Sips from the Firehose
A blog that seeks to filter the internet into a refreshing, easily-gulped beverage


Nov 05

Kazakhstan: Old Stalinist Repression in a New CyberWar Wrapper

Posted: under Blogging, Conspiracy Theories, Online Video, Politics & New Media.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Under the guise of “protecting citizens from terrorists and porn,” the government in Kazakhstan is eliminating freedom of speech and of the press via a particularly toxic cocktail of Old Stalinist School beatings, jailings and intimidation – and cutting-edge CyberWar attacks.

I conducted a series of interviews with journalists, bloggers, opposition political leaders and human rights workers in the cities of Astana and Almaty, Kazakhstan. I was there because in mid-October of 2009, the US State Department invited me to travel to Kazakhstan to do a series of training sessions on New Media and how journalists there could learn from the mistakes that First-World TV & newspapers have made, to prepare themselves for the future.

While I was able to show them some of the new technologies and techniques in online video, mobile, social media and web monetization that I’ve developed an expertise in, I found that their crisis is far more serious than that of US publishers and journalists, whose problems revolve around absurd levels of debt entered into by multi-billion dollar corporations, and the lack of a coherent business strategy.

Kazakh journalists are quite literally fighting for their lives – and losing.

I found this out myself, when I wound up in the hospital with a severe case of food poisoning, the night before I was scheduled to conduct a class for the pro-democracy rights workers, independent journalists and dissenting bloggers. I feel almost ashamed to bring this up, because compared to what the Kazakh journalists go through, barfing for 8 hours seems like a resort vacation. Still, the embassy doctor told me I was on the point of cascading organ failure from radical dehydration. Next stop: a pine box in the cargo hold on the way back to Los Angeles.Medical supplies

A couple days and 4 liters of IV fluid and antibiotics later, my vision cleared and I was finally able to reschedule with the Kazakhstan’s most independent journalists and bloggers. (I had to cancel a trip to Shymkent, where even more dissidents hoped to get my help.) They wanted to interview me, because they were suspicious about my absence. “You don’t honestly think that what happened to you was an accident?” they asked. I admitted that in my most paranoid moments, I wondered…

“There are no coincidences here,” they told me. They went on to state that repeatedly, journalists, human rights workers or others who have come from the U.S. or Europe to meet with them, mysteriously get sick – just the way I did – are hospitalized, and wind up going home a couple of days later without ever actually meeting or doing any work.  They all wanted to shake my hand and congratulate me for joining the club of journalists who have gone to the hospital because of their political beliefs.

I will never know if it was just a bad piece of chicken, or if I barfed out some heinous admixture of polonium and whatever PCBs/Dioxins they fed to the former president of Ukraine that turned his face into a puffy, pockmarked lunar landscape. But I will admit that seeing a couple of goons waiting in an SUV every morning to tail us around contributed to my motivation to publish this piece.

First – a bit of scene-setting: Kazakhstan is an enormous country, spread out over vast empty sub-Siberian steppes (as you can see in my pictures here), with a relatively tiny population of 16 million. It’s floating on an ocean of oil and gas, and may soon be the world’s leading exporter of uranium – check out the Wikipedia entry, if you want more facts & figures.

Put simply, Kazakhstan is a popcorn shell jammed in the teeth of international war & petro-diplomacy. It’s stuck between China to the east, Russia to the north, and Afghanistan & Pakistan to the south. They export a billion barrels of oil a year to Russian refineries, and their natural gas keeps the lights on throughout Western Europe. The U.S. uses their airspace and bases for the war in Afghanistan, and rocket launches from the old Soyuz complex near Baikonur keep the International Space Station functioning.

Nursultan Nazarbayev has been president of Kazakhstan since it split off from the former Soviet Union in 1989.  Just this year, the constitution was changed to basically allow him to be president for life, and it’s a tossup as to whether or not there will ever again be open elections.

While I was there, I visited the cities of Almaty and Astana, which represent the past and the future of Kazakhstan. In 1997, Nazarbayev decreed that the capitol would be moved from the ancient city of Almaty, which is in a green valley just north of the Himalayas, on the old Silk Road, to Astana, which lies in the midst of 1,000 miles of Siberian steppes, surrounded by nothing.

A brief aside on Astana: the best way I can describe this city is to ask you to imagine what would happen if you downloaded the brains of Albert Speer and Walt Disney into a 14-year-old ADHD sci-fi fan & meth freak, and then gave him a trillion dollars and asked him to design the capitol city of Mars.  Dubai in the tundra? Shanghai without the workers or industrial base? Calgary with a creeping sense of menace?

The oil billions have funded the construction of massive towers and buildings; of wide boulevards, lined with struggling fresh-planted saplings; of monuments to the ego of Nazarbayev, where wide-eyed rural citizens line up, and hold up their babies so they can put their tiny hands into the impression of the Glorious Leader’s hand, memorialized forever in a 20-pound block of solid gold.

“It’s all one giant money-laundering scheme,” a journalist confided to me. “The government says that it’s putting up these buildlings, making this city out of nothing for the future of the people of Kazakhstan. They keep comparing this place to Washington, D.C.

