Amusing Ourselves to Death: the Mueller report, TV hearings and Neil Postman

Amusing Ourselves to Death: the Mueller report, TV hearings and Neil Postman
Image result for Mueller hearing
Former special counsel Robert Mueller reviews the report before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday, July 24, 2019 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“It’s the Superbowl of things on C-SPAN at Eight-thirty in the morning.”

-Stephen Colbert


Robert Mueller and media critic Neil Postman have something in common. They are skeptical of television. Truth, for Postman, was fundamentally shaped by the medium of expression. In the old-timey age of print (i.e., Lincoln-Douglas debates), Americans thought in longer, more contemplative ways. How a society debates what is true and right, Postman claimed, is fundamentally shaped by the dominant medium of the time.

Under TV, our access to truth passes through a technicolored prism. Postman was concerned that we would lose the kind of thinking that made democracy work. TV’s flurry of sound bites and images threatened to shallow the American mind. Mueller’s testimony shows the special counsel’s own Postmanesque preference for the printed word as a means to determining truth.

What we call “watching television” is supposedly on the way out. TV viewing has declined by 3 to 4% per year since 2012, according to the Reuters Institute at Oxford. At once, our use of online video has increased dramatically. This begs the question: Have we stopped watching or do we simply access TV in different ways?

Of course, how we watch TV has changed considerably since Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death in the 1980s. TV beams from smaller screens. It’s more individual. We watch it in office jobs, on the train and on demand. But the basic practice of “watching TV” remains unchanged.  We still rely on sound bites, rapid images and visual narratives to understand the world. In many ways, TV just got small enough to come with us when we left the house.

TV in the 1980s shares at least one feature of its more mobile version today. TV always prefers to trade in spectacle. A medium focused on satisfying visual needs of passive audiences relies on spectacle. The problem for Postman and his bookish devotees is that spectacle only gets at certain truths: those that can be abbreviated and visually dramatized. Postman feared that the transition to a televisual society meant making everything “silly.” The loss of print culture, he reasoned, meant losing access to the forms of truth only available through the deliberation of reading and writing.

Which brings us back to Mueller.

The Special Cousel’s testimony revealed more about his faith in reading than the misdeeds of the president. Channeling the grumpy spirit of Postman, the Special Counsel refused to even read aloud from his own report as if the truth of the report could only reside in the printed word. Mueller referred committee members to the written work of the Special Council’s office at least 20 times. He welcomes the public to read the report, but he would not willingly act it out for television audiences.

Mueller’s stonewalling was frustratingly beautiful. He knew he was being displayed to an American audience. Predictably, partisans would try to coax out a visually anchored statement about Trump’s guilt or innocence.

mueller-hearings-july-24 2
Mueller testifying before the House hearing on the Special Counsel’s report, July 24, 2019

He was painfully aware that his questioners, particularly Democrats, wanted to move the information in the 400+ page print report to modern American television, from inert and colorless words on a page to more vivid descriptions directly from the investigators face.


Clearly the former FBI head is trained to avoid partisan warfare and would not “perform” the report for a 24-Hour news channel industry. But, Mueller’s preference for the written version of his report ran counter to the hope members of the House had for his appearance.

These attempts to spread the Mueller Report from print-based audience to television-based audience indicate how much influence the political class believes TV to possess. The plan seemed to be to televise the report targeted a non-reading public with the hope that reproducing the same information in a visual format would reanimate public discourse and foster public discussions that undermine Trump’s support among swing voters.

Camera ready Republicans and Democrats were trying to enlist television’s storytelling power. They wanted something concisely stated before a camera. They want punch.  They want the six-second sound bite. Mueller knows this, and you can hear it in every reluctant stutter of his testimony. The printed word should speak for itself.

Democrats needed to sway non-reading, politically active swing voters that have a reasonable likelihood of either voting Democrat or staying at home on election day. But the strategy also relied on a camera-friendly hearing that animated the sins of the presidency. For better or worse, Mueller’s print bias did not allow politicians to use the abbreviating power of TV.

It remains to be seen if print can still capture the American imagination or if Postman was right and the American public, atrophied by decades of spectacle politics, believes only what it sees.

An Iraqi Refugee’s Path to America

I interviewed Ali to get a sense for the kind of life Iraqis experienced after US armed forces forcibly removed Saddam Hussein from power and installed the Coalition Provisional Government. The big moments of Ali’s early life offer a glimpse into the violence and uncertainty that defined Iraq during this period.

Ali’s story paints a picture behind the headlines on American news and the history of recent US involvement in the Middle East.

The US intervened in Iraq in 2003. The Bush administration had warned Americans that Saddam Hussein possessed and planned to use weapons of mass destruction. The invasion was called Operation Iraqi Freedom. After the invasion, US forces and independent inspectors failed to find WMD, and the rationale for invading Iraq shifted. Hussein, pro-war US officials now reasoned, was a ruthless dictator who endangered his people and deprived Iraqis of basic human rights. But in the wake of Hussein’s death and the end of his Baathist regime, Iraq seemed to spiral into even greater peril. Sectarian violence erupted as suppressed tribal and religious division in the country competed for power.

