Fake accounts

Parody: (1) a literary or musical work in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect or in ridicule. (2): a feeble or ridiculous imitation. (Merriam Webster). On the internet, many believe themselves parodists. However, if you take Merriam Webster’s definition as a standard, many among those many are just plain wrong. Posting fake news is not a parody. It is a lie.

This is a fake account. They declare it clearly on their profile. They are also in breach of Twitter’s impersonation policy.

Unfortunately, it is very easy to mistake this account for CNN. They misappropriate the CNN logo and use the same color scheme. This is what the actual CNN Breaking News account looks like:

First rule of thumb: check the profile of your Twitter source before you re-tweet. It only takes a click. If Twitter has verified the profile, it will display a check mark next to the name (they really should add that to every tweet, but they haven’t).  If the check mark isn’t there, the account is a fake, and might be in violation of the terms of service.

If you check so, you won’t be causing unnecessary grief to your friends by re-posting items like @CNN_BREAKING_’s hoax message about Nelson Mandela’s death. The account has since been suspended, but not before circulating “R.I.P Nelson Mandela” accompanied by a picture of Morgan Freeman (gasp!).

Mr. Mandela is in his death bed as of this writing. No one credible has reported otherwise. I won’t even comment on the accompanying picture of Morgan Freeman. SMH.

But, what about real accounts?  they can also spread false and unverified information. Here are two examples:

Gabby Giffords is NOT DEAD.
The AP account was hacked.

You are not defenseless in those situations either. You just should to wait before you tweet. While you wait, you can try to independently verify the information by triangulating. However, even then, waiting might be the best strategy. If reputable news organizations fall for the information, as they did in the NPR case, triangulation is pointless. However, false reports are usually debunked fairly quickly. The Joe Paterno death report is an example. That was debunked within 45 minutes.

Verifying information won’t kill you, and waiting won’t kill you. Please do it before you tweet.

Thank you.

Hoax about a hoax.

Have you ever heard of Mediamass? They describe themselves as a satirical website. Their goal is to skewer contemporary media by pointing out the flaws of mass production. I have no problem with satires that target the mass media, if they are done in a way that most people would  identify the content as satire without further explanation. That’s behind the success of The Onion, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report. They’re court jesters, reminding society of its flaws, one exaggeration at the time.

Unfortunately, that is not Mediamass. The problem is execution. You can’t tell it’s satire just by looking at their content because their concept is “to select the most typical, representative and recurrent articles across Gossip magazines and to make them available for all the celebrities in our database.” In praxis, that translates into a stockpile of articles that Mediamass uses for everyone. Nelson Mandela, Henry Cavill, and Brian Wilson are just a few examples. I did not post screen captions of any of these pieces, though I have them available. The reason? Mediamass doesn’t want you to “reproduce” any of their stuff, “even with permission.” Protective much?

There is a clue that these news are fake. The update link takes you back Mediamass’ “About us” page, which explains their project. I have mixed feelings about this strategy. On the one hand, once your read the description of what Mediamass is/does, then it is clearly a satire. On the other hand,  satire doesn’t need to add a disclaimer. You can recognize the satire in Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal because no sane person would propose  cannibalism as a remedy for poverty. The exaggeration is evident, as is the object of the satire.

When taken as a whole, the exaggeration and its object are also evident in Mediamass, once you read the “about us” section of their website and other disclaimers they have posted. In their words, “Mediamass articles in the People section are inherently fictitious – but based on real news. Thus, the theoretical possibility of each story, multiplied by thousands of celebrities in our database, makes it statistically inevitable that once in a while one of our fictionnal [sic] story fits the reality.” This is what happened when actor James Gandolfini died. On that day, Mr. Gandolfini received the Mediamass treatment, joining Mandela, Cavill, Wilson, and everyone else. The story has since been taken down, probably due to the backlash that ensued. I highly doubt that, though.  Mediamass replaced the Gandolfini piece with this article, but they also published a second piece, claiming Gandolfini is still alive.

That is standard operating procedure at Mediamass when it comes to confirmed celebrity deaths. They shift gears, and they can do so easily. After all, that’s the beauty of their collection of stock articles. They can just switch out the story.  That is how Gandolfini  received the same treatment as Pierre Mauroy, former French Prime Minister, and Jean Stapleton.

I think the best way to describe Mediamass is not satire. The site is a great example of Simulacra. Mediamass sticks very close to being plausible by design, because their brand of satire relies on the aggregation of content. They are skewering mass production, and what better way is there to mock mass production than to mass produce? However, their “network of artificial signs [is] inextricably mixed up with real elements” (Baudrillard,, 1994, p. 20), which winds up leading the reader back to “the real.” The sad part, though, is not what happens when someone seeking information stumbles upon one of Mediamass’ articles and believes it. The real problem is when media organizations do it. It’s even worse when they copy and paste material from Mediamass to debunk a hoax without acknowledging that they got it from Mediamass. Hoax debunking site Wafflesatnoon bemoaned this practice in their entry about Mediamass.

Perhaps the best lesson to take away from Mediamass is that we need to hone media literacy skills. Even then, we might fall for a hoax, or a hoax about a hoax. As for it’s ability to make society reflect upon the ills of mass produced media, that’s plausible, but only if you read the disclaimer. Otherwise, you would have a hard time figuring out what they’re trying to do.

Does that defy the purpose of the project? You tell me.

Once more, with feeling

NBC, the licensed broadcaster for the London Olympics, used the closing ceremony as the lead in for its new show, Animal Practice. Would you like to know what the peacock used as the lead out?

They used The Who’s performance at the closing ceremony.

A good lead in is always expected to boost the ratings of the show that follows. That is why broadcast networks often choose to premiere new offerings after big events, such as the Superbowl or the closing ceremony of an olympic. The hope in this case is that  Animal Practice will manage to hang on to the closing ceremony audience, which will allow NBC to declare its decision a success.

I guess we’ll have to wait for Nielsen to publish the ratings, but maybe not. For example, CBS already considers the lead-in effect is considered a given, even before any numbers are available.

