Home | About | Archives | Elsewhere

October 26, 2002
Mighty White of You...

At LGF, Charles Johnson and company were quick to focus on the reactions of American Muslims to the news that the sniper was a Muslim convert. "Here comes the spin," Johnson opined. "Didn't take long." Then his back-up singers chimed in with comments like "People are being shot all over the place by a sick madman, and Faiz Rehman's Muslim community is praying. But not for people to stop dying. Nope. Praying it won't make him and his community look bad." And: "It is really amazing how the first reaction, 'Oh, Shit' as in, we are screwed PR-wise, and not 'Oh God - we have to stop this - we have to condemn this.'"

Of course, as another LGF poster eventually pointed out, Johnson had linked to a single AP report that included a few quotes from various Muslim spokespeople. And because the article was written by a reporter rather than the Muslim spokespeople themselves, and because the article had a specific angle, there was no way to really tell if the few quotes contained in it represented the whole scope of the Muslim spokespeoples' responses. Or as the LGF poster put it, "[The reporter] may have spoken to the CAIR people for ten minutes and heard any number of things, including condemnations and simply picked two quotes for the story - their response to queries about their feelings of a possible Muslim connection."

Or who knows? Maybe the Muslim spokespeoples' first responses really were defensive and self-interested. But what about the first responses from a writer who was most definitely allowed to express exactly what he was feeling, with no reporters acting as a conduit?

As I listen to every talking head insist about how "careful" we have to be about drawing too many conclusions about Mr. Muhammed having anything to do with Islamic terrorism or anti-Americanism, I can't help but be relieved this wasn't some disgruntled Soldier of Fortune reading angry white guy. Somehow, I don't think the care would have been as tender if that were the case.
Posted 9:46 AM

HELP [Jonah Goldberg]
I'm doing a piece -- very fast -- for another publication about the Sniper. I need examples of the media being too eager to paint sniper as a disgruntled white right wing whacko. Concrete examples only please.
Posted 11:38 AM

Jonah Goldberg: What Happened to the Angry White Male?

And there you have it. Jonah Goldberg, relieved not because the shootings had stopped, or because parents and schoolchildren can now breathe easier, or because the cops got the bad guy...

No, Goldberg was relieved because the sniper wasn't white. SHWWWEEEEEEEEEEOOOOOOOO!!!

Now, not to get all multi-culti on your ass, but I think Goldberg's reaction was actually a beautiful thing. Why? Because it suggests that even as ideologies, race, and nationality threaten to rent civilization asunder, white consertive pundits and Muslim spokespeople may really not be all that different after all.

Posted by Greg Beato at 12:25 AM
October 25, 2002
You Spin Me Right Round, Baby!

Will the big bad corporate wolves ever give independent artists a break? Not according to this Wired News article, which features the Kafkaesque tale of a musician named George Ziemann who can't even sell his own music on eBay, thanks to eBay's relentless persecution of independent artists.

Now, I love a good "EBay Sucks!" article, and have even written a few of them myself. So I was certainly looking forward to see just how Meg Whitman and her eBaysian minion were maligning fairness, enterprise, and pluck this time...

And, at first glance, it all seemed pretty terrible. In an effort to prevent piracy, eBay prohibits sellers from selling CD-Rs unless they explicitly state in the item description that they're the copyright holder of whatever it is they're selling. (EBay implemented this policy sometime in 1999 after determining that the overwhelming majority of CD-R auctions involved bootlegged material.)

Of course, since Ziemann is the copyright holder of the album he was selling, he had every right to sell it on eBay. And in compliance with eBay's guidelines, he included the following sentence in the first listing he created: "These are CD-R, made and sold directly by the artists (who are the copyright holders)." (For Ziemann's own multi-page account of his experiences with eBay, click here.)

