Sotto Voce.

"Qui plume a, guerre a." — Voltaire

Too Small to Succeed

ProPublica’s latest investigative journalism bombshell (“Clarence Thomas and the Billionaire,” Apr. 6, 2023) has not only been picked up by what feels like every major news outlet on the planet, but has also prompted a lot of mainstream discussion about the merits of nonprofit journalism. “See what journalists can accomplish when they don’t have to worry about getting laid off because of slumping ad revenue?” the argument usually goes.

Going nonprofit offers the first really viable alternative to the traditional ad-supported for-profit business model that has supported the newspaper business (both on paper and online) for generations but which is now imploding and leading — directly and indirectly — to the closure of hundreds of local papers a year.

When Google and Facebook muscled for-profit newspapers out of the ad revenue game, the wheels came completely off the wagon (to mix my metaphors). Having been lulled into arrogant complacency by decades of double-digit profit margins, industry MBAs hastily concluded that the only options available for keeping up appearances were fire sales and consolidation. And so began the seemingly endless parade of private equity firms, billionaire buyers, and M&A experts who were all to happy to buy up properties on the cheap so they could squeeze whatever profits they could out of them for however long they produced, and then toss the husks or sell them for parts. For most papers, the logic (to use yet another metaphor) was that being hooked up to a milking machine at least bought time before being led off to slaughter. Today, the only papers that are surviving are the ones that have been able to scale up sufficiently to provide a stable revenue stream for their owners.

Nonprofit news, we are told, is free from all that.

Except maybe not.

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Some Thoughts on Chatbots, Coherence, and Fake News

One of the things that makes a good reporter good is their ability to discern meaningful patterns in a wide range of available data. The key word there being meaningful.

I would expect chatbots to be great at pattern recognition. That’s how they string stuff together. And I would expect people to be favorably disposed toward chatbot outputs that present what appear to be meaningful patterns. It’s easy to string meaningless things together coherently (“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”), but the problem is that it’s just as easy to string seemingly meaningful things together coherently (“Steel melts at a higher temperature than jet fuel burns”).

The problem with fake news isn’t with the content, but with the coherence. It’s been argued that pattern recognition is Homo sapiens’ evolutionary advantage. That’s what’s at play here. We are predisposed to look for coherence; the problem is that when we find it, we are also predisposed to trust it.

The breakdown occurs when we conflate coherence with meaning. When you have people who are fixated on coherence, and all you give them is stuff that looks meaningful just because it’s coherent, then they’re going to think they have found something meaningful. And this is why people believe fake news is real and real news is fake.

We are literally wired for it. We find comfort in patterns and discomfort in discordance — regardless of whether or not the patterns have any factual grounding — because those reactions are biologically programmed into us as survival mechanisms.

So when you have chatbots that can give us stuff that accords perfectly with grammatical algorithms but means nothing (i.e., is literally factually incorrect), how do you know it?

How do you know if you can trust it?

Yes, Joshua, Some Reporters are Passionate about Covering Suburban Sewer District Meetings

Godzilla posterSo I’m no longer a reporter. I decided to quit before I was fired. If you want to know why, read this and this. The paper I wrote for doesn’t exist anymore, except as a token tab on a website. The editor who had hired me — and who was suddenly and unexpectedly escorted out the door two weeks before Christmas and a month before his wedding — landed me a job with a contractor doing public affairs work, which journalists call “The Dark Side” and is also where a lot of journalists end up going once they get laid off.

The public affairs job pays more than twice what I was making as a reporter. Thanks to IT infrastructure improvements in response to COVID, Mrs. Sotto Voce and I have been able to move north to the groovy city of Frederick while keeping the job. The company has been great to work for, and I am grateful that I have been able to land on my feet after making what was by far the most painful decision of my professional career — to leave what I loved doing more than anything before the paper’s owners burned the house down with me in it.

Following my departure, I launched a news blog to continue covering my old beat, which the paper pretty much abandoned after I left. There was a lot going on that needed continuing coverage, and I felt that weekly stories written on my own time after work and on weekends was better than nothing for the community. I kept it up for a year until we moved up to Frederick. It was almost as hard giving up the news blog as it was to leave the paper. I’ve heard from friends that things have only gotten worse news-coverage-wise down there since we moved. I wish I could say I’m surprised.

But in the meantime, I’ve been relatively happy with working flexible hours, wandering around groovy Frederick honing my street photography style, and writing (ostensibly) humorous posts on Facebook. Even though I will always deeply miss doing what I know was my truest calling.

So what is it that has awakened Sotto Voce from its slumber to rise from the deep to rampage and set things afire?

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Redefining Political Journalism’s Front Line: a Response to Masha Gessen

In a recent New Yorker essay, staff writer Masha Gessen argued that the press should not boycott the White House in the wake of the Jim Acosta debacle (“After the White House Banned Jim Acosta, Should Other Journalists Boycott Its Press Briefings?,” Nov. 9). As a reporter who covers government, and by extension politics, I feel compelled to respond.

Gessen may in fact be right, but I don’t think her arguments make her case. And the main reason why I think that can be summed up by a quote in the article by NYU professor Jay Rosen, who argued on his blog that the press should “send the interns” to cover the White House because it’s essentially become a backwater for factual, verifiable information.

“Recognize that the real story is elsewhere, and most likely hidden,” Rosen wrote.

Gessen’s counterargument is that “[t]he White House is a lousy source of information about itself, but it’s also the best available source.” Not covering it, she argues, “would give this White House exactly what it wants: less contact with the media, less visibility, ever less transparency and accountability.”

The problem with that, as Rosen notes, is that there already is no transparency or accountability to be found there, so why waste the talents of your best reporters trying to find it there?

