The Media Peddle Fear, Rage, and Nefarious Ad Trackers

created Apr 22, 2019

I have been following news about the news business, since around 2002. I've been interested in the intersection of journalism, the web, and other technologies.

My main interest, media-wise, has been with local journalism, and how newspapers have adapted or have failed to adapt to the changing digital information landscape.

In the aught years, I visited websites, maintained by orgs and individuals who wrote about the media. This decade, I've relied mostly on Mediagazer.

Mediagazer, however, may have jumped the shark. Over the past two or three years, the Mediagazer links point to too many stories that are whiny.

In my opinion, too many people who write about the media landscape peddle fear-mongering and sensationalism. The media, especially the newspaper industry, has blamed everything and everyone else for the industry's demise over the past 40 years.

The newspaper industry began facing problems in the 1980s, before the web, and after the internet got invented. Allegedly, the Toledo Blade has not made a profit since the early 1980s. The Blade is subsidized by the Block family's other businesses that provide cable TV and internet access to homes and businesses.

Since Trump's upset victory in November 2016 over the media's preferred candidate, the media has promoted a narrative that Trump is waging a war against the media.

The United States is not a conflict zone for journalists, like Mexico, Syria, and other dangerous areas of the world.

The Toledo Blade journalists are not being jailed by Toledo city government. The Toledo Blade journalists are not being attacked by local gangs.

Here's yet another odd Mediagazer headline that I saw today.

Saving journalism's soul amidst Trump's war on the press requires acknowledging that we are indeed at war—to protect truth and democracy itself

The hyperbolic headline pointed to this Philly.com opinion.

From that opinion piece:

Other impacts of Trump’s war on the press are both intangible yet very real. One is the increasing climate of fear in which journalists must do our jobs.

Police officers and firemen probably have some fear in doing their jobs. Road construction workers probably have some fear in doing their jobs when cell phone-using, distracted drivers zoom past them. Many manufacturing workers might have some fear in doing their jobs. I would guess that electrical workers have some fear in doing their jobs when responding to downed wires during or shortly after storms. Tree trimmers should definitely have some fear when doing their jobs 60 to 80 feet in the air. Farmers might have some fear too at times. It seems that every grizzled farmer I meet is missing a digit or two.

I don't know if the Toledo Blade journalists who cover the Toledo area have fear in doing their jobs. I'm guessing that their main fear is wondering if they will still have a job at the paper six months from now.

Is this philly.com opinion piece focused only on the national political journalists, or is the author referencing all journalists?

More from the author:

Much of this I know anecdotally — the stories I hear from friends and colleagues about the constant online harassment, the threatening emails, and occasionally worse.

If by online, the author is referring to Twitter, then in my opinion, that's a self-inflicted problem. Twitter is nicknamed the cesspool of the internet for good reasons.

My February 2019 post:

I don't think it's a question that needs asking. The answer is, "Yes" for many reasons.

It's hard to believe that threatening emails being sent to journalists' is a new thing.

I'd like to speak with a Toledo Blade journalist to learn if this online menacing is common with Blade journalists.

Months ago, I read an article that defined online harassment, and based upon the writer's definition, I would have been harassed many times, during the 16-year run of my small, local message board, and I would have committed online harassment too.

Today's definition of "online harassment" seems watered down. If it's a death threat, then obviously, that's a reason to contact law enforcement. If a troglodyte name-calls, then it's a yawner. A ton of online manure has been thrown at me over the years at toledotalk.com and on other websites, including falsehoods.

It takes a thick skin to manage a message board, even a small board, while also being one of the board's most active posters.

I would let "online harassment" directed at me remain on my message board, but I would delete similar comments when the flames were directed at other users. And if the users persisted with their flaming and trolling posts, then I deactivated those user accounts. I managed toledotalk.com with a small sledge hammer. Toledo Talk was never a free speech zone.

Twitter users have to manage the conversations that occur with their tweets. That requires blocking knuckleheads. But Twitter makes it easy for anyone to reply to anyone at any time.

I'm guessing that active Twitter users with large followings will receive more crap responses, and these Twitter users will need to spend a fair amount of time doing admin-like work with blocking meatheads.

I don't understand why people subject themselves to that kind of behavior. Twitter's barriers seem too low, compared to Facebook, for managing replies to content.

Journalists love to use Twitter. I've read posts my many journalists who claimed that they HAVE to use Twitter, or they CANNOT LIVE without Twitter.

I think that the argument can be made that Twitter is the worst thing to happen to journalism, the media industry, and the citizenry. In my opinion, Twitter responses are mostly rooted in knee-jerk, emotional, reactionary stupidity. Occasionally, I check replies to a tweet that I'm reading, and the majority of the time, I'm stunned by the amount of toxic responses.

