Category Archives: Editorial

Ron Steinman: On The Matter of Wikipedia

These notes are on the matter of Wikipedia. I’m only asking, but isn’t it time the press no longer kowtowed to Jimmy Wales and his cult-like enterprise, Wikipedia. Wales and his creation receive the deference of a saint or a newly crowned king. His treatment in the press is as if he were the founder of a “good” cult, a useful cult, and, fortunately, not one that would inflict mass suicide on its members. Or would it?

In my sporadic and thankfully infrequent use of the site, I find the style turgid, the system difficult to navigate and mostly the words an aggregation of information rather than anything new or exciting. Those elements only serve to further convince me that there are many other ways of finding information. Call me old-fashioned, but I would rather go to the source myself than put my trust in people whose bona fides are questionable at best, and often intellectually weak. I find it difficult to trust a 24 year old whose only strength may be in finding a missing comma and whose only ability is to maneuver his or her way onto the Wikipedia site as well as the Web. Essentially, I have a hard time trusting anyone without proper academic or life credentials.

Recently I turned to Wikipedia to see what it said about Post Modernism, a term now loosely applied to anything anyone thinks is new, and thus beyond the limits of this time or moment we are now living in. In simple terms, post modernism is that which is against modernism, or beyond modernism – whatever that is. My reading of the term says that how we live, think and act today is dreary, lacking in depth, without a future. Is the future now? Is the future coming at the speed of light as I type on my computer keyboard? Is the future in the immediate past as the words spill onto the page? I confess that I do not know. Nor do I think the Wikipedia entry helps clarify the meaning of post modernism. It is a mistake to think we can see into the future when we have enough to do battening down the hatches here in the present – which, incidentally just passed as you read the sentence.

I find the pages on Wikipedia a mess. Though the site liberally quotes seemingly every philosopher even remotely connected to the idea of post modernism and despite all the academic-looking citations, the definitions are still vague, as if the writers are afraid to commit. Surprisingly, the site with its many references, reads as if a copycat version of a real encyclopedia, actually looking and feeling encyclopedic, and the very thing Wikipedia stands against. The writing lacks vigor and is not much help in understanding the term nor how it affects and impacts thought today, especially when used in connection with new media. I can only imagine its pages are purposefully dense. The denser they are, the more difficult it is to critique the mess they are.

After reading page after page, I came away thinking the writing weak, the definitions unclear, and with many questions that still needed answers. I felt that all the hands involved with the section were unsteady. I am betting they were many, but the powers that run Wikipedia will never let us know how many people it took to create a part. Needless to say, I went elsewhere to continue my research and I am glad I did. I almost found myself seeking my answer in a book of mythological terms, feeling that at least in that kind of work I would discover something with proper age on it that would make sense.

Every entry in Wikipedia reads the same, looks the same, and feels the same. Laying out facts and then piling them one atop the other does not make an encyclopedia. I am not an apologist for the Encyclopedia Britannica or any other similar work. These books also lack style. Style should count for something. Wikipedia pieces uniformly lack style. They are high on what passes for substance – the piling on of purported facts – that only makes for joyless reading. It should not be too much to ask for an entertaining read now and then even when seeking information about something such as the string theory in physics.

Ease of reading, comfort of reading, and the joy of reading should all play a part as you seek information. But maybe this is not what Jimmy Wales and his ilk want. Lacking style means a sameness, something akin to the Cold War days in East Germany when everything behind The Wall was gray, where individuality had no place in life and thought, in heart and mind. With the continuing assault on intellectualism by Wikipedia, there can be only one conclusion: academic credentials count for little or nothing in this brave new world of the anonymous contributor to knowledge.

Ron Steinman: Opportunity Knocks

Just when I thought that network TV news was heading towards its deathbed, along comes the writers’ strike to save it for another day, or viewing, whichever comes first or has the shorter duration and attention span. TV news can now be more important than ever. At least it is live, meaning the anchor, a reporter now and then, and a guest to interpret the news is a mainstay of most news programs. The writers on these shows are under contracts different from the one involved in the strike. The news networks should not ignore this open opportunity.

