Chase: 'A New Ethic for a New Media'

Chase: 'A New Ethic for a New Media'

September 17, 2007
Written by Staff Reports

A New Ethic for a New Media
Everett C. Parker Ethics in Telecommunications Lecture
National Press Club
Washington, DC

It is a singular honor for me to be here at the 25th annual Parker lecture, this time in an unaccustomed role. As some of you know, when I was first hired as director of the UCC's office of communication, I had no clue about the church's historic legacy in media justice. Now, almost nine years later, I am deeply moved to have been a part of this effort in defense of the public interest and on behalf of historically marginalized voices. I am humbled to have followed my mentor and friend Everett Parker and his successor Art Cribbs in this work; to have labored beside the likes of Gloria Tristani and Cheryl Leanza; to witness Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein's tireless efforts to alert the public to the dangers of unchecked power in the media; to watch Andy Schwartzman work his magic, to have joined with my UCC colleagues in challenging stereotypes on the air; to have shared this podium in prior years with my good friend Sam Simon and so many notables and to look forward to future engagements in the struggle for media justice with my new colleagues at Intersections. I am grateful beyond words to OC, Inc. and TRAC for this opportunity.

A word about Intersections: its goal is to bring people together in innovative ways who fundamentally disagree, with the hope of finding common ground and forging outcomes-based strategies that address those issues of peace, justice and reconciliation that divide us. It is fitting, then, for me to be here in this setting. An underlying goal of the Parker Lecture has been to gather those who may be adversaries about one issue or another, but who find commonality in the importance of the public interest, and who support an ethic that recognizes the power of media in our society and who seek to strengthen our democracy through a robust marketplace of ideas.

The core of our media ethic today is found in an old African Proverb, "Until the lions can tell their own story, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter." Until the voiceless are granted voice, their hopes and expectations, triumphs and tragedies will never be articulated, leaving us and them to wonder—like the sound of a tree falling in the forest that no one hears—if they really ever exist at all. It is imperative that we lift up diverse voices in the media, lest we slip into the dual purgatories of bland homogeneity or strident extremism.

We all approach the great issues of our day through our own individualized lenses. I begin my remarks today by suggesting three perspectives as we consider the media landscape before us.

Lens 1: Biologist J.B.S. Haldane once said, "My… suspicion is that not only is the universe queerer than we suppose, but it is queerer than we can suppose." Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, professor at Oxford University and author of The God Delusion reminds us that our very existence is astoundingly surprising. Life as we know it is comprised of molecules that have gathered themselves together in amazing complexity—and yet, here we are.

Dawkins, like Haldane, claims there are dimensions of the universe that are ungraspable—God, apparently, being one of them for Dawkins—because our brains have evolved, through millions and millions of infinitesimal changes, to help us cope with the limited reality that surrounds us. Science has taught us—against all intuition—that apparently solid things, like rocks, are actually composed almost entirely of empty space. The hardest rock we know consists of vast empty places broken only by tiny particles so widely scattered they shouldn't count. Rocks feel hard because our hands and other objects cannot penetrate them. It is useful for our brains to construct notions of solidity and impenetrability.

Similarly, on the cosmic scale, objects that matter to our survival—buildings, trees, mountains—which are actually hurtling through the universe—either stand still or move slowly when compared to the speed of light. So, historically, very improbable notions, like the earth revolving around the sun, could safely be treated as impossibilities. We exist in a world that is larger than the atomic scale and smaller than the cosmic scale. This Dawkins calls Middle World—not Middle Earth, that's Tolkien; not Middle Church—that's Bob Edgar. In this middle world, it is difficult to grasp concepts like the speed of light or being a neutrino passing through a rock. We are evolved citizens of middle world and this limits what we are even capable of imagining.

Lens 2: In his book, The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil maps the rate of technological advancement since time began and finds that the rate of change is not linear but exponential. The "singularity" predicts the liberation of consciousness from the confines of human biology, allowing us to interact directly with computer networks. We will become one with machines.

Neural implants—that already exist—will enhance memory, correct personality disorders. Nanobots, robots designed on a molecular level, such as respirocytes—mechanical red-blood cells—will have myriad roles within the human body, including reversing human aging. Billions of nanobots in the capillaries of the human brain will create virtual reality from within the nervous system. You will be able to be a different person both physically and emotionally. Other people—such as your romantic partner—will be able to select a different body for you than you might select for yourself.

