Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Full Disclosure

I have a question.

It is not a political question.

It is a media and media-control question.

There may be moments in my explanation of this question that may strike you as political statements, but I’m trying hard to steer clear of that minefield.

I am a former journalism major, and a current observer of what makes journalism tick. I am also fascinated by all the fun new technology toys that are out there … and trying to be equally mindful of what those techno-toys can do when we’re not looking. For (or to) journalism, and anything else.

This morning, the United States Supreme Court ruled on what has become known as the “Hobby Lobby case”.

The official blog of the US Supreme Court its very own self summarizes this case’s question thus: “Whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb et seq., which provides that the government ‘shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion’ unless that burden is the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest, allows a for-profit corporation to deny its employees the health coverage of contraceptives to which the employees are otherwise entitled by federal law, based on the religious objections of the corporation’s owners.”

The utterly predictable 5-4 ruling’s answer to that question was, yes, a corporation can issue that denial.

There will be plenty of opinions thrown out there starting ’round about now, about whether this is a victory or a defeat or a slippery slope or whatever. I will not contribute to those opinions here now.

Instead I will take note of my Facebook addiction, and of the creation by the Facebook people of a wonderful new sidebar called “TRENDING”. Every time a critical mass of people are following a news story or a celebrity happening, I am given the opportunity to follow it myself.

Helpful, or insidious? Keeping FB people up-to-date, or encouraging them to drive up the click counts on certain websites? The answer to these questions is a resounding yes. Yes to all. I’m not naïve.

In theory, if a subject is TRENDING, that must mean that enough people are looking at posts about that subject. A completely trusting person would presume that Facebook figures this out simply by counting posts and listing the top ten subjects according to that count.

Not being entirely trusting of anything these days, I tend to wonder what algorithms calculate these TRENDING subjects, and if there are any people who have the ability and opportunity to tweak these subjects, hypothetically. And, following this line of wonderment, exactly who those people might be, hypothetically. And what agendas they might possess. Hypothetically.

So, again, Facebook addict that I am, I clicked on “US Supreme Court”. Purely as an experiment, this activity was; since the tiny summary that followed that clickable term provided adequate spoilers about the result of the Court’s “Hobby Lobby” verdict.

Promptly, my screen filled up with posts, or links to stories, about the decision. I scrolled through them a bit, and about a dozen posts into my scrolling, I paused. And went back to the top of the results page. And began to count.

After the initial New York Times article link (straight journalism; I checked), it took me eight more posts to find a link that wasn’t authored by, or affiliated with, or linked to, politicians or think-tanks or media outlets or commentators on one particular side of the debate. In this case, that side was the side that thought the decision was marvelous, and a victory for religious freedom, and that sort of thing. If I were being political, I would note that those politicians were all Republicans, and most of those commentators did a lot of work for Rupert Murdoch. But, again, I’m not being political. I promise.

Here’s the thing: Facebook, or at least its algorithms, know me fairly well at this point. If they’re paying attention to my posts, and the links I click, and probably other online behaviors I’m not even considering at the moment … then they know that I happen not to be a Republican, and that I can’t watch Fox News for more than about 15 seconds without having to go do something else. Yeah, I lean to the left a bit; what of it?

(In the journalism business, that last sentence was what is known as “on-background” detail. This is full disclosure; to let you know.)

So: if Facebook knows me that well, why haven’t they flooded my TRENDING results page with posts from my left-leaner friends, and from left-wing think-tanks, and the Rachel Maddow show, and every leftist commie pinko website from here to the ends of the Internet? I’m much more likely to click through those links to read onward, yes?

The results of my counting noted that ten of the first 12 posts were on that right-wing side of things. And thirty-six of the first forty. In the world of research, that is what is known as a strong to very-strong correlation result. Six out of ten would be considered strong enough to consider. Nine out of ten is almost laughably unlikely if the survey is truly untainted.

In the last couple of days, Facebook and its algorithmic calculations have taken it on the chin, PR-wise – and in terms of users’ trust. It has been revealed that a study was undertaken whose tactic was to subtly skew the posts that appeared on many people’s Facebook news feeds, either toward negative-emotion-driven posts or positive-, ostensibly to see whether those FB users would then respond by posting more-negatively or -positively themselves. The upshot of the researchers’ study: are emotions contagious?

