Found in Translation

Why are so many people worried about what gets lost in translation, when so much else is found?

It’s no secret that for thousands of years, you’d find the most interesting ideas at the crossroads. The intersections of commerce that brought goods, services and ideas that would go on to infect other tribes.

The same holds true today, as the breakthrough advances in science and math come about through cross-pollination of ideas, and transformation. Mathematical theorems that were unprovable through algebra alone become solvable when converted into a topological construct.

Patterns and their significance — even their inherent beauty — are often masked until they are retranslated through the appropriate filters. This video is genius, not just because of the technical virtuosity required to make it, but because of the genius it reveals.

…and I don’t even like Jazz.

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The Future of Political Journalism?

Traditional Journalism is in for several more tremors before the implosion is finished. I’ve mentioned several of the trends that are accelerating the shift toward a concept I call the Embedded Journalist, but don’t expect that transition to be smooth.

In California, for example, a political campaign high on finance and low on interest is offering to provide video excerpts to television stations. Opponents are crying foul:

Republican primary rival Steve Poizner’s campaign called it another attempt by Whitman to buy the election, referring to the $49 million that she’s spent so far on the campaign — largely on paid media advertising.

“Meg Whitman crossed another line in this race by spending her millions to spread her campaign propaganda in tailored sound bites to news stations,” said Jarrod Agen, Poizner’s spokesman.

Sterling Clifford, campaign spokesman for Democratic candidate Jerry Brown, called Whitman’s move “campaign propaganda,” while Sean Clegg, campaign manager for the Level the Playing Field 2010, said the move was straight out of Wall Street.

“In the world of corporate public relations,” Clegg said, “it may work to send packaged video press releases, but there’s a far greater degree of scrutiny in the political world.”

What’s not clear is how much this is political sour grapes, and how much is recognition that politics is a different animal.

If you’re a small-market station in California, you don’t have the resources to cover an extended campaign. And I have heard from many colleagues in California that Whitman’s media spending has jump-started this campaign season, promising to make it the lengthiest ever. Fatigue will be a factor.

I have to wonder, how much complaint would there be if:

  • A campaign put its video highlights straight to the web
  • A campaign sent news releases with quotes to fax machines

Apparently, the arguments coming from the other campaigns are a signal that television news is a protected, sacred resource. There is only a limited amount of time in a newscast, and every second of video showing happy, waving crowds for one candidate is time not spent talking about another. And, of course, the airwaves belong “to the people.”

There’s also a notion that political journalism is a particularly vital subset, without which our democracy could not function. I’ll buy the idea there are sleazy repercussions for the manipulation of journalism outlets. That line is drawn between persuasion and outright falsehoods. (Like astroturfing, when it can be proven.)

But I have to wonder how much of the disdain coming from television stations is a byproduct of the $49-million Whitman has spent on media so far? Why run the footage she is offering for free, when you can make her buy an outright political ad? It’s easy to stand on principle when it aligns with your bottom line.

Also, are the other campaigns just trying to neutralize Whitman’s bottomless checkbook and her early start? Would they be doing the same thing if they had the resources? I don’t see any moral and ethical question being floated around “the campaigns’ use of fax machines to provide carefully-crafted news releases that paint their candidate in only the most positive light.”

Redrawing the Lines

Again, I am not advocating for the Embedded Journalist model. It’s clear in this case that the video being shared – with no narration or editorial comment – isn’t replacing a reporter. In that sense, it is somewhat neutral point-of-view, but also is not finished and ready for air. I am just looking at the trends and the pace of change, and that model may end up filling a lot of needs, including that of public information.

What hasn’t fit neatly into this model is communication of a campaign nature. The Embedded Journalist gains some advantage through proximity and familiarity with the companies and industries it covers. In a finite campaign, that is a dynamic more about access and sticking to the script. The Embedded Journalist in a corporate setting would be more independent, almost like an ombudsman. That’s essential to build credibility, and without that credibility it is of no value to the company.

I just don’t see the concept working in a campaign that is too short (even by California standards) for the authenticity to accumulate.

I do, however, have a problem with Whitman’s opponents using scurrilous arguments about “level playing fields.” That’s the clear sign of a candidate that wishes it had the same finances. I would suppose a social-media friendly campaign that was very slickly produced and purchased would be just fine? Talking straight to the people? Or would it be castigated for circumventing the traditional media?

Your thoughts?

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What Business can learn from Funny Business

If I am to believe my friends, “Date Night” is a bomb. Not “The Bomb,” but a bomb. An article makes all the difference. And it’s all because the some people in the Funny Business don’t understand the Business of Funny.

The movie stars Steve Carell and Tina Fey, and how could you miss with the stars of back-to-back Awesome NBC Thursday Sitcoms?

And how can you, as a communicator, learn from their mistakes?

My brother and I were talking about this the other day at lunch, and without having seen the movie, we outlined some serious problems that project would have to overcome. Maybe too many. It has to do with the type of humor involved in each show, and how they are not complimentary at all.

