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Olber-mann, what you doin'?

It's been revealed that MSNBC anchor and neo-Murrowite Keith Olbermann was suspended indefinitely without pay after contributing to three separate Democratic candidate's campaigns this week. But why? What for? FOX News has several Republican candidates on the payroll as contributors; so why is MSNBC struggling to appear "objective?"

If you have ever watched MSNBC side by side with FOX News Channel, it's blatant left-liberal bias is as insidious as FOX' own brand of right-wing conservatism. FOX raison d'etre is to provide "fair and balanced" coverage as an isle of conservative right-wing truth in an ocean of Hollywood dominated liberalism. Like any good right-winger, it appears perpetually assailed from the left like the underdogs of journalism despite being part of the largest media conglomerate that world has ever known.

By exposing Olbermann as a Democratic party supporter, it gives FOX news the upper hand and a free shot at MSNBC. Like O'Reilly's McCarthy to Olbermann's Murrow, O'Reilly can proclaim MSNBC as a "bed of leftists" and continue to rail against their leftist bias. By allowing FOX journalists to contribute to the campaigns of the Republican of their choice, they can not be accused of being anything but journalists doing their job under the strictures of their company's internal policy.

But where was the ethical pressure of MSNBC management for Olbermann to tell the objective, verifiable truth anyway? Where is the funding for real investigative journalism and voices to debunk, with empirical and reasonable evidence, the dubious claims of those they seek to denigrate? I still feel that these two stations degrade and almost mock public discourse in the US, reducing public debate to a nightly slanging match that provides little substance in the way of public policy scrutiny.

FOX news insists that their map is the territory and all other maps by their mere articulation by those who are not part of FOX are false. Their "truth" is validated by the fact it is being reported by them. MSNBC have made it their mission to break free from FOX' sinister Aristotelian nightmare but have only served to ruin their credibility further by doing so.

MSNBC makes its money through being as biased as FOX albeit in the other direction. FOX, like professional wrestlers, don't break kayfabe as readily as their MSNBC counterparts. Paradoxically, people feel more deceived now by MSNBC when they told the truth that their anchor may have been lying.

By keeping up the facade, MSNBC's credibility would have stayed intact as "objective" if they believed Olbermann was (by their own standards) acting ethically.

If MSNBC now strives for journalistic objectivity and integrity, they are going against their best interests. It may just happen that they will report the truth one day and live to regret it.


Facebook Follies

Apropos my recent Twitter and Facebook "embargo," I've found it increasingly difficult to avoid Facebook entirely, especially now that I've been contracted as a media consultant to Diamond Dog Food and Bakery, a boutique dog food, drink and product store in Bayside Melbourne. (Please "like it" so I can access a custom URL!)

The experience thus far has given cause to put a personal "value" on the friends I keep on there. One Facebook contact I saw tried to passive-aggressively knock me down a peg - I had no care for his online "friendship" so I deleted him on the spot. I have no time to waste on people like that.

The Twitter hiatus has gone well, despite breaking it once to share a link to an interview I did with Jonas Renkse of Katatonia.

In a recent essay, I charged that Facebook and Twitter aren't just part of our media culture but a culture in and of themselves. I feel now that Facebook is borderline "unavoidable" if you wish to participate in commerce in any meaningful fashion.

Over time, I am becoming less and less enamored with both Twitter and Facebook and more likely to fight the urge to tweet or post. I caught myself thinking in 140 character "bites" to share with other people about 20-30 times over the last few days and had to actively stop myself from reaching into my pocket or firing up TweetDeck. If anything, it's shown me that I still have an attachment to being liked, being seen as witty or intelligent and as a good writer. If I can overcome those attachments, it lifts a massive burden from myself and eases a lot of self-imposed stress.

I don't feel disconnected from my friends - the connections on Facebook are devoid of intimacy and reality. The challenge is to find social relationships with substance in real life with real people, every day.


Embargo of Presence

Some excerpts with commentary from my recent essay (footnotes removed) on media ecology entitled "An iPhone in every hand."