“But what it’s really about is that they budget $200 million, maybe for a new library or art gallery. ‘For the people, for the culture of our country,’ they say. Then they build it for $50 million, maybe $20 million.  The rest all disappears.”

There is no real reason for this city, built for giants, and inhabited only by people who work for the kleptocracy, to exist, other than what you can read in “Ozymandias.”

““My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Yeah. It’s like that. Particularly the parts about the “sneer of cold command.”  If you squint a little bit, from atop the big observation towers, you can see the tangled rusted girders sticking up out of the blasted, brown tundra.

As you’ll see in the following videos, the main problem they need help with is the Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks that are unleashed on them when they dare to step over the line and criticize the government, write about the massive corruption in the banking system, or report the latest bombshell from the president’s ex-son in law. (He fled the country, and now lives in Austria, from whence he periodically releases embarrassing information – such as audiotapes of government officials conspiring to murder & steal.)

In the interviews that are included here, the Kazakh journalists talk about these kinds of problems – of the beatings, intimidation, jailings, fines, cyber-attacks and other methods by which freedom is being systematically strangled to death.  I will write more about this issue in other postings, but for now, I think the greatest impact is for you to hear their raw voices.

I apologize in advance for this video.  I had to blur the face and distort the voice of this journalist, to protect him from the brutal reprisals that are becoming almost commonplace in Kazakhstan. I wish that I could show you the blood clot in this man’s eye, or the fading bruises at the corners of his mouth.

I wish that you could see the way he hunches his shoulders when talking about the beating, stomping and kicking orgy of violence that landed him in the hospital recently, or the anger that replaces that fear when he talks of the beatings that have been inflicted on his colleagues.

I hope that you can still hear in his voice the raw sadness and sense of loss that is evident when he talks about the feeble FlashMob protests that are the only act of defiance left to them, and how even that is being systematically taken away.

But I cannot. I cannot bring this story to you in this open and honest way; maybe it is paranoia, but if it is, then it is well-founded paranoia. The pervasive fear that has been pounded into journalists in Kazakhstan is communicable, and if I have succumbed to it as well, so be it.  I would rather err on the side of caution with these interviews than expose some of the people in them to further harm. This is also why I have beeped out the names of some of the other recent victims, as well as other information that would make it easy to identify this person.

I do recognize that this journalist’s voice and accent make what he is saying a little hard to understand, and so I am adding subtitles.

These journalists told me that the hardest part for them is the feeling of being utterly alone; that the daily outrages against them have been covered up, denied, made to disappear as they themselves are being made to vanish, one by one.

I decided to share these improvised videos (recorded before and after training sessions I led) because the journalists and bloggers I met pleaded with me to share their stories in the hopes that someone in the outside world would pay attention.  To them, the internet represents the last, best hope of writers and photographers and editors who dare to speak truth to power. They have been pushed to the brink, and the DDoS attacks now threaten even that.

I was authorized to show the face and voice of journalist Yevgeniya Plakhina of Respublika.kz, and so she appears here undisguised, although there were some subjects that we discussed that she later requested be edited out. I will post some of the other videos in a later post, since this is getting a bit long.

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Feb 09

Ukrainian Sarah Palin Berated by Exasperated Director

Posted: under journalism, new media, Online Video, Politics & New Media.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Hire this director and have him start whipping Christian Bale into shape.

This video had my class rolling with laughter – it’s slightly NSFW (mainly with the cussing in the subtitles, although if your office has Russian speakers, they might object).

This is the mayor of Kharkov, and he was trying to record a TV campaign commercial, but couldn’t manage to string enough coherent words together to spit out a sentence. Apparently, he’s notoriously stupid – “The Sarah Palin of Ukraine” – and is the subject of much mockery & head-shaking.

I was particularly impressed by the torrent of expletive-laced abuse hurled at this guy by the director (who we see in some of the early shots). I think this must have come at the end of an exhausting filming session, because the director is just going off on him in a way that would put Joe Pytka to shame.

Gems include: “Try to have an expression. Come on, at least try. Let’s go, let’s go.” “Misha, stop this crap.  Really, stop it.”

D: “Why the fuck did you take your hand away?
M:”I finished?”

D: “So fucking what. You finished! Sit one second, motherfucker. OK, we have to do this all over again. From the top…”

D: “Your face is boring. Nobody is going to give you any money.”

Please, can anyone out there who has access to the footage of Palin campaign commercial filming post the outtakes to the web? Because I think the wolf-shootin’ turky-genocidin’ Caribou Barbie must’ve had sessions like this.  Then again, maybe she had the offending directors fed to polar bears.

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Jan 30

Bailout Cash for Newspapers? A Cure That Would Only Worsen the Underlying Disease…

Posted: under Blogs, Digital Migration, New Marketing, new media, Newspaper Deathwatch, Politics & New Media.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I posted this as a comment here, already, but it bears repeating.

While the concept of a bailout for newspapers (and allegedly for good journalism) seems attractive at first blush, I fear that in practice, the billions in bailout funds would suffer the same fate as the billions bestowed upon the banking industry.

