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The Importance of Free Speech Online in Iran, China, Kenya

In a crisis, governments will often curtail freedom of the press, censoring or shutting broadcasts and newspapers. But blocking websites, slowing the Internet or cutting off SMS messaging can be harder to do. Stopping the flow of information online can be a difficult task, as the Iranian government has learned over the past few weeks, as protesters have posted images to Flickr, video to YouTube, and running commentaries on blogs and Twitter. While the Iranian government would prefer to operate under a cloud, the Interent has proven to be a key distribution medium for spreading news to the rest of the world.

This month’s 5Across video roundtable focused on free speech online in various countries, from Iran to China to Kenya — and even a mention of the U.S. government’s attempts at curtailing speech online over the years. The discussion gave context to Iranian Internet use, its demographics and the way people there get information via satellite TV from Persian-language foreign news sources such as BBC Persian and Voice of America. Plus, we talked about how China uses psychology in making its millions of Internet users believe they are all being monitored.

5Across: Free Speech Online

Guest biographies:

Cyrus Farivar is a freelance technology journalist based in Oakland, Calif. He regularly reports for Public Radio International’s The World, National Public Radio, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, The Economist and others. His forthcoming book, “The Internet of Elsewhere,” examines the history and effects of the Internet in four countries around the world, including Iran. It’s due out from Rutgers University Press in 2010.

Danny O’Brien is the International Outreach Coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He works to help the EFF, the first digital rights group in the world, collaborate with organizations and individuals fighting for online liberties globally. O’Brien has written columns for the Sunday Times, Irish Times, and also founded the Need to Know email newsletter in the dot-com heyday.

5across july guys.jpg

Edwin Okong’o is a Kenyan-born journalist, writer and humorist. He’s an editor at New America Media, an online news service and coalition of ethnic media in the United States. He is also a reporter for PBS Frontline/World. Okong’o received a Masters in Journalism from UC Berkeley.

Scott Rosenberg is the author of the new “Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters,” as well as “Dreaming in Code.” He co-founded in 1995 and served as its technology editor and later managing editor for many years. He is also the founder of MediaBugs, a new project funded by the Knight News Challenge.

Kim Spencer, president of Link Media, is an award-winning producer of over 50 documentaries and television specials. A pioneer in using satellite links to foster global dialogue, Kim produced a series of 15 international “spacebridges” including The Moscow Link, a live TV exchange that changed USSR attitudes on nuclear war. Subsequently Kim became coordinating producer of ABC News’ “Prime Time Live.” Spencer is also executive producer of Link TV’s original productions, including “Global Pulse,” “Bridge to Iran” and “Mosaic.”

If you’d prefer to watch sections of the show rather than the entire show, I’ve broken them down by topic below.

Twitter Revolution?

Iran in Context

What Source Do You Trust?

Government Interference

Dangers of Free Speech?

China, Kenya…U.S.?


Mark Glaser, producer and host
Charlotte Buchen, camera

Julie Caine, audio

Location: Vega Project & Kennerly Architecture office space in San Francisco

Special thanks to: PBS and The Knight Foundation

Music by AJ the DJ

What do you think? How important is the Internet at spreading news when governments curtail freedom of the press? How have you followed the news from Iran? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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Fake News Suffers Too: The Onion Orders More Fealty To Advertisers

While satirical newspaper The Onion has got a lot of mileage out of the “death of newspapers” meme—such as this brief—CEO Steve Hannah has warned the staff that the fake news business isn’t immune from the industry’s ad revenue problems. And so, in a memo obtained by Gawker, Hannah says that despite cutting expenses by $6 million, staffers must collaborate more on driving business, especially in light of the decision to lay off five members of the sales team last week. Therefore, Hannah writes, “Saying ‘no’ to an advertiser whose desires don’t exactly match your wishes is a losing game.”

As for the group effort to come up with creative ways to drive ad revenue, Hannah pointedly says that “this is not the classic business vs. editorial matter. If you believe that… you are officially working at the wrong company.”

Two years ago, The Onion invested $1 million in building up its online video offerings. While the company has gotten received a great deal of positive attention for its video lampoons, it no longer provides the advantages in an increasingly competitive market. That said, Hannah insisted that there are no plans to charge for its videos, which are available for free on the site and through iTunes as a podcast.

