Tag Archives: journalism

Putting a face on truth-seeking

I personally think honestly disclosing rather than hiding one’s subjective values makes for more honest and trustworthy journalism. But no journalism – from the most stylistically ‘objective’ to the most brazenly opinionated – has any real value unless it is grounded in facts, evidence, and verifiable data, Glenn Greenwald

In recent months I have spent far too much time viewing and listening to the saga unraveling in this, the Trumpian era.  One thing that has been of particular interest to me is the way in which we as viewers/listeners have come to “put a face” on those who dare to share their knowledge and, even more, their opinions.  In many cases, respected print journalists have emerged from behind the by-line to face the camera and/or microphone.

Whether it’s Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow, Phil Rucker or Joy Reid, we now understand the news, in part, through the personality of the presenter.  Though this fact marks a change abhorrent to some who value journalistic objectivity above all, it is a fact of journalistic life.  To be honest, I appreciate putting a face on the skilled – and opinionated – journalists whose information and opinion I can assess  for myself.

My ultimate goal is to learn the truth.   This de-mystification of the process prompts me to ponder how these journalists locate, evaluate, and shape the information they share.  As I view or listen I match the presentation with the process;  I envision the roles of those who manage or at a minimum influence the information chain.  As the investigative journalist reports on her findings, my mind is asking how do you know that?  What resources did you use?  Who determined those resources?  Who organized it?  Who archived that information?  Who asked the questions?  How were the statistics collected?  What’s missing?  How do you know what you know?  I tend to put a face on each of the players on whom the journalist depends.

Mine is a subjective analysis of the information chain itself.  And still it’s time to put a face on what is an invisible, complex, implicit but undeniable – and ultimately very human – process.

Those who would mess with the information chain know the links all too well.  They are at the ready to hinder the flow, shape the issues, determine the players, and otherwise weaponize information.  Similarly, those who would squelch the truth are adept at determining that data are not collected, much less published, that voices are ignored, that stories are overlooked or skewed, that money talks – and is heard.  https://thinkprogress.org/trump-officials-erase-climate-data-2a4e4fe81f96/

Which is why the time has come to “put a face” on the process of information collection, interpretation, organization, preservation, distribution – all those “backroom” sorts of things that ensure that essential information moves through the information chain efficiently and effectively.  This will require more collaboration among the professionals who are the links in the chain; it will also require greater attribution.  Above all, this demands educating information consumers about the characteristics and function of the links in the information chain.

We the people, the decisions-makers in this democracy, depend on solid, verifiable information – truths – so that we are individually and collectively equipped to make good decisions in our own lives and in the life of the democracy.

Important as journalists are, their work depends on a powerful and dependable information chain that is forged by an unsung team of professionals, each responsible for a link, all responsible for the whole.  The work depends on intellectual and financial commitment.

It’s time for the professions to speak out, to demand respect – and financial support.  And it’s time for concerned citizens to understand the critical links in the information chain.  We need to put a face on the critical role and skilled work of those who gather, organize, preserve and otherwise make information accessible to journalists and other information presenters whose research, voices and visages convey that information to the public.

Fact checking after the fact is putting a band aid on misinformation.

* * *





Why newspapers….?

While the spoken word can travel faster, you can’t take it home in your hand. Only the written word can be absorbed wholly at the convenience of the reader ~ Kingman Brewster Jr

The newspaper fits the reader’s program while the listener must fit the broadcaster’s program. ~ Kingman Brewster Jr.

These two quotes by Kingman Brewster, one-time President of Yale University, are so on target for National Newspaper Week that I couldn’t choose…  In both quotes focus is on the reader, the active participant in the communication chain that links source (in whatever format) with receiver (of whatever stripe.)

As for the first, some would argue that you can take the word home in your hand – assuming that you are I-phone equipped. Brewster assumes, though, that there’s more than convenience at stake, that the reason to tote, and eventually to read, the paper is that “only the written word can be absorbed wholly at the convenience of the reader.”  Tuning in or clicking on  are not synonymous with reading and reflecting on the written word.

To this I would add that newspapers give the reader credit for the capacity to think critically.  Though newspaper editors and print journalists are not hesitant to speak their own minds, they respect the fact that the reader has the wits to think about what they are reading. Editors even encourage readers to check the facts, to re-read an article, to reflect and respond.

