What is “Fair” News Coverage?

In the current hyper-partisan atmosphere in politics, television reporting seems to fall into one of two categories. You have networks that actively promote partisanship (such as the “fair and balanced” Fox News Channel). And you have networks that are so afraid to take a position on anything that they say essentially nothing of value. This left me wondering: When it comes to media reporting, notably on television, what is a fair definition of “fair”?

It’s not an easy question to answer. Easier to do is to cite what is not fair. Hopefully, by avoiding these three pitfalls, the networks will find their way to “fair.”

• Having opposing analysts does not mean you’re being fair. Especially on cable news networks, a news story is often followed by two talking heads, an analyst from the left and another from the right, offering their opposing views of the story in question.

If the two analysts are calm, rational, intelligent people — and are encouraged to present their positions in a calm, rational and intelligent manner — this approach has the potential to offer worthwhile insights. Unfortunately, this is almost never the case. Rather, what you typically get are two partisans doing their best to spin and distort the story to the best advantage of their own political party (Republican vs. Democrat). Rarely does the network commentator challenge the analysts as to the veracity of their statements.

Instead of seeking thoughtful commentary, the networks seem to encourage disparaging remarks, combative attacks, and heated debate. It all translates into higher ratings. And ratings are the name of the game.

And all of this assumes a best case scenario. It assumes that the network in question does not start off with an agenda to declare one side or the other as the winner, regardless of the facts. As we are all too well aware, this is not the case with stations such as Fox and MSNBC.

• Citing pros and cons of each position (or falsehoods stated by each candidate) does not lead to fairness. When discussing an issue where Republicans and Democrats have opposing views, a network may cite a list of pros and cons for each side, being careful to offer an equal number of points for each position. What is missing from such lists is any attempt to evaluate the relative importance of each claim or its degree of distortion. Which side, if any, ultimately has the stronger case? The networks do not say. In fact, some networks argue that to imply one side has a stronger case than the other is exactly what they should not do — doing so would indicate a lack of impartiality. While there is a grain of truth to this plea (more about this is a moment), the networks hardly wind up being impartial.

By always presenting an equal number of pro and con arguments for each side, the implication is that there are always an equal number of such arguments to be made. And that the arguments all have equal weight. We all know this is not always the case. If cable news networks were around during the Civil War, would they have covered the debate in such a way as to suggest that the pros vs. cons of slavery were equal? Probably. But is that really what we mean by being fair? I hope not.

The worst examples of this false fairness are with political campaign coverage. During an election campaign, news networks may evaluate campaign speeches, citing where each candidate either made an accurate statement or a false one. Again, such reports almost always cite an equal number of true vs. false claims by each candidate. Too often, this means you wind up hearing something like this:

“Candidate A said that the government spent 2.25 billions dollars on this program last year. Actually, the government spent 2.26 billion dollars. As for Candidate B, he claims that the program reduces taxes primarily for low income wage-earners. However, several studies show that the program primarily reduces taxes for people earning over $200,000 a year. So each candidate has occasionally been less than truthful on their campaign trails.”

The implication is that a relatively minor error in dollars spent is somehow equally egregious to stating the complete opposite of the truth. The networks choose to gloss over the obvious qualitative differences in order to wind up with a balanced checklist. Often, this is because they are motivated by fear of being cast as having a “liberal” or “conservative” bias. However, this winds up encouraging viewers to conclude that both candidates are equally guilty of misstatements, leading to a cynical “a pox on both their houses.”

A dispassionate analysis of the facts could lead to a reasonable conclusion that one side is more in error than the other. If so, a news report should reflect this. Stating such conclusions does not mean the report is partisan or editorializing; it means the report accurate.

[A sign of progress: I recently heard (on NPR's On the Media) that ABC's This Week has teamed with PolitiFact to monitor the truthfulness/accuracy of the show's guests. This should be interesting.]

• Listener surveys don’t qualify as fair. In these days where all the buzz is about social media, the current trend is to ask for listener feedback. “Tell us what you think,” the newscaster implores. Do so via Twitter, FaceBook or email. At some point, the programs typically reports the results (e.g., “53% of our respondents support Arizona’s new immigration law” or whatever).

While there is some value in knowing what your neighbors are thinking (even when “neighbors” are defined as the entire rest of the country), it is too easy to overstate the importance of this information, especially as gathered in this way.

First, these are not scientific samples. The respondents only include people who were listening to the station at the time and were sufficiently motivated to offer a reply. Does this actually represent what the “American people” as a whole are thinking? Almost certainly not. But this is rarely made clear.

Second, there is no guarantee that responders are the least bit informed about the issue. Quite the opposite, people often have strong opinions on matters of which they have no factual knowledge. From a political perspective, it may be interesting to know that X% of Americans do not believe that Obama was born in the United States. It could have a bearing on how people plan to vote. However, whatever X% turns out to be, it has no bearing on the truth or falseness of claims as to where Obama was born. Obama does not become more or less likely to have been born in the United States as result of the ups and downs of such phony polls. Obama’s birth and citizenship is a matter of established fact, regardless of what a survey may reveal about the misconceptions of some Americans. Too often, this distinction is lost when discussing such results.

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Ebert Says No to 3-D; Should You?

In this week’s issue of Newsweek, Roger Ebert explains why you should “hate” 3-D movies. To be clear, he is not “opposed to 3-D as an option…but as a way of life.” That is, he is against the current marketing push to have all major studio movies made in 3-D — whether they would benefit from it or not. Or (even worse) to have studios only make the sort of “kiddie” movies that best showcase the benefits of 3D.

I was particularly intrigued by his description of MaxiVision48, a 2-D technology that doubles the frame rate to 48fps and offers image quality that is “400 percent better” than current films! I had never heard of this before. I would certainly like to see this technology used, rather than 3-D, in many of the movies I watch.

I have read numerous comments on Twitter critical of Ebert’s article, accusing him of being a movie Luddite. Before I read the article, I predicted I would agree with the critics. In the end, I did not. Ebert made a convincing case. If you haven’t already done so, I recommend you read the article and decide for yourself.

Still, while I agree with Ebert in regard to the current state of 3-D movies, we part ways when it comes to the long term potential. Ebert apparently sees no hope that 3-D will ever be of value. To me, 3-D is like any other cinematic innovation, from the talkies to color films. Initially, it’s viewed as an unworthy gimmick. Even today, you can find people who claim that color is a distraction and that the best way to make movies is in black-and-white.

Often, in the early stages, a new technology is primarily a sales gimmick. There are certainly numerous examples of “bad” and “fake” 3-D movies muddying the waters today. But eventually, the technology improves, movie makers learn how to better take advantage of the medium, and the effect becomes more subtle. One day, you discover that all movies, even small independent dramas, are made this way and it’s just fine. 3-D is only in the initial leg of this journey. It has a ways to go, but it will get there.

3-D does have one unique obstacle in its path to acceptance: the need for 3-D glasses. I have heard that, within several years, there will be a way to project in 3-D that does not require glasses. If and when that happens, the war will be over. Within several years after that, all or almost all movies will be made in 3-D. If the glasses are not eliminated, there’s a chance that 3-D will fade back into the background when the novelty wears off. If Las Vegas was taking bets on this, however, I’d bet on 3-D’s ultimate success.

Posted in Entertainment, Movies | 1 Comment

Apple’s Handcuffed Devices

Years ago, Verizon was my mobile phone carrier. I eventually switched to Cingular/AT&T. My decision had nothing to do with the iPhone and its exclusive relationship with AT&T. I made the switch long before the iPhone came out. And it certainly wasn’t because I thought that my phone’s reception would be better with AT&T.

No, the reason was that I had become fed up with Verizon’s deliberate crippling of its phones. The final straw was when Bluetooth became available for phones. I read numerous articles about how, via Bluetooth, you could upload your own ringtones and wallpaper to your phone, bypassing the cost and limitations of the carrier’s options. When my phone contract came up for renewal, I went to my local Verizon dealer, eager to get one of these new Bluetooth phones. I was quickly disappointed to learn that the file transfer feature had been disabled in all of Verizon’s Bluetooth phones.

Although they did not publicly state a reason, the rationale behind Verizon’s actions was clear: they didn’t want to risk losing revenue from their very profitable ringtone business. So Verizon disabled the Bluetooth file transfer feature.

This sort of thing irks me. It would be like finding that your new television contains all the hardware needed to display an HD picture, but that (for some perceived financial gain) the manufacturer added a doohickey that prevented the HD display. Annoying. Frustrating.

Happily, I had an alternative. The very next week, I switched to AT&T. It was an especially easy decision — because AT&T offered the exact same Motorola phone I had intended to get at Verizon, except AT&T left the Bluetooth feature enabled.

I have never looked back.

I don’t know how many other people switched from Verizon for similar reasons, but I hope it was enough to cause Verizon to rethink its strategy. In the end, it must have had some effect, because Verizon appears to have given up on this handcuffing of its phones.