I have no doubt that there will be a lead in effect. How big it will be remains to be seen.

#NBCFail and the new Heidi Game (updated)

I have been watching the olympics faithfully, but not on NBC. It’s one of the unexpected benefits of visiting my homeland, Nicaragua. Unlike NBC, our local licensee, Canal 10, is showing the London games live, and though their commercial breaks are often clumsy, at least they’re not the subject of a widespread backlash, nor has anyone from Canal 10 taken to Twitter to complain about whinny viewers. Nope, that was Vivian Schiller, NBC’s Chief Digital Officer.

I understand tape delays. It’s like Les Moonves says, if you don’t use the tape delay, you wouldn’t have anything to show during prime time. If you make your money from selling commercials, prime time is where you want to show your premium content. The thing is, though, that you can still monetize the olympics while airing the signature events live, and without infuriating your audience. In Canada, CTV is doing just that. Its live telecast of the opening ceremony broke audience records for Canada, just like NBC’s did for the US. The big difference is that while NBC is garnering a lot of ill will from the audience that uses social media, Canadian viewers love CTV. I just wish NBC would stop pretending that tape delays are live. Why not call the olympic prime time coverage what it is, a highlights show?

However, the issue is not just about tape delays. American audiences are using Twitter to complain about NBC’s handling of the olympics as a whole. For instance, their decision to replace Akram Khan’s tribute to the victims of the London bombings of 2005 with an interview with Michael Phelps drew plenty of criticism.

NBC felt the edit was justified, though. It’s something routine, they said. Moreover, they did not stream the opening ceremony because they insist that it was just too complex for the internet. The opener needs context, which their anchors, Meredith Viera, Matt Lauer and Bob Costas would provide . The thing is that the context included memorable gaffes, such as Meredith Viera’s offhand comment about Tim Berners-Lee, and Matt Lauer’s quip about Madagascar. If this was an attempt at humor, Viera and Lauer failed, at least according to those annoyed viewers who took to Twitter.

As if this wasn’t enough, NBC has repeatedly spoiled its own primetime broadcast. The network holds back the main events, such as the Ryan Lochte – Michael Phelps show down in the 400 IM, only to reveal the outcome prior to the telecast. Missy Franklin’s gold medal performance in the pool was likewise spoiled, when the network decided to air a promo of her interview in the Today Show just minutes before showing the actual swim.

Spoling is nothing new. It’s a common activity that has emerged within what Henry Jenkins and others have come to call participatory culture. Spoiling is like a game, a challenge that extends the pleasure that people get out of watching television (see Jenkins, 2006). However, when NBC spoils itself, there is no challenge and no skill required. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of how participatory cultures operate online. These are cultures that take shape because of the technologies that allow people to create, share, and debate easily, and to feel that “their contributions matter” (Jenkins, Purushotma, Clinton, Weigel & Robinson, 2009, p 7).

NBC’s heavy handling of criticism on Twitter shows the opposite. The network clearly underestimated the backlash its complaint against Guy Adams would garner. Alerted by Twitter, NBC filed a complaint against Adams, a freelancer for The Independent, and got him  suspended from Twitter  for publishing Gary Zenkel’s email address. Zenkel is the president of NBC Olympics, and Adams encouraged irate tweetizens to email their complaints to this NBC executive. This is a violation of the Terms of Service, according to Twitter, though it is debatable that a corporate email should be considered private information. If it is, discontented twitter users didn’t buy it, and neither did The Independent and other critics. In fact, the entire incident was characterized as censorship of the worse variety, and also as hypocritical. After all, Spike Lee was not banned for tweeting what he thought was George Zimmerman’s home address. Twitter took plenty of flack for its role, and it reinstated and apologized to Adams. NBC rescinded its complaint, and now the network admits that they “didn’t initially understand the repercussions” of their action against Adams. That’s a pretty big admission. It makes me wonder if NBC understands how Twitter operates as a culture.

Granted, the peacock network is achieving its ratings objectives, but it has done so at the expense of the goodwill of some of the most media savvy fans of the olympics. These individuals are part of a new type of culture that has been enabled through our ability to connect, access, and share information. Yes, American audiences are watching NBC, unless there are other choices. Some of the more media savvy viewers are already bypassing NBC altogether. It’s not that hard. Just go to Reddit or Lifehacker, or read Jeff Jarvis’ column and you can learn all about it.

It’s obvious that today’s audiences are more savvy and can become vocal quite easily because the tools to express discontent are readily available. It’s the same tools we use to find out the results of olympic competitions before NBC’s primetime telecast. However, NBC goes on, and I can’t help but wonder if the peacock network is intent on matching the infamous Heidi Game of 1968.

To NBC’s credit, they did apologize for the Heidi Game. As of this writing, they haven’t acknowledged the barrage of negative comments posted on their Facebook page, and the only gesture to the audience, as far as I can tell, is that Jim Bell, executive producer of the olympic telecast, has responded to complaints through Twitter. For instance, here’s what he said about spoiling the results.

It’s a start, but is it enough? Bell also shared this entry from Business Insider on Twitter. I don’t think that something  titled  “Shut your pie-holes, people: NBC’s Olympics Coverage is Perfect” is going to win too many points for NBC. Surprisingly, the thousands of Twitter users availing themselves to the #NBCFail hash tag haven’t latched on to that one.

Let’s just hope that NBC gets better at harnessing social TV for the next olympic games. After all, they did buy the rights until 2020.

Death by Twitter

On Saturday, January 22, Onward State “killed” Joe Paterno. It took two tweets: The tweets have since been removed from Onward State’s feed.  The image above is a screen capture I took from Poyntner’s account of the incident. According to Poyntner, the timeline is as follows: (1) Onward State reports Joe Paterno’s death through twitter. The site subsequently goes down, apparently over flooded by incoming traffic. (2) 94.5 FM breaks the story on its own, but credits no sources. (3) CBS picks up the scent. They tweet a link to Joe Paterno’s obituary on their site.  It’s off to the races at that point, as the Huffington Post, Anderson Cooper, Poyntner, and Breaking News redistributed the story. What do all these sources have in common? None of them tried to confirm the reports before clicking the “tweet” button. Joe Paterno, as it turned out, was not dead yet. Paterno’s son and a spokesman for the Paterno family denied the story.

https://twitter.com/markcviera/statuses/160904588176793601

The question is, how could this happen? Shouldn’t professional journalists know better than to parrot anything from Twitter without checking?

