BroadSnark

Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, anarchist, atheist who likes the letter A
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Ciao Newsrooms. I Won’t Miss You.

July 07, 2011 By: Mel Category: Change

Chris Hedges recently wrote one of those sad obituaries for newsrooms. He longs for the old timey orgs like in All the President’s Men. But I’m not buying all the chicken little stuff when it comes to news. I don’t think the death of newsrooms is such a tragedy. And I’m not just saying that because I don’t care for the “fraternity.”*

First of all, as he admits in the article, the mainstream news orgs haven’t exactly been bastions of accurate information or checks on power. And the more professionalized journalists have gotten, the more they have served the interests of other elites. Today’s ivy league, journalism/public relations, grad degree douches are a far cry from George Seldes picking up info at his corner bar.

Speaking of George Seldes. Back in the 1920s, he quit his newspaper job and went freelance because the papers weren’t any better back then than they are now. He had to turn to book writing in order to get the information out there that his editors wouldn’t release. Sound familiar? Maybe those big newsrooms Hedges laments losing never served our interests?

It is true that “newspapers sustained writers.” As someone who writes and who occasionally thinks it would be nice to not have a day job, I sympathize with how difficult it is to earn a living. But I also have very mixed emotions about getting paid for writing. The truth is that I sometimes feel like I should pay you. Seriously, some of your comments are as long as any post I ever wrote. I don’t write this blog because I think I am some kind of author(ity). I write this blog because I want to think out loud. I want to share my experiences and hear about yours. I want to have a conversation.

Should people really be paid for having an opinion? Everyone has an opinion and everyone’s opinion is important. Why should Maureen Dowd or Matthew Yglesias to get paid for their thoughts? What makes them so special? Their analysis is usually downright sad next to most of yours. And if we professionalize opinionating, where does that leave us? Maybe it is not the loss of newsrooms that is responsible for a “decline in public discourse.” Maybe it is that we abdicated our public discussion to talking heads, ivy league brats, politicians, and celebrities.

And yes, Hedges is right that the internet can be an “ideological ghetto.” But it is also very easy to get out of your ghetto. And the internet gives me a chance to challenge the ideas and information that I come across. As far as I’m concerned, the free for all and direct challenges of the internet are a better check on false information than the professional news orgs have been.

What about that “culture and ethic” that Hedges says we are losing? Doesn’t that insinuate that only reporters are capable of thinking critically, verifying facts, or having ethics? Shouldn’t we all be thinking critically? Why are we creating some special class of people who have been trained to evaluate information? Why aren’t we concerning ourselves with how all of us can up our ability to weed out the bullshit?

As to the idea that “newspapers took us into parts of the city or the world we would never otherwise have seen or visited” - Did they? Do they? Should they? We have virtually no local news in DC. I live in the capital of the mother fucking USA. It is a city where a third of adults are functionally illiterate. We have the worst infant mortality rates in the country. We have the highest AIDs rate in the country. Unemployment in some wards is 20%. But you hardly ever read about that.

You know what though. There is not one legitimate reason why a person living in Dupont needs to read about all that in a damn newspaper. I don’t need a journalist to show me what being poor and forgotten is like. I can just hop a metro a few minutes from my house and be surrounded by poverty. I don’t need a reporter and some newsprint to stand between me and what is going on. I can just go out and talk to my damn neighbors. Novel idea, eh?

And the same goes for worldwide issues. Maybe I can’t go all over the world. But I don’t really need a reporter standing between me and news from other places either. When reporters are only going to war zones as embedded journalists, what is that really telling us? Aren’t we better off focusing on getting people access to equipment and distribution mechanisms that will allow them to tell their own stories?

Hedges talks about how newspapers sent photographers out to get shots of what was going on. But do we really need photographers if we have camera phones? A newspaper photographer can’t be everywhere at once, but we can. It isn’t professional photographers that blow shit open anymore. It is amateur cameras like the one that caught the Rodley King beating. It is citizens armed with technology by orgs like Witness. I’ll take a citizen with the balls to hold their SIM card in their mouth and get the video on YouTube over a professional newspaper photographer any day.

I realize that journalism is more than just opinionating or snapping photos. I realize that investigations take a lot of time. But I don’t think the newsroom model is the only way to accomplish that. I don’t think it is the best way to accomplish that. I am not going to miss newsrooms. But I do think that we all need to think seriously about how we gather, analyze, and distribute information. And we have to be thinking about the conflict between the need for information to be free and the need for people who gather information to pay their rent.