Many questions still linger in discussions of US adventurism in the Middle East. The war in Afghanistan, by and large, had broad support. Al Qaeda had operated in Afghanistan to launch the attacks of September 11th. But the invasion of Iraq met greater public skepticism. WMDs were unconfirmed. Our goals for Iraq, vague. Controlling the country’s vast oil reserves seemed to be the only plausible rationale, though no American official would admit this.

Did the US intervention help the Iraqi people? What kind of country did the US help to create by removing Saddam Hussein?

Iraq population flight

In 2007, the year Ali and his family escaped Iraq, 26,078 civilians would die. Between 112,017 – 122,438 civilian died from violence by March 2013. Other estimates put the number at 174,000 deaths. Researchers at Johns Hopkins put the total number of war-related deaths at 650,000.[1] Regardless, it is clear that the removal of Saddam Hussein increased sectarianism and, according to Ali, produced a political extremism fanned by a media system no longer under Iraqi government control.

Ali’s memories of nightly bombs and gunfire, the threats to his father’s life for having worked with the Americans, Ali’s time under a false name as a refugee in Syria and Jordan and his eventual move to America in 2008 are stories worthy of a biopic. America ultimately became a place of refuge for Ali and his family, despite occasional slurs, like the time someone asked Ali felt about his Uncle Bin Laden dying. Still, America provided Ali with a safer environment and educational options. But, as an American, I can’t help wondering what role “America” had in forcing the Muksed family to flee in the first place.

At times Ali’s story is harrowing; at others it is a powerful illustration of what it means to be displaced by violence and political conflict. Above all, Ali’s is an immigrant story. And one that ends happily, by and large. Though American foreign policy may have made Ali a refugee, America also gave Ali a place to grow and improve himself through higher education. But the details of Ali’s story also raise questions about the changes in Iraqi life brought about by the $2 Trillion dollar Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Interview link


From Iraq to America, a refugee’s childhood in post-Saddam Iraq

From Iraq to America, a refugee’s childhood in post-Saddam Iraq

Here is Ian’s audio interview with Ali, an Iraqi refugee attending college in Midwestern America.

Ian spoke with Ali to better understand the experience of those living in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s removal from power in 2003. The political instability and partisan media that followed had a profound impact on Iraqi society, triggering mass migrations from conflict zones. Ali’s family was one of thousands displaced by the chaos in the wake of US intervention.

Because his father assisted US authorities after the war, Ali’s family fled sectarian violence to Syria and, eventually, the American Midwest. Ali’s early life offers a more intimate view of the conflict than the occupation captured by US news. His childhood, marked by nightly gunfire, lawlessness and migration, highlights the human costs of American wars.

From Iraq to America

Iraq population flight

The algorithms made me do it.

hate-speech- for blog
Photo credit: Martin Anderson @The Stack

Since 2016, mainstream news has fixated on technological explanations of political extremism. Article after article foregrounds technology to explain political change and, specifically, the rise of the American right. However, when we focus on technology as a cause for social change, it becomes easy to lose sight of the social world we wanted to explain in the first place. This is especially true of current debates about rightwing extremist in the US.

As violent and hateful politics in the US become more visible, the internet has also taken root as an instrument of popular communication. Given the seismic change introduced by information technologies, it makes sense to ask what role new media play in the spread of the alt-right or neo-Nazi thought. The editorial board of The New York Times recently took up this tech-as-catalyst narrative, pointing to social  media as an agent of negative social and political change. The board argued that . . .

the fundamental design of social media sometimes exacerbates the problem. It rewards loyalty to one’s own group, providing a dopamine rush of engagement that fuels platforms like Facebook and YouTube, as well as more obscure sites like Gab or Voat. The algorithms that underpin these networks also promote engaging content, in a feedback loop that, link by link, guides new audiences to toxic ideas.

There is certainly some truth that media have a role in creating group identity around ideologies, but blaming the technology for the appeal these ideas shifts attention away from more obvious spurs for social change.

Let’s break down the argument. According to the Times, impersonal agents of the network (algorithms) lead a child-like citizenry (audiences) to ideas that are not good for them or the society in which they exist (toxic). By this reasoning, removing the communication tools that link the radically-minded would undermine the spread of rightist ideologies if not rightist movements themselves. The problem is that this tech focus does not adequately account for the social anxiety that these radical beliefs seem to answer.

An analogy to online advertising helps make this point. Innumerable cookies and web trackers follow us online and collect behavioral data to create predictive consumer profiles. Thus, a woman between 16 and 34 who searches lotions for stretchmarks has a higher probability of buying, for example, prenatal vitamins. The algorithm serves the woman the “Superbaby” vitamin ad. Though she did not intend to buy the vitamins, the targeted marketing works and she puts the item in her cart. Here we see algorithms at work. But did the algorithm prompt the woman to buy the vitamins or did the technology facilitate a preexisting need? Like pregnancy, the social problems that allow extremism to make sense to online audiences similarly preexist the technology that serves it up.

