Ken McCarthy on DIY Journalism
(part 1 of 2)
Ken McCarthy has been involved with helping people understand what the internet implies for business, for marketing, and for journalism since before there were web browsers. I was lucky enough to get him on the phone for an hour to talk about the impact that the internet is having now on the way we connect with the events that define our times. What follows is the first half of our conversation.
You’re one of the early internet marketers and independent journalists it appears, starting in ’97, or does it go back before that?
Correct. I’ve been deeply involved in the commercial side of the Internet since 1993. I organized the first conference on the commercial potential of the web in 1994 and, as far as I know, I put on the first seminar on the subject of local web publishing in 1995.
The most obvious edge locally owned media has over conglomerates is being closer to the news, so I studied how news content in produced. It was eye opening to say the least. This led me to experiment with my own reporting and by 1997 I was doing some pretty involved work including the first serious treatment of the subject of election fraud in the US…which we all appreciate now is a very serious problem.
Well I know that now, independent journalism was big for a while there but it doesn’t seem to be quite as important this year as it was even a couple of years back with the last election cycle. Have you noticed ebbs and flows in how independent journalism is taken online, or is it a kind of steady incline from your perspective?
I think because traditional news reporting is so incredibly inept, most people that are interested in what’s going on have pretty much figured out that you can’t rely on anything that appears in the news anymore, if you ever could. If you’re going to get any information you’re going to have to piece it together yourself, and that’s what the internet is for.. But that’s a relatively small percentage of the population. Most people are either not interested in the news, probably fifty, sixty percent, and another huge portion is willing to accept whatever they’re told. So for that small percentage of people that really wants to know, the internet’s been a blessing and I think it will be very persistent.
I think the problem with independent journalism on the internet is that someone’s gotta pay the bills. It may be that a lot of guys discovered ‘Gee, it’s hard to make a living doing this‘ and they’ve dropped out.
Also different topics come up, for instance the election is a mega-story, so that’s going to bring a lot of people out of the woodwork, and get a lot of people interested. You can even see for 2008, with Ron Paul, how much action there is on the internet around his candidacy. So I think the bigger the story, the more journalistic activity there’s going to be, both traditional and what some people call ‘alternative,’ but I call it the legitimate reporters.
But there’s great guys doing good stuff and figuring out how to make a living. For instance there’s Greg Palast, who I respect very much. You know, he’s figured it out, he’s got a staff, he’s got books coming out all the time, and he makes videos, and he does fund-raising to support what he does. But you have to not only be a journalist, you also have to be an info-preneur in order to support your journalism. As Palast discovered he couldn’t find a single American newspaper to print anything that he did.
I’d consider him one of the most important of the independent journalists, and he does have a very wide readership. He kind of rides on that viral marketing of blogs and people telling each other to read his books, at least since 2002 when I first became aware of him.
The way I do it is I’m making a living doing one thing and I do my independent journalism on the side. Now for someone who wants to make a living out of it, I think a living can be made, it’s going to be work and you probably can’t do it just with a website or a blog. You need that and all other media, a podcast, a physical book isn’t a bad idea, and very aggressive online publicity. In other words, you can’t just post stuff, sit back, and hope for the best.
Well, looking at what you’re doing now with BrassCheckTv.com I know you’re working more now with video. And it seems that video has fundamentally changed the way that people approach the internet. Once video started working online it stopped being just for geeks. It seemed like it sort of went mass at that point. Is that something you’ve sensed too, that this ability to create video is something that’s broadening the base, that’s broadened the appeal for this?
Absolutely. I actually was involved in some early attempts to provide video services on the internet back in ’95, but it was way too early and it hard to get up. But I think a year and a half or two years ago is when video really broke out, and we all have to thank YouTube for that. And also the convergence of super-cheap cameras and super-cheap and super good editing systems, you know, those three things coming together.
I call video the new paper. It’s not quite there yet but it’s rapidly approaching where it’s just as easy to flip on a camera and encode and upload as it is to sit down and write something out in text. And the reality is we are for better or worse screen-watching beings. You put a screen with flickering images in front of us we drop everything and it captures all our attention. So video does trump print, it trumps text by a huge margin. It’s great that video’s easier to produce and most important it’s easy and cheap to distribute, so that’s why I call it the new paper. It’s as easy to pass video from one person to another now as it used to be to send a fax or mass email. It’s very exciting stuff.
That’s true, and it’s happened so quickly that I don’t think people have even fully digested what they’re capable of doing at this point.
I agree. Even the business people.. the way I make my money and have done since ’93 has been teaching businesses how to use the internet and other online mediums to make money. So even of the people that are sort of acutely interested in making money, really only a small percentage have realized how powerful this is and how affordable it is.
But let’s put it this way, there will be a generation of people who grow up who think the internet was, is, and never was anything but a video jukebox. There will always be text, always be catalogs, and there will always be forums and that kind of stuff, but ultimately, predominantly this is going to be the ultimate video on demand system… which is, I think, not a bad thing.
No it’s not. And it’s incredibly effective, because while it’s not real, it imparts a sense of realism and immediacy that you don’t necessarily get from text.
