Friday, December 14, 2012

The Internet, Journalism and the Newtown Tragedy

There was some media head scratching in Hoboken Friday afternoon after a police source on the scene of the Newtown tragedy identified the shooter as 24-year-old Ryan Lanza. 

A Facebook search identified Lanza as a resident of Hoboken, which sent local and national news crews and helicopters scrambling to his 1313 Grand Street address. At the scene were Hoboken police and FBI who had roped off surrounding streets. 

I counted some 80 journalists and crew members across the police line before new information had the assailant as Ryan's younger brother Adam. But by that time the damage had been done with many mainstream outlets having to correct earlier reports.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Masters of the Internet

Who controls the Internet?

That question rests uneasily at the center of debates this week at the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai.

The 12-day wonkfest has brought together representatives from more than 150 U.N. member states to craft global rules for the Internet. And that's where the trouble begins.

For many at the conference, the working assumption is that governments should control the digital network. They've reached this conclusion without asking any of the billions of Internet users who might think otherwise. Nor have they sought the advice of the many civil society groups that are helping to building a grassroots Internet freedom movement with global reach.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Week in the Life of a Media Mogul

What's Up With Rupert.
(Illustration by James Hindle)
While two former lieutenants in the U.K. are to be charged for bribery and corruption,


Rupert Murdoch's fortunes are turning in the U.S.,


where Obama's top FCC official is planning to lift media ownership limits,


It's a News Corp.-friendly move that would pave the way for Murdoch to fulfill ambitions to buy the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune,


Don't Believe the Spin. Dark Money Won.

(Illustration by Bill Brown)
Before Nov. 6 is written into history, we need to correct assumptions now circulating among Washington's pundit class.

First, the Obama victory didn't signal the demise of big-money politics. It didn't spell the end of the Super PAC, far from it. And the election wasn't a train wreck for political advertising -- even after groups paid billions for spots that supported losing candidates.

"The bad news is that money ran rampant in the 2012 campaigns, perhaps as much as $6 billion when it's all added up," Former Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps said during a recent event in Washington.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Hijacking Democracy

Photo: WiredBike
Former Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps spoke Thursday about whether the media are strengthening our democracy -- or destroying it.

His assessment -- after serving for more than a decade overseeing the industry -- is disturbing. Copps has long argued that the media in general, and TV broadcasters in particular, need to do a lot more to nourish civic discourse.

Unfortunately, the owners of the nation's television stations don't see it that way.

"The public airwaves," Copps said in a speech at the University of Delaware, "have been hijacked by those whose primary objective is to serve the special interests rather than the public interest."

We can see this in 2012 in the relentless barrage of toxic political ads. It's also apparent in the dearth of serious local news to correct the misinformation and expose the money behind the ads.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Denver Post Commentary: Stations Not Fact-Checking Enough

Originally published by the Denver Post

Re:"Denver newsrooms tops in fact-checking,"Oct. 13 Perspective story.

Kathleen Hall-Jamieson claims to have found a "flaw in the logic" of a recent Free Press report on fact-checking by Denver TV stations. That report found that, despite a few notable exceptions, Denver stations weren't doing enough to investigate false claims made in political ads.

Free Press looked at ad spending in August and September by five prominent third-party groups. During that time, Denver's four biggest stations aired 29 hours of ads from these groups and devoted less than 11 minutes to related coverage. That's a ratio of 162 minutes of ads for every minute of news.

Worse, stations kept airing ads their own reporters found were false or misleading. But Jamieson suggests that such statistics don't matter because voters can get fact-checking information from other sources, including her own site,

Friday, October 19, 2012

Your Lying TV

Illustration: Bill Brown
In 2012, politics are all about spreading lies and making money.

And we're not talking nickels and dimes. Campaigns and Super PACs are raising billions of dollars to win over voters. A large chunk of that money ends up in the pockets of local broadcasters who are selling off the airwaves to place political ads. And way too many of these ads are dishonest.

If you're a television viewer in a battleground market that means having to endure a relentless stream of misinformation. Best estimates are that more than half a million political ads will air nationwide by Election Day.