[The implications of this study are worth noting; just in another separate post, is all.]

The fact that they hadn’t told any of the people didn’t engender a feeling of trust in Facebook, regardless of whether the study activity technically held to FB’s current Terms of Usage. (Legitimate research studies involve alerting people to the fact that they’re involved in a study, even if the people aren’t told much else about the study.) The fact that the study was partly provided for by the US Army Research Grant Office got a lot of people’s attention, too.

So, that unintentional but definitely curious confluence of events caused me to pause this morning, and wonder:

Is there someone in charge of deciding what subjects are TRENDING? Is there something affecting what content appears in the TRENDING results page? If the deciding element is a human, I know that he or she has opinions; because just about everyone does, at least people who care about this subject or that. And if it’s a human, it’s not a random one; it’s a human for whom that decision-making is their job. So someone else is funding that job. Don’t misunderstand: corporations aren’t people … but they are made up of people. Which gets me back to my question: is there someONE in charge of deciding what subjects are worthy of my attention, … and which ones aren’t?

I don’t care who it is; I don’t care what their agenda may be (well, that’s not really true, but within this particular journalism and communications media analysis context, it’s not my top thing). I’d just like to know about it.

Full disclosure, and all that.

As long as my data is being mined … in this case it’s fair to want someone else’s data mined, too.

I’d like to know.

Wouldn’t you?

= = = =

UPDATE (June 30, 2014, 7:55pm):

Full disclosure: sometimes I do most, but not all, of my homework.

What I described as “the official blog of the US Supreme Court” is, in fact, not the official blog. It’s an online resource that tracks a lot of details about a lot of Court cases; but it’s not the official arm of the SCOTUS.

On top of which, I managed to link poorly. The linkie linkie! is now fixed.

Editorial License regrets the errors. Oi! Errors, plural! Thirty lashes with a wet noodle, and if I’m late, start without me!

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June 30, 2014 Posted by | current events, Facebook, Internet, journalism, media, news, social media, technology | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Have A Care

I just read about a study that Harvard University just released which has addressed a subject that to me is quite frankly all over the news lately, albeit maybe not in very obvious ways.

em•pa•thy [em’-puh-thee] /n/ (1) the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. (2) the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: “By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self.”  [Origin: from the Greek: empátheia (affection); present meaning translates German Einfühlung]

Boiled down, the study has suggested that although parents have good intentions about teaching children the value of empathy, the message that ends up getting sent is: American society values achievement and happiness far more. The Harvard Graduate School of Education’s “Making Caring Common” project surveyed 10,000 secondary-school students and only a fifth of them ranked “caring for others” as their first priority. Empathy lost out to achieving at a high level, or being happy. The researchers noted the difference between which values adults tell children are important, and which they demonstrate as actually being important.

Students were reportedly two times more likely to agree with the statement, “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my class than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

In the Atlantic magazine article that highlighted the study, child psychologist and author Michele Borba said:

Studies show that kids’ ability to feel for others affects their health, wealth and authentic happiness as well as their emotional, social, cognitive development and performance. Empathy activates conscience and moral reasoning, improves happiness, curbs bullying and aggression, enhances kindness and peer inclusiveness, reduces prejudice and racism, promotes heroism and moral courage and boosts relationship satisfaction. Empathy is a key ingredient of resilience, the foundation to trust, the benchmark of humanity, and core to everything that makes a society civilized.

The Harvard researchers surveyed educators as well.

[ An aside: Character education has very often been seen as a squishy, bleeding-heart-liberal, unrealistic enterprise. It has the opportunity to be not taught very well. Indeed, some critics might say, isn’t character education more of a Sunday School thing? (The increasing percentage of the American population that is “unchurched”, and what effect that may or may not have on people’s development of a moral and ethical compass, is probably a topic best reserved for a separate moment. It would become a rather staggeringly large tangent here.) ]

The researchers found that “the great majority of teachers, administrators, and school staff did not see parents as prioritizing caring in child-raising. About 80% of school adults viewed parents as prioritizing their children’s achievement above caring and a similar percentage viewed parents as prioritizing happiness over caring.”

I don’t know that this should be seen as an attempt to dump on parents exclusively – although obviously they do bear responsibility. Parents in today’s society face far greater challenges in raising children than did past generations’ parents. One of those challenges is in countering the messages conveyed, overtly or not, by the “outside world” – including the media, popular culture personalities, and political figures. Many of these messages seem not to be supportive of “everything that makes a society civilized”.

Curious: while it’s rarely advisable to wade through the comments section of almost any online article … the very first commenter on the Atlantic article said, as if to simultaneously miss and prove the researchers’ point:

Children should prioritize helping others over their own success and happiness? What exactly would be the societal benefit of raising an entire generation of sacrificial martyrs unable to support themselves? … The most important thing for children to learn is that if they are unable to first support themselves, they won’t be able to make meaningful contributions to society. Ever wonder why any course on rescue teaches people to first ensure their own health and safety before attending to others? There’s an order of operations involved, and people who sacrifice their own well-being for that of others end up in dire straits.

Let’s see that again in slow motion: “people who sacrifice their own well-being for that of others end up in dire straits.” As in, I got mine, because if I don’t, I won’t, and you’ll have gotten in my way.

I recognize that this is pretty much human nature … caveman logic. Survival, and all that. … Have we not gotten a little ways past that, having scraped together the trappings of civilization and all?

Beyond the fact that this paragraph could be seen as a veiled jab at welfare recipients and other people that are labeled in some corners as “takers” … Mitt Romney’s forty-seven percent, you might say … I wonder if that commenter had ever heard of the Golden Rule.

Also, consider this: in her analysis of the study, psychologist Borba said, “The science reveals the irony of the situation: happier and more successful kids care about others, they are able to relate, be concerned, and respect differences, and a lack of empathy makes kids less successful, and less happy.”

Makes one wonder how happy of a person that commenter might be.

It also makes me wonder what all this may suggest about the sources of the following quotes from the news recently? … people who don’t appear to give a wet slap about the actual people at whom they’re aiming their words:

[] An offering from the columnist George Will. Will’s career has been marked by utilization of SAT words seemingly just to prove he’s an above-average writer – to set himself apart from the monosyllabic, grunting world of the New York Post and Page Three or whatever. In this case, those words may attempt to deflect your average reader from noticing (at least right away) a breathtaking lack of empathy:

Colleges and universities … are learning that when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous (“micro-aggressions,” often not discernible to the untutored eye, are everywhere), and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.

Cutting to the chase: is this an implication that rape victims somehow enjoy a privileged status that future victims might aspire to? Have I got that wrong? Didn’t Todd Aiken’s “legitimate rape” comments last year clearly mark that particular tract of land so that other people wouldn’t blunder onto it? Tiny question: Mr. Will, have you, or any member of your extended family, or any of your close friends, ever been sexually assaulted? Do you, therefore, have any faint clue what you’re talking about? Is it any wonder that rape victims hesitate to report the crime, if they’re going to be met with responses remotely like yours?

(The St. Louis Dispatch decided to dispatch Mr. Will as a regular op-ed contributor following that column. Would that more newspapers had done so.)

[] After the mass-murder committed in Santa Barbara last month by Elliot Rodger, Samuel J. Wurzelbacher (better known as “Joe the Plumber”) addressed the parents of the college kids who were killed:

I am sorry you lost your child. I myself have a son and daughter and the one thing I never want to go through, is what you are going through now. But: [a]s harsh as this sounds – your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional [Second Amendment, gun-ownership] rights.

Uh, yeah; harsh begins to cover it, I suppose.  I wonder, would Mr. Plumber have the grit to say that to Richard Martinez’s face?

Throughout his open letter, which is far longer than that opening paragraph, Wurzelbacher reveals that as much as he would like to have you believe he cares about you, he cares far more about himself.

[] After the Santa Barbara shootings, there was this Tweet (which I won’t embed here, but merely quote, because the man doesn’t deserve the click-throughs to his Twitter feed):

No idea how my son will die, but I know it won’t be cowering like a bitch at UC Santa Barbara. Any son of mine would have been shooting back.

Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce you to the former General Counsel and Executive Director of the South Carolina Republican Party, Todd Kincannon. I wonder if his Tweet would have been different if he had ever found himself staring down the business end of a loaded weapon held by an unhinged person, or in fact any person at all. I never have, so I can’t say for sure what I’d tweet. But his thought just seemed pretty heartless to me.

Now, for contrast:

[] Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said something just in the last few days, about the rapidly-deteriorating situation in Iraq, and what the American military might or might not be preparing to do about it, that struck me as particularly empathetic. Or maybe it just seemed so by contrast to almost everything else I’ve heard lately:

You have to ask yourself, are you willing to send your son, am I willing to send my son to retake back a city, Mosul, that they [the residents of Mosul] weren’t willing to defend themselves? I’m not willing to send my son into that mess.

I had to go back and listen to the video clip containing these words all over again … just to make sure I’d heard him correctly. Writer Charlie Pierce has posited a Ron/Rand Paul Five-Minute Rule, which is, anything they say may well strike you as sensible, but at the five-minute mark of their speech they say something completely off-the-charts absurd. Also, in general, a politician will start to make a statement and I’m reminded of the old joke, “how do you know a politician is lying? You can see his lips move.” Sadly, my immediate assumption is that I’m about to listen to something appalling, corrupt, or otherwise miserable.

It’s one thing to say incendiary things because you feel there’s injustice being done and such comments seem the only way to speak truth to power, as it were. It’s another thing to say inflammatory things just to get attention, to satisfy your own id, to get your name upon people’s lips.

Further, an awful lot of people now feel free to say insensitive things about actual human beings, in order to bolster a political position (and for no other good earthly reason), and trust that they won’t get called on it. When there are this many insensitive louts out there, each individual one begins to be less obvious.

But some of our public discourse now seems genuinely cruel, if less and less unusual.

I don’t honestly know what to do about it, aside from [1] calling it out when it happens, and [2] endeavoring to treat people decently, in person and in print, myself.

Again, it’s a start.

June 26, 2014 Posted by | current events, education, language, news, politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What’s the Difference?

And in other sports news of this past weekend…

(Other than the US/Portugal version of the Beautiful Game, of course…)

Michelle Wie won a golf tournament.

This is not such an amazing and unlikely statement as it was, once. Just since April, the TV sports tickers have been compelled to say so twice now.

This morning, Ms. Wie made a tour of the New York City-based media outlets. The Today Show, Fox and Friends, and four other destinations before she got to grab lunch, apparently. This is what happens when you do what Ms. Wie did, on Sunday.

Winning the US Women’s Open is a fairly big deal, no matter who wins it. It’s one of the “majors”, one of the tournaments whose appearance on your resume increases your name’s font size, everywhere you go in the golf world. The first time you win one of those … you’ve arrived.

Although it’s fair to say that Michelle Wie has arrived after having already arrived once, and kinda departed, and then knocked on the door and asked to come in again.

Ten years ago, she won an award that is annually given to the most promising up-and-coming pro golfer in the women’s game. She was in junior high school.

Previously, here, I have gone on a bit about people with exceptional or exceptionally-remarked-upon talents, and the people that surround them as they Burst Onto The Scene. I’m always worried about the child stars, the prodigies, the Young Sensations, because frankly, ladies and gentlemen, before you graduate from high school you don’t have nearly the life experience that you need in order to survive this brand of Fame and Attention.

Michelle Wie, before she set foot in high school, was referred to by at least one breathless sports journalist as the Tiger Woods of the women’s game.

No pressure.

She was good, all right. In 2003, at age 13, she became the youngest player ever to make the cut in an LPGA tournament. Not long after that, she won the Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship. Not long after that, someone in her circle of helpers convinced her that she ought to compete in a men’s tournament event, something the great Annika Sorenstam thought long and hard about before trying … and Ms. Sorenstam was established.

Wie went out and posted a 68 in the second round of the PGA Tour’s Sony Open, and all bets were off. Since then, she has competed in eleven other men’s events. Okay, well, maybe let’s talk about Tiger, then …

And then, maybe not predictably, but firmly … it all came crashing down.

Over the next seven years, Wie won but two LPGA tournaments; and between her Sony Open performance and last year, she was 0-for-31 in the “majors”. She went to Stanford University and didn’t play much golf while she was at it. As Ms. Sorenstam suggested in an interview last year, “I think she jumped in way too deep, and I think it had some tough consequences for her.” In 2012, Wie missed the cut in ten of the 23 LPGA events she entered. In the first half of 2013, she didn’t finish any higher than 45th place.

And it could be tough to watch.

The body language was not confident. Watching Wie after she would miss a relatively short putt, or park a tee shot into a bunker, or chip a ball off a fairway and clean over a green, could be an exercise in pity. Poor kid, she looks miserable.

So, Sunday morning, Wie teed off at the US Women’s Open in Pinehurst, North Carolina, carrying a three-stroke lead after three rounds. Her nearest competitor was Stacy Lewis. This is not insignificant.

Three strokes is a lead that is not a lock to hang onto over 18 holes. Bogey just three of them and we’re all square. Wie had been playing very well; but the final round of a tournament is a killer. Golf commentators have remarked that pro golfers are always very relaxed, very friendly to members of the gallery, very loose … until Sunday. Then they’re all business, because for most of them it is their business. It’s their livelihood. It’s a game they love, until stuff goes wrong, and then there is literally nowhere to hide, either from the galleries or their mortgages.

After a decade in golf, Michelle Wie is still only 24. (When I think of what I knew and what I was like and how I dealt with pressure at age 24 … and I wasn’t in the national spotlight when I was in the seventh grade … well, I watched that final round on Sunday with great interest.)

And bearing down on her, admittedly having teed off much earlier in the day and already sitting in the clubhouse with a round of 66, was Stacy Lewis. Only the number-one-ranked player in the world at that moment.

And … action.

Wie maintained that three-stroke lead through fifteen holes. She did so by onlying putt once or twice per green, never more than that … which she’d done consistently since teeing off on Thursday. She strode up to the 16th tee with body language that said, “I got this.”

She parked her tee shot into a fairway bunker.

Her second shot lodged in a scrubby bush at the edge of another bunker near the green. It took a while for tournament officials to find the ball and declare it unplayable.

After Wie accepted a penalty stroke, her fourth shot landed twenty-five feet from the hole. Her putt for bogey overshot the hole by a couple of yards. A six at the par-four 16th hole left her with a single-stroke lead over Lewis, who was on the course’s driving range, getting warmed up in case there needed to be a playoff.

At which point, I watched the body language carefully. I wondered which Michelle Wie I was going to see next – the 2012 disaster zone, or the golfer that won the LGPA Lotte Championship in April and looked entirely at home doing it (beyond the fact that it was held in her home state of Hawaii)?

In 2012, the final two holes might have ended up as bogeys, and a shaken Wie might have watched Stacy Lewis hoist the trophy. Or worse … a bogey and a par (or even worse, a par and then a bogey), and then the aforementioned playoff.

This Sunday?

Birdie, par. Two-stroke win. And a golfer who has ten more years of life, ten more years of experience, and one more major.

Here’s what I still would love to know, though:

Between the end of the 16th hole and the tee shot on 17 … what was Michelle Wie’s internal monologue like?

What was the difference between Sunday and, say, the aftermath of an especially tough tee shot at a tournament in Singapore, when Wie had chucked her club away and cussed in four-letter fashion in front of a gallery containing many small children?

Every summer I get to participate in the instruction of high school band student leaders, not just in the physical how-to-do it of conducting and marching, but in the techniques and psychology of teaching; and then, we have remarkable speakers come and talk to the kids about ephemeral concepts like leadership and motivation. We traffic in Starred Thoughts™ like “Believe in yourself, or IT IS OVER.” … “Don’t project your own failure.” “The only way to lose is to quit.” “A good leader is one that can adapt and overcome in the face of adversity.” “Don’t use ANYTHING as an excuse.” “If you don’t plant positive thoughts, negative thoughts will come.” “You will move in the direction of your attitude.” “Successful people learn from every situation.” “Lead with a heart of fire and a head of ice!”

In 2012, would Michelle Wie have been muttering any of those things to herself?

This past Sunday, was Michelle Wie thinking any of these things?

Did she even need to?

Maybe she was humming a silly little song?

Whatever was going on inside her head … it worked.

Whatever it was … I wouldn’t mind picking up a box of that stuff, if it could be packaged.

June 24, 2014 Posted by | Famous Persons, golf, sports, Starred Thoughts | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment