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Russian Journalists Pay For Their Craft in Blood

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Clifford J. Levy, The New York Times’ Moscow correspondent, has provided us excellent reporting over the years, and he really hit it out of the park today with an in-depth look at the violence and lawlessness muckraking reporters in Russia must contend with. We had heard for some time that Russia was a dangerous place in which to practice journalism (Reporters Without Borders just topped their list of worst media predators with Russia and China), and of course we knew the sad case of Anna Politkovskaya, a courageous reporter whom the Putin regime murdered in 2006 for her reports on Chechnya, but Mr. Levy’s report lays bare the pervasion of violence against reporters in Russia:

“Last spring, I called for the resignation of the city’s leadership,” Mr. Beketov said in one of his final editorials. “A few days later, my automobile was blown up. What is next for me?”

Not long after, he was savagely beaten outside his home and left to bleed in the snow. His fingers were bashed, and three later had to be amputated, as if his assailants had sought to make sure that he would never write another word. He lost a leg. Now 52, he is in a wheelchair, his brain so damaged that he cannot utter a simple sentence.

And:

To the north on the M-10 highway from Khimki is a city called Solnechnogorsk, where a newspaper, Solnechnogorsk Forum, was publishing exposés about how local politicians were seeking to do away with elections to maintain power.

The newspaper’s editor, Yuri Grachev, is 73. In February 2009, several men assaulted him as he left his home, putting him in intensive care for a month with a severe concussion, a broken nose and other wounds.

Police officials first said he was drunk and fell down. Then they said he had been the victim of a random robbery, though all that was taken was a folder with material for the newspaper’s next issue. The muggers have not been found, and politicians from the governing party, United Russia, said the attack had nothing to do with Mr. Grachev’s work.

These are not isolated instances, and they serve as a grim reminder of the relative liberty journalists enjoy in America. Our media may be choked with propaganda, our reporters systemically lied to, our independent media ruthlessly crowded out of existence by the news-manufacturing combines, but to my knowledge, journalists in America, even decidedly inconvenient ones such as Glenn Greenwald or Naomi Klein, do not have to contend with car bombs and assassination attempts. This is something which I think we take for granted, and which I only think we will miss, if we do at all, once it has been taken away from us.

Written by pavanvan

May 18, 2010 at 6:53 pm

A New Non-Profit News Venture – Without Millionaire Benefactors!

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Alan Mutter over at Newsosaur gives us a great profile of a new non-profit news startup in Minneapolis called MinnPost that seems to be as good a hope as any to revive our failing news economy:

MinnPost, a scrappy news start-up in Minnesota, is beginning to show how to run a sustainable non-profit venture without depending on major philanthropic support.

And it is doing so in two ways: First, by keeping costs low. Second, by raising money almost continuously through such diversified initiatives as advertising, NPR-style user contributions and even an annual gala featuring organic-vodka martinis.

In other words, the highly regarded Minnesota news site is the antithesis of such large-scale journalism projects as Pro Publica, Texas Tribune and Bay Citizen, which at this writing all rely on multimillion-dollar endowments from wealthy individuals and institutions.

MinnPost not only started life without a multimillion-dollar nest egg but also is committed to fully supporting its ongoing operations without major philanthropic donations by 2012, says Joel Kramer, a former editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune who launched the site in 2007.

Back when Propublica emerged we heard a lot of talk about how its model of non-profit news gathering was a harbinger for the future of news. And while they have given us a series of fantastic investigations, capped most recently by their explosive profile of corrupt hedge fund Magnetar, the uncomfortable fact remained: their business model depended on multi-million dollar grants from wealthy philanthropists. They were, by definition, not a sustainable project.

MinnPost, on the other hand, appears to be the first non-profit whose stated goal is to provide quality journalism free of massive philanthropic donations. They do so by a mixture of low overheads, low operating costs, and good old fashioned reader donations. One of my major criticisms of ProPublica, fantastic though they are, is the obscene six-figure salaries their reporters and editors make. MinnPost does away with these, but (and this should come as a surprise to the Wall Street banks who contend that multi-million dollar bonuses are the only way to secure “talent) the quality of their reporting does not appear to have suffered.

We’re all holding our breath to see what’s going to come of the bloodbath our legacy news media are swimming in (They lost 27% circulation in the past five years), but startups like MinnPost are a genuine ray of hope.