1) Clashing expectations

When you watch Steve Carell on “The Office,” you see a bumbling idiot in Michael Scott who is oblivious to everything around him. Common cues and courtesies fly right past him. He is utterly clueless.

With Fey’s Liz Lemon, you have a character who misses nothing. Like the Aaron Altman character from “Broadcast News,” she really does have the burden of always being the smartest person in the room. She is the bastion of sanity around which the absurd orbits. Michael Scott is the ethereal presence that infects all, yet is impervious to effect.

If the movie plays off the expectations from both actors, then you have Liz Lemon-flavor as the smart tart who is the harpy to Carell’s hapless ship. Who wants to see that?

At least when Carell did “Dan In Real Life” is wasn’t sold as a comedy, so he could break type.

2) Organization vs. Organic

The sort of comedy you get from 30 Rock is very different at its core than you get from “The Office.” With the typical episode of 30 Rock, you have something that plays the role of the Initial Engine – an event that triggers a chain reaction of comedic responses that culminate in a resolution. The script must be tight, because everything hinges upon tying those loose ends, and in this regard the writers for the show do a great job of weaving subplots and the like.

At Dunder-Mifflin, much of what takes place could indeed take place on any given day. You might have a couple of subplots that cross paths with the main one, but the chaos in Scranton is very organic compared to 30 Rock.

Plotting the differences in the typical episode, 30 Rock will be vertical – a Downhill catalyst that tumbles over everything in its wake. The Office is all about what happens in the periphery.

3) Style and Pace

The shows are very different. While 30 Rock does a fantastic job of breathing new life into the sitcom genre, it is still a sitcom. The viewer is treated to everything as just a viewer. Nothing more.

The Office has a mock-documentary format that provides a lot of insight through simple asides – character responses and observations that are intended solely for the audience. It’s a format that allows for the bending of the fourth wall without actually breaking it. In that respect, the shooting is highly improvisational, and each episode of The Office is put to bed with several minutes of usuable footage that just didn’t make it for time. 30 Rock does not have that luxury.

Mission Improbable

Add those up, and you’ll find it would be very hard to draft a script that plays off both their strengths. And it is not to say that as actors they couldn’t rise to a challenge and show us something new.

But their personae are very well-cocooned within expectations that have made them millions of dollars. Neither has done well playing against type, and they would have to be three times as good to overcome the audience expectation.

So tell me.

Why are so many communications professionals trying their damnedest to get their CEO to blog, or to Tweet? Why the headlong rush to put your corporate star in a vehicle that does not meet expectations? Maybe they can excel in a new role – or maybe they’ve succeeded for so long because of great casting.

If you’re going to stretch out into new forms of communication, test the waters before committing your cast to the next Waterworld.

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Imported Turf

While traditional media outlets claim to “embrace the conversation,” are they still holding it at arm’s length? Is it enough to host comments and invite input online, without the due diligence to see if others are manipulating the agenda?

A few days ago, I wrote about what appeared to be a fairly obvious case of Astroturfing – the practice of creating fake “grass roots” in order to make it seem like public opinion was different than reality. One of my biggest clues was the sheer volume of comments posted between the moment the story went live at 5 a.m., and the time I read them (dozens of them) at 6:15 a.m.

If newspapers were a little more sophisticated about this sort of thing, they might check their IP logs and see the source of all that recent traffic — most of which is not washed through any proxy, and does give decent geographic information.

For example, let me show you the sort of data one can mine if they use the right tools:

The two images you see to the right are screen captures from my Sitemeter administration page. They show two separate visits to Occam’s RazR, both time and date stamped.

As you can see, both of these visits came from Boca Raton, Florida, and the visits overlap in time. Curiously, you can see from the out-click information that both of them left comments. They also come from different browsers, which is a nifty little way to be logged onto the same site concurrently from different profiles.

As it happens, those comments correlate in time to a pair of comments left here, by people purporting to be “5 Points Joe” and “Garlic Rolls,” two screen names you see used in the comment threads about Bingo. “Garlic Rolls” is one of the many commenters who is firmly for a vote of the people and is pro-gambling, while “5 Points Joe” is a little more skeptical, and is often accused of being a “Sock Puppet” handle for Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor Joey Kennedy. (That accusation is laughable on several counts, but I digress.)

Here is the screen shot of my WordPress comment administration panel, verifying the IP addresses of the comments. I took the liberty of blurring out the email addresses used by those who posted, for reasons I will get to later.

Since the panel shows newest comments at the top, you can see that the “5 Points Joe” comment, left at 6:27pm, came first. I seriously doubt this is from the real 5PointsJoe, because a quick look at his comment history shows him engaged on a number of issues not related to gambling in Alabama. Why would a paid lobbyist based in Boca Raton be so involved in flood warnings at schools, police trials, and whether George Barber is a good guy for offering free land downtown for business development.

