Journalism on the ballot, in Bob Woodward’s expose

To be charitable, Donald Trump may have not read a single page of one of Bob Woodward’s previous books, let alone All the President’s Men. Or else, why in heaven’s name would he have even volunteered to speak to one of the journalists whose reporting caused Richard Nixon to exit in disgrace? The latest book, Rage, might reveal why the president seems to want a journalist’s attention, given that he rails against the media all the time.

But it’s not just Trump whose motives are murky. Why would Woodward not tell the American people that the president’s on-the-record interviews were contradicting his public statements –statements made, one must note, in front of Woodward’s colleagues? Sometimes weekly.

Trumpism is not the only thing on the ballot. Journalism is. Not the simplistic fake news variety, but journalism within the toxic political economy. The Sean Hannity’s of this world we get, and dismiss as journalism’s caricatures. Woodward didn’t have to seek Deep Throat this time in some shadowy parking lot. Deep Throat found him (apparently to “unburden himself”). This could have been breaking news – the kind that could save lives and could have spared a nation grief and ignominy. But the manuscript was tucked away until an opportune moment. Woodward, with his and partner Bernstein’s indefatigable reporting and risk-taking left us a legacy for what good, solid, timely information could do. But with so many platforms that ‘break’ the news for us now, Breaking News is broken. Tiny little shiny shards spat out of a wood chipper to settle down all around us. We flick them off our sleeve and move on.

Will this crisis, a horror story not of Rage but indifference, also pass?

In 2009 we planned for an influenza pandemic. I was in the room. I recorded it in a podcast

I have heard the ridiculous ‘plandemic‘ theory,  including one about a virus outbreak appearing in an election year. Or, that the US didn’t see this coming.

 

Well, in 2009, at ASU, I worked for an outfit that ran a 2-day pandemic planning exercise, with realistic scenarios. Elections were over. The participants were county health officials, school superintendents, infectious disease specialists.  People who would be called upon to make the tough calls, to safeguard populations, and schools.  Arizona State University’s WP Carey school of business was involved, as was the School of Health Policy and Management. But this was not what researchers typically call a ‘table-top exercise.’ This was a bit more realistic.

The location of this exercise was the Decision Theater – a visualization space that has a war room ambiance. (Fun fact: Decision Theater was used to movie as exactly that , where scientists wrestle with how to avert a catastrophe when an asteroid was heading to earth.)

Participants were presented with news reports, and data sets of unexpected scenarios: a virus entering the country through returning soldiers, outbreaks spreading to cities, and small towns, children infected etc. On the large screens in the Theater (also known as the ‘Drum’) our team created simulated news reports for each potential crisis point. The 2009 exercise, a follow up to the one in 2008,  was to be a test of how decisions would be made in an unfolding crisis.

Weeks before, our videographer, Dustin Hampton and I set up and recorded ‘news’ reporters, and edited story-lines that would track with the mathematical models that would be presented to the participants.  In one sense it was a fun exercise, even though the H1N1 Flu was a concern in some parts of the world.

I was in the room, and we were behind the scenes making the event look realistic. Cameras rolled, make-shift media were putting pressure on people to quarantine people, students, and shut down schools. I had not realized this but I had created two podcasts of the event, interviewing attendees.  They are a peek into the situation I describe.

This is not the only exercise of its kind that preempted the current pandemic. In May 2018 Johns Hopkins University ran a similar table-top exercise, that put people in a room to respond to realistic reports of a viral outbreak Watch the video below. It’s eerily similar. Even the date of the fictitious outbreak is so close, it shocked me when I watched it.

If you want more research into this, there’s a paper here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167923612002680#!

Below, is another interview we did with Dr. Robert Pahle who worked on another piece of software for pandemic preparedness.

POD Throughput Model from Decision Theater Network on Vimeo.

A newspaper for our times by Kids. “Six Feet of Separation”

Could children ‘report’ on how Coronavirus is ravaging their world? I came across a newspaper that does just that!

