Monday, January 31, 2011

Wikipedia Perpetuates Female Victimhood or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Gender Gap

Today I was troubled by this NY Times article that discusses the gender gap in Wikipedia submissions:

It begins with impressive stats – over 3.5 million English articles and articles in over 250 languages, then awkwardly railroads these achievements by citing that “surveys suggest less than 15 percent of its hundreds of thousands of contributors are women.”

And there are no Eskimo basketball players, so what? Well, it’s apparently a big deal. Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs the site, set an arbitrary goal to increase the share of female contributions to 25 percent by 2015.

Why? Well, Cohen quickly rejects the obvious theory that it’s a matter of political correctness. He writes,

Her effort is not diversity for diversity’s sake, she says. “This is about wanting to ensure that the encyclopedia is as good as it could be,” Ms. Gardner said in an interview on Thursday. “The difference between Wikipedia and other editorially created products is that Wikipedians are not professionals, they are only asked to bring what they know.”

“Everyone brings their crumb of information to the table,” she said. “If they are not at the table, we don’t benefit from their crumb.”

Okay, so it sounds good – everyone gets a shot at bringing forth their information. But this assumes that more women want to be involved, if they do, why haven’t they gotten involved? Apologists can’t claim restrictions – men as well as women have access to the Internet (excluding of course countries that lack the technology or have used their tyrannical governments to restrict access.)

Is it a matter of some gender-based "performance anxiety?” Wikipedia doesn’t list any bylines, so even if some women might be deterred by the thought that, “Well, some people won’t care what I have to say because of my gender” – it doesn’t come into play on a Wikipedia page.

Cohen brings up a few ridiculous examples:

With so many subjects represented — most everything has an article on Wikipedia — the gender disparity often shows up in terms of emphasis. A topic generally restricted to teenage girls, like friendship bracelets, can seem short at four paragraphs when compared with lengthy articles on something boys might favor, like, toy soldiers or baseball cards, whose voluminous entry includes a detailed chronological history of the subject.

Even the most famous fashion designers — Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo — get but a handful of paragraphs. And consider the disparity between two popular series on HBO: The entry on “Sex and the City” includes only a brief summary of every episode, sometimes two or three sentences; the one on “The Sopranos” includes lengthy, detailed articles on each episode.

Is a category with five Mexican feminist writers impressive, or embarrassing when compared with the 45 articles on characters in “The Simpsons”?

If the goal here is some semblance of equality – why is Cohen, the writer who is supposed to bring this “important” issue to the forefront of social debate, using such obvious gender stereotypes? Does he really believe that only women have the ability (and interest) to discuss friendship bracelets and designer shoes at length? Are there not women who watch The Sopranos and men who watch Sex and the City?

What are these examples supposed to prove? If anything, they prove that stereotypically feminine subjects are underrepresented, so let’s recruit lots and lots of women to discuss shoes and TV! It’s like a Cathy comic strip come to life, and put online. Cohen, how long is the entry on chocolate?

Cohen then discusses how Ms. Gardner got teary eyed when one of her favorite authors had less written about her than a videogame character (will Gardner restrict the recruiting to women who will discuss women writers and other "women" subjects and not allow women who want to discuss violent video games? So much for equality.)

Cohen writes,

“According to the OpEd Project, an organization based in New York that monitors the gender breakdown of contributors to “public thought-leadership forums,” a participation rate of roughly 85-to-15 percent, men to women, is common — whether members of Congress, or writers on The New York Times and Washington Post Op-Ed pages. Catherine Orenstein, the founder and director of the OpEd Project, said many women lacked the confidence to put forth their views. “When you are a minority voice, you begin to doubt your own competencies,” she said.”

Women are not a minority – but if they do indeed represent a minority in terms of voice whose fault is it? There are women-based organizations, and plenty of female academics who have made names for themselves, but not every woman is interested in being political, to force them by scaring them with statistics and making them feel underrepresented isn’t going to empower anyone, except maybe those capitalizing on the victimhood.

Speaking of victimhood, (or feigned victimhood):

She said her group had persuaded women to express themselves by urging them to shift the focus “away from oneself — ‘do I know enough, am I bragging?’ — and turn the focus outward, thinking about the value of your knowledge.”

Yes, because we all go on to Wikipedia and say, "Ah, what a pompous jerk, how does this asshole know so much about Cicero?"

Ms. Gardner said that for now she was trying to use subtle persuasion and outreach through her foundation to welcome all newcomers to Wikipedia, rather than advocate for women-specific remedies like recruitment or quotas.

What happened to the increase of 25 percent? (Don't make me pull a "women are notoriously bad at math" joke...)

“Gender is a huge hot-button issue for lots of people who feel strongly about it,” she said. “I am not interested in triggering those strong feelings.”