The Apple TV

I was reminded of this Verizon incident the other day, while updating my wireless network hardware. I was replacing an old b/g AirPort Express with a new 802.11n Express. The Express is in the same location as my Apple TV. My only need for the Express is to provide a wireless connection to my similarly-situated TiVo (yes, there is a degree of overkill here!).

At one point, noticing the Ethernet port on my Apple TV, I wondered: “Wouldn’t it be great if I could plug the TiVo into the Apple TV and have it connect back to my Internet router?” That way I wouldn’t need the Express at all. I searched the Web to see if this was even remotely possible. It wasn’t. Admittedly, this doesn’t quite qualify as a deliberate crippling of a feature. It’s more like a failure to enable one that could have easily been included. But it’s close.

You don’t have to go much farther, however, to find a perfect example of deliberate crippling: the Apple TV’s USB port. Ever since the Apple TV was released, users have been speculating about the function of this port. Apple claims it is only for “service use” and has no end user function at all. Too bad. Because it would be great, for example, to connect an external drive to the Apple TV — so as to expand the device’s disk storage space (as you can do with a TiVo). It turns out that the USB port can (sort of) be used for this function (and more!), but only if you are willing to do a software hack (as I covered in this article and as is similarly covered here). In other words, Apple deliberately crippled the USB port so that it is unable to perform otherwise useful functions that the hardware fully supports.

My reaction to the Apple TV USB port is no different than to the Verizon phone. It irks me. I understand that Apple (or any company making similar decisions) makes these decisions for one primary reason: to make more money. For example, if I could have connected my TiVo to my Apple TV, Apple might have lost the sale of an AirPort Express. Similarly, if Apple opened up the Apple TV’s USB port, they risk losing sales of Mac minis. And so it goes. There is also the matter of modifying the software to support the unblocked hardware function; this takes time and (again) money.

To be clear: I fully concede that Apple is within its legal rights to make these decisions. There isn’t even anything unethical about these decisions. I simply don’t approve of them. I also happen to believe that these sorts of decisions are usually short-sighted. Any potential sales gains are offset by the ill will that is generated among its customers and ultimately by decreased sales of the crippled device itself. That’s why, after some period of time, these restrictions are usually abandoned — and announced as exciting “new features.”

The Apple TV has, so far, been at best a modest success. It’s hard to argue that they could not sell more Apple TVs by making the device more capable — and ultimately gain greater profits. Even if I am wrong, it’s still an easy call for end users. What is best for Apple’s bottom line is not always what is best for its customers. There is no doubt that end users would be better served by having these more capable devices.

Apple has one advantage over Verizon: I can’t switch to a different vendor and get the “uncrippled” version of the exact same product. So I tend to stick with Apple and grumble about what I don’t like. This does not provide much motivation for Apple to change its ways.

The iPhone and iPad

The situation becomes more complicated when we turn to the iPhone and iPad. Once again, I want to focus on Bluetooth and USB.

As I have written on numerous occasions (such as in this article), Apple has blocked much of the Bluetooth capability of the iPhone. The iPhone may be the only Bluetooth-capable mobile phone that does not work with Apple’s own Mac OS X Bluetooth System Preferences for file sharing. Until very recently, the only thing you could do with Bluetooth on an iPhone was connect to a headset.

Many third-party game developers would welcome the opportunity to offer Bluetooth game controllers for the iPhone and iPad. No dice. Why? Because Apple won’t allow it.

And remember Internet Tethering? It’s been almost a year since this feature has been available — and still AT&T refuses to enable it for either Bluetooth or USB. As to when it may arrive, AT&T is still repeating the same non-answer that they have been giving from the beginning.

However, there are recent indications that things may be shifting for the better — if only in millimeters.

Regarding Bluetooth, you can connect a Bluetooth keyboard to an iPad, with the expectation that this capability will be extended to the iPhone in iPhone OS 4.0.

As for USB, I was surprised to discover the hidden capabilities of the iPad Camera Connection Kit. As its name implies, the only official purpose of the kit is to allow you to import pictures from your digital camera to your iPad. The surprise is that it can do more.

The kit includes two components: (1) a Camera Connector, which essentially adds a USB port to the iPad and (2) an SD card reader. Despite its name, the “Camera Connector” works with more devices than just cameras. It is more of a general purpose USB port. As detailed in this TidBITS article, the Connector works with USB headphones, headsets and external speakers; USB microphones; and low-power USB keyboards. But not with USB drives. And you cannot export data to any connected USB device, such as an SD card.

