Sunday, April 22, 2007

What Wolf Won

The Josh Wolf case has raised important questions about who qualifies as a journalist and whether journalists should be shielded from participating in government investigations. But as urgent as these questions are, it is unfortunate that they have so completely overshadowed some of the finer points of this case — specifically, the terms of the subpoena that Wolf refused to comply with, and of the deal he ultimately made with the U.S. Attorney.

The subpoena demanded Wolf's unedited video and his testimony before a federal grand jury. The video has taken center stage as the "real point" of the case, but as Wolf has pointed out repeatedly, the really urgent issue was the testimony. Grand jury proceedings are secret; no records are ever published, so no one can ever prove whether they restricted their testimony to necessary or known facts. And the grand jury can ask anything. Who was that person standing next to you at the protest? Do they belong to any other activist organizations? Who else belongs to that organization? The person testifying does not have a lawyer present, cannot refuse to answer any questions, and can never prove that he or she didn't name names.

This is what Wolf found "more egregious" than turning over the tapes, and I agree with him. He also couldn't say very much about it, on the advice of his lawyers. So the tapes naturally became the focus of the story, because that's all that could be talked about. Fair enough.

Until his release. Since then he has said plenty, but somehow it isn't making its way into the news. The story still seems to be: Wolf Gives Up Tapes, Gets Out of Jail. This is true, but is far from being the whole story — in fact, it actually conceals the real story, or at least gives the impression that the "fine print" is insignificant. It's not. It's really not.

Of course, it isn't the fault of any reporter or news writer when city officials come out with lamentably silly and uninformed-sounding non-statements such as Tom Ammiano's ("Josh did what the Giants couldn’t do today, he hit a home run") and Ross Mirkarimi's ("You went in as a blogger. You’re out as a hunk with a new cause we can rally around"). These vapid sound bites do nothing except help brand the politician as being on the "right side" of a fight. So the newspapers that report what was said can't entirely be blamed for reducing a complex issue to a simple zero-sum game.

But some news writers deserve a bit more blame than others. No matter what facts and quotes the writer is stuck with, it's still his or her job to present information with as much relevant context as possible, and to avoid reinforcing skewed and misleading interpretations.

To illustrate my point, I'd like to quote from an article published last week in the San Francisco State University campus newspaper, The Golden Gate [X]Press.

Immediately following the rah-rah nonsense from the two city supervisors, the article reads:

"Wolf’s freedom came after reaching an agreement with the United States Attorney’s office to submit raw footage he shot of an anti-globalization protest through the Mission district in 2005 as part of an investigation regarding the assault of a police officer and the torching of a police car during the protest. Wolf denied that anything of value is on the tape.

Along with his release from prison, Wolf will not have to testify before a Grand Jury in the investigation."

To me, this presents a simple equation: Wolf gave up the tapes and as a reward was let out of prison and told he didn't have to testify before the grand jury. Primarily, it suggests that Wolf's goal — the point of his entire ordeal — was to protect the tapes, period. Yet what we know (or what more of us would know if this part of the story got some attention) is that giving up the tapes would have qualified as proof that incarceration was likely to succeed in coercing him to testify for the grand jury. Giving up the tapes would have amounted, legally, to his saying "Keep me here long enough and you will get my full cooperation." Protecting the tapes wasn't about protecting the tapes — it was about resisting the more egregious demand for his testimony. This is why Wolf had already repeatedly offered to let a judge view the tapes: they had nothing on them, there was nothing he needed to protect, but giving them up per the terms of the subpoena would have gone a long way toward forcing him into the other part as well.

Does it matter that one person managed to resist that order? I think it does. I think it matters so much that it should be plastered in a huge font across every newspaper in the land, along with all of the tedious, complicated, fine-print details — so that the next person in Wolf's situation, whether they're a blogger or a journalist or not, can be prepared.
Photo source:

Exerpt from Josh Wolf's statement on February 6, 2007, upon becoming the longest-incarcerated journalist in U.S. history:

The second reason compelling me to refuse to cooperate with the Grand Jury subpoena is that this whole thing is not about what the government would have you believe it to be. This case is not about a videotape, it’s not about identifying suspects of a crime and it’s not about obtaining justice. If it were, then the U.S. Attorney would not have argued against the judge reviewing my outtakes in his chambers and the U.S. Attorney would have been more receptive to the inquires my defense team made.