In the meantime, here’s a fake news chart from The Onion surveying why newspaper readership is down:

(click to enlarge)

Summer Series Set Bronze Standard at Best

MINNEAPOLIS ( — For the past few summers, NBC, Fox and ABC have tried to bill "America's Got Talent," "So You Think You Can Dance" and "Wipeout" as hot summer hits. And while all three are quite successful summer series, none looks like it would be overly successful in the fall or spring, up against first-run fare.

Eric Alterman: Think Again: Conflicts of Interest by the Wealthy and for the Wealthy

Crossposted with the Center for American Progress. With Danielle Ivory

The most recent controversy to embroil media bigwigs has been the proposed but now cancelled salons planned by Washington Post publisher Katherine Weymouth. The problem was not with the notion of salons themselves--journalists, like anyone else, are allowed to participate in any discussions they please. Rather it was in the fact that the Post was quite clearly selling access to its journalists--and to invited lawmakers looking to curry favor with the newspaper in what it promised would be an "intimate and informal dinner and discussion 'entirely' off the record" exclusively for "those powerful few."

The discussions were to be hosted by Weymouth in her home with Marcus Brauchli, the Post's executive editor. A memo describing the events explained that "The Washington Post is the media brand that sits at the intersection of business and policy," and promised access to "leading policymakers," together with "top Washington Post editors, columnists, and journalists."

When the story originally broke in Politico--the Post's own media ethics cop Howard Kurtz being caught flatfooted--journalists across the country had a fine time mocking the inexperienced Weymouth who, apparently desperate for revenue, did not know the first thing about the fundamentals of journalistic integrity. In fact her apology published in Sunday's paper demonstrated that if she did not then, she does now, and the Post initiated an internal review of its "salon policy."

But the practice is apparently a much more common one than was previously understood. The Atlantic Monthly has been also holding been holding a similar series of profit-making "pay-for-play" dinners for six years, each sponsored by a different corporation, in which journalists and policymakers are brought together for off-the-record conversations in a similar friendly, "nonconfrontational" atmosphere. Atlantic Monthly Media Chairman David Bradley explained that such meetings were necessary because, "the economic foundation beneath journalism is falling away ... The imperative, as I see it, is to rebuild journalism on different financial pillars. One of them, and not inconsequential to us, is events--of all types." (In fact, the crisis affecting the news business and the newspaper business in particular has nothing to do with The Atlantic, which has always been a money-losing "vanity" publication, like Harper's, The New Republic, The Nation, The Weekly Standard, National Review, etc. Each of these publications undertakes ideas to reduce their deficits, and each can be criticized for doing so. But let's keep our eye on the ball here.)

And for decades, the dynamic duo of Rowland Evans and Robert Novak held a similar series of high-priced conferences at which they dragooned their sources for off-the-record meetings at which other journalists were not invited even when say, the secretary of the treasury was announcing important policy shifts in U.S. economic policy.

Perhaps the worst that can be said of these salons is that the Washington Post company and the Atlantic Monthly have dragged themselves down to the level of the infamous hucksters nicknamed "Errors and Nofacts." But the problem of journalistic conflicts of interest is only going to get worse as traditional funding sources dry up. Many of these conflicts, particularly those involving friendship and typical socializing-schmoozing, may be unfortunate but are ultimately unavoidable in a town like Washington where journalistic, political, and corporate elites are so cozy and incestuous with one another.

Given the power that the perceptions created by powerful media personalities and institutions enjoy over the profits of so many industries, it is only natural for them to want to invest some of their public relations dollars in shaping their views. After all, that is what their lobbying budgets are all about. By charging tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to get access to public officials, these institutions are literally using the privileges accorded them by the First Amendment to line their own pockets by simply acting as a middle man between the lobbyist and the lobbied--however high-minded the discussion may be. As James Fallows once explained, these events are especially valuable to industries because of the "subtle immunization" that occurs. It's not simply that stories are reported in a friendlier and more sympathetic manner after friendships are struck and money changes hands. It's also that certain stories are never reported at all.

The second level of corruption comes when the journalist sits down to write the story. Take the example of the Post's Howard Kurtz, who, as the paper's media critic, is supposed to be "holier than the pope" when it comes to conflict of interest. Kurtz is paid significant amounts of cash by the very people he is ostensibly covering and over and over, he refuses to disclose these ties.