So far so good, except that the auction ended without any bidders. (Note: in his account of what happened, Ziemann explains that he put up his first ad on or around September 14, and says that it wasn't terminated. Then, he describes a second ad, which includes the copy "Debut release from a Tempe, Arizona based act" and some clickable links. EBay records show that Ziemann created one listing on September 19th, and two on September 24th. All of these listings use the language that Ziemann's account describes as the first ad, and do not include any clickable links. On September 29th, Ziemann created a new listing, with copy and the links that correspond to what he calls his second ad. In other words, it appears that the first three listings that Ziemann created ran smoothly, with no erroneous termination from eBay.)

At some point, Ziemann created a listing with the item number 910679822. While this listing doesn't appear in eBay's records, it's apparently the one that prompted the first termination (and that may be why it doesn't appear in the records). Like Ziemann's first listing, this auction ended without any bidders. But this time, eBay notified Ziemann that the listing had violated its CD-R policy. In truth, he had complied with it. (In this listing and some others, Ziemann included links to other sites where he was selling his album, which is a violation of eBay policy. But eBay never specifically cited him for this, and when he learned it was a violation, he removed the links.)

So why did eBay terminate this auction, if Ziemann had complied with eBay's CD-R policy? Well, sometimes mistakes happen, especially when software and people are involved.

But instead of trying to resolve eBay's mistake, Ziemann simply created five new item listings, on October 5th. "Buy the CD insert and case, get the CD FREE!!!" he wrote in their item descriptions. "Includes a FREE CD-R, made personally by the artists (who are the copyright holders)."

And once again, on October 6th, eBay promptly terminated Ziemann's auctions. Because the technique of selling a CD case (or "jewel box") while giving away the CD (or CD-R) for free is a common practice amongst eBay bootleggers (or at least it used to be, when I wrote this article in 2000), it's possible Ziemann simply worsened his cause with this tactic. Still, he had clearly identified himself as the copyright holder of the content he was selling, and was in apparent compliance with eBay's CD-R policy.

On October 6th, Ziemann created three new listings which included the following copy in the item description: "We're not selling anything. We tried to sell our CD here, but eBay won't let us. Buy it direct." A day later, he created another listing that was essentially the same, minus the "Buy it direct" copy.

On October 7th, Ziemann also asked eBay to specifically explain why it had terminated the five listings he had created on October 5th. In his email to the company, he asked the following questions:

"Exactly what was wrong with our listing?"

"Why do you have hundreds of thousands of listings for recorded CDs (aka CD-R) by persons other than the copyright holder?

"Why is eBay discriminating against independent artists?"

While Ziemann was understandably frustrated by eBay's erroneous terminations, his contention that eBay was discriminating against him for being an independent artist doesn't really make sense. For one thing, if he wanted to avoid the CD-R issue altogether, he could have simply utilized the services of a CD manufacturer to produce genuine CD versions of his band's album. More importantly, eBay's CD-R policy does permit independent artists to sell CD-R copies of their own work: it's just that the policy wasn't being enforced correctly.

And guess what? Eventually, eBay recognized its error, and tried to make amends. For some reason, the Wired News article doesn't include this information, but Ziemann himself does, on the second page of his account. According to Ziemann, eBay sent him two emails on October 8th, apologizing for the error and explaining how to relist his auctions.

There. End of story, right? eBay had not discriminated against an independent artist. Instead, it had simply executed its CD-R policy poorly. And when Ziemann complained, eBay resolved the problem. Resolution didn't come immediately, and it wasn't very personable, but nonetheless it came.

But who wants to hear that story?

For whatever reason, Wired News' account of Ziemann's troubles with eBay includes no mention of eBay's attempted resolution.

And Ziemann never actually explains why he didn't relist the erroneously terminated auctions. Instead, at this point in his account, he explains how he created the listings where he wasn't trying to sell anything. But if the eBay records are accurate, Ziemann actually created these listings on October 6th and 7th, before eBay resolved the problem with his previous listings. In any case, Ziemann says that he ended these new "We're not selling anything" listings himself, and that after he did, eBay sent him email about them: "A day or two later, eBay sent a warning about these items," he writes. "I deserved it. I did not complain."

