Yelling it like it is

Adrianne Jeffries is a journalist on the tech beat who just published a pretty hot story in The Observer detailing how banks are mining social networking data to calculate credit scores. The article, As Banks Start Nosing Around Facebook and Twitter, the Wrong Friends Might Just Sink Your Credit, describes how startups like Credit Karma and Lenddo are convinced that deadbeats flock together, and are harvesting our data-exhaust and feeding it into FICO scores. Having friends who default on their loans may soon negatively impact your credit worthiness.

Following standard journalistic convention, Jeffries contacted privacy experts for their take on the issue. She reached out to Eben Moglen, a Columbia Law professor, social justice advocate, and director of the Software Freedom Law Center. Although Moglen is a vocal defender of personal privacy and liberty, he refused to provide her with the ease-to digest soundbite she came looking for.  Instead, he takes Jeffreies to task for her hypocrisy, accuses her of contributing to the problem she claims she wants to fix, and for failing to fulfill her responsibilities as a professional journalist. Jeffries is stunned by this reaction, and published the complete transcript of her interview with Moglen, even though she did not use any quotes from him in her story.

As I read the transcript of Moglen eviscerating professional journalism, I initially cringed in empathy for the journalist on the receiving end of Moglen’s brilliant tirade. Why would Moglen treat a journalist this way instead of giving her the harmless pull-quote she came looking for?

The easy answer is that Moglen had a bad day, is a fool, or a jerk. However, in my experience, Moglen’s communications are usually purposeful and deliberate (although ‘tender’ is not the first adjective I would associate with him :-) ). I think it is worth giving him the benefit of the doubt, and speculating on possible deliberate motivations for this response. Was Moglen trying out a new media strategy? Was this a calculated publicity stunt? A performative critique of journalistic conventions? How effective was it, for both Jefferie’s career and Moglen’s message?

I think this incident deserves a close study, as it raises and reveals many important meta-questions about the shifting roles of journalism and activism, in addition to exposing the sad disarray of the nascent privacy movement.

On the substantive issues covered in the story, Jeffries did a pretty good job researching the specifics and the underlying issues, and the piece is smart, witty, and provocative — with decent odds of capturing the attention of a few passing of eyeballs. The story conforms to the standards of the genre, and she quotes CEOs, venture capitalists, and a activist/public intellectual, Doug Rushkoff.

The trouble is that over the years there have been countless stories detailing the pressing dangers of corporate surveillance, and the public does not seem to care (many have been covered on this blog, including a story about medication compliance factoring into FICO scores). After decades of trying to educate and advocate journalists and the public about these issues, I can easily imagine Moglen losing patience for the ineffectual conventions of mainstream journalism.

U.S. journalists continue to water down their responsibility for truth-telling, speaking truth to power, and taking responsibility for being agents of change. The stilted genre of fair-and-balanced soundbites is even more absurd in the digital age when stories can be supported by providing long-form context and elaboration. Instead of pandering to the decontextualized soundbite, Moglen responded in a manner that demands all-or-nothing coverage.

Similar to Emily Bell’s analysis of #occupywallstreet’s success, where the protester’s refusal to conform to soundbites and slogans helped them gain mainstream media cycles, Moglen’s response to Jeffries rejected the soundbite and resulted in her publication of their complete interview. For all we know Moglen has responded this way to other journalists, and this is just the first time the interview has been published. But, I think that activists should consider this response and weigh its relative benefits.

Would the privacy movement have gained more any more credibility if Moglen had produced an easily digestible soundbite?  Perhaps, although privacy has proven itself to be such a complex issue that another round of he-said/she-said warnings/reassurances are unlikely to truly educate or persuade.

I think the real challenge posed my Moglen’s response speaks to journalism’s failure to embrace the possibilities of hypertext, and grow beyond the conventions that dead-tree publishing imposed.  Why don’t stories regularly include links to the expert  interviews, in their entirety? Or, if the interview is sloppy or inaccurate, links to the experts relevant work. Moglen has spoken on numerous occasions warning about the dangers of corporate surveillance, an Jeffries easily could have quoted Molgen in her article, and referred readers to talks like Freedom in the Cloud or Navigating the Age of Democratized Media. Her interviews with him should have started with these talks as a baseline, not require him to rehash privacy 101 for the umpteenth time.

The comments to the interview are also rich with perspectives on the responsibilities of journalists, though not many commentators engage in the critique of journalism that Moglen advances.  Jeffries herself often engages, defending her response on the grounds that “The reporter’s responsibility is to report the truth. I’m not an activist or an advocate”, and branding Moglen a “digital vegan”.

The polar extremes portrayed in this exchange indicate just how desperately the privacy movement needs to develop more nuanced models of strategic agency, as “going off the grid”, or giving up and “promiscuously broadcasting” are the only choices most people think are available to them. My research on the The End of Forgetting outlines alternatives that expand our range of choices and might help advance the terms of this debate beyond – unplugging vs. sticking our heads in the sand.

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