That is, they would be swiftly pocketed in the form of “well-earned bonuses,” and only a few crumbs would make it down to the level where the money would actually do any good.  While I’m not in the “burn baby, burn” camp the way many other digital triumphalists have been (and there’s at least a faint whiff of that hereabouts), I think that dumping fat stacks on media conglomerates will not solve the underlying problems of the crumbling of business models.

Now then – a Manhattan Project (of sorts) to build solid business models to support quality journalism? That would = the hoary “teaching a man to fish” paradigm.

I know faith in The Invisible Hand is in short supply these days (and where it can be found, it’s usually being in the stocks in the town square, being pelted by posters on Angryjournalist.com), but the fact is that there is a demand for something to perform the function of information dissemination that newspapers do/have done. If the Drug Wars have taught us anything, it is that where there is a demand, and money is attached to that demand, there will correspondingly be a supply.

This is all growing out an essay on the op-ed page of the NY Times and chittering in the Twiterverse, as the nervous journalists see the vultures staring downward, and big guy in the hood with the scythe striding through the newsroom.

By endowing our most valued sources of news we would free them from the strictures of an obsolete business model and offer them a permanent place in society, like that of America’s colleges and universities. Endowments would transform newspapers into unshakable fixtures of American life, with greater stability and enhanced independence that would allow them to serve the public good more effectively.

o-rly-2Well, allow me to respond to that one.

Not to get all Reagan on you, but that is complete and utter madness. Newspapers are so important, so crucial to our lives, that it is the duty & obligation of the government to preserve them?

Wow.

OK, it’s a given that journalists have something of a Messiah Complex.  You have to have something else going on psychologically to get into this low-pay high-stress field. But this is really crossing the line. And making an unfortunate conflation between the newspaper industry and good journalism – yes, it gets done at newspapers, and there are some magnificent examples of this. But the industry is asphyxiating itself, and dumping wads of cash on it will not solve the underlying problems.

Government intervention here would create more problems than it would solve. Allison Fine is onto this issue:

So, the fundamental premise of the need to endow newspapers and preserve them at public expense is that false information exists on the Internet? Of course it does, as it does on TV, on the radio (should we also consider endowing Rush?) in magazines, and in many, many newspapers. Which media would the authors like to choose as being least likely to contain false information? And which medium do they think did the best job of  bringing the lies and corruption of the Bush Administration to light — hint, don’t look at newspapers, Josh Micah Marshall and his Talking Points Memo website would be a much better bet.

So, the fundamental premise that only newspapers can hold government accountable is specious. But that isn’t my biggest issue with the article. It is the naive assumption from those outside of the nonprofit sphere that 1) nonprofit status is intended for companies that don’t have a viable business model, and 2) raising billions of dollars in endowment funds is doable, particularly in today’s economy.

If anything, the effect of billions spent on preserving the newspaper format as it is, without any changes, will mean that we’ll all be getting print products dumped on our doors that are increasingly ad-free.  Yeah, there will be a number of advertisers who will still be there because the eyeballs are there.  But the trends of readership of mass print products are not heading up (niche and community newspapers are another story).

Worst of all, the preservation of a business model that is clearly no longer functional will suck the oxygen out of the room for the products that should (and are, in some cases) being developed to do the job that newspapers have done.  Artificially propping up newspapers in their current form will stifle the innovation in the marketplace, and long-term, only make the inevitable collapse worse.

We’re kinda seeing that take place in the real estate and credit markets right now. The government artificially propped up the economy for eight years with crazy spending and stupid low interest rates.  Instead of hard work & ingenuity to produce real growth, it was Free Money Day Every Day, as real-estate speculation in areas like Scottsdale, Las Vegas, Miami & L.A. led to the “$30,000-a-year millionaire” who made $10,000 in arcane mortgage kickbacks every time he/she signed his/her name to a loan document.  The results of that are the global economic meltdown we see occurring right now.

Meanwhile, driven by the market economics, ESPN is starting to experiment with setting up a disaggregated local blog network to cover sports at a granular level.

ESPN sees the writing on the wall. In their industry they need strong stories to promote sports and strong sports to drive interest to their stories.  A fan that is underserved by his newspaper is less interested in following his team on ESPN.  Additionally, there is big advertising money for ESPN if it can become the resource for local sports.

This is a long term proposition, however. Even the mighty ESPN cannot yet afford to hire 30 beat writers to cover each NBA team. Instead it is working towards its goal by teaming with independend bloggers in a win/win/win proposition.  The bloggers have a chance at monetizing their efforts, ESPN can become the central resource it wants to become and fans can get the information they want as a new, viable local sports media business model starts to thrive.

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Dec 27

Obama’s an “Evil Illegal Alien”? Really?

Posted: under Conspiracy Theories, Politics & New Media.
Tags: , ,

I threw up a little in my mouth when I read this:

Southern Baptist Pastor Wiley Drake bashed Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren this week, saying “God will punish” Warren
for agreeing to give the invocation at President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration next month.