Sure you aren’t.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

'Stewart, Assange and Journalism Education' case study

I wrote this for my senior seminar What is a Text class and since I've been on my WikiLeaks kick, I figured I'd post it here as well. Enjoy!

Katherine Concepcion

Jan 25th Case Study Presentation: “Stewart, Assange and Journalism Education”


Author and director of the Journalism School at Iowa State University, Michael Bugeja, must have titled his article, “Stewart, Assange and Journalism Education” because it mentions those topics in that order, but for no other reason. The bulk of his article contains caterwauling about the demise of journalism education and how the Internet is to blame. Curiously enough, for all his laments about the Internet, I have to think that the naming of the article was strategic - Stewart and Assange are all over the media, so mentioning them, albeit in passing, would undoubtedly lead to more clicks on Google than if he had just complained about America’s education system.
The bulk of my analysis has to do with the contradictions he makes, particularly when discussing Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks. On this topic, my thesis can be summed up almost in its entirety by the following quote, courtesy of Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
In the interest of clarity and comparison, I will quote Bugeja’s words (with added italics) first, and then follow with my critique and analysis, in bold.

“Satirist Jon Stewart and activist Julian Assange are symbols of a world without journalism — a largely online marketing-based, consumer-driven world at odds with principles of democracy and freedom.”
Right away he implies that Stewart and Assange are not journalists, and that, really, journalism, presumably the kind that he teaches or was accustomed with was completely outside consumer mandate, which of course rejects the fact that newspapers have to sell ad space to make money.

“Stewart is often considered a journalist because he holds people accountable when many metro media outlets no longer do so in their downsized newsrooms.”
So, the ability for journalists to hold people accountable is predicated on the size of their work spaces, staff and amount of funding? What about people who blog and do independent research on important topics for no money at all and what about the whistle blowers like Assange, who not only do it for no money, but also risk being jailed?

“"The Daily Show" does this often by following up on what newsmakers did or said in the past and then comparing that to current, contradictory actions and statements. WikiLeaks purportedly holds people and governments accountable. It does so, however, by “WebThink.” Whereas responsible journalists scrutinize motives of tipsters and fact-check authenticity of cables, WebThink just dumps it all on the Internet and lets computer chips fly where they may.”
The obviously implication here is that WikiLeaks, and, by extension, Assange, is not responsible. But journalists couldn’t fact check the authenticity of cables if the cables did not exist. WikiLeaks provides the cables, at least some of them. Assange, in an interview, likened the publication of semi-raw data to making scientific experiment results available for checking against the published accounts in scientific journals. The raw data is there to be able to check the authenticity of the claims made in the news stories.
Journalists dump their biases on the Internet too; you’ve got columnists who will always put their own spin on something. Stories can come from all different angles, and besides, is it not the point of journalism to give people the facts, not encourage them to align themselves with the ideology of the author? The facts are what count. That’s what cables do, that’s what WikiLeaks does.

By elevating access over truth, ours has become a world that reacts via commentary rather than prevents in advance of calamity.”

Journalism IS commentary.

“What has society lost by allowing Internet behemoths like Google to alter the funding mechanisms for news? Educators should analyze that question because each discipline is affected, in as much as rhetoric now masquerades as fact.”

Rhetoric masquerades as fact: whenever you explain something, you filter it through your own biases. WikiLeaks provides no rhetoric, it provides raw data, raw facts. Shouldn’t he support this?

“Social networks and search engines give away that news for free in return for personal information and then vend those data to companies whose cookies are as hidden as terms of service.”

This is a different issue altogether the issue of privacy and the issue of journalism is different. Privacy is a major concern, but this is a red herring. The main complaint the author has is that journalism is moving away from what he thinks it should be.

“As evidence Doak cites WikiLeaks’ cables, calling them "a meaningless mass of information until the Guardian and The New York Times made sense of them, using traditional journalism techniques." “

It’s only a meaningless mass of information because it doesn’t have commentary attached, but Assange and WikiLeaks volunteers go through lots of trouble to decode these things, especially the complex military acronyms, and they protect their sources.

“WikiLeaks, he adds, proves we need traditional journalism more than ever "to decipher and interpret the information overload."”

WikiLeaks can stand alone because individuals can generate their own opinions, not just the ones espoused on the front pages of newspapers with corporate interests.


The binary oppositions used throughout the article include old vs. new media, opinion vs. truth, good vs. bad journalism, and journalism vs. data dissemination.

The author made arguments which he felt applied to a defense of what he sees as traditional journalism, but could actually be applied to WikiLeaks, which he is against. The text is interesting because of the numerous internal contradictions and vague pronouncements. It also taps into an important current event and an issue that will be a thorn in the side of reactionary academics for a long time.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Aussie?

