Monthly Archives: July 2005

A Smart Analysis on the State of News Media

Richard Posner, being the inhumanely prolific writer he is, also had a thorough and smart analysis of the state of the news media in today’s NYT Book Review. It is required reading for anyone looking to figure out the “why” and “so what” when it comes to the dizzying array of news media options; claims of increasing polarization in news media; the effects of blogs (one of the most sensible approaches on blogs I’ve read); and why moans that we’ve hit rock bottom may not apply to the sliver of the intelligentsia who deliberate on public issues. Excerpts:

The argument that competition increases polarization assumes that liberals want to read liberal newspapers and conservatives conservative ones. Natural as that assumption is, it conflicts with one of the points on which left and right agree – that people consume news and opinion in order to become well informed about public issues. Were this true, liberals would read conservative newspapers, and conservatives liberal newspapers, just as scientists test their hypotheses by confronting them with data that may refute them. But that is not how ordinary people (or, for that matter, scientists) approach political and social issues. The issues are too numerous, uncertain and complex, and the benefit to an individual of becoming well informed about them too slight, to invite sustained, disinterested attention. Moreover, people don’t like being in a state of doubt, so they look for information that will support rather than undermine their existing beliefs. They’re also uncomfortable seeing their beliefs challenged on issues that are bound up with their economic welfare, physical safety or religious and moral views.

So why do people consume news and opinion? In part it is to learn of facts that bear directly and immediately on their lives – hence the greater attention paid to local than to national and international news. They also want to be entertained, and they find scandals, violence, crime, the foibles of celebrities and the antics of the powerful all mightily entertaining. And they want to be confirmed in their beliefs by seeing them echoed and elaborated by more articulate, authoritative and prestigious voices. So they accept, and many relish, a partisan press. Forty-three percent of the respondents in the poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center thought it ”a good thing if some news organizations have a decidedly political point of view in their coverage of the news.”

Thus the increase in competition in the news market that has been brought about by lower costs of communication (in the broadest sense) has resulted in more variety, more polarization, more sensationalism, more healthy skepticism and, in sum, a better matching of supply to demand. But increased competition has not produced a public more oriented toward public issues, more motivated and competent to engage in genuine self-government, because these are not the goods that most people are seeking from the news media. They are seeking entertainment, confirmation, reinforcement, emotional satisfaction; and what consumers want, a competitive market supplies, no more, no less. Journalists express dismay that bottom-line pressures are reducing the quality of news coverage. What this actually means is that when competition is intense, providers of a service are forced to give the consumer what he or she wants, not what they, as proud professionals, think the consumer should want, or more bluntly, what they want.

Yet what of the sliver of the public that does have a serious interest in policy issues? Are these people less well served than in the old days? Another recent survey by the Pew Research Center finds that serious magazines have held their own and that serious broadcast outlets, including that bane of the right, National Public Radio, are attracting ever larger audiences. And for that sliver of a sliver that invites challenges to its biases by reading The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, that watches CNN and Fox, that reads Brent Bozell and Eric Alterman and everything in between, the increased polarization of the media provides a richer fare than ever before.

The Social Responsibilities of Corporations

In previous posts I have professed my support for integrated corporate philanthropy and the model of devoting 1% of employee time, profits, and pre-IPO equity to a charitable cause. I believed at the time – and still do – that corporations can do good by doing well and that there are a number of unquantifiable morale benefits in the workplace when employees feel like they are part of a bigger cause above and beyond profits. That being said, I admit to drifting right in my support for free markets and minimal government interference. (In general, I find some liking in some neoconservative tenets.) So, I found Richard Posner’s recent posts (part one, part two) on the social responsibilities of corporations provocative to say the least. As you can imagine, Posner, given his propensity to link everything to markets and economics, thinks corporations provide maximum social benefits by maximizing return to shareholders. There is a lot to be said for this viewpoint. Both he and Becker venture into other areas of corporate law and economics on which I do not have sufficient understanding to comment intelligently. I will, though, excerpt this quote from Posner where he veers off course:

One comment that I am quite sympathetic to is that the social return to profit-maximizing activities may actually be higher than the social return to corporate philanthropy, when “corporate philanthropy” isn’t just a fancy name for public relations. As I argued in an earlier post, philanthropy directed at poor countries may actually reduce the welfare of those countries, and the same is probably true to an extent of purely domestic charity. The general effect of charity is to postpone the making of difficult decisions. For example, philanthropic gifts, private or public, to the arts retard serious efforts by artists and artistic organizations to create work for which there is a genuine interest on the part of the public, and philanthropic gifts to universities help to shield them from competitive pressures.

A commenter has smartly replied: “Who decided that popularity was the purpose and overarching goal of art? Did I miss a meeting? The primary rationale for supporting arts with philanthropy is the desire to encourage art that is potentially unpopular but hopefully mind-expanding.”

We're All Postmodern Now

In the latest Columbia Journalism Review (no online edition) there’s a great essay titled “We’re all postmodern now: even journalists have realized that facts don’t always add up to the truth.” It says basically that the postmodernists have won and that journalists are just starting to concede that a utopia of pure objectivity and factual reporting is not reality. “Spin” is here to stay. Excerpts:

In the final third of the 20th century, journalism had seemed the last bastion of certainty, of hardheaded realism. While the arts, the humanities, elements of the social sciences, and even aspects of the sciences, were grappling with notions of interpretation and uncertainty, most reporters held onto the very 19th century notion that facts were independent of interpretation; that they were discrete and merely required “collecting.” …Journalists were content to ignore postmodernism – a loose collection of philosophical ideas and aesthetic notions that have in common a revolt against the belief that any one perspective, any one view of reality, has ultimate priority. Deconstruction [is] perhaps postmodernism’s most dynamic incarnation…Deconstruction and other postmodern theories have long argued interpretation is inextricably bound with reality….

The ideology of no ideology took hold in American journalism and maintained its grip long after the limits of realism became clear in art, literature, philosophy, and even, to an extent, physics. The “inverted pyramid” – a perfect vessel for contextless, virginal facts – was seen as holy. In the second half of the 20th century, objectivity became the American journalist’s creed….

News sources, too, have been helping pile interpretation upon interpretation. Developing alongside the great journalistic fact-gathering machines in the 20th century was the great science of public relations. Newsmakers now spin with enough dexterity and industriousness to make us all dizzy. Everyone senses this. Is there any better evidence both of the ubiquity of spin and of the recognition of the ubiquity of spin than the name that is now universally applied to the space outside our quadrennial national debates – spin alley? To allow yourself to be spun while knowing you are being spun in a quintessential postmodern experience.

Managing Expectations Critical in Human Interactions

In my very first focus group with a city manager he told me “A big challenge for me is managing the expectations of my citizens in an age where consumers can now order a book online today and receive it tomorrow. That’s not the case for fixing potholes.” We have a number of features in my company’s software that makes it easier for administrative officials to manage citizen expectations around customer service.

But expectations are terribly important in any life interaction. The word “disappointment” is completely relative to what a person is expecting. You don’t have complete control of someone’s expectations on projects/jobs/communications, but you can certainly do things to manage them. Most people try to lower another person’s expectations so they can “under promise, over deliver.” This is fine, but it makes it harder for you to keep raising the standard for yourself because a key way that happens is by other people pushing you, by saying “I think you can do it one notch better.”

When high flying executives suffer a major crash in morale and self-esteem, it is usually because they contributed to meteoric rise in others’ expectations in their performance by not being as candid about their vulnerabilities and weaknesses. If you lead other people to believe that you are superman, then the smallest of small mistakes will not be in line with others’ expectations, and you will fall. It’s human nature to cheer for the underdog, and see the hero fail. Hence my distaste for larger-than-life CEOs.