Well, media do know better. As Eric Wemple points out, we should give “Bonus points for all the outlets that didn’t take the bait.” The AP wire, for one, did not take the bait because it couldn’t verify the original report. After all, when your source is Twitter chatter, you should be wary. Didn’t Jon Bon Jovi get the death by twitter treatment last December? As it turned out, Jeffrey Goho, a musician most of us had never even heard of before, started the rumor using Twitter. This time, established media outlets did nothing, that is, until Bon Jovi debunked the Goho’s hoax with a selfie.

So, what’s the difference between the Bon Jovi hoax and Paterno’s death by twitter? What made CBS hurry, when we all know that exaggerated rumors about celebrity deaths are a recurrent theme on twitter?

Here’s one possible answer: It’s all about the source. Granted, I’m not up to date on student run blogs. I had never heard about Onward State. This does not mean that the site isn’t a legitimate news source. Indeed, the site has been profiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Mashable as an up and coming student blog to watch. More ironically, though, US News and World Report described Onward State as being “as new as Joe Paterno is old.” Ouch!

But, what does this tell us about Onward State? It says that, up until the evening of Saturday, January 21 of 2012, Onward State was not seen as a little fringe blog. It was a little blog that could play with the big boys and girls of journalism. Unfortunately, today is January 22 and things have changed. Now, Onward State has become an example of how not to be a journalist.

My colleague, Andrea Duke, characterized Paterno’s death by twitter as one of those moments that remind us of the “whoops power of social media.”  She writes,  “You CANNOT report hearsay.  You CANNOT report assumptions.  You CANNOT report news that may or may not be true JUST to be the first to report it”

Yes, and this is also one of those moments in which we should reconsider how news is reported. We do rely on established news organizations to give us the facts, which means that we trust them to fact check. In this sense, Onward State is not the only outlet at fault. They made a huge mistake, and they have apologized profusely for it. In fact, Onward State has published two accounts of what happened, and how it happened. In one, the site’s founder, Davis Shaver, describes the controversy as “one of the worst moments of my entire life.” In the other one, managing editor Devon Edwards announces his resignation. He writes,

“I never, in a million years, would have thought that Onward State might be cited by the national media. Today, I sincerely wish it never had been. To all those who read and passed along our reports, I sincerely apologize for having mislead you. To the Penn State community and to the Paterno family, most of all, I could not be more sorry for the emotional anguish I am sure we at Onward State caused. There are no excuses for what we did. We all make mistakes, but it’s impossible to brush off one of this magnitude. Right now, we deserve all of the criticism headed our way.”

By comparison, this is what Mark Swanson of CBS Sports had to say:

Really? One paragraph is all we get from CBS? That’s unfortunate, and it’s shameful. Sadly, I don’t think anyone expects Mark Swanson to step down as managing editor of CBSSports.com. Fortunately for him, the blame can be shifted to a student run blog, whose own managing editor admits he made a huge mistake.  Edwards writes, “getting it first often conflicts with getting it right.” What’s CBS’ excuse? Why were they more careful about reporting Peyton Manning’s alleged retirement (breaking news, according to Rob Lowe), than when they decided to run the Paterno story? An answer like, “because Paterno was actually dying, and Rob Lowe doesn’t have Manning on speed dial,” does not exempt a news organization from its duty to fact check

Getting it before CNN does not beat getting it right, or at least trying to get it right.

On Sunday, January 22, 2012, Joe Paterno did pass away. Last night’s odd turn of events has become a footnote to a long career. Yes, he had triumphs, and also scandal, but this post isn’t about Joe Paterno’s career. This post is about last night. Frankly, I could not help but think of other times news media has gotten it wrong. I thought about Dewey defeats Truman, but more importantly, this story reminded me of the 2000 election miscall. Four years after one of “the most egregious election-night gaffes in the modern television era,” television news anchors were more than cautious when calling the 2004 election for Mr. Bush.

That probably explains how the Washington Post used Twitter to announce Mr. Paterno’s real death this morning


Reporting on media effects

First, a disclaimer: I’ve never been interested in researching media effects myself. However, I’m fascinated by the way in which the media reports on effects research. Violent video games, for example, are one of the dangers that surrounds, and they are  just as perilous as contaminants in our water supply. In fact, these games might even be more dangerous, since we bring the media into our homes.

Of course, video games are not the only dangers. Every media technology, and some of the most popular media genres, have been linked to to negative effects. Jane Addams, for example, wrote in outrage against the movies. How is it possible, she wondered, that so many people choose to attend the movies during the sabbath?

One Sunday evening last winter an investigation was made of four hundred and sixty six theaters in the city of Chicago, and it was discovered that in the majority of them the leading theme was revenge; the lover following his rival; the outraged husband seeking his wife’s paramour; or the wiping out by death of a blot on a hitherto unstained honor. It was estimated that one sixth of the entire population of the city had attended the theaters on that day. At that same moment the churches throughout the city were preaching the gospel of good will. Is not this a striking commentary upon the contradictory influences to which the city youth is constantly subjected? (From, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets, p. 85)

Addams does not reveal who conducted this investigation. Rhetorically speaking, it is irrelevant. Her readers, back then, would take her word, as they would also take the word of an “eminent alienist of Chicago” who had found that “neurotic children” were becoming “victims of hallucination and mental disorder” as a result of watching movies.

When it comes to constructing arguments about media effects, news organization have the tendency to be just as simplistic as Jane Addams was. Does anyone remember Cooper Lawrence discussing Mass Effect on Fox News? If you don’t, or haven’t seen her appearance, here is the clip.

So, Cooper Lawrence tells us that she only goes by what the research says. She quotes a study from the University of Maryland, but unfortunately we don’t get to learn much more than that. It is enough to say that it came out of a university, without dwelling too much on pesky issues, such as study design, validity, reliability, or even authorship.

Who cares about that! It’s Cooper Lawrence. She’s an expert. She almost has a PhD, and she is quoting experts.

Society values expert opinion, which is why almost every news story that reports on effects research will bring in an expert. CBS, for instance, had Dr. Chris Lucas, a child psychiatrist. Unlike Cooper Lawrence, Dr. Lucas is more restrained in his opinion. He talks about likelihood, not certainty. Yet the message is clear: Parents have to be aware of the possibility of a negative effect.

Here’s another example, discussing the same video game. This story, from a CBS affiliate, quotes avid video gamers, who believe that Manhunt 2 crosses the line. The report also brings in an expert, Dr. Silvia Gearing. She links video games to the wave of school shootings, effectively invoking causation.

Causation and Correlation. Now, there’s two terms that get lost in the shuffle in most media reporting on effects. Causation happens when one event causes another. Correlation, on the other hand, indicates a relationship between two variables (events), but it does not suggest that one will cause the other. Here’s Jack Thompson arguing causation between video game violence and real world violence. Paul Levinson disagrees, and explains the difference.

Neither panelist broaches the issue of methodology, and it is an important question. Laboratory experiments, for example, are routinely used to establish causation. Field studies, on the other hand,  focus on finding correlation. Both techniques are commonly used in research.

This is not to say, though, that research on media uses cannot show causation. Take texting while driving, for instance. In laboratory experiments, texting has been shown to increase the likelihood of accidents. However, if you think about it, that should be a no-brainer. Distraction increases the likelihood of accidents, and texting while driving is a distraction. This report discusses the findings of a laboratory study conducted at Clemson University. The study is significant because of its policy implications. Indeed, we should expect this study, and others like it, to be used as ammunition for bans on texting while driving.

You don’t find much reporting that looks at subtleties, such as research design, causation, correlation, or authorship. What  we do find is  the trends I noted previously: the use of expert opinion, lack of specificity when it comes to research sources, and the conflation of causation and correlation. All of these are rhetorical moves, seeking to steer public opinion in one direction or another. They are not, however, honest representations of the complexity and variety of media research on effects.

The unabridged first amendment

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

This week, as I prepared to discuss the first amendment of the US Constitution with my students, I found myself pondering the meaning of the statement “Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” especially in light of the Qur’an burning controversy in Gainesville. The Reverend Terry Jones, of the Dove World Outreach Center, had planned to burn as many copies of the Qur’an as he could gather on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

Now, here is a case that definitely touches upon the heart of the first amendment. It involves the rights of a religious congregation to assemble and reduce another religion’s holy book to cinder. How could this be possible?

In simple terms, it could be possible because, as symbolic speech, this act is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. That congress shall make no law applies here. However, it is not that simple. Abridgment of the First Amendment, though prior restraint,  is possible in situations involving national security as well as clear and present danger to public safety. The Gainsville case brings up both issues. Nevertheless, the handling of the controversy purposefully avoided any mention of either stipulation, at least not on the part of the federal government.

Indeed, the Federal government, from starting with the president, deplored the situation. General Petreus denounced it as a potential danger to American troops, and Secretary Clinton hoped that the press would stop covering it. On the local level, though, the City of Gainesville did act. It denied Jones and his flock a burning permit, on the grounds of “public safety and environmental protection“. In other words, this is a local application of the Clear and Present Danger doctrine. The thing is, though, that Jones would merely risk a fine, and until just a few hours, he intended to go ahead with the plan.

He apparently decided to back down. He will now travel to New York to convince Imam Feisal Rauf to relocate a planned Muslim Community Center away from ground zero. For Reverend Jones, this is a done deal, or at least that is how he represented it to the media. Imam Feisal and the developers of the Park51 deny that such a deal has even been discussed, according to CNN.

I wonder what the pastor plans to do about that.

The situation, aside from touching upon the first amendment, also sheds light on the nature of today’s press. In the past week, coverage has been relentless.  He was on Rick’s List, and on Fox, and on ABC, etc, etc, ad nauseum. It reached absurd proportions, considering that this is a really small church group.Probably Brian Stelter, of The New York Times, put it best. He merely asked if there was a way of keeping track of Terry Jones’ media appearances.

http://twitter.com/brianstelter/status/24038713092

With all the scrutiny, did the media make matters worse? According to at Chris Coumo, from ABC news, the answer is yes.

http://twitter.com/ChrisCuomo/status/24043605275

Naturally, not everyone will agree. The press is there to report on matters of public interest. That is the Jeffersonian ideal. Nevertheless, shouldn’t we expect the press to show some sense of proportion?

In hindsight, not only members of the press, like Cuomo and Stelter, pondered this question. The AP, Fox, ABC, NBC, and CBS all issued statements about how they would cover the event. The AP, furthermore, explicitly said that it would not publish any pictures depicting the Qur’an set ablaze.

Self-censorship is still the most effective way to abridge the First Amendment, at least in this case. The press strategized, but did not get to act on its strategy, and Pastor Jones decided to pull the plug on his own plans. His stated reason is, again, the relocation of Park51. Unstated, though, is all the pressure he must have received over the past week, and by that I don’t just mean the death threats, or even to public uproar. I’m referring to getting calls from the Secretary of Defense, visits from the FBI, and pressure from Gainsville city officials, who warned people to “stay away” from the site of the Dove World Outreach Center, and to remain vigilant because “the Gainsville police department is depending on you to be their eyes and ears in the community.”  That is a pretty ominous statement.

I began this post thinking about the first amendment, and pondering whether or not it should be abridged in situations like Gainsville. I don’t really have a conclusive answer. Based on the actions of government officials, it is clear that Reverend Jones’ actions would be protected under the first amendment. However, the rights of the immediate community, and concerns about national interest should also be taken into account. In the end, the Reverend may have found a crafty way out of his conundrum, one that places the ball on Park51’s court.