For months, the WikiLeaks saga has been unfolding. The major contenders:

Julian Assange, the rogue, Australian backpacking activist hacker

Two Swedish women who suspiciously have accused him of sexual misconduct

A number of caterwauling U.S Government employees, conservative pundits and laypeople with their panties in a bunch over national security concerns

The people who are cheering on Assange and praising the work that he and fellow WikiLeaks volunteers have done.

In the interest of transparency, since we’ll be talking about so-called “secrets” here, I should mention that I fall unabashedly into the latter category. The Nobel Peace Prize has been made kind of a joke at this point (Al Gore got one for predicting the scope of the floods that will kill us all, and Obama, well, I guess continuing a war and refusing to shut down Gitmo as promised is…peaceful?), but in the interest of posterity, I think Assange should receive one.

So, why is this man getting lambasted with bogus claims and espionage accusations? I could be crude and say his attackers are trying to save face (Uncle Sam’s face) and perhaps are jealous of his virility, but instead, I’ll be diving into several key issues on Assange and WikiLeaks more at length. Hold on to your swivel chairs.

Character Assassination

In December, Assange was arrested for incidents of sexual indiscretion that had allegedly occurred in Sweden, in August. First off, the charges against Assange were not for rape, as the media and Google searches would have you believe, but rather for “sex by surprise.” The main accuser, Anna Ardin, has ties to U.S financed anti-Castro groups, including the Ladies in White group, out of Cuba. She alleged that the condom broke during sex, which somehow takes it from consensual to non-consensual, under Swedish law. In a December 21 Democracy Now debate, Naomi Wolf, social critic and feminist recalled that in the 23 years she had been working with rape victims, this is the first case she had seen which was based on “multiple instances of consent.” Wolf explained that Ardin allowed Assange to sleep in her bed and stay in her home for 4 days after the alleged incident. She also noted that the charges launched against Assange are atypical, since Amnesty International has criticized Sweden for its disregarding of rape accusations. She seemed to insinuate that this was a politically-charged episode, to of course, discredit Assange, but maybe (my interpretation here) even to set an example of him, for the women of Sweden who are outraged because of their government’s lack of compassion toward rape concerns.

Ardin once posted a blog entitled, ‘7 Steps to Legal Revenge’, which talked about seeking vengeance against cheating boyfriends. According to a Swedish source, she is an “expert” on sexual harassment, apparently to the point of once reporting it against a male student who looked down at his notes instead of at her during a university lecture. Sofia Wilen, the second accuser, is allegedly friends with Ardin. Both women also apparently bragged about their conquests, and Ardin even threw a party in Assange’s honor days after the supposed sexual indiscretion and tweeted that she was “with the world’s coolest, smartest people, its amazing!” That tweet disappeared once she went to the cops, I wonder why.

A Few Good Leaks

These came from

WikiLeaks exposed Scientology, a religion that scams its followers into a delusional set of beliefs in exchange for their money.

WikiLeaks has released the most comprehensive and detailed account of any war ever to have entered the public record.

WikiLeaks clarified the terms of operation at Guantanamo Bay, one of the most controversial detention centers in the world.

WikiLeaks revealed covert Australian Internet censorship.

WikiLeaks exposed hidden logs of the Afghanistan war showing high rates of civilian casualties and other facts previously denied by the US.

WikiLeaks has demonstrated how Australia, Finland and Denmark are using child pornography as an excuse to censor legitimate websites.

WikiLeaks has revealed the National Socialist Movement's neo-nazi internal workings.

WikiLeaks released a video showing a U.S. army helicopter slaughtering Reuters journalists and Iraqi children in cold blood.

The latter “Collateral Murder” leak is almost certainly the most well-known. Regarding the way the footage makes U.S soldiers appear, Assange said, “The people in Baghdad, they don’t need to see the video, they see it everyday. It will change the perception and opinion of the people who are paying for it all.”

Espionage, the Media and Threats

There has been talk of the U.S government planning to extradite Assange and charge him, possibly under the Espionage Act of 1917, originally intended to squelch opposition to the war. Probably the strongest voice he’s got on his side is Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame. Ellsberg was a military analyst with the RAND Corporation who ended up opposing the Vietnam War after seeing casualties first hand. He and a colleague, the late Anthony Russo, stole and copied highly classified government documents which revealed all the lies the Johnson administration had orchestrated about the war effort. They were tried under the Act, and acquitted. Elllsberg has recently come out in public support of Assange, saying that practically all of the same attacks being slung at Assange were slung at him 40 years ago.