In the “information age” everyone aspires to be the sender/source of information that’s “hot” or intended to persuade more than inform.  Newspapers — and serious readers — are challenged to focus on the process of gathering and sharing news and opinion.  Readers need to recognize and value the labor involved in truth-finding, in gathering and parsing diverse opinions, in communicating complex ideas to a diverse readership.  Readers need to recognize and value the unique “personality” that characterizes the publication itself.

Newspaper folks are not judged by their charming good looks, their wardrobe, their glib tongue or their star quality.  They earn their journalistic stripes by delving beneath the surface.  They invest the time to check the facts, to track down the dissenting opinion, to respect the fact that We the People make decisions based on the words they craft and the cartoons they draw. Newspapers pride themselves on the fact that the news is edited by rational, if opinionated, individuals.  Their responsibility is to inform an electorate that, if all goes well, retains the power to decide the fate of the democracy envisioned by those who crafted the First Amendment and assigned it to its prominent position in the Bill of Rights.

Above all, as the nation falls victim to weaponized information, newspapers have both the burden and the power to create a climate in which words matter and truth triumphs. The free press we honor during National Newspaper Week is the voice and the prevailing hope of a free nation.

National Newspaper Week – October 1-7, 2017






Newspaper Week 2016 promotes “Way to Know!”

Today’s Washington Post carries a guest article that captured my attention. As a guest contributor Kevin Curry offers a perfect, if unstated, introduction to two significant commemorations:

  • National Newspaper Week (October 2-8, 2016), and
  • National Information Literacy Awareness Month (October 2016)

Hard to resist the prompt to tackle a critical, uniquely timely, challenge!

In his WaPo opinion piece Curry offers “three things to think about as you read your social feed”:

  • That more and more people rely on social media for news and information,
  • That despite its growing popularity, social media’s influence on political participation remains unclear, and
  • That gathering political information via social media brings on increased risk of digesting information from questionable sources;

The theme for this National Newspaper Week 2016 is “Way to Know!” The theme underscores the role of the newspaper as the leading presenter of news and analysis. Sponsors also remind readers that the traditional newspaper has gone digital – though the clear distinction between legitimate journalism and a tweet is difficult to ignore….

National Newspaper Week should prompt voters and non-voters alike to reflect on the constitutional right to a free press and on the nation’s need to understand and support free and independent newspapers, investigative reporting, and the profession of journalism.

In today’s world, newspapers cannot remain the sole promoter of the right to know or of National Newspaper Week.   For a rich library of downloadable promotional materials click here: http://www.nationalnewspaperweek.com



New and pending laws protect rights of students who write

NOTE: This post is for anyone who once lived life as a beat reporter, editor or even beleaguered adviser on a high school or college newsletter – daily or bi-weekly, print or digital.

The American Society of News Editors (ASNE) has just adopted a resolution that supports pending state legislation designed to protect the ability of high school/college journalists to write about issues of public concern without restraint or retribution.

The resolution states unequivocally:

A free and independent student media is an essential ingredient of a civically healthy campus community, conveying the skills, ethics and values that prepare young people for a lifetime of participatory citizenship.

ASNE action responds specifically to Illinois’ enactment of the Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act. Illinois is the tenth state to pass laws that support students’ freedom of the press. Legislation is pending in Michigan, New Jersey – and yes, Minnesota.(https://www.revisor.mn.gov/bills/text.php?number=HF2537&version=0&session_year=2016&session_number=0)

The ASNE action is the tip of a grassroots movement. Other professional associations, including the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Council of Teachers of English and the Journalism Education Association, have passed similar resolutions to support the rights of student journalists.

In fact, the support was coalesced into a national movement known as New Voices (http://newvoicesus.com), a project of the Student Press Law Center (www.splc.org). The mission of New Voices is “to give young people the legally protected right to gather information and share ideas about issues of public concern.”   New Voices “works with advocates in law, education, journalism and civics to make schools and colleges more welcoming places for student voices.”

Responding the support from the journalism professions, Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC, observes that “the consensus of those most knowledgeable about how journalism is practiced and taught is overwhelming: Students can’t learn to be inquisitive, independent-minded journalists – or inquisitive, independent-minded citizens – when schools exercise total control over everything they say and write.”