It was a project begun  by a father of two children in San Francisco, to engage the children of a small neighborhood called Bernal Heights who were bored, suddenly separated from their friends, and unable to process the changes taking place in our world. “What concerned me were the 7,000 other things going on inside our children, the complex internal rearrangements we wouldn’t begin to comprehend, let alone address, for years. Hell, we have no idea what’s happening in ourselves these days.”

Chris Colin emailed friends and neighbors to see if their children would like to send in stories, poems, drawings etc for a newspaper.  A flood of submissions ensued, and over the weeks he was receiving contributions from  other parts of the country and the world. The name of the newspaper was selected by children, and is fittingly called Six Feet of Separation.

One of the contributors in this recent issue writes a poem about (actually to) Coronavirus.

“I miss all my friends,
I miss all my family,
So now go on and reunite, with MERS and SARS,
And don’t you bring them back,
We will all be happy.”

The newspaper is published on an eBook platform, Flipsnack, which I use in school for a student project. It’s not fancy, but it works! There’s lots of art, a ‘Data’ division, and even an Editorial Page. A hand-made crossword, criticism, fan fiction and more.  This June 13th edition has 24 pages!

A project like this is significant for many reasons. First, it comes at a time when hometown newspapers are being shuttered.  Then there’s the problem of news being hijacked by the adult-made, and politically-crafted news cycle that focuses on aspects of life that are alien and irrelevant to our younger generation. A generation whom Chris Colin rightly observes would in a short time take over the reins from our tired hands. News about angry press conferences, and tax returns make it seem as if nothing else is happening in the world. Six Feet of Separation fills that gap, and addresses those things that children care/worry about.  Let’s give them a platform. And please give them your attention.

Meaning, read this kids-made newspaper!

The digital media conundrum

As I prepare a syllabus for a new class on media, I am fascinated by the ambivalence of so many who have moved transitioned from the analog to the digital age.

“On the one hand,” says MIT’s Sasha Costanza-Chock, an associate professor of civic media, “digital technology has been used by progressive social movements” to mobilize citizens to action. But on the other,   we have entered the era of digital media being used for surveillance, “well-funded disinformation campaigns” and extremists.

Newspapers and media organizations also wrestle with this conundrum, as this cartoon aptly captures.

From Editor & Publisher. editorandpublisher.com/cartoons

What’s on these cassette tapes? A past life, a bygone era

More interesting than the  fact that I still have a collection of cassette tapes is what they contain. I managed to play one of them on a not-so-ancient player, and realized it has the edited and raw recording of a program I produced at Broadcasting House at the BBC in London in 1988.

On it are unedited interviews with Margaret Douglas, a TV producer, director and feisty executive during the Thatcher years, who ended up being director general of the BBC. She passed away in 2008. Also there’s one with Allan Little, a well known foreign correspondent at that time, and Nicholas Hinton from Save the Children’s Fund.

But as they say, wait, there’s more! This tape, below archives some work done some years before when I was in advertising, at Phoenix O&M. Our clients’ names are on the tape label. A courier company, a milk-powder and the sugary syrup kept us creatives busy into the night. Driven, of course by persistent account managers who hovered around our desks with 8-page briefs, screaming about a three o’clock deadline.

Between Barnes Place, Colombo and Langham Place,  London the voices and sounds on these tapes are like a time capsule. This week I plan to digitize some of the material to share with my friends. If you’re reading this and are one of those who worked on my team  at the Beeb or at O&M let me know.

Facebook employee resignation reveals dark practices

Take a look at this disturbing resignation letter from employee, Timothy Aveni.

He says that “Mark always told us that he would draw the line at speech that calls for violence. He showed us on Friday that this was a lie” and that he finds “Facebook complicit in the propagation of weaponized hatred, is on the wrong side of history.”

He says he’s scared for the US because, “social media-fueled division that has gotten people killed in the Philippines, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.” 

A few days back I asked my friends (and posted here) if they could justify using this corrupt social network. But don’t take my word – pay attention to this FB employee!

