January 27, 2012

Who Does Your Data?

As we’ve been reminded again recently, in case we somehow forgot, the “facts” of news reporting are not actually neutral. Just plain data is part of a political context, too. For example, New York City counts homeless people, in an annual pavement-pounding overnight effort. But the city – despite its technocratic, data-driven mayor – has never counted homes without people. Why not?

Yesterday I went to the official release of “Banking on Vacancy: Homelessness and Real Estate Speculation,” a report based on a study conducted by Picture the Homeless (PTH) here in NYC. The results demonstrate that there is more than enough space for everyone living in the city to have a roof over their heads. And the fact that the hard data proving this deceptively simple point had to come from a grassroots group illuminates the resistance that the powerful have towards information that might challenge them.

I’ve long liked PTH because, first of all, they’re a membership organization that’s founded and led by currently and formerly homeless people – i.e. the people most affected by what the group exists to fight. There’s a small staff, but the members are directly involved in all organizational activities. Furthermore, they use a combination of more traditional channels (legislative proposals, legal reform) and direct action (demonstrations, banner drops, building occupations) in their work. And sometimes they do both at the same time. At a pre-release event in the fall, a PTH member summed up their attitude to bureaucratic static on the question of whether the city would ever sponsor a citywide vacant housing count: “We’re going to do it, whether you like it or not!”

City officials had told PTH that NYC has a 2% vacancy rate, which turned out to be calculated by whether a building had been occupied two years prior. So if a building has been empty of residents for three or more years – because of, say, a landlord who can make a good profit off a street-level business’s rent alone without the hassle of tenants in the apartments above – it’s not considered “vacant.” PTH was also told repeatedly that a city-sponsored vacant housing count would be complicated and prohibitively expensive, in the millions of dollars. (In the end, around $150,000 was spent to count a third of the city in a third of a year.)

“Banking on Vacancy” came out of a collaboration between PTH and Hunter College’s Center for Community Planning & Development (HCCCPD). The philosophy of the campaign was illustrated by Hunter professor Peter Kwong at yesterday’s event when he talked about “activist scholarship,” where the questions being addressed in the university come from the needs of the community, and engagement with those questions is a joint effort between the academics and the community members. Other speakers ranged from the Manhattan borough president and City Councilmembers to a PTH member who passionately reminded attendees that the work is not just about issuing a report (“Take back the land! Take back the buildings!”).

The bulk of the vacant housing census took place over a widely-publicized series of weekends in summer 2011. PTH members and allies (including your correspondent) convened in churches, community centers, and public library branches and then went out to identify vacant buildings and lots in neighborhoods spanning selected Community Board districts in all five boroughs. The report explains the full data collection process – the numerous Freedom of Information Law requests to almost a dozen city agencies that mostly got ignored or netted ineffective information (as one section is titled, “City Data Is a Useless Mess”), the almost 300 volunteers with varying levels of experience, the evolution of paper housing count surveys to Excel files to OASIS to PLUTO and other data utilities.

I’m writing about all this for Library Juice not because I think that everyone is interested in the vagaries of NYC housing policy (though if you’re a local, I hope you are!). The point is that community-driven data collection is important – it’s part of organizing, the process itself reflects and reinforces the values of the community, and it’s possibly the only way that a needed change can be kicked into gear.

“Numbers are power,” said HCCCPD’s Tom Angotti. But it’s not just the data, of course, which can end up sitting on a shelf. Like PTH member Willie Baptist said: “You’re going to have to get up and do something about it.”

January 22, 2012

Alan Mattlage reviews Prophets of the Fourth Estate

Library Juice blogger Alan Mattlage has posted a review of Prophets of the Fourth Estate: Broadsides by Press Critics of the Progressive Era, on his own blog. His review provides a good description of what is offered by this book.

January 16, 2012

The Rise of the New Groupthink

Susan Cain offers a most welcome statement in yesterday’s New York Times: “The Rise of the New Groupthink.”

January 13, 2012

Evidence of Evil at Google, from a faraway land

The CEO of an internet business in Kenya called Mocality has posted a report to his blog about what seem to be some unethical and probably illegal business practices by Google, involving trolling their database in order to poach their customers for their own competing service, and lying in the process. If this report is true, it deserves to be a scandal. Mocality’s Stefan Magdalinski’s post is titled, Google, what were you thinking?

The New York Times, Compromise, and the Past

Arthur Brisbane is New York Times Public Editor, a position outside the regular editorial team that is supposed to act as the reader’s representative. Followers of this blog have probably already heard about his recent post, “Should the Times be a Truth Vigilante?, which many readers found maddeningly stupid. Brisbane was asking whether NYT reporters should challenge statements by journalistic subjects that the journalists know to be untrue. Brisbane was responding to broad public discussion about “He Said/She Said” reporting, in which the truth tends to get lost, although he seemed not to realize that this was the context of his post when he followed up on it yesterday. (Ostensibly, he was responding to an op-ed by Paul Krugman published in December, but he must know that the discussion about this problem has been much broader and been going on for a long time.) An informative early response to his initial post was from the tireless watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). (I will also point to a useful note from FAIR about “both sides are right” presumptions at PolitiFact, the political fact-checking blog.) What is so maddening about Brisbane’s question to readers is that it verges on questioning a fundamental principle of the fourth estate as the supporter of the public sphere – to be an independent monitor of power. At a time when traditional journalism is in a crisis for reasons beyond its control, it is difficult to comprehend why the public editor of America’s paper of record would flirt so explicitly with the idea of giving up on that principle that is the source of journalism’s enduring value to people. What it seems to me that he was doing in asking that question was asking the public to validate a journalistic trend that has been in progress for some time, that seems to be born of a failure to stand up to political pressure. The public hates He Said/She Said reporting. I think Brisbane simply miscalculated in his hope that the public would take the paper off the hook by providing a number of useful responses supporting this sorry trend.

