The president's "not credible" critics

I just wrote a personal accounting of why I may be voting for a Democratic candidate for president for the first time in my life, but I thought I’d follow up on another interesting point from last night’s debates.

During the health care debate, Mr. Kerry invoked the reports of two networks that he said had described Mr. Bush's characterization of Mr. Kerry's health care plan as false.

When the president got his turn at the question, he started with a disturbing quote: "In all due respect, I'm not so sure it's credible to quote leading news organizations about - oh, never mind," Mr. Bush said, his voice trailing off in a nervous laugh.

"Let me quote the Lewin report," he said, and proceeded to do just that, as he referred to one analysis that put the cost of Mr. Kerry's health care plan at $1.2 trillion.

Now, I don’t want to get bogged down in the actual dispute about the health care plan. I would rather focus for the moment on the quote that led into the analysis.

Our president stood in front of the nation and said (through the media, ironically) that it’s “not credible” to quote news organizations? And then proceeded to quote figures from a private report from within the Beltway?

I have major issues with this rhetorical turn of events.

First of all, it’s quite possible that the president was trying to be amusing by aiming his comments in the general direction of Bob Schieffer, the moderator. Schieffer, president of CBS News, has been speaking at length in the past few weeks about the national guard story run by Dan Rather on 60 minutes that was based on a document now proven to have been forged.

Side-stepping the debates surrounding this issue (that though the document has been proven false, several additional sources have verified the substance of the story, etc.), I thought the president’s remarks were inappropriate at best and frightening at worst.

Does the president really believe that the nation’s press cannot be trusted? As a whole? Does he think (as many of his supporters seem to) that the mistakes at CBS prove that “the media” has no credibility in reporting the day’s events?

But further, I found the strategy to exemplify everything I can’t stand about the administration’s approach to disputes over policy and judgment. Rather than answer the questions raised, the president attacked the reputation of the messenger, turned to an inaccessible, unverifiable private source and made a competing claim.

I firmly believe that democracy demands public discussion of policy initiatives. I think public criticism of all of our branches of government is healthy and serves to check the power of elite interests at the highest levels of our government. The American news media is an essential part of that equation, and I cannot see how discarding the judgment of those offering their debates up to public scrutiny should be deemed “not credible” in favor of private groups who deliberate in secret.

I believe in transparent government, and I believe in the role of the American news media in our society. Call journalists and reporters biased, mistaken or even malicious, but please recognize that those who stand in the light of public scrutiny will always be more trustworthy than those who deliberate in the shadows.

Sadly, the current administration seems to prefer sources that either agree with their views or who can be controlled outside of the public view. Hopefully, the American public will not allow this tendency to continue unchecked, no matter who wins on Nov. 2.

Goldberg's Bias

The following is a formal review of the book BIAS by Bernarg Goldberg.

Bibliographic Citation: Bernard Goldberg. Bias: a CBS insider exposes how the media distort the news. (Washington, DC: Regnery Pub., 2002).

About the Author: Bernard Goldberg is a sports reporter for HBO and a former Emmy Award-winning reporter for CBS News (where he worked from 1972 to 2000). Goldberg began his career in journalism after graduating from Rutgers in 1967 and accepting a position with the Associated Press. In 1969, he worked for network affiliate WTVJ in Miami, and was hired by CBS in 1972 to work at the network's Atlanta news bureau. During his tenure at CBS, he became best known as a correspondent from 1981-1988 for the news anchored by Dan Rather.

Abstract: Goldberg submits his view as a journalist “insider” that the news industry suffers from a “tilt” to the left of the political spectrum. For years, he claims he complained to CBS news editors and executives about the one-sided perspectives offered by the news staff without success. After writing a 1996 editorial in the Wall Street Journal that accused CBS of bias and attacked a story by Eric Engberg about Republican Steve Forbes' flat tax proposal, Goldberg describes this event as the beginning of his “fall from grace” in the CBS organization.

Goldberg uses his story and the anecdotal evidence he has gathered to launch a broader charge of left-wing bias at the broadcast networks, and to explain why the big three TV networks have been losing viewers. He explains that the devotion to ratings and to the corporate business model causes the liberal elites of news organizations (such as Dan Rather, towards whom he directs his most scathing comments) to become blind to their individual biases, resulting in the liberal bias he criticizes.

