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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

News of the World and the News of the World


Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed. -Pauline Jiles, News of the World
 This isn't going to mean anything to you, but the last three posts you've read I wrote in one day, just banging them out one after another no sweat. It was truly a fine era of Howie's Book Club. One that will be remembered by historians as the Time He Wrote A Month's Worth of Posts in One Day. I haven't gone back to read them to assess their quality, but I'm sure they are of at least the quality you have come to expect when not clicking on the link. I have since watched that head start dwindle as every time I have some free blog writing time I stare at this blank page and then eventually close it because I don't know what to say.

This is a big shame because News of the World is just a phenomenal book. Often, as maybe you noticed while reading my 2017 best-of posts, it's often not the great books that get the posts that I end up liking the most. That bums me out, because the really good books should get the most attention. But here we are. I read a book, I need to write a post, and I've already deleted a dozen paragraphs that went nowhere and I'm thinking about deleting two more. Because lo, these have also gone nowhere.

You know what else is going nowhere? America, am I right? Ringling Brothers Circus is closing because they can't get any clowns anymore because all the clowns have gotten jobs in Congress. Somewhere in (blank state wherever the current president is from) a village is missing an idiot. Etcetera. Politics have never been this divided, everyone says, but what they usually mean is that they didn't pay as much attention when they were kids because G.I. Joes were so cool. Now that they care, of course it's uglier than ever before.

There's probably some truth to that, at least according to the Washington Post there is, but also the news depends on this division. There's a lot of hand-wringing about why Republicans and Democrats hate each other by the same organizations that depend on it. If you're my age, you probably spent large chunks of your summer vacation watching infomercials. The general rule of thumb is that if you have a need and can afford it, you go to the store and buy a thing that fills that need. I know I need a broom, so I go and buy a broom. If you want to sell a product that fills no need, you have to first create that need. This leads to some of the greatest comedy gold of an era.

I'm not saying this is some concoction of the media, but there's a point here worth considering. According to the Pew Research Center's State of the News 2016 report, traditional news is in trouble.
In 2015, the newspaper sector had perhaps the worst year since the recession and its immediate aftermath. Average weekday newspaper circulation, print and digital combined, fell another 7% in 2015, the greatest decline since 2010. While digital circulation crept up slightly (2% for weekday), it accounts for only 22% of total circulation. And any digital subscription gains or traffic increases have still not translated into game-changing revenue solutions. In 2015, total advertising revenue among publicly traded companies declined nearly 8%, including losses not just in print, but digital as well.
This probably checks out with your own experience, especially if you are around my age or younger. If you're under 50, you probably get half of your news from an online source. If you're reading this you're almost certainly saying, "duh," but I want to put numbers out there. I don't want to talk about what it "feels like" is happening, that's how you get idiots telling you unfounded nonsense about why millennials are bad because of participation trophies. So here are some numbers:

Big deal, we say. Print journalism has always been subsidized by ad revenue, so instead of print ads, just put in some digital ads and we're good to go. And that would probably be fine if ad revenue actually went to the news organizations. But in 2015 65% of all online ad revenue went to 5 companies.

So. 30% of all ad revenue associated with news goes to Facebook. I don't think I need to get into the problems with Facebook as your principal news source. Millennials again, right? They've turned their Facebook into an echo chamber. They're stuck in their special snowflake safe space bubble that only tells them the news they want to hear, wait a minute.

But how can it be that the generation that seems the most hell-bent on tearing down the young people who they are forced to share the line at Subway with are actually the ones the most inundated with news that confirms their opinion? This is crazy! But everything I see on Facebook tells me that they're the ones who are wrong and not me. How did this lame blog even appear in my feed? This is definitely not something I will share. My book club will hate this.
So let's review: most news organizations are suffering in print, and are turning their attentions to online. The newest generation of adults get most of their news from their Facebook feed, the company that just happens to receive the majority of the ad revenue that pays reporter's salaries. To compete, you aren't just at odds with the one or two other newspapers in your town, but every news source, real or not, reputable or not, in the entire country. And even some from other countries that pretend to be from our country. This is probably great in a lot of ways. The more news sources the better when it comes to a detailed view of the world. As a kid I never got to read The Atlantic and The New York Times and The National Review during the same bathroom break. But it has its drawbacks.

