Advertising your way out of a problem

Michael Arrington over at TechCrunch criticizes the Google blogger’s use of Sicko to pitch ads for the healthcare industry. Why is this a bad idea? In his post, Arrington says it’s because the topic is controversial, “Millions of Americans have a serious problem with the way health care is handled in this country, and such a polarized topic is hardly one in which a company like Google wants to take a stand. And if they did take a stand, it would be with Moore.” In a comment further down in the thread, he goes further, alleging that the move is unwise because it will “step on certain toes” in the Bay Area. Arrington’s implication is that as a company gets bigger, its bloggers need to refrain from controversy and toe the line with respect to politically correct conventional wisdom.
Ross Mayfield is closer on with his critique of the blogger’s statement that Google advertising is a “democratic” way of spreading the word about the good side of your industry. Advertising isn’t democratic, first of all because it costs money, and second because advertising messages are one way and don’t allow readers to talk back.
Building on Ross’ point, what’s worst about Lauren Turner’s post — from Google’s perspective — isn’t that it expresses an opinion about a controversial topic (the health care industry really isn’t that bad), or that it overestimates the democracy of online advertising. It’s that advertising is presented as the way out of a PR dilemma that caused at least in part by real problems.
The classic lesson of contemporary PR — from the Exxon Valdez to the Tylenol poisoning to John Mackey of Whole Foods taking on Michael Pollan’s critique of “industrial organic” — is that when there’s bad press that has some merit, you should honestly take on the critics, and acknowledge the problems, and make changes. You can’t just whitewash your way out of a scandal.
Given the number of uninsured people in the US, the statistics about infant mortality and lifespan and healthcare cost, there’s clearly a problem. that is not going to be fixed by pictures of smiling grandmas and cute babies. You can agree with Michael Moore’s solution, or like his filmmaking style, or neither. (Disclosure: I haven’t seen the movie because Moore’s style often bugs me, but I probably agree with his conclusion). Regardless, the US healthcare system has problems and it can’t just advertise its way out.
As a provider of advertising services, Google is ill-advised to market their services as a way to escape a well-deserved bad reputation.

Have you been reading Josh Marshall?

He and his crew at Talking Points Memo / Muckraker Report have been doing some of the best investigative journalism about the US Attorney scandal. They have been relentlesslyconnecting the dots about the reasons for the firings, and the apparent perversion of the justice department into a tool to prosecute democrats, protect corrupt republicans, and suppress the democratic vote. Before this story, he was an early investigator of the Plame and Abramoff stories. No dead celebrities junkfood or he-said-she-said abdication of critical thinking. Good, straight-up journalistic oversight from the old tradition, and as far as I can tell, one of the best working journalists alive.
One of the benefits of the blog form for investigative journalism is its strength at serialization. The classic Pulitzer-winning formula is a long-form expose, developed in secrecy for months or years. The resulting stories are in-depth and rigorous, but sometimes hard to follow. The “story” punch belongs to the disaster or celebrity scandal. The stories of systematic corruption are wonky and “boring.” The short, serial blog form lets you learn the characters and follow the plot, building an understanding of complex events over time without having to plow through contiguous acre-feet of newsprint. Blogs depend on linking and comments for fame, rather than “scoops,” and benefits from shared research by readers. So blog-borne investigative journalism surfaces earlier, as the facts are being discovered. The reader is brought along for the ride with the journalist, who is following the threads, not sure where they will go.

Democratic congress and tech policy: better and worse

The new D congress seems to have mixed prospects for tech policy. Internet policy looks to be getting better,with Ed Markey, a supporter of Net Neutrality, now chairman of the internet subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee. Copyright looks pretty scary, with Berman (D, Disney) in charge of the committee responsible for IP law. Privacy’s looking better, with Waxman looking to investigate government violations. Energy is better than it was when the reps from XOM were in charge. Unfortunately, money seems to be headed from oil subsidies to ethanol subsidies. Given the farm lobby, I wonder if there’s any way to stop that boondoggle.