Twitter is the opposite of the Slow Web Movement, which I define as authors taking their time to craft their posts and replies. With the Slow Web Movement, online conversations via the web and email can occur over days, weeks, and months, instead of in minutes and hours like with social media.

Too many media orgs participate in the breaking news debacle. Twitter is aligned with breaking news, and breaking news is synonymous with incorrect news. Twitter could be the fastest and easiest way to spread misinformation. The corrected stories that appear days or weeks later receive little attention on Twitter.

The full paragraph from the opinion piece:

Other impacts of Trump’s war on the press are both intangible yet very real. One is the increasing climate of fear in which journalists must do our jobs. Much of this I know anecdotally — the stories I hear from friends and colleagues about the constant online harassment, the threatening emails, and occasionally worse. This was punctuated by tragedy in the summer of 2018, when a deranged reader with a longstanding grievance blacked into the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, and fatally gunned down five journalists.

In my opinion, the philly.com writer committed journalism malpractice. His opinion is not worth reading any further. He provided no evidence to connect the Capital Gazette tragedy to Trump.

I thought that journalism wanted to expose the truth. The opinion writer failed to mention that the deranged person had a feud with the Capital Gazette, since 2011.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_Gazette_shooting

Former Capital editor and publisher Thomas Marquardt said Ramos began harassing the staff of the newspaper after the article on him was published in 2011.

In 2013, Marquardt contacted the Anne Arundel County Police Department about Ramos' behavior, but the department did not pursue the report. Marquardt also consulted the newspaper's attorneys about filing a restraining order against Ramos, and recalled telling them, "This is a guy who is going to come in and shoot us."

After his lawsuit against the newspaper was dismissed, Ramos opened a Twitter account, which he used to attack the newspaper and taunt its owners and staff. A former FBI senior profiler speculated that Ramos was "an injustice collector", whom she described as "someone who goes through life...collect[ing] injustices, real or imagined".

Ramos reportedly previously sent threatening letters to the newspaper's former attorney, to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, and to Charles Moylan, Jr., the appellate judge who had ruled against Ramos in his defamation case.

Other lawsuits

Ramos' use of the criminal-justice system as a form of attempting to get his way was seen in at least two other cases. When he was dismissed from his job at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over "suitability concerns", he sued the agency and won the case, yet was still dismissed from the agency.

In 2009, a former classmate took out peace orders (used to prevent contact between people), followed by criminal harassment charges, which he lost. In an affidavit, the harassment victim wrote, "I am physically afraid of Mr. Ramos, and that he may cause me serious physical injury and/or death."

It's possible that Ramos' murderous rampage would have occurred in 2018, regardless of who was president.

More from that Wikipedia page:

Some commentators have called the shooting an attack on the media, and framed it alongside comments by Trump that the "fake news media" (The New York Times, The Washington Post, ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC News) are the "enemy of the people".

A Reuters journalist apologized for his comments blaming Trump. Reuters said it did not condone his behavior.

On Reason.com [libertarian pub], Elizabeth Nolan Brown criticized the media response to the shooting, pointing out that "[Ramos'] motive doesn't seem related to any of the political agendas offered up in the immediate aftermath by hacks and provocateurs", and that the shooter's anger against the newspaper derived from a personal grudge rather than political motivations.

Similarly, the Franklin Daily Journal wrote "the shooting had nothing to do with Trump or his ongoing battle with the press [...] the crisis in Maryland allowed people to criticize political opponents who had nothing to do with the actual events."

I stopped reading that philly.com piece, but out of curiosity, I searched the article for the word "local". The philly.com writer wrote:

Yes, this is about fending off the president’s attacks, but it’s about so much more. The disappearance of local news in the 21st Century has now been studied by academics and they’ve found that towns without journalists as watchdogs see voter participation drop and spending on bond issues or other measures of waste or corruption increase. Most news orgs won’t survive unless they win back local dollars, but that won’t happen unless we win back hearts and minds.

Okay. That local bit sounds good, but what does that have to do with Trump? I'm confused. I could be wrong, but based upon my observations in Toledo, which votes overwhelmingly for democrats at all levels of government, I have not seen any evidence of Trump's war on the local media.

Does Trump's alleged war on the media only occur in areas that are dominated by republican voters? Is Trump waging his war only on national media?

[Begin tangent.]

Since 2001 when I moved into Toledo, I have observed an increasing lack of interest by local residents in following the political shenanigans of local officials.