Written by pavanvan

April 29, 2010 at 12:04 pm

India’s Sexual Revolution

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Tehelka has an outstanding piece in this week’s issue about the hyper-sexualization of Indian culture which you should definitely read. In a land where only one generation ago arranged marriages were the norm and pre-marital abstinence a steel command, India’s youth have undergone a startling shift in accepted mores.

At this moment thousands of Indian parents are uneasily wondering whether they really want to know what is going on. Mini’s parents still don’t know how to deal with what they found out. Mini is a dainty, extremely pretty 14-year-old. When she was 12, her first boyfriend and she were both eager to claim BTDT (Been There, Done That) about oral sex. One evening at home alone, they tried it out, anticipating a definite move up the social ladder. Sure enough, the next day at school her friends congratulated her even while making faces at the slight grossness in ‘going down’ on a boy.

_____________________

Dr Prakash Kothari, founder of the World Association For Sexual Health, a man familiar to India through his ubiquitous sex columns, says that one reason children are sexually active earlier is because better nutrition leads to earlier puberty. He says of his new, young clients: “Thirty years ago, only married couples came in looking for advice on safe sex and contraceptives. Today, young girls and boys walk in and ask about sex toys and tonics. Some even ask us if being high on LSD andcharas will enhance their sexual experience.”

Tehelka gets major points for noting the influence of American television:

Alisha describes the extent of OC role-play in her circle: Alisha’s slender best friend was considered to be like rail-thin Marissa from the show. Alisha, who used to be plump until recently, was automatically typecast as Marissa’s best friend Summer since the girls considered Summer chubby. (Look up Rachel Bilson, the waifish actress who plays Summer, and decide for yourself whether our kids are gripped with hatred for their bodies.) The identification with these shows is so close that Alisha’s best friend decided to “do it” with her boyfriend after OC’s lead couple, Ryan and Marissa, did it for the first time. The pressure then began for Alisha (aka best friend Summer) to also ‘pop the cherry’. All this is recounted without any sense of its bizarreness.

But fails to take into account what I believe to be a major factor in this trend: the ever-rising age of marriage. 50 years ago this kind of blatant promiscuity may have been uncommon, but teenage sex was practiced and widespread. Except the teenagers tended to be married. I have no statistics on hand, but my grandmother, to take the most parochial example, was married and had her first child by age 16. Mahatma Gandhi, in fact, was married as an infant and first discovered sex at age 13. No one thought very much of it at the time.

Today, among the upper classes, women and men are generally expected to marry in their mid-to-late twenties, respectively. But they are also expected to keep to the same traditions as their parents’ generation, including arranged marriages and strict abstinence. A child that reaches sexual maturity at age 14-16 but is expected to wait a full decade before “popping the cherry” (as the vulgar expression goes), will almost inevitably engage in promiscuity at some point.

The average age of marriage has gone up across the socioeconomic spectrum, but nowhere has the trend been as acute as among the upper-classes. I think it is telling that they are who comprise most of the anecdotes for the Tehelka piece. Among the middle and lower classes (where the average age dips down to the early 20s to late teens),  I should imagine one would find this sort of thing quite a bit less.

I don’t want to make too much of this point, because I think the rise of American television in India is the real culprit, as Tehelka mentions. But I want to also point out the conspiracy of silence that still surrounds sexual matters in Indian culture. Most Indian children would be horrified to discuss these issues with their parents, and their parents no less so. It’s the ultimate taboo. In my own experience, my parents didn’t speak a word of it to me – they left that for the school.

But sex education is almost nonexistent in India, and many states have actually banned teaching sex education in schools. The Internet is a dirty place, as you know, and the television shows these children watch (Tehelka mentions The OC and Gossip Girl) contain scenes that would be impossible for a child to understand. With all adults refusing to speak of it, it is natural they should get a warped perception.

However despite all these rationalizations, this is a very disturbing trend in Indian society, and though Tehelka must have sensationalized it a bit, I think it is a valuable lesson in how children, in an absence of understanding adults, will interpret their new cultural surroundings.

Written by pavanvan

April 18, 2010 at 8:44 pm

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Cognitive Overload on the Internet

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The Columbia Journalism Review has a good article this week dissecting a book that looks at the crisis in journalism from a cognitive standpoint. The book’s thesis, something which many have come to notice, is that the explosion of information made possible by the internet has presented a radically new challenge to our cognitive evolution, one that has deep implications regarding attention, memory, and reading habits.