This is why I argue we need to correct the technology bias in addressing the relationship between extremism and online communities. We can do so by inverting the implied causality in arguments that blame new media. Did technology lead to the rise of rightwing extremism or did rightwing extremism seek communication tools to link the like-minded into communities? The NY Times editorial board seems to believe Gab and Voat fell from technology heaven fully formed. In reality, Gab’s creator was all-too-human. Social conditions created the technology to meet a political need that preexisted the technology. If we want solutions to American radicalism, we need to pay more attention to social conditions that make extremism a legitimate option rather than the secondary question of how it gets around the internet.

The focus on tech is not without merit, but the questions social researchers take up should ask why such toxic ideologies have appeal. “The algorithm did it” is insufficient and, in fact, undermines finding clear answers. Furthermore, technological explanations for why people hold political beliefs may function as a sort of optimistic fairy-tale about the inherent goodness of the United States. Taken to a logical conclusion, technology arguments about extremism assert that if not for Facebook, Americans would be more tolerant, less anxious about change and more trusting of government. The focus on technology allows us to believe that Americans are only temporarily “off course.” American neo-Nazism is a mistake that better algorithms and artificial intelligence can correct.

This is a predictable mistake when technology dominates our search for answers to social problems. Excessive focus on a technological explanation suggests that Americans are not fundamentally xenophobic, anti-Semitic or tribal. But this may not be true. In reality, the mélange of conspiracy theories (Soros is a hidden political puppetmaster; an Islamic center is an effort to institute Sharia law in the US, etc.) stems from a sense of social powerlessness and a loss of local American communities. Technology only offers the idea. The social context makes far-fetched or conspiratorial explanations of that powerlessness attractive.

Blaming the algorithm can also function as a sort of ignorant optimism. It can become a story about an American population misled by technology run amok. But this explanation of American radicalism too quickly pushes aside obvious explanations for the growing rejection of the status quo. Middle class incomes have stagnated for decades even as US gross domestic production has grown. American wealth, in general, has become concentrated in the hands of not just the 1% but the top 0.1% of citizens. Healthcare in the US is the most costly in the developed world while for-profit insurance companies avoid taking on sick customers and pay out as little as is legally required. Racial, religious and political tensions undercut the unifying story of American society, what David Brooks called the “American Creed.” Globalization has restructured the national economy, prompting the collapse of entire communities and ways of life, leading to misdirected anger at immigrants and ethnic minorities. The focus on technology can obscure these traditional triggers for extremism and tribalism.

In short, revolutionary dissatisfaction with life in America does not need an algorithm. At best, the technological explanations illustrate how ideologies circulate according to the network logics of the commercial companies that profit from their circulation. At worst, they distract us from actual reasons such ideologies are growing. To understand why these ideas take root in the minds of people, we must focus on the lived experiences of Americans that give such “toxic” ideas traction.

Globovisión Owner Indicted for Bribery


Nasty news regarding Venezuela today.

Alejandro Andrade, a longtime associate of Chávez who rose from bodyguard to Treasurer of the Republic (2007 – 2010), admitted to accepting $1 billion dollars in bribes during his term in the latter position. At least some of that money, it seems, was laundered by the Venezuelan owner of Dominican Republic-based Banco Peravia.

Also heavily involved was Raul Gorrin, one of the owners of television station Globovisión since May 2013, who allegedly paid bribes to Andrade in order to obtain profitable currency exchange contracts. According to a newly unsealed indictment, Gorrin paid over $150 million in bribes between 2008, when he bought insurance firm Seguros La Vitalicia, and 2017.

Globovisión sign on building with satellite dish

Globovisión was a fiercely anti-Bolivarian television network prior to 2013, having played a leading role on the failed 2002 coup attempt against Chávez and later facing a long series of lawsuits and sanctions from…

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Critical Media Analysis and non-obvious interpretations

Critical Media Analysis and non-obvious interpretations

I’ve taught Critical Media Analysis (CMA) as a methods course for a few years now. Fun class. What we do, in short, is examine media “artifacts” as a way to better understand American culture and the relationship between media and society.

Students with backgrounds in literature and film studies tend to excel in the course because the method is interpretive. But CMA is more than mere interpretation. It is a critical interpretation supported by a strict methodology and preponderance of evidence. The method isn’t asking “how students feel” about a text as many low-level English courses might emphasize. CMA requires a deep familiarity with the culture that both produced the media and received it as audiences. So, CMA is critical cultural analysis using media artifacts as a means to identify collective meaning-making, the dominant ideologies that inform that process and broadly held cultural assumptions that give the “texts” power in society.

As with many undergrad courses in media, there is peril in teaching this method, particularly when setting students out to find “hidden meanings” or embedded ideologies in music, news, film and television.

A standard textbook for Critical Media Analysis from Stocchetti and Kukkonen mentions CMA’s aim of unearthing the “hidden agendas” embedded in media artifacts. But students can easily misunderstand the term hidden agendas in the age of fake news. Critical media analysis, as a method, is not simply about seeing the “bias” of news organizations or, say, the pro-Trump leanings of a Roseanne reboot. Critical media analysis aims to look beyond the surface meanings offered by media producers, directors and writers. At its best, CMA unearths the underlying assumptions and cultural beliefs that allow media to make sense to large swaths of a public. It takes time, good judgment and careful effort.

How hidden are these messages? How are they hidden? By whom are they hidden? The short answer is that these messages are not hidden by anyone. Media are unavoidably shaped by the dominant ideologies of the culture that produces and consumes media artifacts. Often, media producers will not even be aware they are buying into a given ideology as they shape narratives for the greatest possible public circulation. It is, after all, about ratings.

There are all sorts of media analyses floating in Internet backwaters that fail to meet methodological rigor. But critical media analysis is not a tool to lambaste a program for having a point of view. For example, politically conservative criticism of how the new Star Wars is actually feminist “porn” propaganda. Too much “critical” media analysis is simply pointing out obvious messages in major productions and being mad that media don’t reflect the critic’s own worldview.

Good analysis, by contrast, uses media as a way to reveal non-obvious themes or less visible ideologies that inform how we use media to make sense of the world. CMA projects seek non-obvious or latent meanings contained in media or how media rely on nearly invisible cultural assumptions on the part of audiences.

I’ll try to illustrate the difference between surface observations and deeper interpretations ideally provided by CMA by using the Batman universe. Note: I say “universe” because the Batman mythology extends across many media platforms: 1970s TV, 1980s films, 2000s films, videogames and, of course, comics. This list shows that Batman clearly has cultural resonance with American audiences and speaks to how worthwhile it is as a subject for analysis.

Batman: Obvious and Non-obvious Interpretations

An obvious interpretation of Batman is that the dark knight universe helps us see the American appreciation for justice, law and order. Gotham is a corrupt city. The mob has bribed the police and judges, so citizens can’t turn to “the law” for recourse. Injustice is rampant. The powerful prey on the weak. Gotham, as a metaphor for American cities, represents the fear that these evils (greed, muggings, mafia bosses extorting shop owners, violence against citizens, corruption) will go unpunished. Batman is the comicbook answer to these fears: overwhelming criminality and urban decay.

Looking at Batman as a media artifact, we can make the cultural observation that Batman is a symbol of righteous law and order. He is the answer to these fears.

But would any fan of Batman find this revealing? No. This is a justified but rather uninformative analysis of Batman as an expression of American culture.

A Non-obvious Batman

On the other hand, we might use a theoretical lens to highlight less obvious and even counterintuitive interpretations. For example, some have questioned the bond between Batman and Robin, highlighting the “queerness” of their relationship.


There is compelling evidence that, as a media artifacts, their relationship is ambiguous and potentially (latently) sexual in nature. With a sexuality theoretical lens, we see something non-obvious. While non-obvious to the casual media consumer, many have poked fun at the idea of latent feelings between the crime-fighting duo.

But I don’t like that interpretation, frankly. I don’t, in part, because of the way it positions gay relationships as a punchline. Doing a bit of critical analysis of these gay readings, we might find the tendency to see homosexuality in Batman’s relationship with Robin as a restrictive cultural ideology: if a man loves a man, it can’t be anything but sexual. The tendency to deny men the ability to have strong bonds without sexuality the root. As Glen Weldon points out in Slate, this reading can conflate homosocial with homosexual.

So let me offer you my own reading. Batman (as Bruce Wayne) is a hyperrich man with near infinite resources for training and advanced equipment. He comes from a wealthy, respected family with a charitable “foundation” that tries to help Gotham. He is connected to political elites and can tap into his corporation when it suits his needs. Now, who does Batman often fight? You might immediately think of Joker or Bane, but these are actually rare “boss fights.” Most of the fight sequences in comics, films and the video game are of common “criminals” or goons that surround these bosses. They are sometimes tattooed. They are muscle bound and frequently have “tough guy” accents indicative of inner city education if any at all. At times, they are clearly mentally unstable. They are either seriously unstable or desperate enough to join a gang headed by a sociopath who paints his face. Regardless of the desperation or mental illness of these anonymous goons, Batman beats them severely.

What does this reading say about Batman as a popular symbol in American culture? One underlying message: the rich can and should, without relying on a legal system, physically beat those they personally determine are threats to society. How is “the criminal” constructed in Batman? Do we ever wonder if that bloodied underling took a job guarding a warehouse so he could afford Christmas presents for his kids? Or how that underling would pay for the broken clavicle the morning after some rich guy decided he deserved punishment?


Suddenly, Batman does not seem so heroic. He is more like a puritanical autocrat who decides to take the law into his own hands and mercilessly harm (but not kill because he is a good guy) anyone in his way. Why don’t viewers have any sympathy for the poor or insane that are roped into the Joker’s plans? What does this say about the American view of “criminals” that we so readily assume Batman’s foes are inherently evil?

