Tag Archives: media

Bigger Than Technology: An Interview with Joi Ito on One with Farai

Joi Ito

Joi Ito

Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, explains how a sense of play and experimentation inform their cutting-edge work.

As a child, Joi Ito went back and forth between Japan and US cities, including Detroit, forging an international identity; a fascination with technology; and also for community. He explains how passions including DJing and the multiplayer online game, World of Warcraft, have shaped his approach to tech innovation.

A Graphic Error? Or the Racialization of Terror?

Gotta give it up to Gawker for this one, with their wry line being: “If the terrorists won’t do us the courtesy of being brown, no matter—we’ll just make them brown, instead.” To be fair, the caricature depicts them as more “swarthy” than brown, “swarthy” apparently being the universal color of terrorists, even if they happen to actually be pale skinned men from the Caucasus region, i.e., the origin of the term “caucasian.” Gawker also links from their article to an article on the 1994 controversy when Time Magazine hired an illustrator to darken OJ Simpson’s skin.

After writing a recent cover of the Columbia Journalism Review on race and the media featuring nearly 20 journalists, I am penning another piece, more personal, on my perspective from inside the newsroom. Stay tuned.

Beyond Politics and Punditry to the Common Good

I guess I finally understand what it feels like to be a typical American… or perhaps a stereotypical one. You know: the kind of person who is disappointed not only with politics, but with political discourse. Let me explain.

I grew up in a family where politics was a passion, a mission, and a sport. From the time I was in elementary school, I sat at my grandparents’ table with the extended family and heard my uncle deconstruct his time in Vietnam; my grandparents discuss the civil service jobs they had; and everyone talk about politics — national and local. Of course, the conversation often circled back around to whether the black community was being well-served by the people in power. The meal may have been my grandmother’s special lasagna, or chicken, or (just once) a venison stew made from deer another uncle had hunted and dressed. But the real meat at the table was politics and power.

After that kind of childhood, plus four years of college improv, perhaps it was not entirely improbable that I would end up as a political analyst on CNN. After all, punditry requires knowledge but mainly a quickness and cunning, the willingness to wrestle publicly with ideas whether your opponent is smarter and stronger than you or not. The circumstances of me getting this job were hard work mixed with a HUGE dose of good fortune. I wrote a book (Don’t Believe the Hype) that got me on CNN as a guest. I impressed the bookers. They offered me a job. I got to cover the 1996 conventions… and then I was off to the races.

I remember my work back then being so much fun. I never took for granted the gift I’d been given. I knew part of my appeal was intellect, and part was flavor-of-the-week — a 25 year old black woman with braids who could credibly talk about the electoral college.


Brooks Jackson on CNN in the ’90s

      I’ve had many adventures since then, working as a television correspondent, radio host, and producing multimedia content. But the apex of my love affair with political journalism was those early years at CNN, when former print journalists like Brooks Jackson regularly took the airaves based not on their ability to look sharp in a suit but to bring a sharp analysis of money, politics, and power. That was the pre-merger era, when CNN was not a part of Time Warner. I left before the merger, and for that reason and others many things have changed. CNN is now struggling to define itself against two more partisan cable networks, MSNBC and Fox News Channel. Both of those two seem more comfortable in their skins (which is to say, their brand identities), while CNN struggles to figure out what the middle path is in a land of shouting heads.

Aaah, the shouting heads…The punditry game has changed. It always had an edge, or else it would be reportage and not punditry. But the signal to noise ratio has degraded appreciably over the past fifteen years. Some players, from both the left and right, aim to make their name by throwing out a fistful of steaming entrails and then immediately apologizing for the mess. What’s not to like, as a strategy? You make headlines twice — once when you make the statement, and once when you apologize. Two recent examples: Romney surrogate John Sununu, former Governor of New Hampshire and Chief of Staff to President George W. Bush, said he wished President Obama “would learn how to be an American.” He’d apologized for that remark before the day was done. (Sununu more recently attacked the President for “over-aggrandizing” his role in the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Does he remember when President Bush put up the “Mission Accomplished” sign right at what turned out to be the start of the Iraq war?) And then there’s Touré of MSNBC, who last week said that the Romney campaign was attempting the “niggerization” of President Obama. He apologized (perhaps after a stern word by his minders) almost immediately. In both cases, double headlines for the statements and the apologies. In both cases, more heat than light.

Don’t think I’m (just) a hater. I have mad love for politics still — productive politics that build our nation. I still love a good political discussion, which you can find on programs including ones hosted by Melissa Harris-Perry, Candy Crowley, and Soledad O’Brien. (And I miss the now-sidelined-by-his-own-hand Fareed Zakaria, particularly since US news programs lack a global perspective.) I watch MSNBC, CNN and Fox, and never fail to learn something from them — though, not always what they’ve intended.


      All punditry is theatre, on some level. But when it works — and I mean, works as news, not just as a vehicle to deliver partisan talking points — we can tease out nuances of the different challenges this enormous and diverse nation faces. The fact that the news media is based on the coasts ends up doing a great disservice to political media. Having traveled to Arizona to meet with a Tea Party group; gone out with the Border Patrol in Texas; and visited small farming towns in Iowa and Wisconsin, I see how differently Americans live life from other Americans. It is damned near impossible to wrap your arms around what America really is, especially from a perch in New York or the Beltway. But for fiscal and show-business reasons (punditry is way cheaper than reporting), we often get remote video or two-ways spoken-over by people in New York and DC. Ideally, punditry would be the spice on the meal, not the meal itself. It’s the inversion of the role of punditry in the news industry that has degraded the art of political dialogue itself. Without a solid base in reporting, particularly regional reporting, it’s hard to expect shows of talking heads to really illuminate the issues we face.

And frankly, what issues don’t we face these days? We’re facing a government debt cliff, an entitlements cliff, a personal debt cliff, an education cliff, a climate cliff, and if not an employment cliff, well then, a slippery slope. All of these issues require long-range thinking which is often antithetical to short-range partisan needs. While Mitt Romney more than overstates his case that his team is all about “preserving” Medicare and Social Security, it is true that the Obama camp will do better by riling up retirees than discussing the need to restructure entitlements. By “restructure” I do not mean privatize. Read this summary of “Saving Social Security: A Balanced Approach,” by Peter A. Diamond and Peter R. Orszag. Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, has espoused a controversial plan to convert Medicare into subsidies that go to private insurers. (Worth reading: this Bloomberg Businessweek article on how Ryan claimed his Medicare plan was bipartisan when it is nothing of the sort.) I’ll talk more in my next piece about the issues we face, but suffice it to say in an election year going for the win — in the case of team Obama, playing to the fears of seniors — trumps having a more detailed discussion about how to revamp Medicare without eviscerating it.

As for me, I’ve found my personal appetite for doing television punditry has waned considerably. For the first time since 1996, I won’t be attending the conventions, and aside from missing some great parties, I’ll be just as happy watching the speeches on TV and commenting online and on radio. I don’t shill for either political party (though I certainly have my views on both), and that makes me a less-than-ideal pundit during the heat of the campaign. For me, as for media, this is a time of evolution. I personally am struggling to figure out how to contribute to political dialogues in a way that is expansive rather than reductive; critical but not blindly partisan; skeptical rather than cynical; and forward-looking rather than navel-gazing. I haven’t given up on politics, not at all. I’m just trying to reinvent how I can contribute to the conversation, at a time when our country needs true dialogue more than ever.

Fair to Compare Mormons for Romney to Blacks for Obama?

Just a quick note…

In this weekend’s Nevada caucus, the first primary contest with a large percent of Mormon voters (26% of participants), Mitt Romney won handily by 50 percent of the total. But he strikingly won 90 percent of the Mormon vote.

During the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, African-Americans were criticized for blindly following Obama because of race. Similar charges are not being leveled, at least not to the same extent, against Mormon voters for Romney.

Humans are social animals and we all have reasons for hewing to identity and affinity groups, as well as calculations about whether and how supporting a particular candidate will affect us and our communities.

There is no question that anti-Mormon bias is going to be a factor among some Republican voters when it comes to Romney. But I’m also interested in whether and how the close hewing of Mormon voters to Romney as a candidate will be explored with the same persistence than the black vote for Obama did.

Pop and Politics on the Radio

If you go to PopandPolitics.com, a site I’ve been involved with for fifteen years, you can listen to two radio specials I did while on the road in Florida and Arizona. The hour-long radio special is a completely different animal than hosting an hour-long show, which I’ve done before. It really takes such a huge amount of time to screen tape and script it, voice it over and mix the sound. I give great kudos to everyone who worked on the project.

And it ain’t over yet! As I emailed a friend: “Pop and Politics is doing a series of three radio specials on the fractious state of American politics and life. They’re airing on over 100 stations. You can catch the first two, which are documentary style visits with Tea Party members, candidates, and Americans of all types, online at PopandPolitics.com. The third special is a post-election town hall with guests including Melissa Harris-Perry and Reihan Salam, taping on November 3 and airing the next day. To get tickets to the taping or find out more, email poppoliticsRSVP@gmail.com and visit PopandPolitics.com.

So if you’re in NY, email us and get your ticket to our November 3 taping; otherwise, please listen online.

Blame the Media?

Today I went to Brooklyn Bowl and watched the simulcast of the Stewart/Colbert rally.

Same day I read Micah Sifry’s article Point-and-Click Politics, which reads in part:

Mass participation by today’s online activists is also contributing to governmental gridlock and a more polarized politics…. On both sides, this new wave of digital politicking is driven by passionate ideologues. The most popular political blogs in America—Huffington Post, DailyKos, Talking Points Memo on the left; Hot Air, Big Government and NewsBusters on the right—all share one thing: They serve partisan red meat to their readers.

John Stewart blamed the 24 hour news media at the end of his rally. It strikes me, being in the reporting game, that it’s much easier to make your way in media these days as a partisan pundit than as a reporter or a more nuanced voice. How do you change that? Or do you just accept it?