On October 8th, Ziemann created another listing of the "Buy the Insert and Case" variety.

On October 10th, 11th, and 12th, Ziemann created one new listing each day. These three listings are identical: they say that the CD-R is for sale at a starting bid of $2.50, and they include a copyright notice. On October 13th, eBay sent Ziemann an email that explained it was terminating these latest three auctions.

This time, the message was slightly different from the earlier termination notices. "Unfortunately your listing appeared to offer an item or contained material that violates someone's copyright, trademark, or other rights," this one read in part. "We understand that sometimes mistakes can be made and that your listing may offer a lawful item. If you feel your listing was removed by us in error, please let us know by replying to this message."

Ziemann dutifully replied to this message, and in return for his trouble, he received an automated response that appeared to offer him little further recourse.

That must have been frustrating, no doubt, but the fact that eBay has frequently unresponsive customer service doesn't mean that it's discriminating against independent artists.

And after awhile, you have to wonder: why didn't Ziemann relist his erroneously terminated auctions when eBay made it possible for him to do so?

Why did he keep changing the copy of his ads, and use text ("Buy the CD insert and case, get the CD FREE!!!") that actually made his offer seem somewhat suspicious?

Why did he create the deliberately provocative, attention-getting "We're not selling anything" listings?

A recap: on October 10th, 11th, and 12th, Ziemann created listings to sell his album. On October 13th, eBay notified Ziemann that it was terminating those three auctions. "By October 13, I had contacted every California entertainment attorney listed at (as well as a few we hunted out through other sources) concerning eBay's discrimination against independent artists," Ziemann writes on his site. "I've probably written to about 2 dozen by now."

In one of these letters, Ziemann exclaimed: "[eBay is] denying our copyrighted product access to their selling arena on the basis that it it potentially infringing on some else's copyright. They have not provided any notice of any infringed-upon party. We believe we are being discriminated aginst because we are independent artists and not affiliated with a record company." He also sent letters to ASCAP, The Today Show, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, MTV, the Harvard Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Review, and Yoko Ono, amongst others.

On October 14th and October 15, Ziemann created two more item listings, one on each day, both with the same text. In addition, Ziemann wrote an email to eBay on October 15th. In part, this email read: "I personally am the copyright owner of this product and every time I try to auction it, the listing is cancelled."

Of course, this isn't entirely true: Ziemann himself explained at the beginning of his account that the first time he listed his album at eBay, the auction ended with no buyers. And as I explained above, it appears that this may be true for the first three listings that Ziemann created.

In the October 15th letter, Ziemann also wrote: "If this is just an internal thing, then eBay is insinuating that I do not possess the copyright. Any bidder who receives your notice of cancellation will then assume that I do not possess the copyright. If this false claim causes me problems with any other sales venue, I will be forced to sue eBay for defamation of character and to recapture lost profits."

This seems like a valid concern, but at the same time, did anyone ever actually bid on any of Ziemann's CD-R auctions? He does say that he got some bids on the auctions where he was selling "nothing," but he never explicitly mentions any bids on the actual CD-R.

In any case, Ziemann's letter prompted a response from an eBay employee, who told him to send his complaint to another eBay email address, This letter generated another automated response that did nothing to resolve Ziemann's problems.

And here, I have to say, I feel for Ziemann - nothing is more frustrating than getting canned customer service responses that don't address one's specific concerns. So I can actually understand and empathize with what he did next: "At 7 p.m., I escalated the battle by logging into the Rules and Safety comment form and writing a nasty letter to eBay. I clicked the Send Comment button and was taken to a page that said 'Your message has been sent to eBay.' I was going to go back to a page I had looked at previously, slipped off the mouse and ended up just hitting the Back button. This took me back to the form, which still had my complete letter. So I sent it again. Then I had a thought. I added my telephone number at the very top of the message and said that I was going to send the message incessantly until someone called me or they shut down the comment section to force me to stop. I was not trying to maliciously and anonymously clog their system. I was straight-up about who I was and how to make me stop immediately. I just wanted to get the attention of a human, something apparently in very short supply at eBay...After 4 hours of this, I got bored and went to bed. No one ever called."