On Tuesday, January 18, Reuters published an article readling,in part, “Internal U.S government reviews have determined that a mass leak of diplomatic cables caused only limited damage to U.S. interests abroad, despite the Obama administration's public statements to the contrary” and "We were told (the impact of WikiLeaks revelations) was embarrassing but not damaging.” Oh, and the clincher: “The administration felt compelled to say publicly that the revelations had seriously damaged American interests in order to bolster legal efforts to shut down the WikiLeaks website and bring charges against the leakers."

On a December 10 WNYC interview, Ellsberg had said the following regarding the situation:

“The Pentagon has revealed that they have no evidence of any individual having been harmed by that release. Meanwhile, the silence that led to these wars has not just risked, it's actually killed thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis. The risks are not at all only on the side of telling secrets. The much bigger risks are on the side of keeping secrets about wrongful wars and hopeless wars.”

Questioning Journalism

The interrogation of whether Assange is a journalist and WikiLeaks a media organization is a red herring slightly more annoying than the fake “rape” charges. The charges are insidious, to be sure, but at least they are against something that could somewhat be proven or thrown out by a jury. The question of his journalistic integrity is an unanswerable judgment call. Is a journalist only someone who A. Went to journalism school? B. Works for a major news outlet? C. Uses information and seemingly objective text to advance public understanding of news?

Leaving arbitrary definitions aside, isn’t a whistle blower who reports unethical behavior more useful than a gossip columnist describing how awful a celebrity looked at an awards show? Why is the latter considered accepted journalism and the former not? Why does a “journalist” have to be working within the confines of a socially and legally accepted institution to gain respect or even admiration? This is bogus, and everyone knows it.

Just because WikiLeaks doesn’t publish leaks with cliche’d sentences attached, “A recent report shows...Sources say...” doesn’t mean it’s not journalism. As a journalist, I’ve been cooking up sentences like these for almost half a decade, I consider one important leak to be much more useful to the public than five feature stories on a fun event going down at the local mall.

Assange isn’t careless, he doesn’t publish the names of sources, something that only journalists with the strongest integrity do. Something that New York Times reporter, Neil Sheehan, who promised to protect Ellsberg (a non-journalist himself), did not do.

According to Dan Kennedy, writing for The Guardian: “The Obama-Holder wrinkle is to attempt to draw distinctions between WikiLeaks and the traditional media. It can't be done.The US state department cables, after all, were not top secret, and WikiLeaks says it has taken pains to withhold potentially dangerous information. In that respect, attempts to separate the Times and the Guardian, on the one hand, and WikiLeaks, on the other, should be seen as entirely political.”

Lucy Dalgish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said, “It is not journalism. It’s data dissemination, and that worries me.”

How does journalism not fall into the category of “data dissemination?” It’s data, with who/what/when/where/why/how sentences and quotes. Not exactly a binary opposition.

Assange’s own response to the data dissemination quip is to explain that raw source materials must be made available so they can be checked against the story, just as the results of scientific experiments must be made available so they can be checked against scientific reports. And in an interview with TIME, Assange explains the aims of WikiLeaks:

"This organization practices civil obedience, that is, we are an organization that tries to make the world more civil and act against abusive organizations that are pushing it in the opposite direction...We have now in our four-year history, and over 100 legal attacks of various kinds, been victorious in all of those matters...It's very important to remember the law is not what, not simply what, powerful people would want others to believe it is. The law is not what a general says it is. The law is not what Hillary Clinton says it is."

Chamber of Secrets

The U.S has many secrets- the exact recipe for Big Mac special sauce, for example. But, what constitutes a secret? If you ask the conservative pundits you would think that anything embarrassing could constitute a secret. But, embarrassing for whom? They don’t care so much about embarrassing individuals (see the 2003 Valerie Plame scandal), but they do get teary-eyed over outing foot-in-mouth bureaucrats and what they have to say about the leaders of “lesser” nations around the world.

In actuality, one has to strongly consider the possibility that these loudmouths don’t care about national security. If it could be shown that it was in the national interest to expose the diplomatic cables, they wouldn’t even bat an eye. The issue is appearance - how to keep people trusting in “their” government, and believing that “their” leaders have only their best interests at heart. If someone threatens their livelihood, especially a handsome foreigner with a knack for cracking computer codes, a sense of social justice, and the ability to put together coherent sentences, it hits the fan. It has to, or they might be out of a job. At this point, why hasn’t the U.S fired all foreign policy advisers and replaced them with image consultants? Or did I just repeat myself?

Gustav Landauer, a German anarchist theorist, once wrote,"The state is not something which can be destroyed by a revolution, it is a condition of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently".

Freedom of information is a necessary and important first step, and WikiLeaks is only the beginning. The means for WikiLeaks is transparency, the end is justice. For now, let’s give Assange the recognition he deserves. Let’s welcome in the new normal.