The ethical implications of all this are overwhelming. And while we quibble over restrictions on stem cell research, these changes are already occurring at an exponential pace. Many, according to Kurzweil, will occur in the first half of this century.

To understand the impact of this, we might remember the Chinese tale about the emperor and the inventor of chess. In response to the emperor's offer of a reward for his newly beloved game, the inventor asked for a single grain of rice on the first square of the chess board, two grains of rice on the second square, four on the third, and so on.

The Emperor quickly granted this seemingly benign request. Initially, the transaction was uneventful. Spoonfuls of rice led to bowls of rice, then barrels. By the end of the first half of the chess board, the inventor had accumulated one large field's worth (4 billion grains) and the emperor began to notice. The second half of the board, 63 doublings, ultimately totaled 18 million trillion grains of rice. At ten grains of rice per square inch, this requires rice fields covering twice the surface of the Earth, oceans included. It is in dispute whether the emperor went bankrupt or the inventor lost his head.

But as Kurzweil points out, with regard to the doublings of computation, we currently stand about ½ way through the chess board: there have been slightly more than 32 doublings of performance since the first programmable computers were invented during World War II.

A comprehensive study on the quantity of data produced in the world, undertaken by Stanford University's Peter Lyman and Hal Varian, found that in 2002 alone, print, film, magnetic and optical storage produced five exabytes of new information. Five exabytes is equivalent to 37,000 new libraries of congress—or, the researchers estimate—all the words ever spoken by human beings.

In 2005 there were more computer chips produced than grains of rice.

As Woody Allen said, "What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists. In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet." When confronted with such cosmic questions, I often look to scripture. Hence Lens 3, from the 12th Chapter of Genesis:

Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed. So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.

God offers a good three point sermon to Abram.

The first point is the command "to go." Dr. Ephrain Agosto from Hartford Theological Seminary speaks of an intense study undertaken around the Hebrew word translated here. Experts from across the country gathered and offered papers and perspectives. After significant scholarly input and intellectual deliberation, the conclusion was that the Hebrew word translated as "go" actually means "GO."

Simple. Direct. Don't just sit there. Go.

The second point is that God does not say where to go—"to a place that I will show you." At the time of departure, there is no land of milk and honey, but there is a "promised land" because God says that God WILL show Abram where to go…just not yet.

The third point is that God offers Abram greatness, a blessing, if he goes. He will not be able to hide in the shadows but his light will shine on the hill.

And so—Abram went. No hesitation, no elaboration. He just WENT. And his name became blessed.

If those among us who claim to be religious people are to be faithful in our day, we too are called to risk, to go forward boldly and creatively into a world where we do not hide from media exposure and engagement, even though we cannot predict the final outcome. We must engage the society that surrounds us. We must speak truth to power. The time is now. The task is ours.

Why? Because sadly, media is broken, dwelling on the superficial and the sensational. At every level up and down the corporate ladder, journalists lament the pressure of the bottom line in shaping news coverage. Only a small fraction of air time is devoted to local news. Media consolidation has squeezed out diverse voices and historically undercapitalized groups—women, people of color, the disabled. Destructive and inaccurate stereotypes abound. Profit drives programming and important stories go unreported. When the FCC levied the largest fine in its history against Univision last spring for its failure to broadcast sufficient educational children's television—a story that made the front page of the NY Times, television news was uniformly silent. The failure of the media in the run up to the Iraq War has become tragically, painfully obvious.

Imam Malik Mujahid, Chair of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago and president of the largest Islamic publishing house in the U.S., in a presentation a week ago to the National Council of Churches, reported that 500,000 Muslims—representing 24% of all Muslim households in this country—have been interviewed by the FBI since 9/11. 28,000 have been detained or deported. Prisons have been designated specifically for Muslim prisoners and "Halliburton has a government contract to build more." Stories like this abound. Who is telling them?

Tolkien says, "It does not do you good to leave a dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him." And the dragons are many in our world.

Dr. Robert Hackett, Professor of Communication at Canada's Simon Fraser University, notes that "media concentrate society's symbolic power," focusing attention by priming and framing. Nowhere is the importance of framing more obvious than in the weeks before the War in Iraq. One study showed that of the 393 interviews on the nightly news of ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS in the run up to the War—three were by peace activists.

Why would framing make a difference? I am reminded of the cellist in Sarajevo who, in the midst of the Balkan War, took his instrument into the town square and set up his chair. As bombs were falling all around, he began to play. A reporter, sensing a great story, dodged the raining shrapnel, raced up to him and asked, "why are you out here playing your cello while they're dropping bombs?" The cellist looked at the reporter and asked with indignation, "why are they dropping bombs while I'm playing my cello?" Where was the frame of the cellist in the spring of 2003?

But media is changing and just like the folly of fighting the last war is a recipe for disaster, so too a media infrastructure and ethic based on outdated constructs will not serve us well.

In April of last year, the Economist pointed out interesting bookends that mark the era of mass media. In 1448, when Gutenberg invented movable type, he disrupted the mainstream media of the day—monks manually transcribing biblical texts—and the age of mass media had arrived. Then, in 2001, Ben and Mena Trott, a husband and wife team laid off during the dotcom bust began blogging. The popularity of their enterprise prompted them to build a better blogging tool, which they whimsically called "Movable Type."

The effect of this and other advancements in communication technology has been to move us from the era of mass media to the age of personal and participatory media. The infrastructure for such a new era is qualitatively different and so too must be the ethic that guides our steps into this brave new world. Using Dawkins' lens, what is emerging is hard to fathom; like Kurzweil, we are experiencing changes at breakneck pace, and like Abram, we are called to venture boldly into this new era, though we do not know the final destination.

But this new era of participatory, personal media is clearly upon us. The line between content consumer and content producer has blurred. Communication has shifted from one-to-many to one-to-one. Research shows that 57% of American teenagers create content for the internet. 31 billion emails are sent each day. A new blog is created every second of every day, and the "blogosphere" is doubling in size every five months. This year YouTube passed 150 million monthly visitors, with 100 million videos viewed every day. 1.17 billion video streams have been initiated. There are more than 9.5 million participants in Second Life.

In the old age of mass media, "Oh my!" was an expression of exasperation. In the new media age, OhMyNews, an online journal started in Feb. 2000 by South Korean Oh Yeon Ho, currently averages 700,000 visitors and two million page views a day, which puts it in the same league as a large newspaper. But OhMyNews has no reporters on its staff at all. Instead, it relies on amateurs—"citizen reporters", as Oh prefers to call them—to contribute articles. Oh's initial group of 727 Citizen Reporters now numbers 50,000. The journal is published in dozens of languages. Is it reliable? Recent polls show it to be the 6th most trusted news source in South Korea.

Wikipedia now has 5 million registered editor accounts; the combined Wikipedias in all languagesr contain 1.74 billion words in 7.5 million articles in approximately 250 languages, 36 times the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The English version of Wikipedia gains a steady 1,700 articles a day. Wikipedia is ranked 10th busiest site on the Internet and has more "visitors" than the online New York Times, CNN and other mainstream sites.

But is it accurate? The journal Nature recently commissioned a study to compare the accuracy of a sample of articles drawn from Wikipedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica respectively. Nature's experts found 162 errors in Wikipedia's articles, but 123 errors in Britannica's. While one might reasonably argue that Wikipedia had a third more errors and therefore less reliable, one striking result of this study was to show that Britannica had any errors at all, exposing again the fallacy of the myth that old media is 100% accurate. As a wise old priest once said to me about the new media, "the sage on the stage is dead."

The citizen journalism brought out by events such as the London bombings, Katrina, Asia's tsunami and other recent events has sent a new joke into the blogosphere: that Andy Warhol's proverbial "15 minutes of fame" have now become "15 megs" of fame. But the area of citizen journalism that is currently growing fastest, according to Yahoo's Scott Moore, is the least glamorous end: the so-called "hyper-local" coverage of high-school sports, petty neighbourhood crime, school board issues. Says Moore, "in almost every market in the US we're already the number two provider of local news, after the leading local newspaper." And this area—local news coverage—is a principle casualty of media consolidation during the last stages of the age of mass media.

As to social networking?  In June, Neilsen reported that MySpace has 60 million particpants, all creating online content and networking with one another. Upstart Facebook passed 30 miilion members this summer. The Economist quoted Rupert Murdoch, head of NewsCorp as telling the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 2005 that "as an industry, many of us have been remarkably, unaccountably, complacent." Young readers "don't want to rely on a god-like figure from above to tell them what's important. And to carry the religion analogy a bit further, they certainly don't want news presented as gospel." The websites of news outlets, Murdoch said, "have to become the place for conversation. The digital native doesn't send a letter to the editor any more. She goes online and starts a blog. We need to be the destination for those bloggers." Soon after, Murdoch bought MySpace.

