The Mubarak government shut off all Internet access in the country early Friday morning (shut down made possible because of single Internet provider in Egypt unlike most countries). By Saturday, unconfirmed reports had some Internet transmission restored, although cell phone service is still out.
Like the images of protesters riding jubiliantly on tanks, the return of Internet and cell phone service could be a sign that powers within the government are siding with the populist uprising. With incredible pressure on Mubarak to resign, the world is watching to see how a power vaccuum may be filled. Transition government until national elections can be held? Will the people prevail pushing Egypt to emerge as a more democratic republic? Will radical fundamentalists seize power? How will the uprisings continue to spread throughout the Arab world?
Watching the massive protests in Egypt live on Al Jazeera English is fascinating but disconcerting. By all accounts a genuine ground-swell of protest, with no identifiable leader.
What will be the outcome of this tsunami of disenchantment?
Like Tunisia, where the government of President/dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben-ali was toppled two weeks ago, the insurrection seems to fueled by the economic and social discontent of young people.
And like the protests in Iran in 2009 over that country's rigged national election, social media has been a galvanizing force, even as the besieged leaders have tried to "turn off" Internet access and cell phone transmission. The images and the stories inevitably get out, and take on even greater meaning.
In Iran, the jubilant, youthful energy of the "Green party" protesters in 2009 did not lead to regime change. Indeed, "President'"Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to be recognized as the legitimate head of state nearly two years after the highly dubious elections. Will the apparent success of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings provide a new spark to the young populists in Iran?
And, what of the upheaval in Lebanon and Yemen? Will all this popular discontent lead to greater freedoms or provide an opportunity of instability for new fanatical regimes to seize power?
The world is watching. And thousands of on-the-spot images from cell phone cameras and other forms of citizen social media provide not only a fascinating window into the chaos but a galvanizing force as well.
The continuing controversy over the community activist group ACORN is either a non-news event created (or at least stoked) by Fox News and conservative talk radio, or a national scandal that shows how mainstream media ignores news that's inconvenient to their entrenched biases.
It all depends on the which media archetypes you subscribe to. That is, what story line you buy into.
Western mass media have long embraced the role of watchdog for the "little guy" against abuses of power and proudly adopted the moniker, "The Fourth Estate" (a term apparently coined by Thomas Carlyle in the 19th Century to refer to the check that media provided against abuses of power by the three vestiges of power in England: the clergy, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. It works as well in American parlance to the watchdog role media provide against corruption in government, manifested by the three branches of the Federal Government -- or, more broadly, against corruption by the powerful: politicians, corporations and the wealthy.)
But the distinction within that last part of the previous parenthetical reference is important -- some want their watchdogs to be watching out for abuses by a menacing and over-reaching Federal government, and others most want protection from rich and powerful interests manifested by "evil corporations" and "the wealthy.'
Mainstream media in America (network news, newspapers and news magazines) have largely adopted the broadest definition of power abuse to stand guard against -- government AND corporations and the rich. Within this archetypal framework, media begin by viewing corporations and the wealthy suspiciously, until proven otherwise, while public interest groups, charities and other non-profits are viewed from a favorable starting point, until proven otherwise. Perhaps that tilt is required to be fair and balanced, if you assume that the voices of corporate and moneyed interests generally are louder than the voice of "the little guy."
Nevertheless, it is the pervasiveness of this bias in "mainstream" American media that created the opportunity for conservative radio hosts and Fox News commentators to find a large audience who don't want a liberal filter on their news. (Plenty of them want to listen only to right-wing boosterism, but you have to believe a whole lot of people just want it "straight.")
But what's really interesting about the ACORN flap is going largely unreported, even on the Poynter Online, a fantastic source of journalistic self-critique and introspection. (The only item I could find on Poynter was this rather self-righteous explanation from the Austin American-Statesman about why it had been so late in covering the ACORN controversy.)
What's really interesting is how the ACORN stings demonstrate the sudden rise in influence of a new "Fifth Estate" -- largely unfunded citizen journalists with the self-appointed mission to report news from their own perspective, and often, to dramatize what they see as bias or blindness in traditional media.
Anyone with a cell phone camera is a potential cit-j, sometimes augmenting traditional news sources in important ways. for example, on-the-scene reports from Iran's citizen-journalist dissenters have helped keep world attention on Iraq's rigged elections, long after that country's crackdown on traditional media reports. But cit-j's are also stepping forward in this country to cover "news" that isn't covered in mainstream media. The videos that have brought national scandal to ACORN were not elaborate or particularly well produced. And they cost next to nothing. In an age of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, it no longer takes the resources of a major news organization to reach an audience of millions.
Of course, members of the "Fifth Estate" by and large didn't go to journalism school and have no editor looking over their shoulders making sure that information they report is well-researched and truthful. And that raises a new challenge for the Fourth Estate -- to provide a check back on information put out by the Cit-j's, without automatically discounting its value and assuming that if it was dug up and disseminated by amateurs it isn't worthy of reporting in the mainstream.
