From: 7Pillars Partners (partnersat_private)
Date: Thu Jul 02 1998 - 19:21:33 PDT

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    I'm going to make an assertion, and comment on some things that
    might be worth a discussion about.
    If CNN/TIME did in fact work on the TAILWIND story for at least
    8 months as they claim, and interview hundreds of sources, it strains
    credibility beyond the breaking point that they now claim to be
    'absent malice' in going on air and to press with their story.
    How is it that with all that data and effort, a more objective view
    of the same material can be made in -roughly a week- that requires a
    retraction and apology?  Can professionals with this level of
    experience truly have convinced themselves so thoroughly of the
    inherent dishonesty of the US military that they would ignore the
    flaws in their own reporting?  What does that say for the news
    organization and news process itself, as well as the news consuming
    public, that these are respected players?
    We're going to hear a lot of people beating up on the media; this
    is a Good Thing as far as I'm concerned.  What used to pass for
    journalism (reporting facts) has turned into something else (moving
    around opinion--and remember, when you have facts, you don't need
    an opinion; interpretations of facts are called 'judgment,' FYI).
    This is propaganda, by the most loose of definitions--the substitution
    of opinion for judgment.
    The press, in all its forms, have become our observational proxies.
    By definition, in fact--if you aren't a direct witness to an event,
    you're using a proxy.  In this modern world of global communication,
    distance has eroded, -if- you rely upon the proxies to bridge all
    that distance for you.  Part of being an open source professional is
    learning how to 'triangulate'--use multiple proxy sources to get
    some rough approximation of objective facts.  I'm sad to say that
    I notice a considerable tendency on the part of professionals to
    spin and add bias, which only compounds the problem of the spin and
    bias from the proxies.  The media consuming public, however, is in
    even worse shape than we professionals are.  They're out there, and
    they keep taking it on the chin.
    Worse than the press/media turning into proxies, where we have to
    continually calculate trust assessments into dealing with what they
    report, is how they've turning in brokers for reputation capital.
    This is going to take a view words of explanation, so bear with me.
    Reputation capital is poorly understood, but we use it in all of our
    relationships: how much do you trust those around you, and in what
    problem domains?  You want to trust a physician to do his/her work
    professionally, objectively, competently.  The same with police.
    Judges.  Teachers.  Violations of that trust are met with great
    levels of intolerance, and justifiably so.  So you want to trust a
    physician to do their job, but do you ask them how to manage your
    money?  Physicians are -notoriously- bad at this sort of thing (get
    a few drinks into a stockbroker and ask them which accounts they can
    churn most often).  Physicians themselves have a hard time
    understanding where their competence stops.  "What's the difference
    between God and a doctor?  God doesn't think He's a doctor."  For the
    most blatant example of reputation capital gone wrong, look at the
    media portrayal and public worship (sorry, that's the only word that
    really fits) of celebrities.  Who honestly should care what they have
    to say or think about on world affairs?  Do they have a -judgment- or
    just an -opinion-?  I can respect how a professional athlete performs
    in his/her sport, but I'm not about to ask them about foreign
    policy -unless they have domain expertise-; the same goes with rock
    stars, film stars, etc.  When we start confusing opinion with
    judgment in the political arena, that's when my blood runs cold.
    And herein comes the role of media/proxies as reputation brokers:
    -- The anonymous source.  We don't know who they are, they 'leak' to
    their journalist of choice for their own reasons, perhaps good or
    not.  TAILWIND used a reported number of sources over two hundred,
    with on-going claims from the now-fired producer of the story that
    they have 'secret sources' who continue to push the story.  Since we
    don't know who these sources are, or what materials they have or know,
    we can't judge them--in other words, we only have an opinion at best,
    we can't make a judgment.  We're forced to rely on the media to do
    this for us; this is how they're reputation capital brokers--based on
    what they know of their sources, past interaction, current activities
    and relationships, -they- are supposed to exercise judgment.  In the
    'good old days' when I used to feel comfortable calling people
    reporters, this also included what we open source professionals still
    try to do--triangulation, or -have at least two/three (depends on the
    media outlet) independent, objective sources with concrete facts to
    back up the story-.  You'll note that the burden has shifted--the
    media can no longer be trusted to perform this service, but -we- the
    consumer need to.  This means the system is broken.  Don't look to
    the Internet as the quick fix; after all, it's where Drudge came from.
    -- The feedback element.  I know a few very professional working
    reporters who have made two critical observations to me in the past.
    One is that no matter how good their source, no matter how good the
    proof, they always triangulate--and something more.  They do a contact
    trace on sources related to the story; in other words, they're trying
    to guarantee that their sources are truly independent.  This is, on
    occasion, very difficult, particularly when dealing with this 'six
    degrees of separation' and instant communication world.  But in their
    professional experience, it was too easy to start a whispering
    campaign--the words out of their source could be found going into the
    ears and coming out of the mouths of seemingly independent sources,
    thus the message wasn't independent.  Memes are frighteningly hard to
    deal with--the message gets passed along for a lot of reasons, but
    generally because it's too good to be true -and- people want it to be
    true.  TAILWIND is an example, but I could just as easily point to the
    many conspiracy theories, or the '200,000 attacks on DoD systems by
    hackers,' or a lot of the other incredible, ludicrous 'factoids'
    floating around.  And that leads to the second part of the feedback
    problem--diffusion into the background.  The blurring of opinion and
    judgment, combined with the polling process, has made the public
    (read: masses, plebes) the driving force for politicians (those people
    who make law).  Progressively less informed about the myriad elements
    of the world (the world is impressively complex, and complexity
    forces specialization specifically to cope), the mass collection of
    opinion by media and political organizations and using it to tailor
    the content of what gets presented, or to make policy and legal
    decisions, is the logical conclusion of the feedback process, and
    potentially the ultimate ruin of the democratic process.  What it
    means is that someone takes a poll, finds out that a great number of
    people are interested in something, which increases the coverage of
    that something--which adds positive feedback (in the cybernetic
    sense), causing more attention, and probably eventual political
    action.  It cuts both ways:  good, such as increased funding for
    various research; bad, such as increasing crime legislation and
    criminalization, at a time when real crime is dropping, but media
    attention to crime is increasing.  Extreme cases make bad law--and
    with media coverage, extreme cases get -great- numbers of people
    interested; sizzle sells, but it's screwing up the media -and- the
    political process.
    Answers.  Do I have any?  Sure, but you aren't going to like them.
    Learn how to discriminate, but based on facts (which leads to
    judgment), and not without them (which leads to opinions).  Don't
    make significant moves based on opinions--particularly laws.  Learn
    about reputation capital, and stop buying into the cult of celebrity.
    Learn how to triangulate, which will teach you a lot about spin and
    bias.  Most important of all, get a grip on responsibility; media
    and political processes are turning into a 'tragedy of the commons'--
    we aren't 'owners' of the processes, so we don't feel any great need
    to do anything about them.  On the surface, this comes off as a
    disenfranchisement--people claiming that they "don't have any say"
    in the media or political process; by not asserting ownership, you
    leave a vacancy that -someone- is certainly going to fill, and they're
    going to be the one making decisions.  The best part of it, for
    whomever that is, is they get authority without responsibility--both
    the media and politics have evolved into realms of privilege where
    being accountable for your mistakes is so rare as to be non-existent.
    Incidents like TAILWIND and the CNN/TIME story and retraction, are a
    small example of this ownership.  Enough people suddenly developed a
    spine where the media content was concerned that those involved in
    the operation even got an -apology- from CNN's CEO/President.  That's
    great, but it isn't good enough--out of us.  We need to have that
    level of ownership and feeling of responsibility consistently, because
    without it we're going to get the media and political processes we
    Copyright 1998 by Michael Wilson.  (All rights reserved.)
    Managing Partner, 7Pillars Partners
    partnersat_private   http://www.7pillars.com/

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