“I pray He is kind to you in this punishment that is coming,” Drake wrote in a widely-released e-mail. In it, the First Southern BaptistChurch of Buena Park pastor criticizes Warren’s “recent plan to invokethe presence of almighty God on this evil illegal alien,” a referenceto Obama.

The fact that such obviously insane people are allowed to walk the streets of Our Fair Nation is the most searing indictment of the
long-term effects of the Reagan revolution on our mental-health safety net.
  The minute the parishoners stop the gravy train for this lunatic is the day he begins his downward slide to wandering the streets of the South Bay area with a matted beard, visible body odor and cardboard boxes tied to his feet. 

This is some industrial-strength crazy hatin’.

In early 2008, while he was the pastor for the First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, Reverend Drake was a vocal supporter of Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee‘s presidential campaign. He sent out a letter personally endorsing Huckabee. However, the letter was on church stationery; thus, to the Internal Revenue Service, Rev. Drake was endorsing a political candidate as a church leader and endangering his church’s tax-exempt status.

Rev. Drake’s violation of federal tax law was reported to the IRS by an advocacy group called Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), which had warned him for endorsing Dick Mountjoy for a U.S. Senate race with a Southern Baptist Convention letterhead.Rev. Drake asked his parishioners and others to pray for revenge using an imprecatory prayer for the punishment, shame, and even deaths of AU officials.

And For. The. Win.

In October 2008, Drake, stating he was still a candidate for vice
president, announced that he had filed a lawsuit seeking to have the
Secretary of State of the State of Washington “de-certify Barack Obama
because he has refused to release proof of being a Natural Born Citizen”

Holy shit! This knucklehead is STILL buying into the unbelievably disgraced and laughably false Obama-hatin’ birth certificate Nigerian Prince scam!

And now he’s even attacking one of the most powerful figures in the Evangelical Christian world for his association with Obama? Damn, man.  When I saw a short notation on the screen of Fox News, talking about the Rick Warren imbroglio, I noted the short sentence, “If Democrats realized how terrified Republicans are of Obama adding Rick Warren to the team, they’d stop opposing this.”

Looks like they were onto something.  This could further the fractures in the Republican base – splitting the reality-aware Evangelicals away from the batshit-crazy Evangelicals like this specimen:

We are seeing the evolution of a truly reality-divergent slice of our population.  The Obama-haters have their “grassy knoll.”  It’s as though the wackos with their conspiracy theories about plastique charges in the WTC or cruise missiles fired into the Pentagon, had an official spokesman.  Someone who has a radio audience and actual political power.  And who says shit like this.

Even if he were born in Hawaii, he was born to an American-citizen
mother and a British-citizen father. That’s a proven fact. According to
these fellows, the constitutional definition is no matter where you are
born, both parents have to be Americans. Even if he were born on U.S.
soil, that’s a moot point because he’s not qualified. Phil Berg’s case
says we have evidence, proof, that he was not born on American soil.
His own paternal grandmother says he was born in Kenya. That’s what got
me turned on. I’m a pastor. I have a tendency to believe people. When I
heard an elderly paternal grandmother—speaking in Swahili, if it was
interpreted right, and I think it was—say that she saw her grandson,
Barack Hussein Obama, come out of his mother here in Kenya, I can’t
imagine why she made that up. There is no motive for lying. In all
honesty, she’s just bragging on her grandson.

Man, even the citizen reporters down in the O.C are getting fired up over this fruitbat & his congregation. (h/t to CNN’s excellent iReport)

Hey – here’s a marketing opportunity for the paranoia-enablers – get the Wiley Drake congregation list and start spamming them with aluminum-foil “Survival Hats” necessary to protect their brains from the inevitable Taliban mind-control rays that are going to start coming outta them internet tubes after Barack Hussein takes power.

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Dec 04

Obama-Haters Won’t Give Up, File Suits Over Birth Certificate

Posted: under Conspiracy Theories, Politics & New Media.
Tags: , ,

I hesitate to even blog this, but apparently some people have their hands over their ears & are screaming like an F-18 engine on takeoff, desperate to avoid the news or any other hint of reality penetrating their Anti-Reality Extra-Stoopid Force Field…

Lawsuits filed in Hawaii to force disclosure of Obama birth records

The new challenge is an outgrowth of a legal suit filed in Mississippi,
which questioned whether Obama is a “natural born citizen” of the U.S.

Plaintiffs in that suit subpoenaed a copy of the birth certificate Nov.
26 from the Hawai’i Health Department. The plaintiffs include
conservative political activist and failed presidential candidate Alan
Keyes, who lost to Obama in the 2004 U.S. Senate race in Illinois.

Oh good grief.

This is like a rube taken in by P.T. Barnum’s “Fiji Mermaid”   filing suit because they had subcontracted with one of Barnum’s gin-soaked roustabouts to have the mermaid do deep cenote diving in search of the Inca Gold of the Seven Cities of Cibola, and the dingdang critter never showed up for the steamship ride.

UPDATE:  Aaagh! It doesn’t stop!