TV news is in a position to take advantage of a situation where the audience will no longer have its favorite sitcom, its favorite drama, or its favorite late night show to watch. Repeats have already started. Do we really want to watch Jay Leno and David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel talking to actors about a movie released six months ago? Do we want to see Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert in repeats, commenting on yesterday’s news? I don’t. Can these personalities perform without a stable of writers, in some cases as many as a dozen, who churn out new material as if they were on an assembly line? Should the networks give each of these comedians 3 minutes to comment on the day’s events, as stand-ups seated behind a desk in a morning news studio? Who would write their material? Can these men, because there is not a woman in sight among them, perform on cue without cue cards?

Opportunity does not knock often, especially in news broadcasting. I recall past strikes at the networks when those in power did nothing original to fill the gap of old or semi-comatose programs. Will the networks make more documentaries? They make almost none now, so one or two in the works would be a vast improvement. Will there be new emphasis on the once fertile but now dying breed of magazine shows? Probably, but they are not difficult shows to produce and once in production, they are very easy to cancel. Without anything ventured, there will never be any gain.

Some of the audience will certainly gravitate further to the Internet. This does not include the young who are already there. Yet there is mounting evidence that the older segment of our population is moving slowly but surely to the Web as the ability to navigate the Internet becomes easier. Web sites will see more traffic because of broadband and it’s now higher quality. The addiction to social networks and the interactivity they foster will surely grow. Increased advertising might flow to those sites and profitability may soon come, but don’t bet the house on it, at least not yet.

Does any of this mean that once the writers’ strike ends, those who fled TV for potentially higher ground will return to the numbing round of simplistic programming found on TV? Not necessarily, or not at all. There is also the question about the quality and accuracy of information on the Web. Rightfully much of it is suspect. That attitude will not change as long as those who supply the information have fewer and fewer qualified people looking over their shoulders.

Some critics who believe the Web is better only pander to that which is new. It is not difficult to become excited by so-called fresh approaches to processing information. Commentators put aside that those now full-time users of the Internet are an audience who, in recent years never watched much TV anyway. For them, the writers’ strike is meaningless. I believe the strike is also meaningless to many just plain folk. Some of these TV viewers will surely desert their favorite networks and channels but not in enough numbers to make a difference. The news divisions at the broadcast networks will not take advantage of this grand opportunity to give audiences anything new. In the end the entertainment programmers will stumble just enough on their way to making less money, but a ton of it anyway. I cannot and will not predict how the writers will fare. I think they will be better off when the strike ends. But I do not think the audience will benefit at all. One day, the couch potato may rise and fight back, but that will not happen any time soon, though the erosion has already started with the slow but steady flight to the Internet.

Ron Steinman: Watch your back

A person never dies on the Internet. How lucky is that for someone who craves immortality.

Unfortunately, reputation as we have come to honor it counts for nothing in cyberspace.

For some, the price of eternal fame is worth all the millions of mentions and references, accurate or not, he or she gets on the worldwide Web.

However, some people want quiet in their lives. They seek the peace of anonymity. They want privacy. They want to know no one knows their name. In today’s world of “the more you know the better off you are” there are those who want to escape celebrity. Three cheers for them and good luck. Wake up. It may never happen.

Due to the huge financial scandals over the last years, we know that once a person sends or receives e-mail the message lives forever. It is impossible to wipe any note from a hard drive. The United States government and other official entities not American, and the legion of dedicated hackers, have ways of discovering everything a person ever wrote. Now with the new science of computer forensics, where specialists can mine hard drives for even instant messages, hidden spread sheets, and once thought dead word processing documents, it is harder than ever to conceal the past. Unless, of course, the writer destroys his or her hard drive or sinks it in the ocean in a tub of concrete the way gangsters once did to those they cruelly eliminated. E-mail as something immortal is a major problem that no one will probably ever solve. Until someone develops software that wipes out, at his or her discretion, any or all messages, any injudicious musings in digital, we are all victims of the new media.