At today’s rate, the Internet doubles every four years, and with it the sum total of information available at one’s fingertips. There are billions, perhaps trillions of articles to read on a wide variety of subjects, and naturally only a limited amount of time with which to read them all. This is not, strictly speaking, a new problem, and indeed it has been looming ever since the invention of the printing press. A literary critic (whose name escapes me) remarked 50 years ago: “I read books for a living. Every week, I read maybe five or six books. At this rate, with a long and full career, I can look back at the end of my life and say I read maybe 10,000 books. That’s as many that come out every month.”

Back then, you needed industry backing and real know-how in order to publish even a rotten book. Nowadays, anyone with an internet connection can run a blog, post comments on websites, and publish their own “journalism” at the click of a button. With so many voices all clamoring for attention at once, the brain finds itself overwhelmed and tends to withdraw.

This trend has enormous implications, both from a journalism-industry standpoint and from a cognitive psychology standpoint. Todd Glitin only dissects the business implications in Columbia Journalism Review, and for a wider perspective, I recommend this 3 Quarks Daily article from last month. The author comments on a variety of responses given to The Edge when it asked, “How has the Internet changed the way you think?” Some of the responses are short and illuminating:

“It is our misfortune to live through the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race,” [Clay Shirky] writes, half-ironically, “a misfortune because surplus always breaks more things than scarcity. Scarcity means valuable things become more valuable, a conceptually easy change to integrate. Surplus, on the other hand, means previously valuable things stop being valuable, which freaks people out.”

In his response, German intellectual Frank Schirrmacher compares the Internet to a “Darwinian struggle of ideas”, where a surplus of information ensures only the “fittest” ideas propagate:

As we know, information is fed by attention, so we have not enough attention, not enough food for all this information. And, as we know — this is the old Darwinian thought, the moment when Darwin started reading Malthus — when you have a conflict between a population explosion and not enough food, then Darwinian selection starts. And Darwinian systems start to change situations. And so what interests me is that we are, because we have the Internet, now entering a phase where Darwinian structures, where Darwinian dynamics, Darwinian selection, apparently attacks ideas themselves: what to remember, what not to remember, which idea is stronger, which idea is weaker.

And this idea, too, throws significant doubt on what we consider “true”. Consider the response of Kevin Kelly, the former executive editor of Wired:

For every accepted piece of knowledge I find, there is within easy reach someone who challenges the fact. Every fact has its anti-fact…I am less interested in Truth, with a capital T, and more interested in truths, plural. I feel the subjective has an important role in assembling the objective from many data points.

Which is an optimistic approach. But isn’t the opposite more likely true – that with all these voices clamoring for attention, the one that ends up capturing the greatest “mind-share” ends up passing into the realm of “truth”? This need not be the most factual interpretation, or even the most detailed – it only needs to be the most popular. People tend to value the truth, or at least a reasonable approximation of it, but recent experience would suggest they sometimes value other things more, like emotional connection, validation of previous beliefs, or sheer distraction. One cannot view the massive audiences of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or the Fox News outfit without considering this conclusion.

If I were to hazard a prediction, I would say that the sum result of these trends will be the Internet allowing for everyone to have their own reality. With traditional linkages to “the outside world” (i.e. books, newspapers, and standardized narratives on what happened) being ruthlessly severed, people will soon be able to believe whatever they want, sealed in their own Internet cocoon, getting almost all their information from the same four or five sites. There are many Internet users for whom Facebook and Google are “the Internet”. Likewise with the “conservative” blogosphere, the “liberal” blogosphere, and so forth.

The end result, then, is a reductive capacity for the Internet – its impact so far has not been to spread information (though it has done that), but to reduce consensus. And with the cacophony of disparate voices, all shouting their particular “truth”, I fear we will quickly end up with no concept of truth at all.

Update: See also this CJR article on the same trend.

Written by pavanvan

April 16, 2010 at 7:38 pm

The Tea Party Poll and Its Implications

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CBS and The New York Times recently collaboarated in a massive poll of Tea Party members, and have recently released their results.