The history of the Student Press Law is interesting in itself. It actually grew out of the work of journalist Jack Nelson, best known for his coverage of the Watergate mess and the Civil Rights movement. In a revealing book entitled Captive Voices, based on interviews with student journalists and their teachers, Nelson contended that censorship in schools was pervasive; the book was actually commissioned by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Fund. Nelson’s findings influenced national awareness of student journalists’ rights, which led to a partnership between the RFK Memorial, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to create the Student Press Law Center.

Today, the SPLC, headquartered in Washington, DC. provides free legal assistance and training for student journalists and their teachers. More about the SPLC, including a library of free legal research materials, can be found on the SPLC website (http://www.splc.org)



North Shore Connections

In my circle of family and friends there are many who spend a few days or weeks on the North Shore every year and who reminisce the rest of the year as they plan for next summer.  Just today I found a treasure that can keep the North Shore spirit alive for them and for those of us who just wish we could spend time Up North during any season.

The treasure is WTIP – North Shore Community Radio 90.7.  It is fabulous.  I just listened to Harriet Boostrom tell about growing up on the Gunflint Trail where her father moved and bought land for a resort in 1915. Her interview is part of the station’s “Moments in Time” series of extraordinary interviews with local folk who have a story to tell.

The photos on the website of all things North Shore and environs are exquisite.  And then there are the fishing reports, updates on what’s happening in the arts, notes from birders, and much more.  The web itself is a delight – to listen to the interviews with local residents is the next best thing to sharing coffee and a doughnut in Grand Marais.  I read and then listened to the librarian describing the much-anticipated move back into the expanded Grand Marais public library, one of that city’s true highlights.

For the sometimes North Shore resident, North Shore Community Radio conjures happy memories and an irresistible urge head for Highway 61.  For the rest of us, it’s a sample of what we’re missing first-hand but can thoroughly enjoy and appreciate in digital format.  North Shore Community Radio is available on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter or anyone can sign up to receive the regular e-letter produced by the small staff and generous volunteers to this remarkable Minnesota resource.

Ironically, some of the funding for North Shore Community Radio comes from the Legacy Fund which I just learned the Legislature is eyeing to tap for the Vikings…..

“Miss Representation” Explores Media Bias

“Miss Representation” is the next in the 2011 Women’s Human Rights Film Series sponsored by the Advocates for Human Rights in collaboration with The Friends of the St. Paul Public Library and Metropolitan State University.  The film is set for Wednesday, November 9, 7:00 p.m. at Metro State Founder’s Hall Auditorium, 700 East Seventh Street, St. Paul.


The film “uncovers a glaring reality in our society…how mainstream media contribute to the under-representation of women in influential positions in America.”  It challenges the media’s limiting and often disparaging portrayals of women.  Included in the story are stories from teenage girls and provocative interviews with influential women from Condoleezza Rice to Gloria Steinem.  The promotion material promises that “the film accumulates startling facts and statistics that will leave the audience shaken and armed with a new perspective.”


All of the films in the series are free and open to the public.  Sign language interpretation and other accommodations are available with advance notice.


Contact The Friends at friends@thefriends.org or 651 222 3242.  More information at www.thefriends.org.


Celebrate American Archives Month!

The very term “archives” conjures images of dust and decay accompanied by acrid aromas and tended by bespectacled history geeks.  All wrong.  And anyone who has ever explored family or house history, faced a legal dilemma, or wondered about local lore has had a brush with paper, digital or other archives.


October is American Archives Month, a season to be celebrated by the most tempero-centric – a time to think for a minute that those preserved photos, clippings, stories, public records and more didn’t just happen but have been collected, organized, preserved and made accessible through the deliberate and committed work of individuals and the commitment of institutions. 


At the time of the Minnesota Sesquicentennial I skimmed the state’s archival surface to compile a random list of irresistible lures to the world of archives.  Over the years I’ve tweaked it a bit – and was amazed to find it posted (sans attribution) on the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information website.  I have not checked to see if the original was edited by that group.


For some time I have wanted to share this listing and concluded that American Archives Month 2011 might be a propitious opportunity to resurface the whimsical list, slightly pruned and otherwise modified – not significantly updated because the month is just too short for a serious revision.


Many of the materials and descriptions here are accessible online; the print listings suggest a link to digital options. Because the digital resources offer an absolute minimum of the preserved record, we need and always will need multiple access options. Though digitization is growing at an exponential rate, its main contribution is to lure the armchair searcher into a passion to know more and to make the minimal effort to learn more.


