Sotto Voce.

"Qui plume a, guerre a." — Voltaire

Gradually Then Suddenly: the 2023 Worldcon, Self-Censorship, and the Growing Threat of Authoritarianism

Welp, it took less than a decade for someone to find a way to one-up (or, more accurately, one-down) the Sad Puppies fiasco at the Hugos.

Their “hold my beer” stunt happened last October, at the 81st Worldcon in Chengdu, China. A lot of science fiction authors had protested awarding the bid to Chengdu because of China’s record of human rights abuses against the Uyghurs and Turkic Muslims (and, it should be noted, against Christians and other religious minorities as well) under the cynical pretense of “anti-terrorism,” and indeed there were some irregularities about the bid that, in retrospect, should perhaps have been red flags, but a lot of fans also sincerely hoped that engaging with the People’s Republic of China through a shared literary tradition might lead to greater openness and freedom of expression — particularly in a time of increasing international tension and trade instability.

By and large, the reviews of the event were favorable — though a few eyebrows were raised by the announcement that over $1 billion in deals with “companies that produce films, parks, and immersive sci-fi experiences” were signed during the con’s “industrial development summit,” leading to some mild sniffing about the hyper-commercialization of SF/F. Despite that, overall it seemed like the event was a success.

Then, late last month, the concom finally released the full list of nominees, and everything hit the fan.

The list showed that at least four authors had been disqualified for reasons that the awards administrator steadfastly — and increasingly arrogantly — refused to elaborate. Two of the authors were native-born U.S. citizens, while the other two were Chinese emigrants (to the U.S. and Canada, respectively), leading to speculation that perhaps the disqualifications were the result of censorship by Chinese government officials or powerful business interests.*

Oops, nope.

As documented in The 2023 Hugo Awards: A Report on Censorship and Exclusion by Chris M. Barkley and Jason Sanford, it turns out it was members of the awards committee itself — U.S. and Canadian members, no less — who did the censoring. And thanks to a trove of documents provided to Barkley and Sanford by committee member-turned-whistleblower Diane Lacey, we also know that the committee created dossiers of the nominees to identify those who might have said or written things that “the People’s Republic of China’s government officials and censors may consider to be politically offensive or subversive,” in Barkley’s words.

To be clear, there is no evidence that the awards committee was explicitly or implicitly instructed by the PRC government or anyone else to do what it did. Whether the awards administrator received or solicited advice in that regard, and from whom, remains pure speculation. What is certain, however, is that Barkley’s and Sanford’s bombshell report has been widely reported in mainstream media, causing a lot of horrified outrage within the global SF/F community, likely causing acute embarrassment for the image-conscious PRC government, and potentially causing blowback for Chinese science fiction authors at home and abroad down the road.

So yeah, bang-up job everyone. As John Scalzi summed it up, “A fraud was perpetrated by the Hugo administrators: on the Hugo Award voters, on the Chengdu Worldcon membership, and on the science fiction and fantasy community at large.

Scalzi, and many other SF/F veterans, are hopeful and determined that the community will learn from this and do better. And there’s every expectation that safeguards will be put in place to improve the integrity of the Hugo nomination process. Between Sad Puppies and whatever this is going to end up being called (Chengdugate?), no one — probably least of all the World Science Fiction Society, which owns the trademark — believes the credibility of the Hugos can survive this kind of dumbfuckery a third time.

However, that’s not what’s bugging me.

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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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