This new reading is non-obvious and even subverts the dominant interpretation by exposing the underlying assumption we bring to the text to make it work.

In critical media analysis, we question the media artifact to expose the “hidden” messages about the wealthy, the criminal, law and order. If I asked a casual viewer of the films whether or not Batman was actually a villain, they’d say no. The best analyses are not impositions of one’s own ideology but the exploration of the ideologies that make media popular and, thus, tell us about the culture that gives media life.

“Evil in the sight of this Sun”

“Evil in the sight of this Sun”
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement

II Samuel 12:11, Evil in the sight of this sun


Best stories in the emerging genre of Hick Lit.


Chapter 1: Strangers in a strange land

In the months before Clayton’s death, we had begun to feel safe. Even superior to the normals in town. We felt the freedom of the woods.

He died here. In the woods. Among the sticks and stones. Fell through the dark near 70 feet, we estimated. You could see the flaring burn of his cigarette lofting in an arc out over the ravine like a swooping firefly. Then a rapid, straight descent. More like a meteor shooting toward the earth. They said he was dead on impact, but Jessica had cradled his head after we all sprinted down the dark hillside dodging tree trunks in our rush. She said the paramedics were lying to us. She said she wiped the blood away and looked into his eyes.


The ravines of southern Illinois marked the end of the last ice age. Glaciers, we were told, pushed south from the poles in some achingly slow geologic process and rippled the earth in an icy advance. The effect was like corrugating the land with irregular peaks and valleys.

This history left portions of the famously flat American prairie with low-elevation but sharp-angled slopes that funneled summer rains down brush-choked hillsides into rivulets which, in turn, poured into Kickapoo Creek. Each flow paid tribute. The Kickapoo to the Embarras River. Embarras to the Wabash. Wabash to the Ohio. On to the Mississippi. The Mississippi to the far off ocean.

Every time he drank enough, Devin would get serious about building a small armada of canoes and kayaks to float the entire tributary river system to New Orleans and out into the gulf.

“Imagine it. It would be easy to mount Matt’s picnic table on sealed barrels. The barrels are out at Jesse’s farm. They are just sitting out there rusting. Jesse’s dad wouldn’t care. Make em airtight, lash em to the legs and have a communal spot for gear storage and eating together without having to go to shore.”

“A floating picnic table. How novel.” Deb seemed unimpressed.

Seven of us of sat drinking after clearing brush from some forest line. Leaf had designed an open-air shelter and enlisted us to help cut away the nettles and blackberry bushes that had overtaken the plot. We were sweat drenched and full of holes from the thorny detritus we had moved to the burn pile.

Luke laughed. “Look at Huckleberry over here,” gesturing to Devin. “Gonna find himself a N*gger Jim and light out for the territory.”

I cringed, then gritted my teeth. Luke and I had talked about that word. He was normally good about not saying it. At least when I was in ear-shot.

“Luke!” I yelled a little too loud. “Unless you are a black dude or a racist hick, don’t say shit like that. And you aren’t a black man, so . . .”

“I’m quoting literature, man. You should dig that,” he said ingratiatingly.

Devin shut us up before I could say anything else. “Focus people. It’s possible. I’ve mapped it out. We could stop for supplies every two or three days like we do at Greenup when we go down the Embarras. What was that? Like five hours?”

“Six hours in late summer. Uh . . . Four and a half in spring,” Leaf piped up, raising his hand to his eyebrows to look up at the sunny sky.

Leaf was usually quiet. When he spoke, everyone listened. The kid had retained a speech impediment into his late teens despite the public school system trying to drill it out of him for years, but that did not affect the respect everyone had for him. At least the country folks. People in town were less forgiving. He was rarely showered and had a wardrobe one would expect from a reclusive serial bomber. But Leaf lived in the country and he knew the rivers. He knew the wilderness better than most of us. Luke, Tully and Deb knew it too. I didn’t know shit. I was the cityboy they tolerated because they could tell I loved the woods. I only felt accepted after Leaf taught me to juggle the burning coals of a dying fire.

Devin went on, emboldened by Leaf. “Fuck yeah. I’m telling you guys. We could do it. It would be epic. After Greenup, we could stop in Newton. We’ve got New Liberty, The Chauncey Preserve, and Lawrenceville for stops too. Once we are on the Wabash, I’ve got a cousin in Mount Carmel. We can set up on his property for a couple of days.”

“Do you have any relatives once we are on the Mississippi?” Deb’s tone was incredulous. You could almost feel her eyes rolling in how Deb punctuated her words. She often played the skeptic when Devin got on his flights of fancy. Where Devin was loud and blunt, Deb was thoughtful and incisive. “Is every farmer gonna be happy to see a long-haired drunk like Luke wandering onto his land from the river?”

Spring Summer 2016 069

“We could find something,” Leaf said. “There’s a lot of beach along the wriver banks. And there arwe small islands where no one would bother us with plenty of driftwood for fiwres.”

“Easy,” Devin went on. “Once we get to bigger water, we could fish for food rather than having to go into town all the time.”

“We can’t fish for beers, brotha. Beers cost money.” Luke was giving the idea more thought than he had in the past. He threw the can he had just emptied into the mound of unburnable trash. An old two-by-four with the words “RECYCLE ONLY!” burn-etched was nailed to the tree nearby.

“Hell,” I said. “We could get sponsorship. Some kayak company that wants a bit of good press.” No one responded. I realized right away that had violated the spirit of the trip we were imagining. “I’m just saying we could make the trip less expensive. It’s gonna cost money.”

“Not really,” Devin said dismissively. “Sandwiches and the occasional 24-pack of Miller High Life would be our main expense. My tent and Luke’s could fit 10 people easy.”

“It’s actually my mom’s tent,” Luke added.

As evening came on, we watched the fire grow brighter. Devin took to adding to the burning brush and then taking a running leap over. Luke’s brother had mysterious, clear whiskey that smelled like nail polish remover but burst like a flame thrower when he spit mouthfuls at Devin’s fire. Leaf and I tossed smoking embers back and forth. An evening moon appeared as if hastening the sun’s departure.

Zero-rating and Network Favoritism: the beginning of the end of Network Neutrality

Zero-rating and Network Favoritism: the beginning of the end of Network Neutrality
The relationship between content providers like Disney and ISPs like Verizon will change significantly in a post-Network Neutral world. But will there be more competition?

Network Neutrality and the problem of zero-rating

Anyone note the explosion of advertising for free access to content like Spotify or Netflix? This T-Mobile ad samples TV so much it could be mistaken for a Netflix promotion. But if we look past the smiling shots of our favorite TV characters high-fiving, we see the first signs of what life on the web will be like after Network Neutrality.

It is no coincidence we see these offers in the wake of weakened Network Neutrality principles. This practice, “zero-rating,” is a clear example of what NN advocates have feared. Zero rating is the practice of creating partnerships with content providers like Netflix and making access to content from certain providers cheaper. Those who control the network get to play favorites in choosing the content flowing through their “pipes.” In short, not everyone trying to reach users/customers is treated equally.

How is this anti-competitive? Imagine we want to launch a music service to compete with Spotify. We have a good tech team that worked hard developing a friendlier user interface and faster file access for the consumer. Spotify’s deal with T-Mobile means our start-up music service, regardless of our app’s superiority, will likely fail. Why? Incumbent market advantages:

  1. Access to customers. Spotify will have a guaranteed user base in T-Moblie’s subscribers. Big user bases attract revenue from venture capital and new media investors of the Silicon Valley sort.
  2. Advertiser appeal. A high number of users (high traffic) will mean increased interest from advertisers, another revenue stream.
  3. Data sales. High traffic also provides user data. User data is valuable to marketing firms and several new industries that lurk in the shadowy world of data brokers (one broker offering a “Rape Sufferers List” for targeted marketing).

All of these factors add up to tall barriers to entry for competitors. By preferring Spotify’s content over others, network owners will effectively pick and choose winners while stifling innovative startups. And what is the likelihood that T-Mobile will allow a Spotify competitor to use the T-Mobile network?

This glimpse of a post-Network Neutral internet shows how anti-competitive the legal environment can become. It is a sharp contrast with the early (network-neutral) internet that allowed a young Netflix to challenge cable providers. Even seemingly innocuous Netflix package deals could be harbingers of a significantly less competitive industry in which consumers and startups ultimately lose.


Despite the upbeat Netflix vignettes, these growing and merging media companies are not friendly giants. Zero-rating is a first stage of dramatic changes in store for a post-NN world. Network Favoritism of this sort dampens the industry’s ability to produce innovations and removes incentives to improve customer services. Without Network Neutrality, we risk more concentration in ownership and the development of distribution-content trusts. These trusts are more likely to stifle innovation.

Internet service providers like Comcast argue they would suffer unfair market disadvantages, but Comcast’s position on NN is contorted. As T.C. Sottok noted in The Verge, Comcast’s incoherent NN policy goes something like: “We respect and abide by NN principles and that is why we want them removed.” It begs the simple question: If the company appreciates NN, why petition to change FCC rules?

Public relations speak has made Comcast’s position nonsense, but policymakers have maps for navigating these waters. Nineteenth century Americans fought the Standard Oil monopoly because trusts and monopoly violated American ideas of capitalism. Concentration led to market dysfunction and harmed the economy at large. Early in the 20th century, AT&T had bought up most of the nation’s phone networks but accepted substantial government regulation in exchange for becoming the nation’s sole telephone company. AT&T owned all the market and Americans had public interest (9-1-1, fair rates, equal access) hardwired into US telecommunications system.

Standard Oil’s J D Rockefeller was a strict, church-going man. Reporters of the era noted that he taught Bible school on Sundays, but, by Monday, he was as ruthless a business mogul as the Gilded Age could produce. Disney may have the veneer of progressive ice princesses and dancing tea sets, but the media business is, well, business.

Continue reading “Zero-rating and Network Favoritism: the beginning of the end of Network Neutrality”

Help them off the cliff: how modern Russian propaganda helps Americans hate Americans

Help them off the cliff: how modern Russian propaganda helps Americans hate Americans

Russian interference in the 2016 US election took many forms. Twitter bots, paid trolling, memes, and Facebook ad campaigns put politically charged messages in front of Americans, enflaming preexisting social divisions in the US. This paper seeks to place RT in a larger complex of the fragmentation of the American public, the role of “disruptive media” strategies and, finally, the geopolitics of US-Russian relations. By tracing the intellectual work of Kremlin political philosopher, Aleksandr Dugin, we get a clearer picture of Russian media campaigns that dominate the headlines.

There is mounting evidence that Russian efforts consciously sought to play on preexisting tensions in American civic life. Race, class, gender and sexuality, all subjects of political strife in a hyperpartisan American political system, became fodder for Russian meme-factories and a small army of covert online commenters. RT’s disruptive role also reflects the Anti-Liberalism of Dugin in his work on geopolitics and so-called Fourth Political Theory. This paper argues that RT is part of a larger strategy we call “disrupt media” and reflects the under-explored teachings of Russian political philosopher, Aleksandr Dugin.

RT criticizes NYT
RT “disruptive” role in American civic life involves casting doubt on key American institutions, including American news media.

Disrupt media refers to persuasive campaigns that play upon growing American distrust of US news as an institution of political and social life. But the strategy is not unique to Russian disinformation. For years, domestic news operations -Fox News and Brietbart- have played on the distrust of “mainstream” journalism to draw and retain viewership by cultivating distrust in American media. This paper explores how RT combines a disrupt strategy with the geopolitical thinking of “Duginism” which suggests “introduc[ing] geopolitical disorder into internal American activity, encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts” (Dugin, 2015, p. 367).

RT propaganda blacktivistSharable partisan content, regardless of its support for right or left, Democrat or Republican, left vs. far left, is best understood as an outgrowth of the information bubbles and fragmentation of the American electorate. Disrupt media, in Dugin’s model, fortifies group identity. In line with the Council of Europe’s 2017 report, we reframe this strategy of “information pollution” as a question of culture and ritual rather than simple information transmission, recognizing that “communication plays a fundamental role in representing shared beliefs” (7). RT’s campaign found success by taking advantage of the commercial foundations of the US (new) media system and forms of redistribution enabled by user sharing functions of new media platforms.

Winning elections in downstate illinois: unsolicited advice for economic progressives

Surprised by Trump’s election in 2016, pollsters have had to do some soul-searching. How could their statistical models have missed so many Trump voters? Polling organizations and pundits failed to see Trump’s populist base: the disaffected, white working class.

The narrative goes like this. These Americans felt left behind by globalization and neglected by national political elites. Where jobs are not fleeing across the border, wages were stagnant. Though wages don’t improve, financial networks like CNBC celebrate the S&P or Dow’s record-breaking highs with bells and whistles.

For the downstate Illinois voter, the economy on TV does not look like life in Charleston with its scenes of boarded up storefronts and abandoned theaters. Just as cable news  seems detached from the lived experience of small town Illinois, downstate voters grow skeptical of the wealthy political establishments in Washington and Chicago.

Wikipedia picture for Charleston. Note the brutal honesty in the visual depiction: the abandoned Will Rogers theater and boarded businesses. Photo: jrmyers – CC BY-SA 3.

Income inequality in places like Charleston can spike to levels on par with developing economies like Brazil, a country notorious for its gated communities separating the poor from the wealthy. Clearly there should be a broad public sentiment that would take to a message of income equality.

But how can progressives sell policies that address the growing divide between the haves and the have nots in political territory Trump won handily? Republicans are suspicious of so-called class warfare and easily dismiss economic agendas that would put more money in their pocket. We find, for example, more support for repealing the Estate Tax than plans to alleviate the burden of student loans, an agenda much more likely to improve the economic standing of those living.

Republican, conservative orthodoxy has a grip on the region, and knee-jerk rejection of the Democratic brand means a Democratic candidacy is all but doomed. (The Dem candidate won around 33% of the general vote in 2014). This political situation requires a candidate run as a Republican. At once, candidate X must show how arresting the growth of wealth inequality fits into the conservative traditions: equality of opportunity, individual liberty and economic growth. Since the Republican Party has a lock on downstate voters, any pro-public economic reforms need to be clearly argued from Midwestern values and spoken in a language Republicans can relate to.

Charleston is in Illinois’s Assembly District 110. Economic data show a median household income of under $30,000. Graphs of income distribution in 110th district have a significant “bulge” in the lower incomes. This means the district has a greater number of low income residents relative to the rest of Illinois.

Data also shows how many unwed mothers a candidate would represent. A candidate could emphasize a pro-children agenda. In addition to the generic appeal of a call to support mothers, candidate X could seek to expand daycare options with subsidies that can free unwed mothers to pursue degrees or careers.