In 1995, the National Council of Churches' General Board produced a document, "The Churches' Role in Media Education and Communication Advocacy," which could be seen as containing a media policy ethic. While much is still relevant—ensuring public accountability by those who control media; affirming freedom of speech and opposing censorship within a framework of social responsibility; supporting "universal access" and a broad diversity of viewpoints; working to advance the interests of women, minorities, and people with disabilities to ensure authentic representation on TV—the document is based on the age of mass media and is silent on the coming age of participatory media.

So what are the new elements that should be included in an ethic for this new era?

First: Be clear. As per Richard Dawkins, we need to frame policy principles in language and images our evolved brains can comprehend. While there are some among us—some even here in this room—who can grasp the notion of exobytes, logarithms, blue tooth technology and digital spectrum, most cannot. As we engage new media, we must articulate its underpinnings with terminology that lay people can understand. If not, we risk isolating the public from the very information they need to take control of their media lives. We should begin our conversation as if we have moved from the lecture hall to the tap room.

Next, we must build an ethic where the public interest remains at its center. In too many conversations about media policy in recent years, the public interest is simply absent. I am not suggesting that marketplace values are invalid, but they are insufficient for the common good.

Third, we need to dispel the myth of the level playing field. In contemporary American society, with its huge disparities in wealth, playing fields are inherently uneven. We need an ethic that tilts toward the small. A system weighted toward "the least of these" is a foundational principle in religious thinking that cuts across faith lines. At its heart, this struggle is a question of justice and the arc of justice bends toward the poor. We ignore this trajectory at our own peril.

Two weeks ago, the Dept. of Justice took the unprecedented action of a press release from the Department of Justice critical of net neutrality. The release cited differences in the rates the US Postal Service charges its customers, ranging from bulk mail to overnight delivery, as a model. This argument ignored constitutional principles established by Madison and Jefferson that sought to use postal rates to keep publishing as competitive and wide open as possible and, according to the mission of the US Postal Service, "to provide for an economically sound postal system that could afford to deliver letters between any two locations, however remote." Postal rates that tilt in favor of small users and rural residents is the real ethic that is applicable here. Even more distressing was the fact that there was no reference in the press release to the public interest. Access to the internet must remain free and unfettered.

Fourth, we need media policy that is nimble, responsive to change, that reflects Kurzweil's theory of exponential growth. Much of today's infrastructure was built for the previous era, not the coming one. For example, almost everywhere, download speeds (from the internet to the user) are many times faster than upload speeds (from user to network). This is because the corporate giants that built these pipes assumed that the internet would simply be another distribution conduit for themselves or their partners in the industry. Already, we can see this is not working as those industries that require high speed connectivity are moving jobs to Europe and Asia. The percentage of the US population with broadband access continues to slip compared to other countries. Sources place us somewhere between 15th and 25th.       

Fifth, we need clear and robust protections for our children and others who are vulnerable to avoid cyber bullying and exploitation from predatory advertisers. 42% of young people have been threatened on-line—25% more than once—including almost one in five fourth graders.

And our efforts must be urgent. The forces of media consolidation, the exponential changes in technology, the move to digital spectrum, globalization all converge to prompt immediate action. Like Abram, we must go forward boldly and without hesitation in defense of the public interest, even if we do not know the ultimate destination.

Finally, we need an ethic that promotes imagination, creativity, free expression. Perhaps, imagination is the key: that human quality that Dawkins says is limited by life experience, but that still moves us to dare to dream, that emboldens us, that enables us to create new products and practices—that dimension of our heart and mind and soul that, when coupled with faith, moves us to ever deeper understandings of ourselves, our world and our God: imagination.

I close, not with the words of a futuristic communications expert, or some internet guru, or a cutting-edge economist, but with the words of a freed slave, the first published African American author in the US, Phillis Wheatley who in 1773 published a poem, On Imagination. Her words provide us with a poetic challenge, for each of us who are concerned about media justice in this country, irrespective of the lens we use, to summon new ideas, new framings, new ways to move us all forward:

Imagination! Who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through the air to find the bright abode
Th'empyreal palace of the thund'ring God
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th'unbounded soul.

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