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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 2/26/23

Journalism: Where Did It Go?

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Peter Barus
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This morning, after deleting the latest NYT "Morning" email (looks like they forgot to turn it off when I failed to subscribe), I thought: Journalism. Where did it go? It's not in the NYT teaser, that's for sure. "Getting back on skis..."? Like there's a massive audience out there somewhere, really excited about getting back to "normal" again. For most of humanity a return to the Great Depression would be an improvement about now.

Meanwhile, the recent revelations about the total deriliction of every major journal when "Hamilton 68" set itself up as the single go-to "source familiar with" a scary new tsunami of "disinformation" have been met with... (crickets). A few pretentiously smug snipes about "the revisionists" from some of the pilot-fish who have not quite wiped away all the cookie crumbs, but that's about it.

In a spectacular both-ends-against-the-middle play, as actual journalists Matt Taibbi and Jeff Gerth report, "Hamilton 68" denounced ordinary "social" media communications as Russian bots and trollfarms to all the major outlets, and Congress, and spent several years generating a new Red Scare. Conveniently, the GOP had taken up the color. The old USSR wasn't using it anymore. America, it seems, was running low on reds-under-the-beds.

But it would not have made much difference either way, unless you still cling to the market-driven view that one of the two opposing Parties (the other one!) should just drop out of existence, leaving a coin with only one side. We really should just start calling it the Möbius Party.

The "middle" both ends play against, that's us. Politics is a spectator sport in America. The most politicians hear from us is "Boo!" and "Yay!" It's now the job of media outlets to amplify that and blast it back at us, while the People's Business goes on as usual. In the back rooms.

Journalists were disemployed almost as fast as typesetters when the Digital Age got going. They were probably the last to find out how extraneous and unnecessary they were to a nearly moribund industry, still renting bricks-and-mortar and desperate to find a new revenue stream. Information just wasn't cutting it anymore.

Advertising, the actual foundation on which journalism rested for centuries, had been fundamentally if kind of incestuously related to journalism. One was expected to lie about everything, and the other to deal in truth. So they both went with the media industry when it went online lock stock and barrel

The long-standing impression people seem to have, that "free" searches and emails and cat videos run on targeted ads, is very convenient. It obscures the real deal, which is much darker and more disgusting that most of us realize. I only realized it because I used to be a software developer, just when the Internet was getting up and running. I had a lot of clients across the country who needed service. I was able to build in systems that allowed me to upgrade them without having to get to Peoria or Cleveland or Duluth, at first mailing floppy disks. Later everybody got modems. And that meant I had 24/7 access to their most sensitive, mission-critical information. Privacy became a quaint notion from a bygone age.

Something similar occurred when the search engines and "social" media had to maintain continuity so a search could return answers. It's fundamental to computer networks that the only way for that to work involves a very old technology, called "trust."

That worked out for about ten minutes. Cookeeee! Me want! Myungphmyungphmyungph!

Prey animals know when they're being tracked by predators. It's not that they have anything to hide... except maybe their den, the location of their nest, their estrus cycle, the age and number of their offspring. Everything a hungry tiger might want to know. The right half of our brain is pretty much built for that. As science has discovered, the left half is very good at spotting food and grabbing it, and lining up more supplies. But the right half remains unblinkingly vigilant for danger at the edge of vision.

So being watched all the time makes us very nervous. Maybe that's why targeted advertising has a lousy ROI. Almost worse than journalism. And it loses about a third of "ad-spend" to fraud. Annually about thirty billion or so.

Back when hardwired geography was involved, market research (that hungry left hemisphere) had gotten fairly good at identifying demographics. But virtual addresses and connections at global scale presented a completely different landscape.

In our profit-oriented culture, where investor confidence determines all activity as if it was Natural Law, it did not occur to anyone that the problem could be other than some transgression against the Invisible Hand of the Marketplace (one of the delusions to which our left brain is prone). In this new fast-paced digital world, they would just have to ramp up their hunting skills.

