The Toxic Media Platform No One is Talking About

Plus three newsletters (two of them new) that are worth signing up for.

I’m traveling this week out to the west coast to take care of some family-related stuff, so forgive me for a shorter-than-usual round-up. Hopefully The Connector will be back up to full strength again next week.

One media platform has done tremendous damage to American society. It’s addicted us to our screens; it’s hooked us on a steady diet of sensationalism; it’s reduced the news down to spectacular pictures and pretty faces; it’s made us ignorant of the past, indifferent to facts and unconcerned about much of the world; and it’s turned us into eyeballs to be sold to advertisers. It’s time that did something to reverse its toxic effects on our democracy and society.

No, I’m not talking about Facebook. I’m talking about television. And I’m shamelessly cribbing the most recent edition of my friend Marc Cooper’s irascible newsletter, The Coop Scoop. Marc is a little older than me and mostly retired from his decades working in the trenches of independent and alternative journalism, writing for outlets like The Village Voice and The Nation (where I was his editor for a while) and producing radio shows for Pacifica’s KPFK. It’s my fault he started blogging late in his career, a practice that he has continued mostly on his, yes, Facebook page and now with The Coop Scoop.

His latest screed is a highly useful reminder that despite Facebook’s very, very bad week last week and the cumulative disclosures produced by Frances Haugen, the one-time FB data analyst turned whistleblower, broadcast television had already dumbed Americans down, hooking kids on sugary products and adults on hoary myths. Take a few minutes and read the whole thing.

Remember, this is what FCC chairman Newton Minow said about television 60 years ago:

“When television is good, nothing—not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers—nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials—many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.”

For a different take on Facebook’s travails, I also recommend Katie Harbath’s new substack Anchor Change. Katie was herself an anchor of the company’s now disbanded Civic Integrity Team, and she comes from the now defunct non-Trump wing of the Republican party. (We first met back in 2005 when she was working alongside Mindy Finn helping Michael Turk run the Republican National Committee’s digital program. All three are never-Trumpers.) All of her suggestions for how government should start regulating companies like Facebook are eminently reasonable.

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Odds and Ends

—While I’m in the newsletter-plugging lane, Sascha Haselmayer, the co-founder of CityMart and one of the earliest members of Civic Hall back in the day, has started a new newsletter called Slow Lane that I highly recommend. In it he is drawing on his twenty years of experience helping cities solve problems to tease out the lessons that really matter. His first edition describes how UserVoice, a London-based e-democracy nonprofit started by an ex-convict, fostered Prison Councils which have successfully involved inmates in providing high-quality feedback to improve prison conditions. He writes, “In 2009, when Mark Johnson founded the organization, no one had ever involved users of the probation services to improve outcomes. In just the period of 2015-21 User Voice has helped 127,000 ex-offenders take an active role in their probation by giving them a voice. They have recruited and trained more than 1,400 elected representatives to prison councils across the country, where they developed four hundred service improvements. Ninety percent of officials agreed that this empowerment had benefited probation outcomes.”

—While Texas and other states hack away at abortion rights, the internet may be a lifeline for many people in need of abortions. According to this story by Elizabeth Findell in MSN.com, “Providers of medicinal abortion resources said they saw a surge of interest and orders when the heartbeat bill went into effect, in Texas and nationwide. Plan C, a website that directs women to providers of abortion drugs, saw its web traffic soar 2,357% the first week of September, with 30% of those visits from Texas, said co-founder Francine Coeytaux.” Aid Access, another pro-choice organization based in Austria that sells Mifeprex, an abortifacient that works with ulcer medication misoprostol, will prescribe the pills via the Netherlands and ship them from a pharmacy in India.

—Was the CIA really planning to kidnap WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and spirit him off to the US, as Yahoo News reported two weeks ago? Well, former CIA director Mike Pompeo is now calling for the prosecution of the sources of that story, Michael Isikoff and Zach Dorfman report. Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said Pompeo’s comments effectively “just verified the truth of the [Yahoo News] story. Because the only reason to prosecute someone is that they revealed legitimate classified information. ... This was public interest journalism of the first order and the question is whether the public has a right to know that the government is engaged in this kind of conduct.” Indeed.

—Since the launch of Snapchat’s Run for Office Mini app, 24,000 people have signed up with partner organizations that support candidate recruitment and 46,000 users have nominated a friend to run. Of the more than 4,000 who have been funneled to Run for Something, roughly about a third are between the ages of 14 and 21; 28% identify and LGBTQIA+ and 38% identify as people of color. Wow.

Brandon Silverman, the founder of CrowdTangle, has officially left Facebook. Here’s his valedictory Twitter thread.

—If you are a Zoom power user, you’ve probably noticed the “immersive” setting on offer for group meetings, and grimaced at just how cheesy its virtual classroom and café layouts are. Looking for an alternative? Check out Topia, which I am now quite intrigued by after reading this description of a virtual wedding held there.

End Times

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