Generation 40s – 四十世代

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A crusading US media in the age of Trump is a recipe for disaster

CommentInsight & Opinion
Tom Plate says with even quality US media turning private eye on Donald Trump, the incessant drumbeat on North Korea, and more military men inducted into the White House, the president may well be inspired to try on a new role

Recall Shakespeare’s ­Falstaff, that boastful cowardly knight, and imagine him cavorting at golf resorts on the dime of a dodgy career driven by money borrowed from wherever.

Yes, imagine President Donald J Trump as a Falstaff rather than as, say, an unhinged King Lear. As ­Falstaff, his conceited self-absorption blocks awareness that the world’s laughing at him. Let’s face facts: firing the White House chief of staff amid rumours that the US ­secretary of state might be next out the door makes it more difficult by the day for his presidency to be taken seriously, especially by the US news media that takes it all in and immediately spits it all back out.

By imprisoning himself in twitchy tweets, comedic illogic and loopy facts – and then crying foul when the media transforms nearly every tweet into an overdrawn newspaper headline or an overheated TV panel beating anew some politically dead horse – Trump winds up generating laughs but not hits. And in making his case that the news media is the “enemy of the people”, he tends to show less attention to detail than the average high school debate team.

Even so, Trump is not the only one worrying about the US media in the age of Trump. Many fear the media has become its own worst enemy, as much at risk from its own excesses as Falstaff himself.

The job of the US news media is to speak truth to power, but not in a relentless or careless way. A seriously helpful media in an open society must maintain its cool and balance – and thus its constitutional utility. But has it? In a recent essay in the London Review of Books, David Bromwich, Yale University’s Sterling professor of English, is ­unnerved by the “descent into brashness, which teeters on the edge of open contempt [and] has been a feature of American media coverage of Trump ever since January; it is growing shriller and more indiscriminate, working up to a ­presumptive climax no one has imagined with clarity”.

Perhaps Bromwich’s argument in “The Age of Detesting Trump” might sound less alarming if even the quality media hadn’t been converting reporters into little more than private investigators labouring for the prosecution in the unseemly annual scrum for Pulitzer Prizes.

In the back of any journalistically ethical mind needs to be a deeply sincere worry that diminishment of the occupant of the office might serve to erode that office itself. Bromwich, in one example, points out that the possibility of improving relations with Russia on its merits has been mass-mediated only against the backdrop of this shady secret meeting or that. As this noted biographer of Edmund Burke ­narrates: “The Democrats tossed his idea that better relations with ­Russia ‘would not be a bad thing’ into the general stew of his repulsive ideas on taxes and immigration, and Republicans ignored it as an ­indigestible ingredient.”

Regime change is always a dream story for the imperial American press, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, which indeed was a regime manifestly meriting change. But the outcome of more recent regime-change campaigns cheered by the US news media, such as Iraq (the sorriest example) and Libya (runner-up in the ­Department of Miscalculation), might suggest the need for more ­reporting and less crusading.

Consider even the incessant US media drumbeat about North Korea, in the face of whose missile provocations careful caution has been the consistent recommendation of China. But what could a nation so much closer to the North’s missile sites, so much closer to its ­reportedly restless population of 25 million possibly know, compared to journalists on the US east coast?

From the American media you also get the sense that regime change of some sort could prove as miraculously transformative in Washington as well as in Pyongyang. Though no one knows who might succeed a fallen Kim Jong-un, in the US you’d wind up with oleaginous Mike Pence, next-in-line as vice president, or Paul Ryan, the next next-in-line as House Speaker. Is this what our media want?

Pinning down Trump with unremitting fire also handicaps the entire US government executive branch, which is constitutionally best equipped to handle America’s role globally. Moving into the growing void is Germany’s Angela Merkel, filling in reluctantly, and, less reluctantly, China’s Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ). For China, the opportunity to expand its global space is now ­extraordinarily immense, but for starters, Beijing’s wisest heads might wish to have their inner circle appreciate the magnitude of their South China Sea gains and put a hold on more pushing and shoving for the time being.

Note well: the powerful US Pacific Command’s Seventh Fleet won’t fall back to Hawaii without a fight, no matter who is in or out of the White House. If the concept of “soft power” offers tangible utility, it has to mean resorting to “hard power” less. Leading the global charge on climate change will show Beijing acting like an adult and lower the overall political temperature.

