The other night I was watching Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series, The Newsroom, with my mother. For the uninitiated, Sorkin is the writer of many excellent TV shows (The West Wing, SportsNight) and screenplays (The Social Network, A Few Good Men), and The Newsroom is his latest attempt at making the responsibility of live television production seem heroic and sexy. Being best known for writing bold examinations of political morality, a show centered around a cable news program fighting against the corruption and frivolity inherent in television media seems like a good fit. And so far, I enjoy it.
In last week’s episode, the news team decides to step up to the plate and take-on the truth behind the hijacking of the Tea Party. The episode was rife with facts and stories that reveal the true nature of the present-day Tea Party (I should mention here that the show takes place in the summer of 2010 and thus tackles issues that were relevant during that time). I wouldn’t say anything in the episode seemed misleading or false (although one interview did seem, to me, to violate a promise in an earlier episode “not to present [stories] in an emotional context”, but that can hardly be avoided, I guess?), but the concentrated bashing of the Right hit a nerve with my mother, a socially liberal, otherwise conservative republican.
“This is bullshit. [Aaron Sorkin] said [in interviews] that this show wasn’t going to lean politically. This is totally hypocritical,” She said. Or something like that.
This led to a long and fruitless debate about whether “quality news” or even “truthful news” has to be perfectly balanced. This is tricky. Machale, the executive producer character, said herself in the previous episode “There aren’t two sides to every story. Some stories have one side, some stories have five sides”. The concept of, as FOX News puts it, “Fair and Balanced News”, is a much more complicated bargain than it first appears.
That brings me to Eli Pariser.
Eli Pariser delivered an excellent TED Talk on the subject of Filter Bubbles. It’s truly fascinating, and very much worth your time.
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For those who do *not* have the time, it’s like this:
-Personalization provides us with options that computer alghorithms calculate we “want” while filtering out things that we might “not want”. This is a great way to find movies or music that you like, for instance.
-Personalization is also applied to news, search results, and just about everything else we interact with digitally.
-What happens when the things the internet thinks we “don’t want” are actually really important and/or could change our perspective?
-A man in London and a man in New York City both google “Egypt”. one man receives news of the protests there, the other receives only travel advice.
Another way of looking at it:
-Our perception of the world is increasingly dominated and informed by entertainment media, especially through interaction with digital content.
-Entertainment is, of course, produced with the satisfaction of the viewer in mind, above all else.
-Television and Internet news and information is judged firstly by it’s entertainment value. Most people won’t consume information willfully unless it is funny/shocking/interesting. And now, with personalization, it must be all of these things as well as being “relevant to the users interests”.
It’s a brilliant talk, and much has been said about it, so I’ll move on (for now. more on filter bubbles another day!)
By this logic, one strategy of “quality news” could be to utilize entertainment value to get important information out to as many people as possible. This is the purported goal of Upworthy, an organization dedicated to spreading politically intriguing content via videos, infographics, and “pictures of cats”.
I’ve been subscribed to Upworthy’s Facebook page since I read about it on Pariser’s website a few months ago. They often post interesting statistics I was not aware of. It can be very informative. But it is, unarguably, totally liberal.
Which is fine!
I’m not one of those people who goes on and on about “liberal media bias”, or whatever. I’m liberal. I’m hip. I’ve tweeted about Occupy. I’m down with stuff!
It’s not Upworthy’s lean that I’m interested in. Obviously, an internet media startup that posts cat image macros to energize people politically is not likely to be representative of any form of The Conservative Right, reasonable or otherwise. And there’s no reason they should.
However, it was my understanding that Upworthy’s mission was to challenge my views. They haven’t. They’ve certainly posted some controversial things, and I’m more than willing to admit that they’ve shown me ideas and opinions I had not considered before. And therefore, I have nothing against Upworthy, they’re doing a fantastic job.
What frustrates me is that the hypothetical organization of my expectations doesn’t exist yet. I dream of an organization (or just an aggregator) that literally personalizes a devils advocate news feed designed to absolutely offend your sensibilities. I’m gonna work on this, brb.