Neil Postman in his magnum opus “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” wrote the easiest way to see through a culture is to “attend to its tools for conversation.”  Currently, all of our conversation, save for face to face contact is mediated, at some level, by computers and the internet – the tools – and the conversation – the exchange of messages – is happening globally in which any user of a computer is theoretically part of this “globalized conversation.”  But what is the nature of the language of this conversation – the “driver” of conversation that makes it possible?

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis presents the formation of language is “not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas, but rather itself is a shaper of ideas.” The computer and the internet and all its various convergent and multimedia forms not only have produced new platforms for communication, they have, in fact, shaped a new way of organizing and regulating ideas; the way humans interact with one another, conduct their business, their politics and their education of future generations.

One such device that achieved this was the mechanical clock. A computer is built on a time-telling function – time regulates the processing of information by creating a sense of “dramatic, fictional or symbolic time as well as a sense of past, present and future.” Computers, like clocks are self-operating machines; they manufacture no physical products. They are able to regulate starting and ending times for social/economic/political engagements; enforce deadlines and are used to track units of remuneration (workers paid by the hour, etc.)  For example, all people across the known world began to
"[W]ork, sleep and eat by the clock” and began to “regulate their actions by this arbitrary measure of time, the clock was transformed from an expression of civic pride into a necessity of urban life…the computer too has changed from a luxury to a necessity for modern business and government.”

In 1993, Postman said that it would be possible for us to "privatize" our public space by outsourcing it to computers - we would be able to shop, converse and vote from the comfort of home. We have moved beyond that space - we can now do this anywhere with mobile smartphones. Like the mechanical clock, the computer regulates our movement and how we communicate.

It as if we cannot communicate if we do not have a phone or access to the internet like social media. It's commonplace to hear about events after the fact if you did "not check your Facebook."

Chunks of time can now be graphically represented; we can see the past and the future in our own present by the dynamic exchange of text, video, audio and images. The television was bound by time to show its programs sequentially - now the programs can be viewed in our own "time" at our will from wherever. As Watzlawick says, "one can not not communicate" - but what happens when one does not have an iPhone in his hand to begin with?


Slick with Untruth

Facebook, some contend is an affront to our intelligence. But what happens when the collective intelligence of Facebook isn't much to speak of in the first place? I stumbled upon this Facebook group: “30 days without Shapes: so that rainforests can last the future” started by Ms. Amy Smith. It claimed:

You probably don’t know this but Arnotts have snuck palm oil into their shapes and have called it vegetable oil. Palm oil is a major cause of deforestation at the moment which is threatening the existance of countless species. I’m hoping if enough people join in we can change what a company puts into their products one product at a time. So please don’t buy or eat shapes for a month and tell everyone you know… because nothing tastes so good that it is worth distroying a whole eco-system for. And remember it worked for Cadbury chocloate and kitkat.

(All typographical errors have been left intact.) Being a journalist I expected proof to be shown that any of these contentions had even a modicum of truth to them. So, I began to investigate.

I probed the main thrust of the claim: that Arnotts have “snuck” palm oil into their products. So I called Arnotts, Choice Magazine, The Borneo Orangutan Survival (Australia) Group and the Rainforest Information Center (Palm Oil Action Group) to find out. Arnotts, Choice and The Palm Oil Action Group all responded to my queries.

The short answer?: No, they weren't.

Arnott's supplied me with a fact sheet that informed me that the company is making efforts to ensure their palm oil is being sourced sustainably. They work with its palm oil supplier, Cargill who is an active member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. Arnotts will have switched to sustainable palm oil completely by 2015 (Prior to August 2010, it was not) and will have decreased their total palm oil usage by 25%, switching to alternative products. Arnotts also say they use 0.05% of all palm oil produced globally, annually. So where was the deception if this was freely available information?

Choice Magazine has not investigated such a claim which lead me to believe that Ms. Smith had not done her homework, at the very least. On Saturday, I got a call from the very chatty and knowledgeable Charlotte "Charlie" Richardson, coordinator of the Palm Oil Action Group.

