Why Haven’t More People Copied Josh Marshall?

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One area of journalism which has had multiple births and deaths in the United States––and currently seems to be undergoing a rebirth in a totally new formulation–is that of investigative journalism. Towards the late ’80s, the post-Watergate surge of investigative reporting fizzled out (before the internet really took hold), there was another dearth of American muckraking. If the current journalistic business model had been allowed to remain intact, it likely would’ve been another decade before the American appetite for hard-hitting investigations was realized within the mainstream as a profitable enterprise.
 Yet the rise of the internet and participatory-journalism interrupted this somewhat-controlled ebb and flow to prove that, while revenue models for its sustenance still need working out, the American appetite for investigative reporting is more voracious than it’s ever been.

Even absent a new revenue model, there have been numerous examples of concerted investigative efforts led in a grassroots, open-source manner with no need for funding. As this Alternet article about Josh Marshall’s and TPM’s successes points out, “the U.S. attorney’s scandal story was the result of a blog’s willingness to use and give full credit to a number of newspapers — all of which had picked up one piece of a coast-to-coast puzzle.”

This was an investigative story, no question, but the pieces were already there just waiting to be picked up. Pre-internet it would’ve required traveling to the different locations where attorneys had been fired and actually probing into the reasons for the firings. Going about all this just on a hunch is something most media outlets wouldn’t go for without additional evidence, but in the digital age is made possible by crowd-sourcing efforts such as Marshall’s, since it doesn’t require an upfront investment. The internet provides opportunities for investigative reporting that would’ve been fundamentally impossible without a participatory model inclusive of the consumer.

That said, it seems to me that TPM’s string of success would’ve triggered more outlets with pure muckraking aspirations, yet by and large bloggers and cultivators of online media focus on media narratives (what the media is or is not focusing on, etc.) rather than looking for the scoops to factually prove the pervasive mainstream shortcomings they constantly complain of.

Traditional journalism still doesn’t have the money that it once did to put into investigative reporting––it’s expensive, and you usually have no idea what you’ll get out of it. But the last few years outlets like ProPublica, focused on the “journalism as a public good” mantra, have attempted to define a new business model for investigative reporting that can be socially powerful without requiring the business incentives that a traditional outlet’s investigation would (Maybe a portion of Greenwald/Omidyar’s “NewCo” will resemble this model as well).

While ProPublica often does great work, and a business model that isn’t advertising-revenue-based is certainly better than one that is, the participatory and democratic nature of how Talking Points Memo broke the attorney story is a much more fundamental change to media creation-consumption trends. Unfortunately it has taken a back burner the last couple of years, but the potential for more participatory outlets to cover stories with a national or international scope is still possible. When a reader base is involved in creating the content it is consuming, a more knowledgeable and democratic society becomes possible as well. While Greenwald is a lover of reader-participation (and at this point its proven itself as a tool of profit if used correctly), fat-cat-funded journalism won’t be the ultimate answer to the problems with American media (and consequently American democracy). Even if funding journalism comes out of a desire to do public good (as in Omidyar’s case) there will still be an inherent level of elite interest in how that outlet operates.

This surge of millionaires wanting to support journalism in an age where its financial viability is tenuous, misses one key point: TPM’s scoop didn’t really cost much of anything. The power of this business model is far greater than the ProPublica model; it gets scoops faster and cheaper than a re-invented model of 20th century investigative journalism, and it builds a hard-core and devoted base that will buy all the non-corporate SWAG you can dream up.

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Idolization of Official Sources

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Newsweek published an article by Kurt Eichenwald today that is a shocking example of reliance on official-source reporting,(not to mention the construction of a false narrative around events without direct association). Titled “How Edward Snowden Escalated the Cyber-War with China,” the piece angles its sources and quotes with an obvious agenda: to create a direct link between the Snowden revelations and harm to American enterprise (because if this thing has economic consequences, that hurts everyone). Eichenwald paints a picture of American business secrets being stolen on a mass scale by Chinese companies to be used to make them more competitive.