LMD June issue as a digital edition

LMD magazine, a  publication for which I have been writing for 26 years if my math is correct, is now in a digital format.   My article is on Page 41 , if you click on the image on the right.

It is also here, on the website.

Let’s face it, neither we nor our elected leaders have been paying much attention to the right things. And so it is with this novel coronavirus. We never saw it coming – or so we assumed.

The truth however, is that many virologists did predict such an event. But in a world that watches out for the dresses that celebrities wear to the Oscars, we missed it. Who listens to the experts when we have so many memes and conspiracy theories in our newsfeed?

Our leaders have been building walls and nuclear warheads – supposedly to defend the country. But all it took was for a microbe practically to close the world for repairs. It has forced people to rethink how Planet Earth’s operating system can function; not only now, in the throes of the pandemic but in the future too.

I talk about the six sectors that are now under reconstruction as our planet’s operating system is being rebooted.  They are:

  • Education
  • Elections
  • Retail
  • Transportation
  • Religion, and of course
  • Healthcare

Breaking news is broken. The replacement parts are not available.

Ok, I am being facetious here in my post headline. But what annoys me is how news organizations continue to parrot the ‘Breaking news…..” model, trying to get our attention, when the news is not actually breaking. It’s often late to the party, and the story is fractured.

Did you hear the one about the Nobel prize winner from Japan who claimed he had reason to believe Coronavirus was designed in a lab in Wuhan?  If you did,  I hope you did not share this story on WhatsApp because the story was a fake. Plausible? Yes.  But it was completely manufactured. 

Many acts of disinformation are manufactured on a grain of truth, but upon that grain are placed smooth pebbles of faulty data, and these support larger rocks, perilously balanced to form what looks like some pleasing artifact.

The person in that twisted story was Tasuku Honjo, a professor at Kyoto University who won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. He and an American researcher had found a way to manipulate the body’s immune system to combat cancer. He had never worked in a lab in Wuhan China, and never said that “the Coronavirus is not natural. It did not come from bats. China manufactured it.”  (See professor Honjo’s statement here) And yet, it spread like wild fire. Or rather, like a virus. Jumping from human to human because we just don’t understand how to ‘social’ distance ourselves from social media and misinformation. 

Before today’s keyboard warriors were even born, countries including the US employed such tactics. In 1693 England a printer, William Anderton, was executed for publishing stories against the monarchy. In the US around 1898 another William, published fake stories about Spain triggering the Spanish-American war.  That was newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst !

Today’s breaking news model, practiced by not just the large TV networks but by lazy cut-and-paste ‘reporters’ (repeaters, really!) simply recycles this model. And unfortunately it works. Even the president is doing it. 

 

My typewriter, a Corona

My typewriter shuttles between home and my computer lab. So when I brought it back from school last week I was surprised to see it was a Corona.

The company that made these marvelous machines was actually Smith Corona. This model goes back to 1935!  I love the sound of the keys as I type. Interestingly I use it in demos when introducing keyboarding in class each semester. You should see the rush of students waiting to use the clickety-clack machine –in a class filled with 34 computers!

On an interesting side note, you should watch this TED talk that I had referenced some time back. It’s how a technology innovator names Aparna Rao, hacked a typewriter to enable it to send email! Why? Because it helped her uncle feel he was typing a letter, and still give him the ability to email. Fast forward to 1 min, 14 secs for this segment.

Covid, the back yard, and a camera – Serendipitous moments

Sometimes photographs just present themselves! On Monday we got our first batch of peaches from a yard we seem to be spending more time in now, courtesy Covid-19.

Having just co-taught a photography class, I am revisiting how depth of field, and ISO settings on my trusty (old) Nikon might make a still image more interesting.

There’s also the serendipitous moment when the morning sun filters through the trees on to a beaten up old log that the Montessori kids use for woodwork.

And yes, the peaches, about the size of large strawberries, are really, really sweet.