Goldberg charges that this bias becomes institutionalized by members of the media establishment who honestly believe that their perspectives are balanced. He argues that the media elites of our society have a blind spot when it comes to their biases and that this blind spot causes them to reinforce their liberal stances.

Review: Scholars expecting a book length academic study of bias in reporting will be disappointed by Goldberg’s book. No scientific sampling methodology, content analyses or rigorous field research is used to collect evidence for any of Goldberg’s claims. Instead, he cites anecdotal observations about particular high profile issues like AIDS and homelessness and describes how he has seen political correctness and an overriding desire for "diversity" biases their coverage.

Although the cases he presents do raise questions, several problems with Goldberg’s presentation style influence his conclusions.

    1. Elites or Liberals? In Bias, the author struggles to distinguish the difference between the terms “liberal” and “elite.” In fact, there are passages where Goldberg uses these terms interchangeably, suggesting that the elitism of the news industry somehow causes professionals like Dan Rather to become liberal. However, not all elites are liberal and not all liberals are elite, and Goldberg never provides a justification why he thinks there is a link between these two characteristics.

    Goldberg's "media elite" is more accurately defined as a media establishment made up of executives, editors and reporters bound together not in a liberal sociopolitical hierarchy, but by their corporate interest to present news and make money doing it. Goldberg ignores this tension between the long-standing liberal journalistic ideals that reporters must challenge tradition with the market forces of the media institution itself. In fact, early in the book, Goldberg claims that money and ratings are the media’s only goals. “Ratings are the God that network executives and their acolytes worship,” he asserts. However, if ratings were really the god that network executives and news professionals worship, one would think the media would be “tilted” to the right, not the left.

    2. “Left” vs. “Right.” Goldberg identifies bias using terms like “left” and “right” without articulating what the different biases assume or promote. A casual reading of Bias would lead a reader to believe that the left to right span of the political spectrum is defined easily by pro or con positions on the often mentioned political issues: gun control, prayer in public school, legal abortions, the death penalty and affirmative action.

    Should a reader of Bias agree that these particular issues define the “liberal” from the “conservative,” he or she will undoubtedly agree with Goldberg’s portrayal of the network news professionals as “liberal.” However, by the same test, Goldberg would appear to refute his own claim to “liberalness,” since he actively supports the “right” side of the issues that prove the reportage is “leftist.” Goldberg apparently does not allow for the possibility of a non-polar political perspective in the media.

    3. Personal Attacks Goldberg dedicates the largest portions of his book to describe the personal conflicts he has been involved in with network news personnel. He alternates claims that he has been unjustly accused of personal attacks with actual scathing personal attacks directed at the claimants. He reserves his most abrasive assaults for Dan Rather himself, who he portrays as crazy, possessive and vindictive.

    These charges may be justified (the reader is only presented Goldberg’s account), but the incendiary manner that Goldberg launches his criticism often resorts to childish insults. For example, he writes in response to statements that Rather (whom he refers to as “The Dan”) has made in public, “On what planet, Dan, would that be?” and “Could Dan Rather be the only person in the entire Unites States of America who doesn’t know this?” Bernard also levels heavy-handed criticism at the corporate structure of the news industry, a group he calls “the news mafia.” He describes personal encounters and arguments he has had with media executives as analogous to scenes from the Sopranos or The Godfather. However, most of this criticism is unsupported by any form of evidence, other than personal anecdote.

    4. What is News? Goldberg does present a few golden opportunities to support his thesis. Deep within the book, Goldberg addresses the selection of events that reporters choose to cover. He mentions that since events are arguably infinite in number, and the time and space available to reporters and news media are limited, reporters and editors can't cover everything. Thus, decisions about the “newsworthiness” of news must be made. Goldberg asserts that these selections are overwhelmingly liberal.

    Unfortunately, the only support he provides for this statement is merely anecdotal. The author notes that network news has been covering the issue of estranged fathers who refuse to pay child support, but these same media outlets have decided to ignore news about men falsely accused of being deadbeat fathers. For example, the legal system docked John Johnson's paycheck even after he proved that he was a different person who coincidently had the same name as the deadbeat John Johnson whom they sought. Another example: a court ruled that Tony Jackson has to pay alimony to his former girlfriend until her baby reaches the age of 18, even though DNA testing has proven that the child is not his. Goldberg holds up the omission of these examples as proof that the media are liberally biased in their story selection.

