Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Subjective objectivity

Objectivity, many in the business will tell you, is a cornerstone of journalism. Reporters report, they do not analyze. Their mission is to dig up the facts of a story, without analyzing or passing judgment on what those may reveal. Judgment, in theory, is up to the reader.

True objectivity, especially in today's media culture, is an illusion that stands in the way of the media's role as a watchdog acting on the part of the people to root out hypocrisy and hold the right people accountable for injustices that occur in every city on earth every day. Journalists and news organizations seem to adhere to the idea that to be objective is merely to report, not to analyze, the news, leading them to often relay anything the Bush administration spins their way without pointing out the ways in which government spokespeople contradict themselves all the time.

Watch Fox News and you will see a clear conservative Republican bias through the thin smokescreen of its ridiculous motto of "We report. You decide.", or Bill O'Reilly's laughable "No-Spin Zone". It is not a problem that certain stations and their funders have agendas and views that they want to express, but they could at least be honest about it! At least Jon Stewart of The Daily Show is up front about his disapproval of the lies and manipulations of the Bush government.

Subjectivity is OK. Propaganda is not. Subjectivity does not mean covering only one side of an issue, but rather investigating both sides of an issue with the ability to acknowledge which side the evidence favors. Just because there are many sides to a given issue does not mean that each one makes as strong an argument as the others.

An easy example that bothers me concerns global warming and climate change, a hot hot topic (pun intended) that has gotten tons of media attention thanks to Al Gore. The truth of the matter is that scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the idea that human activity is creating pressures on the ecosystem at rates never before seen on the planet. And this is, after all, a question whose answer lies in the realm of science and research, not politics and opinion.

So, as news programs and magazines grab onto the issue of the day, they do so in a way that they hope shows a balanced treatment of the issue, giving equal weight to alarmists and doubters. The end result is a grossly skewed coverage of climate change that treats global-warming skeptics as the other side of the coin, giving unwarranted attention - and, consequently, credibility - to loud, aggressive non-scientists with no expertise and pockets full of oil-company money to produce fancy-looking rebuttals to "An Inconvenient Truth".

Objectivity is rather impossible. Subjectivity is rather unavoidable. The happy medium is for news agencies to report based on a principle of Subjective Objectivity. Objectively presenting the arguments on any side of a contentious or newsworthy issue, while subjectively pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each. The judgment comes in the reader/viewer's determination of how much value to give each of these strengths and weaknesses.

Responsible reporting means taking a stand and having an opinion, to speak on behalf of your audience. Mainstream media have lost it, but I must believe a solution is still out there somewhere.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

What am I and why am I here?

The amazing thing about the evolution of the internet is the blurring of the line between private and public, between individual and society, between access and accessibility. It is an organism that reaches everyone collectively by being constantly available to anyone with a browser, but that reaches everyone personally by interacting with one screen, one pair of eyes at a time.

I am here to take part in the revolution, to help figure out what to do with it in a way that is not just passive and self-serving. If people want to read anything I write, that is great, and if you want to comment and debate, that is even better. I believe that the only way to go about solving our society's problems is to TALK ABOUT IT. To exchange ideas and informed opinions about the things going on around us every day that are making the world worse for our children.

This is a reason why I am a writer, and beginning a program at the Columbia University Journalism school. Even in the completely open-source free internet, there is a need for professional journalism, with fact-checked claims and real sources that go beyond the simple ranting and raving of some active web personalities.

So this blog, this forum, is about politics and the media. Or is it about the media and politics. Each subject is a blog in itself, and the areas in which they interact could fill so many more gigabytes. I am interested in all three, so depending on my mood, I will speak about politics, the news media, and the relationship between the two (starring Karl Rove as master puppeteer).

I think it's interesting, but maybe I am a nerd. If you want to know my thoughts on the more mundane, go to myspace.

Welcome, and bear with me as I try to keep to a schedule of regular posting...

Monday, April 16, 2007

Getting over green

First off, let me say that I believe that the global drive for consumption has led to dangerous conditions for climate change that may end in catastrophe in some uncertain future. Let me say also that I believe that we, both people and governments, can take some major steps to start reducing our negative impact on the planet and possibly avert some of that catastrophe.

As a believer then, I must be happy about the fact that the issue is getting so much press, creating a buzz that will surely lead to serious action finally being taken to be more responsible with the environmental side effects of consumer capitalism. And I am. I am happy to see a “Green Issue” of a newspaper or magazine focusing on the state of the planet, raising awareness everywhere, making the issue positively trendy.

There are two problems, however: the issue is being trivialized and commoditized, and the second evolution of the debate has not yet occurred. By the first point, I mean attaching the word “green” to anything as a marketing strategy. Magazines promoting a special “Green Issue” to show how pioneering they are by publishing a story about a salmon spawning ground that has been dried up just trivializes the whole subject. Green, environmentally-friendly, ideas are fundamentally important to ensure a better future for our children, and must be permanently in the public debate. Making them the subject of a “special issue” implies that one issue of a magazine can present the whole debate, and also suggests that such stories do not belong in the regular circulation. If a magazine really wanted to show how green it was, it would take a month off, saving the thousands of trees that are destroyed to create one installment of a major monthly magazine.

The second point is, I think, the most important: critical analysis of the green movement in all its forms, a necessary precursor to begin expanding on workable solutions to the world’s environmental problems. What these “green issues” have done is brought climate change into the mainstream, generally alerting people to the undeniable fact that there is a problem with the way we treat the Earth. Ok, the ball is rolling. We no longer need to convince everyone of what is happening or praise anything that can be given an environmental spin.

What we need now is to focus the debate on the serious issues, looking critically at the green movement. What green strategies actually work to reduce pollution? What strategies and initiatives really make a difference and which ones are just for image or marketing purposes? We need to answer these questions in order to make sure that the “green” label is not co-opted by any misanthrope looking to cash in on the global trend towards environmentally-friendly production. Because if that is allowed to happen, then all we can expect is stagnation, procrastination, and ultimately failure in addressing the problems that we have already created.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Why do culture shows suck?

Why are culture shows always made up of the same formula of costume, dance, and bright colors that in reality tell you next to nothing about a certain group of people and their role in the world?

Ok, traditional costumes and dances are great and have undeniable cultural value, but they tell us little about a culture beyond the observation that “the colors are so beautiful!” And even as much as traditional costumes and dances are recognizable as elements of a group’s identity, they are an ancient manifestation of that identity, which generally seem to exist only to have something to contribute to the world’s culture shows.

More important and interesting to me, and I hope to others as well, is how a culture’s traditions influence modern life: the identity of its cities, the recurring themes in its theatre and film, the most sensitive political issues in the public debate. These are the things that enable us to better understand each other, our value systems, and the history that has led to a certain national point of view, if such a thing can be said to exist.

I assume that the organizers of most cultural fairs do so to enhance mutual understanding among diverse peoples, strengthening a sense of multiculturalism in a particular place where many cultures may coexist next to each other. My question is simple: how do native costumes and dances work toward this end?

Why not design a culture show that looks not at the “traditional” definitions of cultural identity, but rather how those traditional influences shape the culture as it exists today? Show how modern designers incorporate ancient patterns and color schemes into their clothes; flesh out the recurring street voices in a certain culture’s form of rap music; study what the nation’s most prolific and popular bloggers are writing about, or what issues push people to public protest.

Answers to these topics will really promote mutual cultural understanding among peoples, and tying tradition with modernity will provide examples of how people today are keeping the fundamental elements of their cultural identities alive and well. After all, the trick is to maintain one’s identity in the super-connected, globalized world where English dominates and trends have no borders.