We all knew for sometime that the Tea Party brought together a wide and disparate group of ideologies, from pro-business tycoons, Ron Paul libertarians, national security fanatics, and plain old racists. What we didn’t know was that the Tea Party has as little in common, ideologically, as the public at large:

Their responses are like the general public’s in many ways. Most describe the amount they paid in taxes this year as “fair.” Most send their children to public schools. A plurality do not think Sarah Palin is qualified to be president, and, despite their push for smaller government, they think that Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost to taxpayers. They actually are just as likely as Americans as a whole to have returned their census forms, though some conservative leaders have urged a boycott.

In fact, the only thing they seem to have in common is an intense distaste for Barack Obama The Person (as opposed to The Politician): They feel he doesn’t share their “values”, that he “disproportionately favors the poor over the rich and middle class” (something which his economic policies have definitely not reflected) and their chief concerns are, in order: The health care bill, “government spending”, and the impression that their feelings aren’t heard in an elite-run Washington.

One remarkable trend is the reaction toward his “socialism”, as they understand it. Fully 92% believe he is a “socialist”, or taking the country “in that direction”. The Times thinks that the theme of Christianity, and a perceived departure from “Christian morals” pervades throughout, as exemplified in this quote:

“I just feel he’s getting away from what America is,” said Kathy Mayhugh, 67, a retired medical transcriber in Jacksonville. “He’s a socialist. And to tell you the truth, I think he’s a Muslim and trying to head us in that direction, I don’t care what he says. He’s been in office over a year and can’t find a church to go to. That doesn’t say much for him.”

Ouch.

The overwhelming likelihood of a Tea Partier to vote Republican should be of especial interest to the GOP – 90% will vote for a Republican in 2010. Contrary to theirname  image, most of the Tea Party does not desire to become a Third Party, nor can it hope to supplant the ruling two (one).

More than three-quarters of them want “smaller government” – again, as they understand it –  but curiously, many had no idea of what that implied. A significant paradox in the Tea Party is its reliance on welfare programs (particularly Medicare), while at the same time venomous dictates on the “size of government”.The article ends with one of the funniest quotes I’ve seen in a serious news piece for some time:

“That’s a conundrum, isn’t it?” asked Jodine White, 62, of Rocklin, Calif. “I don’t know what to say. Maybe I don’t want smaller government. I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security.” She added, “I didn’t look at it from the perspective of losing things I need. I think I’ve changed my mind.”

A few conclusions follow:

  1. Even though the poll did not ask about the Wars on Terror (a startling omission), a plurality or even a majority of Tea Party members likely support overseas imperialism.
  2. The movement is totally confused as to the definition of “small government”, almost to the point of it being a meaningless propaganda phrase.
  3. The criticisms of President Obama are not compelling, and likely betray a deeper prejudice. His perceived faults are largely fictitious (“socialism”), whereas his true crimes (Wall St. – centered economic policy, aggressive war policy, dismal view of constitutional civil rights, etc.) go unmentioned.
  4. The Tea Party’s members believe in their party’s propaganda only to an extent, but most are willing to ignore their doubts for the sake of unity.
  5. They are, on average, far less radical than their worst elements, but are still motivated largely by anger.
  6. They are a major asset to the Republican Party.

Written by pavanvan

April 15, 2010 at 2:21 pm

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Tea Partiers to Raise Private Army

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This doesn’t look good – and of course, because our lawmakers are idiots, several of them support the idea of a non-state “Tea Party militia”; y’know, because our government is just getting too big.

This is a little difficult for me to swallow. Where were these people when President Bush was busy getting us into two absurd wars, creating the Dept. of Homeland Security (which was literally the biggest expansion of government since the ’70s), or reserving for himself the right to detain anyone, citizen or no, indefinitely without trial and interrogate them by torture? This is “big government” by definition, unlike this watered-down “Affordable Care Act”, which leaves the corporate system of health care almost entirely intact.

I guess I shouldn’t be arguing from a logical perspective because from the start this “tea party movement” has displayed an eerie, otherworldly indifference to reality. But from a pragmatic standpoint, well, let’s see what the Tea Parties have already done with the considerable shelter our government has given them:

  • Threatening gun violence if health-care reform passes.
  • Advocating the murder of census workers.
  • Calling a civil rights hero and congressman a “nigger” repeatedly.
  • Beginning a systemic campaign of harassment, including painting a swastika on one congressman’s office.
  • Carrying automatic rifles to town hall meetings (including one where Obama was speaking).
  • Threatening to murder a Democratic lawmaker in Colorado.
  • Severing the gas line of the brother of a Virginia Congressman, with the clear intent of blowing up his house (they got the address wrong).

