The death of “hashtag activism”

I’ve had a few discussions with my journalism colleagues about whether hashtags do any good (aside from letting people join a specific discussion) or whether trending topics mean anything.

As evidence, I can always point to anything that’s trending at a given moment and show how much of it is trivial. Go on Twitter at 5 a.m., and your trending topics will be whatever a small band of drunk West Coast insomniacs is discussing.

It’s that easy. As of now:

  • #DescribeYourCrushIn3Words
  • #HowOldAreYou
  • #daresampepper
  • #DeseanJackson (an actual news story)
  • Dave Rice (a basketball coach I didn’t know until today)
  • Watching Selena
  • Riley Cooper (related to Jackson)
  • MJD (football transaction)

And, of course, #CancelColbert, which Slate’s Dave Weigel explains quite well — a Colbert Report Twitter feed tweeted part of a long-running Colbert theme that he brought out to ridicule Dan Snyder over the name “Redskins.” Out of context, that tweet could be interpreted badly. And that’s what “hashtag activist” Suey Park did.

Park is thrilled that her topic is still trending, even though it’s painfully obvious the bulk of the people using it are making fun of her. Of the top 15 tweets at this moment, one tweet is picking up her message (Colbert evil because someone tweeted part of his bit out of context), one is a news report saying it’s trending, and 13 are laughing or shaking their head at liberal outrage overkill — some of whom rejoicing with glee as “liberals” (in this case, those who aren’t racist and care somewhat about other people) feed on their own.

I’m usually able to defend “political correctness” as harmless. When someone describes himself as “politically incorrect,” it sends up a red flag, and it’s usually right. In college, I wrote a column making fun of the “anti-PC” crowd, saying I’d never seen anyone attacked by a recycling bin.

But as someone who loves satire, I have to say this: We lose a valuable conversation tool when satirists aren’t able to adopt the characters that are their targets. Mel Brooks surely couldn’t make a film like Blazing Saddles today, no matter how much Richard Pryor was on board and no matter how obviously the joke was on the racists.

And does anyone think we’ll make social progress by ridding the airwaves of Stephen Colbert? Him? Ahead of the people who actually hold the beliefs he’s ridiculing?

I don’t even think Park believes that. I don’t think she’s thinking beyond these 15 minutes of fame and the consequent days of infamy.

And I think Stephen Colbert will emerge from this controversy just fine. “Hashtag activism,” on the other hand, will take another giant step toward irrelevance.

Update: Jezebel has posted the definitive response, explaining:

  1. The original joke
  2. Why the joke didn’t work as well when someone who isn’t Colbert or most likely even someone close to Colbert tried to distill part of the joke to 140 characters
  3. Why some Colbert fans (and, I’d add, a whole lot of random hate-mongers) didn’t do themselves any favors by telling Park and company to go off and die or something worse.
  4. Why the network that still employs Daniel “My Heckler Should Be Raped” Tosh isn’t going to fire Colbert.
  5. Why “racing to be the first and the angriest before you have all (or even some) of the facts can end up biting you in the ass.”
  6. Why Colbert is valuable in the actual fight against racism, sexism, warmongering and other things we left-of-insanity types are supposed to be fighting.
  7. Why Michelle Malkin’s endorsement should be proof that you’re doing something wrong.
  8. Why this controversy is distracting attention from the very issue Colbert was attempting to satirize.

The clincher: “But instead of talking about that, we’re talking about an out of context Tweet that people misattributed to a sketch that most people didn’t even watch in its entirety before they decided an entire show’s worth of people — writers, producers, editors, directors, camera operators, sound people, interns — should lose their jobs.”



Daytime TV, a quick survey

In case you worry about American civilization, here’s a quick scan of my TV options at 1 p.m. …

CW local affiliate, The TestIt seems two girlfriends have moved in with the same guy. At least one of them has a kid with him and insists she’s staying there because she doesn’t want to make the same mistake she made with her ex-husband, the father of her first child.

VH1, Basketball Wives LA: Seems like a serious issue (fertility) being addressed, so I’ll offer some sympathy and move on.

TLC, 19 Kids and Counting: Duggars Do Asia: The logistics boggle my mind.

Travel Channel, UFOs Crashed My Vacation: Hate when that happens.

American Heroes Channel, Hollywood vs. Commies: Because we often forget the importance of good old American propaganda.

H2 (formerly History International), Ancient Aliens: The description: “Satan may have been an extraterrestrial.” 

Fortunately, one of our public TV stations is airing Black Adder.

But that reality show about the women who think they’re competing for Prince Harry’s hand in marriage doesn’t look so bad now, does it?


Why FiveThirtyEight will save objective journalism

The medium may not be the message, to cite the Marshall McLuhan quote no one really understands. But a new medium can be a game-changer, particularly when it comes to whether news will be based in fact, speculation, or punditry.

The telegraph pushed news away from the scandal sheets of the early 19th century to something a little more sedate. The wire services had to create an economy of scale (sell enough to pay for the wires) by selling to clients of all political persuasions. And telegraph wires weren’t always reliable. Get the facts across first, or they might not get there at all.

Fast forward to the Golden Age of newspaper columns, and you’ll find how easy it is to get lazy and get by on a bit of nifty wordplay. During the Gulf War, I was astonished to see big-newspaper columnists getting away with columns based on flimsy history and the occasional scoop of news from a friend of the second cousin of a plumber who fixed a toilet at the Pentagon.

It’s a cheap way to get people talking. And that’s what cable news became. No one should be surprised to see 24-hour vitriol or wild guesses about the fate of an airplane.

Today’s media are sensationalized. They’re clickbait, promising you The 25 Things That Will Arouse You, Change Your Life and Cure Stomach Flu. (That’s one reason I’m happy to be at OZY, where we’re going in a different direction.)

But now there’s another new medium. It’s statistics. And it’s the medium in which Nate Silver has launched a revolution worth enlisting in.

Silver has already dramatically demonstrated that dispassionate number-crunching demolishes political punditry when it comes to showing what’s going on in political elections. And yet he says his accomplishments there have been overstated:

It wasn’t all that hard to figure out that President Obama, ahead in the overwhelming majority of nonpartisan polls in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Iowa and Wisconsin, was the favorite to win them, and was therefore the favorite to win the Electoral College.

Instead, our forecasts stood out in comparison to others in the mainstream media. Commentators as prestigious as George F. Will and Michael Barone predicted not just a Mitt Romney win, but a Romney sweep in most or all of the swing states. Meanwhile, some news reporters defaulted to characterizing the races as “toss-ups” when the evidence suggested otherwise.

Will and Barone, of course, were engaging in some wishful thinking. Would Silver have done the same if the situation was reversed? I seriously doubt it. I don’t know Silver’s politics (I might have a hunch), but he belongs to a dwindling class of people for whom their credibility is more important than their rooting interests.

Now Nate has taken the ball over to ESPN. But he’s not just going back to fantasy baseball or sticking to politics. He’s covering it all with an enlarged staff.

And he’s got the right balance of humility and boldness. He respects journalism traditions, and he knows no one with a spreadsheet can give the same insight into a war zone or a locker room that a good reporter can provide from the scene. But he sees areas that can be improved.

Math is the basic one. Twice in my journalism career, I’ve had to explain that 1/4=0.25. Twice. “How many cents in a quarter?!?!”

The math at FiveThirtyEight is more advanced than that. And it’s math that we Gen Xers were never advised to take. We were all pushed to take precalculus and calculus. Need another math course, even though you’re a humanities major? Oh, here you go — more calculus!

Now we know. We should’ve been taking stats. I’m kicking myself and trying to teach myself on the fly, taking bits of what I learned from “computer-assisted reporting” workshops and a remarkably unhelpful book on stats and Excel.

But the revolution here isn’t just about math and better analytic tools. It’s about objectivity.

Back to Nate’s manifesto, which should be required reading in journalism school from now on:

There are some handicaps that conventional journalism faces when it seeks to move beyond reporting on the news to explaining it. One problem is the notion of “objectivity” as it’s applied in traditional newsrooms, where it’s often taken to be synonymous with neutrality or nonpartisanship. I prefer the scientific definition of objectivity, where it means something closer to the truth beyond our (inherently subjective) perceptions. Leave that aside for now, however. The journalistic notion of objectivity, however flawed, at least creates some standard by which facts are introduced and presented to readers.

Journalists can look at this manifesto in fear. This has never been an easy job. Now the standards are going up. Want to support a conclusion? You may not be able to rely on a safe quote from a talking head. You might need to prove it.

Here’s the good news. Just as reading a good writer will help the reader become a better writer, scouring FiveThirtyEight should help us all become better acquainted with the new tools.

Check out this piece on spring training, even if you’re like me and no longer invest any time in fantasy baseball. Look at the tools on display. And the footnotes. In one story, you’ll learn more about correlations and regression than you will from this book I need to return to the library.

FiveThirtyEight’s journalists are raising the bar. And they’re helping us over it. Let’s go.

journalism, politics

Reason No. 478 to do away with unsigned editorials, Washington Post edition

I’ve been arguing with people on Facebook that if they’re going to blame Obama for what’s going on in Ukraine, they need to offer an alternative or at least offer a specific criticism.

Here, The Washington Post editorial board does neither. In fact, they go out of their way to say the USA shouldn’t be using the military to solve these problems. So the only specific they mention is exactly what Obama is not doing.

And it’s exactly the sort of armchair ivory-tower nonsense that makes people resent newspapers. They’re arguing for the president to be tougher without even showing the guts to make a point. Or sign their names.