What Everyone Is Missing About NPR’s WilliamsGate

“juan, gettin ugly. wonder if it will result in him severing ties, or mutual”

That was my note at the top of an email I sent back in September of 2007 to a colleague at NPR. In full disclosure, I am a former employee of NPR, let go in 2008 as part of the cancellation of three shows, including one I hosted. In the email, I’d forwarded a Washington Post column by Howard Kurtz dissecting a Fox/NPR/Juan Williams triad of recrimination. The headline: “NPR Rebuffs White House On Bush Talk — Radio Network Wanted To Choose Its Interviewer.” In Kurtz’s words:

The White House reached out to National Public Radio over the weekend, offering analyst Juan Williams a presidential interview to mark yesterday’s 50th anniversary of school desegregation in Little Rock. But NPR turned down the interview, and Williams’s talk with Bush wound up in a very different media venue: Fox News. Williams said yesterday he was “stunned” by NPR’s decision… Ellen Weiss, NPR’s vice president for news, said she “felt strongly” that “the White House shouldn’t be selecting the person.”

Continue reading »

Give Us the Real Unemployment Numbers, Please

When the latest unemployment numbers came out, they sounded like a relative win for the U.S. economy. Given February’s battering storms, which closed businesses and roads for days at at a time, the unemployment rate was expected to go up. Instead, some people expressed relief that it stayed steady at 9.7 percent. But before we get too excited about essentially breaking even, we should check ourselves…or check our numbers. What we generally call the “unemployment rate” excludes many unemployed Americans, notably “discouraged workers” who have given up looking. Continue reading »

Be the Media You Want to See

In about half an hour at Yale’s Whitney Humanities Center I’m giving a speech called Be the Media You Want to See: How Social Mediaand Citizen Journalism Are Changing the World.” (Per my usual procrastinatory superpowers, I got my powerpoint done about half an hour before I had to hop on the train to New Haven.)

Earlier today I spoke on WNPR (Connecticut) about how digital technology is transforming journalism, as well as issues of race and diversity in journalism. (My interview begins at 00:23:23; the first half of the show is about the new PBS documentary Digital Nation which premieres tomorrow night.) Continue reading »

Reax to Tavis publishing R. Kelly Memoir

Reaction is running hot to Tavis Smiley gearing up to publish R. Kelly’s memoirs.

From the SmileyBooks press release

“I’m writing this book as Robert, not R. Kelly,” the singer says. “I’m tired of being misunderstood. I will show you the tears, fears, and sweat. I will open my heart and reveal the good in my life as well as all the drama. I want to tell it like it is.”

There is no direct mention of the sexual assault allegations that resulted in an acquittal.

From Gina MacCauley’s What About Our Daughters:

I had hoped this was a hoax, but apparently Tavis Smiley, who is accused of gathering large numbers of Black folks together so that they could get pitched predatory Wells Fargo loans (disproportionately affecting Black women) is joining forces with another accused predator, R. Kelly. Its amazing that the primary unifying force in the Black community is EXPLOITATION of women and girls. If you go to TavisTalks.com you will see front and center and item announcing that R. Kelly has joined Smiley Books. When is that State of the Black Union and how do we get a permit to protest it? I’m serious.

The comments are no less critical.

And from Danielle Belton’s The Black Snob:

And this book will be just another in a long line of signifiers to perverts that you can do pretty much anything to a woman, girl, child, whatever, and someone will love your trifling ass anyway because it’s our fault for having vaginas. But for Tavis, and others who claim to be holding the entire race to a higher standard, this is further proof that you never meant to hold anything to any standards ever. That “cash rules everything around you, dollah, dollah bill, ya’ll” and you could seriously give two craps about the implication of being the speakerbox to a known predator. After all, freedom of speech, ya’ll! And SOMEONE was going to publish his book so why not Mr. Accountability? Pardon me while I go regurgitate something.

(Belton’s blog also has a link to a guest post about Smiley and Wells Fargo.)

It provoked a conversation on Twitter where several of us talked about who gets the mic when it comes to representing blackness in media. The short answer, in my mind, is that the people who are the best at getting the mic are people who help build the platform: people like Tavis who are business-builders as well as media-makers. So all critiques have to be funneled through the lens of economics: if you don’t like what one mediamaker does, do you have an alternative brand or model?

What do you think?

Is “saving journalism” enough?

I’ve been a journalist for 20 years– through full-time jobs at Newsweek, MTV, CNN, ABC, Oxygen, and NPR; part-time ones at One Economy, KALW, and WNYC; PopandPolitics.com; and three non-fiction books on race, politics, and media. I’ve rolled with the punches and thrown a few. But now more than ever, the business that I entered at the age of sixteen, with my first national publication, is, well, in a hell of hurt.

Many of my highly skilled friends who report, edit, or run newsrooms are unemployed, underemployed, or just plain scared. Lots of people are worried about the fate of reporting and media in America. Organizations are going bankrupt or out of business, including scores of America’s daily newspapers. Tens of thousands of journalists are being given their walking papers and finding they cannot re-enter the industry. We have created ways that entirely new forms of media can upend “old media,” but that digital victory is without a clear profit model. Continue reading »