We’ll see how the media reports on that.

Venezuela and Chavez

When it comes to Venezuela, it’s impossible to understand today’s media landscape without thinking about Hugo Chavez. The controversial Venezuelan president is one of the most media savvy politicians in the Americas. Alo Presidente, Chavez weekly radio/television show, is an unscripted, populist stage, but it serves Chavez well. His countrymen see him as the populist hero, who sings, rides around in tractors, or horses, and explains his hopes, ambitions, dreams, and plans to the average Venezuelan.

Venezuela is technically a free media market. The commercial sector has a long history in the country, and what Chavez has done is curtail their influence. He did not renew the license for Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), a media company that supported the 2002 failed coup against Chavez. He has also openly criticized and ridiculed any media outlets that dare speak against him. But it doesn’t stop there, as journalists can probably live with ridicule. Censorship, on the other hand, is a completely different animal. With a new law governing media content, Venezuelan media cannot broadcast anything that can be deemed against national security, they cannot “disrespect” the president or other government officials, and cannot broadcast information that could cause civil unrest, which is a direct jab at the media’s role in the 2002 Coup (Diehl, 2005). RCTV, Venevision, and Globovision strongly supported the coup. However, Chavez only shut down RCTV, surprisingly waiting five years to do so.

Moreover, Chavez’s controversial closing of RCTV is still felt. The station, no longer free to broadcast over the air, made the move to cable and was still available there. However, in late January of 2010, cable companies dropped RCTV and 6 other stations. The reason? they failed to broadcast Chavez’s speeches, and were thus deemed in violation of Venezuelan telecommunications law (Bright, 2010). In 2003, a new statute required all Venezuelan broadcasters to broadcast government announcements in matters including, but not limited to, development policies, education, conservation, and democratic participation. The speeches, probably, fall under any of those rubrics.

Duffy and Everton, in their chapter  in, Global Communications: Toward a Transcultural Political Economy, try to explain the government’s position. To them the measures introduced in the Media Law passed in 2003 are very similar to statutes in place in Canada, Europe, and the United States. They include a ratings system, to protect children, and “prioritize social and cultural objectives above the commercial imperatives of owners” (Duffy & Everton, 2008, p. 137). The authors, who from the tone of their writing, are very much in favor of the Chavez communication policies — in terms of promoting community access to broadcasting, the government has, in fact opened up spaces for marginalized groups — have to rationalize the need for reform. While they admit that “open ended language in these clauses could open the door to authoritarian abuses in the future” (p. 137), they wax optimistically about the Venezuelan experience:

These measures suggest both an innovative model of the state as facilitator of relatively autonomous participatory democratic initiative and also the possibility of a post-neoliberal communicative order based on a radical reconceptualization of democratic communication rights. While history unfortunately offers no guarantees, and Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution is a complex political phenomenon with its own potential internal contradictions, it is nonetheless possible that this trajectory of structural media reform could indeed play an important role in the construction of a democratic “socialism for the twenty-first century” (Duffy & Everton, 2008, p. 139)

I do agree that developing a stronger community media fosters greater democratic participation. However, I fail to see how quashing dissent can be liberating to anyone. In fact, I also fail to see how the closing of RCTV can be construed as anything other than censorship. In 2007, as the closing was announced, Reuters suggested that the big beneficiary from the closing would be Venevision, another one of Venezuela’s top media companies. Gustavo Cisneros, the owner of Venevision, is also part-owner of Univision. He met with Chavez, according to Reuters, and agreed to stop criticizing the government. In return, Venevision had its license renewed, while RCTV, who became even more virulent, lost its license (Reuters, 2007). I don’t know how these events fit into Duffy and Everton’s rosy views of the Venezuelan media landscape.

Isn’t that interesting?

According to Human Rights Watch, the media laws in Venezuela promote self-censorship. The government can use the legal system to persecute the opposition, which has left the Venezuelan public airwaves practically deprived of opposing viewpoints. Globovision is the only television station left that is still openly critical of the president. In July of 2009, 32 radio stations lost their licenses for the same reason (Human Rights Watch, 2009).

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Oh Canada, so close to the US…

If history is right, Porfirio Diaz, one of Mexico’s most infamous dictators, once decried his nation was too close to the United States and too far away from God. Canada, though not as dramatically, might feel the same about the neighborhood. The God issue is another subject altogether.

Nevertheless, proximity to the United States has been an extremely influential factor in the development of Canadian culture. This is a practical matter, because no nation develops a sense of self without defining what makes them different from other nations around it. We can’t deny, however, that the United States and Canada do share commonalities; they were both colonized by the British, and both share the English language. Yet the differences are also striking. For example, where Americans describe their nation as a melting pot, Canadians consider theirs as a mosaic, a multicultural state, in which different groups are not expected to assimilate. Instead, they co-exist, or so it goes. Whether or not the coexistence is harmonious, or equitable, is debatable, but the fact that Canadians claim it is worth noting as an important ideological difference. And it does not end there. The political system (parliamentary), bilingualism (because of Quebec), and even the fact that Canada remained under British rule until the twentieth century contrast starkly with the American experience.

How does broadcasting fit into this picture? According to Michael Arpin, Vice Chair for Broadcasting of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canadians view telecommunications and broadcasting as crucial for the development of the nation. This should not come as a surprise since Canada, after all, is the second largest country in the world (the United States is the third). The problem is that Canada is also sparsely and unevenly populated. The eastern seaboard, which includes Ontario and Quebec, and the areas around the US border are the most demographically dense, whereas the central and northern portions of the country are not densely populated at all. Still, a nation does not exist without internal cohesion. Transportation, telecommunications, and broadcast systems are part of this process, as Arpin reminds us:

With the possible exception of the development of a national railway system in the 1800s, few industries have played as important a part in unifying Canada as telecommunications, broadcasting and satellite distribution of signals. From the days of the telegraph, and from the introduction of radio and television, we have understood that these technologies are powerful tools that allow Canadians to connect with each other across great distances, help develop our economy, shape our national identity and assert our cultural sovereignty (Arpin, 2007).

