Here comes… Clay Shirky, smart-phone evangelist, to Beijing

The good feelings were so thick they were dripping from the walls. The location was a cozy lecture room where Clay Shirky, according to the introduction by An Important Person from Columbia University “one of the savviest” commentators on the internet’s influence on society, recently explained why Xiaomi, roughly China’s Apple, is “more than just another phone company.”

How to account for the warm fuzziness of the gathering, given these times of neoliberal despair? Not to mention the brisk autumn weather outside the Columbia Global Center in Beijing. A look around the room provided some clues.

As might be expected for a talk like this at a distinguished academic center located in the middle of Beijing’s technology hub, looking back at Shirky were overwhelmingly young Chinese: well-dressed, likely equipped with a fancy degree from an even fancier college (think Columbia), and with a latest model smart phone at the ready, quite possibly courtesy of Xiaomi.

Shirky’s story of the meteoric rise of Xiaomi, a company founded only about five years ago, thus played well with the tech-savvy, connected audience, not to mention that Shirky’s tale stroked Chinese nationalist pride.

It is not just that Xiaomi’s hardware is “remarkable,” said Shirky. To him, Xiaomi’s innovative and initially risky ways of doing business – and here we are getting to the crux of the matter – provide evidence of smart phones’ many benefits, which are spreading their benevolent effects throughout societies across the globe.

Shirky did not quite put it like that. But it was the overall sense one got from his talk and jived well with his earlier writings, including Here Comes Everybody.

According to Shirky Xiaomi is a special company because it relies on open source software, has no retail outlets but depends on e-commerce, and uses social media for much of its advertising. Xiaomi truly cares about its relationship with its users, averred Shirky: it has not outsourced its helpdesk, unlike many other big companies, and asks customers which features they want on their phone. Xiaomi, in short, is unusually responsive to customers’ wishes by virtue of an elaborate feedback loop.

A cynic might comment, said Shirky, that now that the company made it big it will not care about its users anymore – or only just a little. To put it differently, now that users with their free labor have helped make the company big, it has not need for them anymore.

Shirky disagreed. His evidence consisted of a digital note from the company publically thanking the first hundred users who had agreed to upload Xiaomi’s first operating system at the risk of wrecking their phone.

That’s hardly compelling proof. Indeed, the note reproduced on the power point slide said what Shirky said it said. But words are cheap, especially digital ones. There is a term for such a message: public relations.

Shirky’s happy vantage point from which he tells the story of Xiaomi is so limited that it distorts. In an age of mass online surveillance, rampant commercialism, economic crises, social unrest and towering inequality – not to mention the continuing dreadful media coverage despite (because?) the internet – why tell the story of  a design company and the supposedly great relationships it has built with its customers?

Why ignore the crucial issue that, despite Xiaomi’s undoubtedly real responsiveness to customers, the power relations are still very unequal? They are the company, you are an individual, unorganized consumer. You depend on them, need them, they do not depend on you. If they say no, you have no recourse, no matter how justified you are in whatever your complaint is.

Why only mention as a side note that Xiaomi is “obsessive about controlling costs”? One shudders to think what this means for the people who actually manufacture the phones that Shirky himself loves so much. In fact, as Shirky again offhandedly mentions in the short book on which his talk was based, some of Xiaomi’s phones are made by Foxxcon, a company notorious for treating workers badly.

There are two huge problems with Shirky’s talk and book. One is that he overestimates the importance of technology, in this case smart phones, in bringing about positive changes in societies. Let’s remember that the American middle class had it much better in the seventies, before the internet age, than it does now. Journalism collapsed in the US in part because of the internet, which also did nothing to stop Washington making illegal war in Iraq. And then there was the 2008 financial crisis. (To be fair, he did apologize to his audience for that one.)

The second problem is that he underestimates the nefarious influence of commercialism. To him, Xiaomi is simply “in the business of giving people what they want.” The assumption seems to be that if only companies could be truly free, they would make all of us extremely happy. A more sensible starting point would be that making money and providing useful and accurate information don’t mix well. It’s the main reason why US journalism is so flawed.

To be fair again, Shirky was mainly talking about smart phones, not information, but he does believe that smart phones are a source of freedom. Still, if the free-market model truly works well, then why are Americans not much better off than they are?