Charleston median income 2017
Source: statistical atlas

If we look closely at the data, the presence of a university partly explains Charleston’s high wealth gap. Students earn little, pushing down on average incomes. Champaign, home to the University of Illinois, also has high wealth inequality (mid to low 50s).

Still, incomes are disproportionately low. As a result, this kind of unending rural recession will fail to attract new business development. And this is the beginning of a longer list of ills afflicting small towns like Charleston.

  • The Illinois fiscal crisis and partisan polarization in the House and Governor’s office has triggered furloughs among university staff.
  • Budget impasses prevent a predictable pay schedule for local contractors employed by the university.
  • Students who rely on the state funding often have their entrance to school subsidized by state schools when bipartisanism fails in the statehouse. This pushes institutions of higher education further into debt  to honor their educational mission.
  • Public services are also threatened by dysfunctional state politics as budget deadlines pass without appropriating funds for essential services.

The sum total of these tribulations is a municipal economy that ends up lurching from one emergency appropriation to another with little stability for long-term financial planning and investment.

So, a progressive economic message may have some appeal in places like Charleston, but selling this idea requires understanding the values of rural America, i.e. Trump country. And yet I can’t help thinking about what it would take to address income inequality in a deeply red district.

Core message/audience?

What can the campaign emphasize? Pro-business and pro-EIU (higher education) funding.

“If EIU thrives, so do we.”

A candidate who is business-friendly but also recognizes that the economic base of the region is EIU can argue for both greater support for higher education. EIU relies on the funding of public education. Therefore, you are “business growth through public funding.” Being pro-consumer is being pro-business.

The economic base is consumption. That means we need expendable income. So, how is the average consumer doing in the District? It does not look good. Average household income in Coles County, for example, is lousy. Median is 37,040/yr. And this is low compared to surrounding counties (also in the 110th district). Charleston is just a particularly bleak part of the county.

The more elaborate argument for this is simple economics. State funds for the university (as well as student aid programs like MAP) make stronger consumers. Greater consumption is good for current business and future business development which, in turn, funds public projects. A smart Republican can combine a pro-business platform with the ‘compassionate conservative’ respect for public programs (like DCFS and public higher education).

Now, I’m not naive. I recognize that Republicans dominate as a political brand in East Central Illinois. Since Democrats don’t have much of an operation, there might be a place for a moderate Republican to capture what would be Democratic voters (and hope they vote in Republican primaries).

The key fight is in the primary. Jockeying for position might push the campaign to focus on conservative planks. Taxes, guns, and economic growth, I imagine. The trick is selling public funding of EIU to help boost salaries and business development. Maybe even shifting the state tax burden more to Chicago-level incomes.


Stump speech excerpt:

“Look at our median income. It is unacceptably low. Why does Charleston pay for Chicago’s prosperity? We need policies that support downstate businesses, downstate communities, downstate mothers and the educational opportunities for the next generation to thrive.”

An inconvenient truth for a Republican: the Gini coefficient

Data can point a campaign in the right direction, but it is not always good for partisan politics. Republicans may not like the issue, but I believe the pressing political problem in Charleston and the surrounding regions is income inequality.

Basic data shows Charleston has one of the worst wealth gaps in the state and, perhaps, nation. The poor are very poor and the rich are very rich.

The problem with this kind of chasm between economic groups is about more than the loss of social cohesion and problems of poverty in general. There is an economic reason to fear weakening consumer power. Middle class shrinkage pulls money from the economy by cinching the belt on those who spend the most.

The economics term for the divide between rich and poor is the Gini coefficient. To offer some perspective, Mexico is at 47. Brazil, the highest concentration of wealth, is at 61. Charleston is at 54. Some economists argue that revolution is probable at around 60 or higher. These are key data points that can rebrand a Republican as both pro-business and concerned about sustainable economic growth.

Stump speech excerpt:

“Charleston should not rank with Third World economies when it comes to the welfare of our people. Policies that empower our middle class will increase our paychecks and drive growth from the bottom up. Illinois citizens deserve better than Third World economics from Chicago.”

I believe there is a place for moderate Republicans in Illinois. Too often, Republicans sell corporate tax cuts as “relief” for the middle class. But we can no longer endure politicians who sell the myth of a classless society and ignore the ills of the growing wealth gap: a tearing of the American social fabric and continued political polarization.

Rural Americans are entitled to feel cheated by a system that has been oversold by rhetorics of free trade, deregulation and competition. A clear message about good paychecks to those who spur production is crucial. Progressive policies put more money in the hands of those who buy then spur production. That creates jobs. A clear and direct appeal to economic security.

Regardless, the current trajectory is not sustainable for places like Charleston. The middle class floats on a bloated raft of credit card debt while the poor slide deeper into deprivation. The need for change in these communities is clear. Gracefully, framing issues of wealth inequality, a bold candidate can lead on these issues and make Republicans a pro-middle class party.