So you all ponder that a bit. I’ve got a follow-up post going for next week. We can continue the conversation then.

__________

*A fraternity (Latin frater : “brother”) is a brotherhood, though the term sometimes connotes a distinct or formal organization and a secret society. via Wikipedia.

 

The Limits of Blogging

September 16, 2010 By: Mel Category: Change

I set up my first blog in a couple of minutes. It was mostly to keep people updated on our marathon trip through Latin America (all ten people who were interested).  Eventually, the travel blogging died out and made way for BroadSnark.  Finally, I had somewhere to write down all those conversations that usually only happened in my head.  (O.k., sometimes they happened with me talking to myself out loud or to some poor soul cornered at a bar.)

When I clicked on the stats one day and saw hundreds of hits from Iran, it made it seem like I could reach the whole world on the internet.  It made it seem like the whole world could reach me.  And it felt so accessible.  I didn’t need to submit to some editor and wait for the powers-that-be to approve.

The internet has opened up the world to anyone with a computer, a bit of time, and the ability to read and write.  Unfortunately, it’s easy to forget just what a small percentage of the world that is.

If you ever looked at your blog readership stats and wondered why there are almost no hits from Africa, it is because only about 9% of Africans use the internet.  Worldwide, only about 25% of us are using the internet.  If you are reading this from your home computer, you are part of a small and relatively privileged minority.

I have a 36 hour a week job.  I work at a desk where I can check my emails, make notes, get on twitter. I don’t need a second job anymore.  I’m not going to school anymore.  I have no kids, no aging parent that needs care, and a bfriend who pulls his weight around the house.  I have time that few people I know have.  When is someone with two kids and three jobs going to blog?  Never.

And what about all the people in the world who are illiterate?  The definition of literacy changes and is notoriously hard to measure.  (Just what is a functional level of literacy in the United States?  How about in Guatemala?)  But UNESCO “estimates that 771 million people—one-fifth of world’s adult population—do not know how to read or write; women make up two-thirds of this number.”

While blogging is nice, it is limited.  We all need to get out from behind the computer sometimes.  So let me go do that.

Why the Legal System Does Not Work For You

March 26, 2010 By: Mel Category: Misc

On Monday I wrote about how car contracts work and how people end up getting screwed.  The logical question, and the one that started this all, is why doesn’t the legal system work for you?  And the answer is…it isn’t meant to.

Who writes the laws?  Legislators.  Who are the legislators?  They are wealthier than you.  They have more powerful friends and relatives.  And, most importantly, they have a steady stream of lobbyists at their doorstep.  Ford Motor Credit Company, for example, spent $7,230,000 on lobbying in 2009.  What are the chances, do you think, that those lobbyists have no effect on what the law says?

Who interprets the laws?  You may think that it is the judge who interprets the law, but that is not exactly true.  Judges are incredibly conservative.  They would much rather be shown a pile of precedent so that they can just follow those that came before them.  Some judges would like to use more judicial discretion, to consider what is fair, but that has become near impossible in a climate where everyone screams about “activist judges.”

A judge who may want to allow someone to file bankruptcy, ignoring a technicality of the law, will feel compelled to go against their better judgment.  Criminal judges have been restricted by mandatory minimum sentencing requirements.  Over and over judges will tell you that their hands are tied by the law.

I don’t want to make judges out to be hapless victims in all of this.  One of the reasons that judicial discretion was challenged was because some judges were not being impartial.  The person who wrote the legislation that led to horrible mandatory minimum sentences was, he says, attempting to address racial discrimination related to who got out on bail and who didn’t.

Another problem with judges is that their positions have been politicized.  Many judges have to run for their office.  How knowledgeable about a judge’s history of rulings do you think the average voter is? And running for office means raising money.  Judges raise a lot of money from people who may later appear before them in court.  The other party may not even know about the relationship.  And even if they do know, it is not necessarily grounds for recusal.  (Justice at Stake is a good resource on judge related issues.)

And if you think you can avoid the perils of bad judges with a jury, think again.  The judge will determine what a jury gets to see and hear, if you get a jury at all.  Contrary to what you may believe from watching television.  You do not always have a right to a jury trial.  The right to a jury trial extends to criminal proceedings and civil cases in federal court.  Since many cases (all the car contract cases I was referring to in my previous post) are in state court, it will be governed by state rules.  What’s more, contracts typically contain language waiving your right to a jury trial.  They may even have language waiving your right to a trial period.  Check your credit card fine print.  Bet you have a provision requiring arbitration for disputes.

