Arianna Huffington: Bearing Witness 2.0: You Can’t Spin 10,000 Tweets and Camera Phone Uploads

China just delivered a stunning, real-world demonstration of the changes rocking -- and transforming -- modern journalism.

When deadly riots broke out in the western province of Xinjiang last week, the Chinese government sprang into message control mode. It choked off the Internet and mobile phone service, blocked Twitter and Fanfou (its Chinese equivalent), deleted updates and videos from social networking sites, and scrubbed search engines of links to coverage of the unrest. At the same time, it invited foreign journalists to take a tour of the area.

That's right, it slammed the door in the face of new media -- and offered traditional reporters a front row seat.

China's leaders realized that it's one thing to try to spin the on-the-ground views of bused-in reporters ("To help foreign media to do more objective, fair and friendly reports," in the words of the government's PR agency), but quite another to try to spin the accounts and uploaded images of tens of thousands of Twittering and cell-phone camera-wielding citizens.

The Chinese have clearly learned the lessons of Iran.

The same can't be said about New York Times columnist Roger Cohen who, writing about covering the Iran uprising, recently claimed:

To bear witness means being there -- and that's not free. No search engine gives you the smell of a crime, the tremor in the air, the eyes that smolder, or the cadence of a scream.

No news aggregator tells of the ravaged city exhaling in the dusk, nor summons the defiant cries that rise into the night. No miracle of technology renders the lip-drying taste of fear. No algorithm captures the hush of dignity, nor evokes the adrenalin rush of courage coalescing, nor traces the fresh raw line of a welt.

How bizarre is it that Cohen chooses to attack the tools of new-media-fueled reporting by citing the very event that highlights the power of those tools -- and the weakness of his argument?

Indeed, search engines, news aggregation, live-blogging, and "miracles of technology" such as Twitter, Facebook, and real-time video delivered via camera phones, played an indispensable part in allowing millions of people around the world to "bear witness" to what was happening in Iran.

The truth is, you don't have to "be there" to bear witness. And you can be there and fail to bear witness.

Obviously, there is tremendous value in being an eyewitness. But we have to always keep in mind that the conclusions drawn by eyewitnesses are greatly influenced by the eyes doing the witnessing.

Malcolm Muggeridge famously called this "the eyewitness fallacy" -- the tendency of people to see, in eyewitness accounts, what they want to see.

As a longtime writer and editor for the New York Times, Cohen should be particularly aware of the limitations of eyewitness accounts.

"Clad in nondescript clothes and a baseball cap, [a scientist who claims to have worked in Iraq's chemical weapons program for more than a decade] pointed to several spots in the sand where he said chemical precursors and other weapons material were buried. This reporter also accompanied MET Alpha on the search for him and was permitted to examine a letter written in Arabic that he slipped to American soldiers offering them information about the program and seeking their protection." So wrote an embedded Judith Miller, "bearing witness" to the "silver bullet" proof of Iraqi WMD in the Times in April of 2003.

Miller was certainly there to vividly describe "the tremor in the air, the eyes that smolder." And her account feels so real. But it was oh so wrong.

Miller was hardly alone in seeing what she wanted to see when it came to Iraq. On-site reporting, as Cohen notes is not free, but, too often, neither is access. Bob Woodward wrote two books, Bush at War and Plan of Attack, that, in retrospect, glaringly demonstrate the sometimes-high cost of access. Woodward got his eyewitness scoops; the White House got a portrayal of Bush as a scrupulous, honest, highly moral leader. It wasn't accurate, but it sure was a pretty exclusive eyewitness account. It wasn't until a third book, ironically with much less eyewitness accounting, that Woodward belatedly began getting the Bush presidency right.

Another example of the limitations of Cohen's credo that "to bear witness means being there" comes courtesy of his fellow Timesman, executive editor Bill Keller. Three days after the fraudulent Iranian election, and well after the street protests had been revved up and hundreds of videos had been uploaded and thousands of tweets had been posted, Keller -- in Iran to "bear witness" -- reported:

"With this election, Mr. Khamenei and [Mr. Ahmadinejad] appear to have neutralized for now the reform forces that they saw as a threat to their power, political analysts said."

Not exactly a miracle of eyewitness reporting.

In his column on Iran, Cohen writes movingly about being torn when he was forced to leave: "We journalists are supposed to move on. Most of the time, like insatiable voyeurs, we do. But once a decade or so, we get undone, as if in love, and our subject has its revenge, turning the tables and refusing to let us be."

I share his love for impassioned journalism, the kind that earned Upton Sinclair, I.F. Stone, and George Orwell their well-deserved place in history. But this is precisely the kind of journalism that is so often derided and dismissed by those who think the function of journalism is simply to offer up both sides of a story or an issue and then get out of the way.

Cohen says he has left a "chunk" of himself back in Tehran. We should all be leaving chunks of ourselves behind when we encounter not just people demanding their freedom abroad, but those here at home who are losing their jobs, who can't get health insurance, and whose houses are being foreclosed. And we should leave a chunk of ourselves with them not just once every ten years, but every day.

New media is not replacing the need to "bear witness," it is spreading it beyond the elite few, and therefore making it harder for those elite few to get it as wrong as they've gotten it again and again -- from Stalin's Russia to Bush's Iraq.