According to the Associated Press, the top 10 news stories of 2016 all involved deeply partisan issues. Even tragedies such as the Pulse Nightclub shooting or the Charleston church shooting immediately lead to a predictable partisan debate. Each of these stories (and many more), generate thousands of comments. Each time someone comments on a news article, it shows up in their friends' feeds. If they share it with some pithy rejoinder that is hilarious but will probably be unrecognized, some more will see it. Sometimes these comments explode into long arguments, which means that people keep going back to the original post repeatedly. What percentage of these people click on the article in the first place and see the news organization's ads, or are they reacting only to the headline? They certainly don't click on it every time. That means the majority of that revenue is captured by Facebook.

Here's an interesting list of stories that did not go viral in 2016. This list is put together by Project Censored, which looks like something sketchy you'd see advertised at a local anarchist concert but is actually a well-received news watchdog organization that's been around for 40 years. Anyway, look at some of those headlines. Ew, right? These are stories with no clear bad guy. This is icky stuff that has happened under the Obama administration but Republicans are pretty OK with. Secret jails for terrorists? Immigrants dying in jails while we decide what to do with them? Why that sounds like something Democrats would be furious about, but their president was in charge when they happened. But Republicans can't attack because it sounds like something they'd like to keep doing. So what happens to that news? Nothing. It doesn't get shared, because you can't blame the other party.

This article, for example, is just a master's class on good old fashioned investigative journalism.
Wessler’s report was based on more than 9,000 pages of medical records for 103 of the inmates who died in custody since the BOP first opened contract facilities. He fought over two years to obtain these files, using FOIA requests and ultimately a federal lawsuit to compel the BOP to release the records. 
The Nation convened a panel of twenty-three independent reviewers, including seventeen medical doctors and six psychiatrists, to review the files. In twenty-five cases, multiple reviewers found evidence of inadequate care that likely contributed to an inmate’s premature death. By contrast, in just thirty-nine cases did the reviewers find that care had likely been in accordance with recognized medical standards.
Imagine the costs of writing something like that. 23 reviewers, a full-time reporter's time over multiple years, and did you hear about it? Probably not. I hadn't. We can't get in a good argument over it because there isn't an easy stance. On the one hand Democrats are the ones who like immigrants. On the other, President Obama has deported more illegal immigrants than any other president in US History. Republicans love private prisons and Democrats hate them, but darnit if the article doesn't remind us that Bill Clinton's cost cuts to reduce federal government in the 90's led to the privatization of prisons. Seriously, read the article. Everybody's hands are dirty.

The relentless churn of news cycles that last minutes rather than hours, the one that gets us fighting over whatever Donald Trump just tweeted, or the viral blog post about why Star Wars is actually bad because of girls, is turning a blind eye to human beings quietly dying due to inadequate health care in immigrant-only private prisons. "I can't write a think piece about this," says the collective community of people who are angry about what Beyonce just did or didn't do. And we all move on.

This isn't another diatribe about media bias. I don't think there's a bias in general news reporting beyond financial incentives. The main reason everyone got into the news is because they think reporting is important. Beat reporters aren't getting rich, but they do like having a job. The corporations that they work for like to pay their bills, so they pay attention to what kind of reporting does well. Political articles do well. They don't have to be an outright report about what a candidate or office-holder is doing. Anything with a strong political stance will do. Whatever gets the folks fighting on Facebook is what I imagine an executive saying in a board meeting somewhere.

Did the media cause this division or are they simply fanning the flames? Just like the attempt to cast blame on the immigrant prison issue, I think it's some of both. Whatever it is, it's not new.