Diversity and multiculturalism will always be important, but to preserve them we must move beyond the dancing in bright colors of the “traditional” culture show. We need to modernize and create new ways to understand each other in updated contexts.

Stay tuned for the date and location of the first real 21st Century Culture Show... I might just have to do it myself.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Race (card) Is On!

So it begins. Almost two years before the actual elections, we already are subjected to the constant coverage of Ms. White Woman and Mr. Black Man competing to see who will be the first minority president of the United States.

And it’s about time. I suppose the only good thing to come out of the Bush presidency is that the country is closer than ever to evolving past the old white man political culture that we have cultivated for so long and elect a minority president. We saw Bush’s political connections in Florida steal him the most important presidential election in recent history. Then we saw his cadre of dinosaurs and their connections to oil companies and big contractors start wars that they could not finish, mismanaging the whole effort the whole time. I think people are finally sick of it.

When it comes down to it, I would love to see an age where the leaders of France, Germany, and the United States are run by women. Angela is proving she can make progress in the quagmire of European bureaucracy, and although Segolene might be a bit of a stretch in France, the experience and married name of Miss Hillary put her within arm’s reach of being the most powerful man in the world. Thanks to Nancy Pelosi blazing the trail by passing successful legislation in Congress, voters are seeing that a woman can indeed govern.

Mr. Black Man, though, offers a similar freshness to the race that has already allowed him to capitalize on the desperation of a country too long led against their will by a jackass from Texas. Obama is a kid, he is a kid who used to smoke grass and snort coke. He is a kid who, wait for it, once learned at an Islamic school. As shocking as these qualities may sound, the man has a card to play in this contest. He is too young to have been corrupted by the oft-cited Good Old Boy network that haunts all senior politicians, which is increasingly attractive when considering Bush’s successor. He also has a younger, more progressive attitude toward the issues currently on the table. At the end of the day, though, he does not have the experience necessary to inspire the most confidence.

Voters do rely a lot on personality, and if he seems to have a competent staff around him, he can indeed go a long way. I think his significance lies most in the fact that he is running at all. Sure, he is hoping that people will take a chance and vote on a fresh face, but the reality of the times, with the threat of terrorism and the need for some nuanced governing to attack issues like climate change and health care, mean that Hillary shows the most potential.

In any case, I raise my glass to a minority candidate with a progressive view of how to fix this country’s devastated foreign policy errors. It is important that the world like us. Bush seems to think that doesn’t matter, as long as we are doing the “right thing” to rid the world of the threat of terrorism. I think we are beginning to realize that this will never happen if we don’t have the support and participation of our peers in the international community. I just hope any democrat can make it happen.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Springtime for Saddam

The end of 2006 saw the dramatic conclusion of the Saddam Hussein story, brought to you by someone with a cellphone who made a YouTube clip to beat all YouTube clips. In the end, this one grainy video nullified all efforts by the “Axis of Good” to paint their ugly version of Saddam Hussein all over the history books.

If it were ever made into a movie, the farcical theater of Saddam Hussein’s last days could only be called “Trial and Error”. Of course, G.I. George Bush and the American government would have loved to see their original script brought to curtain calls of secular throngs of Iraqis dancing in the streets of Baghdad over the death of an evil man, but, sadly, they lost creative control of the project.

The opening act of Saddam’s capture would have made any Hollywood producer proud. Hell, maybe the Weinstein brothers had a hand in military policy at the time, because there could have been no better made-for-tv moment than Saddam being pulled out of a so-called “Spider Hole” covered in garbage with a suitcase of American dollars at his side. Now, anyone who has been to the Middle East, who knows anything about Muslim culture, knows that no self-respecting Arab Muslim, especially not one with an inflated ego such as Mr. Hussein’s, would be caught dead under a pile of garbage, hiding from U.S. Marines with a suitcase of dollars at his side. I mean, give me a break. Has it been so long that we do not see blatant propaganda for what it is any more? The public ate up this story, only too happy to see that this “evil man” was also a coward.

In the war of ideas, the United States tried to take his pride, to take his honor, and in the end allowed history to repeat itself by calling an end to major combat operations in discrediting Saddam Hussein. Unfortunate (depending on how you look at it) though inevitable for the swirling mess of Iraq, it did not turn out as planned.

Fast forward to the last chapter in the saga, where you have a cell phone video broadcast all over the world within hours of his death that shows a dignity to the man enduring the taunts of a violently divided Iraq. As if he knew the world would be watching, he played it masterfully. With a sound bite of “Is this the bravery of Arabs?”, Saddam will be remembered as a victim who died with honor, a martyr to young Sunnis, not an evil psychopath coward.

Just like the producers tried to make a fortune off of a sure flop, the Bush administration naively expected to gain valuable political capital through the death of someone they had gone to great lengths to paint as a worthless, evil man. As it turned out, the show itself was a success. Saddam will live forever in Iraq, the victim of aggression and bias from both his own people and the invading army.

I can’t wait to see what the Bin Laden Show will entail, if only we can get a camera crew to his cave on the Pakistani border...

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Never Enough Fireworks

OK, the fireworks started going off even before Christmas. Nevertheless, nothing could have prepared me for the spectacle of explosion that marked the new year 2007, a celebration which, by the way, only just seems to have ended. For now, the war is over. Major combat operations in the skies of Reykjavik have come to an end. Of course, I would not be surprised if the next few weeks bring the last of the unexploded bombs out of hiding.

There is something about the darkness that compels you to light up the sky with whatever is available. On some nights, especially the coldest ones, the Aurora Borealis does the trick naturally. But in late December, it is fireworks. From small children to responsible adults, every house and every neighborhood consider it their duty to out-do the people down the street. It is not at all uncommon for people to spend several months’ salary, or the equivalent of a small car, to make the sky above your house explode for a few hours. Even the dogs, at least the ones not huddling in the closet for fear of impending nuclear holocaust can be seen in their front yards with sparklers hanging out of their mouths.

The only lull in the insanity comes late in the evening when Icelanders gather around their televisions to appreciate a tradition that goes back thirty years. For an hour the state-run TV station shows a comedy program poking fun at everything Icelandic, from major news stories to notorious celebrities. The only topic that seems off-limits is, thankfully, Bj√∂rk. But even I, an outsider with only a limited knowledge of Icelandic, was able to laugh at much of what all around me found so funny. Some of it was in English, and all of it was funny. Icelanders are adept at self-criticism. They know that you can’t take everything so seriously, and that the best way to forge a strong national identity is to recognize the humor in everything that you are proud of. Others (mm hmm) could benefit from their example.

As soon as the show ends, around 11:30, the real show begins outside. It is almost impossible to hear yourself scream, when bombs are going off above, around, and below you. Yes, accidents do happen, some fingers may get blown off, but it is all worth it. It is impossible not to get euphoric at this display of explosive power, an undying remnant of this country’s viking past. Icelandic fireworks, with pictures of blond, helmeted men with beards, are called “cakes” for a reason: it is the ONLY way to celebrate. And when the cakes run out, as they did at a friend’s house, some emergency flares were found in a closet, lighting up the world in a slow red drama that must have looked even more amazing from far away.

But it doesn’t matter where in Reykjavik you are. Every neighborhood is as indulgent as the next. The first time I experienced Iceland, for the big millennium new year in 2000, I was amazed, knowing that the millennium merited such a grand celebration. What I saw this year proved only that it gets bigger and bigger every year. I knew it when I left my house at five in the evening and was knocked in the face by the pungent smell of exploded gunpowder. I knew it when driving down the street in the following week I needed to wait while one last cake was set off in the intersection down the street. I knew it when even though I did not have a vantage point over the whole city, it was the most impressive display I have ever seen.