This random list is absolutely arbitrary and whim-biased  with links to minute bits of Minnesota history.  Each of these guides, descriptions, stories was prepared by a Minnesotan, an organization or a state agency that cared enough about the state’s stories to collect, preserve, organize or otherwise help create the legacy.  Not everything is digitized or on the web – websites are just the most accessible right now.  These sites exemplify the ways in which Minnesotans have used the public records to plumb the depths of their particular interest or passion or legal encounter. 


Tending to the record of Minnesota is a collective responsibility and a public trust.  It takes personal conviction, time, talent and public support.  Without these and hundreds of thousands of other records, carefully organized and preserved, the Sesquicentennial would signify the passage of time rather than the values, the experience, the public record, and the recognition that access to information is at the very core of the democracy we share.  The challenge of today is to embrace that principle so that 21st technology enhances access to the building blocks and expands the embrace of this diverse, informed and sharing culture.


The disorganization is absolutely arbitrary – draw no conclusions. The omissions are legion.  Though a comprehensive and authoritative list would be a wonderful tool, the universe of possibilities is well nigh infinite and digitization is having a daily and profound impact on the possibilities. 


Pick a topic, probe a bit, and pause to think a bit about why and how we  preserve the data and the stories of our state.  Some places to start, bearing in mind that each of these tools reflects the commitment and labor, past and continuing, of an archivist and, in many cases, an institution:


Minnesota Archives, Minnesota Historical Society – MHS, along with several state agencies, is taking a lead at the national level in preserving the state’s own information digital resources.  It’s a monumental undertaking that does Minnesotans proud!  The depth of resources and the collaborative efforts of state agencies deserve an American Archives Month commendation. 


Minnesota Reflections, an overwhelming and growing collection of documents, photographs, maps, letters and more that tell the state’s story – a great starting point for any age.


James K. Hosmer Special Collections, Hennepin County Library – actually a collection of collections on topics ranging from Minneapolis history to club files to World War II and Abolition.  Much is digitized but, as always, that is but the tip of the iceberg – a tip worth checking out however.


Minnesota Place Names; a geographical encyclopedia, by Warren Upham.  A classic, originally published in 1920 and now available on line through the Minnesota Historical Society.   Overflowing with wonderful stories. 


West Bank Boogie.  If you were around in the 60’s and 70’s you’ll be reminded – if not, see what you missed!  Cyn Collins is the collector and storyteller.


Holland, Maurice, Architects of Aviation, 1951.  William Bushnell Stout 1880-1956.  One man’s determination to record the stories of our aviation history.


A knack for knowing things: Stories from St. Paul neighborhoods and beyond, by Don Boxmeyer.  BiblioVault.


The Cuyuna iron range – Geology and Minerology, by Peter McSwiggen and Jane Cleland.


Ron Edwards, The Minneapolis Story Through My Eyes: A Renaissance Black Man in a White Man’s World. Continued by a bi-weekly column from The Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder  and a TV show on Channel 17.


Center for International Education (The CIE) – a self-proclaimed “media arts micro-organization” the goal of which is to “make poetic media with people of all ages from all over the world.”  Videos including interviews with Robert Bly, Tom McGrath, Jim Northrup, Frederick Manfred and documentaries on Eugene McCarthy, Paul Wellstone, Robert Bly, and much more. The world of Media Mike Hazard.


Alexander G. Huggins Diary and Huggins Family Photographs, Collections Up Close.  This is just one of numerous podcasts and blogs describing in depth the individual collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.  Re-live the day-to-day travels of this mission family in Minnesota 1830-1860.  Just a sample of the podcast/blogs from MHS.


Minnesota Tobacco Document Depository – built as part of the settlement with Philip Morris, Inc. et al.  26 million pages of documents.


Frances Densmore  Prolific writer and chronicler of the cultures of the Dakota and Ojibwe and other Native American Tribes.  Densmore also recorded over 2,000 wax cylinders of Native music.


The Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in GLBT Studies, University of Minnesota Libraries.

Ramseyer-Northern Bible Society Collection.  The largest non-seminary Bible collection in the Upper Midwest.  Donald J. Pearce, Curator.