Yes, and you know, I’m a writer and a reader. I worship almost the printed word. But the reality is that the printed word was sort of a temporary technological patch. The most effective communication is when we’re in a room together talking. Then print came along, and now I can talk and put it in a paper and send it around the world and that was great. But it was a patch, it was a temporary patch. The ultimate is always one person standing there talking to you, or you talking to a large group with slides and charts and so on. This is really how people naturally communicate anyway so that’s why it’s so much more powerful, besides reading is hard for a lot of people, and a lot of people just don’t do it.
Speaking of reading, I know one of the most recent interviews that you’ve done is you talked with Scott Ritter about his new book. And what he brings up in the book is there’s a need for people to understand how to communicate outside of their niche with the Peace and Justice movement. And what marketing comes down to is the most effective form of communication. Finding that baseline the greatest number of people will understand what your message is. That’s pretty much your expertise. The feedback I get when signing up on your site is incredibly sophisticated. As far as BrassCheck.com or BrassCheckTv.com these are certainly impactful, incredibly professional… this may be independent journalism but it’s by no means amateur.
You have to understand I’m a professional ad copywriter, I’m a little better than average at it. And so I’ve been practicing and training and experimenting in how to use words to persuade people and stimulate action now. I started when I was 15, and I’m 47 now, so that’s 32 years. So it’s something that I’ve given a lot of thought to, and you’re right, I’m marketing a point of view, there’s no question about it. And that’s, by the way, when the Pentagon wants to whip us into a frenzy to send us somewhere to ruin our own country and ruin someone else’s country, believe me they’re using marketing to persuade us that it’s the right thing to do. They have campaigns, just like advertising campaigns, multi-phase campaigns. They start by laying the foundation with one idea, “Saddam has got weapons of mass destruction” and hit us with that saturation campaign until we’re convinced that it’s true, even though it wasn’t. Scott certainly knew it wasn’t, and everybody who was actually there knew it wasn’t.
But, you know, repetition is extremely powerful. I read a quote somewhere that said ‘repetition becomes truth’ and that’s kind of how they’re able to get over… of course we have a media that does absolutely nothing and so the Pentagon or whoever can get up there, Bush, Cheney, and they lie their asses off and nobody challenges them in a critical way. And people who are busy with their lives hear these messages over and over and over again. They assume it’s gotta be right, and that’s part of the essence of marketing. Repetition, and then also putting things dramatically, stating them in a way that captures people’s attention.
Control of information is everything really.
I feel that’s definitely true. And if we understood, if the majority of the American people understood what depleted uranium is there’s no way we’d be using it. I think there’d be a public outcry.
Well, depleted uranium is a dirty bomb. You know everyone’s worried that the terrorists are going to get their hands on one dirty bomb and let it loose in Manhattan. But we’ve let loose tons and tons of dirty bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq, and even Yugoslavia. And some of that stuff is blowing north into Europe, I’m amazed that the Europeans are putting up with it.
I’m baffled by it. And the fact that Israeli troops are using it in the Gaza Strip, which to me seems just ludicrous. They’re poisoning their own backyard essentially.
Yeah, and they know how dangerous it is because, well you’ve probably seen the training videos… I’ve seen the video, the military training video which show people how to handle these materials and how to clean up battlefields afterwards, the kind of equipment you have to wear. You know, if you get this kind of rash you better contact the doctor, you better hose yourself down after every session. So yeah, they know this stuff is dangerous, and apparently they used it in Lebanon just last summer.
So there’s the control of information and the control of communications. Just imagine this, this happened to me last week, imagine your cell phone stops working for a couple of days and picture how your life goes into chaos. Now expand that to an entire country to get an idea of how important the control of information and the control of communications is.
And taking this back to the Peace Movement, the Justice Movement.. it’s kind of amateur hour. So much that I’ve seen of pro-peace or anti-war is symbolic, it’s these symbolic gestures. I don’t mean to diminish anybody’s efforts, but ‘let’s all get together and circle and hold hands’ that’s lovely. But you can’t think that that alone is enough to stop a war. Even if everybody in the country did it. Certainly the Pentagon doesn’t get together and hold hands when they want to persuade us to go war. They have a very methodical well-thought out program for persuading us. So there’s a lot of symbolic action which is insufficient by itself. There is a lot of emotional self-expression. And I mean, to get how crazy this is, if I’m Bush or the Pentagon or whoever it is, and I’m trying to persuade a populace to go to war, I’m very serious about that. I’m very focused on that, I’m not getting into my own emotional issues, right? I’m not looking for a venue to for my own self-expression.
And that’s what’s so good about someone from Scott’s perspective writing a book on organizing for peace. You know, a business person could have written that book too. It’s all about getting results. In the military you got to get results. It’s not theory, it’s not self-expression, it’s not ‘hey, let’s try this and see what happens.’
Tomorrow I’ll be following up with Ken McCarthy about the way that the Peace Movement has been challenged historically, and the overlap between activism, journalism, and marketing. Plus we’ll talk about how media has been used as a weapon of war, how the science of coercion was developed for military purposes, and how this ‘war for oil’ goes back farther than most people realize.