Answering Hard Questions

Mashable House is one of the great (and p opular) sidelights of SXSW Interactive.

The rain left a chilly day in its wake for Day Three of SXSW (brrrrr….) but the SXSW crowd was undeterred and once again flooded the streets of downtown Austin.

Day Three provided more evidence that SXSW is doing a bit of soul searching in 2017. Surprised by the rapidly changing cultural context in which they live and work, digital creatives are asking hard questions like…

What is Journalism?

President Trump recently mentioned the New York Times among a number of news agencies he deemed “fake news” and “an enemy of the people.” In light of these charges, it was interesting to hear what the executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet, had to say about the state of journalism in America under the New Administration. To provide context, Baquet is a journalist through and through. He is originally from Louisiana and got his start as a reporter in the New Orleans market, writing for The Times – Picayune. He came to the New York Times in 1990 and served in reporting and editing roles, working his way up to his appointment as executive editor. Baquet embodies the integrity and humility of a trained and skilled journalist. In my opinion, there are few better qualified in tenure and spirit to run the Times during this important season in its life.

Baquet is keenly aware of the significant role of the free press in the cultural moment we are facing not only in the U.S. but around the globe. “There will be 20 books written,” he said, “about the next two years.” Baquet plans to guide the Times in this moment in the same way that journalism has always proceeded. For Baquet that means getting to the truth and providing quality storytelling around events in the U.S. and internationally that impact its global readership. While the Times is committed to expanding further into online platforms, it will never adopt what is the standard model for emergent online news platforms. The Times, he said, will continue to embed international reporters and deploy investigative journalists to cover important stories. While they certainly track readership internally, they refuse to allow clicks to determine coverage.

Specifically in regard to the New Administration, Baquet said they will cover this President thoroughly, as every President deserves to be covered. The U.S. President is arguably the most powerful person on the globe. That power demands media coverage in everything from tweets to press conferences to major news moments. Some have criticized Baquet, he noted, for giving Trump so much coverage in the Times. These complaints come from a perspective that argues if Trump received less coverage, he would play to the media less and it may hamper his mass influence. Baquet responded to this charge saying that when the President acts in any way, it is important based on holding the office. Speaking about the President, Baquet said his direct comments about the Times and other news platforms were unfortunate, but do not deter him from his job as a journalist. In fact, Trump visited the Times offices soon after being elected and, Baquet said, he believes Trump both reads and has an appreciation for the Times regardless of his rhetoric.

The SXSW conversation with Baquet was followed by an interview featuring Nick Denton, former principal of Gawker Media. Gawker Media, you may remember, was financially decimated as a result of a high-profile lawsuit over their release of sex tapes featuring Hulk Hogan. Denton started Blogwire in 2003 as a blog-based news platform. With the rise of social media sharing, his blog-based news platforms became popular and spun off into Gawker Media, which ultimately included, Deadspin, Lifehacker, Gizmodo, Kotaku, Jalopnik, and Jezebel. As opposed to The New York Times, Denton’s platforms presented news in a sensationalist style designed to be consumed within the realm of social media. Denton himself is a journalist and writer, and he brought the same spirit of pursuing truth in areas of public concern to his platforms.

In his conversation with national advertising hall of fame inductee Jeff Goodby, Denton painted a dark picture of the future for the Internet and the free press. In light of his experience and the ongoing antagonistic relationship between news media and the New Administration, he suggested that while the journalistic practice should continue across the news landscape, the press must be careful the stories it tells about whom. The free press, he believes, is threatened by political and financial power brokers who will ruthlessly come after reporters and news agencies who choose to counter the narratives of the powerful or, worse yet, seek to undermine their power through investigative journalism. These fiscal and political powers have more money at play than any media organization, so journalism lives in the current era under the threat of being sued. The same forces that will seek to control the free press with also restrict open speech online. The current move to information control, Denton alludes, will become pervasive and it will take courage for journalistic platforms to continue to openly speak truth to power.

In light of Baquet and Denton’s perspectives, it seems the question about what journalism is has not changed as disciplined set of practices. But the current context may make being a journalist a more high-stakes endeavor. Baquet finds this context of tension between the press and the White House invigorating, because the conditions force the press to truly do its social and cultural work. Denton, on the other hand, believes that it may mark the end of an era for free information in and open society.

How Do We Bridge Our Great Cultural Divide?

Every election cycle in this millennium has demonstrated a yawning chasm of division that runs through the heart of America. In 2016, that divide was more apparent than ever throughout the campaign season and evidence of the divide continues to pour out on social media feeds across the nation. The divide is so entrenched that Nick Denton and Jeff Goodby could see in their conversation any way across the chasm. Criticism of the new President by media agencies simply fact checking his statements seems to solidify his political base. And the more outrageous the claims the President makes, the more the gap widens. Is there a way to get Americans back to the table and, moreover, unify on critical questions that need to be addressed?