“If an American business invests hundreds of millions of dollars in developing an industrial product only to see the work stolen…it will eventually die,” Eichenwald writes.

“Now, though, with the world raging about the NSA secrets exposed by Snowden, the threat to American companies by Chinese hacking is being ignored once again, opening up the possibility that the threat that for so many years raised so much concern behind closed doors in Washington could now grow more destructive than ever.”

Other than citing heads of security-contractors who obviously share US government interests, Eichenwald only quotes an unnamed government official: “Snowden couldn’t have played better into China’s strategy for protecting its cyber activities if he had been doing it on purpose,'”

Where are the conflicting opinions that offer at least a challenge to this broad assertion? If the connection were as direct as Eichenwald would have us believe, and if US trade secrets are being stolen at such a rate, then how come this hasn’t been a larger issue before the Snowden leaks, and why have others not raised it post-leaks as a reason for NSA spying to continue?

Of course, Eichenwald will never be accused of creating a false connection between Snowden’s actions and non-existent adverse effects on American businesses, let alone bias for only referring to those with an interest in saying the Snowden leaks had been harmful. May the mainstream idolization of government and business officials continue.

How Long Will It Be Before 9/11 Is No Longer an Acceptable Reason for Unconstitutional Encroaches on Civil Liberties?

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Here’s a little nugget that hasn’t seemed to make a splash in the mainstream. I guess it isn’t really all that surprising given the extent to which 9/11 is used as an excuse for such a vast array of national security activities, but the New York Times still could’ve had an article on it …

Al Jazeera America obtained a master list of talking points for NSA officials to use in response to the Snowden leaks. The document––obtained through a FOIA request––pushed one item particularly hard, Al Jazeera reported yesterday:

“Invoking the events of 9/11 to justify the controversial NSA programs, which have caused major diplomatic fallout around the world, was the top item on the talking points that agency officials were encouraged to use.

Under the subheading “Sound Bites That Resonate,” the document suggests the statement ‘I much prefer to be here today explaining these programs, than explaining another 9/11 event that we were not able to prevent.'”

This, of course, was almost the exact language Gen. Alexander used in defending the programs in his second hearing before Congress:

“I would much rather be here today debating this point than trying to explain how we failed to prevent another 9/11.”

General Alexander also went on to tout the number––or one of the numbers in the general vicinity––that has pervaded the media without legitimacy since the leaks first emerged:

“In recent years these programs, together with other intelligence, have protected the U.S. and our allies from terrorist threats across the globe to include helping prevent … potential terrorist events over 50 times since 9/11.”

This statement was recently laid bare in its naked ridiculousness by ProPublica, but no one’s really seemed to notice…

Brand, Reconsidered.

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A few days ago, I reveled in Russell Brand’s bashing of mainstream politics and ideology, as did countless others in the Blogosphere and on Social Media. While I still agree with what he espouses, and while its entertaining to see someone besides Stewart or Colbert taking the mainstream to task in their own domain, this thoughtful piece by Natasha Lennard for Salon made me reconsider, as I termed it, my desire to “continue living vicariously through” him.

“Brand is navigating the well-worn conflict facing those with a public platform in the current epoch (myself among them)” Lennard writes. “We have to be willing to obliterate our own elevated platforms, our own spaces of celebrity; this grotesque politico-socio-economic situation that vagariously elevates a few voices and silences many millions is what Brand is posturing against.”

Yet, as Lennard astutely goes on to note, when a celebrity like Brand rejects the prevailing elite ideology, an interesting thing happens:

“At the same time radical ideas might spread and resonate across mainstream and pop media platforms (and thus provide the potential for rupture), these ideas and images are recuperated immediately into capital. Brand calls for revolution, and online media traffic bounces, magazines sell, bloggers like me respond, advertisers smile, Brand’s popularity/notoriety surges, the rich, as ever, get richer.”