Et Cetera. Is this legitimate politics? Like, you don’t get what you want so you proclaim the other side illegitimate (the “birther movement”) and threaten to kill them?

I invite the reader to imagine what the result of this behavior would have been had it occurred under the Bush Administration. I have the feeling these “patriots” would have been labeled “terrorists”, rounded up in the middle of the night, and held indefinitely without trial with the media cheering. But there’s no need to speculate! In 2006, more than 71 Iraq War Protesters (who, I might add, were demonstrating peacefully – i.e. without guns) were arrested. In 2003,  more than 275  anti-war protesters were arrested in New York. Shit – just last month, the government arrested 8 anti-war protesters at a rally. And these guys, I hasten to repeat, did not wave guns around, spout racial slurs, or threaten to murder congressmen. On the other hand, not a single Tea Partier has been arrested at a rally (to my knowledge).

It’s clear that this “movement”, such as it is, enjoys vast institutional support, from the corporations who fund the gatherings to the GOP congressmen who actively encourage this behavior (Rep. Steve King from Iowa, Mike Pence of Indiana, and many, many others have given bellicose speeches at these “tea party gatherings”) to the Democratic congressmen who have studiously avoided any serious condemnation of these actions whatsoever. As such, I think one can reasonably assume that these “Tea Partiers” serve a useful role to the corporations who fund senatorial and congressional campaigns. Clearly, if these Tea Party actions went against the wishes of our lawmaker’s benefactors (like, say, the anti-war protest crowd had), we’d be seeing a lot more “bipartisanship” against this movement.

When one takes a brief look at what the Tea Partiers want, it’s not difficult to see why. The Times reports on its front page today that Tea Party hero Sen. Mitch McConnell vehemently opposes new finance regulation (the old regulations worked so well, after all…), and indeed, the Tea Party ethos against all manifestations of “big government” can be seen to be anti-regulation by its very nature. There is nothing our industry elite – the JP Morgans and Monsantos of the world – would like better than a grassroots movement to look out for their interests. When JP Morgan says it’s against financial regulation, it looks, of course, like a crook. But when they convince (and pay) a bunch of ignorant hicks to march against “big government”, well, then it seems like the people are against financial regulation. Sure, some of them tend to get a little out of hand, what with the racial slurs and death threats, but even that serves a purpose – to keep uppity lawmakers in line.

It would be shallow to attribute the Tea Party’s rise only to GOP support of it, which, I admit, has been substantial. The Democratic silence on the matter has done just as much to encourage them. And that makes sense, considering both parties tend to work in favor of their corporate sponsors, who are clearly thrilled with the rise of a grassroots corporatist movement.

If the Tea Party succeeds in cobbling together a “militia” (it seems unlikely at this point), they will serve as the perfect complement to Blackwater. While BW remains a purely corporate mercenary force, it is only taken from the elite sector of society. A Tea Party militia would form the everyman’s Blackwater, as it were – an army made up of the public to work directly against the public interest.

Oh, if Orwell could see us now!

Written by pavanvan

April 14, 2010 at 11:46 am

Fraud at the University of Phoenix

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ProPublica with a fantastic investigation:

Phoenix allegedly had broken the law by tying recruiters’ pay to enrollment numbers [2], U.S. Department of Education investigators found, creating pressure to sign up unqualified students.

In the years since, Phoenix cemented its stature as the nation’s largest for-profit school and the single biggest recipient of federal student aid. But some of the school’s recruiters have continued to use high-pressure, deceptive tactics, according to a dozen current and former students and two former recruiters who spoke to ProPublica and Marketplace [3] as part of a joint investigation.

The students said Phoenix counselors misled them about whether credits would transfer to other schools, pretended to befriend them and lied about financial aid. The recruiters said they were told to rope students in with phony claims that classes were filling fast, or by suggesting that federal grants would cover costs, even if that was uncertain.

It’s the old trifecta of deception: under-estimate the cost of tuition, over-estimate the size of available grants, and promise the credits will be transferable (even when they’re not). These poor kids are getting taken for a ride!

Written by pavanvan

March 24, 2010 at 1:29 pm