No, this case is not about a videotape and it’s not about justice. This entire matter is about eroding the rights of privacy and those of a free press. It is about identifying civil dissidents and using members of the news media to actively assist in what is essentially an anarchist witchhunt. This is what I have suspected from the beginning, but it has been brought closer into focus with the government’s recent response to our motion. I will not allow myself to be put in a position of outing anarchists who likely are guilty of nothing more that possessing political beliefs outside the American norm.

How many of the freedoms promised to us in the Bill of Rights are still intact? How many more liberties will be eroded away? The future is uncertain, but at present the military continues to wage war in Iraq in the name of freedom. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the tragic irony of it all.

The role of the media is to ask the questions, to point at those inconsistencies, and to demand answers from the powers that be. This is why the media is under attack and this is why it is so urgent that we continue to fight back. Because without a free press we can never be free.

And I’ll conclude with the word of Mario Savio that defined the Free Speech Movement some 40 years ago and still possesses a tremendous vitality today. On December 2, 1964, in the city of Berkeley, Savio stated, “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even tacitly take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

Thank you, and I look forward to returning back to San Francisco just as soon as the government comes to its senses and realizes that I will not- that I cannot be coerced.

Thanks again,

Josh Wolf

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

George Orwell, Campaign Strategist?

If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.
— George Orwell

The "Vote Different" video is raising lots of questions about campaign ethics (did Obama's people commission the video; is this a new low in smear campaigning) and the growing role of new media in politics. But I'm not seeing much discussion of "Vote Different" as a mashup, or of mashup/remix culture, per se. That surprises me because it seems like a perfect illustration of what mashup/remix is for and what it can accomplish.

"Vote Different" is a good mashup, and not only in the sense of being skillfully produced. It's also good in the sense that it does what a mashup should: combine and juxtapose elements of existing works (and the meanings encoded therein) in such a way that the new, derivative work contributes something new to our understanding of that subject or item or concept. The point of using existing material isn't just to be lazy and avoid producing one's own work from scratch. Remix culture seeks specifically to activate the audience's systems of association and cultural knowlege — the messages we've already received and internalized and incorporated into our own "maps" of the world — and to then take that whole cognitive package and tweak it (recontextualize the familiar) to elicit new meaning.

I think the "Vote Different" video is a truly excellent example of how that works. The original Apple ad used imagery from an existing work, George Orwell's novel 1984, to evoke a sense of liberation from an oppressive world of bleak conformity and lack of choice. It did this very effectively, but not for the purpose of illuminating anything or anyone: it was just an ad produced to create a brand, not stimulate or express thought. The "Vote Different" piece takes all of the meaning crammed into the Apple ad and redirects it: now we aren't looking at consumers bored with the range of computers available to them, set free at last to buy stuff from a cooler company. Now we're looking at the public, the culture, ourselves, dully gaping as the latest Big Brother figure drones on at us — it almost doesn't matter who it is, the point is we get that it's the face of the state, of entrenched power, of a system too big and old for us to know how to change.

In this sense, I think "Vote Different" actually helps recover the meaning of the original work. Orwell created Big Brother as a way to talk about government and power and hegemony and coercion — not what color of plastic you want your computer to be. Apple trivialized that meaning in its ad (and faced similar criticism for its Think Different campaign, which capitalized on images of people like Cesar Chavez, Albert Einstein, and Mahatma Gandhi. "Vote Different" restores Orwell's original meaning and refocuses attention on something relevant to the original work. That isn't something required of all mashups or remixes, but it's an extra little bonus that I appreciate in this one.

As for whether "Vote Different" is an ethical kind of campaign material, I have to admit I don't see it as significantly different from most campaigns. Aren't they all using the same emotionalistic, button-pushing, id-activating, critical-thought-squashing, propagandistic message-pushing strategy? Why is it any different for George W. Bush to stand on the White House lawn or on the bridge of a naval carrier spouting slogans and catch-phrases and sound bites — isn't that just as manipulative? If someone out there sees a connection between Hillary Clinton's speech and Orwell's world of permagov and doublespeak, why shouldn't he manifest that idea as a video and put it out there for discussion? Honestly, I think that Philip de Vellis (who called his work a "citizen ad") has contributed something incredibly valuable to this campaign cycle: something intelligently conceived, clear in its message and intention, that calls for discussion of things we really ought to be discussing, not just now but all the time.

And while I personally felt some dismay at seeing Hillary get that treatment — I like the principle behind the video, not necessarily the content of the message — I wouldn't want to squelch remix culture or keep it out of the political realm because then we might never have been given "Imagine This" (video at right). It's another great example of a mashup/remix making full use of the encoded meanings in the original work, and recontextualizing the familiar so that new meaning emerges. In this case, the derivative work further illuminates a subject/theme/concept which it shares with the original — not always or necessarily the case, but done rather nicely here, expanding and refocusing rather than just repeating the original message.