So in truth, a change to the system will never come from those at the top, even if they help raise awareness around the system’s failings.

Additionally, although Brand means well, and seems to be making an honest attempt to not be dragged down by the bullshit, he’s still affected by our modern paradigm (as we all our). While we’re not to blame for this, Lennard does point out that Brand fails as a progressive when it comes to issues of gender-equality.

“In our excitement for even a hint of revolutionary fervor ostensibly permeating mainstream debate, we’ve enabled misogyny and Great Man narratives to go unchecked,” Lennard points out. We can agree with Brand’s main points, but that doesn’t mean we have to ally with him as an individual, and agree with former and future statements of his. In Lennard’s words:

“The point of rethinking new political and social spaces together — as was felt profoundly by many of us engaged in Occupy’s headiest, fiercest days — was that we don’t need to align with, elevate, celebrate (nor indeed wholly reject or detest) any one person.”

Jacobson Should Learn from Greenwald

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When browsing through ‘legal insurrection’ I noticed a lot of things made me understand why this blog has become successful––it is well-organized and presented, and seemed to have a good method of choosing key-issues to go in-depth on, which is a factor I consider more important than having a consistent political voice. I didn’t find myself resenting the political viewpoints it represents, although they differ greatly from my own, but the methods of contextualization it uses I detest. To be clear, mis-contextualization is by no means a problem that is unique to Jacobson’s blog; it pervades the blogosphere and the traditional media spheres as well. But, as Jacobson noted, on the internet, particularly in the blogosphere, you’re preaching to the choir. However, my personal feeling is that in the interest of the journalistic desire to have your voice reach more readers, acknowledging that the less someone agrees with you, the more likely they are to view your argument as slanted or biased, allows you to present your argument––as Greenwald does––in a manner that has a certain type of reason and logic to it that even someone who disagrees with wouldn’t be totally turned off by.

Jacobson is far from this standard, as are few bloggers on either side of the political spectrum. As an example of how far he is from presenting his conservatism in a reasonable manner that could go beyond his target audience, let’s look at an article he published about the Obamacare “keep your doctor” claim. Jacobson’s post said that the statements were “The Central Obamacare Lie as Historic as This Presidency.”

Now, Jacobson’s blog post went up before NBC reported that the Obama Administration knew for three years that the “keep your doctor” promise was faulty. To be clear, I still wouldn’t quite call it a lie––it’s more of a half-truth, as the reorganization of the insurance and health care system will mean changes in networks, etc. that force people to switch doctors or providers in certain scenarios––but I certainly understand ACA opponents being angry with Obama for the statement. And after knowing that Obama knew how faulty it was, I’ll give conservatives the benefit of the doubt and allow it to be termed a full-on lie.

Jacobson had me. The non-party-allied, yet-still-somehow-more-sympathetic-to-democrats voice in my head was at least partially swayed by the reasonability of this criticism, and the fact that it was consistent with my beliefs around government transparency. But then Jacobson wades deeper into the muds of conservative pseudo-logic:

“It was more of a “lie” than George W. Bush’s statements regarding Iraq having WMD stockpiles, which were in reliance on faulty intelligence that most Democrats and others in the world believed too.”

By trying to contrast Obama with Bush here, Jacobson totally marginalizes anyone reading his blog who might be liberal or centrist, and probably even many moderate-conservative readers as well.

Whether you believe Bush lied us into Iraq or not, to present the simplification of the healthcare debate by President Obama as an equally-tragic lie as Bush’s belittles the effect the war has had, both economically and socially. The thousands of American soldiers lost, and the hundreds-of-thousands more of innocent Iraqi and Afghan civilians, will always be a greater disaster than Obamacare, even if it completely tanks and fails as a policy.

I won’t even bother addressing the assertion that Bush’s only motivation for being pro-war was “in reliance on faulty intelligence that most Democrats and others in the world believed too,” because to me, even the most hard-core conservative who believes Bush was behind Iraq for totally innocent reasons, can see that no matter whether it was a “lie,” the catastrophic effects are incomparable.