While listening to Shirky’s conversational, clear and smooth talk, I realized that his popularity in part stems from bringing the right kind of upbeat, pro-private business message to the right kind of audience. Additionally, Shirky knows how to tell a story and turn a phrase. For instance, this is how he explains what Shanghai is like to his friends back in New York City: “Imagine New York, but busy and crowded.”

It’s too bad he doesn’t use his talents to tell a different story.

Who’s afraid of non-western propaganda channels?

The recent revelations about editors at the British Telegraph newspaper pandering to the interests of advertisers once again demonstrate the commercial limits to freedom of the press in the west. The good news is that the rise of non-western news channels has the potential to alleviate the western media’s weakness.

Western journalists, media critics and officials frequently lambast non-western, state-sponsored news channels like the Russian RT for distorting the truth in the interests of their financial backers. Fair enough. Yet such channels also serve a valuable, often-overlooked function. They provide reporting and perspectives on the west that its commercial media do not.

American Secretary of State John Kerry has denounced RT as a “propaganda bullhorn” that “has been deployed to promote President Putin’s fantasy about what is playing out on the ground in Ukraine.” There is indeed strong evidence that RT’s editorial line bends toward the Kremlin. RT anchor Liz Wahl resigned in protest against her channel’s pro-Russian coverage of the unrest in the former soviet republic. Another RT anchor, Abby Martin, also protested on air but did not quit her job.

But occasionally RT reports truths that are absent in mainstream western journalism. For example, western outlets have consistently heralded the Maidan Square protesters, who ousted Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych in 2014, as opponents of corruption and supporters of freedom. By contrast, RT has emphasized the role that pro-fascist groups have played in the Ukrainian revolution and how they have been tolerated, if not supported, by western governments. RT’s coverage was also more likely to highlight the grievances of Ukrainians in the east.

Neither the western nor non-western journalistic story is complete, but RT’s existence provides western news consumers with a fuller picture of the events in Ukraine.

In short, the appeal of non-western propaganda channels is that they ameliorate structural weaknesses of the western media, like an over-reliance on official western sources. The failed western coverage of the war in Iraq provides only one, though jarring, example.

Western officials of course view the challenges to their hegemony over global news as a threat to their ability to mold public opinion. In the aftermath of 9/11, then US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, derided Al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite broadcaster funded by Qatar, for its “pattern of playing Taliban propaganda over and over and over again.” Senator Richard Lugar denounced the Latin-American Telesur as aiming “to spread [Venezuelan] President Chávez’s authoritarian propaganda.”

Such fears have grown especially acute after foreign news networks set up English-language channels, thereby directly challenging elite control of western public opinion. RT is perhaps the most prominent example, but the list includes Al Jazeera English, TeleSur English, Iran’s PressTV, and China’s CCTV America.

These outlets have not just been derided. Some have met concerted resistance from pressure groups who oppose their entry into western markets. For example, Honest Reporting Canada has filed complaints with Canada’s media regulator, expressing the fear that Al Jazeera would undermine political support for Israel.

In the US, the greatest barrier to entry has been the disinterest of major commercial distributors. Al Jazeera America had such a hard time entering the US market that the network ultimately decided to buy Al Gore’s Current TV, solely for its distribution agreements with companies like Time Warner Cable.

Western audiences are warming to the different perspectives now available. While major US cable news networks have hemorrhaged viewers, foreign channels have grown their audiences and gained entry to more US markets. They also attract significant attention online.

RT’s online popularity has outstripped many Western media operations. It boasts over 2 billion total YouTube views and 1,496,784 subscribers, dwarfing The New York Times’ 489,476. In 2012, RT captured 8.5 percent of the top five Youtube news videos, compared to Fox at 3.5 and the BBC at 3.1. The Ukraine conflict raised the number of viewers even higher.

Americans are watching. Thirty percent of Youtube viewers and 50 percent of RT’s website traffic came from the US in 2012. RT’s success goes beyond new media as well. In Washington DC, RT’s cable channel attracts 13 times more viewers than Deutsche Welle.