    However, these anecdotes are not entirely convincing. In order to follow Goldberg’s logic, one must assume that any omission of a story is an example of bias. A more systematic portrayal of the newsgathering and reporting process would better illustrate the presence of the “titling” the author claims is pervasive.

    5. Statistical “evidence”Goldberg does use statistics on occasion. Unfortunately, when he does, he often assumes that these statistics speak for themselves. Citing a 1985 nationwide survey by the Los Angeles Times, he points out that "23 percent of the public said they were liberal; 55 percent of the journalists described themselves as liberal." However, Goldberg makes no attempt to cite the source of this information or evaluating its findings. Additionally, quoting research reported in the March 2000 issue of Brill's Content magazine, "Seventy four percent of Republicans believe that most journalists are more liberal than they are.... Perhaps more surprisingly, Democrats also perceive the liberal media tilt: 47 percent believe that most journalists are more liberal than they are...."

    These examples do support the notion that there is a disparity in how journalists perceive their own political leanings and how non-journalists perceive the journalists’ leanings. However, these statistics do not prove that liberal biases DO EXIST, only that liberal biases ARE PERCEIVED to exist. Other support for liberal bias come from voting records of journalists, which Goldberg presents as showing a tendency to support Democratic candidates. However, Goldberg does not cite a sampling methodology for the figures he presents, nor does he describe how representative the figures are of the industry (for example, some journalists go on record as refusing to vote to maintain the appearance of neutrality). Goldberg also provides statistics measuring the leanings on particular political issues among journalists.

    As previously mentioned, these issue stances are taken as indicators of political stance by Goldberg without justification. And once again, Goldberg cites no methodology of the findings or the sample in his analysis. In short, Goldberg’s report of biased reporting does not actually look at the reporting practices themselves, but at anecdotal artifacts that he uses to support his position. In a very real sense, Goldberg appears to be practicing the very essence of the “tilted” journalism he criticizes.

Conclusions and Summary: Bernard Goldberg brings a wealth of experience and anecdotal evidence to bear on his analysis of the American news media. He makes several good insights and portrays the surfaces of interesting relationships within the news industry. Unfortunately, Goldberg does often not support these insights and they are often buried among personal attacks against Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw, as well as the executive production staff of CBS.

Much of Bias reads like an angry rant against particular individuals (most notably Dan Rather) or an apologetic accounting of his own efforts within the CBS organization. Goldberg’s book is an accessible read and is very entertaining, but one wonders if it might have been better suited as a personal letter to Dan Rather instead of a mass-marketed work.

The Uploaded Down-Low

I FINALLY finished editing and posting my photos from my New Orleans trip in late May. It’s been a busy summer, and taking the time to update my personal Web space has not been the highest of priorities.

When I did sit down to do it, I was able to edit the photos, write captions for each, create thumbnails and code the HTML took me a couple of hours (maybe 2). I am overly concerned with structure (as I maintain pictures archives for my nephew, his sister and my youngest niece, and try to keep the interfaces similar), but putting together a significant amount of content just takes time. Even for someone who teaches others how to code Web pages as part of his career.

Earlier this week, Democratic Presidential Candidate John Kerry announced that for the 2004 campaign, John Edwards would be his running mate. The first announcement of this selection was made by Kerry via email to his Web site staff,

Within minutes of this email (less than 10), the Republican National Committee had posted its talking points on Edwards, titled “WHO IS JOHN EDWARDS? A Disingenuous, Unaccomplished Liberal And Friend To Personal Injury Trial Lawyers.” If you visit the page, you will see a lengthy list of negative talking points about the senator and his record.

What interested me was the speed with which this page was posted following the announcement and the speed at which it filtered through the partisan radio and television stations. Now I do not for one moment think that the GOP Webmasters wrote this content from scratch upon receiving a leaked email, for that’s simply impossible. It’s more likely that the Web team had constructed a selection of talking points about each of the potential VP candidates and simply loaded the package of Edwards as soon as the announcement was made official.

In fact, comments made at FoxNews’s website that same day, seemed to indicate that media outlets had been forewarned about the selection (although the email they display is addressed differently than the one posted by the NYT, making one wonder what the order of announcement actually was). So perhaps the GOP was given an early heads-up by one of the media outlets.