And while we're talking about Orwell, here's a video of a guy getting arrested for asking Texas governor George W. Bush a question at a campaign appearance. Not removed from the event — arrested. The cameraperson gets roughed up, too. A disturbing look at very early signs of how our free speech and freedom of the press were going to go. As a remix or mashup, though, I have to rate this one very low in concept and quality: it's hard to tell whether the music and CG text are supposed to be ironic, scary, or silly. And the guy, Alex Jones, doesn't seem aware of how his behavior might be undermining his message; I'd think a smart conspiracy theorist would try to avoid triggering all those stereotypes of the paranoid loudmouth with no social skills. Too bad — I love conspiracy theories and hate to see them wasted like this!

"Vote Different" by Phil de Vellis, who says his message was that "the old political machine no longer holds all the power."

Here's the original Apple "1984" ad.

Here's the original Hillary Clinton video announcing her intention to run for president in 2008.

Mashup of George W. Bush singing "Imagine"

Alex Jones getting arrested for asking George W. Bush a question at a campaign appearance.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

All Hail Wikia

Do you worry about the death of the book, the death of the book store, or even the end of reading in our hi-tech, wi-fi world?

Do you count the number of laptops vs. the number of books open on tables when you go to a café?

Do you read blogs and weep when you see total lack of capitalization or punctuation, writing that appears to have no structure or telos beyond simple blurting of impressions and feelings, or token bits of text humbly serving to introduce whatever piece of embedded video is taking center stage?

Me, too.

But let's not panic too soon. There are still a lot of people out there who care about writing, and a lot of people who want to read — yes, read, really read! So where can those writers put their work, and where can readers go to find it? If you poke around Google and and Technorati and whatnot, searching for "hyperfiction" or "on-line publishing" or "e-book," you'll find some good stuff; same with blogs and personal websites. Of course, there will be a lot of trial and error necessary, a lot of sifting through sites and pieces of no interest to you before you find what you really want.

This has been the case with pretty much every type of Internet content: it takes a while before someone centralizes, organizes, indexes it enough to make it really useful. Remember life before Google? (Nooooooo!)

Someday there will be an organized, indexed on-line resource for creative writing of all kinds. A library, if you will, that everyone can contribute to — and that is subject to some form of quality control regarding literacy, clarity, accuracy (when that is an issue), etc.

Enter Wikia, latest brainchild of Jimmy Wales, creator of Wikipedia. (Cue angels singing. Ah, Wikipedia, how I do love you!) Among other things, Wikia is emerging as a central repository for several interesting forms of on-line creative writing. Like Wikipedia, it is editable and records the history and discussion of edits; hopefully this will keep standards high as has been the case with Wikipedia.

Wikia's creative-writing/fiction component is called Novelas, The Free Library. It has sections for novels, novelas, short stories, interactive fiction, scripts, poetry and fan-fic, plus discussion forums, lists of guilds (collaborative projects) and other resources. It's an amazing, tantalizing, inspiring site that has huge potential for helping writers and readers find each other.

Another interesting Wikia category is Alternate History. Listed by POD (point of departure), each entry describes a fictional event that changes the course of history. Some cool PODs on the list: 850 A.D. – Instead of discovering gunpowder, the Chinese discover explosives, leading the world into an early space age. 1209 – The Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars of Languedoc is a failure, eventually making vegetarianism in Europe stronger (POD for Vegetarian World). 1846 – Zachary Taylor killed in beginning of Mexican-American War, as are other military figures, such as Ulysses S. Grant during the course of the botched war, leading to an American defeat. 1997 — American Vice-President Al Gore is killed when Air Force Two, his official plane, crashes in California. This is the POD that kicks off the President Gary [Condit] timeline, which is fascinating to read and to imagine.

And finally, perhaps my favorite Wikia item (though it's so hard to choose!) is the Uncyclopedia, which describes itself as "an encyclopedia full of misinformation and utter lies." Kind of a cross between Wikipedia and The Onion, it features satirical "news" items as well as biographical, historical, and other "information." It revels in its freedom from the constraints of fair and accurate reporting, and tends to indulge in pokes and jabs at "the so-called experts at Wikipedia," while sustaining the best characteristics of its progenitor — intelligent design and techie Darwinism in perfect harmony.

Or maybe I should just admit I love it because of the mascot (see right).

"Sauron, our lord and mistress."

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Monday, February 12, 2007

A Hoax by Any Other Name

Bad media writing alert!