The search engines and "social" media nearly went bankrupt before they discovered that the problem wasn't even about advertising. The prey simply wasn't responding to the bait anymore. The fish just weren't biting.

Eventually various performers developed large followings, and now we have the term, "influencer," for somebody who sits in front of a camera and does anything at all that attracts mass attention. Or just points the camera at their kitten in a tiny astronaut outfit. Anything. Balloon sculpture. Paranoid reactionary political ranting. Whatever garners the most "eyeballs" gets lots of money from promoters of future microplastics pollution. All culminating in a succesful run for the highest office of public trust.

Information had been displaced as the dominant market commodity, and what displaced it was attention. A few cycles, and even journalists realized that all these middlemen, agents, beer companies, sneaker manufacturers and scary clowns were not needed anymore to get them in front of readers. There's an app for that now. It's called the Internet. Anybody can attract attention, you don't need a degree in English lit. So journalists were thrown into competition with kittens in high heels and shirtless guys who would eat live worms. In this new world, journalists are about as special as an angel in Heaven. If they have those.

Now the media companies don't have to pay journalists, freeing up these digital parasites to get fat on whatever attention starving journalists or some kid microwaving an egg might attract. Which is just like all the other attention we pay online: the basis for the whole damned economy now.

All those targeted ads had been collecting market data, ostensibly to "improve consumer experience" and protect brands from appearing next to unsavory images. Using "big" data to sell more sneakers and makup would be like whaling with nukes. But what if you could really shape people's perceptions?

A few quotes from a wonderful book by Tim Hwang, Subprime Attention Crisis: Advertising and the Time Bomb at the Heart of the Internet, seem particularly relevant here:

Page 61: "Computer security experts have shown that it is even possible to identify the location of a single, specific person using only the geotargeting infrastructure of comonplace programmatic advertising tools."

This means the ads you see are based on intimate personal knowledge, not just of your whereabouts, but your credit score, your kids' favorite desert, your marital stability, health problems, deep personal misgivings.

Page 114: "Incentives exist for online platforms to continuously manipulate user behavior and seize user attention in ways that may be harmful to mental health and personal development... online advertising incentives promote the creation of media that is shocking or reaffirming to the viewer, producing polarization and supporting the formation of echo chambers."

After ten or fifteen years of this, the world is your individually-wrapped oyster.

Page 116: "Social interaction between people is mediated by structured tags such as 'like' and 'favorite' because these render sentiment easy to measure."

Who or what you "like" is registered somewhere, and monitored, and used to manipulate you.

Page 117: "...we have been taught to interact with other people online by platforms built to buy and sell attention."

...where was I...?

Oh yeah: Hamilton 68. The whole thing came about because information isn't there to inform anymore. Yesterday's NYT "morning" teased: "The West Isolated Russa a Year Ago... Here's why it didn't work." Some machine, certainly not a journalist, calculates that a reliable percentage of readers are going to find that so astonishing they'll click on it, and then they can be offered foot-fungus nostrums, and a subscription. (OMG I don't suffer from foot-fungus. I don't think... but otherwise why would it send that one?)

The media are not folding up their virtual tents and finding other employment since being outed by the "Twitter Files" and Columbia Journalism Review. On the contrary, their attitude to date has been that of a bully caught stealing your lunch money: "So?" Like most bullies they know precisely what they can get away with, and trumping up a new red scare is well within public tolerances. And it makes a lot of lunch money.

Taibbi and Gerth and others are being called "revisionist" now. But "Hamilton 68" was as inevitable as the election of a mediocre con artist to the presidency, or our current apparent descent into permanent world war. In both cases neither side, not the babbling hucksters nor the supposedly cooler heads, had the least intention of changing trajectory, much less addressing it. The only constant was their commitment to profit from tragic human frailties once again, on the way down, banking on the assumption that these frailties are reliable, hard-wired, and irredeemable.

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I'm an old Pogo fan. For some unknown reason I persist in outrage at Feudalism, as if human beings can do much better than this. Our old ways of life are obsolete and are killing us. Will the human race wake up in time? Stay (more...)
 

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