Journalist Zhanara Kasymbekova in The Fight to Publish, a film about Kazakhstan’s only mass-produced opposition paper.
(via Al Jazeera)
After Kazakhstan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, a system of double standards was created. To the outside world, the language of democracy is used to attract foreign investors. On the inside, journalists must navigate the dangerous realities of imprisonment, fines, interrogations by secret police, and raids of editorial offices. In two decades of independence, not a single murdered journalist’s case has been solved. Ostrovsky’s film follows journalist Zhanara, Staff reporter as the Golos Respubliki newspaper, as she covers stories from her base in Almaty - and when breaking news of the riots in Zhanaozen takes her to the aftermath of the bloodiest day in Kazakhstan’s modern history.
The Respublika newspaper did not come out of this frightening period unscathed. The editorial staff were threatened when the beheaded corpse of a dog was hung outside the newspaper’s window. It turned out that this was only a prelude to the arson of our editorial office, which was burned to the ground. At the same time, our editor-in-chief, Irina Petrushova, was charged with tax evasion and forced to flee the country. By 2009, the newspaper had been forced to shut down by one of its creditors, the government-controlled BTA bank. But despite all the pressure, the newspaper reopened under the new name it uses today: Golos Respubliki.
FJP: A wake-up call to the realities faced by journalists around the world. Zhanara has to fight to cover news objectively, risking her life in the process.
Watch the film. 25 minutes, worth it.
With these words, NPR commits itself as an organization to avoid the worst excesses of “he said, she said” journalism. It says to itself that a report characterized by false balance is a false report. It introduces a new and potentially powerful concept of fairness: being “fair to the truth,” which as we know is not always evenly distributed among the sides in a public dispute.
Maintaining the “appearance of balance” isn’t good enough, NPR says. “If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side…” we have to say so. When we are spun, we don’t just report it. “We tell our audience…” This is spin!
shortformblog: Rosen took a particular liking to lines like these: “Our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth.” Read NPR’s ethics guidelines and consider it for yourself.
Last weekend I presented a paper at the 8th Annual Soka Education Conference held at my alma mater, Soka University of America. You can learn about the conference here. I discussed news literacy & Soka Education, an educational framework developed by the late Japanese educator, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi. You can poke around the conference site to learn more.
You can e-mail me for the actual paper (entitled From George Orwell to Media Literacy: Soka Education for Informed Media Consumers), but here is the presentation version & prezi. Happy reading!
*Note: conversations are fictionalized, quotes are real but based on writings, not meetings.
A Man Named George.
I have been 22 years old for a very long time.
The events that allow me to perpetually own this age
begin on a rainy British afternoon in 1946,
when I had tea with a man named George.
You might also know him as Orwell.
He was a writer, journalist, and generally brilliant man who loved rules
and always had some to offer.
In fact, that evening, he spent a good ten minutes lecturing me on how to take my tea.
It was my fault really.
I tried to put sugar in it.
“How can you call yourself a true tealover,” he said, “if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter.”
A few days after this he had an article published in the Evening Standard
on how to make a nice cup of tea.
That said, you can image how strict he might be about writing.
George and I had a long discussion on language.
“Political speech and writing,” he told me
“are largely the defense of the indefensible.”
I didn’t understand.
“Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan…can be defended only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face.”
“Thus,” he went on,
“political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness…it is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”
I was dumbfounded.
“But why, George?” I asked,
“How do you mean?”
He gave me some examples.
“Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets,” he said.
“This is called pacification.”
“Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry,” he said.
My heart felt heavy.
“This is called rectification of frontiers.”
“People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck, or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps,” he said.
I choked back my tea, and tears.
“This is called elimination of unreliable elements.”
“But George, this is terrible!” I cried.
“Such phraseology is needed,” he explained, “if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”
It was true.
Our conversation wasn’t entirely depressing, though.
George Orwell explained to me that sure, language reflects existing social values.
But changing how we choose to use language, how we construct our sentences,
can also slow the decay of social conditions, and maybe even reverse it.
He then, of course, went on to prescribe a set of rules for the English language.
It was all later recorded into a wonderful essay,
called Politics & the English Language.
You might like to read it sometime.
In 1950 George passed away.
What he left me with was a large, growing sense of curiosity about the impact of language,
embedded with small, stubborn bits of hope on how we might use it best.
I’ve remained on the look-out for blindness
blindness to the visceral actualities of current affairs
and the incomprehensible forms of language that sustain it.
This brings us to today.
I’ve a struggled a bit, to be honest,
to contemporize George’s critique of political language.
I spent a few decades thinking I might have it down,
walking the streets of New York,
preaching his rules to every friend I’d make:
Tell it like it is, I’d say.
Never use a long word where a short one will do, I’d say.
And I’d go home in the evening when the chatter of the day had quieted,
I’d put off my television set and and take my tea without sugar and sleep soundly.
Then the 90s hit, and the 2000’s.
The chatter of the day suddenly, wouldn’t end.
