Overcoming digital distraction. Plus, The New York Times’ $1.1b folly, and saving community access TV.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Do you find it more difficult to read a book these days? Or even a long article? Do you catch yourself pausing every so often (OK, make that every few minutes) to see what’s new on Facebook, scroll through Twitter, check email, or possibly all of the above? Has concentration given way to distraction?

You’re not alone. For years, writers like Nicholas Carr (“The Shallows”) and Virginia Heffernan (“Magic and Loss”) have worried that the internet is rewiring our brains and transforming us from deep readers into jittery skimmers. In “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,” Jaron Lanier writes that — well, you know.

The latest entry in what has grown into a burgeoning list of digital jeremiads is an essay that appeared in The New York Times over the weekend. The piece, by Kevin Roose, is headlined “Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain.” Over the course of nearly 2,500 words, Roose describes in anguished detail how his smartphone had left him “incapable of reading books, watching full-length movies or having long uninterrupted conversations.” Social media, he adds, had made him “angry and anxious.”

Roose’s solution: A detox program overseen by Catherine Price, the author of “How to Break Up with Your Phone.” Without going into detail (after all, you can read about it yourself), by the end of the program our hero is happier, healthier, and less addicted to his phone.

Digital dependency is a real problem, and it’s hard to know what to do about it. I know that as well as anyone. Over the years, my writing has become symbiotically enmeshed with the internet — I look things up and fact-check as I go, and I can’t imagine returning to the days of writing first, checking later, even though the result would probably be more coherent. Social media and email are ever-present impediments to the task at hand.

But it’s a lot easier to describe what we ought to do than to actually do it. I recommend mindful reading either in print or on one of the more primitive Kindles. In reality, I read the news on an iPad while admonishing myself not to tweet any of it — usually without much success. I need to be on social media for professional purposes, which makes it all the harder to stay away from energy-draining non-professional uses.

We are not doing ourselves any favors. “You know the adage that you should choose a partner on the basis of who you become when you’re around the person?” writes Lanier. “That’s a good way to choose technologies, too.”

The problem is that we didn’t choose our technologies. They chose us, backed by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, whose billions grow every time his engineers figure out a way to keep us more addicted and less able to break ourselves of the habit. We need solutions. I’ll get back to you on that. Right after I check Facebook. Again.

Looking back at a deal gone bad

More than a quarter-century after the New York Times Co. bought The Boston Globe for the unheard-of price of $1.1 billion, the transaction remains a sore point in some circles. As I’m sure you know, Red Sox principal owner John Henry bought the paper for just $70 million in 2013, which turned out to be less than the value of the real estate.

In her new book, “Merchants of Truth,” former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson is blisteringly critical of the 1993 acquisition. Describing the Times Co.’s strategy of that era, she writes: “Some recent business blunders had made the structural damage inflicted by the internet even more painful. The worst was the purchase of The Boston Globe at precisely the moment the glory days of newspaper franchises were ending.” (My “Beat the Press” colleague Emily Rooney interviewed Abramson for our most recent broadcast, and she did not shy away from asking some tough questions about errors in Abramson’s book as well as credible accusations of plagiarism.)

In a recent interview with the newspaper analyst Ken Doctor, Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson described what he and his fellow executives were up against in late 2012: “The thinking at the top of the company when I arrived was that the Times should sell The Boston Globe, and that it was going to be fantastically difficult to manage the Globe in a way where it wasn’t going to become over time a net depleter of the total business, rather than something that was going to add to the success of the company.”

So was the Times Co.’s decision to pay all that money for the Globe really such a boneheaded move? When I was interviewing people for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” I got some pretty strong pushback to that proposition from former Globe editor Matt Storin and current editor Brian McGrory.

Storin told me that the Globe turned a profit of some $90 million in one of its first years under Times Co. ownership. “Imagine today if you made a $90 million profit,” he said. “I mean, those classified ads were just a gold mine. The Times knew that, and I think that’s one of the reasons why they bought us. They didn’t foresee that that was going to disappear, obviously.”

McGrory sounded a similar theme. “For 15 to 18 years there were Brinks trucks driving down I-95 with tens of millions of dollars every year, amounting to hundreds millions over that time, taking money from Boston to New York,” he said. “They made their investment just fine.”

The reality is most likely somewhere in the middle. From 1993 until about 2005, the Globe earned plenty of money for the Times Co. But then things went seriously south, with the Globe losing $85 million by 2009, a situation so dire that the Times threatened to shut down the paper unless the unions agreed to $20 million worth of givebacks. (They did.)

For the Times Co., the real mistake wasn’t in buying the Globe — it was in keeping it for too long.

Last stand for community access TV

This past November I wrote about an industry-supported effort by the FCC to allow the cable companies to save money by cutting what they spend to support local public-access operations.

Naturally, the FCC is pushing ahead with this anti-consumer proposal. So now advocates of local do-it-yourself media are asking supporters to sign an online petition to Congress asking that lawmakers stop the new rule from taking effect.

“PEG [public, educational, and governmental] access channels provide local content in communities that are not served by the broadcast industry and are increasingly under-served by newspapers,” says the petition. “They help prevent ‘media deserts’ in towns and cities across the U.S. and ensure diversity of opinion at the local level.”

Will it matter? I suspect that elected members of Congress from both parties will prove more amenable to public pressure than FCC chair Ajit Pai, who led the campaign to kill net neutrality. But we won’t know unless we try. So let’s try.

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The web is no longer a place we visit. It’s how we live.

Before the web, there was Prodigy. And no, it wasn't much good.
Before the web, there was Prodigy. And no, it wasn’t much good.

The web—or, as we used to call it, the World Wide Web—is 25 years old this month. On August 6, 1991, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who had outlined his idea for the web two years earlier, published the first website. It was, as the Telegraph put it, “a basic text page with hyperlinked words that connected to other pages.”

Those of us who were there at the beginning understood that this was a big deal. Even so, the revolution it launched could not have been imagined. As Virginia Heffernan put it in her recent book Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, “The Internet is the great masterpiece of human civilization.” And the web provides the road map that makes the internet navigable.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org.

Virginia Heffernan’s random but rewarding Magic and Loss

Virginia Heffernan. Photo via The Cube.
Virginia Heffernan. Photo via The Cube.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

A half-century after Marshall McLuhan warned us that our media tools shape who we are (“The medium is the message”), and a half-dozen years after Nicholas Carr lamented that the Internet was undermining our ability to read and think in a linear, coherent manner, Virginia Heffernan has written a book that proves both of them right.

Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art (Simon & Schuster, 272 pages, $26) is an honest-to-God book, with paper, ink, and a binding. (Or so I’ve heard. I downloaded the Kindle version.) Reading it, though, feels more like randomly browsing the web than it does like reading a book.

Look here: An essay on the aesthetics of Instagram and Flickr photography. Click. An argument that closed apps offer a better—yet more elitist—experience than the open web. Click. A discussion of epigrammatic poetry demonstrating that its most influential practitioners would have been right at home on Twitter. (Blaise Pascal’s “Do you wish people to believe good of you? Don’t speak,” published in 1669, takes up just 58 characters.) Click. Newton Minow did all of us a favor by calling television “a vast wasteland,” since it imbued the young medium with the transgressive quality that all great art needs. Click.

But if Heffernan offers us a lot of little ideas, she has a big one as well: that the Internet giveth, and it taketh away. At 46, she isn’t quite a digital native, though she’s certainly more of one than I am. Perhaps more relevant is that she’s been around just long enough to experience the digital revolution in its many forms. The good and bad of life online is clearer to her than it would be to someone 20 years younger.

“The Internet is the great masterpiece of human civilization,” she writes, adding: “As an idea it rivals monotheism.” But even monotheism has its drawbacks. In her chapter on music, for instance, she offers a compelling argument on what has been lost as music was transformed from performers on a stage to tinny, ultracompressed sounds that you listen to on your smartphone. (Click. A diversion into the rise of military headphones in World War II and how returning veterans embraced them as a way to listen to music while tuning out the rest of the family.)