I have said in the Library Juice blogging pledge that we won’t write about news topics that other people are writing a lot about unless we have something new to add, so let me attempt to add another angle to the discussion. What I would say it’s worth considering in light of this debate is that issues like this one have been debated from the beginning of modern journalism, and those earlier discussions can offer much to us now. Some recommendations along those lines. First, an article in Acadame, the AAUP’s journal, by Eric Alternman, summarizing the 1920s debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey over a broader question about the way journalism works in relation to democracy. Lippmann held that (even at the time) real policy issues were too complex for the public to understand through a simple presentation of accurate information, and that the main service of journalism is to provide the basis for conversation rather than information, and that this conversation is the real basis of democracy. In the time I spent as a reference librarian at the California Research Bureau providing service to policy analysts and legislative staffers, I came to sympathize strongly with this kind of view, because I saw that in fact public debate was highly simplified and dramatized versus the more sober and technical discussions that go on in the policy sphere, and this was partly because of the orientation of the public toward issues. Dewey’s side of the debate was more idealistic. It may be that journalism’s insiders see this problem partly from the perspective of the policy sphere about which they are charged with reporting to the public, with the result that in the process of negotiating the level of technical detail versus drama that they provide in news, they also negotiate with the level of truth.

An answer to this apology for compromised journalism could be found in many sources, and I will cite a couple of them. First, a book that is dated in its examples but not in its overall thrust: The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation, by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky. This book provides thorough evidence of the the kind of positive falsehoods, as opposed to oversimplifications, often offered by experts and reported unquestioningly by journalists. It is dated, but to the point.

More important, however, is the rich area of work surrounding the effects of the capitalist organization of the institutions that give us the news. From the most recent past era, a cornerstone work is Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly. Though it is from before the internet era, I think it is still essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the core problem behind “He Said/She Said” journalism and related failures (such as that steady stream of PR that makes up so much of what is presented as news). There are other important works related to Bagdikian’s from the same era, including Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent and works by Robert McChesney. Not long ago these books were essential starting points for anyone wanting to think progressively about journalism, but new issues are causing them to fade into the background. It’s time for new to works deal with the same issues in the new media context. But these works and older ones are still important. For an understanding of how far back these market effects on journalism have been a problem, books worth consulting would be Upton Sinclair’s 1919 The Brass Check, which is freely available in various forms; a compilation of media criticism edited by Robert McChesney and Ben Scott, titled Our Unfree Press: 100 Years of Media Criticism; and a new book out by Amy Reynolds and Gary Hicks, Prophets of the Fourth Estate: Press Critics of the Progressive Era. (Full disclosure: Litwin Books is the publisher of the latter one).

I think the historical and political-economic context Brisbane’s question to readers is worth understanding better through some reading beyond the blogosphere, where past work is easily forgotten.

January 7, 2012

Nice fake site example for info lit instruction

A site set up by tricky spammers, potentially useful in information literacy instruction: “CNBC” report on “income at home system.”

Auslander & Fox

Litwin Books, LLC is starting a new imprint. Auslander & Fox will publish “books with originality, wit, and perspective,” for a general audience. Publications coming up include a children’s book with a message about television, a fun coffeetable and reference book about nationalist and secessionist movements, and a new translation of a controversial play by Voltaire. For news you can follow via Facebook or Twitter (@AuslanderFox).

January 5, 2012

Robert Darnton Interview at Cardiff University

Robert Darnton, frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books on libraries and author of The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future, was interviewed prior to a talk at Cardiff University, by Cardiff grad student Rhys Tranter. The interview was posted to the blog of Cardiff University’s Centre for Editorial & Intertextual Research.

January 1, 2012

New Book: Prophets of the Fourth Estate

Prophets of the Fourth Estate: Broadsides by Press Critics of the Progressive Era

Authors: Amy Reynolds and Gary Hicks
Price: $28.00
Published: January 2012
ISBN: 978-0-9802004-6-1
Printed on acid-free paper

Prophets of the Fourth Estate: Broadsides by Press Critics of the Progressive Era highlights press criticisms during the Progressive Era (1890-1920) that aimed to enhance the role of the press in a democracy, limit corporatization, and better utilize the press’ capacity as an agent for social change. This insightful history of the press criticism of the era includes selections from the writings of critics of the news media of the time. The press critics discussed and republished in this volume include Charles Edward Russell, Moorfield Storey, Oswald Garrison Villard, Donald Wilhelm, Roscoe C.E. Brown, anonymous editorial writers at The Public and The Nation, and others. Their ideas and challenges to the corporate/commercial press model are as relevant today as they were nearly a century ago.

Amy Reynolds is the Thomas O. and Darlene Ryder Distinguished Professor II and Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Research in the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. Gary R. Hicks is associate professor and chair of the Department of Mass Communications at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.