Rhoda Gilman, historian extraordinaire,  The Story of Minnesota’s Past, just one of several books by Gilman.   “The Dakota War and the State Sesquicentennial” is a more current blog representing her ongoing contributions to preserve and elucidate Minnesota’s story.  Google Rhoda Gilman for more glimpses of her writings over the past several decades.


Evans, Rachel.  Tribal College Librarians Build Map Database, Library of Congress Info Bulletin, Oct. 2002

The Archie Givens, Sr. Collection of African American Literature, University of Minnesota Libraries.

Perfect Porridge.  A good compilation of the TC’s Electropunk scene and lots of information about what’s happening on the broadly-defined media scene.


Saint Paul Police Historical Society, Saint Paul Police Oral History Project.  One man’s (Timothy Robert Bradley’s)  passion shared with the public.


William Watts Folwell,  Though  Folwell was best known as the first President of the University of Minnesota from 1868-1884 he moved on from that post to serve as professor of political science and continued as University Library until 1907.  The Folwell family papers, 1898-1944, can be found in the U of M Archives.


This Sister Rocks!  Thirty years ago Joan Kain, CSJ wrote a small book Rocky Roots: Three Geology Walking Tours of Downtown St. Paul.  The book, which  resurfaced during the 2006 International Rock Symposium, is now being edited for reissue by the Ramsey County Historical Society.


Lowertown, a project of the St. Paul Neighborhood Network, interviews artists who live, work and exhibit in Lowertown St. Paul.  The website also provides links to the websites of the individual arts.  A rich celebration and close-up view of this area’s art community.


Park Genealogical Books are this community’s specialists in genealogy and local history for Minnesota and the surrounding area.  Their list of publication includes how-to’s on genealogy, research hints and unique assists for anyone working on Minnesota genealogy, records and archives.  The life’s work of Mary Bakeman.


Fort Snelling Upper Post is a labor of love on the part of Todd Hintz.  Todd offers an historical timeline, a description of the current situation, wonderful photos by Mark Gustafson and an intro to related resources.  Great for anyone who cares of preservation of Fort Snelling.


Minnesota Historical Society, Oral History Collection.  Pioneers of the Medical Device Industry in Minnesota.  A sample of the rich oral history collection of the MHS.


Scott County Historical Society, Stans Museum.  Minnesota Greatest Generation Scott County Oral History Project.


Haunted Places in Minnesota.  Scores of deliciously spooky sites you’ve probably visited – but never will again – without trepidation.


Minnesota Museum of the Mississippi. Postcards and lots of memorabilia that tell the story of the river.


Special Libraries Association.  MN SLA: Early Chapter History (1943-1957)


Land Management Information Center – zillions of maps and mountains of data, plus people to help.


Minnesota Legislature, Geographic Information Services – maps of legislative and congressional districts, election results, school districts and much more.


Minnesota State University, Moorhead, Library.  Maps and Atlases – great guide to government produced maps and atlases


Minnesota Public Records Directory.  A commercial listing of Minnesota’s public records sources.


Minnesota Senate Media Coverage – live and archive coverage of Senate floor sessions, committee hearings, press conferences and special events.


Minnesota Office of the Revisor of Statutes – statutes, indexes, rules, drafting manuals and more.


Minnesota State Law Library, Minnesota Legal Periodical Index.  A practical guide prepared by the state’s law librarians.


Minnesota Historical Society Press, Minnesota History.  Quarterly publication featuring original researched articles, illustrations, photographs and other treasures from the MHS.


The Civil War Archive – more than you ever needed to know about the Union Regiment in Minnesota.

George, Erin.  Delving deeper: Resources in U’s Borchert Map Library, Continuum 2007-08. description of the massive resources of the U of M’s Borchert Library.

Shapiro, Linda.  Art History Goes Digital..   Description of the digitizing initiatives of the University of Minnesota’s collections.


Drawing: Seven Curatorial Responses.  Katherine E. Nash Gallery.  Curators’ perspectives on the challenge of organizing and make accessible this one art format.


The Minnesota Alliance of Local History Museums.  A forum for peer assistance among over fifty county, city and other local historical societies.


Minnesota Historical Society Collections Up Close.  Beautifully illustrated podcasts about what’s new at the MHS.  Regularly updated.


The Tell G. Dahllof Collection of Swedish Americans, University of Minnesota Libraries.  The collection encompasses American history seen from a Swedish perspective, the history of Swedish emigration to America, Swedish culture in America, and general descriptions by Swedish travelers to America.