When I wrote to the Post's ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, about the most recent incident of this--when in a Post chat Kurtz was identified only as a Post staff writer and columnist, rather than a paid employee of the network he was defending (something he preferred not to reveal)--I inquired as to what the Post's conflict-of-interest policy might be, as it apparently did not preclude taking cash payments from your subjects. (As Charles Kaiser has repeatedly wondered, would the Post allow a reporter covering the auto industry to pocket a regular check from General Motors?) Alexander answered:

It does. Unfortunately, The Post will not publicly disclose them--something I find unwise and short sighted. Readers such as Alterman are entitled to know the standards to which The Post holds itself. In a column several months ago, I wrote: "The Post keeps its journalistic policies largely hidden, making it virtually impossible for readers to know the paper's ethical and journalistic standards. The public should be able to easily access them online. It's not merely right but also smart to be transparent at a time when The Post is trying to hold on to readers."

Kurtz's ongoing relationship with CNN--which obviously infects not only his reporting on CNN for the Post, but also his reporting on the Post for CNN, as well as his reporting on CNN's competitors Fox, Fox Business, MSNBC, CNBC, etc. for the Post, and The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, etc, for CNN--is perhaps the most egregious ongoing conflict in all elite journalism. But it is hardly the only one.

We recently heard stories of Tom Friedman being forced to return a $75,000 speaking fee over one such revealed conflict; again, the Times proved extremely reluctant to spell out just what its policies were with regard to cash payments to its employees by outside sources. James Fallows and I have long followed the adventures of ABC's buckraking Cokie Roberts here, who, together with her husband Steve Roberts, accepts massive payments for speeches from industries with powerful stakes in issues she alleges to discuss without prejudice on ABC's "This Week" and elsewhere.

The practice is generally accepted in Washington as somehow consistent with journalistic independence and has literally been going on for decades. A recent innovation--one that is unfortunately married to the phenomenon of tens of thousands of journalists being downsized in recent years--is the creation of a firm like Abrams Research that promises that "media insiders" will "offer insights, data, and personnel never before available to businesses for image enhancement, branding, investigative reporting and the execution of the best media plan."

Unfortunately, the blogosphere--which is a corrective in many cases and is responsible for breaking the case of the Post salons--is actually making this problem far worse. Public relations firms across America are paying bloggers to assume a false identity to write phony posts to support their clients and products. Businesses are also making a point of "seeding" independent bloggers with free swag, in hopes of creating the illusion of unfiltered grassroots enthusiasm....

You can read the rest of Eric Alterman and Danielle Ivory's analysis in their recent article, "
Think Again: Conflicts of Interest by the Wealthy and for the Wealthy

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Most Important Ideals was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at

Danielle Ivory is a reporter and producer for the Huffington Post Investigative Fund. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Sun Valley Media Conference Photos: Mogulmania Day 2!

The Allen & Company retreat in Sun Valley continued Thursday with even more moguls showing up for Day 2. While it remains to be seen if any deals have been made, the usual suspects milled about the Sun Valley Lodge while newcomers, like Twitter’s Evan Williams, soaked up the spotlight.



Photos from Day 2 of the conference, courtesy AP, below:

Q&A With That’s Gay’s Bryan Safi

Women sick of yogurt commercials found a hero last year in Current TV’s Sarah Haskins’ series Target Women. And last month, gay men were given an equally funny and passionate voice with the addition of Bryan Safi’s That’s Gay. Like Target Women, That’s Gay is one segment of the broadcast series Infomania — and like Target Women, That’s Gay is a political and sarcastic examination of gay issues and their portrayal in the media.

In the first installment (which racked up over 70,000 views on Current’s site), Safi lashed out against the gay best friend stereotype, and then moved since gone on (HUH?) to discuss gay marriage and whether or not Sasha Baron Cohen’s Bruno is the new Malcolm X. We spoke via phone about reclaiming the word “gay,” Safi’s previous work at Funny or Die, and what, if anything, would be too gay to do on That’s Gay. An edited transcript follows.

NewTeeVee: What inspired the first episode of That’s Gay?