Friends of Ben: Steve Silberman

I’ve been remiss in not updating the Friends of Ben series (where I profile interesting friends of mine) as often as I should but after a deeply thought provoking conversation with today’s feature I resolved to update it.

Network: Ben Casnocha > Cole Valley Neighborhood/Blogging > Steve Silberman

Google: Steve Silberman

Steve is a contributing editor at Wired magazine where he’s been for 10 years. I first met Steve more than a year ago when he emailed me saying he was a fellow Cole Valley resident in SF. Since from time to time I do interviews with press people I was expecting another of the same. It turned out that Steve was unlike any other journalist I had met with – he wasn’t interested in business as much as the people behind them. He wasn’t interested in Comcate as much as me, the person; a living breathing person with experiences and feelings and complexities.

Talking with Steve reminds me that life is about people, corporations are about people. I’ve always had appreciation for anyone who has studied human behavior, cognitive science, or psychology. No matter how many layers of suits one hides behind, no matter how staunchly one projects a certain identity to achieve a certain goal, at our core there is something very primal and authentic and common about the way humans act. Few people in this world are able to penetrate the barriers we put up around ourselves that only are disarmed when we are sitting in bed in darkness, unable to sleep, engulfed in our own conscious. We are the only ones who know what is rattling around in our inner-selves. It is a great struggle (and an innate urge) for humans to communicate these inner thoughts to people close to you. Most of us fail, and the sane people of the world can manage this failure of communication by living in the company of their own thoughts and feelings that others do not understand.

What’s remarkable about Steve is his ability to get as close to those inner thoughts as anyone has, for me at least. Through razor blunt but gently kind questions we grappled with some of the issues I’ve written about on this blog – narcissisism, college, relationships with peers, and so forth.

The most heartening take away for me from our chat was that many of these life developmental issues require two sets of skills – a skill to develop a framework for thinking about it (being able to have conversations with others or yourself about them), and then the skills themselves – like empathy, love, etc. – which we all have the genetic capacity for, but only some of us develop to the fullest extent possible.

Book Reviews: Plan B and Lawrence Kohlberg's Approach to Moral Education

I’ve read 24 books this summer which seems like a lot but isn’t when compared to the stack of books on my desk and the 82 books on my Amazon wish list! So, I’m going to try to “turn it on” in the 30 days left of my summer.

I’ll put Aristotle: The Desire to Understand (wasn’t dumbed down enough for me) and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (not my kind of humor) to one side because I’d rather talk about Anne Lamott’s Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith and Clark Power’s Lawrence Kohlberg’s Approach to Moral Education.

I excerpted from Plan B a few weeks ago and listened to the audiobook on some long drives I had recently. This book was full of touching stories and humbling reflections on life and Anne Lamott’s spirituality. At times it got a little too touchy-feely for me (and she went on far too long bitching about George Bush – give me a break) but on the whole this is Lamott at her best. Her prose is awesome – I even scribbled down some of her phrases on my Blackberry at a red light: “Laughter is carbonated happiness” or “Life works because not everyone is nuts on the same day” or “Are you drowning in uncried tears?”

Clark Power’s review of Lawrence Kohlberg’s approach to moral education was equally engrossing, for I have always wondered what the best way for schools (or any formal institution, for that matter) should teach/talk about morals and values. This is a very tough topic for self-described “aggressively secular” private schools like the one I go to. First, the book recaps Kohlberg’s six stages of moral judgment – starting with avoiding rules backed by punishment, to following rules only when it is in your immediate interest, to “being good” and living up to expectations, and culminating in the sixth stage of following self-chosen ethical principles and acting on the principle even when they conflict with a certain law or social agreement. Few people ever reach the sixth stage. After learning that even by age 18 one’s cognitive development is not nearly complete (Yay! The more brain cells the better, baby!) we are taken into the heart of Cluster School, a school founded by Kohlberg that is premised on complete democratic governance with each student and teacher having one vote in school decisions. It is clear that by providing students the opportunity to grapple with tough administrative decisions, they are developing moral reasoning skills that otherwise go undeveloped until they are out in the real world and decide to, you know, fudge the numbers or perform some other great moral deed that is Enron/Worldcom/Arthur Anderson.

