September 17, 2006

Adventures in Unpaid Freelancing, aka Citizen Journalism - Nonlethal Weapon Edition

[This post is dedicated to those people sincerely self-deluded or professionally delusional who think the bogosphere is democracy's (not demagoguery's) last best hope on Earth]

When I saw the Air Force / Non-lethal weapons testing story, on a mailing list, critical thought lead me to be immediately skeptical. So I started to dig around for material to write a reply (note the context is that I assume, or at least hope, members of the mailing-list will read the reply).

First problem, why blogging doesn't work: Blog references to the article are virtually all echoes or rants about it. In a hot story, there's piles and piles of these, making finding actual information difficult. I couldn't find any explanatory material. Just lots of arguing.

So I decided to do some actual work, and called the Air Force to ask them about what was really said. Note there's no incentive to do this. Just to argue.

It's really very easy. The media people just ask your name and affiliation.

Note from the field: I'd feel absolutely ludicrous replying to such a question by saying "I'm a citizen journalist". It sounds ridiculous. Worse than "I'm second-class", because even being second-class at least is in the rankings. More like "I'm a nobody pompously playing make-believe". Anyway, these days, one of the minor benefits of all the blog-hype is that saying "I'm a blogger" works well enough, not requiring involved explanations.

And I was promptly emailed a transcript. Which is sadly just the start of the effort required if I'm going to try to make much use of the material.

Now, if I want to be heard in the bogosphere, I have to pitch to gatekeepers. Which ones? Note you really have to know the "Writer's Market" here (the blog-evangelist's idea that, little Z-lister, you can make a hyperlink to the big boy's story, and some day, someone might actually search and follow it amidst all the spam and me-too and hell-in-a-handbasket, and read YOU-YES-YOU, doesn't that prospect just fill you with thrills at civic participation, come to the meConference and work for free - these people have nothing on "Let them eat cake").

The problem is that the left-wing side would not be interested in a debunking of the latest They're-Coming-To-Get-Us, and the right-wing side, well, that's a dangerous game. I suppose I could have asked some of the media A-listers for attention ("looky looky here, cit-i-zen jour-nal-ism"). But frankly, the thinker BigHeads don't send all that much traffic. Their specific power is more indirect, of nominating a person as worthy of being a junior club-member. And asking them for links also involves the backscratching relationships, where they may feel that criticism is disloyal (another aspect where personal nature tends to lead to cliquishness).

I settled for some comments, which drew a few dozen hits, and trying the Boingers (post accepted, ~ 1500 hits). All in all, it was a drop in the bucket, and arguably a lot of wasted time on my part. I know people are going to say it was worth it. But the problem there is that doesn't consider the cost to me, versus the lack of benefit to me.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather , journo | on September 17, 2006 11:58 PM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

Subscribe with Bloglines      Subscribe in NewsGator Online  Google Reader or Homepage


OK, lots of ground to potentially cover, but I'll try to pick my shots in the interest of brevity:

+ Back in the days of my involvement with's "table talk" BBS, a great thread-killer was to actually follow up on the sensational story and report your findings. One breathless thread concerned library censorship. I went to my local library and asked about it. I posted the information I received. Cricket noises and cobwebs followed.

+ Reading between the lines somewhat, if not filling them with the mortar of my own points of view, this post again strikes me as being rooted in the hopes of Thought Leadership. 1500 inbound links is a fair traffic spike, in my estimation, but if nothing comes of it, I ask, what was meant to come of it? I assume (hem hem) that the intent was to pave over the breathless speculation with hard and fast truth about (in this case) the Air Force's testing program. If so, good luck. One attempt or a million can all be wastes of time if none of it "sticks". And these days, despite plenty of bully pulpits to go around, how often do we hear the phrase "Al Gore claims to have invented the Internet" (he did not)? Some people have no need of facts, especially if they get in the way of a good story. Or like the joke about the conservative "concrete" mind: All mixed up and set in stone.

+ Again, I am not clear on intent versus results in this case, but if a single data point is being used to justify a conclusion, then I have to liken this to discrediting erosion because someone held a rock under the faucet for 20 seconds and nothing significant happened. Martin Luther King, et al organized HUGE demonstrations, etc, for years, before the Civil Rights Act was enacted. Attention and numbers isn't enough. Meaningful action is required. And playing "inside the system" may not be the answer either. If everyone followed the accepted script, Jay Leno wouldn't be the host of the Tonight Show.