Brad (claiming to be Garlic Rolls), on the other hand, has only posted in bingo-related threads. And in the comment, Garlic claims to be on unemployment in the state of Alabama, while posting from Boca Raton. I would think that someone whose lamenting the loss of his/her minimum wage job would be staying someplace cheaper than Boca Raton while cashing those Alabama state unemployment checks.

But hey, I’ve been wrong before.

I’m not a betting man, but here’s where I would put the smart money:

  • Both comments were left by the same person.
  • Neither email address shows up in searches.
  • Wanting to throw me off the trail, the Phony Joe was left first, so the Garlic Rolls could respond.

The entire thing reeks of underhanded manipulation. And it parallels a more fundamental question raised by the real Joey Kennedy of the Birmingham News, about transparency and our right to know who is paying for all the issue advertising.

Round-Up the Turf Merchants

If I were a reporter, I’d be wanting to chase down some pertinent data. A couple of years ago, this same newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for investigating corruption in Alabama’s two-year college system, and that entire series of stories started with a request for a raw data dump. Brett Blackledge asked for the raw records, and started stitching together the tendrils until the narrative came into focus. But I’m not so certain that will be as easy to accomplish here, because most newspaper web sites are run as completely different divisions. I do know that is run out-of-state, and there is likely not decent access to the raw information that could establish patterns of astroturfing.

What about privacy? The News doesn’t publish letters sent anonymously, so I don’t buy the precedent that this is somehow invasive.

I love my lawn. It is good turf. But some turf is wrong, and deserves to be terminated.

So, who wants to do a little digging into firms that handle political campaigns and public relations efforts out of Boca Raton?

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Under the Hood

There’s a bit of a funny meme passing around right now, and it has to do with a position taken by the Ku Klux Klan of Arkansas, in this screenshot:

The “joke” here is that members of the Westboro Baptist Church have been so vile, that the Klan is even disavowing them.

Lost in all of the irony about Hate Groups and Unpopular Protests are the three letters I omitted above: LLC.

Limited Liability Corporation.

Is this a case of the Klan trying to appear legitimate? (That’s the answer you get from their site, which I will not link to.)

If and when choose to go to court, we stand on an equal footing with our detractors, we cannot be dismissed for lack of legal standing or credibility. This is the type of thinking our detractors have feared the most! The Ku Klux Klan, LLC. is leading the way with bold innovative thinking all the while respecting the beauty and purpose of Klankraft and building on the legacy left us by all those who have gone before, remaining a positive force for good! Yes it does cost more and take more time to do things right the first time, but as the work is done it is a lasting work that will stand the test.

Likely, that air of legitimacy is not the motivation.

It is more likely an unintended consequence of the way in which the Klan was systematically taken down by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC simply took the Klan leaders to court, and sued them into oblivion.

The LLC (Limited Liability Corporation) is thus a financial move, to allow Klansmen to avoid future civil damages that would bankrupt them.

I’m willing to bet that Morris Dees and his legal team are none too pleased to see various Klan organizations resurfacing, and using what amounts to a financial dodge as a way to tout their legitimacy and enhance their messaging.

History is more fun to study through the lens of Unintended Consequences.

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Journalistic Sodbusting

Astroturfing” refers to any shady public relations practice where one manufactures the appearance of “grass roots” support. I had never heard of the word until transitioning from news to public affairs (a mere six years, two months and twenty-two days ago, but who is counting?)

Journalists, by nature, are fairly good at playing the skeptic; and very cranky when they get played. When part of the story centers on public sentiment – like the case study I present to you now – they may get more than irate; they might just get even.

Particulars in a moment, but first the mother of all disclaimers:

The following post references events and issues of a political nature in the state of Alabama, and unlike most of what I write here is of a very time-sensitive nature.

This post is the work of me and me alone.

Because anything that is even remotely political ends up being blamed or framed on my employer (whether warranted or not,) let me state unequivocally that my employer, supervisor, nor anyone in my company knows I am writing this, nor am I under any directive, suggestion or hint that it would be worthwhile.

For the record, I have not taken a public position on the issues of gambling/gaming/bingo in the state of Alabama, and don’t care enough to research them.

Nobody has paid me for this post. I don’t even run ads on the site.

But I am interested in the process of communications, and how organizations attempt to persuade.

Are you hooked yet? Here we go…

[Read more…]

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The Future of Journalism, Part Two

(The following was posted last week at Media Bullseye – and is republished here to add context. Discussion about this piece at “The El Show,” at BlogTalkRadio. Skip to the update if you’d like.)

Dear Journalist:

I know you’ve been dying to grab that bite of lunch I offered, but I know how it is these days. The calendar is a blur, the endless rush from event to interview to photo opportunity, then back to the newsroom for the daily ritual of wordsmithery and crash story-telling. I remember those days, when a lunch seated somewhere other than a drive-through and a bucket seat was a treat. [Read more…]

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