Just because the Kit can do these things, it doesn’t mean that Apple approves. A recent Apple support article states: “Apple does not recommend or support using the iPad Camera Connector with devices other than cameras.” What a surprise! I would not be shocked to find that, rather than addressing the potential problems described in the support article, Apple blocks these “unsupported” features altogether in iPhone OS 4.0.

These restrictions have not seemed to hurt Apple so far — so there is no reason to expect any big changes ahead. Apparently, whether or not I am irked has little effect on Apple. So be it. Apple does so many things right, I can afford to be irked by the few things it does wrong.

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iPhone OS 4 Quick Take

My quick take on today’s iPhone OS 4 announcements:

Multitasking and Folders: Wow! Two new features in iPhone OS 4 have been on my wish-list since the App Store first opened. I am thrilled to see their arrival.

Multitasking. You’ll now be able to do such tricks as taking a phone call in Skype while playing a game. You’ll also be able to select music from iPod while leaving a GPS app running and continuing to offer directions. This is a huge deal and is a giant leap for the OS. This Macworld article covers more details.

Folders. You’ll at last be able to take a collection of app icons on your Home pages (such as all your games) and combine them into one folder icon. Super.

These two features alone make the upgrade worthwhile.

Better Mail and iBooks on iPhone. Great! A third new “tentpole feature,” although not on my tier one wish list, will still be very welcome: having one unified Inbox for all Mail accounts. An iPhone version of iBooks is yet another welcome addition. Apple really pulled out all the stops for this OS update. I am definitely impressed.

iAd? Not sure about this one. There’s one new feature I could do without: iAd. This is Apple’s new mobile advertising platform. Steve talked about ads would appear on your iPhone an average of once every 3 minutes. He was rather vague about exactly how this would all work. I assume he didn’t mean every 3 minutes, no matter what you are doing. For example, I assume an ad won’t pop up in the middle of watching a movie. At the very least, these ads will only appear in apps that include support for iAd.

What about the older ad formats now included in many apps? Will they be discouraged or even prohibited in OS 4? I doubt there will be an outright ban. But Apple did not spell this out today.

On the plus side, the interface for iAds seems impressive — but they’re still ads. I’m not looking forward to this at all.

iPhone OS compatibility. Only the iPhone 3GS and iPod touch 3rd generation will be able to take full advantage of the new OS. The iPhone 3G and iPod touch 2G will run OS 4, but will not be able to use all of its features (multitasking will be notably absent).

The first generation iPhone and iPod touch are left out of this party. They can’t run iPhone OS 4 at all. This represents the first time an iPhone OS update will not run on all iPhone and iPod touch models. Had to happen eventually I guess.

New as-yet-unannounced iPhones and iPod touches, likely coming this summer, will also run the new OS of course — and should offer additional surprise features as well.

iPhone OS 4 will be coming to the iPad in the fall, a few months behind its release for the pocket-sized devices.

MIA from OS 4. Two big items on my wish list did not make it to iPhone OS 4: (1) Printing and (2) More flexible file sharing (such as the ability to drag and drop files between a Mac and an iPhone). Oh well; there’s always next year.

I also would have liked some mention of when AT&T will finally enable Internet Tethering. Is it ever coming?

No surprise here, but there was also no mention as to whether the new OS would more effectively block attempts at jailbreaking. This is a potentially updated feature I’d be happy for Apple to omit.

Q&A tidbits. Steve offered a few interesting tidbits in the Q&A that followed the formal presentation. He opened the door to the possibility of “widgets” in a future version of the OS for the iPad. And he acknowledged that there would be some sort of approval process for ads submitted to iAd. And that there would be no “porn store” on the iPhone (as if anyone thought otherwise).

No Flash. If you were hoping to see Flash support in the iPhone OS, today’s announcements not only dashed such hopes but pulverized them. As noted in this Mac Observer article: Apple Effectively Bans Flash Compiler in iPhone Os 4 Developer Agreement.

WWDC? Macs? Finally, what’s up with WWDC? Normally, it would have been announced by now — with Apple heavily promoting it. Is there even going to be a WWDC this year? Who knows? Maybe it will be announced next week.

This also started me thinking about Mac OS X 10.7. When will this ever see the light of day? There’s typically been at least a 6 month lag between the announcement that a new OS is coming and its release to end users. It’s thus beginning to look like we won’t see 10.7 until at least 2011. This is a long wait, especially considering that 10.6 was very light on new end-user features.

Combine all this with the fact that Apple has had no new “Get a Mac” ads this year and may be ending the campaign altogether.

Is Apple showing signs of Mac neglect? Is there a larger message to be gleaned from sifting through this bunch of tea leaves? I’m still ruminating on this one.

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