Of course, the assertion that MP3s offer sound quality inferior to the CDs and LPs that preceded them is hardly novel. But Heffernan gives it an unexpected twist, writing that she bought her first iPod around the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and that she welcomed a mechanical tone untethered from the messy reality of how music is actually supposed to sound. (But Norah Jones? Really?) Only later did she realize that she missed “the echo of the chirp of the bassist’s sneakers on the wooden stage as he nervously kicks his foot or the sound of the backup singer’s lungs still metabolizing pot smoke.”

There is more, much more—on the humanistic orientation of technologists like Steve Jobs versus the cold rationality of scientists; on the aesthetic differences between electricity (“the province of the engineer and the rationalist”) and electronics (“the province of the irrationalist, the deconstructionist, the druggie, and the mystic”).

Heffernan ties these disparate strands together in a closing chapter that starts off as annoyingly self-indulgent but ends with a measure of humility and grace. She traces her development from an Episcopalian-turned-Jew-turned-Episcopalian (with detours into something like atheism); as someone who rejected philosophy in favor of literary criticism (she has a Ph.D. in English from Harvard); and as the author of a widely mocked 2013 essay titled “Why I’m a Creationist,” whose ethos (“They say it works even if you don’t believe in it,” she writes, quoting a physicist Twitter friend) remains a guidepost for her.

I started out reading Magic and Loss hoping to glean some ideas that would be useful for my work as a journalist and academic who writes about journalism. What I encountered was an extended meditation on the nature of art and God, on immortality and death. Heffernan has written a book that is by turns frustrating and insightful—and that always aims high.

More on Ron Paul’s ties to the racist far right

Ron Paul in 2007

Now that information about Ron Paul’s long-known ties to white-supremacist groups such as Stormfront has finally gone mainstream, it’s time for the media to dig into a particularly incendiary tidbit.

Four years ago, conservative blogger Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs reported that the Vanguard News Network, “one of the ugliest neo-Nazi sites on the Web,” was complaining that Paul had whispered sweet nothings in their ear while taking a very different stance in public.

Johnson reproduced part of a post by Bill White, the “commander” of the American National Socialist Workers Party, who wrote:

Both Congressman Paul and his aides regularly meet with members of the Stormfront set, American Renaissance, the Institute for Historic Review, and others at the Tara Thai restaurant in Arlington, Virginia, usually on Wednesdays. This is part of a dinner that was originally organized by Pat Buchanan, Sam Francis and Joe Sobran, and has since been mostly taken over by the Council of Conservative Citizens.

I have attended these dinners, seen Paul and his aides there, and been invited to his offices in Washington to discuss policy….

Paul is a white nationalist of the Stormfront type who has always kept his racial views and his views about world Judaism quiet because of his political position.

At the time, New York Times blogger Virginia Heffernan made mention of Johnson’s findings and got slapped down in an “editor’s note” for passing along “unverified assertions” and for failing to contact Paul for comment. You can no longer find Heffernan’s post at NYTimes.com, but I wrote about it for the Guardian. I also sent an email to the Times’ then-public editor, Clark Hoyt, asking why a Times blogger was being punished for blogging, but I never received a response.

So when is it appropriate to write about the claims of the “commander” of a neo-Nazi group? I’m not sure there’s a good answer. As Johnson began his item four years ago, “Take this one with a grain of salt, please.” But given that the Times today goes page-one with a detailed report about Paul’s ties to Stormfront and other white-supremacist groups, it seems to me that White’s assertions are relevant and worth checking out.

And given the facts that we now know about Paul, it doesn’t seem too outlandish to believe he might have sat down and broken bread with these hate-mongering whack jobs.

It’s interesting to see this stuff finally going public. As I recall, Paul was doing well in the polls four years ago, too. But I guess since he was in no position actually to win the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary, as he is (or was) today, the executives at major news organizations saw no need to devote the resources needed to investigate Paul’s background.

Paul’s last defense seems to be that though these groups support him, he doesn’t support them, and that he’ll accept help from anyone who offers it. Which means that he may not actually be a racist in the sense of believing that non-whites are genetically inferior to whites. But how finely do Paul’s supporters want to parse this?

And here’s some fresh goodness from Charles Johnson, who has stayed on Paul’s case.

Photo (cc) by R. DeYoung and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.