Borrell: Social Nets Slowly Start To Capture Local Ad Spend

Social nets are going local, says Borrell Associates in a blog post, which has found that community sites get about 20 percent of their ad revenue from that space. While the bulk of social ad spending will continue to come from national advertisers, like newspaper sites, the need for incremental revenue by tapping small, local businesses that had been purview of online directories is driving some subtle changes. The impact of local ads on social net is likely to remain small. As it stands now, less than 3 percent of all locally spent online advertising goes to social nets. But considering that social net spending was thought to be purely national, a shift is likely over time.

—While the news is good for small marketers who are looking to reach social net users, most attempts by publishers to get in on the local action aren’t likely to add up to much: to wit, 57 percent of all that local social-networking advertising is going to two sites, Facebook and MySpace. They are the only two sites generating more than $100 million from local ad placements.

—Borrell, which specializes in local online media research, says its starting to notice local ads being placed either through Google (NSDQ: GOOG) or Yahoo’s contextual placement program. But again, those ads are probably done through a third party and not by the advertiser directly, so it doesn’t necessarily mean that social nets can aim their sales forces at the local pet shop or plumber. Borrell’s report follows eMarketer’s fuller outlook for social net ad spending, which is expected to rebound next year after this year’s 3 percent decline, real movement of local ad dollars isn’t likely to move much this year either. As for local in general, Borrell recently reversed its pessimistic forecast  and now anticipates an 11 percent rise in the space this year, once again bucking wider trends.

In The Battle For Stickiness, Facebook Powers Past AOL, Yahoo

Despite their vocal complaints, users may be falling for Facebook’s latest redesign. The social networking site jumped to the top of the list of big web brands in terms of average time spent per user last month, surpassing Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) and AOL (NYSE: TWX) for the honors, Nielsen Online said in a note Monday.

On average, visitors spent four hours and thirty-nine minutes on Facebook in June, up substantially from the three hours and fourteen minutes they spent in May. People spent an average of three hours and fifteen minutes on second place Yahoo and two hours and forty three minutes on sites in AOL’s media network. Nielsen did not lay out reasons for the shift, although it could be a sign that people have become more engaged with Facebook since its redesign, which gave prominent play to a refreshing stream of status updates on users’ home pages. Total traffic to Facebook was also up, further widening the social network’s lead over MySpace-owner Fox Interactive Media.

(An aside: Along with growth, apparently, come many revisions to a company’s mission statement. The NY Observer points out that Facebook’s one sentence tagline—“Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”—has changed nine times in the site’s four years of existence).

The Nielsen data:

June 2009 (in hours)

1. Facebook 4:39:33
2. Yahoo 3:15:59
3. AOL 2:43:10
4. Fox Interactive Media 2:14:21
5. MSN/Windows Live/Bing 2:02:11

May 2009 (in hours)

1. AOL 3:37:50
2. Yahoo 3:14:28
3. Facebook 3:12:13
4. MSN/Windows Live/Live Search 2:20:14
5. Google 1:17:04

Mark Joseph: My Interview With John Marks, Author, “Reasons To Believe”

Books by both atheists and ex-theists are all the rage these days and I am especially interested in the stories of the latter and think that religious leaders ignore these important stories at their own peril. The latest book in the category of the ex-believer is by former 60 Minutes producer John Marks whose book, Reasons To Believe, explores his journey away from the born-again Christianity of his youth and follows him on a quest to understand the beliefs of the faith he left behind.

John recently stopped by the Bully! Pulpit Show to talk with me about his book and some of the interesting folks he met during his research. The interview is posted here.

Dow Jones-Backed Raises $1.2 Million In Second Round

Tributes Inc., the Dow Jones-backed obituaries site, has raised $1.2 million in a second round of funding from existing and new investors. The company said it would use the new cash to fund the continued development of, which it is pitching as an alternative to traditional obituary classifieds. Visitors can create online obituaries for their loved ones—complete with pictures, videos, and music. A basic option is free, although users have to pay to include additional content and eliminate ads from their listings.

With the new funding, Tributes will have raised a total of $5.4 million. In February 2008, Dow Jones (NYSE: NWS), now part of News Corp., participated in Tributes’ $4.3 million first round of funding, along with Eons, the boomer social network which initially spun off the site. Dow Jones did not participate in the latest round, president Elaine Haney tells us. However, the company said backers did include a “strategic group of both existing and new investors representing both funeral service and the Boston tech community.”

In September, the WSJ started running obits from Tributes on its website. Tributes also powers obituary listings on a number of local television sites and has partnerships with major players in the funeral industry. Release.

Analysis of Top Themes at PDF 2009

PdF09 Twitters From the White House to White Flight: Whatever

A great analysis of the trends and topics that got the most buzz at the 2009 Personal Democracy Forum.  The data behind the analysis was pulled from our tool, Twitterslurp.

Glenn Beck Slams Softball Questioning Of Sotomayor… But There Were No Questions Today (VIDEO)

Glenn Beck is very upset with the softball questions that the Senators offered up to Judge Sonia Sotomayor during her first day of confirmation hearings. To prove his point, Beck played a video montage of Democratic senators praising Sotomayor, notably in statements and not questions.

Unfortunately for Beck, there were no questions today. The first day of the hearings is when Senators and the nominee make opening statements.

Beck did include one clip of a GOP senator, Lindsey Graham, telling Sotomayor “unless you have a complete meltdown, you’re gonna get confirmed. And I don’t think you will.” Beck ridiculed Graham for this: “Does anybody remember when Lindsey Graham wasn’t a worm?”


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