Friday, January 30, 2009

Castro, Cuba, Guevara, Traditional Gatekeepers, and the Information Age

This isn't the 'good old days' of my youth. A lot has changed, here in America, since the glory years of Led Zepplin and Disco.

That was when Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, or Peter Jennings told most of us what was going on in the world: and, after 1971, intellectual aspirants followed "All Things Considered." Some newspapers and magazines did their own research, but most looked to The New York Times and a few other sources in the Eastern time zone to see what the 'important' news of the day was.

Welcome to the Information Age

These must be trying times for the old-school news editors, college professors, and other established authorities. Back in the 'good old days,' these traditional information gatekeepers had a great deal of control over what ideas and information would be spread quickly, and reinforced.

People with potentially disruptive, unsettling, or "divisive" ideas had to rely on their own circle of friends and acquaintances, if they hoped to get a hearing.

That's an oversimplification, of course. Even then, an older bit of information technology, movable type and the printing press, helped editors of 'underground newspapers' to get around the gatekeepers.

That was then, this is now.

Today, thanks to a happy combination of technology and a (not exactly universal) love of freedom, just about anybody with an idea can get a hearing. Globally, providing that they use a language which is understood in many countries. (English is understood in over a hundred countries, which may help explain why so much of the Web is in that language.)

Compared to the 'good old days,' we live in a maelstrom of information and opinions.

Americans don't have a tight little cluster of 'reliable' network news programs, magazines, and newspapers to rely on.

Not everyone agrees on what the day's 'relevant' news is, or what we're supposed to know about it.

It's complex, and confusing. Anyone who tries to pay attention finds contradictory views, backed by various combinations of facts and wishful thinking.

I love it.

Some of the ideas we find on the Web are - 'alternatively sane,' I suppose would be one way to put it. One of my favorites, almost certainly a gag, involved a global conspiracy of squirrels, bent on enslaving humanity and forcing us to slave in their nut mines.

I think the 'marketplace of ideas' tends to identify crackpot notions, and allow consideration of fact-based points of view. It would be nice, if traditional gatekeepers would do the same thing: but it's nice to have an alternative.

Castro (Fidel), Castro (Raoul), Obama, Che Guevara, and today's world

I started reminiscing about the 'good old days,' and remembering why I'm so glad I'm not back there, while catching up on the news.

(And, no: I don't think that President Barack Obama is allied with Castro (either one). It wouldn't surprise me, if someone thinks he is, though: there's no shortage of odd ideas floating around.)
Castro (Fidel) to Obama: Yankee Go Home!
If Fidel Castro meant it when he called Obama "honest" and "noble," that's not what he's saying now. A Reuters article from yesterday's news, "Fidel Castro demands Obama return Guantanamo base," discusses the former Cuban president's demand that Obama give the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo to Cuba - without conditions. And, that Obama is supporting what he thinks is an "Israeli genocide" against Palestinians.

Reuters quotes Castro: "Not respecting Cuba's will is an arrogant act and an abuse of immense power against a little country," which isn't anything new. Fidel has had the same line about American presidents since 1959.
Castro (Raul), Russia, and the Inverted Pyramid
First, about the "inverted pyramid:" Journalists have used inverted pyramid organization for their stories for quite a while.

One reason may be that when the telegraph was the fastest way of transmitting a story, connections could get cut. That made it important to put the most important part of the story first.

Editors like the inverted pyramid, too. When reporters put the most important parts of the story first, an editor could cut as much off the bottom as necessary to fit an available space, and still have a coherent bit of news.

I learned, from classes and on-the-job experience, that readers tend to scan headlines. When they see one of interest, they'll read the first paragraph or two. Sometimes, they'll read more of the article. If they're particularly interested, readers will go all the way to the end.

That means that most people will never see what's put at the end of a news article. Which is okay, if the most important facts are in the headline and lead paragraphs. And, you agree with what the reporter and editor think is most important.
Inverted Pyramid Format and What's Important: One Example
The current president of Cuba, Raul Castro, is in today's news: "Russia and Cuba seal new partnership at Kremlin" (Reuters). The island nation has a new president, and is making new ties with the international community.

We read that Cuba's current president, Raul Castro, is on an unprecedented trip to Russia: and signed a partnership pact with Kremlin leader Dmitry Medvedev. Reflecting on the the event, Cuba's elected president stated: " 'This is an historic moment, an important moment in relations between Russia and Cuba.' "

That's from the beginning of the story. Around the middle, we read:

"Asked afterwards by a reporter about possible military cooperation between Moscow and Havana, Sechin responded: 'Why are you interested in that ?' "

The last paragraph reads:

"Trade between Russia and Cuba totaled $239 million during the first 11 months of 2008, a 26 percent rise compared to the same period in 2007, the Kremlin said. Russia mainly buys sugar cane from Cuba and sells machinery."

