March 26, 2003

Felten, more on conference / press and Al Gore - Internet

Edward Felten has an interesting response to my reply to his article discussing conferences and reporters:

I can see [Seth's] point, [but] I think hatchet-job stories are pretty rare in the respectable media, and I also think that most readers recognize such stories and discount them.

Regrettably, I have to disagree on both points. It's not even so much a problem of hatchet-job intent per se. Rather, suppose a reporter has been sent to a conference which turns out to be boring. Nothing much has happened. All statements are moderate and sedate. Does he or she go back and turn in an item that nothing happened? There's great incentive to make-up some conflict, to find a way to create a controversy or fabricate some disagreement.

I don't think I'm writing anything especially radical there. Just somewhat cynical. And the vast majority of the reporters can be ethical. It doesn't matter. All that's necessary is one reporter to decide it would be more profitable to write fiction instead of fact, and that may be the one piece that gets published. Because it's "interesting".

The companies who don't want representatives to talk if the press is present, are likely thinking, "Why risk it?". That they'll get all the press benefits from their own professional PR flacks, who are trained for that task, while avoiding any chance of getting embroiled in a fabrication because a lazy journalist had some empty space which needed filling. And with a large group of companies, the chances increase that at least a few companies in the group will feel this way.

Note that Microsoft, arguably, is so rich, in terms of market and PR-power, that it can take such risks. It's in a situation where it knows it has a stable of friendly reporters who will write it walks on water, and also unfriendly reporters who will write Bill Gates is more evil than Satan himself. In fact, it almost starts off from an inverted situation, where the journo-spins are already firmly in place, and the fact-content can only go up! So it's not at all clear that the trade-offs Microsoft makes, generalize to any principle of openness.

And, wow, I don't think people discount such fabrications. No, not at all. I believe they think they do. Nobody has ever said to me "I'm gullible. I believe everything I read in the papers.". No, everyone is smart, tough, skeptical, checks it out. And is above average too.

The Gore example fascinates me for several reasons, but the threads of various ideas is one of them. Regarding:

(And though too much was made of Gore's statement, he did say, "I took the initiative in creating the Internet", which just isn't true. Yes, Gore deserves credit for promoting the Internet before almost anyone else on Capitol Hill had even heard of it; and yes, he did take the initiative in funding the Internet at a crucial stage of its build-out. But there is a big difference between creating something and merely paying for a stage of its construction.)

But Gore was in fact refering to his funding efforts. That's clear if his whole reply is read. Phil Agre has put it this way:

I did not say that Wired News had made up any quotations. So far as I am aware, the quotations in both of the Wired News articles got Gore's words right. Nor is the issue really one of quotation out of context, if by "context" we mean the words that Gore uttered immediately before and after the sentence about the Internet. (It is important to get that whole sentence, though, so that it's understood that he's talking about actions he took in the context of his service in Congress, and that he's not claiming, like a Tennessee version of Elena Ceaucescu, to have done the technical work.) I did feel that those articles paraphrased Gore's comments in tendentious ways, that they made several unfair and misleading arguments, and that their overall effect was to grossly distort both the clear meaning of what Gore said and the reality to which Gore referred. In particular, if we have to choose whether it was Gore or Wired News who engaged in "exaggeration", I think that Wired News would clearly be the winner.

Instead of looking at the clause in isolation, take a look what was in fact said by Gore:

BLITZER: I want to get to some of the substance of domestic and international issues in a minute, but let's just wrap up a little bit of the politics right now.

Why should Democrats, looking at the Democratic nomination process, support you instead of Bill Bradley, a friend of yours, a former colleague in the Senate? What do you have to bring to this that he doesn't necessarily bring to this process?

GORE: Well, I will be offering -- I'll be offering my vision when my campaign begins. And it will be comprehensive and sweeping. And I hope that it will be compelling enough to draw people toward it. I feel that it will be.

But it will emerge from my dialogue with the American people. I've traveled to every part of this country during the last six years. During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country's economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system.

Look at the preceding clause - "During my service in the United States Congress ...". Look at the sentence afterwards, "I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country's economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system". He's talking about all that he did in Congress. What's the clear meaning here? Who is in fact offering a "whopper of a tall tale", Gore's off-the-cuff phrasing, or the agenda-driven journalist who microparses it for scandal?

Isn't it understandable why some companies would not want to take a chance on having reporters present?

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in journo | on March 26, 2003 11:59 PM (Infothought permalink) | Followups
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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