No it would get louder and louder, louder even today,
and my TV box would turn on without my doing
and my pockets would beep and buzz
and it seems every time I answer the phone
there’s a headline mixed up with my phonebook
telling me about a war across the ocean,
a new invention which looks exactly like the one before it,
and battles that can be fought through video games.
And suddenly it seems oil has turned to magic,
as it can make cars run, french fries taste good, men lie, and children die, all at the same time.
Now when I wake up in the morning
and go out into the street
I’m dizzy and fatigued, and I have more grey hairs,
and once in a while I even wish
I could just read a nice paper bundle of political lies wrapped up neat and tidy,
delivered to my doorstep once a day.
I wish I still knew how to identify blindness and the lies that protect it,
but it seems everything is blinding all the time these days.
I wish George and I could have a cup of tea and he could give me another list of rules to preach.
But he can’t.
So I’ve switched to coffee now,
and I’ve met with some nice people who love George as much as I do,
and we’ve concluded that it really is grim out there, and cloudy.
George was, right, wasn’t he?
It is easier to turn a blind eye, to embrace powerlessness, and to condemn politics
than it is to accept what drives war, greed, scandal, injustice and violence.
Be it through political language, or digital swimming pools,
sometimes it’s nice to not know
because when you don’t know, you don’t have to care.
So, I’ve finally contemporized George’s critique. Here’s my go at it:
The ambiguous political rhetoric of 1946 allowed decision-makers and ordinary citizens to live with their conscience intact, despite deteriorating political and social values. Orwell exposed a sort of convenient “illiteracy” of the time.
In 2012, we too suffer from an inundation by language, though it’s not just political. Let’s call it media illiteracy: a reduced state of consciousness due to the overwhelming amounts of information & reporting (relevant or not) that we consume.
Luckily, George embedded my awareness with hope,
and I think this is where we make a new set of rules.
I began thinking, and watching, and reading and meeting news consumers,
feeling the weight of an unperceived illiteracy
alive still today
and yet unnameable.
And then through the beeping and buzzing and primetime fussing
about presidential incapabilities
I penned it down.
What leads to this new illiteracy, this news illiteracy?
1. News we don’t realize we consume
through billboards and graphics and headlines and broadcasts,
on every street corner, multiplying at the same rate my heart beats,
faster still, when i try to run from it.
2. Networked cable news, partisan, profit-powered, 85% male, 92% white,
and did you know that just this month,
62% percent of guests invited to comment on contraception, were men?
3. Trusting sources. Hyperlocal blogs, indie publications, citizen journalists
comprise this new networked public sphere, but are their agendas, facts verifiable?, business models sustainable?
The list does go on and it went on in my head and on paper,
until another rainy afternoon,
in 2011, when I had coffee with a man named Dean.
He works at Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy.
He became my new George in a way,
and we had a long conversation on language,
and ways and the why in which we could remedy how we receive it.
He is a teacher seeking to alleviate illiteracy
through classroom exercises
and streetside improvising:
don’t consume any news at all for 48 hours
“Different eyes, Different ears”-
for 48 hours adopt the news consumption habits of a classmate
don’t judge them.
We discussed tools, tips, trades and trends,
alternative digests, curated by thinking minds with lots of time
so you could collect the best from the rest.
We discussed how to check facts like a journalist
and news diets
and how to trim intellectual belly fat
and Facebook and Tumblr and Twitter
Feedly and Fuego,
subscriptions to social reading
and finding facts without meaning.
Dean told me, demonstrates a method of active and reasoned examination of received truths and wisdom that is missing in much of undergraduate education.”
Consider this, he told me.
“In one class, students watch a Jon Stewart critique of a Fox News story that uses sexually charged clips of bikini-clad students on spring break as the eyewash for a story on a serial prostitute killer running loose in Daytona Beach.”
“By questioning the connection between dead prostitutes (the spoken narrative)
and partying spring breakers (the visual narrative), they learn the difference between truth grounded in fact and Colbertian ‘truthiness’ grounded in the artifice and fabrication of news coverage.”
We went through many exercises that day,
about wikileaks cables and what it might feel like to be a diplomat in the country from which a cable was leaked.
About challenging American minds on what they believe, to learn what we don’t know.
I thanked Dean that evening and went about my night,
thinking, what other components might there be to our distaste for that which is different or uncomfortable?
And the very next morning I had a chat with a man named Ted (Koppel)
who gently and smilingly reminded me,
“We now feel entitled not to have the news that we need but the news that we want. We want to listen to news that comes from those who already sympathize with our particular point of view. We don’t want facts anymore.”
I remembered George for a moment,
and the convenience of ambiguous language.
Then I thought,
where else might I take my questions?
That brings us to this very moment,
and everything we have discussed in these last 48 hours
about studying and living and learning as complete human beings,
who perceive their interconnectedness,
and do not deny difference,
but cultivate compassion and imaginative empathy
for those suffering in distant places.
You can imagine what comes next.
Time traveling and tea, with Makiguchi,
who gave me a good bit of advice.