By contrast, every time someone unceremoniously exits the Trump administration – seems maybe weekly – the replacement looks to be military (the just-named White House chief of staff is a retired ­marine general.) The world should take note. Falstaff is no Coriolanus but, surrounded by all that “oorah”, Trump might be tempted to try on a new role for size. One thing Trump and our media have in common is a problematic penchant for drama and excess. Beware.

Loyola Marymount University Professor Tom Plate is author of “Confessions of an American Media Man”, on his career at the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and other premier US media institutions


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假新聞當道與我無關 ?




當資訊接收不能改善人類生活,反而帶來反效果時,就出現所謂的「資訊煙霧」(Data Smog),令人無法分辨真假,不同意見的人亦無法達到共識,反而被其他不重要的、不正確的訊息模糊誤導。這情況令假新聞應運而生,對社會帶來的影響不容忽視。



「同溫層」出現的其中一個重要原因,是由於社交媒體的演算法(Algorithm),會根據用者喜好,提供他們感興趣的內容,久而久之,用者能接觸到、有別於其認同的內容會愈來愈少,相反只看到自己喜歡或同意的內容。這種做法,用者可能得到更針對性、更符合其需要的內容,然而用者只會聽到一種聲音,造成迴響效應(Echo Chamber Effect),不論真假都照單全收。

加州大學戴維斯分校政治系教授Robert Huckfeldt教授曾於其著作Political Disagreement中指出,新出現的資訊能夠影響一個人改變原有立場的機率,與其身處的社會網絡裏意見分布息息相關。套用在社交媒體的例子,在「同溫層」裏的人,被新資訊說服而改變態度的機會,會較其他身處意見不一群體的人為低。






史丹福大學去年一項針對年輕人如何分辨網上資訊的調查發現,82%的中學生無法分辨網站上的贊助內容與真實新聞,而很多學生亦只依據推特(Twitter)內容是否詳細、是否有照片等來判斷內容真偽,而非資料的來源。可見「數位原生代」(Digital Natives)——即一直活在互聯網世代、以網絡世界作為資訊來源和日常生活的主要平台的一代——在接收和判斷網上資訊的能力問題,實需要正視。

今年年初,經濟合作及發展組織(OECD)宣布,將在學生能力國際評估計劃(The Programme for International Student Assessment,PISA)中,增加「全球競爭力」(Global Competence),測試學生批判思維及辨識失實資料的能力,對社交媒體的資訊分析亦包括在內。

OECD的教育及技能主管Andreas Schleicher更進一步表示對社交媒體引致相同意見的人互相「圍爐取暖」的憂慮,希望提升學生分辨網上資訊可信程度的能力,以及開放接收不同立場的內容的態度。

另外,業內一眾科技企業有見假新聞的影響,已開始着手解決問題,如由Facebook及一些學術單位和非牟利組織發起的「新聞誠信倡議」(The News Integrity Initiative)計劃是其中一例。最近不少網上媒體或智庫等亦推出了「即時查核」(Fact Check)的網上功能,在重要的事件上發揮分辨消息真偽的作用。



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客觀平衡報道 反映社會對「公器」期望






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New York Times數碼化出眾 報業稀寶




今次續談《紐約時報》(The New York Times)在社交平台上的處境。以每觸及1000人次的廣告成本計,相較直郵廣告(Direct Mail)的60元(美元.下同)、電視的28元、報紙雜誌的16元,社交媒體僅需少於2.5元;以Facebook專頁及賬戶發帖更是免費,成本優勢難以取代。傳統媒體廣告一直標榜能夠面對社會所有階層,主席及行政總裁Mark Thompson在第三季業績會上也指出,在有名氣的紙媒上登廣告是一種榮耀(prestige),不能僅從成本去考慮,但是社交媒體還可以透過大數據分析讀者偏好,可用以推廣傳統渠道上的內容,以視頻或即場播客(live podcasts)為紙媒加添色彩,反映優秀紙媒不視社交平台為洪水猛獸,反而以它作為攻城利器,以更快更準更廉價的方式把廣告傳給客戶。

如上文所述,《紐時》以發行收入高於廣告收益為榮,報紙電子化的成功,促成內容的有效配送(為了使新聞能觸及不同口味的客戶,《紐時》甚至會為同一篇文章,在不同時段配搭不同的標題),使它的品牌地位得以彰顯,而非像地位較為次要的報社般,淪為Facebook資訊或Google News中文字供應商的一員,也與當前的政治形勢有關。