In News of the World, retired Civil War Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd has created a little cottage industry for himself. He gathers newspapers in large cities, then travels to the small towns in the West. There he rents a hall and reads the news to the locals for a nickel apiece. The Civil War has just ended, but partisan hatred still burns. Captain Kidd, a veteran, stays away from the partisan papers and avoids controversial stories. Unlike Facebook, he's stuck in the same room with his audience, and prefers not to bend his 70-year-old frame to pick nickels off the ground after a hall-cleaning brawl, though he does that once or twice.

He sticks instead to stories of far-off countries, stories that read more like fairy tales than reality. He used to have a more altruistic goal, but time and experience has taught him otherwise.
If people had true knowledge of the world perhaps they would not take up arms and so perhaps he could be an aggregator of information from distant places and then the world would be a more peaceful place. He had been perfectly serious. That illusion had lasted from age forty-nine to age sixty-five. And then he had come to think that what people needed, at bottom, was not only information but tales of the remote, the mysterious, dressed up as hard information. And he, like a runner, immobile in his smeared printing apron bringing it to them. Then the listeners would for a small space of time drift away into a healing place like curative waters.
His vagabond lifestyle is interrupted, however, when a friend engages his services. A young girl, kidnapped at the age of four by Kiowa Native Americans, has been found and needs to be taken to her relatives. The girl's name is Johanna. She's ten now, and doesn't remember anything of her previous life. In spite of her blond hair and blue eyes, she's Kiowa. Knowing his recently freed black friend could never make the journey through tumultuous Texas, Kidd agrees to take her on the 400-mile journey with the wild girl.
Torn from her parents, adopted by a strange culture, given new parents, then sold for a few blankets and some old silverware, now sent to stranger after stranger, crushed into peculiar clothing, surrounded by people of an unknown language and an unknown culture, only ten years old, and now she could not even eat her food without having to use outlandish instruments.
Their adventure is exciting and funny. Johanna's wildness and disregard of social norms serves as a great foil to point out the silliness of modern culture of the time and Kidd's old-man annoyance with the day-to-day squabbles of Americans never gets old. Their relationship is sweet and lovely and I just ended up loving them both. Johanna is adorable and brave and Kidd is tough and grumpy.

The deeper Kidd gets into Texas, the more political rifts make his job difficult. His readings turn in to shouting matches as the fight over Texan government rages. Scared of the raids by both white bandits and native, resentful of the federal troops that flooded the state to ensure that freed slaves stayed that way, and generally ornery because they were Texans. These folks don't want the news Kidd provides. They want they news they like to hear.

It's hard to think of a time when the country was more divided than this freshly reunited Union, the echoes of a war that still resonate today. Right now a third of conservatives and a quarter of liberals say they would be unhappy if their son or daughter married a member of the other party. Imagine if your brothers had fought on different sides of the same war. In reconstruction Texas, families were run out of town and new visitors were threatened at gunpoint to divulge their allegiances.

The frustrating thing is that post-election, when everything supposedly changed, nothing has. The same arguments happen in the comments of every politically charged debate. Any critique of Trump is followed by an equally impassioned listing of Hillary Clinton's flaws. The Bernie fan pipes in with his assertion that somehow the nation would have forgotten what Socialism means long enough to vote for him, and so on. This is the same fight over and over again. We're not even fighting about new stuff. Guys, that fight is over. This fantasy world in which you wake up and your candidate won actually won't happen any more than the fantasy world in which Derek Carr didn't get hurt and The Raiders are going to the Super Bowl will.

We've got new fights to fight, and obsessing about shaming your friends who voted for whomever is past. The problem I think we're all having is that we're trying to move through the stages of grief, but every day we read an article that triggers the whole dang thing again. It's possible that the acceptance stage, the one that includes "A new plan in place," actually means that we do something different. Like Johanna navigating the multitude of rules and social norms from the viewpoint of a society that disdains all of them, it might be worth looking with fresh eyes at what we consider the only way.