Bryan Safi: I think from watching Millionaire Matchmaker and being so offended when [Patty Stanger] asked a guy she’d never met if he was a top or a bottom. And I love Kathy Griffin, but all the stuff with her shouting “Where my gays at?” bothered me. It just seems kind of antiquated — I just wanted to say “Enough!”

NewTeeVee: Were you surprised by how fast it spread?

Safi: I was really surprised. I told my producer Natalie, like, blast it out to your friends and maybe we’ll get a thousand hits! I had no idea that it would blow up into something else, that I’d be asked to do more, that I’d be getting Facebook messages from people saying, “Oh, yes, finally! My friend does that to me all the time! It’s so annoying!” It’s nice to know that other people are sick of it as well.

NewTeeVee: Regarding the stereotype of the gay best friend in society, are you one of the first people to point out its unfairness?

Safi: I think I had never heard it out loud before, even though everyone was feeling the same thing. With every best girlfriend I’ve ever had, I love them all to death, but you do become kind of a dump truck for their problems sometimes. So it was nice to point it out, and it was nice to hear that other people thought the exact same thing.

I was thrilled that gay people really embraced it and I was really thrilled that women did, too. It spoke to everyone in that way, that everyone identified with that relationship.

NewTeeVee: Was something specific in how you portrayed [the relationship] that caused that identification?

Safi: Just hearing it out loud, and pointing to specific examples that are on TV, almost every week, of that relationship and of that happening, made it register. Like, oh, yeah, it is a real thing.

NewTeeVee: The title of the show tweaks with the pejorative use of the word “gay.” Was that intentional?

Safi: Absolutely. We want to take back that phrase, because it’s dropped all the time. Sometimes it’s dropped appropriately, but sometimes — most of the time — it’s not.

NewTeeVee: It seems like there’s a lot of stuff that’s endemic to gay culture, but at the same time is stereotypical and doesn’t accurately reflect the majority of gay Americans. How is That’s Gay going to address that?

Safi: I think, because gays have been marginalized for so long, [gay culture]’s really nothing but stereotypes right now. And also within gay culture there’s different types: Are you an Abercrombie & Fitch guy; or are you a punk guy; or are you emo; or are you Adam Lampert? That kind of thing. Really, we want to address any sort of gay image.

NewTeeVee: Would you say the focus is on gay culture or on the way media perceives gay culture?

Safi: I would say the way media perceives gay culture. (I?) think that all of that stuff is in there; like ads about gay dating certainly address gay stereotypes. But when you look at it through a media perspective, it’s easier to nail and it registers so quickly for people.

NewTeeVee: Prior to Current, you were working at Funny Or Die. How long were you there?

Safi: Like a year and a half. I got here in January. I loved Funny Or Die — it was a blast to work there — but my job became more and more administrative and I was looking for something more creative and this was right in front of me.

NewTeeVee: Like Sarah Haskins, you also have a sketch comedy background. What about that training do you find helpful for hosting a talking head segment?

Safi: I can’t speak for Sarah, but instantly, for every scenario, I try to find the joke immediately, even if it ends up being a horrible one. So that’s the place I’m coming from. And once I have a topic for the segment, there are a lot of cutaways to sketches and I always start there — that’s the first thing that pops into my head, and then we build out from there. That’s the first thing I want to do, is make it be funny. And then everyone else here helps out with the smart part.

NewTeeVee: How much collaboration is there on the scripts?

Safi: I write the scripts, but [Infomania producers] Jeff Plunkett and Conor Knighton look at it, as well as Natalie Proctor, who produces and edits the segments. I can’t believe how easy it’s been. Everyone’s been super supportive.

NewTeeVee: Is there anything you would consider too gay to discuss?

Safi: Ben Kingsley.

NewTeeVee: I didn’t even realize he was gay.

Safi: I don’t think he is. But it would be pretty gay if I just started talking about Ben Kingsley. SIR Ben Kingsley. That would be super-gay.

NewTeeVee: An entire episode devoted to him and his career would be pretty fabulous.

Safi: He’s Ghandi! Now I’m a major a-hole.

NewTeeVee: He only PLAYED Ghandi. It’d be bad if it was Ghandi.

Safi: Yeah. There will never be a That’s Gay: Ghandi.

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