University of Minnesota Media History Project, promoting media history “from petroglyphs to pixels.”

Ten Years of Sculpture and Monument Conservation on the Minnesota State Capitol Mall, compiled by Paul S. Storch, Daniels Objects Conservation Laboratory, Minnesota Historical Society.  Just one of dozens of similar conservation studies you’ll find at this site.

Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records.  Live access to federal land conveyance records for the public land states.  Image access to more than three million federal land title records for Eastern public land states issued between 1820 and 1908.  Much more!

Minnesota History Topics, a list of Minnesota-related topics to get you thinking about exploring Minnesota history.


Minnesota Government, an excellent guide to state government information sources compiled by the Saint Paul Public Library.


Minnesota History Quarterly.  Publication of the Minnesota Historical Society Press.  Available as subscription or with membership.  This one sample will give you the flavor, but there are lots more where this came from!


Revisor’s Office Duties – publications duties.  The Office of the Revisor of States covers many bases, particularly during the legislative session.  This list of publications offers a good overview of the Revisor’s domain.


New!!  Library Search, now in beta test phase.  A web interface for locating print (including articles), databases, indexes, electronic, and media items. Try it out and offer your unique feedback!


Geographic Information Services, State of Minnesota.  Includes scores of interactive maps of population, election results, school districts, legislative districts and more.


Children’s Literature Research Collections (Kerlan Collection), University of Minnesota Libraries, Special Collection.  A unique and inspiring collection of books, illustrations, manuscripts, notes and other records of children’s writers and illustrators.  The Kerlan also offers a robust series of presentations by children’s authors, writers and critics. 


Family History Centers in Minnesota.  One small component of the massive resources of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints.


Historic Museums in Minnesota.  Prepared by the Victorian Preservation of Santa Clara Valley.  An amazing resource with tons of information and in incredible wealth of links.  They offer this self-deprecating introduction:  “This is all pretty high tech for a bunch of people living in the past, but then you probably know our valley by its other name, Silicon Valley.”


Minnesota History Along the Highways, compiled by Sara P. Rubinstein.  Published by the Minnesota Historical Society.  Locations and texts of 254 historic markers, 60 geologic markers, and 29 historic monuments in all corners of the state.


Ramsey County Historical Society, the officially-recognized historical society of Ramsey County.  The Society’s two primary programs are the Gibbs Museum of Pioneer and Dakotah Life and the quarterly magazine on Ramsey County history and St. Paul.


The Regional Alliance for Preservation, formerly the Upper Midwest Conservation Center at the Minneapolis Art Institute.


Minnesota HYPERLINK “http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/lakefind/index.html” Lakefinder, sponsored by the DNR, provides in-depth information about 4500 lakes and rivers in the state – surveys, maps, water quality data and more, including a new mobile app for the water or ice-based fisher.


North American Immigrant Letters, Diaries and Oral History, a database including 2,162 authors and approximately 100,000 pages of information re. immigration to America and Canada, 1800-1850.  Produced in collaboration with the University of Chicago by Alexander Street Press.


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Finding Aids to Collections Organized by Topic in the Archive of Folk Culture, compiled by Ross. S. Gerson. Minnesota Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture.  Library of Congress.   Sound recording in various formats.  You won’t believe the recordings they have preserved. The American Folklife Center


Minnesota Spoken Word Association, formed to create an alliance among spoken word artists and a resource center. Emphasis on youth.

Scrubbing History, Scrapping the Facts

A recent spate of blatant examples of what I had heretofore known as “revisionist history” set me fulminating on the distortion of our past – the world, the nation, the neighborhood, the family, even venerable public institutions.   For those of us of an age, George Orwell’s 1984 spun a cautionary tale that shaped our youth.  Once we lived through that fateful year and took the mid-life plunge into the Information Age , we realized that “1984-R-Us..”

To give Michele Bachmann her due, she does put a face on the issue of historical perversion.  Her sycophants’ clumsy efforts to touch up Wikipedia to match her gaffes gave us all a laugh and a shudder, though we share a condescending love/hate relationship with Wikipedia for just such reasons,  In reality, the ill-informed Bachmann is the perky tip of the revisionist iceberg described by Steven Thomson in an April 2010 McClatchy article entitled “Not satisfied with US History, some conservations are rewriting it.”