“Let us consider,” he said,
“the possibility of establishing a science of evaluation to provide us with the standards by which to weigh and set values, just as the conceptual framework of logic already offers us rules by which to recognize truth.”
The parts of my brain in which I held onto my conversations with George and Dean burst into light and color.
Makiguchi went on.
“The cognition of truth is a yes-no proposition: This is true, and that is false, with no middle ground for passing judgment.”
“On the other hand, the determination of value is entirely relative: This seems appropriate, and that inappropriate.”
I thought of the bikini-clad spring breakers.
“Feelings are the province of evaluating how we as subjects of our own emotional universe interact with things,” he explained.
I thought about it.
The fact is, in consuming news, we do evaluate information as subjects of our own emotional universe.
That’s why it’s difficult to accept particular viewpoints
And that’s how we decide what news to watch,
in what quantity,
on what device.
“I look at the world today,” said Makiguchi, “and find nothing so insidious as this confusion between truth and value, cognition and evaluation. Mixing the two constricts actual understanding and prevents people from assuming an attitude of clarity and responsibility toward their chosen positions.”
My mind wandered to a youtube video I’d seen not too long ago
of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s death.
It was gruesome yet I’d barely blinked at it.
What allowed me to ignore moral discomfort at publicly viewing his death?
Someone else’s value I’d accepted that he was a bad man and deserved it?
Makiguchi seemd to peer into my head.
“There are people who side with someone solely on the basis of reputation,” he said, “without actually seeing or listening or getting to know that person for themselves.”
“Oh I see this all the time,” I replied.
“This can prove to be the source of numerous social weaknesses. Citizens who will not even give an opening to understanding unless they already favor a particular view will mindlessly believe every word uttered by some respected figure, whether what that person says is true or not.”
Suddenly, it clicked.
I ignored moral discomfort on a daily basis when viewing the news.
Mainly because I knew I was powerless,
and apathy was somewhat of an expert coping strategy.
The Orwell in my mind, smiled at that moment, I’m sure of it.
I thought of Dean’s news literacy classroom and exercises,
of the networked public sphere,
of media nutrition and trimming belly fat
and realized, perhaps, news consumption could actually be supplemented
by a exercise regimen
in which i could practice distinguishing between cognition and evaluation
on a daily basis,
fill my plate up with conflicting opinions
identify my biases
and not only trim belly fat
but gain a little bit of moral endurance.
Perhaps Soka Education could offer to news literacy the very thing that it struggled to address:
critical thinking exercises that helped readers identify their biases and place their own judgment on fact.
When you gain something new,
how does it relate to what you already know, feel, believe?
held the very unique space for adults to actually be life-long learners.
I thanked Makiguchi,
walked myself home and stopped at a bookshop
to purchase a notebook and pen.
My phone beeped and buzzed
but I ignored it for the moment
to make a list of rules
for the consumption of language.
I’m not entirely sure what they will be
but I am sure this is where we’ll have to work together
I can make you an expert
cup of tea (or coffee) on a rainy afternoon.
So I hope the conversations will continue.
© 2012 Jihii Jolly
Partisan journalism survived as the dominant approach to covering political news until the end of the 19th century. But around that time, two forces, both related to the rise of a national economy, began to militate for change in the ethic of partisan journalism. First, a large class of readers developed who were educated and interested in receiving accounts of political news that did not try to make up their minds for them. Second, wire services such as the Associated Press—which, as the telegraph spread, were serving more and more newspapers in every part of the country—decided that partisanship was bad business. In the course of pleasing one party’s newspapers, the wire services would displease not only the other party’s, but also all of those readers who wanted their news unleavened with overt political bias.” —
Michael Nelson, Virginia Quarterly Review. Why the Media Love Presidents and Presidents Hate the Media.
Our Presidents Day reading brings us to the history of American political journalism.
Joel Simon in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Annual Report. Via The Atlantic
CPJ’s findings reflect a profound shift toward reliance on Internet advocacy. “Blogging, video sharing and text messaging from cellphones now bring news from some of the most oppressive countries to the rest of the world,” the annual survey concludes, “Yet the technology used to report the news has been matched in many ways by the tools used to suppress information.” In Syria, for example, CPJ says, there is a practice that computer experts call “rubber-hose cryptanalysis,” which means, bluntly, the use of force to extract critical data from activists, including passwords and log-in details. As 2012 unfolds, the likelihood is that the governments and regimes where civil strife continues will keep up the pressure on journalists, and social media will defy the attempts to suppress it.
Timothy Noah, New Republic. What the Heck is the ‘Political Intelligence’ Industry.
The News: The US House of Representatives killed a provision in an insider trading bill that would have required people involved in ‘political intelligence’ to register in the same way that traditional lobbyists do.
Political intelligence is a $300 million a year industry used by hedge funds and mutual funds to get information about which way politicians are going to vote — or what legislation will be enacted — that effect industries that they are invested in.
Russell Banks, American Author, to colleagues during a PEN International mission to Mexico that is encouraging law enforcement to better protect journalists.
As the Committee to Protect Journalists notes, 43 journalists have been murdered in Mexico since 2006