By the time Ziemann was finished, he had sent approximately 1800 emails. Before going to bed, however, he wrote one more. In it, he exclaimed, "The latest auto-response indicates that there was a complaint about copyright infringement. I have been trying to find out who this complaintant is for more than 48 hours, yet eBay refuses to provide this information."

At this point, Ziemann seems sincerely frustrated. But at the same time, he knew the email he received was a boilerplate auto-response. And since he already knew that eBay was capable of inadvertently terminating auctions, and then offering up erroneous justifications for those terminations, why didn't it occur to him that this latest instance was just more of the same, albeit with different erroneous automated responses?

Eventually, eBay attempted to correct its error, with the following email response: "After reviewing the auctions it has been determined that they may have been ended in error, and so have been reinstated to the site, where they appear as ended auctions. To relist the auctions, all you have to do is click on the relist link in the auction itself."

Sound familiar? It's basically the same response Ziemann got the first time around. But while it appeared to solve Ziemann's problem, he wasn't satisfied with it. "The apology is computer generated from a template," he writes on his site. "Not acceptable."

But why not? As frustrating as this experience may have been for Ziemann, each time eBay tried to correct its errors, he ignored its efforts to do so. In addition to not relisting the auctions that eBay had erroneously terminated, Ziemann chose to preemptively end the two auctions he had created on October 14th and 15th.

On October 17th, Ziemann received a strange email from eBay, threatening to suspend his eBay registration for engaging in behavior that was "not permitted at eBay." The email cites a post that Ziemann made on an eBay message-board. In this post, Ziemann described the problems he'd been having with terminated auctions. In addition, he explained how he'd created the buy-the-case-and-get-the-CD-R free listings. What's unclear is what eBay was objecting to and threatening suspension over. Simply posting a critical message about eBay? Or is it that selling a CD case while giving away the CD-R is actually a violation of eBay's policy?

eBay didn't make this clear, in yet another example of how its customer service attempts fail to actually serve customers. In the end, though, nothing came of this threatening, ambiguous email: Ziemann decided to cancel his eBay account on his own.

Before he did this, however, another eBay employee sent him an email explaining that "a notation has been placed on your account stating that you may list these items." In other words, for a third time, eBay had seemingly resolved Ziemann's problem. Nonetheless, Ziemann canceled his account. In his last email to eBay that he includes on his site, he chastised an eBay employee for not providing specific answers to his questions about why his listings had been terminated, and added, "I have a rapidly growing international audience that wants to hear the answers."

And indeed he does. While Ziemann was unable to sell even one copy of his album via eBay, he's had great success in selling his story of his failure to do so.

First, links to his tale started appearing on various message-boards around the web. Then came the Wired News story, which was subsequently linked by Slashdot, Instapundit, and various other sites.

And now his tale is a cause celebre, more evidence of what Wired News describes as "media companies upping their online enforcement of copyright law." Comrade Reynolds, who sometimes lets his enthusiasm for the common man get the best of him, turned the rhetoric even higher, summarizing his link to the Wired News story with the following tagline: "I TOLD YOU SO: Record-company copyright enforcers are making it impossible for musicians to sell their own music on eBay."

Of course, there's nothing about Ziemann's tale that actually suggests that eBay has recently upped its online enforcement of copyright law (it's had the CD-R policy in place since 1999). Or that record-company copyright enforcers were involved in any way. Or that it truly is impossible for musicians to sell their own music on eBay.

And the version of the story that Wired News recounted left out plenty of details - making no mention of eBay's many attempts to resolve Ziemann's problems, or Ziemann's creation of the "We're not selling anything" listings, or Ziemann's attempts to pursue a lawsuit, or Ziemann's 1800-plus emails to eBay's customer service department.

But those are just details that complicate a nice David vs. Goliath tale about the struggles of independent artists to obtain justice in a hostile landscape dominated by evil corporate copyright enforcers. Right?

As for Ziemann, well, you can't knock a guy for figuring out a great way to publicize his band. And who knows, if one of those lawyers he contacted decides to file a lawsuit for him, maybe he'll really collect: it's getting harder and harder for musicians to make money these days, so kudos to those experimenting with innovative new revenue models.

UPDATE: Ziemann appears to have removed his account of his experiences with eBay from his website. Thus, the links to those pages no longer work.

UPDATE: Actually, the links weren't working due to a stupid error I made. Before publishing the article, I used Word to change all instances of "Ebay" or "ebay" to "eBay." Because URLs sometimes require exact capitalization, that change caused the links to Ziemann's site to not work. Thanks to a comment from Rich Hailey (see the comments section), who reported that the pages were in fact available, I figured out my mistake.

Also, Ziemann has changed the first page of his account, adding new information about how eBay is working with him to resolve his problems. But at least some of the information that Ziemann originally included on the first page is gone now, however, including his statements about how the first time he tried selling his CD-R album at eBay, the auction went off without a hitch (or a buyer.)

Finally, a few new details and observations: In Ziemann's latest conversation with an eBay employee named Jason, Ziemann exclaimed that "Judging from the e-mails I've received in the past day or so, we all know that your software that scans the listings is going to throw out every ad that has CD-R in it, no matter what it says."

My guess is that this isn't completely accurate, because if you do a search on "CD-R" at eBay, you will often find listings that say something like "This is not a CD-R."

According to Jason, "the listings are scanned by software and yes, if it says CD-R, it's going to be flagged. But a person is supposed to actually look at the listing before cancelling it. That wasn't happening and we have taken administrative action because of it. If you're following the rules, you should be able to sell your CD-R."

Ziemann also wrote: "Jason says that eBay really does care about their customers and really doesn't want to piss off the entire independent artist community...He also made a point of stating that they were not even going to ask me to take down the story. Freedom of speech and all that...So now we basically have a free pass at eBay. It's pretty obvious that none of our ads are going to get cancelled for a while. And they offered a big $100 credit "to help us get going again," which basically gives us 300 free listings (and is 20 times the amount I have actually paid so far)...That's very nice of them. Our problem is solved. And I have Jason's phone number, so I can now call a human at eBay if I have something to bitch about...This has been far too much fun to let them off entirely. Now we're going to try to work with eBay and make sure that things really do change. After all, that has been the goal all along. We're going to leave the original story up for a while as a reminder, but now we're going to try and help them tell the good guys from the bad guys...Bonus Prize...There was a side benefit to all this brouhaha. Two of our songs are in the Top 20 nationally at in the Acoustic Rock genre today."

Important point: If Ziemann really wants "to leave the original story up for a while as a reminder..." then he should leave the original story up - the version that discloses how his first listing (and perhaps three listings) were not terminated by eBay.

Also, I think the ultimate moral of this story is pretty clear: take a bad situation and make it worse, raise a fuss about how you're being persecuted, enlist sympathetic reporters to help publicize an incomplete version of your story that puts you in the best possible light and your persecutor in the worst, and things will turn out great!

Posted by Greg Beato at 10:18 AM
October 23, 2002
Janis Ian Spins

In today's USA Today, Janis Ian remixes her popular article about how the music industry is fighting digital distribution at the expense of artists like herself. (The original article first appeared in the May issue of Performing Songwriter; sometime after that, Ian posted it on her own website.)

In the remix version, Ian says: "My site,, began offering free downloads in July. About a thousand people per day have downloaded my music, most of them people who had never heard of me and never bought my CDs...On the first day I posted downloadable music, my merchandise sales tripled, and they have stayed that way ever since. I'm not about to become a zillionaire as a result, but I am making more money."

She also gets in some shots at the record industry, like: "If a record executive says he will make me more money, I'd immediately protect my wallet." And: "Who's really hurt by free downloads? The executives at major labels who twiddled their thumbs for years while company after company begged them to set up 'micropayment'' protocols and to license material for Internet-download sales."

What Ian conveniently doesn't say in the USA Today remix of her article about the nature of her success: by the time she first began offering free downloads in July, the original version of her article had become an Internet phenomenon. As she describes in a follow-up article she published at her site on August 1st: "Quite frankly, when I spent three months researching and writing 'The Internet Debacle,' I wasn't planning to become part of a 'cause.' I assumed that the 35,000 subscribers of Performing Songwriter magazine might read it, and a few might email me about it. I had no idea that a scant month later, the article would be posted on over 1,000 sites, translated into nine languages, and have been featured on the BBC."

And if it hadn't been posted on a thousand websites, and if hundreds of additional websites hadn't linked to the article after Ian had posted it on her own site, and if Ian hadn't been interviewed at Slashdot, and interviewed on TechTV, and interviewed at the SJ Mercury and many other places, guess what? A thousand people a day would not be downloading songs from her site.

But at least now we know the formula for success via digital downloading:

1. Build your brand recognition via a 35-year career as a Grammy-nominated artist. You will probably need to enlist the help of some greedy record company executives for this, but that's easy because they have lots of free time, since they don't actually do anything all day except twiddle their thumbs and steal wallets from recording artists (which is why all the most successful artists, like the guys in Linkin Park, wear wallet-chains).

2. Write an unusually popular essay about the virtues of downloading and record industry perfidy. This is actually easier than it sounds, at least for the time being, because no other established artists are doing so. Indeed, Janis Ian's article didn't actually say anything that hadn't already been said many times before, except perhaps for this eye-opening passage: "I bought a new Vaio in December...and now back up all my files onto CD. I go through 7-15 CD's a week that way, or about 500 a year...Additionally, when I buy a new CD, I make a copy for my car, a copy for upstairs, and a copy for my partner. That's three blank discs per CD. So I alone account for around 750 blank CDs yearly." (What the heck is Ian doing on her computer that requires archiving 5 to 10 gigabytes of data a week? And where do you get one of those partners with a built-in CD player? I don't even have a built-in CD player in my car...) In any case, don't worry if you don't have anything to add to the debate about digital distribution, or if you don't actually understand the full ramifications of it - as long as you are an established artist and you knock the record industry, you will get more publicity than a week's worth of TRL appearances can generate.

3. When 1000 people start downloading your songs each day, make sure you have some hats to sell. This principle seems sort of counterintuitive at first - if people won't pay for what you do best, why would they pay for a hat with your name on it? But as Ian explained, her merchandise sales "have tripled" since she started offering free downloading. (In the USA Today remix version, she doesn't offer any hard stats on how her CD sales have fared since she started offering free downloads. In the original version of her article, when she wasn't yet offering free downloads on her site, she wrote: "When Napster was running full-tilt, we received about 100 hits a month from people who'd downloaded Society's Child or At Seventeen for free, then decided they wanted more information. Of those 100 people (and these are only the ones who let us know how they'd found the site), 15 bought CDs. Not huge sales, right? No record company is interested in 180 extra sales a year. But...that translates into $2700, which is a lot of money in my book. And that doesn't include the ones who bought the CDs in stores, or who came to my shows.")

Conclusion: when it's this easy to make money from free digital downloading, how come more established artists aren't following Ian's lead?

Of course, if you're not an established artist, forget it. People will be about as interested in your thoughts on the greedy music industry as they are in your crappy songs that haven't been able to land you a record contract. Which means that no one will come to your site to listen to your songs, which means that you won't sell any hats except to your mom.