On February 1, Boston police arrested Sean Stevens and Peter Berdovsky for having put up several LED display devices around Boston. The men were charged with placing a "hoax" device intended to cause panic.

Media coverage of the resulting "bomb-scare" in Boston and of the case against the two suspects—specifically, the different treatments of the word "hoax" in headlines and articles—reveals how frighteningly easy it is for news writers to mislead readers and influence opinion out of sheer carelessness with language.

Let's start with a look at the word "hoax". Merriam-Webster defines it as "to trick into believing or accepting as genuine something false and often preposterous". The Free Dictionary says "1. An act intended to deceive or trick. 2. Something that has been established or accepted by fraudulent means". Given the context—harmless devices mistaken for bombs—the word "hoax" implies that the people who created the devices and placed them where pedestrians and motorists would see them intended to scare people.

It's pretty clear that wasn't anyone's intention. The devices were part of a marketing campaign by Interference, Inc. to advertise Turner Broadcasting's Cartoon Network program Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

We'll probably never know whether anyone involved ever raised a hand and said, "Hey, what are people gonna think when they see these unfamiliar devices with wires hanging off them, mounted in strange places like freeway underpasses and bridges?" Turner bought its way out of having to answer such questions for $2 million (to compensate the city of Boston for the expense of deploying emergency crews, and to ease the sting of the traffic tie-ups caused by the scare).

But even if someone did say something like that at some point, and even if that person got silenced or brushed off, what's the likelihood that anyone intended the devices to look like bombs?

It's interesting to see how different media sources handled the word "hoax". Some referred directly to the wording of the charges, for example CNN's headline: "Two plead not guilty to Boston hoax charges". The article reports that Judge Paul K. Leary maintained that the D.A. would have to prove the suspects' intent to cause a panic, which didn't appear to be the case (though he said the issue should be discussed at a later hearing). So this story was in fact about charges of a hoax, not about a hoax. Fair enough.

The Christian Science Monitor put the phrase "bomb hoax" in quotes, which seems to invite appropriate skepticism. However, the article does not question whether the incident was a hoax; in fact, it privileges that interpretation by giving this quote from Gov. Deval Patrick: "It's a hoax – and it's not funny." The article ends with a reminder about the guy who faked an anthrax-powder alert and a lament about fraudulent fundraising e-mails that sap productivity at work, prefaced by this sentence: "Hoaxes and fake terror alerts can cost big money." Forget about inviting readers to question whether there was a hoax; CSM seems to want them to think there was, and to augment their disapproval based unrelated incidents. That strikes me as overtly manipulative as well as inaccurate.

Even more inaccurate is the The Huffington Post headline: "Time Warner Group Apologizes for Boston Bomb Hoax". The wording of that apology specifically reads: "We...certainly did not set out to perpetrate a hoax." Obviously, you can't apologize for something by saying you didn't do it. TWG spokespeople are referring to the incident as a "guerilla marketing campaign" and have never confessed to or apologized for attempting a hoax.

ABC's blog, The Blotter, featured this careless—and cryptic—headline: "Boston Bomb Hoax Blamed on TV Stunt." Huh? "Blamed" implies uncertainty as to who or what did it; some people blame X, some people blame Y. "TV Stunt" suggests something that happened on TV. Every word of that headline is muddy, except maybe "Boston" and "on". The strangest treatment, though, was the headline, which put bomb in quotes, but not hoax. The headline reads: Man arrested for marketing "bomb" hoax. That one makes my "head" spin. (It also suggests that the man was arrested for marketing a bomb hoax.)

I noticed that on Jan. 31, the day before the two men were arrested and charged, NPR featured this headline: "Misconstrued Publicity Stunt Shuts Down Boston". Now that's an accurate and descriptive headline. Too bad so many news reporters were bamboozled by the sloppy wording of the charge—and too bad so much slanted and inaccurate writing happened as a result.

Here's the little dude who scared the pants off Boston. He's a Mooninite, and he's flipping you off.

Here's a video showing how the devices were made and installed.

(Globe Staff Photo / George Rizer)
Sean Stevens and Peter Berdovsky, who claim that their work is "guerilla art". That's another semantic issue altogether... At their press conference, Sean and Peter refused to answer any questions that were not about hair.

(AP Photo/Turner Broadcasting, Edward M. Pio Roda)
The fall guy: Jim Samples, Cartoon Network executive vice president and general manager, sent this e-mail message to his colleagues: "I deeply regret the negative publicity and expense caused to our company as a result of this campaign. As General Manager of Cartoon Network, I feel compelled to step down, effective immediately, in recognition of the gravity of the situation that occurred under my watch." He'd been at Turner Broadcasting for 13 years. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino commented, "Someone had to pay."