And what are broadcasters giving viewers in return? Next to nothing. They have done virtually no fact-checking of the claims made in political ads.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Internet as Political Lie Detector

Illustration: Bill Brown
In a year of misleading political attack ads and distracted television newscasters, the Internet may offer salvation for voters seeking the truth.

A new Google poll found that 64 percent of battleground-state voters have used the Internet to fact-check the candidates in 2012.

They may have gone online after tuning out local television news, which has largely taken a pass on vetting the claims made in political ads they air. Two recent Free Press studies found that newscasters at stations in the most heavily saturated markets have failed to investigate the shadowy groups that place local political ads — or to question the content of the ads themselves.

A Free Press’ study of political ads in Milwaukee found that stations in May devoted 53 news segments to Justin Bieber while offering zero analysis of the groups behind political ads flooding local airwaves.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Scared Silly ...or... Why Photography Matters

Every so often I come across a body of photographs that is so perfect in its simplicity and execution.

A recent series of  images by Nightmares Fear Factory in Niagara Falls depict people at a particularly terrifying moment during a walk through a haunted house.

These images are remarkably photographic in that they show people as they are, in playful moments of shock at some unseen -- and fake -- threat.

Their flash of a reaction reveals much about these people as individuals, and about human nature. Of special note is our shared and immediate tendency to seek the physical comfort of others when startled unexpectedly.

And they're just funny. Some favorites:

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

In Pyongyang: The Ride of Your Life

North Korea's newly refurbished amusement parks feature the "roller coaster of doom" (pictured right) known for its "previously malfunctioning harnesses," according to

Mangyongdae and Taesongsan Funfair Parks recently re-opened to a limited crowd of Pyongyang's braver elite.

The parks, located on the outskirts of the city had fallen into disrepair during the rein of  Fearless Leader Kim Jong Il. Their cause was taken up by Jong Il's son and successor Kim Jong-un, who publicly reprimanded park management for poor maintenance during a visit in May.

Jong-un is not alone among Hermit Kingdom royalty in his love for theme parks. Half brother, Kim Jong-nam, had fallen from favor in 2001 after he was caught attempting to visit Tokyo Disneyland using a fake passport. Other reports claim that Jong Un himself had successfully duped Japanese authorities during an earlier visit to the theme park.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Political Hush Money

The Miami Herald's Edward Wasserman cites my reporting on political ad spending in a cutting  commentary on the state of local television news in 2012.

"The funders of political advertising appear to have purchased not just air time, but immunity from media scrutiny," writes Wasserman, who was recently named dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

"Some of the same media that should referee political discourse and oversee the process by which a sovereign electorate selects its leaders are in thrall to the backroom players whose mission it is to manipulate and game that discourse."

Wasserman refers to the findings in Left in the Dark and Money, News and Deception in Denver, two Free Press studies that ask whether the TV stations that are pocketing billions in political ad money are also reporting on the entities that bankroll those ads.

Big Bird Takes Back the Streets

Sales of Big Bird costumes are up this Halloween as many don yellow feathers to protest the GOP attack on public broadcasting. A sampling:
Photo: The Sacramento Bee

Thursday, October 04, 2012

One Minute of News vs. 162 Minutes of Ads

Illustration: Bill Brown
Denver played host to the first presidential debate of 2012, but for TV viewers in the Rocky Mountain State, the political mudslinging has been going on for months, thanks in large part to the deluge of political ads from Super PACs and other third-party groups.

Since Aug. 1, these groups have joined with the official campaigns to buy time to air more than 26,000 political ads on the city's ABC, CBS, Fox and NBS affiliates.

The onslaught is wearing down many locals. "I have reduced drastically the amount of television I watch," Denver resident Larry Bahn said. "I have just about given up watching local news because the ads are almost continuous there."

Some Denver newscasts have tried to keep pace with the crush of political ads, examining their claims to separate fact from fiction.

Big Bird Storms the Debates

An occasional live blogging of the Big Bird meme of 2012:

7:24 a.m., Saturday -- I'm calling it at 7:24 a.m. EST, Saturday, Oct. 13. The Big Bird meme is officially dead.

8:00 a.m., Friday -- Public broadcasting executives don't enjoying being in the spotlight after Gov. Mitt Romney's pledged to cut funding to PBS. “We would very much like to be out of the picture as soon as possible,” Patrick Butler of the Association of Public Television Stations told the New York Times. “We think there are more important issues for presidential candidates to talk about than our little funding issue here.” 