The last sentence is the  key to Canadian broadcasting philosophy: it views telecommunications and information technologies as “tools” that support national development, both economic and cultural. Furthermore, broadcasting in Canada, at least in terms of philosophy, is about nation building, about creating a common culture through a shared media experience.

The quest for cultural sovereignty, Canadian style

Sovereignty is a quality of nation states. In political theory, it indicates that a state has control over a territory, and, with autonomy, can exercise political power through policy, law, and/or coercive means. Cultural sovereignty, in the Canadian case, suggests independence; it implies the ability to produce an autonomous culture, that is distinctly Canadian (i.e. not American).Yet, sharing a border, as I stated previously, has complicated Canada’s quest for cultural sovereignty. Once broadcasting began, in the early years of the twentieth century, the situation became even more complex because you obviously could not stop radio waves at the border. They spilled into Canadian territory from the United States, and interfered with Canadian signals. According to Skinner (2008), some American stations were “explicitly built to broadcast over the border and exploit Canadian advertising markets” (p.). Regulation was first introduced not just to bring order into chaos, but to extend sovereignty to the Canadian airwaves.

This is the recurring theme of Canadian broadcasting, and it is an issue that kept Canada from following the British broadcasting model too closely. Like the British did, Canada also envisioned a strong public broadcaster, that would “inform, enlighten, and entertain” (Broadcasting Act of 1991, I(l)) the Canadian public. Furthermore, they originally intended for this public broadcaster to take over all aspects of broadcasting in Canada, that is, it would not only provide services, but also regulate the operations of commercial broadcasters. However, Canada is not Great Britain. License fees, first of all, would have been completely impractical because people had more choices. Nevertheless, Canadian regulators believed that they could fund public broadcasting through other means, through government allocations, or by instituting the obligation to carry Canadian content. Early on, it became clear that the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Corporation (CRBC) never had enough funding to live up to these expectations. As a consequence, Canada developed a mixed system, which now, following the passage of the 1991 Broadcasting Act, includes public, commercial, and community broadcasters. With technological advances, like cable, satellite, and the Internet, cultural sovereignty became even more elusive.

Canadian Content

For me, one of the most interesting, albeit frustrating, facets of the Canadian broadcasting system is the issue of Canadian Content. All players in the system are supposed to provide Canadian content, and abide by the quotas established by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). But what is Canadian content? Let’s look at some Canadian television shows and see if we can figure it out.

According to the CRTC, Canadian Content is defined by specific criteria, none of which seem to have anything to do with content itself. Music, for example, qualifies as Canadian if it fulfills any two of the following conditions: it is produced in Canada, performed by a Canadian, composed by a Canadian, or performed and/or recorded in Canada. Television programming, on the other hand, is Canadian if the producer and key staff are Canadian, by how much money is spent in services provided by Canadians, and by how much money was spent on lab processing done in Canada. Co-productions can also qualify as Canadian content, provided that Canadians hold 50% of the investment and receive 50% of the profits. Cable and pay per view systems also abide by Cancon rules, but those decisions are made on a case by case basis (Media Awareness Network).

As it stands, the CBC provides most of the Canadian content because, according to Cancon rules, 60% of the programming aired daily between 6 am and midnight, must be Canadian. Commercial broadcasters, on the other hand, are not bound by this requisite. They only have to air 60% overall, for the year, and of this 60%, half must be broadcast between 6 pm and midnight.

The Cancon Rules leave plenty of leeway to Canadian commercial broadcasting. They exemplify the liberalization and de-regulation policies that are meant, in theory, to make countries more competitive in a global economy. The other side of that coin is, though, that commercial broadcasters have very little incentive to produce Canadian content that reflects Canadian culture in any explicit manner because, as Skinner suggests:

Not only [is] Canadian programming more expensive to produce than foreign programs [are] to buy, but if a Canadian program [is] scheduled to replace a foreign program – even if it drew as large an audience as it replaced – any return on investment would be roughly equivalent to that of the imported program” (Skinner, 2008).

Media Concentration

In Canada, media ownership is heavily concentrated. Currently, three private companies — CTVGlobemedia, Canwest, and Rogers Broadcasting — dominate Anglophone television sector.  Quebecor and Remstar control the Francophone sector (CRTC, 2009).

The latest controversy: Fee for Carriage

Canadian television broadcasting faces the same challenges that other systems are facing. For one, it is not easy to protect local broadcasters from the competition they face from Satellite and Cable, or from the Internet. Audience fragmentation is very real, in spite of the overwhelming media concentration of Canadian media, or of the regulations that are meant to protect Canadian  productions.

In 2008, one of the most heated debates regarding broadcast policy was about fee for carriage. In a nutshell, Canadian media companies, spearheaded by CTVGlobemedia and Canwest, presented a fee-for carriage proposal to the CRTC. They argued that the economic crisis  had forced them to take drastic budget cutting measures, including layoffs, and program cuts. The solution, or at least something that would slow the crisis down, was fee-for carriage. Under this scheme, CRTC would mandate cable and satellite providers to pay Canadian companies  50 cents per subscriber for the right to carry their signal.

In November, CRTC denied the request. Instead, they passed the following policies:

  • Beginning August 31, 2011 distributors (cable and satellite companies) can offer channels to customers in an a la carte fashion (instead of the current system where subscribers buy a basic cable package and then purchase themed bundles of additional channels). This gives viewers more direct choice in the channels they watch.
  • Effective Sept. 1, 2009, a new fund will support the creation of local content (i.e. TV news) by conventional broadcasters in markets with fewer than a million people. Broadcast distributors currently provide 5% of their revenues to fund production of Canadian programming. This will be increased to six percent, with the extra 1% benefiting this new Local Programming Improvement Fund. The CRTC said it expected the cost of the fund – totaling around $60 million annually – not to be passed to subscribers (i.e. our bills wont go up to pay for the fund). However, cable and satellite TV operators aren’t happy about the increase and have indicated to the press that anytime their expenses go up, the consumer pays one way or another.
  • Currently a U.S. channel that offers similar programming to a Canadian specialty channel can be barred from entry into our broadcast market. However, the CRTC has decided that Canadian news and sports services are financially healthy and already face competition so new foreign services will be allowed. As a result, expect more American sports and news channels on your TV program guide once this ruling takes effect in 2011.