Arnotts have admitted to using palm oil in their foods yet do not label it as such explicitly, rather as "vegetable oil." So were they lying? No - there is no reason why they "they shouldn’t list palm oil" apart from internally driven policy. So we should be upset at Cargill? Wrong again: They have switched to 60% certified sustainable crops and that "more was to follow." Ms. Richardson says there’s “room to improve” but it was "not realistic to call for a total moratorium."

Surprisingly, when I pressed Ms. Richardson if people should stop eating Shapes to punish Arnott's for their past sins, she replied:

"I don’t think they should be punished for anything; they should be rewarded for heading in the right direction."

So apart from the economic devastation it would cause to over two million people over Asia, Latin America and Africa if palm oil production was suddenly halted, Arnott's, providing it was sourcing its palm oil unsustainably and contributing to environmental damage was only a very very minor player in the overall scheme of things. Even so, the boycott is redundant; they already have achieved what they campaigned for a month before they started.

So was Ms. Smith committing a crime of omission or passion? Either way, she has mislead over 13,000 people (at the time of writing) and libeled Arnotts Biscuits as taking part in something they are in no way involved with in the process.

In sum, the raison d'etre of her group is based on a lie.

I implore Ms. Smith to dismantle her group, apologize to all of those she has lied to and retract her call for a boycott of Arnott's Shapes biscuits. For all the potential damage she has already caused, it's the least she can do.

UPDATE: Amy Smith has updated the event to reflect the new facts that I and others have presented. She now intends to raise awareness of the unsustainable palm oil industry.


This is not a sign

Talking to my broskie Mari today, we had a (very hearty) chuckle at one of our (former) twitter followers' predicaments following a "breakup" of her "boyfriend" who just so happened to live on the other side of the world. Communicating exclusively over the internet, it was revealed that this "boyfriend" neglected to give his e-paramour his phone number. He promptly deleted her from Twitter, Facebook, Skype and stopped responding to her emails.

You read correctly, sports fans. He didn't even give her his phone number.

I have been in a similar situation before but I was given her phone number, the phone numbers of her friends, pictures of them, letters and almost everything barring a physical presence. So why do people blatantly see warning signs when they arise and blithely decide to ignore them? Is it because they aren't told a warning sign is one when they see it? Do they need to be told in order for them to act upon it in the "correct" way?

Although seemingly unrelated, I had some free time today (on account of having no job - hopefully I'll inadvertently hack twitter somehow and gain some attention for myself) and read more of my perpetually renewed copy of Postman and Weingartner's Teaching as a Subversive Activity. There contained was an example of a class of students being forced to sit an exam again after several students were caught cheating, stealing the exam ahead of its sitting. Students' opinions ranged - it was unfair for make all to resit it due to the actions of a few; that it would give them an advantage over others; that sitting it again would impair their chances of passing since they forgot what they studied after the sitting anyway. The content of the test was irrelevant; it was only important the students passed.

Students in the modern era have been asking teachers "will this be on the test?" I always thought it curious and harmful during my high school years, considering I almost always read outside of the curriculum, especially for the humanities. I was ridiculed by others for doing so. It was, in the context of my "education", a complete waste of time which could be better spent "studying" for assessments.

So what did we all learn at high school? I loathe to think it was only information that required to be regurgitated at the right time in the right context. But the more I do remember about those days, the more my suspicions are confirmed. Since "being taught" is a top-down process, we are coerced into "learning" what teachers provide for us. If we didn't, a horrible consequence would befall us (such as ending up cutting onions in a potato factory, as my father would enjoy saying to frighten me.)

If they tell us a warning sign looks like A on a certain exam, then it cannot look like B. It is either A or not A. The Aristotelian law of non-contradiction holds fast in the classroom (in addition to the law of the excluded middle and the is of identity.) But as adherents of GS or other multi-valued empirical systems can attest to, it's far more ambiguous than that.

Affairs of the heart seldom are guided by the head. If the head is empty, then even more so. A warning sign usually doesn't say "Warning" on it. If our schools insist they do, then our schools are derelict in their mission to pass our knowledge on to the next generation so they may expand upon it.