Jessica Shortall heads Texas Competes, a large consortium of business leaders and chambers of commerce across Texas. Shortall has pursued a unique calling in her life’s work based on her gift of bringing opposing parties to the table to discover empathy and work together toward reasonable, data-driven decisions. Texas Competes is a unique enterprise in the current Texas climate because it is rooted in the fundamental, and very well-researched truth, that if Texas continues pushing forward the 24 bills currently moving through the House designed to socially marginalize LGBQT Texans it will cost the state upwards of $407 million in tourist and other business revenue. Texas Competes businesses and chambers of commerce have signed a pledge to advocate for LGBQT Texan employees and stand against these measures. The goal of the organization is to bring business and political leaders together with LGBQT Texans, to look at data surrounding the well-being of both LGBQT persons and Texas and make difficult decisions together out of a position of empathy for citizens and their families. As Stortall notes, the cost of vacating the current House measures is zero in both dollars and social-psychological damage to Texans. The cost of proceeding; however, is immense for real persons and business entities throughout the state.

While Shortall said one of the bills, the controversial Texas SB6, is moving forward for a vote as early as next week after being spoken against by over 200 families relative to the 40 persons in favor, she remains hopeful that by continuing to build bridges of empathy the ultimate result will be a breakdown of our current polarization and a move toward collaborative and creative justice for persons across a number of questions and issues. Without this hope for reconciliation on key issues, the only real options are the political devaluation of a large part of our citizenry, or a violent revolution as one side rises up against another in a battle of might makes right.

So, how do we bridge the current impasse? By getting to the table, seeing and hearing one another, and finding empathy for one another. Without this humanizing moment, it appears there are no positive ways forward in the current social-politiccal conversation in America on key questions.

What is Privacy?

In light of the recent WikiLeaks document release, FBI director James Comey said, “There is no such thing as absolute privacy in America.” Comey went on to say that this loss of privacy is part of the social contract all American “sign” that says we agree to give up some of our individual rights for the sake of the common good. In this case, we give up the right to absolute privacy to be compelled by the judiciary, in the example Comey cited, to provide information sot that we may have a more just society. When described this way, most people are okay with the idea that absolute privacy an impossible idea. However, when information that someone did not want to share with the world becomes public, or when information that someone did not know what being catalogued about them by a government or business entity is made public, we have arrived at a crisis of privacy.

A penel conversation tackled this hard question as part of Day Three at SXSW. The panel affirmed that there is a reasonable sense of privacy that is essential to individuals in American society. As an individual (in our Western, democratic sense of the word, “individual”), it seems there is an implicit right to be able to guard information and protect access to one’s self. Some basic information about me, my internal thoughts and emotions, and my shared relationships between family and friends are all areas that I expect to remain private. In our current context; however, it seems like these basic tenets of privacy are being challenged.

Some of this challenge comes from enjoying the cultural benefits of participating in our online social economy. Being online places a considerable amount of private data online in a variety of places accessible to my devices (both internal to the device on Internet-linked data repositories). Placing this information in this space as a cost for participating in online communities, even with security features, places it somewhat at risk. Another portion of this challenge comes from simply participating in our base social economy. More and more financial transactions are being handled digitally out of speed and efficiency in the banking industry. This digital information is linked to our identity in these institutions and leaves a digital pathway that could be followed to learn about our consumer behavior. A third and final dimension of this challenge comes from our surveillance culture. Business, cities, states and national entities have the ability to surveil nearly our every activity. Through GPS data on our phones to public tracking systems to cameras (both official and personal) to the FCC’s recent decision to allow ISPs to sell aggregate user data without permission, to something as basic as our tax system we are being passively surveilled at every stage of our lives. The question relative to privacy is how easy it is to switch the intention from passive to active.

How can we even talk seriously about privacy, as outlined above, in the midst of these challenges? The panelists agreed that in a free, democratic society there ought to be an expectation of individual privacy. However, they came to the mutual conclusion that privacy in our current society is the responsibility of the individual. Two-factor all access to sensitive information, manage the amount of information provided on social media platforms in text and images, properly set security settings on information platforms so you know how our information is being shared, be aware and manage when able the modes of surveillance in your home and communities. Be willing to ask hard questions of people using surveillance tactics as part of government or business, raising the issue of the social good of their practices. Change all passwords at least annually to avoid the passwords you use that have already been breached from being used in accord with your username. Doing these things will help preserve a modicum of individual privacy in the digital age, but maintaining privacy for yourself and/or your family members will be a lifelong discipline.

In Sum

SXSW continues to be a great platform to ask and answer hard questions like these (and others). These questions in particular are poignant given the course of the New Administration. A war against trust in public information is being waged from the White House. This war against the “enemy of the people” is nurturing the deep divide that exists at the heart of “we the people.” The culture of fear that is being promulgated and the way the New Administration its legislating against privacy for the sake of security is exposing us all to greater government surveillance. Following Shortall, we must come to the table to ask these hard questions. But once these questions are asked and answered, the way we resolve them cannot remain theoretical. Their answers must be lived. And that is the true challenge, regardless of where we have these conversations.

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