The voter turnout in Toledo has been decreasing, since at least 1993, before the web got popular with the general public.

In my opinion, the same people would not get elected to local offices year after year after year (retreading) if Toledoans paid close attention to local politics. I'm guessing that local residents have better things to do with their time than read the Toledo government's budget.

Over the past few years, I decided to join the "other side," and reduce my attention to local politics and to stop voting. I help out in the Toledo area through other means. Voting barely qualifies as doing the bare minimum for a community.

In the fall of 2016, prior to the November election, I submitted a form to the Lucas County Board of Elections to make myself an unregistered voter. Not voting is a form of free speech, guaranteed to me by the First Amendment in our Constitution. That amendment also means that I can still complain about local government. The First Amendment does not apply only to voters.

Voters. What's so special about voters, especially those voters who vote all 'R' or all 'D' at every election? What's so special about voters who only vote in November and skip the other elections that can occur throughout the year, especially Toledo's September primaries? What's so special about voters who only vote once every four years? What's so special about voters who vote according some org's endorsements? What's so special about the voters who don't know who or what they are choosing because they are too lazy to monitor local politics all year, and they are too lazy to learn about the candidates and the issues?

[End tangent.]

Sometimes, closing paragraphs in opinion pieces might contain the best info. Here is the philly.com writer's closing.

But readers won’t fight for us unless we fight for ourselves! Remember what I’ve said about why so many young people decided 40 years ago to become journalists in the first place — because they thought it was the best way to change the world for the better. In the age of Donald Trump, that struggle has turned into a war. But I believe that we will win.

Whoa! Hyperbole. Sensationalism. Classic fear and rage peddling.

Naturally, the reactions attached to that Mediagazer link were all tweets. None of the responses, however, were worth mentioning.

The tweet responses were probably all made by journalists or media types. It's hard to take the journalists seriously when they use the cesspool of the internet to share their thoughts.

Why do journalists use a social media silo that hosts hate, violence, and misinformation?

I agree with one thing mentioned by the philly.com writer. A war involving the U.S. media is occurring, but it's waged by the media against the open web and against empathetic web design.

My post from last week:

Today, I saw this Hacker News thread:

The author of that opinion is not a New York Times employee. According to the opinion page, the author is "... a professor of information science who specializes in the social effects of technology."

The HN thread contained over 80 comments. Here's one comment about the opinion piece:

Ironically I opened this [opinion in] private mode and was turned away. The New York Times is trying to have it both ways. I can log in and be tracked by their advertisers or I can be discreet and open articles from another source.

I don't mind paying a small subscription but let me choose to deny your advertisers information on how I consume your content. If being tracked is part and parcel of being a subscriber then these pro-privacy articles look almost unethical.

HN reply to that comment:

No, you need to think of the NYT (and any reputable newspaper) as being two separate entities: the newsroom and the advertising department, with a firewall between them [1]. You really don't want the newsroom killing a story because it makes the practices of the advertising department look bad.

Also, demands that the people who expose bad privacy practices have perfect privacy records themselves is to demand for privacy advocates to kill themselves a circular firing squad [2], so no one wins but the advertisers and privacy-invaders. Personally, I want these exposés carried by the publications with the greatest numbers of readers, and I'm not going to gripe too much about practices of those publications as long as the message gets out.

Fine, then the NY Times editors need to add a bolded sentence somewhere on that opinion piece, stating that this is hypocritical of the NY Times. The NY Times should admit that the opinion piece is labeled as, "Do as we say and not as we do."

The author could have submitted her opinion to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but the EFF has fewer followers than the NY Times. Hence the argument for publishing the piece with the NY Times. But the irony is still rich.

(BTW, I could read the article within Chrome's incognito mode, and I could read it in text-based web browsers, such as Lynx and ELinks.)

Another HN comment:

Keep in mind that the journalist who did the research and wrote the article did not have a say in how the employer who enabled them to write this piece generates revenue.

HN Reply:

In a way, she did. She is not an NYT employee, but rather, a professor at UNC Chapel Hill who could have published this piece elsewhere.

To be clear, I don't fault her for her choice at all. Just pointing out that we all "opt-in" to this system when we participate in it, and that's a part of the problem.

Another reply:

Just pointing out that we all "opt-in" to this system when we participate in it, and that's a part of the problem.
This really is a significant point.

All-visitor paywalls already crumbled, and a few of the worst excesses of tracking at least getting debated, so this is a place where users can get actual traction. It's the same sort of collective action problem as voting, true; writers and publishers have far more influence than any given reader. But it's also true that the space is far more open than voting.

There are a lot of news sites (e.g. The Boston Globe) which have shut out incognito access, filled their sites with trackers, and loaded up on dark patterns to push people towards misleadingly-priced subscriptions. And for almost everything they publish, there's minimal cost to just... not reading it. If it's a major story, it will be covered elsewhere. I know I'm not changing the world when I skip their links, but I'm protecting a bit of my own data, and putting a bit of pressure on them to do better.

It's not the fault of the journalists, but they work for orgs that manage websites that might use nefarious ad tech and tracking crapware. Where are the news articles and opinion pieces about possible privacy and security concerns with their own websites?

Am I suppose to maintain my digital subscription with the Toledo Blade out of charity? Nope. The Blade is not a charity org.

Do I maintain my digital subscription with the Blade to preserve local democracy? Nope. Not when the Blade's website is doing bizarre things.

If the Blade publishes a quarterly security and privacy audit report that explains what its website is doing, then that might suffice.

Might.

An audit report won't change the fact that the Blade's web design is atrocious at best. No wonder the Blade pushes its mobile app so much. Even the Blade knows that its website is hard to use.

I read the Blade via my own web app that resides on a server that I lease at Digital Ocean. My web design of the Blade articles is simple, fast, and lightweight with no JavaScript, no ads, and no crapware.

I access the Blade's RSS feeds via my own simple web-based feed reader. The links within my feed reader point to my own Blade article web reading app. I can use my system to read the Blade on an old Blackberry phone that my wife received for work back around 2010. That's sturdy, empathetic web design.

Informing the citizenry does not need much more that what exists with this brilliant web design: https://text.npr.org. With my Blade web reading app, I include a small amount of CSS to make the pages read better on all devices, and I permit images to be displayed.

This means that I never need to visit the Blade's website, and I never need to log into the Blade's website. If the Blade changes its website in a way that prevents me from using my web reading app, then I will cancel my subscription, which I pay monthly.

I will never accept the Blade's web design, unless it supports human decency.

Apr 22, 2019 Toledo Blade editorial board opinion:

Webpagetest.org results for that Blade editorial:

From: Dulles, VA - Chrome - Cable
4/22/2019, 8:20:38 PM
First View Fully Loaded:
Time: 13.534 seconds:
Requests: 402
Bytes in: 3,603 KB

An unsuspecting reader's web browser would make 402 web requests to read that opinion. That's shocking. It's understandable why security and privacy nuts would be outraged.

3.6 megabytes of crapware were downloaded to read that opinion piece. 1.3 mb of the download were for JavaScript.

Again, it's understandable why security and privacy nuts would be outraged.

The WaPo created the following slogan after Trump got elected president, I think. The slogan appears on WaPo's website.

Democracy Dies in Darkness

In my opinion, democracy dies because of too much needless JavaScript that is required to READ an opinion piece at the Toledo Blade. With JavaScript disabled, the Blade article pages are blank, except for the site header.

In that Blade opinion, 1.6 mb of the download were for images.

That Blade opinion piece contained a large, useless stock photo that added nothing to the article. Why? If "make every word count" matters, then web design for journalism should also adopt the motto of "make every image count."

My Blade web reading app does not display that useless image, probably because it's not contained within the body of the article.

The section of that Blade opinion piece that matters most is all text, totaling around 476 words. That includes the title, subtitle, byline, date, and the body of the article.

476 words, and the Blade's website required 3.6 megabytes to be downloaded. And the philly.com writer whines about Trump.

Why do media orgs create some of the worst websites on the planet? Maybe that's why many media orgs support the anti-open web initiative, created by Google called Accelerated Mobile Pages.

How do the media, especially local newspapers, propose to attract new subscribers when they create hostile web reading experiences?

My Blade web reading app dynamically creates the web pages for me to read. When I click a link within my web-based feed reader, my Blade web reading app is triggered, and the app fetches the Blade article, parses the JSON that's contained within the HTML page, and displays the article info to me as an HTML page. I don't create and save static HTML versions of the Blade articles to my server.

I tested my dynamically generated version of that same Blade editorial at webpagetest.org. The results:

From: Dulles, VA - Chrome - Cable
4/22/2019, 8:28:59 PM
First View Fully Loaded:
Time: 0.785 seconds
Requests: 2
Bytes in: 5 KB

Exactly the same editorial. 2 web requests compared to over 400 web requests. 5 KB downloaded compared to 3.6 MB downloaded.

The entire HTML version of War and Peace By Leo Tolstoy is 3.9 mb. As a printed book, it typically contains over 1000 pages.

A 476-word Blade op-ed forced unsuspecting readers to download 3.6 mb.