However, we face an even bigger quandary and this concerns the Internet at large, the world of cyberspace, infinite and timeless. Nothing and I mean nothing ever placed on the worldwide Web dies. Once on the Internet, whatever the listing, the sentence, the thought, the fragment, whatever is there about a person, his or her life, it remains there forever. Right or wrong, true or false, correct or in error, those so-called “facts” become part of one’s history, one’s life, and one’s lore. It becomes you whether you like it or not. Because of the complexity and the inability to kill material from the original provider of the information, a person is stuck in a ring of hell that not even Dante envisioned. And, as we all realize, if the information is wrong, a person’s reputation faces ruin. With that staring him or her in the face, he or she will probably struggle mightily to right the ship of accuracy. Sadly, failure is usually the result. The carrier where the information first appeared does nothing to clean up the problem. After all, said carrier, whether old media or new, has too much to do just keeping up with the new to worry about correcting the old.

However, no one, including reporters, is immune to making mistakes. And in this new world of 2.0, and the influx of so-called citizen journalists, there are more mistakes than ever. That is the human condition. It is the reason we have editors. Sometimes these editors, and even plain, untrained folk, catch errors, offer corrections the next day or later, as they attempt to reverse the mistake. But it is not always the case. Interested parties cannot erase words already online. Remember, those words are in place forever and impossible to eradicate. It is rare that newspapers, online publications, and magazines make corrections with all due speed. Often it never happens. We, as journalists and citizens, have to decide who and what we are willing to save and what person, business or reputation we are willing to sacrifice.

The majority rules in a democracy, so says the common knowledge. Everyone deserves a vote. If true, the minority, even if it is one, must somehow get recompense. Is this a greater good that those in media must serve to help make the world a better place? I am not sure we have the time or power always to do that, but something tells me we will be morally better off as professionals and purveyors of news if we make the effort to clean-up a reputation, and save someone’s skin, rather than to destroy a person for either a self-made mistake or an error made by another. Of course, there are commentators who are against cleansing a reputation. In other words, once written, it is set in stone, never to change. That is just tough luck in a world meaner spirited than kind. But who among us has never transgressed? Who among us has never thought better of a bad move we made minutes, days, years later? If the transgression is redeemable, should that person always suffer for it? I think not. Is this something we can do or should we, as some commentators believe, forget about it, let the sleeping dog lie and thus let the maligned person suffer. As long as there are commentators who in their arrogance are willing to sacrifice a person either because there is not enough time to repair the damage or, worse, no desire to fix a mistake, nothing will change.

Face it, once ingrained on the Web, eternal life — good, bad, indifferent, right or wrong, flabby or strong – makes no difference. Life on the Web, sometimes construed as death or a near death experience, is forever. Powerful institutions and individuals who lack power can do little to change what the Web says you are or are not.

Get used to it.

Ron Steinman: An open letter on creativity

What I am about to say is nothing new. I have said much of this in the past. Only now, I have a new target. And further thoughts. I am sure what I am about to say is something that some people might expect from me. If you want to stop reading now, go ahead.

And a warning, dear reader – I am sure many will not like what I am going to say. It has to do with hard work, no entitlement because of who you are and where you are from. Of equal importance, that you recognize you need to give up your desire to benefit from my creativity by paying nothing for my hard work.

This is a note to “Students for Free Culture,” of whom I first learned in The New York Times. The story concerns college students who joined together to protect their rights to get free music or anything else free produced outside their orbit. These students do not want to pay for what others create. I do not want what I sweat and labor over to be freely shared for nothing by some elitist students who rail against the current copyright laws contending he or she deserves to steal the hard-earned work of others. Yes, steal.