But if you are an established artist, like the 120+ artists at who have foolishly endorsed the greedy record industry's efforts to keep them enslaved, why wouldn't you throw away radio promotion, retail distribution, TV appearances, and everything else a record company helps facilitate for the chance to earn almost as much per year as an unsuccessful webcam whore?

While it's true no artist of lesser stature than Ian is likely to usurp her status as the poster child of free downloading, and thus capitalize on the publicity bonanza that comes with that, artists who are more prominent than Ian are missing out on a great opportunity to sell a lot of hats...

Posted by Greg Beato at 11:37 AM
October 22, 2002

Posted by Greg Beato at 08:13 AM
October 21, 2002
Puzzling Muzzling

Meryl Yourish: "As I see it, we have a perfect example here of the left trying to muzzle or altogether silence a weblog that purveys ideas they don't like or agree with."

She writes this statement in a post in which she decries's decision to label Little Green Footballs a "hate" blog.

Of course, sticklers will note that what actually says is: "A popular but controversial Warblog focusing on militant Islam and terrorism. Is this news or hate?" And: "As a Weblog specimen, LGF is actively maintained, well-presented, heavily trafficked, and a prime example of the ability of blogs to generate discussion and create community. While I do not think that LGF should be ignored or excluded from Best of Blog contention, I do agree that my own entry should have done more to both describe and contextualize it. That said, I've amended both my original entry below and the description of LGF in the column on the right."

For the record, if had labeled Little Green Footballs a hate blog, then the above passage would have read "Little Green Footballs is a hate blog."

Instead, has simply engaged in a little cover-your-ass objectivity. Initially, it praised the site without reservation; when some readers objected, continued to praise the site, albeit it with the you-may-find-this-objectionable disclaimer.

When Yourish writes that "the left [is] trying to muzzle or altogether silence a weblog," it's unclear if she means the people who criticized's decision to include a link to LGF and for adding the disclaimer, or if she just means the former group.

My guess is that she just means the former group, because she can't possibly be suggesting that is attempting to muzzle or altogether silence LGF by prominently linking to it, can she?

As for anyone else's efforts to muzzle or altogether silence LGF, how exactly have they done this? By hacking the site? By asking LGF's webhost to take the site down? If these things have been done, then Yourish's description may in fact be correct. But if Yourish is suggesting that simply criticizing a site is akin to muzzling or altogether silencing it, how come Comrade Reynolds and company aren't laughing her out of the building?

Posted by Greg Beato at 03:46 PM
America's News Channel (That It's Not Watching)

According to the WSJ, troubles continue for MSNBC, a consistent also-ran in the cable news race. Interestingly enough, MSNBC is actually profitable, so I don't exactly understand why MSNBC corporate overlord Jeffrey Emmelt (chief executive of G.E.) is slagging his own network during guest appearances on Fox News. (But such behavior does give credence to Scott Adams' theories about CEOs.)

At the end of the WSJ article, some analyst says there's only room for two cable news channels (even though three are currently profitable) - but I think that's probably more accurate if you say "There's only room for two cable news channels that do exactly the same thing."

MSNBC's problem is that it keeps inventing poorly defined identities for itself, then abandoning them when they don't resonate with viewers. As the WSJ documents it: "Initially, the channel was conceived as a hybrid of new and old media. The sets looked like the offices of a dot-com company, and the programs had a high-tech edge, emphasizing interaction between the MSNBC Web site and the cable channel...but then the network won critical praise for its wall-to-wall news coverage of the death of Princess Diana in 1997, and the high-tech touches seemed to fade. The channel began leaning more on traditional news coverage...More recently, MSNBC has been backing away from news."

In all of these various incarnations, however, MSNBC has never really had an emphatic ideology or even an emphatic attitude. While it tried Botoxing various traditional news analysis conventions in its early days, it has never strayed too far from the top-down, portentous centrism of mainstream network news. But top-down, portentous centrism has little value in the realm of cable - it's a strategy designed to attract huge audiences, not niche ones.