RT is the most watched foreign news channel in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, LA, and Washington DC.  Moreover, RT’s viewers are relatively influential. They are often male college graduates between 35 and 49, and: “most viewers are business owners, entrepreneurs, managers, or government officials.”

The appeal stems in part from a crisis of confidence in commercial news. Many western viewers have become disaffected with their own media. They realize that channels backed by non-western governments offer value by creating space for critical journalism and providing a platform for activist and dissident voices.

Rather than demonizing or blocking outlets like RT, Al Jazeera, and Telesur, we should engage their perspectives. If their facts are wrong, we should counter with better information. If their arguments are illogical, we should counter with higher sense. Of course, adopting more speech as a solution for wrong speech ultimately requires that we trust the public to be able to come to sound conclusions about important matters.

Foreign news channels are here to stay. We can respond with derision and suppression, or we can renew our democratic commitment to sound journalism and widespread media literacy. By choosing the latter, such channels might end up enriching our democracy — even if that is far from the intention of their owners.

(with Ian K. Davis and Rich Potter)

US reporter Kevin Sites trashes war coverage, corporate censorship

When the experienced, award-winning reporter Kevin Sites visits war zones these days, he needs to rely even more on his own wits than ever before. Sites, who used to work as a staffer for leading American news organizations, including ABC and CNN, gave up job security for the uncertain life of a freelancer.

Sites is now responsible for buying his own equipment and sometimes even the expensive war reporter’s insurance. He often has to worry where his next paycheck is coming from. “You have to be a businessman too,” he said on Wednesday, May 6, during a talk attended by dozens of students and scholars at Renmin University of China, in Beijing.

Sites said he prefers being a freelancer to full time employment, because that way he retains more control over his work.

His career trajectory illustrates a sad truth about the current state of American journalism: the corporate straight jacket that restrains reporters, especially those working for leading news organizations. “I have had a lot of conflicts with my employers. I get fired a lot,” Sites said, with a wry laugh.

Sites recounted how editors at NBC censored a number of his Iraq stories. As a reporter, his freedom to call it as he saw it was limited. “The [American] government does not tell me what to do [but] my company has,” said Sites.

An audience member pressed Sites repeatedly for details about the censored stories. But the author of several books about war, and currently a journalism professor at the University of Hong Kong, did not talk specifics, which are nonetheless all over the web.

Media scholars and activists have panned the US media’s coverage of the war in Iraq, arguing that it often uncritically relied on White House sources, and ended up providing the ideological cover for an illegal invasion and occupation, which have cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

His frequent conflicts with editors were a major reason for Sites to strike out on his own. He seemed to regret the instances of corporate censorship and self-censorship that he was involved in, and repeatedly made it clear that he often felt constrained by the demands of the organizations he worked for.

Journalists’ first obligation, including in China, is to the truth, he reminded the audience.

Sites trashed the war reporting by the American media. Editors “go crazy” over footage of actual battles, he said, but his visits to war zones all over the world have taught him a very different lesson about the nature of war.

War is not about combat, he said. He called combat the “smallest” although a “dramatic” part of war. The essence of war, he argued, is civil destruction, because always more civilians than soldiers die, and because of the devastating, long-term consequences for ordinary people.

The mainstream media focus on surface events, but according to Sites context is essential for forming a complete picture of war. Much news does not help people understand war, he said.

Thus, as a freelancer for Yahoo, he set out to “put a human face on global conflict.” He wanted to refrain from “headline chasing” and tell the “small stories.” Said Sites, “No one was doing the untold stories [of] normal people in war.”

Stories of his year-long travels were featured on the website In The Hot Zone. It got many visitors, according to Sites, but made no money.

Sites touted the possibilities for comprehensive reporting on the internet. He urged journalism students to use all available mediums to paint a complete picture of the world. Working for TV he called a one-way-street, while he referred to the internet as a two-way-street.

Sites might not cover many more wars. He said that he is getting too old for the intensive work of a war correspondent. His last trip to a battle zone was physically tough on him. Another reason for him to stay home more often, he said, is that he got married again, after having “gone through a few divorces” because of his job. There was that wry laugh again.

Yet Sites seemed to have no regrets about his career. All he ever wanted to be was a war reporter, he said. Then he corrected himself: “It’s the next best thing to being a professional basketball player.”