Sunlight Foundation – Web2.0 meets government

What would it be like if public information: bills and supporters, government spending, campaign donations, were online and mashup-able like Amazon books and Google maps, and collaborative like wikipedia? I had a chance to go to an event put on by the Sunlight Foundation, which is investing in this vision, and admire some excellent tools, such as Maplight, a new, useful and elegant database of political contributions in California, and project VoteSmart,which tracks US and state politicians voting records.
Getting the tools crew together was fun; the next step is to mix it up with users. One of the participants in the “speed geeking” cohort I was in — this is like speed dating but with tech demos — was a journalist, and it was a thrill seeing him get excited about all of the lovely sources. As a sometime activist, I also saw the tools with the eyes of a potential user. There needs to be an event with the Sunlight toolset, and the crew of journalists, bloggers, public interest folk, and staffers who would actually use it, to get the word out, and get feedback.
It is excellent that Sunlight is funding this stuff — it is the old-fashioned, geeky progressive vision that government is better with oversight and transparency. The value is combining the dispassionate data with the energy of folks trying to expose corruption and get good things done.
So, a new generation of tools is getting funded at the same time that the traditional users of the tools — journalists — are facing an economically dubious future. The unholy alliance of advertising and news is breaking apart — the money is siphoning to Google and to Craigs List. There is more than enough great data to keep investigative journalists quite busy, but what is going to pay their rent?

Belated election happy

I’m proud of California for electing Debra Bowen, a top-notch advocate for transparent, secure, reliable and open voting systems. And for rejecting Prop 90, the legislative approach that makes environmental and land use regulation impractical, which is currently wreaking havoc on Oregon (the link has telling stories about mining in national parks and neighborhoods. I didn’t vote for Arnold; in an era when R has come to mean no-bid contracts, torture, infinite detention, opposition to birth control, and any number of other extreme and unsavory things, I am not voting for any Rs, but I’m pretty pleased that he figured out that he needs to govern as a moderate democrat in order to keep his job.
Not to mention the US, for waking up and throwing the bums out. It will take a lot of work to recover, and build differently, hopefully we can.

Debra Bowen’s voting system leadership

Wow. Debra Bowen is running for Secretary of State in California, after her term in the state senate. Einsteinia on DailyKos has compiled a long list of Bowen’s legislative accomplishments. Having put in some leather-pump-miles in the Texas Capitol trying to educate legislators about electronic voting, it is just stunning and incredibly gratifying to see a political figure who is so savvy on these issues.
Her achivements include passing bills to use the voter verified paper trail in audits, making sure the audits include absentee and provisional votes, requiring the paper used for the audit trail to be readable for 22 months, requiring a statewide recount policy, enabling citizens to inspect voting systems.
In Texas, we got bipartisan support for a paper trail bill but got shot down because of leadership opposition. Explaining the details — why you need an audit trail, why you actually need to do the audits, why the paper needs to be good, why you need citizen oversight — these were all topics that took a lot of explaining. Meanwhile, Bowen has been leading.
Here’s a selection, a longer list is at the DailyKos link above.
SB 11 – Prohibits a voting equipment manufacturer or vendor or their agents from making campaign contributions to candidates for state or local office. Also precludes the Secretary of State from supporting or opposing candidates or ballot measures. Passed Senate in 2005, killed in Assembly in 2006.
SB 370 – Requires elections officials, when doing the 1% manual count required by law, to use the AVVPAT produced by electronic machines. Signed into law in 2005.
SB 1235 – This is an expansion of last year’s SB 370 (Bowen). The manual count law requires the votes in 1% of the precincts (with some exemptions) selected at random to be counted manually and matched against the results from the electronic tabulator. This bill: 1) Requires all “early voting” center, absentee votes, and provisional votes to be included into this tally; Requires the select the “random” precincts using a randomly generated number method and/or based on regulations drafted by the SOS; 3) Requires the audits to be public; and 4) Requires the results of the audits to be made public. Will be sent to Governor’s desk by 8/31/06.
SB 1519- Requires the SOS to promulgate recount procedures. There is no state law or regulation on how exactly recounts are conducted. Instead, the procedures (they vary by voting system) are laid out in an informal “best practices” manual between the SOS and the counties. This requires the SOS to promulgate official regulations, so everyone (including the public) will know how it’s done. Will be sent to Governor’s desk by 8/31/06.
SB 1725 – Requires counties to “track” absentee ballots so a voter can call in and check to see if their ballot arrived. Will be sent to Governor’s desk by 8/31/06.
SB 1747 – Voting machine inspection. Right now, the law restricts the ability of people to inspect voting machines, limiting it to county central committees who can send in “data processing specialists or engineers.” This bill expands it to every qualified political party, removes the requirement that they be “data processing specialists or engineers,” and permits up to 10 people from a “bonafide collection of citizens.” Pending on Governor’s desk. He must act by 9/30/06.
SB 1760 – Precludes the Secretary of State from certifying any voting system unless the paper ballots and the accessible voter-verified paper audit trail (AVVPAT) retain their integrity and readability for 22 months. That’s how long, under current law, elections officials are required to retain these documents. Also referred to as the “Elephant Gestation Bill,” since 22 months is the gestation period for a baby elephant. Pending on Governor’s desk. He must act by 8/26/06.