The speed of this content’s delivery should make those who still claim that the GOP does not go on the political offensive question this claim. Not to get partisan (both sides seem equally adept at slinging mud and spinning news in a hurry), but it would seem that, far from being the nonpartisan collection of individuals more interested in serving America than winning an election (as I’m often told), the GOP is at least as efficient at distributing their highly partisan messages to constituents as the Democrats. Throughout the day of the announcement, conservative talk radio and mass media outlets used the posted talking points in their analysis, sometimes almost verbatim.

Even the Bush campaign locked into step that same day. According to a Fox News article, the President himself refrained from commenting on the negative talking points, but his press secretary certainly didn’t.

Now, I’m not suggesting there is anything nefarious about this behavior or suggesting that one of our political parties is engaging in behavior that the other will not. Both sides use networking and resources to get their messages into the hands of their advocates. It’s just rare that the distribution process is so transparent.

I also find it interesting that the side of our political spectrum that cries foul (due to the ever-present “liberal media bias” accusation) whenever a media outlet offers a dissenting point from the White House official press releases saw a rapid and complete presentation of their talking points in many media outlets the same day the GOP posted the talking points.

I’m sure that’s not media bias, but I wish someone could explain to me the difference between that and what CNN and the Associated Press are so often accused of doing.

The role of "audience" in news production

In my blogs, I often struggle to define the boundaries between what I should (and should not) use them for. Though the blogs I maintain have very specifically defined purposes, and so the content used in each is discrete, I often wonder if I should be placing preliminary ruminations alongside my finished thoughts.

I was presented with a new research idea for an article or an essay, and I’m going to list it here to remind myself at some later time. This function is normally served by email (yes, I often email myself with reminders, and yes, that is kind of bizarre) or my Palm Pilot. But this reminder actively deals with this blog’s subject matter, so I thought I’d post it here.

Earlier today, I had lunch with Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas’s School of Journalism. I have worked with Dr. Rivas-Rodriguez on her U.S. Latinos and Latinas & World War II oral history project. To date, my work has centered on developing the online presentation of the history materials and helping with any of the technical needs the project has.

Dr. Rivas-Rodriguez was telling me about a peculiar case she had encountered during the course of her work. The project collects photos and narratives of WW2 veterans and presents them in a newspaper periodical and the online site. Sometimes, people come across the site and contact the project office to ask questions, submit materials or pose new areas of inquiry.

The peculiar case in question regarded a person in Belgium who saw the site and contacted the office to find a particular subject’s family. The Belgian connection wanted to pass along some photos of the subject to his family. From there, the incident took a strange soap-operaish turn as there appeared to be an addition to the family sired by the now deceased WW2 vet years ago.

The interesting aspect of this story for me is the role the site played its development. Though many budding and professional journalists have worked on the site, it was not a newshound that tracked down these connections. Rather, information was presented in a medium that transcends the restrictions of time and space and the actors in the story used it to make all the connections themselves. This, in my opinion, is a good example of the future of journalism.

I see the impact of technology as allowing the “audience” (or perhaps we should go ahead and adopt the “users” label?) to become participants in the creation of news. Traditionally, the concept of mass media assumes heavily involvement in the production process by the writers and editors and a passive involvement from the readers or viewers, usually in the form of letters written in response to a media message.

However, the electronic technology we now use allows much faster interaction between people, and I believe the future of journalism is a closer engagement with the consumers of news, who will in turn help create the content. Blogging is a good example of this phenomenon. And before the thousands of blogs that now populate the Internet could be found, post-it forums served a similar function.

I believe a striking example of these new relationships came in 1999, when the online news site Austin360 began to cover the Texas A&M bonfire tragedy. When the bonfire collapse occurred, the site was among the first to post information. But it was on the post-it forums where the power of the new medium (and the new challenges) appeared. As scant details began to slowly be released, online visitors began to discuss the tragedy, support one another and even mourn with those who said they had lost loved ones in the tragedy. However, as users began to post information on the post-it boards, they soon began to cite information that had not been released to Austin360 by the authorities.

As posters began to lists names of the deceased, the editorial staff of the publication was presented an interesting dilemma. They could not verify the information being presented, yet they feared they would be held liable should the families seek damages due to privacy or defamation concerns. So, the editors began to moderate the forums and control the input of information.

Though the ultimate decision was to abridge the voice of the users, cases like Austin360’s coverage of the bonfire tragedy represent a new relationship between the professional journalist and the audience. When the audience is involved in the newsgathering function, and the journalist become merely a disseminator, one participant among many.