自美國總統特朗普就任後,白宮與新聞界的爭拗不斷。美國傳媒更因為在1月11日的新聞發布中,CNN被當時是POTUS(總統當選人)的特朗普羞辱是假新聞(fake news),責難「你的機構爛極了」(Your organization is terrible)而同仇敵愾;1月25日,6名記者因為盡忠職守報道總統就職日以嚴重騷動(felony rioting)的罪名被扣押及指控,更使華府干預新聞自由之說甚囂塵上,美國新聞界史無前例地團結。據皮尤新聞中心所編的美國媒體習慣新研究(Pew’s new study of Americans’media habits,2014年)分析,《紐約客》(The New Yorker)和以唱反調馳名的網上雜誌Slate,是全世界自由主義者(liberals)最喜愛的傳媒,而《紐時》作為自由派的大哥,儼然是抵抗特朗普強權的壁壘(bulwark);作為龍頭大報,《紐時》的地位在此時更是無可取代。

以周四收巿價13.55元計,《紐時》巿值21.9億元,執筆之時第四季業績還未公布,然而大家對公司最關心的,莫過於其電子收益(digital revenue)中配送和廣告的增長。《紐時》只上市幾十年,巿值細小,但數碼化的能力無出其右;相比之下,影響力只限於當地的傳媒,市盈率更不足20倍。如果《紐時》是自由身,其實是極為超值,可惜紐約時報公司B股不在巿場上交易,董事局的控制權牢牢掌握在B股大股東、《紐時》的創始猶太裔家族Ochs-Sulzberger的1997 Trust手中,而且所有更改現行同股不同權架構的舉措均需要基本會內8位董事中的其中6人首肯,來自對沖基金的干預難若登天。

發行收入可觀 保障編採自由

此外,Ochs-Sulzberger家族視祖業不可棄,它的歷任高層均為家族中的成員(如綽號AG的Arthur Gregg Sulzberger、主理《紐時》VR(虛擬實境)和podcasts(播客)的Sam Dolnick、推動《紐時》付費牆(paywall)和訂閱服務的David Perpich等),使它的現行股價並不附有被科技龍頭吞併的免費買方期權(call option)。然而,《紐時》幾近是美國國寶,而且管理得宜(良好的企業管治包括基金會組成7人委員會一致選出所繼任並擁有挑選廣告、內容開發、編採、排版權於一身的發行人,確保勝出的家族成員具有能力、經驗及秉持家族的經營理念)。另一方面,長線基金都樂於持有:Fairpointe Capital LLC、BlackRoad Fund Advisors、The Vanguard Group, Inc.等的44%,加上墨西哥富豪的17%,已代表A股全部權益的六成,流通巿值因此只有不足9億元,在考慮「稀罕」溢價,以及《紐時》訂閱第一(subscription first)的策略奏效之下,2017年21倍P⁄E顯得相當合理,甚至是便宜。2017年預期自由現金流1億元,可用於網上平台、收購和內容開發,讓公司自給自足,加上不干預和長期持有的家族背景,發行收入可觀等要素,讓《紐時》的編採自由得以保障,內容質素不因商業化而受衝擊,難能可貴。




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From Trump’s troubles to Islamic State inroads, networks can destroy as well as build in a connected world

CommentInsight & Opinion
Niall Ferguson says a look at world news shows that the technology once hailed as a great force for building a global community has a dark side, pitting one against another

The world today is like a giant network on the verge of a cataclysmic outage. The US president tweets that his own intelligence agencies are illegally leaking classified information to The New York Times about his campaign’s communications with the Russian government, but he insists it’s all “fake news”. (Read that again, slowly.)

Meanwhile, having interfered in the US presidential election via WikiLeaks and an online army of trolls and bots, the Russians deploy a new cruise missile in breach of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and – just for good measure – send their spy ship Viktor Leonov to have look at the US submarine base at New London, Connecticut.

On the other side of the Atlantic, French and German politicians alike fret about Russian meddling in their elections. But the big story in Europe is the implosion of the 27-year-old YouTube star Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, whose recent tangle with anti-Semitism has led to the cancellation of his deals with Google and Disney. No, dear reader, I had never heard of PewDiePie either, which just goes to show we are old. Fact: his YouTube channel has more than 50 million subscribers.

In the Muslim world, it gets a lot worse. The self-styled Islamic State publishes an online guide to propaganda, explaining to its supporters how to use the news industry’s desire for “clicks” to launch pro-IS “media projectiles”.