That seems to be a pretty good example of inverted pyramid writing, for an article that focuses on the economic aspects of Castro's trip. There may have been a tendency to focus on the positive aspects of Castro's trip: but the first post-Cold-War visit from a Cuban leader to Russia is a big deal. Perhaps Reuters didn't want to seem sensationalistic.
Inverted Pyramid Format and What's Important: Another Example
MSNBC covered the election of Cuba's new, elected, president, in February of 2008 ("Raul Castro succeeds Fidel as preside"):

The first two paragraphs are pretty solid inverted pyramid style:

"HAVANA - Cuba's parliament named Raul Castro president on Sunday, ending nearly 50 years of rule by his brother Fidel but leaving the island's communist system unshaken.

"In a surprise move, officials bypassed younger candidates to name a 77-year-old revolutionary leader, Jose Ramon Machado, to Cuba's No. 2 spot — apparently reassuring the old guard that no significant political changes will be made soon...."

So far, so good. Next is a sample from around the middle of the story. MSNBC quoted Raul's assurance that " 'The Communist Party guarantees the unity of the Cuban nation,' " and discussed possible revaluation of the Peso (and Raul's purdent observation "that any change would have to be gradual to 'prevent traumatic and incongruent effects.' " Then, MSNBC gives readers a look at what ordinary Cubans think of their new president.

" 'He's a trustworthy man,' Maria Martinez, a 67-year-old retiree who watched the announcement on the Chinese-made television in her dark living room in Old Havana. 'He won't make mistakes.'

" 'All we really want is peace and tranquility,' she added.

"Her 33-year-old neighbor, Raul Rodriguez, let out a long sigh and nodded as the announcement of Raul Castro's election was made." (MSNBC)

Looks like all Cubans want is "peace and tranquility," that they believe that their new (and elected) president "won't make mistakes," and is "a trustworthy man." And, I'm sure that that's what Maria Martinez said, or a pretty good translation.

It would be odd, if Fidel's brother didn't have supporters.

And, that may be all that many readers saw of the story. People on the Web are notorious for short attention spans, and the article was fairly long: around 1,100 words, by my count.

So, back in February, it looks like Cuba was a happy land, with a president who had the confidence of the people, and who understood the importance of caution in trying economic times.

Readers who finished the article got what I'll call bonus data: rather uncomplimentary views of Raul Castro, from Cubans who preferred not to be identified. The article ends with:

"...'This country it's like jail,' said the 51-year-old, who like many Cubans declined to give his last name to a foreign journalist when criticizing the government. 'They close the doors and say "the president is Peter or the president is Paul" and everyone responds "Good, it's Peter or Paul." There's no openness.' " (MSNBC)
Propaganda? Drama? Randomness?
Packing the front of the article with neutral or positive information about Raul Castro and his Cuba, and leaving "it's like jail" until the end might be an effort to leave the majority of readers with a distorted view, and still be able to claim objectivity.

Or, maybe the dissenting opinions were at the end for dramatic effect.

It's even possible - barely - that MSNBC editors don't organize articles, and just pop paragraphs into place as whim or chance dictate.

Just the same, unless someone read the last 142 words of the article, a reader would leave the article with the impression that Raul Castro was a prudent leader, and had the support of his people.

That might be all that's important, from MSNBC's point of view: but I don't agree.

The Information Age: Complex, Confusing, Contradictory, and Showing Great Promise

I'd rather deal with information overload, than in a society where news and entertainment was carefully regulated: for the people's good, of course.

I'm pretty sure that some don't agree with a movie review, "Che the revolutionary hero? Ruthless serial killer more like" ( News (January 30, 2009)), written by someone who has rather definite opinions.

And, "Gore Delivers 'Inconvenient Truth' Lecture to Senate Committee" (Washington Post (January 28, 2009)) refers to the "Oscar-winning documentary 'An Inconvenient Truth,' " which some argue isn't exactly a documentary.

I'm glad that I live in a society where Hollywood studios are free to idolize Che Guevara. I don't agree with their view, but I've learned to be very wary about censorship.

I just wish that it was a bit safer to discuss ideas which challenge beliefs like former Vice President Gore's views on global warming.

More-or-less related posts: News and views: Background:

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.