The Facebook Times

With more and more of our news access being filtered (willingly or not) through social media reach, it’s about time readers started thinking critically about how those same social media sites might influence what we read and know. wersm-facebook-trending-657x360

Companies like Facebook have supplanted our traditional means of distribution, meaning many news outlets have no oversight—or insight—into how their content is disseminated and received by readers. And now that they’ve fired all their human editors in favor of the almighty algorithim, there’s even less insight and, as the Megyn Kelly-trending example shows, less management into what content gets distributed and how.

“I also worry about the opaqueness of Facebook and its mysterious algorithms. My team and I try to figure out why some posts seem to “hit” and are shared thousands of times while reaching millions of people, while others fare much more modestly,” said Dan Rather in a recent post (on Facebook). “On balance, I feel that all this change is a tremendous force for good. As this article states, I believe Facebook never set out to become the primary means of journalistic communication. We have to figure out how to make that work best for all concerned.”

But as we wade into discussing what alleigance and assistance social media companies owe us in the fight for modern journalism, let’s talk about things that matter. And—on trend—things that are real.

For instance, the answer to “Did Facebook Commit Libel Against Megyn Kelly?” is a resounding no. Libel, the legal definition for a defamation in a written form, is committed by folks who write articles, not folks (or robots or companies) that allow for that content to be shared. What’s more, under the DMCA or Communications Decency Act internet service providers and their intermediaries are not responsible for illegal content on sites so long as they remove it when it comes to their attention.

“It’s difficult to know who to blame for Facebook’s mistake,” wrote The Atlantic (which ultimately acknowledged that the law would not see Facebook as at fault). “On its face, the company’s decision to switch from human to algorithmic editors seems like a shirking of authority. The new Trending algorithm appears to work by promoting the most-discussed news topics to a place of prominence, no matter their global or editorial importance. It also caters to the kinds of stories that users appear to want to read.”

Which if Facebook is solely a technology company and not a media company—which it has always claimed is the case—then it has the right to do. Algorithms mess up. Just ask anybody who’s ever gotten a notice from the DMCA to take down a video because it contains a 30-second snippet of a song in the background that Youtube’s software flagged as a violation. As a technology company they are not necessarily responsible for verifying what users share. That’s how bullshit gossip and hashtags trend anywhere.

It’s worth asking if, in the future, there will be a new category of law that social media companies find themselves beholden to, with addendums for what they can and cannot allow on their pages. We seem to be wading into the debate already with questions over Twitter or Facebook’s politics and desire to step in around harassment. But in the meantime these social media sites are not legally treated as media companies. And that’s the way it was.

Canned Questions and Interesting Insights

I’ve been following Alyssa Rosenberg’s work for years. One of the things that I love about her is her ability to not just report on camps across the aisle from her, but her inclination to understand them, explain them, and offer a sort of common ground or an olive branch.

Her latest piece that got me thinking is “Seven questions the entertainment industry needs to answer about rape,” inspired by the HBO’s president of programming’s squirmishness around the frequency of rape plots on the premium channel’s shows.

“It’s remarkable that public relations departments aren’t briefing network executives and talent about this question, which has come up at every press tour I’ve attended. If nothing else, better answers, no matter how canned they are, would help advance discussions about the depiction of sexual violence, instead of leaving us stuck in the same frustrating intellectual morass,” writes Rosenberg.

And so she offers them seven questions that they might prepare stock answers for.

On its face it goes against what a lot of journalists believe about the proper format for an interview; the interviewer is traditionally the one with the power and full forethought. But it also undermines the DC/gamergate/Ghost- bros’ argument that critics are only in it for the scoop, Dirty Laundry style. Here Rosenberg is saying—and showing—that critics are interested in getting to the heart of the issue. It’d be easy to write about yet another network exec who fumbled his answer to questions about sexual assault. It fits right into what’s expected; fuels that “outrage culture” we hear so much about.

And yet, she takes the time to offer up some prepared questions for network execs to prepare for, because she genuinely wants to know what they think about it.

“What are you interested in saying about sexual assault, either in the context of a single story or across your network or studio’s mix of programming?”

“If you believe your exploration of violence is “not specific to women,” what stories are you telling, or do you plan to tell, about men’s experiences with sexual assault? Do you believe men and women’s experiences with sexual violence are the same or different?”

“What stories about sexual assault by other artists do you admire, and why? Can you name a story about sexual assault that you think was badly done or unnecessary, and explain why you feel that way about it?”

These are fascinating questions, and any answer to them aside from a squirm and a brush-off would be breaking from the norm in a way pop culture writers are eagerly awaiting. Rosenberg is showing that the answers are worth perhaps compromising a bit for.

Winner of 2014: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

For a long time journalists and media peripherals have been discussing the changing nature of journalism. Not just because of the sudden inundation of e-devices and connectibility, but because we’re not even sure  how to write it anymore.

We look back on the days of tabloid, yellow journalism and shudder, but clearly we’re past the notion that pure objective journalism is feasible in this world of ours. Hell, it might not even be the hero we deserve or need. Members of the media are struggling to present their information in a way that’s unbiased, but still has an angle, but still presents both sides, without catering to either.

Often times in these debates there’s a focus on television news, which in turn bleeds over to the news comedy that’s ever prevalent these days. Some people shake their heads at statistics about college kids who get their news from “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” but others (or, more of the same, conversely) argue that–clear bias aside–it’s some of the best reporting out there.

So perhaps it’s fitting that one of the best news programs out there got its start on “The Daily Show.” John Oliver who, amongst other things, rose to prominence on Comedy Central’s late night news circuit got his own show on HBO that is the true winner of 2014.

Like “The Daily Show,” LWT takes a satirical approach to current events, offering a clear vantage point and sprinkling in a few off-color jokes here and there. In fact, if you’re looking at it purely from a perspective of painting big corporations and politicians with a stick then they’re identical. But with all the fluidity of a David Sedaris essay, Oliver and his team take topics and tear them down, completely. What starts as a simple poke at a humorous topic gradually descends into a fascinating expose that most investigative journalists only dream of. This team does it every week.

Oliver has a sharper tone than either of Comedy Central’s titans (except perhaps when Jon Stewart is very mad, because he is a sight to behold) and he has far more wiggle-room than most anyone before him. Thanks to HBO’s no-ads policy, Oliver and his team don’t have to worry about offending sponsors or selling airtime. They’ve moved on from punting at Fox News or giving you the Republican-gaffe of the day, and are now tackling bigger topics, wrecking whole ideas, in just half an hour.

In its 24 episodes LWT has boasted quite a roaster of topics, and an impressive number of eloquent journalism pieces. Oliver has stated that he doesn’t want the show to be a parody news show, and so far he’s delivered and then some. Now if only other news programs would.

For now, sit back and kill some time with the LWT Youtube channel: