjoying his account of the Trump election campaign, I’ve been working my way through his previous books. In The Divide he explores how rampant income inequality in America has reshaped the criminal justice system, creating a two-tier system which complicates traditional notions of equality before the rule of law. From pg 207:

In other words, there’s a new class of people whose goal is to become above citizenship. Live in America, conduct your trades in the weaker regulatory arena in London, pay your taxes in Antigua or the Isle of Man. Keep the rights but offshore the responsibilities. The flip side is that there is a growing subset of people, like undocumented immigrants, who live below the level of full citizenship. If the first group is stateless by choice, these people are involuntarily stateless and have virtually no rights at all.

What struck me about this argument was how easily I could imagine it being advanced by someone like Zygmunt Bauman. The terminology would be different, the tone would be different and the context would be different. But the argument Taibbi develops in this book is one which converges with the thesis Bauman developed in books like Globalisation and Wasted Lives. In fact I’m pretty sure I could restate the core argument of Taibbi’s book in persuasively Bauman-esque language.

This is a period of Bauman’s work I really like, something I observe to make clear that this isn’t just another dismissal of the Liquid Modernity cottage industry. But reading Taibbi’s entertaining and informative book, I was left reflecting on whether social philosophy of this sort has intrinsic value over-and-above journalism of the kind Taibbi engages in. What does the abstraction actually contribute? We can easily delude ourselves into thinking that abstraction inevitably brings us closer to the truth beyond appearances, the way things really are. But it can also simply obfuscate, rendering partial judgements with an unclear empirical basis as authoritative statements about epochal change.

This isn’t an argument against social philosophy. It’s an attack on the implicit hierarchies expressed in how we compare it to other ways of telling about society. There’s much we can learn from exploratory investigative journalism that leads to social critique. But doing this requires we have the confidence to laugh in the face of those who might accuse of us of seeking to become “a mere journalist”:

In many academic circles today anyone who tries to write in a widely intelligible way is liable to be condemned as a ‘mere literary man’ or, worse still, ‘a mere journalist.’ Perhaps you have already learned that these phrases, as commonly used, only indicate the spurious inference: superficial because readable. The academic man in America is trying to carry on a serious intellectual life in a context that often seems quite set against it. His prestige must make up for many of the dominant values he has sacrificed by choosing an academic career. His claims for prestige readily become tied to his self-image as a ‘scientist’. To be called a ‘mere journalist’ makes him feel undignified and shallow. It is this situation, I think, that is often at the bottom of the elaborate vocabulary and involved manner of speaking and writing. It is less difficult to learn this manner than not. It has become a convention – those who do not use it are subject to moral disapproval. It may be that it is the result of an academic closing of ranks on the part of the mediocre, who understandably wish to exclude those who win the attention of intelligent people, academic and otherwise.

C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Pg 218

An interesting insight from This Town, by Mark Leibovich, pg 278-279. It would presumably be near impossible for a website like Politico to maintain its level of output without resorting to processes like this:

Sure enough, a few days later, Politico’s founding editor, John Harris, went on a new enterprise called “Politico TV” and revealed that that is exactly how the “stupid” story came about. “A lot of people’s stories generate from people’s rants,” Harris explained. “Alex Burns wrote up one of my rants.” Burns made some phone calls to prove—or “explore”—his boss’s premise that voters were stupid. Lo and behold, the premise came back rock solid.

From This Town, by Mark Leibovich, pg 116. They’re talking about the journalist who runs the Playbook gossip column but I think the discussion of him as an exemplar of a new journalistic type is very interesting:

If such qualities can coexist, Mikey can be perceived as both a decent and solid friend, and also an exemplar of the D.C. operator. He is always touting Playbook, cultivating his brand as the city’s ultimate “entrepreneurial journalist,” another one of those fashionable news business terms. “The most successful journalists have their own unique brand and circle of friends,” VandeHei, Politico’s executive editor, said. “This is the Facebook-ization of politics and D.C. The more friends or acquaintances you have, the more time you spend interacting with them via e-mail and I.M., the more information you get, move, and market.” VandeHei’s conceit equates Allen’s circle of friends to a commodity—exactly the kind of mutual back-scratching undercurrent that gives “friendship” in Washington its quotation marks. “Playbook is D.C.’ s Facebook,” VandeHei concluded. “And Mike’s the most popular friend.”

This is just weird. I can only assume that the EastLovesWest company hires underpaid freelancers to produce content for their blog, who have in turn typed keywords into Google and written an article without ever clicking on any of the links:

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It seems likely to me that this will become a more common occurrence with time. It happens in a less pronounced way in journalism, as stressed journos increasingly look to newly identifiable academics to provide quotes in advance of impending deadlines. My sense is that on such occasions, there’s very little substance to the engagement, there’s just a hole in an article which the journalist hopes an academic will fill. But the growth of content factories and vast ranks of freelance writers, with little to no commitment to professional standards, risks that academics who engage online will have what they say drawn upon in a manner up to and including complete fabrication.

A few years ago I wrote a short article about the relationship between academic blogging and journalism which received a pretty positive reaction online. My suggestion was that academic blogging increasingly constitutes a ‘third space’ between the academy and journalism which facilitates translation between the two institutional spheres. It becomes easier for journalists to find relevant academics when their research is expressed in a few blog posts as well as articles in scholarly journals. However might we increasingly see academics become journalists? Not necessarily in the sense of individual career transitions (though this does happen) but rather in a blurring of the two activities that has important consequences for those working at the intersection.

Part of me likes this: I want critical social scientists* to ‘occupy debate’ in a way that gets social scientific ideas out of the academy. However in a way it’s also rather sinister if we look at the broader transformations underway within both spheres. Is there a risk that junior academics, keen to differentiate themselves and demonstrate a capacity for impact as they strive to move beyond precarious contracts, come to be seen as a reserve army of well-educated quasi-journalists who may write badly but will work for free?

*Maybe even ones who aren’t critical, at least if they write reasonably well.