And you don’t have a right to an attorney either.  You have the right to hire an attorney.  If you cannot afford an attorney, and it is not a case that involves possible jail time, you have few options.  You can put your name on a list and hope that you will be one of the lucky few to get legal aid.  Otherwise, sucks for you.  (More on that issue at the website for Civil Right to Counsel.)  And even if you do get an attorney, what kind of attorney will you get.  A bad attorney might be worse than no attorney at all.

If you have a bad attorney, one who is having a mental breakdown, you might end up convicted of a felony when you didn’t actually commit one.  You might find yourself on death row, even though your attorney slept through the trial. If you have a good attorney, on the other hand, there is a very good chance things will settle out of court and with a result far more to your liking.  One of the trial attorneys I worked for had such a killer reputation that she almost never had to go to court.  Nobody wanted to go up against her.

The attorney ends up being key.  Because in a system that is focused on intricacies of overly complex laws and voluminous libraries of precedent, the person who best understands how to manipulate those laws and precedents to their advantage wins.  The law then becomes less about justice and more about wit.  And wit is expensive – Johnny Cochran made $500 an hour.  Joe Shmo probably pulls in $200.  Of course, their paralegal charges you an hourly rate and so does the associate attorney doing research.  And let’s not forget the office full of legal secretaries and other staff that are navigating the ins and outs of procedural rules – from when to file your pleadings to what color ink you need to use to sign.

It is not completely outside the realm of possibility that a lay person would be able to figure out the law and outsmart an attorney.  But they would have to have a hell of a lot of time on their hands.  And they would have to have some basic skills in reading and research.  22% of U.S. adults don’t even meet basic literacy levels.  And the poorer someone is, the more likely they are functionally illiterate.  Add to that the general financial illiteracy of the vast majority of adults.  What chance do they have?

One of the fundamental principles of the legal system is equality before the law.  It sounds good in theory, but in practice it doesn’t exist.  In those car contract cases, when you treat a lone defendant as equals with the plaintiff – a corporation which probably helped write the law, has the best lobbyists money can buy, employs hundreds of attorneys, and donates to the judges reelection fund -it’s a joke.  Treating them equal is actually anything but.

And now we arrive at personal responsibility.  I’ve managed to live without ever signing a car contract.  It is true that other people could too.  It’s true that some of the people who defaulted on their contracts just wanted a shiny new thing and didn’t really consider whether or not they could afford it.  But it is also true that many of those people just hit unexpected hard times and had the misfortune of living in a city with one of the worst public transportation systems.  And many of the people who get all high and mighty about personal responsibility don’t have any better understanding of financial instruments or the law.  They just have enough money not to suffer for their lack of knowledge.

More importantly, the real lack of personal responsibility is within the system itself.  The purchaser of a car is responsible for their actions on the day they sign that contract, but the salesman isn’t.  He’s protected by the magic of limited liability and faceless bureaucracy.  His neighbors will not shame him if he is irresponsible in his sales.  None of the people who work at the car company or the finance company or the courthouse are going to have to face the friends and neighbors of the person who gets steamrolled by the process.  None of them have any personal responsibility.

So what do I think?  I think, first and foremost, we have too many damn laws.  I think we should get rid of the vast majority of them.  As I’ve said before, we need to stop the knee jerk law passing every time something seems wrong.  Maybe something does need to be done, but it doesn’t have to mean passing a law.

I think a person should always have a right to a jury trial – something that is only practical if we don’t have so many damn laws.  Contracts should be verbal, as well as written, and video taped so that we can see exactly what the understanding of all parties was.  Precedent should be, if anything, a vague guideline and not a noose.  People who cry “judicial activism” should be made to suffer a Kafkaesque year of actually experiencing the legal system.

We need a massive grassroots effort to improve literacy (including financial literacy).  Conflict resolution should be the number one priority in education (yup, even before literacy).  People who screw people over by using their cleverness, whether in manipulating the law or inventing “creative” financial instruments, should be shunned for the anti-social deviants they are.  And we should all absolutely refuse to accept any more specialized language, specialized knowledge, and intentionally confusing bullshit from anyone.  Ever.

If it’s inaccessible, it should be unacceptable.

Finally, I tried to come up with a more widely palatable answer or short term solutions to the political/corporate clusterfuck where all these terrible laws come from.  But I just can’t.  The only solution is to take things into our own hands and stop giving our power away to those people.  So long as we keep thinking that the next politician will be better, we’ll keep having monstrous laws passed that nobody reads, much less understands.