Corporate Co-Option Continues

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The continuance of corporate dominance of media over the last century despite so many vibrant attempts to challenge that structure is as equally inspiring as it is despair-filling. As blogging and the rise of citizen journalism emerged as the most recent attempt to challenge the corporate structure, there was some discussion as to whether is was a fundamental disruption to the existent business model, or a technological change which was causing a shake-up, and would cause media companies to shift course. It was so easy to be nothing but optimistic just ten years ago, before ownership had become so consolidated. As we’ve seen net-neutrality diminished, we’ve seen corporate dominance of the internet itself, and, to some extent, the online media. Independent bloggers still thrive and build followings, but it seems more and more of them sign contracts to put their blog on a larger media company’s site, and under a larger brand-name. Glen Greenwald did it while still maintaining independent control of his work, but its easy to see a trend developing in which independent bloggers receiving advertising from certain sources, or operating under the header of a certain company, either begin to self-censor or are prone to manipulation.

This isn’t a new tactic from corporations: there have been countless examples of the mainstream media attempting to co-opt alternative media and use them to advance their corporate agenda by reducing that alternative streak to a bland resemblance of what was formerly an ideological backbone.

Some argue that Rockefeller and others effectively ended the muckraking era by buying up many of the magazines that published exposés against them.

It happened to the Village Voice, and the Hartford Courant did it to the Advocate. By buying up alternative competitors or submitting to corporate ownership media companies effectively tamper any viewpoint that is excessively independent.

Many people believe that the Huffington Post became much more profit-oriented and far less ideologically-independent after the 2011 deal with AOL.

At the same time, these companies try to limit the voice of staunchly independent outlets that refuse to sell out by making it hard for them to do their work––by limiting their access and defining what a “real” journalist is, or making the distribution of their content too expensive.

Greenwald & Omidyar Won’t Be The Answer––Alone

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At this point, it seems the question for any independent journalist that has already achieved personal success––The Greenwalds, and Poitras’ and Scahills––is how can a journalistic institution be built with the power to challenge corporate structures but the ability to inspire personal conviction in specific areas and the backing of certain ideals?

Those three are putting their efforts behind a model, and if anybody can manage the pressures of a large organization with the fierce backing of certain values, it’s them. But they’ll still be prone to the same pitfalls of any structure that size, and they’ll have to come up with ways to work within certain aspects of convention while allowing total freedom in others.

Unfortunately, I do think there’s some credence in an aspect of Bill Keller’s email exchange with Greenwald that was printed in the New York Times. Once you have publicly declared your “subjective assumptions and political values,” Keller says “it’s human nature to want to defend them, and it becomes tempting to omit or minimize facts, or frame the argument, in ways that support your declared viewpoint.” Greenwald is still correct, however, that reporters who hide their opinions won’t be “less tempted by human nature to manipulate their reporting than those who are honest about their opinions,” but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t fall prey to the same temptations of any large-scale operation.

If Greenwald’s new venture is massively influential, and trumpets a specific agenda (even if it’s disclosed, unlike the “Fair and Balanced” Fox News model), that can still have a degrading effect on a democracy by being one of a few distinct yet homogenous voices (That’s the current state of American Media, right? It’s easy to see Greenwald’s outlet just becoming a more critical version of something that still fits the old model. I’m not saying it’s what will happen, I’m saying it easily could if he’s not careful to maintain control).

The problem then, is not that any opinion that is presented has slant or bias, but that any opinion that is presented as straight fact is distributed on a mass scale. The problem, is that we live in a society which allows for, and at this point nearly asks itself to be held under the thumb of dominant corporate monopolies.

Democracy thrives––and fixes itself––from the ground up. Challenging the dominant structure by building your own can only be so successful. The public must reject corporate news more and more, and turn to truly localized, citizen-funded efforts to build a grassroots network of independent voices from all areas of the political spectrum.