David Foster Wallace's Brilliant Commencement Speech

After getting a trackback ping from a professor at Case Western Reserve University, I came across David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College. As a DFW fan (the guy’s a brilliant writer, and I have his 1,000 page Infinite Jest on my bookshelf waiting for me) I checked it out and now declare it required reading for everyone. He starts off by saying that the biggest cliché in commencement speeches is that the value of your liberal arts education isn’t what you learn but that it “teaches you how to think.” Rather, he thinks the value of the liberal arts education is that it gives you the ability to choose what to think. It’s incredibly thought provoking in ways well beyond what college means as he dissects how we are our own point of view. Intrigued? Go read it and become smarter after 5 minutes. I have included my favorite parts below, it’s long enough that I didn’t blockquote it.

“Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realist, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted”, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education — least in my own case — is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.
As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience….

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out…

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.
Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you… Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

The All-You-Can Eat Reno Buffet

I’m in Reno currently for a summer basketball league tournament and two days ago, after winning our second game of the day (I hit a buzzer beater jumper from the top of the key!) we headed to the Circus Circus buffet. We were in high spirits especially since we defeated a strong team from Boston (gotta represent the Bay Area). The ten players and three coaches were truly pumped about the buffet. On the way over, I remarked to a coach, “I’m going to hit the buffet as hard as I hit the boards today.” To a fellow teammates, I remarked, “I’m going to the hit the buffet as hard as I hit the ladies.”

Once at the buffet, we gorged ourselves with food. We’re all burning so many calories playing ball that no one is concerned about how much food we consume. Just eat eat eat. After downing two humongous plates of food and two full cups of 2% milk, I took a little break. Immediately I faced questions. “So Ben, what’s going on? Is that it? Just two plates?” A minute later – “Ben, tell me you’re not heading to desert already?”

My friend Andy keenly observed, “You know, I don’t think girls would like it here.” Indeed.

The Framing Wars – Language and Substance in Debate

I just read a must-read article called The Framing Wars, the cover story in yesterday’s NYTimes Magazine. It is an enormously informative, entertaining, and instructive piece that looks inside the Democratic struggle to match the art that Republicans have mastered: using language to frame the debate to suit one’s point of view. The excellent writer Matt Bai implicitly makes points about the rhetorical devices of framing (and the associated cognitive/emotional causes of how we pick which side of the debate to be on) that appeal to anyone who spends some portion of their day trying to convince someone of something. It’s long, so print and read (even if you’re squeezed tight into a train, like I was). I find these longer, quasi-news/quasi-analysis pieces so much stronger than the daily he-said she-said politics coverage of most rags – especially since the writer isn’t afraid to bring his or her own voice and opinion into the piece.

Thinking Just One Degree Differently

When I was in Zurich I met a Swiss student who is starting his own clothing brand company and is already selling t-shirts to peers. I encouraged him to continue on his entrepreneurial path and he told me something that really rang true: “All it takes is thinking just one degree differently from everyone else.” It reminded me of a piece of advice my old mentor Anthony More told me: “Don’t think outside of the box – people who do are crazy. Just expand the box in which you think.”

Let’s take the never ending quest to come up with new ideas. All too often I see people who exhaust their energy (and confidence) by searching for the next world-changing idea. Maybe they’ll throw up their arms and say “All the good ideas are taken!” Yep! Most new ideas are just combinations of existing ideas or it is looking at an existing idea just a little bit differently. Brainstorming – and entrepreneurship – doesn’t have to be this arduous task where if you’re not some mad genius you fail. It’s actually much cleaner and simpler (“work smarter, not harder”) in my opinion. Think about things just one degree differently and you may be pleasantly surprised. Now…HOW do you think about things one degree differently? That’s a subject for another time!