My concern about revisionist history is quite personal and immediate.  I am personally affected by direct experience watching the legacies of institutions blithely tweaked to accommodate political exigencies.  Till very recently I was unaware that in today’s cleaned up parlance we no longer “revise” history, we merely “scrub” it!

Scrubbing is a hot topic in the media, as witnessed by this June 3, 2011 piece about the New York Times published by the WSJ under the headline “All the News That’s Fit to Scrub.”  Just last week the WSJ did a bit of its own in-house scrubbing when they made their allegations of Moslem involvement in the Oslo tragedy “disappear.”

The fact is, scouring is rife because it is so easy in the readily expunged digital age.  Whether it’s the kids’ SAT scores or the ledgers that reveal bad loans, the contemporary record is easy – and tempting – to fix.  In a tempero-centric world, who cares?

My un-scrubbed opinion, formed in a pre-Orwellian naivete, is this:

  • Scrubbing the historical record is a societal scourge that demands calling out and correction by the likes of Howard Zinn, if such there be.
  • Scrubbing the contemporary record is a pernicious reality to be monitored with diligence and curtailed with stiff sanctions, monetary, legal,  reputational if that matters.
  • Digital distortion may be innocent, benign, unintentional or blatantly malicious.
  • Scrubbing in the digital age presents complexity because we haven’t figured it out yet, but we can make an earnest effort.

Therefore, it remains to the information consumer to hone the fine art of perceptive paranoia.  Once known as “information literacy” the skill was scrubbed when the curriculum itself was reduced to the basics.  Time to dust off a good idea and give it a catchy 21st Century signature.  Though Perceptive Paranoia probably won’t sell,  the term does describe the skills and habits needed to discern that which is true.

Utopia vs Dystopia? Reflections on a Summer Exploring Information Principles with Mulford Q. Sibley

Decades ago I had the privilege of participating in an NSF summer institute for faculty at two-year colleges who NSF no doubt assumed needed a jolt of academic discipline in their mundane lives.  The class was on Utopias and Dystopias (though it probably had a more academic-oriented title.)  The teacher was the legendary Mulford Q. Sibley, known to this day as an outspoken radical who spoke his mind freely and frequently, wore a defiant red tie to make a statement, and did not suffer fools gladly.

For the most part we grateful students eagerly probed the master’s mind which Mulford Q. was more than willing to open wide and to change in media res.  Half way through the course our leader opined that we should probably produce concrete evidence of our learning.  Each was to write a utopian or dystopian essay or story.  Positive thinker –and contrarian – that I am I chose the road less travelled by…Though I cannot say it made all the difference, it did expand my worldview.

My academic job was as librarian in a small, liberal arts college.  It was my good fortune to have world enough and time to think about the expanding universe of which mere mortals and their institutions are not pawns but players.  The library in which I spent my days perched on a cliff from which you could see forever; the youthful learners were fresh, eager, headed in all directions.

The NSF Institute took place in the mid-70’s. just as the information and communications revolution was seeping through the very pores of the library and of our lives.  Predictably, my dystopia was set in a volatile information age environment. Scholars and plebians alike greeted the new age with mixed reaction – elation, terror, confusion, fascination with the gadgetry, and new investment policies. Those who grasped the basic principle of information power were girding their loins, acquiring the technology, scooping up licenses and bandwidths, and otherwise eliminating the competition.

The dystopia spewed forth from my IBM Selectric without a hitch – at some level I was living it. The awkward tale I spun forewarned a time of information overload – mountains of data erupting, human minds blown by too much information, the phase-out of people with the skills and institutional support to filter information.  With a bit of narcissism I wrote of librarians, journalists, publishers, educators, speech writers, editor, booksellers  and others who form the information chain that links source with user and user with source.

Dutiful student that I was in the day, I worried, but didn’t write about the ownership of the information per se —  I already knew how that would ignite  Dr. Sibley.  I stuck with the threat posed by too much information, too little time and too few coping tools.  A tragic dystopic – not to mention political — tale.

Or so I thought.  Dr. Sibley had other ideas which he expressed in bold red ink notes that live on in my psyche.  In his interpretation I, the control freak librarian, saw myself as a censor, curbing access to information, barring the gates to knowledge in the guise of creating order and adding value.  Dr, Sibley averred that it was the likes of me who would create the very dystopia that I had vilified.