It looks like the Barack Obama citizenship issue will not die until he is inaugurated. It probably will not end even then.

Now the U.S. Supreme Court will discuss the matter in private because one justice decided it was worthy. Before
fingering the member of our highest court, I will give a little
background information on the case. If you do not think too hard about
it, you can probably guess which Supreme Court Justice is responsible.

PEOPLE.  THIS WAS A HOAX.  A NOT-TRUE THING.

SCAM ARTISTS ARE TAKING YOU FOR A RIDE. STOP FALLING FOR THIS.

oh, what’s the use

 

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Nov 21

Further Thoughts on Obama-Hating Scam

Posted: under Digital Migration, journalism, new media, Politics & New Media.
Tags: , , ,

LA Times - No Shit, Sherlock?

LA Times - No Shit, Sherlock?

This came in through the comment threads, and is thoughtful enough that it merits more attention:

It sounds like both media channels worked as I would expect them too. The mainstream media sticks with the low risk stories that are easy to substantiate and defend while New Media takes risks on radical story ideas, digest the story in the public forum, shares the discoveries with its readers and lets the readers decide when it is time to move on to other issues.

Very true, and a very good observation. However – my worry is that as the mainstream media increasingly dissolves, their filters grow ever weaker.  Evidence of this can be seen in the big bounce in the amount of glaring errors in print editions – this last week, I noted big, bad spelling errors on the front page of the LA Times.  The jump pages aren’t where they’re supposed to be.  The same paragraph gets printed twice.

Apparently, the editorial guidlines have changed at the LA Times... or, to put it more colloquially, "the shit has loosened up."

Apparently, the editorial guidlines have changed at the LA Times... or, to put it more colloquially, "the shit has loosened up."

Basically, the cuts in editorial positions have left the papers so stressed that they are vulnerable to the kinds of errors that would previously have been unthinkable.  And if papers can screw up on something so simple as whether or not the word “Shit” should be put in a headline for a book review (as it was today), then a complex story that demands that reporters and editors pay close attention and follow a thread to its logical conclusion – well, that capability may not longer be in the traditional newsroom.

I have hopes (perhaps naive & unwarranted) that there will be a disaggregated Newsroom of the Future, where reporters and The People Formerly Known As The Audience all work together to separate truth from spin.  The Look&Feel of this Newsroom of the Future is being chiseled out of the raw WebChaos on sites like TPM, Firedoglake, ProPublica, Publish2, RedState, and even on Michelle Malkin (hey – she called the “B on the face” girl out as a fraud).

It looks kinda like the same model that’s been in existence for hundreds (maybe even thousands) of years:

  1. The reporter/blogger/town crier/social media collective identifies a trend or event as significant, and communicates that to the people in their circle of influence (make up a term – audience, listeners, readers, lurkers, etc.)
  2. Those people take in that message and react. In the traditional media models, a positive reaction would be to buy more papers, tell their friends to tune in to the next newscast, and discuss it around the watercooler.
  3. Positive feedback means the originator keeps doing more – that is, follow-up stories, sidebars, looking for more stories like that.
  4. In the online world, positive feedback can mean that the audience self-deputizes and starts haring off on their own, trying to add their efforts to expand the narrative.
  5. Negative feedback – the audience not caring about or responding to the story – means that the reporter/blogger/town crier moves on to the next story

The only change is that the web makes all this happen much faster, and allows the audience to get much more involved than was possible before.

And yeah, I know, this kind of thinking is hardly original.  But we’re seeing the dissolution of the traditional media happen much quicker than we had anticipated.  And yeah, I’m aware that history is replete with examples of traditional media being used to perpetrate Big Lies & Big Mistakes – from the Spanish-American War of 1898, waged because newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst wanted a cause to boost circulation (where we get the famous quote “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war”) to the yellowcake uranium and 18 words in the State of the Union address.

The point is, that as it is now easier for smaller & less powerful groups to take on the mantle of the MSM, it is also increasingly possible for smaller & less powerful groups to drill into the national narrative for their own purposes…

I’ll leave you with this, from the Hearst link above:

Hearst upped his circulation by producing a new kind of paper, one with mass- market appeal. His papers used lots of pictures and illustrations, large headlines, and the like. Reducing the cost of a paper to as little as a single cent a copy, Hearst made his newspapers accessible to nearly everyone. Because he controlled so much of the market for newspapers, a market that was rapidly growing because of his newspapers, Hearst could practically dictate what the country would think the next day.
The whole point of yellow journalism was to produce exciting, sensational stories, even if the truth had to be stretched or a story had to be made up. These stories would boost sales, something very important in this period, when newspapers and magazines were battling for circulation numbers. In regard to the situation in Cuba in the mid-1890s, yellow journalism sought to exploit the atrocities in Cuba to sell more magazines and newspapers.
The papers depicted Spanish behavior as exaggeratedly bad, and political cartoons depicted “Spain” as a nearly subhuman and brutal monster, while “Cuba” was usually depicted as a pretty white girl being pushed around by the Spanish monster. Once US opinions were inflamed over Cuba, Hearst in particular tried to do everything he could to whip the public into such a frenzy that a war would start. Once the country was at war, Hearst had little doubt his papers would have no end of interesting and sensational articles to publish.

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Nov 19

Desperate Obama-Haters Give Money to Nigerian Scam

Posted: under Blogging, Digital Migration, new media, Politics & New Media.
Tags: , , , ,

Nobody directly involved will admit it, but this is looking more and more like one of the more nasty, yet brilliant, scams of the last couple years.  It may have been pulled off by the legendary Nigerian internet scammers, but it’s beginning to look like it may have been the work of a vast leftwing conspiracy with a twisted sense of humor.

It gets complicated, as these things often do, but the core appears to be:

1. A WordPress website claiming to be the creation of the African Press International, and NGO somehow associated with the Rainbow Foundation – OK, already I know this is a lot to process – claimed that they had a tape of Michelle Obama admitting that Barack Obama was not an U.S. citizen, and thus not eligible to be president.

2. Nobody seemed to notice that the API’s headquarters are in Norway.

3. In the weeks leading up to the election, as John McCain’s campaign was trailing smoke and in a steep vertical dive (to use an Air Force-appropriate metaphor), a ragtag bunch of deranged Obama-haters his desperate supporters seized on this story as a last-minute chance to save the U.S. from an Obama presidency, which they had come to believe would be some horrible combination of Stalinist Russia, the Taliban and a San Francisco gay bathhouse, circa 1978.

4. The overheated right-wing blog echo chamber started to scream and yell about the tapes, hoping to spark an uproar.

5. The API started getting erratic in its pronouncements about the tapes, on the one hand demanding money, on the other alleging mysterious dark conspiracies that were preventing the release of the tapes, conspiracies involving shadowy pro-Obama forces.

5. Still believing that these tapes existed, the right-wing blogs started collecting money from their readers to buy the tapes.

From the Ace of Spades website:

$20,000 $25,000 Reward for Obama/Ayers/Dohrn/Khalidi Tape

Dirty Harry suggests a benefactor can offer $100,000.

Well, I don’t know if one will step forward. I can guarantee, though,
that if the goods are delivered the blogosphere can contribute $20,000.
In a matter of hours.

Maybe more. More would depend on the tape.

This offer includes
is particularly directed towards Los Angeles Times employees. Maybe
ones that just got fired. Or will get fired in the next couple of weeks.

Guaranteed.

Anonymous.

That’s how we roll.

Pretty pathetic that we have to try to bribe “newsmen” to release newsworthy tapes.

If your conscience is troubled, They should have released it anyway.

6. The scam mutated into an allegation that the LA Times had some kind of tape that would once and for all, destroy the Obama campaign, but that it was withholding the tape because of the aforementioned vast left-wing conspiracy to hand the country over to Obama.

7. The bidding for the tape reached $150,000. In a move sure to be familiar to anyone who has studied the history of “The Spanish Prisoner,” the price for releasing the tape suddenly escalated to $2 million.

8. At this point, you’d think that the people who initially believed in the existence of this tape would start smelling a rat You’d be wrong. A blogger named “Mountain Sage” started cataloging all the inconsistencies of this story, and if you’re really interested in all the ins & outs of this, please go there.

9. I’ll save you a whole bunch of mental consternation & possible suicidal impulses stemming from despair over the human condition, and cut to what I hope is the end of this story: the WordPress blog has been taken down, and the right-wing blogosphere has moved on (mostly) to its next alleged revelations of Obama conspiracies that will exterminate all mankind.

If your head is still spinning a little bit from all this, take a minute and look at some LOLcats or something.

Now then. How is all this relevant to the usual subject around here – New Media, newspapers, journalism? Well, as we debate migrating from the traditional media to a future where all our information comes at us over the Great Big Internet Pipe, I think it’s instructive to recognize that offloading some of the news-gathering & editing duties to the audience (i.e. crowdsourcing, Citizen Journalism, etc.), is not a process entirely free of risk.

Stories like this one were once confined to the utter fringes of our national conversation. Back when I first started working for newspapers, I learned that at least once a week, we’d get a long, somewhat smelly, letter from the local lunatic, ranting & raving about Zionist Occupation Government (“ZOG”) reading his mind with CIA laser beams.  The single-spaced typewritten screeds were usually augmented by scrawling in red pen around the margins, in big circles.  I’ve since learned that writing in big spirals is one of the warning signs of paranoid-schizophrenia, and in this case, of a person who has stopped taking their meds and is hearing the voices & acting on their instructions.

Unfortunately, as we open up the doors of the media to a more collaborative conversation between reader & journalist, fanatical factions are more easily able to hijack the national discourse, and divert us over into areas that are meaningless, pointless and an utter waste of time.  Some would say that that has always been the case – that even in the traditional media’s heyday, we had stupid stories that for one reason or another, rose to the level where we were talking about them because everyone else was talking about them.

And yeah, I know that one of the benefits of the web is that the audience no longer just sits and passively accepts that the information being fed to them is true. That the Citizen Journalists are willing & able to step in to do research to expose fraudsters.  That has certainly been the case here.

But this scam was, well, childish and poorly organized.  A guy in Norway claiming to run an African news agency making wild claims? Already the red flags were waving.

However, if a much more well-funded and intelligent organization were to set out to concoct a Big Lie, and to use the low barriers to entry that the web offers to storylines, memes, etc., to deceive the public … how would we know?  And if this organization were smart enough, and good enough at using SEO and other tools to bury and discredit its critics and their objections, what then?

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Nov 08

Blast from the Past: Indecision 2000 and How Video Stories Have Evolved

Posted: under Digital Migration, Online Video, Politics & New Media.
Tags: , , , ,

Man, check out John Stewart.  Is it me, or does he look just a little bit like the Muppet Beaker?

Ah yes. The pardon of Marc Rich. Makes you nostalgic for a time when this was the worst crime that could be laid at the feet of the outgoing president, don’t it?

Just looking at this video makes me feel 1,000 years old.  It’s a reminder of how, when the party in charge of the White House changed back in 2000, there were all manner of investigations into the misdeeds of the previous administration.  Wonder if that’s going to come around again … and if we’re going to spend most of 2009 having to sit through a re-hash of all the grubby insider deals perpetrated by the Bushies

I am of two minds about this issue – on the one hand, I think that to distract ourselves with chasing down Bush partisans to whack them around & humiliate them in front of banks of TV cameras, would be a mistake, taking our attention away from dealing with all the massive problems we face.

And then, on the other hand, there’s the fact that the massive problems we face are a direct result of the actions of these sleazy, incompetent thieves. To let them skip merrily away into the night, their pockets stuffed with stolen taxpayer funds, chortling in glee at their cleverness … well, that just grates.

Anyway. The point of this was to do a compare/contrast of viral video from then, to the political online video we see now.  Makes you realize how far we’ve come, with production values.  And how we’ve come to expect that when outlets like The Daily Show air a segment, they back it up with video clips culled from the past.

This is a very Web 2.0 concept … I think it comes out of stories on the web, where we have hyperlinks within the stories that allow us to see the evolution of the meme over time, and then compare it to the current story. 

My point is that in the last eight years, the way that we process information has changed in a fundamental way that we’re really not fully cognizant of. We expect to see the background, the history from primary sources, that supports what the person is telling us in the present.

In a very real way, The Daily Show and John Stewart are the equivalent of the “content aggregation” sites that have succeeded so well online. 

I just want to find a way to make sure that the aggregators have something to aggregate. That original reporting of facts & events does not die off, and that the persons who do the pick & shovel work to unearth the sound bites & images that are then stitched together (for great acclaim & profit) by middlemen like the Daily Show (or Drudge, or HuffPo, or Sadly, No!, Politico, etc. etc. etc.) start to share in some of the extraordinary wealth that is generated off of their sweat equity.

The link economy.
We needz it.

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Nov 02

Viral Video Hits: Campaign ’08 Edition

Posted: under new media, Online Video, Politics & New Media.
Tags: , , , , , ,

Now that we’re finally approaching the end of a presidential campaign season that started way back in May 2007 … and as an aside, allow me to observe that it used to be that declaring for the presidency the December before the Iowa caucuses/New Hampshire primaries was early …

Let’s take a look back at one of the emerging forces that has come out of nowhere these last fours years to impact the way that politics is conducted: viral videos.

The first indication that this was going to have a transformative effect on the electoral process was back in ’06, when Virginia Senator George Allen’s “Macaca Moment” kneecapped the GOP’s best hope for hanging onto the White House. This was not the first YouTube video about politics, but it was the first really big one.  The scandal that erupted over this cost Allen his Senate seat, his shot at the White House, and was the signal that Virginia was now in play for the Democrats – one of the really big, under-reported shifts in electoral demographics of the last couple years.

Now they, you’ll notice that this video has only racked up 370,000 views or so. Good, but hardly awe-inspiring … not even in the category of kittens dancing around on piano keys. 

So how is it that these videos have such an effect?  Well, the mainstream media is still, for now at least, the ones setting the parameters and nature of the conversation.  But the process by which the MSM frames the national discussion has undergone a sea change. And part of it is the GOP’s fault.

It started with Drudge and the Monica Lewinsky scandal (although many are finally acknowledging that the “Drudge Effect” is losing steam), continued on with the Swift Boat veterans, and this year, finds its truest expression in the vids of Fey-as-Palin.

See, reporters and editors are pretty much web addicts.  We poke around on the internet all day long, trying to figure out what the Vox Populi is saying, so we can latch onto it and churn out a “trend” story.  And then go drink.

Viral videos that make us laugh, make us stop, make us click to get the link and then e-mail it to our friends & colleagues … those get the “trend” prize, whether they are or not at the time.  And, of course, once a critical mass of journalists bestows the “this is a growing trend” status on a meme (Soccer Mom, NASCAR Dad, Security Mom, Joe the Plumber, etc.), then said meme is going to get a serious working-over by the material-starved talking heads on the cable news programs. 