8:00 a.m., Thursday -- Big Bird may have jumped the shark now that the Daily Show is mocking President Obama for overplaying Romney's debate-night comment. Host Jon Stewart lists a slate of Romney statements on other issues that should provide ammo to the Obama campaign, and slams them for picking a light-hearted Sesame Street ad as the focus of their post-debate spin. "You're going with the Big Bird buy, still!?" Stewart asks the president. The fear here is that very real concerns over the fate of public media are being eclipsed by Obama's mishandling of the issue. Perhaps the president should have clearly stated his full support for PBS funding and left it there. (See the Daily Show clip here).  

4:00 p.m. -- The Big Bird meme appears to be on the wane, one week since Gov. Mitt Romney announced his intention to cut federal funding to PBS, home to Sesame Street. The chart above is just one indicator. It tracks one week of Google News searches on "Big Bird" beginning Wednesday morning, hours after the conclusion of the presidential debates.

11:00 a.m. -- Sesame Street has released a statement urging the Obama campaign to take down a political ad that uses Big Bird to mock Gov. Mitt Romney. "We have approved no campaign ads," the organization said in a release. "As is our general practice, [we] have requested that both campaigns remove Sesame Street characters and trademarks from their campaign materials.

Monday, September 24, 2012

When it Comes to Political Ads, No News Is Good for Local TV Stations

The political ad invasion is upon us. It's a toxic mix of half truths and negativity that's beaming into homes across the country, but especially homes in battleground states like Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Media analysts project campaigns, Super PACs and often shadowy "social welfare" groups will spend a record-breaking $3.3 billion to buy up airtime as they attempt to influence voters before Nov. 6.

For the local stations that air these ads, it's a political goldmine. But what's a cash windfall for stations has become a nuisance for tens of millions of viewers who will have to endure thousands more political ads before Election Day (mercifully) arrives.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Happy Birthday #OWS

Some Occupy Wall Street portraits from the year that was. My focus in this work is to capture individuals within a crowd... to put a human face to large-scale democratic protests. This work is ongoing (click on images to enlarge):

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Current Runs Against Murdoch

Illustration: James Hindle
This week's Murdoch news raises as many questions as it answers, as the phone-hacking scandal enters its second year dominating front-page headlines worldwide.

But the controversy that has rocked Murdoch's British empire has caused little more than a ripple among America's political leadership.

On Monday, we learned that Rupert Murdoch had resigned from the boards of a number of News Corp. subsidiaries, including News International Group, Times Newspaper Holdings and News Corp. Investments.

These companies oversee British newspapers the Sun, the Times and the Sunday Times. They also oversaw the News of the World before it was shuttered last summer as evidence of widespread phone hacking emerged.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Freedom = Censorship?

Photo: Timothy Karr
Think you have the right to speak freely via cellphones, websites and social media? Well, the companies that provide you with access to the Internet don’t.

The framers drafted the First Amendment as a check on government authority — not corporate power. But whether we’re texting friends, sharing photos on Facebook, or posting updates on Twitter, we’re connecting with each other and the Internet via privately controlled networks.

And the owners of these networks are now twisting the intent of the First Amendment to claim the right to control everyone's online information.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Taking the Internet Back to the Future

Welcome to the Comcast Age.

No, that's not a new corporate slogan, but the future facing Internet users everywhere.

Cable giants like Comcast and Time Warner have come to dominate information access in the United States. And they're using this new power to squeeze out competitors and remake new media in their old image.

For anyone online that means a future of fewer choices among broadband providers and less control over the digital diet that's fed across their networks.

Big Cable's Old Plan for New Media

Television is at a crossroads.There are two paths to choose from and two destinies for television viewers: one better, the other far worse. The path taken will have lasting political consequences.

One leads to a future where new technology offers millions of video channels streaming in and out of American homes via fast online networks.

The other involves a handful of local cable monopolies controlling what programming is aired — and blocking anything that might loosen their grip on viewers.

One future looks like the people-powered Internet, where choice is boundless and the audience is in charge. The other is a throwback to cable television's "gilded age," where powerful gatekeepers picked what people watched, when they watched it, and how much they paid for the privilege.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Reform in the Age of Corporate Lawyers

Illustration: Bill Brown
In the post-Citizens United era, wealthy individuals and corporations think democracy is a trophy they can buy, stuff and mount on their parlor walls.

But Americans scored a solid victory against big money in April when the Federal Communications Commission decided to require television broadcasters to post data online about political ad spending.

The FCC's ruling was encouraging for anyone hoping to shed light on the shadowy groups and campaign operatives that are funneling billions of dollars to local TV stations this year. The decision will help everyone get a clearer picture of the misinformation machine behind the flood of attack ads.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Police, the iPhone and Your Right to Record

World Press Freedom Day came and went earlier this month. While it’s important to take a day to recognize our right to speak and share information, threats to our First Amendment freedoms happen all the time, everywhere.

It’s a threat that will become very real on the streets of Chicago this weekend, as a new breed of journalists and onlookers attempt to cover the protests surrounding the NATO summit.

Just ask Carlos Miller. The photojournalist has been arrested three times. His “crime?” Photographing the police. Most recently, in January, Miller was filming the eviction of Occupy Wall Street activists from a park in downtown Miami.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Super PACs Tell Lies, but the Media Spread Them

If you think presidential politics have gotten ugly, just wait.

With wealthy corporations and individuals spending billions of dollars to influence your vote, the real dirt is about to hit your TV screen like mud on a linen bed sheet.

According to the New York Times, which got its hands on a conservative proposal from a shadowy Super PAC, wealthy Republican strategists are working overtime on a billionaire-fueled campaign to flood the airwaves with race-laced attacks against President Obama:
The plan, which is awaiting approval, calls for running commercials linking Mr. Obama to incendiary comments by his former spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose race-related sermons made him a highly charged figure in the 2008 campaign.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Who's Afraid of Rupert Murdoch?

The answer: the Federal Communications Commission and Congress.

While the media mogul was called before Parliament and hammered by regulators in the United Kingdom, few in the halls of U.S. power are willing to call News Corp. to account for the “culture of corruption” that has spread through its media empire.

Late Wednesday, Sen. Frank Lautenberg asked FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski whether U.K. findings of News Corp.’s “rampant law breaking” meant the FCC would revoke any of the 27 broadcast licenses granted to Murdoch’s company in the U.S.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

How Will the Murdoch Implosion Be Felt in the U.S.?

A scathing report in Britain that Rupert Murdoch and other News Corp. executives engaged in a cover-up of "rampant law breaking" may have ramifications for the media mogul in the United States.

How far-reaching those consequences are depends on U.S. politicians' willingness to face down one of the most powerful media figures of our generation.

But chinks in Murdoch's armor have deepened since last week, when a U.K. government investigation found that News Corp. executives hacked private phone messages, bribed government officials and then sought to conceal this wrongdoing, in part by giving misleading testimony to British law enforcement and Parliament.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Finding Frank in Hoboken

In 1955 Swiss photographer Robert Frank visited Hoboken to document the city's centennial celebration. It's a day that generated several memorable Frank photographs, including two that open his masterful photo essay "The Americans."

This one features as the cover of the book:

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Misinformation Machine

Published at

Dirty politics is a growth industry with few happy customers. In the run-up to Super Tuesday, television viewers nationwide had to endure an onslaught of negative and deceptive political ads.

For many in key primary and caucus states that meant sitting through up to 12 such ads an hour. And the vast majority of these ads went on the attack: The three political action committees buying the most television time this election season have spent more than 98 percent of their money on ads that discredit one or another candidate, according to Kantar Media.

These attacks by their very nature are misleading., which tracks accuracy in political messaging, found that the "avalanche of negativity" in recent political ads also contained a fair share of distortions and lies.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Murdoch's Date With Justice

A legal net is closing around media mogul Rupert Murdoch. On Monday a top investigator in London reported that senior News Corp. employees authorized hundreds of bribes to police officers and other government officials.

But these reports of criminal behavior in the United Kingdom have yet to trigger a prosecution of Murdoch here in the States, where top executives can be held liable for systematically bribing foreign officials.

To stop this scandal from jumping the Atlantic, Murdoch has added legions of lobbyists and lawyers to his ranks. Their goal is to defang the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes it unlawful for a U.S. corporation to pay off a foreign official for the purpose of advancing or protecting a business interest.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Intellectual Dishonesty at the Heart of the Heartland Institute

More media have pored over leaked internal memos that expose the intellectual dishonesty at the heart of the Heartland Institute, the coin-operated think tank that has made a living spreading lies in the service of corporations.

The most revealing of the memos reveals the Institute's plans to create an anti-climate change curriculum for k-12 schools nationwide. The goal, according to the memo is to show "that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain — two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science."

"There’s your smoking gun," write the editors at the Star-Ledger:

Friday, February 10, 2012

Minneapolis Star Tribune: The onslaught is coming to a TV near you

This piece was published earlier this week by the Star Tribune:

If Minnesotans flip on their TVs right now, they're likely to see at least one -- a political ad slinging mud at a presidential candidate.

As Tuesday's statewide caucuses approach, they're more likely to see many more. Viewers in Florida reported seeing as many as 12 political ads an hour in the runup to that state's Jan. 31 primary. The campaigns and super PACs that bought these ads have now turned their attention from Florida -- where they spent tens of millions of dollars on local media buys -- to Minnesota.

These attack ads by their very nature are negative. But they can also be misleading., which tracks accuracy in political messaging, found that the "avalanche of negativity" in recent Florida ads also contained a fair share of distortions and outright lies.

... Read the full oped.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Obama Joins the Democracy Sell Off

President Obama succumbed late Monday to the dark logic of the Super PACs, instructing top West Wing staffers to help raise money for the so-called "independent" groups that have been successful in picking winners and losers thus far in 2012.

"We decided to do this because we can't afford for the work you're doing in your communities, and the grassroots donations you give to support it, to be destroyed by hundreds of millions of dollars in negative ads," Obama's campaign manager Jim Messina wrote supporters in an email Monday night.

This is no small news -- which explains why the New York Times placed this story on page one today -- as it signals that the president has reversed his earlier stance against working with Super PACs and joined others on the low road to political influence.

Friday, January 27, 2012

This Prettty Much Says it All

By Bill Brown, Free Press' ingenious graphic designer.

Citizens Inundated

Illustration: Bill Brown
The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision has already picked a winner in the 2012 elections: TV broadcasters.

Companies like CBS Corp, News Corp. and Sinclair Broadcast Group are already dividing the spoils of an election year that will see unprecedented spending on political ads.

More than $12 million was spent on ads during the Iowa Republican caucus. More than $14 million was spent on the South Carolina primary. And Floridians are already seeing the effect of millions more in ad buys as the state readies for next Tuesday's vote.

But that's just the first glimpse of an election year that will leave viewers awash in misinformation. All told TV broadcast companies stand to pocket more than $3 billion in political ad revenues by November. What they're not doing is letting viewers and voters in on the full story behind all this money and all these ads.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why We Go Black

Speaking at a midtown PIPA/SOPA protest
Wikipedia and Google blacked out? Redditers in an uproar? Thousands of geeks abandoning their cubicles to take to the streets?

What's happening here?

Today's nationwide protest of Internet blacklist legislation is part of a brewing movement to keep control over the Internet out of the hands of corporations and governments. It's a struggle that puts Internet users before information gatekeepers. At stake is everyone's democratic right to information.

The movement owes its momentum to a recent sequence of events. Leading up to 2010 millions of Internet users became advocates in support of Net Neutrality protections. In 2011, the importance of digital freedom spilled out onto the streets as demonstrators with a mobile phones and a connection became a force in global protests.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Iowa Kicks Off the Media's Mud Season

If you flip on a local television station and watch for an hour or so, you're likely to see at least one: a political ad that attacks a local or national candidate.

If you live in any of the "battleground states," you'll see many, many more -- up to 12 political ads an hour.

Viewers in Iowa fell under a barrage of these ads leading up to Tuesday's caucuses. This on-air onslaught offers the rest of us a preview of what television viewing will be like as Election Day 2012 draws closer.

It's estimated that American television viewers will see such political ads aired more than 200,000 times by the first week in November. What we're far less likely to see is any explanation of who really sponsors these ads, what interests they represent and whether the content of the attacks is true.