+ This is as good as it gets first thing in the morning; here's hoping the above made a lick of sense.

Posted by: Ethan at September 18, 2006 10:10 AM

Absolutely, I hoped committing an act of journalism would have some significant effect. You're right, that I should know better by now. I consider it a bad habit I should work harder to break (by the way 1500 hits, not 1500 links - a number of readers which is less than the typical A-lister's post about the hot party).

Ironic that you mention the incident about the Internet quote and Al Gore.

I think there's value in documenting failure. But maybe that's my own delusion.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at September 18, 2006 12:24 PM

There are many things wrong (in my meaningless view) with this post of yours. The first and foremost one, and a recurring one at that, is the whining and bitching that is its underlying theme. Lose the "A-listers" term. That there are bloggers that get the hits that don't really deserve them is obvious. That's it's some sort of personal assault on you and your noble ambition is bullshit. More important than all that is that it makes reading you like having to endure hard chalk dragged across an old shiny black board (if there any of those left). Drop the whining. Make your point critiquing blog organization and investigative technique, or lack thereof. If it's strong it'll stand on its own (even in any empty room). If it's not, it won't.

You might view yourself as some champion of the truth but, regarding AP, I'd say that the vast majority of its wire stories blindly favor government story lines without critical analysis and certainly without critical investigation. That all it takes is a single call to get clarification is something you can find having been made and posted about thousands of times on independent blogs. You take one case and ignore the vast majority of hard working truth seeking (sorry for the now cliched term used most often by the now unemployed Mike Malloy).

AP has put out far more than its share of biased superficial stories. It's rare that the essence of the story is critical of government. It's usually the opposite. Regarding news services I was always amazed at the take down of Knight-Ridder. When I read that it's profit margin was in the area of twenty percent and yet it was described as in danger of going out of business I wondered what the basis for that line was. Of course Knight-Ridder was the lone "knight" in quality investigative journalism all through the tsunami of lies put forth by the current government. So a profit margin that I've little doubt far exceeds that of Wal-Mart (I'm guessing. I didn't investigate.) turned into a basis for a Wall Street take down. And you're whining about some schmuck that shoots his mouth off about doing it (using new military weapons) to Americans first as not having his words parsed carefully enough by AP! Here's a tech note. Maybe you can send him some good books on context-free grammars so he won't have to worry about multiple possible interpretations. I wonder whose interpretation would actually be derived.

Your complaint about finding information through the web sounds like what finding any information on the web was like before Google made web searches far more direct. In the "old days" using a web search engine involved scanning a couple of dozen pages of links of zero value in order to find a couple that were even vaguely useful. So the problem you describe (ignoring that comments aren't a primary source for anything other than the nature of a blog's community) is a lack of quality search tools for news and political blogs. At least the search tools you're using. Need I mention that Google's algorithm has something of a built-in "A-lister" rating for links to search topics.

You pat yourself on the back for making a phone call and use that to denigrate blogs when it's often blogs that make the phone calls (and in some cases thousands of calls and thousands of walk in questions - see Daily Kos or TPM) where the "mainstream" news purveyors couldn't be bothered. As you mentioned, sometimes those calls counter the story line. Stove-piping? Cherry picking? Where have I heard those phrases before?

Looking at the news services and the media and press as a whole over the last decade and more and comparing them to the current surge in blogs as information sources I for one have no doubt which one provides more critical and even more investigative based analysis of news events. The mainstream organizations may actually do the phone calls but often they don't tell the story or they "balance" the story between credible statements and "in"credible statements. Then there's the Washington Post method of putting one theme on page A01 and another on page A17. A filled stadium compared to an empty room.

Are the current blogs perfect? Shit no! I'm certainly not an outright cheerleader or left wing ditto-head but the left leaning blogs have far more credibility - and credibility based on work effort - than anything I've seen in a very very long time. And unlike Judith Miller, I don't think many of them have places in Sag Harbor for their efforts. Markos was able to buy a house though. Yay! for the riches derived from blogs.