Dr. Sibley envisioned a world in which information flowed unfettered, beyond the restrictions of government and propagandists.  Access was his goal.  And he was right, of course.  From my perspective, the distinction between availability and accessibility was palpable.  Information does no good, I argued,  if a curious searcher cannot manipulate the information chain. I think I was right, too (not that I pressed the point at the time.)

Where we were both right was in taking time during a mid-70’s summer session to focus on information as a force with which to be reckoned.  Though Dr. Sibley was closer to the mark when he worried about control, his emphasis was on political, not economic, control. For my part, focus on overload was naïve because I portrayed filters as relatively benign links in the chain

The institute was long ago and lasted for just six weeks – six long hot weeks contemplating life, the universe and everything from the upper reaches of the U of M Social Science Building.  Still, the lesson endures. The experience of thinking about information in concrete political, economic and social terms instilled a lifetime habit.  At times I remind myself, ITIS – It’s the Information Stupid!

This ancient tale resurfaces now as I watch media grapple with the challenges of a full-blown  information and communication age.  Utopia and dystopia still loom as options.  It concerns me that we who consume and act on information are only tangentially  engaged in choosing the utopian vs dystopian path.

We seem equally disinclined to analyze the unique role of the media in a tangled information chain that engulfs and threatens society.  Though we accept that information rules as the undisputed coin of the realm we have yet to understand that information, the channels of communication, and those who control either – or both — need to be tamed.

Jobs, taxes, housing, and other realities are tangible, measurable, concrete, suited to slogans and simple stories. Information is elusive, intangible, implicit, esoteric, remote, complicated.  It’s also ubiquitous, a vital force that runs through every aspect of our lives and our society.  It’s just not easy to contemplate or to explain.  Besides, there are  disincentives to any attempt to probe the turgid depths of the information labyrinth.

That’s what the information powers know only too well.  The information powers are at the ready to defend themselves, in part by harnessing the power of information and communications technology they control.  to justify their misdeeds – to control the story spun to the little people who are only too eager to pay for the pap they are fed.

Still I hope Michael Copps is right in his optimistic prognosis.  Copps, a Federal Communications Commissioner who takes his role seriously, recently advised members of the National Newspaper Association that they are not alone.  While the press may lead, he told them, the American public supports a utopian model of a free press.

At the same time, Copps worries about the dystopic path:  “I have come to realize,” he says, “that, without a serious national effort and some significant changes, our media environment will only get worse…I believe we can – and I believe we must – find ways to redeem the promise of journalism because good journalism is so vital to redeeming the promise of America.”

This leads me back to that summer with Mulford Q. Sibley – the yin and yang  of our takes on the imminent information explosion — the seasoned scholar’s concerns about the free flow of information vs. my youthful certainty that conventional filtering systems were more than ever essential to avoid disaster.   What we shared was not a perspective but a deep conviction that information is the essential building block of a democratic society – a belief that information is worth thinking and talking about at a fundamental level.  Today I reflect on that experience (which probably is more profound in the mind than in the day) with appreciation tinged with nostalgia.

I can only imagine a chat with Dr. Sibley about the role of 21st Century institutions in preserving a utopian vision and creating a path to reach a utopian goal. The technology, the politics, the economics of information have changed over the decades.  What has not changed is etched in my memory, a gangly Mulford Q. Sibley still challenging, still teaching and still sporting that defiant red tie!  As I watch the Murdoch empire crumble I can almost hear Sibley chortling.

Patch on the Move

Sooner rather than later AOL’s Patch is making mighty leaps in this direction.  Just as the company is launching its 100th site, Patch, the hyper-local web-based news machine, will start showing up in an additional 500 communities this year.  AOL’s strategy is to restructure as a destination for a range of hyper-local content.

Reuters reports that Jon Brod, executive VP for AOL Local and a Patch founder, anticipates that, as legacy media falters there is chasm of quality information at the community level.  According to ReutersPatch is just one part of AOL’s content offering, which also includes Seed, a platform that relies on user-generated material on popular topics, and several popular topic-specific sites like Engadget, which is dedicated to consumer electronics and tech gadgets.”

As noted in a previous blog, keep an eye on Patch – and its siblings — no doubt coming soon to your community, especially if you live in an upper-income burb.

My earlier Patch post