The students say, “The technology has outpaced the law.” Therefore, in his or her naïve view, technology, the world of the machine – defined however anyone wants – takes precedent over the individual. In the world of 2.0 and beyond, technology is always many steps ahead of the law. The individual usually wants to play by the law because we are essentially law-abiding people. But to these students, the law matters very little in this new scheme of justice. I ask what happens to the artist who, sometimes, after a lifetime of struggle, however long that may be, has success and his or her work finds a place in culture, popular or otherwise? Must the artist suffer because some students would rather not pay anything to compensate the artist for his or her work? The student group in question never gives an adequate answer.

The manifesto of “The Students for Free Culture” further says, “ Students are so quick to fight for this cause because we’re the one’s bearing the burden.” What burden? Is it a few cents out of normally deep pockets? These students sound as if they are digging ditches, hauling blocks of granite to the tops of monuments, cleaning sewers, picking beans in a field under a hot sun. Those who do those jobs, and more, are the ones who really put up with a burden. The file sharing these students want is really about convenience, exclusiveness, penuriousness, and laziness. Pay your buck or two up front and allow someone else to profit from his or her craft. Do not dissemble by contending that you will achieve more by piggybacking on the work of others, because, after all, according to you, it is better to create using the ideas of other people. And probably it is easier for you when someone else’s work is there for the picking.

Those who believe that ideas exist only for “the sharing and reusing of culture” do not seem to realize that only original ideas affect change. For every new thought that comes along there will be someone else who recognizes its antecedents. As long as a person is not a plagiarist, ideas are there to be used. Old ideas have always influenced new thoughts. I have no problem with that, but give credit where credit is due, especially when dealing with words and pictures. Where does it say in the new world of ideas that everything must be free? Where does it say that academics, lawyers and those who seek change only for the sake of change and who live in a narrow, insular, closed and unreal world are the ones who have the right to change the concept of intellectual property?

If any student wants to change the world, there is the chance he or she can do something useful and lasting. Fledging organizations such as “Students for Free Culture” sometimes see an increase in membership. With that increase, leadership realizes it can impose new values onto its original manifesto. It tends to broaden the outlook of the organization by taking on causes far from the original intent. Some advocate for causes that have real meaning, such as medicine for all rather than the puny desire to get something free. Often, the proposed changes mean nothing and go nowhere.

It is not easy for crusading youngsters to make you think they are sincere. It is more difficult to morph, at least on the surface, into helping other people better their life. Until the leadership in “Students for Free Culture.” and the larger mass of unaffiliated students realize that you only get what you legitimately pay for, any new cause under its umbrella will never become real. I see no evidence of that happening. Students have to understand that nothing comes easy in this world. Everything has some cost. When students understand this, maturity could result. In the end, that maturity may prove more useful and realistic than free file sharing another’s creativity and then complaining in public about “bearing the burden” of paying for it, even if it is only pennies.

Editorial by Ron Steinman

In a move that will surely go down in Internet history as one of the worst decisions in years, the Justice Department said last week that it opposes net neutrality, “the idea that all Internet sites should be equally accessible to any Web user.”

Thus in a move that favors big business over small, typical of much in the Bush administration, the good anarchy, and, in the case of the Internet, the idea that one is free to surf as one wants without paying extra fees, is all but dead.The Justice Department compared the Internet to the Post Office saying that if people pay different rates for different services, the same idea should apply to the Web. How is that for being in this world and of this world? Justice further stated that net neutrality could hamper the development and expansion of the Internet because the big boys would not invest as freely as they might if everything remained free. I said that the Internet represented “good anarchy.” Perhaps that is an oxymoron, but the Web is getting along quite well without the imposition of what surely will be a pay-as-you-go system that is waiting in the wings.

Perhaps an unorganized boycott is in order so that the phone and cable companies who might impose fees on the potentially millions and millions of users, will understand that freedom is what makes the Internet thrive, and not necessarily the bottom line.