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Monday, January 22, 2007

To Be or Not To Be Free to Be Ad-Free

Is that title confusing enough?

It's meant to be — it suits the topic. Or maybe "disturbing" is a better word than "confusing" here, as it relates to the mini-monsoon of outrage surrounding

The "org" is actually a website where you can get a button to place on your blog, affirming it as a space free of corporate advertising.

I like the idea, simply because it's getting hard to find non-corporate-claimed space online. It feels good to take a break from the sales-pitches whizzing by my head every second of the day. I appreciated the creators' effort to bring awareness to the issue and let people get involved.

But not everyone saw it as a good thing; in fact, it made some people pretty mad. The discussion thread on AdRants got fairly hostile in places. Wagons were circled. In the distance, a counter-strike was launched: adfreeblog.COM.

The issue of monetizing blogs and vlogs has generated a lot of tension in the ethernetwebosphere (tried to get "new media" and "2.0" in there, too, but pooped out). One person's over-commercialization of public space is another person's honest effort to make a living. When ads started appearing on superpopular Rocketboom and The Show with Ze Frank, there was a not-unexpected rain of criticism (supposedly independent new media "selling out" to corporate power), to which the sensible response was: "Well, why shouldn't we get paid for the work we're doing?"

It's a fair question, and one that continues to generate much discussion — as it should. I'm a little worried about the way the debate is taking shape, though: there's a kind of red state/blue state thing happening, the kind of polarization that just gets everyone caught up in defensiveness and entrenched positions rather than thinking critically and creatively, and engaging in a discourse.

Media writers (like all writers, past and present) should think about what "space" their work occupies, and how their work affects and is affected by that space. And they should keep thinking about it, rather than branding themselves and ending the discussion.

I'd like to offer a historical example that might take the edge off the current debate. Well known feminist Gloria Steinem wrote articles for Playboy Magazine; she felt that by placing her work in that space, she could get that audience to think about things they might not otherwise encounter or take seriously. On the other hand, many argued that she was merely helping a misogynist pornographic publication strike a pose of intelligence and respectability, "de-shaming" it so that it could be sold at a higher profit to a more educated and affluent audience.

Interestingly (and ironically, some said, or even hypocritically), Steinem went on to co-found Ms. magazine, which went ad-free in 1989. Every issue includes a "No Comment" segment, in which readers send in blatantly sexist (or racist or homophobic) advertisements clipped from other magazines.

So Steinem gets criticized for selling out her political values (publishing in Playboy) and for being puritanically anti-capitalist (for refusing to publish ads). It's as if she's not allowed to think through the issues in context and make rational decisions; people expect her to make one simplistic, ideological proclamation and then stick with it forever. I'd call that the true death of a writer.

If I put an ad-free button on my blog, maybe all I'm saying is that this particular body of my work belongs in a space where writer and reader can be alone together, without corporate chaperones, and without making money off one another. I'm not issuing a blanket condemnation of people who put their work in other kinds of spaces; I'm not accusing anyone of selling out; I'm not saying writers shouldn't make money off of their work.

By the same token, if I do want to place ads or otherwise generate revenue for my work, I should not have to adopt a "ruthless capitalist survivor" mentality and cultivate contempt for the ad-free-ists. I shouldn't let myself be bullied into always making that decision the same way, either.

I don't want to leave the impression that the whole debate around has been hostile. Much of the AdRants conversation was insightful and thought-provoking; the "other side" of the issue is also discussed on the Stay Free! daily blog. In some ways, it's good that the debate has crystallized and given people something concrete to apply their ideas and theories to (always a good test). Maybe I shouldn't worry so much; writers are pretty tough — it'll take more than a button to bring us down.

By using this icon on my website I am stating...

1. That I am opposed to the use of corporate advertising on blogs.
2. That I feel the use of corporate advertising on blogs devalues the medium.
3. That I do not accept money in return for advertising space on my blog.

the author

By using this icon on my website I am stating...

1. That I am NOT opposed to the use of corporate advertising on blogs.
2. That I feel the use of corporate advertising on blogs IMPROVES the medium.
3. That I ACCEPT money in return for advertising space on my blog.

the Author

The cover of the first issue of Ms. Magazine, 1972. Wonder Woman had been aesthetically revamped and "modernized" to boost sales; this is the Amazon Princess in her original form (read more at Amazon Archives).

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