Pursue justice?

A propose of not much, I finally put my finger on why the “media justice” meme strikes me as going in the wrong direction. In political vocabulary, “justice” is a a buzzword and a code word. It implies a strategy of pursuiing redress of grievances, speaking truth to power, protest.
The lightbulb came on when I was reading an article in the Nation about the need for environmental and progressive groups to rebuild a grass roots base, that quoted Peggy Shepard of West Harlem Environmental Action. That group was born out of street protests to call attention to a sewage plant that had been making people sick for years. The group organized a demonstration that held up traffic at 7 a.m. on the West Side Highway in front of the North River plant on Martin Luther King Day, eventually filed a lawsuit, and catalyzed a $55 million repair operation by the city.
When pollution is making people sick, protest politics make sense. Polluters can get away with it as long as the harm is kept quiet and it’s easier for the polluter to continue than to stop. Protest politics raise awareness and make it less convenient for the polluter.
The “justice” metaphor and strategy makes a lot less sense to me when applied to media. When there’s a polluting sewage treatment plant or chemical plant in your neighborhood, you don’t have a lot of power on your own. You can’t shut it down or move it. You rely on recalcitrant business people and politicians to help you. In classic form, you need to organize and and petition those that have the power for redress of greivances.
With media, though, a community group or an individual can easily get a voice and become part of the media. By easy I don’t mean trivial, it takes work and information-gathering and networking. But it is within the power of an individual or group of people, unlike, say, shutting down a polluting chemical plant. So, a large part of the focus to get “justice” in media coverage is DIY and entrepreneurial. Don’t ask somebody to do it for you, just do it, and then reach out to get the story amplified. There are tremendous opportunities for business and civic entrepreneurship here. Don’t ask, do.
There are some aspects of media where political activism is needed, where the rules are overly influenced by folks with concentrated power. In order to get open spectrum, organizers need to wrest it back from the claws of the incumbent oligopoly. In order to get net neutrality, organizers need to win the battle with the incumbent oligopoly – or, harder but better, break the oligopoly. Even then, the rhetoric of petition isn’t nearly enough to win the war, since this speaks to a fraction of the supporters. Allies in that battle include the tech entrepreneurs who want to ensure space for a competitive market. They don’t see themselves as the powerless asking from help from the powerful — they want market forces to work, and concentrated oligopoly works against the competitive market.
So, environmental justice is a powerful strategy for a set of problems. “Media justice” plays a much narrower role, motivating a particular constituency on a particular subset of a set of issues where other strategies are a larger part of the solution.