A couple of interesting pieces in the WSJ this week provide some useful perspective to social media mania.
In The New-Media Crisis of 1949, Terry Teachout, takes a look at the havoc new media is wrecking on today's traditional media -- including television programming, the music industry, as well of course as newspapers. And he compares that with the mortal blow television struck on radio. Lest we forget: "Video killed the radio star." The lesson from Teachout (is that really his name?) is that those who don't adapt to the new media will be made irrelevant. But those whose skills can be adapted to the new media will continue to shine, some brighter than before.
Resisting change is futile, he says.
Americans of all ages embraced TV unhesitatingly. They felt no loyalty to network radio, the medium that had entertained and informed them for a quarter-century. When something came along that they deemed superior, they switched off their radios without a second thought. That's the biggest lesson taught by the new-media crisis of 1949. Nostalgia, like guilt, is a rope that wears thin.
I don't give a hoot that you are "having a busy Monday," your child "took 30 minutes to brush his teeth," your dog "just ate an ant trap" or you want to "save the piglets." And I really, really don't care which Addams Family member you most resemble. (I could have told you the answer before you took the quiz on Facebook.)
Too much annoying detail can poison your opinion of friends and, especially, casual acquaintances. And she opines that quick responses can be dangerous to relationships at times, when a cooler, more thoughtful response might be better.
I wrote earlier this summer that Twitter was "growing up" providing useful insight and access to information from on-the-spot citizen reporting. But there is still plenty of room for restraint. Wouldn't it be great if we were spared all the stupid, boring Tweets from even the trusted-to-be-newsworthy people we follow?
I continue to promise to Tweet only when I have something to say. Followers will be spared details of my breakfast this morning (cold cereal and a banana for those hanging breathlessly -- NOT! -- on worthless detail).
Repressive official forces in Iran, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei put a stop to wide-spread protests of disputed official results of the country's presidential election. It appears a 10-day cooling off period is being enforced, after which reform-minded protesters may have sufficiently lost momentum to prevent substantial opposition being voiced to the clerical regime.
In the meantime, officials in Iran have shut down Facebook use and cell phone texting transmission, and confiscated cell phones protesters have used to capture and post video of the protests and police brutality in suppressing them.
Incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has long used social media himself, as noted in my post here in 2007. Ahmadinejad came to power as a populist who at the same time made it clear to the ruling clerics that he was their man. For a time, Ahmadinejad breathed new life into the clerical regime's sagging popularity. But his hardline ways have been rejected by increasing numbers of citizens, particularly women and young people.
For his part, opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi has quite limited credentials as a reformer. A hard-liner himself, Moussavi was included among the four candidates the ruling clerics allowed to be placed on the ballot from 200 initial candidates. But only when he began to modify his rhetoric to express some support for reform did his "green" campaign catch on, with women and students his most vocal supporters.
It seems unlikely that the entrenched powers in Iran will allow any real scrutiny of the highly suspect election, The bigger question is whether large numbers of reform-minded citizens will continue to openly push for truly Democratic change in Iran. Hopes rests firmly on the power of social media to connect Iran's citizenry to each other and to supporters around the world. Call them citizen journalists or the Facebook generation -- they are the best hope for lasting change in a repressive nation.
Are we about to witness a historic moment in Iran, similar to the popular unrest in Eastern Europe in 1989 that led to fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Bloc? Or, more likely, is Tehran similar to Tiananmen Square the same year, where student protests captured the world's attention but did little to erode the repressive hold of the Chinese government?
The lasting effects of the credit crisis-fueled recession are widely over-stated. Too often pundits and others with a microphone (or mouse-pad) extrapolate conditions from the past quarter or two into the infinite future. In most cases, they will be proven wrong when they say that changes in behavior are permanent.
Time magazine's cover story, "the New Frugality," argues that tough times are changing forever the way Americans spend and save. We'll see. It's a little too early to say just yet. Remember in early March when we were told by every financial authority that stock-market dynamics had changed for good and that we should get used to lower annual returns when the bull market returns -- and don't expect to recover losses for 10-12 years? Six weeks later the S&P 500 is up 25% from the March 9 low. (But don't take that as a sign that big returns are back for good, either. This morning, a big selloff is sweeping the market. That could change by this afternoon ... or signal the Bear is back, maybe even for a whole week or more.)
The change you CAN believe in are fundamental shifts that were already underway Before the Fall of Lehman Brothers (BFLB). The auto industry, for example, was dealing with over-capacity, high commodity prices and other increasing costs including massive legacy health care obligations. The twin blows of very sharp spikes in fuel prices last summer followed by the liquidity crisis knocked the wheels off the auto companies -- and then the recession spread and sales really dried up. The result is a tremendous acceleration of change throughout the industry. And, this we can be certain of, the auto industry ISN"T going back to BFLB.
Another trend that the recession has accelerated is the demise of the newspaper. Craig's List and similar sites had already taken away the lion's share of a newspaper's most dependable revenue -- classified advertising. Circulation numbers were already in free-fall. But then the recession led to wide-spread cuts in corporate advertising dollars that have devastated display ad revenues, along with further reductions in subscriptions brought on by consumer's "new frugality."