I'll go further. There's a blogger that I don't particularly like. Matt Stoller of MyDD (DD stood for "due diligence" though that may not have had enough of a common understanding so I think they may have changed its meaning). A while back Stoller started pushing copyright abuses as a political theme. It was an obvious attempt to motivate a large block of people that probably aren't that politically oriented. The iPod crowd. Use as a rallying theme the problems of not being able to easily listen to music you've bought and paid for in a manner you had thought straight forward. It was lame and obvious and Stoller seemed to quickly tire of the idea, which may have been a good one but getting people to listen when you can hear their iPods blasting across a moving subway car isn't an easy matter. Anyway, I pointed out that his approach was superficial and lacking in understanding of the vastness of the history and abuses of copyright and intellectual property laws. This was on BOPNews, now apparently defunct (from my view thanks to Stoller). I suggested he check Cory Doctorow on Maybe he did.

Sometime after the copyright theme Stoller picked up on the telecom attempts to take control of the Internet. Again, this was not a new problem and one of the initial warnings that there was a problem could be found in an excellent piece by Doc Searls. With all due respect to Stoller, I doubt there are many people that had more impact in stopping the passing of a law that would have helped facilitate a telecom take over of the Internet than he did. Searls may have shown a light on a danger but Stoller opened the eyes of thousands of people and, with many other blogs, motivated them to defend themselves and their rights. They made a few phone calls in the process. The fight for control of the Internet isn't over and Stoller will likely be there when needed - making phone calls.

Posted by: Amos Anan at September 18, 2006 12:41 PM

"I know people are going to say it was worth it. But the problem there is that doesn't consider the cost to me, versus the lack of benefit to me."

Since when do people consider the cost/benefit ratio of other people's blogging? News to me.

Welcome to the age of free media etc.

I've never like the concept of "Citizen's Journalism" much, anyway. Journalists are citizens ,too.

Posted by: Hugh MacLeod at September 18, 2006 01:18 PM

Seth, I just linked to your site from the Sideshow. My interest is in being informed, being entertained, and connecting with interesting community. I have about 25 blogs that I rotate through regularly. You are now on my list. Hang in there.

Posted by: dustnashes at September 18, 2006 09:20 PM

Seth, I just linked from The Sideshow. My interests are in being informed, being entertained, and connecting with sentient community. I regularly sift through about 25 blogs, usually every day. You are now on my list. Hang in there.

Posted by: dustnashes at September 18, 2006 09:27 PM

I've gotten a big kick out of the last year or so reading about how blogs are the answer to all reporting issues. How newspapers and print journalism is going to fail. About how the blogs alone will be able to keep us all informed.

I'm not saying that blogs don't have a place, I really think they do. But, they are, more often than not, a) opinion, b) opinion on somthing that was initially reported on by the existing news media.

While many print stories are stretches of the truth, as this one is, to think that the blogs are going to straighten it out is ludicrous. As you mention, all you find is hype, and from hype and argument, comes more hype and argument. Why would people check into the facts versus just dashing off another inflamatory post.

So for the comment "more critical and even more investigative based analysis " that was posted in your comments, investigative based analysis takes time, and, would a blogger rather take the time, or, get his/her posting up on Digg. Or, rather, would they wait for the print/news media to do the work, then jump all over them for something that was right, or wrong in their story.

So, we have bad print journalism sometimes. Yup, probably happens a lot. Anyone can site examples of how they get it wrong, either by mistake, or even on purpose. But to believe that a blogger is going to get it right more often, after wading through x number of bloggers saying the same thing over and over to find the one new nugget of information, is just plain silly. If you depend on your information from blogs, you're going to seriously be missing out on a lot of information.

Posted by: Tim Halbur at September 19, 2006 08:34 AM

Another visitor from the Sideshow. Thanx for doing the legwork on the Air Force story. I was not at all surprised at what you found, namely that the AF was testing this system on Americans first in order to get a good baseline as to what sort of medical damage to expect. Maybe some were hysterical at this news but me, I've been reading about this nasty thing for years. Oh, BTW, two words - corner reflector

Posted by: darms at September 19, 2006 12:50 PM