(Binning, 2009)

I can’t get over the fact that Canada now has ala carte cable. But that’s an entirely different matter. I guess it is far more important to ponder whether or not Canadians have created a broadcasting system that enhances cultural sovereignty.  In terms of organization, they recognize the role of three components in over the air broadcasting. In terms of structure, media concentration in the commercial sphere is severe. In terms of regulations, generating Canadian content has been a major concern, but the nature of that content is loosely defined as economic participation, and/or opportunities for Canadians. With this in mind, Cancon regulations do not facilitate productions with strong cultural elements, especially in the private sector. After all, Canadian producers still want to compete in the international market, and out there, Degrassi is easier to sell than Little Mosque.

In other words, the answer to my question is yes and no. Yes, because the regulations and philosophy of the system are unique and different, and no because the context in which operations occur, and the pressures from in a commercial environment are important deterrents.

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Italy: Berlusconi’s Media Playground?

Even before I ever began researching, writing, and comparing media systems around the world, I was familiar with the name Silvio Berlusconi. I knew him as Italy’s prime minister, and also as the billionaire media mogul. I did not know, however, that he and Rupert Murdoch used to be buddies, but are now rivals, or that Berlusconi is the co-owner of Endemol, the Dutch production company that brought us Big Brother (Osborne, 2007; Israely, 2009). Clearly, it would be futile to try to understand the landscape of Italian television today without Berlusconi.

But how did such degree of media concentration and power come about? I mean, Berlusconi did not just materialize from ether. He, like any other industrialist/politician, is the product of a political, social, and economic environment. At least that would be what author’s Daniel Hallin and Paolo Mancini would argue. They suggest, in Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics, that political institutions, beliefs, traditions, power-sharing agreements, economic variables, and the evolution of civil society influence the development of the media system. Their thesis, though similar to that espoused in Four Theories of the Press, is not as deterministic or as simple. That is, where Siebert, Peterson, and Schramn, the authors of of Four Theories of the Press, proposed four models — authoritarian, the liberal, the social responsibility, and the Soviet Totalitarian — to explain media behavior, and believed that differences between them were about philosophy,  Hallin and Mancini believe the picture is more complex. There are no ideal types, and the purpose of studying media comparatively should not be limited to pointing out failures. In other words, we should not expect media in different countries to follow a liberal model, which was the ideal for Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm. Instead, we should try to understand the key influences that make them different, and the layers of complexity that make them contradictory:

The Liberal Model enshrined in normative theory, based primarily on the American and to a somewhat lesser extent the British experience, has become so widely diffused around the worlds – partly, as Blanchard (1986) points out, as a result of campaign mounted by the U.S. government and press in the early years of the Cold War — that other conceptions of journalism often are not conceptualized clearly even by their own practitioners. Even within the United States, the normative ideal of the neutral independent watchdog leads to blind spots in journalists’ understanding of what they do […]. The gap between ideal and reality is far greater in countries such as Italy or Spain where journalists will express allegiance to the Liberal model of neutrality and objectivity, while the actual practice of journalism is deeply rooted in partisan advocacy traditions (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 13-14).

So, what key influences should we look at to try to unravel the Italian media system? According to Hallin and Mancini, we should look at (1) the development of media markets, (2) political parallelism, (3) the development of journalistic professionalism, and (4) degree and nature of state intervention.

Development of Media Markets

For Hallin and Mancini, this category describes when, how, and which types of media develop in a nation. For example, in the United States, newspapers “tend to be addressed to the mass public” (p. 22), whereas in Southern Europe, which includes Italy, they are usually geared to the elites. Some countries, furthermore, have a national media, while others have regional and local media.

Political Parallelism

The media, all claims to the contrary, is never truly impartial, or truly disengaged from political power. Hallin and Mancini explain this relationship through the variable of political parallelism, which they define as “the extent to which the different media reflect distinct political orientations in their news and current affair s reporting, and sometimes also the entertainment content” (p. 28).

Professionalism

This dimension refers to whether or not the media are autonomous. That is, whether or not the individuals that produce content for media organizations can work with relative lack of pressure from, either, owners, or the government. Professionalism also refers to the existence of ethical norms, which, in the case of broadcasting service, include the obligation to serve the public.

State Role

States shape the media system by enacting policies and regulations, by granting subsidies, and by protecting local media production from outside competition, among other tools. States can also intervene through outright ownership of the media, and through funding.

The Model at work in Italy: How did we get to Berlusconi?

Lets see how useful Hallin and Mancini’s model is to explain the Italian situation. First, the media in Italy did not develop as nation-wide markets. They were, and remained for the most part, local and regional in character. Furthermore, the press, and the media by extension, developed with strong party affiliations, with papers like L’Unita (Communist Party), Il Popolo (Christian Democrats), and l’Avanti (Socialists), and l’Ossevatore Romano, which is the official paper of the Catholic Church, and one of the most influential dailies in the country. Hiring practices in all of these outlets reflected ideological commitments. Moreover, fascism exacerbated the political affiliations of the press:

Under Fascism, of course, the media were expected to serve political ends – Mussolini was a journalist. And with the Liberation the first newspaper licenses went to anti-fascist political forces […]. The party press was extremely important in the immediate post liberation period (Hallin & Mancini, 100).

In terms of political parallelism, the practice of lottizzazione is prevalent, in public broadcasting (RAI) and commercial media (Hibberd, 2007). As in the UK, RAI was established by government charter, and given public service obligations. RAI also held a monopoly over broadcasting, which remained in effect until 1976 (Hibberd, 2004; 2007). The Christian Democratic Party was in control of policy, programming, and operations until 1963, when the Socialists began joining government coalitions, and were given roles in the direction of the institution.  The power sharing arrangement is known as lottizzazione.