The real story is to be found at the agencies that have to enact the random, whim-based policies, that have to deal daily with the fallout on millions of Americans as well as people around the world who suffer the consequences.

And the people who cover those agencies on a daily basis have the contacts and the trust of people who can get them that information. Probably not the trust of the appointed puppets in the head offices, but we don’t need to hear them parrot their dictated talking points anyway.

Gessen writes, “Refusing to engage with [Trump’s] words would mean refusing to engage with Trump voters and with the Trump Administration itself. It would mean walking away from politics altogether, which, for journalists, would be an abdication of responsibility.”

I disagree with that because I think it’s an artificial conflation. The words, the voters, and the administration are all incredibly different things. The words are from one person. The voters have many different voices, and to lump them together is to deny the voters their say, to treat them as a simple faceless collective. Sure, many of them are ditto-heads, but the best reporters will find out why they are.

And with regard to the administration, as I said the story is really to be found at the coalface, where every day someone who is being paid by our tax dollars is making a decision to deny an immigrant a visa or to incarcerate a person of color or try to fight an injustice without the resources to do their job.

And as for “walking away from politics altogether,” I’d remind her of the phrase often attributed to former House Speaker Tip O’Neill that “all politics is local.” The real story of this White House is not to be found at this White House. The story is to be found in the consequences, from the agency headquarters in DC (yes, White House press corps, you don’t have to leave DC and its swank hotels and hip neighborhoods to still write about the administration) all the way down to the state highway administrations and county health agencies and city police departments.

Gessen’s view of the situation, perhaps informed by her years covering the autocratic politics of Putin (she wrote a chilling and authoritative biography of the man), assumes a far more centralized national government than I’ve seen from my years working with and around federal science agencies. Just because the president imagines that he can be a dictator doesn’t mean that the entire federal bureaucracy has decided to reinvent itself overnight to accomodate his delusional fantasy.

Thank god sometimes for the slow wheels of the bureaucracy.

I would argue that Gessen’s vision of a top-down, monolithic national politics — a narrative no doubt embraced by the trivial reality-show personality who fancies himself to be a classic Russian-style strongman — can be most effectively refuted by a press corps that is dedicated to telling the story of national politics from the ground up.

Without Fear or Favor

Late last week, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer announced that he will soon succumb to cancer. The Post respected his wishes to keep the news low-key, and in the editorial board’s tribute to him noted that “[h]is unsparing judgments were cheered by some readers while angering others,” yet “few could disagree that he wrote a column of breathtaking range and intelligence and integrity.”

Urbane, witty, incisive, and intellectually uncompromising, Krauthammer assumed William F. Buckley, Jr.’s place as the preeminent voice of American conservatism in an era when the term “public intellectual” has all but lost its meaning. Whether one agreed or disagreed with him (and on issues like Israel and the Middle East, there was plenty with which to disagree), the debate usually circled around objective things — facts and data and history.

There will be much to mourn with Krauthammer’s passing, but high on the list is his emphasis on a discourse of agreement and disagreement, rather than on pointless debate over “right” and “wrong.”

Here’s why that’s especially important these days:

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The “Right to Repair” and the Profit Bubble

I was reading an article on the subject of the “right to repair” movement a little while ago and it got me thinking about why this apparently commonsense concept comes across as almost quixotic in a country that prides — or used to pride — itself on its self-reliance.

First of all, while I understand and appreciate the points being made, but I take issue with the slogan “right to repair.” This isn’t a rights issue. We use this term so loosely here, almost as a formal way of saying “I wanna.”

I mean I get their point, but turning this into a legislative thing is to my mind just silly. I agree with them in principle that manufacturers should not actually go out of their way to make products unserviceable by third parties. But compelling them to do it through legislation is a dead end. If there was a demand for it, there would be a supply of it.

On the other hand, the article brought up the case of the demise of independent camera repair shops, laying it on Nikon for deciding to stop making repair parts available to third-party vendors. That may be so (it sounds too pat, but I admit I don’t know the story), but at the same time Nikon is not obligated to keep other companies in business.

In an age where business is defined solely as the generation of profit, it makes sense that a company would not want to lose out on a revenue stream just out of being polite to customers. Yes, there are all kinds intangible benefits of such largesse, but they are exactly that: intangible. They don’t service the bottom line, which is all the accountants care about, and all the MBAs running businesses have been told to care about.

The repair culture that we used to have in this country — from farm equipment to radios and TV to cars and everything in between — required two things: a culture of people who saw it as part of their responsibility to maintain and repair the things they owned, and a business philosophy that focused on cultivating customers, not revenue.

Convenience plus growing middle-class affluence took care of the former; the need to repair something meant that you are not able to afford a new one. The rise of profit as the sole measure of corporate success in the immediate post-WWII years took care of the latter.

While writing the last couple of paragraphs, the phrase “the profit bubble” floated through my head. To my mind, the trajectory of an ever-greater focus on a single indicator — in this case, profit — followed by the increasing effort to hitch everything to that single indicator and the obsessive focus on it by people who should be skilled at looking at other things but who slavishly follow the trend instead, has all the earmarks of a classic bubble.

That the profit bubble has lasted as long as it has does not mean that it isn’t in fact a bubble; it’s a matter of scale. After all, the difference between an island and a continent is ultimately just a matter of semantics. It does, however, portend the scale of the impact and consequences when it ultimately does burst.

In any case, if and when companies see that it is in their best interests to once again encourage an support a repairability mindset among customers, then it will happen. It can’t, and it won’t, happen through legislation. And even if such legislation were to pass, it would not last long, for all the right and wrong reasons. The lasting solution requires changing the very underpinnings of modern business philosophy. Infinitely harder to accomplish, but infinitely more enduring.