A report on IS-run schools in Iraq and Syria reveals that children are being asked to calculate the number of Shia Muslims or “unbelievers” that can be killed by a suicide bomber. To help them find the answer, an IS terrorist blows himself up in Sehwan, Pakistan, killing at least 75 people.

And in East Asia? The Chinese government relaxes its censorship of social media, but only because unfiltered blog posts make it easier for the authorities to monitor dissent. In Seoul, the heir to the Samsung electronics empire is arrested on suspicion of bribery, the latest casualty of the corruption scandal that has engulfed the South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, and her mysterious friend Choi Soon-sil, daughter of the founder of the Church of Eternal Life.

Meanwhile, in broad daylight, a woman allegedly poisons the half-brother of the North Korean dictator at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport. Her T-shirt bears the web chat acronym “LOL”.

Laugh out loud if you dare. Globalisation is in crisis. Populism is on the march. Authoritarian states are ascendant. How on earth do we make sense of all this? In pursuit of answers, many bewildered commentators resort to crude historical analogies. To some, Donald Trump is Hitler, about to proclaim an American dictatorship. To others, he is Richard Nixon, on the verge of being impeached.

But it’s neither 1933 nor 1973 all over again. Easily centralised technology made totalitarian government possible in the 1930s. Forty years later, it had got harder for the president to violate the law with impunity. Nevertheless, the media in the 1970s still amounted to a few television channels and press agencies. You cannot understand the world today without understanding how it has changed as a result of information technology. This has enormously empowered networks of all kinds over traditional power structures.

Networks were the key to what happened in politics last year. Russia’s intelligence network did its utmost to maximise the damage to Hillary Clinton’s reputation stemming from her sloppy email security. Attacks by IS lent credibility to Trump’s pledge to strip out “the support networks for radical Islam” in America and to ban Muslim immigration. Above all, there was the grass-roots network of support that Trump built using the power of Facebook, Twitter and the Breitbart news website.

It was this that defeated the “global special interests” that – according to the final ad of campaign chief executive Steve Bannon – stood behind the “failed and corrupt political establishment” personified by Trump’s opponent. Note here how one network attacks another.

The counter-attack by the US intelligence network has been impressive, claiming the scalp of Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn after just 23 days. Is Flynn the first national security adviser to have had contacts with a foreign power before an inauguration? No. Is there any evidence that he said anything nefarious to the Russian ambassador in late December? No, though he should have told the vice-president, Mike Pence, that he had discussed sanctions.

Is it proper that intelligence operatives are leaking information about Team Trump’s other contacts with the Russians to The New York Times? No. But this is how networks operate. They cut across the official chain of command that is the spinal cord of any state.

It all goes to show networks are transforming not only the economy – through viral advertising, targeted marketing and “sharing” of cars and apartments – but also the public sphere and democracy itself. Memes can spread even more rapidly than natural viruses. But the notion that taking the whole world online would create a utopia of “netizens”, all equal in cyberspace, was always a fantasy.

On Thursday, Facebook’s co-founder, chairman and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, posted a long defence of that ideal of an interconnected “global community”, arguing that his company’s role should be to promote “meaningful” local communities, to enhance “safety” (by monitoring content with artificial intelligence), to promote diversity of ideas, and to foster civic engagement – even at the global level. “As the largest global community,” Zuckerberg wrote, “Facebook can explore examples of how community governance might work at scale.” The example he cited was last month’s anti-Trump Women’s March.

The reality is that the global network has become a dangerously unstable structure. Far from promoting equality, it does the opposite, by allowing hyperconnected “superhubs” to emerge. Surprise, surprise, from Trump to PewDiePie, these turn out to be rather the reverse of saintly role models.

Far from spreading truth and love, the network excels at disseminating lies and hatred, because those are the things we nasty, fallen human beings like to click on.

As I write, Zuckerberg’s letter has been “liked” more than 66,000 times on Facebook and 2,400 times on Twitter. The following tweet was liked by twice as many people on Facebook and 35 times as many on Twitter: “Stock market hits new high with longest winning streak in decades. Great level of confidence and optimism – even before tax plan rollout!”

That tweet came from Trump. If, 20 years from now, someone asks you what finally crashed the global network, you’ll want to mention the @realDonaldTrump virus.

But remember: the flawed design of the network made the outage inevitable. And for that, Chairman “Zuck” is much more to blame.

Niall Ferguson’s new book, The Square and the Tower: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Networks, will be published in the autumn