Anti-Matter: Election Coverage and War Coverage by Ron Steinman

I am sure the father on “Family Guy” would say “C’mon” when confronted with all the politics covered in newspapers and magazines (old media) and online (new media) that we now see, that in some ways is illustrious, at least for me, for its emptiness. Political writers and editors look on coverage of this, the longest campaign for president in history, as the blood they need to drink to stay alive despite the public’s declining interest in their work.

The coverage is mostly dull. It is not very critical. It plays into the hands of the political wonks who revel in using reporters to their advantage. I confess that I read almost nothing about politics. I do not watch the debates, a dubious term for mostly men in dark suits and ties who stand in front of cameras spewing platitudes. Reporters over-analyze every tic and tell delivered by a candidate, especially during those debates.

The machinations of the campaign are boring. I think of the media’s wasted time and effort in the coverage, as if all the current exposure will reveal that one major flaw in a candidate that will spell his or her end. Worse, nothing deters the second rank of candidates in each party – name them quickly, if you can — from quitting. Do they really think they have a chance? I do not. Nor, probably, does the rest of America. Yet these second level candidates slog along slow as mud, trying to raise money, showing up for the debates, holding news conferences, and allowing ego to dominate how they think and act instead of using good sense and leaving the political stage for other climes. But that is too much to expect. The public rarely counts for much in the face of ambitious politicians.

Now there is this from the Project for Excellence in Journalism about coverage of the war in Iraq. The number of stories from Iraq in April, May and June fell from 22% to roughly 15% of all coverage. That is a sad number to contemplate with American troops dying every day. It seems that most of that coverage was about the debate in Washington over the war, and far less about combat, the men fighting in Iraq. Coverage of a war demands war coverage. The major newspapers and their online sites do a commendable job in covering the war. It is television that fails its viewers. I know how difficult it is to have reporters on constant and frequent patrol with troops. The dangers are palpable and well documented. But if we do not show stories of the coalition troops in action, it is impossible to understand the war the men and women are fighting. To understand whether the surge is working, without seeing the surge in action every day, there is no way for anyone to make an informed judgment about its effectiveness. We must be skeptical about the words that flow from the mouths of our generals and our diplomats. After all, they work for the government and do not think independently, at least not out loud. It is far easier for the networks to cover Iraq as a political story, out of Washington and Baghdad. In Washington, there is less danger of anyone being hurt physically when all the reporter does is stand and talk. It gives reporters something to do with their time. We used to call analysis stories thumb suckers. There is far too much of them today when the war and the men and women fighting it demand fuller, better and more frequent coverage. But then I wonder, if there were more stories from the battlefront, where would the networks put them, what with all the features they play disguised as hard news, news you can use, news that they – the networks, broadcast and cable – want you to know about so you can have a successful life.

In the not too distant past in the spirit of tickling my adversaries, I advocated a one-day moratorium for all blogs. That did not go over very well and the attacks against me were furious and mean-spirited. I know that with almost sixty million blogs now in space, a moratorium would never work.

Recently I suggested that all the news organizations treat their Washington bureaus as if they were in a foreign country. I thought by doing that, we, the people might be better served because the obvious symbiosis that rules journalism in Washington might be tougher and thus, more honest. That, notion, also did not fly.

My latest suggestion for the media is that no one, and I mean no one, TV, old media, new media, whatever media you can think of, should cover politics for 24 hours, designed to stop all at the same time no matter what the news cycle. I am willing to bet the house that people will not miss what they did not see or hear. The press should do nothing even as the candidates continue to fill the surrounding political air with their often-suspect personal visions. No sound bites. No made for media photo ops. Nothing political for twenty-four hours. The only coverage I would allow would be that of a disaster or a tragedy beyond the control of anyone in public relations. Think of the quiet. I know I do and look forward to the resulting silence. I can’t wait. Can you?