Essembly and my ideal organizing app

Essembly is a fun toy for people who like to debate about politics and meet likeminded folks, but it doesn’t yet do much useful to help you get informed or take action.
The starting point is kinda fun. The system poses some political question. You answer on a scale of one to four, and then the system lets you explain your answer. Some of the questions are put together by the editors of the site, and others by participants.
The explanations are what really make it work as a game. When I filled out their initial quiz, one of the questions was:
Preserving the environment is usually more important than protecting jobs and business.
Grrr!!! What a horrible question! This false dichotomy is toxic to real progress. How about, protecting the environment through clean energy can be a major creator of jobs and businesses. Moreover, reduction in fossil fuel carbon may be the only way to make sure that we have a viable economy that supports the current population.
Once I realized that I could comment, and people could debate each other in their answers, I was less mad and more entertained.
Debate is an important part of political learning, as Scott Henson teaches citing Christopher Lasch, who argues that journalism’s goal of objectively informing people is a fallacy, since people really understand things through argument. The advocacy framing provided by blogs like Glenn Greenwald’s actually makes news easier to understand, even if you don’t agree with the blogger all the time (Greenwald is perilously right, but that’s a digression).
The site gives people strong identity, with pictures and background information, which will hopefully help the site stay civil.
The problem is the site doesn’t provide good ways to get beyond the opinions that readers bring to the table. I’m not going to go to Essembly as often as I’ll go to a blog site that brings and contextualizes news in the context of the readers’ opinions, with references to go deepen when I care to.
The site makes it easy to make groups and “friend” people in the social networking site manner. But it doesn’t yet provide tools for people who want to do anything more.
What I really want from an activist site is a set of tools that helps not just to affiliate, but to organize. A tool to arrange a group visit to a legislator. A tool to build a mailing list,with distributed administration. A tool to build shared talking points, and to write letters to editors and decision-makers. A tool to donate for a shared purpose.
Essembly is a fun start, but in game terms, it leaves people at level 1.

Immigration: scapegoat politics is failing

Immigrants are the latest in a long series of minority scapegoats to bear the brunt of Republican party “divide and rule” electioneering. Thankfully, it’s failing. A vast crowd in LA, and big crowds in Denver, Phoenix and Milwaukee gathered to protest a new bill that proposes making illegal immigration a felony and building a wall on the Mexican border.
In the last election, Republicans made headway in hispanic communities; that seems less likely this time around. Hopefully the bad bill won’t go anywhere, and Republicans will be harmed by outraging Hispanic Americans more than they are helped by energizing the white bigot vote.
The scapegoat gambit is an old tactic for the Republican party. Willie Horton and welfare queens worked 20 years ago, but apparently demonization of black folk doesn’t go over anymore. In the last cycle, the Republicans picked on gays, but tolerance is on the rise, so immigrants came up in the next draw of the scapegoat card.
Are changes to immigration policy needed? Its troubling to see workers with low wages and no protection. But making immigrants felons and building a wall isn’t the solution. Running against the “brown hordes” is a transparent appeal to the bigot vote, and I’m glad to see it not working.

How to defang lobbyists

Chip links to a Slate article about how lobbying really works — it’s not so much outright dollars for votes, but dollars for access and influence. And making overworked staffers lives easier by writing bills for them.
The problem with the game isn’t just access, it’s the anti-access that the rest of us have. When doing some citizen lobbying at the Texas legislature, we needed to beg for copies of the bills that the lobby was negotiating and helping to write.
In Congress, bills often aren’t available until minutes before a vote. The congresscritters and their staffs don’t even have access to the bills, let alone the public. Large bills are available on paper only, locking out anyone who isn’t physically in DC.
So, it would be a significant reform to mandate that bills be posted, in full text, on the internet, with a reasonably long lead time, like a week or more, between bill posting and vote.
That would give citizens more opportunity to contact their legislator before a vote. It takes a lot of citizen contacts to outweight a few lobbyists in fancy suits, but lots of citizens can have some influence.
The big finance reform would be public finance and free media. That’s a huge step for our well-bought system. Instead, we get incremental proposals that cause money to slosh back and forth among different contribution structures, but have less affect on the economy of access.
Openness can do at least as much as more campaign finance regulation can to improve the access equation.