I feel this is our future.

A Standard Deviation ....

I drove to New Orleans yesterday, and on the way, I had a funny thought. My girlfriend was with me and as we picked and cut our way through the traffic (apparently most New Orleaners do not believe in regulating their speed even moderately close to the posted limit), she mentioned that she had made a fundamental decision: her next car would be an automatic.

Now, I drive an automatic Jeep Grand Cherokee. She drives a standard Honda Civic (you know the little cars that get twice the gas mileage as mine and probably 10 times the mileage of those hulking Hummers you see go by?). She has often commented about how much she prefers driving her vehicle and having “the control.” I drove her vehicle once in an emergency, and it was quite an entertaining event for those in traffic behind me (they graciously expressed their appreciation for the entertainment by honking their horns as they approached me and passed me by. Some apparently were VERY amused and expressed a LOT of horn-mediated appreciation).

But back to the trip. I feigned shock at my girlfriend’s comment and made a quip about her yielding ground on her position. “Honey? But if you got an automatic, you would no longer be ‘standard.’ Is that what you really want?”

We joked and laughed about that for a while. Then our jokes got me thinking.

As I looked around at the vehicles around us, I started noticing that by a fairly large margin, most appeared to have automatic transmissions. After paying attention for about 10 minutes or so, I saw an Acura streak up at frightening speed (I myself was traveling at a velocity 15 miles over the speed limit and this little car passed me like I wasn’t moving at all). As the young man in his bluish-purple blur of a vehicle flew passed me, I chuckled at the thought that his car was the only standard transmission out of the dozens of cars I had been paying attention to.

But that’s the funny thing. From my personal observation (and I’m sure I can find motor vehicle statistics to back this up), there are far more automatic transmission vehicles on the road than there are standard transmission vehicles. So which transmission is the real “standard” here?

I’m sure at one point in the history of the automobile (and I’m sure both my parents will be rolling their eyes at my ignorance on this point), that it was quite unusual to own a vehicle with an automatic transmission. And I’m sure at that moment, the “standard transmission” really was standard. But that point in history seems to have passed us by. Now, automatic transmission seem much more standard than “standard transmissions.”

In today’s world, identifying a technology as a “standard” is a political and economic triumph for the firm that owns the rights to it. In fact, in the ever-changing information technology marketplace, some of the fiercest battles are waged over whose platforms or technologies are adopted as the official “standard.”

Standards are also more important to us. As our culture increasingly values homogenization (preferring Starbucks and McDonald’s to an unknown establishment where one could risk having to consume “substandard” products), common denominators and shared expectations have become increasingly integrated into our social consciousness.

However, in contrast to the automobile transmission, the designation of official standards is far more ephemeral. Is this because standards are displaced more quickly today than in times past or is it because for us the term “standard” is by definition less permanent?

I’m not quite sure (though I suspect it’s a bit of both). What I am sure of is that I see little reason to become familiar with a standard transmission. The likelihood of my having to drive a standard transmission vehicle is decreasing each year, and I have more pressing concerns before me. You know, the standard concerns … ;-)

Gender, technology, and the future of us

I came across a recent Business Week article concerning the ratio of men to women in technology industry. Although the disparity of gender success is prevalent in most industries, the technology industry is often touted as a meritocracy, where skills and knowledge matter more than politics or favoritism.

The article cites a study (“2003 Catalyst Census of Women Board Directors”) by Catalyst, a national woman’s advocacy organization. And the findings are rather damning: women only occupy 9.3% of corporate board seats in tech firms (versus 12.4% in non-tech firms) and only 11% of corporate officer positions (versus 15.7% in other industries).

The report does show some progress: both totals are increases from the last survey period. And from 1995 to 2003, the number of CEOs in the tech sector has risen from two to six. But these increases are small, and smaller than the increases in other industries.

And lest we relate the slowness of this growth to sexism or blatant discrimination, consider that according to VentureOne, a venture capital tracker, the small business startup market is experiencing similar trends.

The most likely rationale for these trends is the imposition of indirect controls on the corporate culture. It’s not so much that men in the technology sector set out to bar women from competing for jobs, but rather that the demands on the employee at such jobs cause the disparity.

However, I didn’t write this to get into corporate gender politics (I’ll save that for a future post). What interests me is what this finding infers about what the tech industry is doing to ALL its employees.

In my experience, women appear to be much more in tune to when their lives are getting out of balance than men are. I don’t like reinforcing gender stereotypes (particularly since I usually get the short of the gendered stick when I do), but the women I am close friends with are often much better judges of where the personal and the professional boundaries of life should not conflict.

What I was thinking about when I wrote this post was how the cited articles and studies seem to suggest that technology as an industry seems to be pulling us further and further from nature. If the “kids vs. career” is the most simplistic dynamic behind the gender divide, what does it say about the future of our children if the technology sector is a model of business innovation (as is so often stated)?

Or if women, who again seem to me to be better in tune with their physical and emotional health, are struggling to achieve success in the industry of tomorrow, doesn’t that suggest the industry of tomorrow is likely to have some drastically negative effects on the society of tomorrow?

My research has suggested that technological advances have increasingly led us to take nature for granted. We acknowledge our attempts to insulate ourselves from the effects of nature (that is, after all, one of the core components of the justification for technology), but I think we rarely examine the effect this insulation has on us as individuals and as a society.

Maybe women ARE the smarter sex, and they simply know when to call it quits and listen to nature?


In a New York Times article yesterday (I have archived the printer-friendly version if the actual link has already passed into the NYT archives), Warren St. John wrote about five New York university graduate students spent a day running around Manhattan playing virtual Pac-man.

Connected to players via cell phones, the players communicated with players back on campus, who coordinated the game board and delivered information to the ground players about the other players’ movements.

“Virtual Pac-man” is, of course, a novel concept, since Pac-man is a video game and what the students were actually doing was translating the forms and rules of the game into real space. This form of real space gaming, which has been big in Europe and is slowly being imported to America, challenges the definitional boundaries of “virtual” in a new way. For the players are performing “virtual” tasks in real space that originally only exist in a “virtual” environment. You might even say they were plan “UNvirtual Pac-man” in some respects, although the “pellets” Pac-man was “gobbling” did not appear in real space.

In my TLC331 class, I recently taught a session on the impact of video-gaming on society. As you can imagine, the students in my class were engaged in this class discussion more than on most topics, and we raised some interesting questions about gaming and violence, the “nerd subculture” and even whether video gaming is beneficial to human development.

The class was divided on this last argument, some arguing that a certain amount of fine motor skill dexterity was encouraged by game play and others arguing that the same skills could be developed playing more socially interactive sports.

The news media has produced arguments to support both positions. Most recently, I came across an ABCNews article that suggests a correlation between video game play and surgical precision. Another interesting article found in MIT’s Technology Review suggests that playing video games develops “continuous partial attention needed for today’s society." And of course, there are hundreds of books and magazines decrying the evils of video game violence and isolation, on example being the John Naisbitt book “High Tech/High Touch” that I had my students read for class.

The Pac-Manhattan example is intriguing to me. Not only does the marriage of real space and virtual space push the boundaries of technical development (the inability of the players to use GPS because of building interference should raise a few eyebrows), but there are also some very useful navigational skills being developed.

In short, I’d be willing to bet that whether one played the role of Blinky or Pac-man, game players would certainly be more likely to be fluent with the directional ins and outs of Manhattan after the conclusion of the game. Having to make fast and frantic decisions about how to avoid capture (or better, how to trap someone) would certainly push a player to develop a new understanding of the urban geography the game board was transposed upon.

In fact, this sounds like a fabulous way to learn how to get around. Maybe we should commission a series of games for new residents or visitors under the objective or forcing people to learn the lay of the land in one day. It’d be like a crash course in local geography.

And since not knowing one’s way around seems to contribute rather heavily to traffic congestion and even accidents, I think city councils could be persuaded to buy in to such an event. And funding? What cellular provider wouldn’t line up for the rights to provide Pac-man and his pursuing ghosts with their brand of cell phones and wireless communication devices?

In the classroom, educators have learned to be highly innovative in mixing entertainment with learning. Perhaps our city planners and social engineers can take a page from this book.

Small Media Effects?

As I was driving in to work this morning (northbound I-35 through Austin, TX), traffic was particularly bad. So bad, I thought “there must have been a traffic accident.”

As it turns out, there wasn’t. As far as I can tell, the traffic seemed to be slowing as it passed under an overpass just north of downtown (I believe it was the 11th Street overpass, but I could be mistaken). Glancing up, my attention was drawn to a small crowd of people. In the center of a crowd was a news cameraman who appeared to be shooting those morning scenes you see on the early morning news talking about what the traffic are like. He was surrounded by maybe half a dozen people whose function there was unknown and flanked by two police officers on either end of the overpass.

Immediately after the overpass, traffic loosened up and the flow returned to the speed limit. On the Southbound side, which had been relatively free-flowing south of the overpass, there seemed to be a coagulation of vehicles building up.

Now, it’s entirely possible that there had been some accident at that location earlier, one that had been cleared before I arrived on the scene. Or maybe the downtown exits were particularly busy and causing a chain reaction of brake lights (I drive that route every day, and the normal constriction of traffic usually occurs south of that particular area).

But it appeared to me this morning that people were slowing down as a direct result of the camera crew on the overpass. Whether this was just the normal slowdown that occurs when someone takes their eyes off the road to glance around or whether it was actually people recognizing that they were on television is an interesting (and unknowable) question.

I found this apparent phenomenon interesting. In reporting on the traffic conditions, the camera crew appeared to be having an adverse effect on traffic. For once, I literally WAS seeing an example of news media creating the story being reported.

All my media effects (not to mention my research methodology material about observer effects) came rushing back to me. I began to wonder two things:

  1. Theoretically, if traffic was being affected by media presence, it would make for an interesting consistent local source of news each morning. “Traffic is bad this morning” could become a consistent theme. Packaged with the broader social themes of an expanding population, the politics of public transportation (such as the desire for light rail), or any of a dozen issues surrounding the environment or the local economy, these images can serve as a powerful form of visual evidence that Austin is becoming more crowded or busier. But are these images a valid representation of these issues if the presence of a cameraman is contributing to traffic conditions?

  2. Practically, if this phenomenon was not a product of coincidence (that there was a relationship between the individuals on the bridge and the traffic behavior), wouldn’t a far better solution for gathering this information be through a stationary, unmanned camera source? I understand the logistical implications of public surveillance (to say nothing of the concerns over civil rights, which was one of the issues addressed in my dissertation), but would it simply not be cheaper for the city to install a camera in this location that provided a feed to media outlets (or even Internet users) who wished to use it? Wouldn’t this be cheaper than having a cameraman with truck and gear stationed there (and the two police officers assigned to him)?

Two interesting areas of inquiry based on one glance in traffic this morning. I’m reminded how salient sociological research can be, once you pull it from its classroom delivery room.

Dissertation thoughts

And now for something more personal.

I just completed my Ph.D. in Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. I defended my dissertation on April 29, 2004 and turned in all of my paperwork on May 3.

My topic was a historical look at how advancements in technology have affected society's need for control on privacy. I wound up with an interesting relaization: far from the assertion of technology destroying privacy (as so many current books and articles conclude), the advancement of technology actually CREATES the norms and controls we call "privacy."

Privacy is not something we sit around thinking about. It's a concept we usually invoke (or create, as I'm arguing) in response to some threatened change in the social order. In other words, privacy is created as a form of social resistance to unwanted technological changes.

Because privacy is created in response to changing circumstances and conditions, I realized that how privacy is expressed says a great deal about the people and times in which the claims to privacy are generated. People create privacy in order to claim that technology is destroying it. As such, privacy reflects less about the universality of man and more about specific moments in history and culture.

More on this later.

MTS Launch

*Ahem* Is this thing on? Here goes ...

The development and application of technologies has been one of the defining forces in Western civilization. A citizen’s ability to tame his or her environment and harness the elements has led to dramatic changes in every aspect of American life. Technology changes the way we work, the way we entertain ourselves and even the way we relate to one another.

However, scholarly study of technology often ignores the ways in which technology changes the social environment in which it is unleashed. Books documenting the history of technology are most often histories of hardware developments or of advances in scientific inquiry. Even the more critical books, which seek to capture the political forces behind a given set of innovations, often ignore the social environment that spawned new developments and also ignore the effect that the innovations had on that environment.

Determining the causes for the way society and technology interact with one another can be difficult. At times, it is the social environment that gives rise to innovation and discovery that results in new technology. At other times, new technologies are introduced that affect the social environment through their use. Often, elements of both relationships are present at the same time.

The purpose of this weblog is to delve into the relationship between technology and society. We will not only be delving into the nuances of technology theory, but also be applying these theories to specific social aspects of American life.