Anti-Matter: Copyright by Ron Steinman

There is an ongoing dialogue concerning the use and meaning of copyright. It is often nasty and certainly acerbic. The dialogue is usually in the form of an argument between those who do and those who do not, between those who can and those who cannot. The following will be part of that conversation.

I mean to distinguish between those who gain a copyright for their creative work and those who want to use someone else’s creative efforts for their own gain without paying for it. Those who believe they own someone else’s, anyone else’s creation are wrong. They do not deserve to manipulate another person’s work to foster a personal vision. In other words, it is not okay to use what I created as a jumping off point for your creation. Usually the younger generation through sites like YouTube, MySpace, Facebook and others, and the many more coming online seemingly daily, are used to getting most of their entertainment for free or for very little money. These people are the biggest transgressors when it comes to abusing copyright.

In this new world of social networking nothing is sacred, especially ownership of something created by an individual or a team. Problem is that everyone wants to be auteur. Few want to apprentice. There are also fewer reliable critics around to opine what is good, bad, or otherwise. If everyone believes he or she is equal, no one can step to the front with something that others feel is unique. Also, some critics pander to the new for the sake of the new, and so lose their ability to be critical. Again, new does not mean something is valuable. Today, new often means nothing less than something shiny — a trinket — rather than a work of lasting value.

I believe in copyright. I try to make a living from what I create, whether a film or a book. If I make money, it could be the difference between the dole or not. If I own a copyright that I might have worked for years to achieve, what gives someone who does nothing the right to use my creative effort for his or her own gain? It is hard for me to understand why someone would want to deny the rights to that work to my heirs and me. Why is it wrong for me to will that copyright to my heirs if I create something that might have value? My heirs carry my genes. My heirs are part of me. One reason why I work hard is for their benefit. Giving my children and grandchildren the rights to my work, thus a part of me, is one of the many things that drive me to create. Maybe what I create will inspire my heirs also to create something that will have value in the marketplace. I know they will honor the gift I pass along to them. Someone else sitting at a computer or editing system, if copyright disappeared, might profit from my work or someone else’s work by only lifting a mindless finger to change, or in my view, desecrate what may have taken me years to achieve.

Why is it difficult to understand for the anti-copyright advocates that I want to put bread on the table through my creativity, or gift? If you want to use what I create, compensate me for my effort. In some cases, I might give you permission to use what I made as long as you credit me properly. If you want to copy my work without crediting me or paying me, I say no. That would be stealing, one of the Ten Commandants.

I say this — on your own, try to write a book or play, compose or paint, make a film, or sculpt and see how hard it is. Then you might understand why those of us who believe in copyright are against pirates. Some want to change the law to limit creative ownership. The opponents of copyright believe that each creative work fosters other creative work when that work is free in the marketplace. I strongly oppose changing the law. I want to keep it the way it is or even extend it beyond where it now stands.

The idea that someone should feel entitled to use my material because in his or her words, he or she will create something new does not wash. New does not translate into something significant. Do not believe for a second that because I own a copyright that my material is significant, but it is mine and I should have the inalienable right to do as I wish with it. I am not interested in seeing my work as a mash up, a remix, a cut and paste job. Those terms are a profound insult to my creativity and to me. Those concepts are in disregard of my intellectual property rights. I am not interested in content generated from my creation by freeloading users on a participatory Web site. I am not interested in interactive sharing. Do not try to improve on my work. If it is not good for you, I would rather it died a natural death than to have an amateur come along and fix it to his or her satisfaction. Hands off and we can get along. Your hands on means you are not capable of creating something original on your own. There is a stop sign in front of my creations. That should tell anyone interested in “playing with it” for his or her own gain to stay away from my intellectual property. Read it, view it, and enjoy it or not. Tell me you like it or not. Do not use it for your own gain. If you want to use what I own, pay me. Call me a Philistine, if you wish. That is your right. Culture is free, but a movement to make everything in culture free is a foolish dream.