In 2008 alone, 15% of newspaper newsroom jobs were eliminated, according to the NY Times in "J-Schools Play Catch-Up." The article details how journalism schools have added courses on the future of journalism in the Internet age including how-to courses such as "Multi-Media Story-telling." (Not sure what took so long. Force for Good readers will recall "Next Practices: Story-telling Wins Out," from March 2007).
The J-school's new-found emphasis on the future is long-overdue. Enrollment numbers continue to be strong at most university j-schools; many show increased enrollment since the economic clouds rolled in. Where are all those j-school grads going to work?
The next generation of grads are going to have to help find new solutions -- both in monetizing on-line news sites of major news organizations and in creating new outlets for professional journalists. And time is running short.
The future of news media is uncertain, to say the least. But, safe to say, it is never going back to the old way.
After some initial reluctance back in the day, most newspapers today provide a wealth of timely reporting and other substantive content on-line -- free of charge. It's an attractive way to consume the news. Why wait for the next day's paper when you can get news on any subject on-line now? And why pay for a subscription when you can read most columnists, editorials, etc. for free on-line? And why restrict yourself to your local newspaper when you can get news from any locale on-line?
If you have a wireless router in your home, you can take in the morning news out on your porch or deck on your laptop and get caught up quickly on whatever you want to read while you sip your morning coffee or afternoon lemon-aide.
But world-class reporting and writing is by no means free. So where is the business case for on-line news as subscriptions for printed papers dwindle and ad revenues dry up?
Up until the Sept. 15 default of Lehman Brothers kicked off a severe recession, news organizations could recover a decent amount of revenue in on-line advertising. The Internet model was to provide content for free, build a huge audience and sell ad space in crawlers and pop-ups. But that seems so 1999 today. The bubble has burst.
The question is will people pay something (anything!) to subscribe to online services of top news organizations -- like the New York Times, Washington Post and maybe your local newspaper? It's worked for the Wall Street Journal and a few others, mostly financial sites like Barron's and Motley Fool, who have successfully protected a unique space well enough to charge for it. But will enough news consumers opt to pay for quality reporting to keep the premier news organizations afloat -- or will they die off and leave us with only Yahoo! news and MSN? And if we're only left with news aggregators, what news will they aggregate? Are you ready to turn over the Fourth Estate to bloggers, aka citizen journalists? I'm all for cit j's to supplement the news, but I still want an aggressive, knowledgable and experienced media pool doing most of the heavy lifting.
The key will be for each news provider to demonstrate unique value that consumers will be willing to pay, at least a nominal amount, to read.
But won't we lose something vital if there no longer is a printed newspaper we can touch and feel?
In the 1960s, Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe created the so-called "new journalism" by actively becoming part the dynamic stories they were "reporting" on. But they were novelists, not hard news reporters. Journalists representing news agencies are not supposed to violently interrupt a news conference to demonstrate contempt for a head of state. That would be crossing into crazed Keith Olbermann territory or perhaps Michael Moore boorishness -- not the place for a respectable professional chronicler of the news.
So when Muntadhar al-Zeidi hurled two shoes at U.S. President George Bush at a press conference in Iraq, he crossed a line of journalistic professionalism that underscored societal differences in defining a journalist's role, particularly in places with less than full protection of free expression.
The shoe-hurlling journo quickly became a hero in much of the Arab world where he was seen as honorably expressing disgust for Bush and American intervention in Iraq. All the more demonstrating that in much of the world, journalists do not necessarily aspire to stay apart from the fray but may in fact revel in it. And it underscores the dangers Western-style journalists face in trying to report in lands where press freedom is not held sacred - you begin to understand a bit how it can be that professional journalists find themselves accused of spying or anti-government activism. Indeed, the degree that al-Zeidi's tantrum is legitimized undercuts the ability of dispassionate journalists to get free access to the stories they need to cover.
And so it is that the Committee to Protect Journalists, an organization I have long admired and often written about since the early days of this blog, remains silent on al-Zeidi even as accusations grow that he was beaten by Iraqi police, reportedly breaking a rib and sustaining other injuries. Sticking up for al-Zeidi and calling for his release would chip away at CPJ's commitment to journalistic sanctuary based on neutrality.
At the banquet last week, PBS' Gwen Ifill mentioned that CPJ has initiated an effort to help provide some protection for citizen journalist bloggers in countries where free expression can get you jailed or killed.
Supported by Yahoo! and Microsoft, among others, CPJ has launched the Global Network Initiative (granted, not the most awe-inspiring or even self-descriptive name) to provide a spotlight on repressive practices against citizens reporting news and information a ruling regime doesn't want to get out.
A worthy effort indeed, and I wish it well. But this noble cause could have started two years earlier, and it could have been Dell as the champion of the cit journo.
Faithful readers of Force for Good may recall my open letter to Michael Dell in 2006, suggesting that Dell champion this very cause as an advocate for its customers in dangerous lands.