Lottizzazione is a distinctive characteristic of the Italian media system, and it speaks to its level of professionalization and independence. It parcels out control over public broadcast media, among other public services, between different political forces. Lottizzazione, according to Padovani, determined not only how the RAI was carved up, but who would be hired to work there:

During the first decades of television broadcasting, journalists’ entry into RAI was determined by political and social homogeneity with the government party. In some cases the broadcaster itself trained its journalists, who were chosen from among young intellectuals, often in line with the dominant ideology of the time. Candidates were selected upon the recommendations of political leaders and friends of the director general and, only on rare occasions, they were selected from among the winners of national exams. Selection procedures, which consisted mostly of interviews, written and oral tests, and professional tests, were often fictitious, while determinant factors were personal and party connection and the “right recommendation (Padovani, 162).

Hibberd (2007) traces the institutionalization of Lottizzazione to around 1975, which was the year in which the Broadcasting Act divided the RAI into two networks:

The formation of two networks facilitated the creation of two broad ideological camps: the first for a Catholic culture and the second for a lay culture, with the result that the two camps were gradually subjected to political control. RAI was effectively partitioned along party lines running from the President (Socialist) and the Director General (Christian Democrat) down to the TV and radio networks, Raiuno (Christian Democrat) and Raidue (Socialist). Radio channels came under the sphere of influence of minor government parties (p. 885).

In terms of the role of the state, it is important to first understand how the state is organized to exercise power. Italy has enjoyed formal democracy since the mid 1800, when electoral laws were first introduced. These laws, however, only extended suffrage to landowners, and literate, male individuals. Universal male suffrage was established in 1913, and universal suffrage came about in 1946, which is when Italy became a Republic. In 1948, Italy adopted parlamentarism as a form of political organization of the government. Under parliamentary systems, voters elect the members of parliament, and they, in turn, elect the President, who holds ceremonial power. The president, in turn, names the Prime Minister, who holds executive power; he/she forms the government, by selecting the members of the Council of Ministers. The system, though modeled after British parlamentarism, has been notably unstable, as there have been at least 60 different governments since 1945 (US State Department, 2009).

As stated previously, RAI held a monopoly over broadcasting until 1976, when the Courts decided to allow commercial broadcasting based on the fact that “technical advances meant that television frequencies were no longer as scarce as they once were and commercial broadcasting could be permitted at a local level” (p. Hibberd, 2006, p. 886). However, the Courts left the system unregulated until the passage of the 1990 Broadcasting Act. The lack of regulation not only allowed for the proliferation of local channels, it also opened the door to Silvio Berlusconi, whose company, Fininvest, “gained gradual control of the commercial television market” (Hibberd, 2007, p. 886). By 1980, Berlusconi had almost achieved national coverage. By 1984, through acquisitions, he was RAI’s only national competitor. Though the Italian courts revoked his license that same year, Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi reopened them by decree. Since Craxi was a personal friend of Berlusconi’s, the decree known as the Berlusconi Decree is an obvious example of political clientelism (Hibberd, 2007).

Who is this guy? And why does he matter

Berlusconi is, without a doubt, one of the most controversial figures in contemporary Italy. He is a media mogul, and according to Forbes, he has more money than Rupert Murdoch (Forbes, 2009). Through his family’s holding company, Fininvest, he has controlling interests over Mediaset, the largest private media company in Italy, the AC Milan, Mondadori publishing, Il Giornale newspaper, and over 100 companies more. Foreign Policy magazine described him, in 2009, as “a master of legal maneuvering” who has managed to avoid jail for corruption, tax evasion, and embezzlement, and has been elected prime minister 3 times in spite of it all. His trials and tribulations involve a sex scandal, a high profile divorce, and ever-recurrent embezzlement allegations. Here is what BusinessWeek has to say about his latest brush with Italian law:

The latest probe, dubbed Mediatrade-Rti, is an offshoot of investigation that led to one of those trials. In that trial, the premier and others are accused of overpaying for rights to show U.S. movies on Berlusconi’s TV networks and pocketing the differences (D’Emilio, 2010).

What a guy, and what a system! Berlusconi, his critics say, exercises and incredible degree of control over Italian broadcasting. Hibberd points out that he has used his position to advance Mediaset’s interests, and to unermine the RAI. Hence, in this sense, “Berlusconis’s conflicts of interest are very real and are detrimental to the economic and cultural development of media in Italy.” However, Hibberd also indicates a measure of pluralism, as the system offers a wide array of media choices (2007). Consequently, he argues that it is too simplistic to blame everything on Berlusconi, or to accuse him of controlling 90% of Italian media. The problems, in fact, pre-date the controversial media mogul, as they may be linked to “the slow development of democratic norms and practices” which include “the lack of effective safeguards guaranteeing essential media freedoms” (Hibberd, 2007, p. 29).

Personally, I believe Berlusconi is a creature of his environment. He has benefited from the institutions, practices, and political arrangements that have plagued Italian politics since the early days of the unification of the peninsula. Since the problems are structural, you cannot expect them to go away by wishing them out, or even by jailing Berlusconi. Political systems and practices do not change overnight, and in Italy’s case, the lack of separation between public and private interests will keep the door open to further encroachment upon the public sphere. The Internet, apparently, is next on the list, as Berlusconi’s government is seeking control “over online video content and force anyone who regularly uploads videos to obtain a license from the Ministry of Communications” (Israely, 2009). The legislation will also require sites like Youtube and Dailymotion, as well as blogs and other online content providers, to screen video uploads for pornography and violence. Fines for non-compliance will range from about $210 to $210,000 should the law pass (Barry, 2010).

It will be interesting to see how this law, which some experts believe is a direct challenge to Google, plays out. Berlusconi’s government argues that they are only attempting to enforce the European Union directive “to set up media rules” (Barry, 2010), yet only the Italians have taken it as far.

Did anyone say China?

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