It works for CNN, sort of, because CNN was the first 24-hour news channel. It didn't offer anything very different from network news, but it offered more of it, and now it owns the "more news" niche. Fox News realized it needed to offer something more than just more "more news," so it offered news analysis with a conservative slant. MSNBC, however, has never offered anything except "more news" or "more news analysis."

What could it do to change this? Lots of things:

1) Become as aggressively liberal as Fox News is conservative. Give Michael Moore his own show. Start developing The Streisand Factor. Conservatives always complain about the left-wing bias of television news, but the truth is no network or channel actually tries to market its left-wing bias (in part, of course, because such biases don't exist as much as conservatives claim they do). By hiring Phil Donahue, MSNBC took steps in this direction, but the channel is still fairly covert about its sentiments. Everyone's always talking about how the Left is adrift, and the Left lacks leaders, and the Left has lost its way - but imagine how an aggressively liberal cable network could exploit that leadership vacuum by promoting its own TV personalities, ideological causes, etc. MSNBC is already capitalizing on the imminent war against Iraq with a nightly show devoted to it, but why not go the next step and turn the show into ground central for the anti-war movement? Politics aside, it's just good business - it would give MSNBC a mission, a crusade, a purpose - and that's much more interesting to watch than centrist news or centrist news analysis.

2. Return to its hybrid roots. In the early days of MSNBC, on-air personalities were always encouraging readers to send email, call their 800 number, etc. Unfortunately, such gambits were both ahead of their time and really not radical enough to fully tap the power they flirted with. But now? TechTV had the right idea with its Netcam Network, but it covers the wrong subject. What people really, really love to spout off about is news and politics. One of the reasons The O'Reilly Factor is so popular, no doubt, is that O'Reilly actually reads email from his viewers during each show. If it wanted, though, MSNBC could take it a step further and actually include webcammed commentary from a nationwide network of regular-person correspondents. Indeed, if MSNBC gave free webcams to 100 of the most popular bloggers on the web, and then started incorporating their commentary into MSNBC programming, they'd suddenly have 500 of the most popular bloggers promoting MSNBC and steering viewers their way.

3. Make the news entertaining. On Comedy Central, there's the Daily Show. On SNL, there's Weekend Update. Throw in the late-night monologues of Jay, David, Conan, and Craig, add The Onion and its legion of imitators, and it all becomes crystal clear: people love news that makes them laugh. Or at least news that's not deadly boring. So why not be the first cable news network that puts a mandate on entertainment? Not every show would have to go for sitcom-style laffs - they'd just have to be as entertaining about the news as ESPN is about sports. And not be afraid to be risque or a little highbrow (in an easily accessible middlebrow way). In other words - the TV version of the New York Observer. Or if that seems a little too literary, Salon. Just make the news funny, sexy, fast-paced, and adult - like HBO would do the news if HBO did news. But don't just do the obvious thing and hire Dennis Miller. Be creative and take some chances. Have Trey Parker and Matt Stone produce a news show. Or Dave Attel. Include some arts coverage that isn't just repurposed from The Today Show. Create a new show featuring bikini-clad anchors called The Nearly Naked News Hour and air it at 11 pm each night.

There's so much writing and on-air talent out there these days that it's really a crime to have a boring TV channel. But to be "interesting and edgy," you can't just go around saying that's what you want to be, as Jeffrey Emmelt is doing now. You actually have to take chances. Would Emmelt or any of the other big guns at G.E. or MSNBC approve of anchors in bikinis? Probably not. With handing over air-time to wildly opinionated bloggers? Probably not. With coming out as commie peacenik tree-huggers? Probably not. Which is why MSNBC is probably doomed to mildly profitable irrelevance.

Posted by Greg Beato at 11:18 AM