We are moving closer and closer to a merging of the “underground” flow of significant memes and information on the internet, and what the MSM reports and pays attention to.  This gallery of viral hits will take you through the history of the Presidential Campaign ’08, in a way that will have you remembering the conversations we were having only a few months ago, and how those memes have morphed into the Accepted Collective Wisdom.

Mission accomplished. Time for cocktails.

1. Yes We Can – Barack Obama Music Video

It started with this, back when the Iowa caucuses came back, and people started actually buying into the idea that maybe … maybe … there’s something to this guy Obama.  Maybe we don’t have to pin our hopes on Hilary and another depressing go-round with Bill Clinton in the White House with a lot of free time on his hands.  This has gotten 11 million views since it was put up, features will.i.am and hella good editing & soundtrack.

2. Dear Mr. Obama.

A hit for the McCain campaign, this Iraq war vet holds forth on his belief that the war was not a mistake. This has been made into a commercial for the Republican Majority Campaign PAC.

3. I’ve got a crush on Obama.

This one got more than 10 million views – which proves that hot chicks in tight clothing are certainly a spur to the success of a video.  Lately, Amber Lee Ettinger has diversified and put on the Palin glasses & hair bun, and there are now more than 30 “Obama Girl” videos.

4. JibJab’s “It’s time for some campaignin’ ”

This one came along in mid-July, when we were starting to get really serious about this, and provided a nice preview of the emerging themes of the campaign.  This wasn’t as big a hit as the videos back in 2004, when the images of Kerry sailing up the Mekong and Bush screwing up everything he touched really hit a nerve.   This one does deliever, however, with Obama riding a rainbow unicorn.  And seeing Hilary clonk Bill with a frying pan never gets old.

5. McCain’s YouTube problem just became a nightmare

This one has gotten upwards of 8 million hits, and is from provocateur Robert Greenwald and bravenewfilms (full disclosure: years ago, I worked on a project that was destined for Greenwald’s production company, until it got tied up in a very messy legal quagmire).  This video, part of a “The Real McCain” effort to define the candidate, set a lot of the foundations for the stories that we’ve been seeing reported in the last couple of months. Another very telling point: it’s garnered upwards of 66,000 comments – a pretty good yardstick for something that “engages” the audience.  

6. Obama, Paris Hilton & Britney Spears – the “Rock Star” Ad

This is another video that got more than 2 million view, and made a huge splash at the time.  To many people, this marked the spot where the McCain campaign went off the rails … where it started to become less about what McCain was going to do, and more about going negative and trying to smear Obama, using whatever means necessary.  Of course, this then led to one of the funniest responses of the campaign season …

7. Paris Hilton accepts McCain’s endorsement

“I’ll see you at the debates, bitches,” is one of the best one-liners of the campaign season.  I blogged about this before, so go there for a fuller reaction to her actually rather insightful energy policy.

See more Paris Hilton videos at Funny or Die

8 . Crazy Hilary Supporter Goes Off

Remember back when the PUMAs were allegedly going to tear the Democratic Party apart? When this giant seething mass of resentful, fanatic feminist Hilary supporters were going to desert and vote for McCain because they were so pissed off about the treatment Hilary got in the primaries?  This woman made her way into the media spotlight for a while.  And then it turned out that she didn’t really represent any kind of significant voice in American politics.  She was just old, ornery and slightly nuts.  Kinda like McCain, some to think of it…

9. RNC Convention Protests

This footage of Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman being carted away made a lot of news at the time, as did the tear gas and other protests going on outside the convention hall.  This was all quickly overshadowed by the next player to emerge on the national stage…

10. Is McCain Palin’s Bitch?

This one has gotten more than 2 million view, yet it hasn’t made it as big as some of the other viral hits.  I just love it because they managed to find an actor who actually kinda looks like McCain.  And it starts with the faux-Palin firing an AK-47. And ends with the line “Who wants to go polar bear huntin’?”

11.  Couric-Palin interview – “I can see Russia from my window”

This has passed into the category of epochal political history.  The moment that Palin said something so galactically stupid that people around the world stopped in their tracks to ask, “She said WHAT? What the hell was THAT?”  Of course, that then opened the door to….

12. Tina Fey as Sarah Palin

This got more than 7 million views.  And has spawned a whole cottage industry.  I’m sure you have seen all of these.  And if you haven’t in a while, go and check them out. They could populate an entire list by themselves… 

13. Sarah Silverman’s “The Great Schlep”

This is not as genius as Tina Fey’s work above, but it’s still damn good, and more than that, has apparently inspired a whole bunch of young East Coast jews to bug their grandparents in Florida to vote Obama.  We’ll have to wait ’til Tuesday to see how well that worked out, but in the meantime, the description of Obama’s barbecue skills is worth a peep.


14. Obama – McCain Dance-Off

If we are not to settle big issues through single combat, then the dance-off would seem to some observers (OK, me) to be an equally thrilling and relevant process.  And it may reveal more about character and poise than those damn canned statements they just recite in front of the cameras in lieu of actually answering the questions asked by the moderators.

Final winners will be unveiled tomorrow.

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