Distributed Media Monitoring

Broadcast | Building/Consensus
This is a outline of an Internet project which would facilitate real-time monitoring of broadcast media.


David Brocks’s Media Matters for America, launched this past May, is a terrific resource for monitoring the conservative media. If I could suggest a motto for this intrepid group, it would be: “We wade through the scum so you don’t have to.” Princeton professor and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, in a televised debate with TV host Bill O’Reilly on the Tim Russert show, admitted to getting his radio clips of O’Reilly’s misquoting of Michael Moore from Media Matters. O’Reilly first response to the professor was to “do your own research, pal!” He then mocked Krugman for his choice o research: “That’s like me calling up some Klan operation. Why don’t I call the Ku Klux Klan…”

As much as the conservative media needs to monitored, I think a strong case could made for monitoring the conventional news shows. This is perhaps more critical due to the commonality of these programs. While viewers entering O’Reilly’s “No Spin Zone” have an idea that they’re about to get spun, we tend to drop our guard when we’re getting ready for sports and the weather.

Tuesday night I happened to watching the 11 o’clock news on WHDH, NBC’s affiliate in Boston. Needing to fill some time with a story, they peddled the showboating announcement by three Cuban-American Congressman, who repeated the ridiculous charge of Heinz/Hamas/Castro connection. The allegation was Teresa Heinz Kerry, through the Heinz Foundation and the Tides Foundation, was uniquely linked to the Cuban government, and to the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR), whose leaders have expressed sympathy for Hamas.

I wanted to contact them right away, as if the news would exercise some sudden desire to air corrections within the same broadcast. But I had to do some research first; I hadn’t bothered checking the sources on this story since five months ago, when I first encountered it. I found the websites where it had been soundly debunked: by the Tides Center, recently by Annenberg School at Penn. I also wanted to track down a point missing from these defenses, in order to chip away at the assertion that Heinz Kerry’s link was unique. Frank Gaffney, a conservative columnist, has unearthed another touchy relationship with CAIR– that of the Bush White House, who he reported has hosted and met with CAIR leaders nine times after September 11th. CAIR is also currently conducting diversity training for federal employees. Certainly, if the claims about the Heinz Kerry link merit any analysis, let along airing, the connection of the actual White House (which comes from a conservative!) should receive at least equal time.

I got the same response from the network that my Mom did, after she had written MSNBC criticizing Chris Matthews and their vacuous, self-absorbed coverage of the Democratic National Convention: nothing.

Contrast this with the meager traction of Monday’s quote from the mouth of the President of the United States: “the really rich people figure out how to dodge taxes anyway”. This being a rare moment of candor from President Bush, I’d thought it would have been plastered all over the news. It reflects both the essence of his campaign and the feelings he has towards the responsibility of the government. It was not in Elisabeth Bumiller’s New York Times article; it was not in Michael Shear’s Washington Post article. AP ran a story; some of the local DC TV and radio stations mentioned it Monday (where I found it in the Center for American Progress website the next day).

This is just the type of sound bite to make the evening news. Did it? I have no idea. Which led me to think, what if there were a distributed network of volunteers to monitor these news broadcasts?


Here’s the plan. I’d like harness the critical energy of perhaps thousands of dedicated media observers– some of whom may currently articulate their criticisms through weblogs, and others of whom can’t troubled by weblogs, but write letters and vent anyways. I’d like a quantifiable system for monitoring the media in a distributed fashion. And I want it to operated in real time.

Picture a window on your computer desktop. It will list programs currently being broadcast on radio and TV: call-in programs, government hearings, interviews, live and taped. For each program, you’ll see the topic currently being discussed at that moment, and maybe even a crawl about what particular things that are bring said (perhaps it is possible to stream closed-captioning text?) Naturally, you could filter by type of program (particularly whether it is a live call-in), as well as by geographic area. Or you could tune it in to notify you when certain topics are discussed, much like Google’s NewsAlerts.

If the program is taped, you’ll see an indicator of the quantity of past comments, and perhaps some other metrics along the lines of credibility, intellectual value, etc. If the program is live, you’ll able to see the number of people currently monitoring the program. The monitors may also have a open a list of questions that they need help in addressing.

If a program is short of monitors, you can step in to help. Maybe three is a good minimum, with specific roles carved out: the ringer tries to call up; another does research online; a third is more free to use the phone to call other people, peruse a book, take a break. The monitor team should share a space to instant-message with each other. The roles should easily switchable, using simple control buttons to communicate– “Can I be the ringer”, “Yes, I yield the ring”– so that they don’t interfere with the main channel of communicating about the issues. Anybody joining should quickly catch up to the content of the show by reading the log.


I would prefer that people use their real names to foster a sense of trust. I’d also like to see people fill out profiles so that others can understand who they are, and their areas of expertise.

I would also suppose that monitors should pay some nominal fee to join; why not? If you pay, you’ll demonstrating your commitment to the service (and you could also sponsor a non-paying, deserving student). The money would go to building/maintaining the software, as well as employing a research staff. Or, even more simpler: allow anyone to join a chat, but enable the participants to filter and only listen to member participants if they choose.

The more focused the chat, the more accommodating it would for the real “stars” of punditry to able to partake. Wouldn’t you love to occasionally joined by Paul Krugman or Joshua Micah Marshall? This would certainly more rewarding than interacting with them at a book talk or on a typical online. And it would likely more fun for the pundits: less traveling, less trouble than an “online chat”, less thinking required than even writing a blog.

With enough people participating, the system could lead to abuse as out-of-towners flood a local broadcasting station with complaints. I would prefer that people respect a local station’s interest in limiting their interaction within their community. Instead, the system would keep a running scoreboard of how credible or biased different programs are. There may multitudes of surveys which track biases in the media– but do you know of any, offhand? What really keeps Americans engaged is daily standings in the newspapers, which tend to occupy the sports and business sections. One innovative addition to our scoreboard culture is the Lying in Ponds website, in which Ken Waight, an independet researcher, tracks the partisanship of written columns based on their use of language. We should do the same thing for broadcast shows.


Who would organize this? I could ask MediaMatters, they have the organization in place. Ideally, though, the technology could be open and allow for different interest groups to participate in.

This brings a remarkable level of technology to what was once a simple act of civic engagement or even entertainment (echoing Douglas Rushkoff’s lament five years ago about what he called the MovieFone Syndrome). It’s like showing up for a recess game of dodgeball in body armor and with a strategy. This comparison is apt when you realize that talk media is not all that dissimilar from dodgeball– one side throws at the the other side; the side catches, or dodges, and throws back. I’d like to better frame it as the revolution in sports technology for lighter, stronger hitting equipment: it helps the amateurs play a bit more like the pros. The aim is not to make people cheat the system, but rather, change the system so that it plays more true.

I see it as being an exercise of my theory of Constructive Media, which suggests that media needs to be understood as a process, and that people should use that process for constructing new artifacts. In constructive media, the participants play an active role: though it is not the broadcaster they are directly interacting with, but with each other. I propose that this will promote greater aptitude for news issues among those who get involved. More importantly, it should keep the broadcasters honest.