How does the philly.com writer or anyone in the media justify a 476-word op-ed that approaches the size of a 1000-plus page novel?

I would pay more for my monthly digital subscription if the Blade's website worked like my web reading app, at least for subscribers.

When I pay a digital subscription to a news org, I do not expect to be bludgeoned with ads, JavaScript, trackers, and other gobbledygook. The news orgs can save their crapware for the non-paying customers.

The media need to get over this notion that we SHOULD support local media simply because it's the right thing to do.

Craigslist is used because it provides utility to many people who do not give a damn that the site's appearance has remained nearly unchanged since the late 1990s.

I pay for quality products and that includes quality delivery mechanisms for digital information.

The Blade's digital products are not worth funding, and I have no interest in a print subscription. If I could not read the Blade with my web reading app, then I would not subscribe to the Blade.

The media orgs need to reject modern web design and focus on the simplest way to disseminate text, images, video, and audio.

The media need to use simplest ways to INFORM the citizenry. The media should not build websites and apps that obsolete users' hardware, operating systems, and web browsers.

Even Facebook and Twitter can work without JavaScript. Facebook offers this version of its service for people who use limited phones or limited internet connections. https://mbasic.facebook.com.

If the media discovered the simplest ways to be useful online, then maybe the local media orgs could attract more paying customers. I don't blame people for not funding crappy web design.

I've said many times in the past that good web design does not improve bad writing, but good writing and useful reporting can get lost and ignored due to horrible delivery mechanisms.

I've also said many times in the past that local journalism should be a part of our future, but I don't think that local newspapers will be a part of our future. Newspapers still contain too much 20th century thinking.

Example: I said above that when I pay for a digital news subscription, I expect the web reading experience to be ad-free. Opponents, however, use the archaic argument that subscribers to print newspapers received ads with their print publications, and apparently, that 20th century thinking should apply to newspaper websites in 2019. Good luck with that backwards thinking.

The future for local media might come from orgs that do not exist today. The local media landscape needs more digital startups, but the holy grail is finding sustainable funding models.

I don't see how hideous web design helps. When it comes to local media, the media's war against the open web and against empathetic web design supersedes Trump's tantrum with the national political media. The latter is simply bad reality TV with Trump as the lead actor, and the media playing a supporting role. The national political media have made money off of Trump being president, and the media know it.

Trump will be gone from the White House some day, but the media's war against a useful web will continue.

Anyway, my somewhat related posts:

Back to the HN thread, here's the top comment:

Theres another downstream issue of this that many people seem to be unaware of.

I've gone down the road of trying to create a super private browsing experience.(www.privacytools.io for a good start).

The issue is the web experience degrades rapdily and quite frequently is unusable. You have to block CDNs for a start if you really wanna go full paranoia mode. And there's too many other issues to list here.

But the biggest issue, is that Google's CAPTCHAs become unsolveable. I mean literally they wont let you pass. You will get served a large sequence of captchas. I've experienced up to 6 for a single verification. And not only do you get more, but they deliberately add an excruciatingly slow delay to each image. It can take 10-15 seconds to solve a single image set, and then you still need to do 5 more.

Also interesting side note, it seems they are injecting adversial noise into the hard captcha, as I noticed faint distortions in most of the images.

Bur even with your best effort to solve them you will not get through. Ive repeated this experiement many times. It seems that preventing browser fingerprinting is the thing that really makes them put up a redflag, but its hard to know for sure. And I'd like to emphasize that none of the privacy modifications I was using make any significant change to normal browser functionality. You still have JS, you still have cookies (through Firefox containers).

Anyway the scary thing here is its very easy to extrapolate this further and get to an internet where you either opt in to be tracked, or you are effectively throttled/gated on huge parts of the web.

Google CAPTCHAs have gone from asking the question "Are you human?" to "Which human are you?".

And the beautiful, incredible irony is how this contrasts with Google's very public stance on net neutrality.

"Internet companies, innovative startups, and millions of internet users depend on these common-sense protections that prevent blocking or throttling of internet traffic, segmenting the internet into paid fast lanes and slow lanes, and other discriminatory practices. Thanks in part to net neutrality, the open internet has grown to become an unrivaled source of choice, competition, innovation, free expression, and opportunity. And it should stay that way. "

Do as I say. Not as I do.

The complex, bloated web may have created more problems than it has solved. The solutions to problems created by the complex, bloated web call for more web complexity and bloat.

For the media, especially local media, the orgs and journalists should embrace the open web or the open internet (to include email) and use simple tech stacks that can be accessed by more people.

The media should study the gopher protocol to find inspiration for creating a simplified web reading experience.

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