Net Neutrality, Corn Flakes, and Kool Aid

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By Robert Delaney

sugar,

salt,

malt flavoring, and

some kind of processed grain.

These are the first four ingredients for many of the breakfast cereals that we’ve been led to believe are an ideal way to start the day. The ingredients are then “fortified” with vitamins in an industrial dehydration process that allows the product to sit on a shelf for a year or more. The worst of them – laden with chocolate, marshmallows, and other bits of chemically dyed candy – can give any child a head start on the path to obesity and diabetes, categories in which the U.S. distinguishes itself. (Malt flavoring, by the way, is just another form of sugar.)

The breakfast cereal assumption remained strong for the better part of a century because food producers, grocery distribution chains and marketing firms left little choice, or at least did a great job in creating that impression. Fortunately, many of us now know that these products aren’t as healthy as a wide range of alternatives – fruit, nuts, plain yogurt, eggs – that are just as easy to prepare. This is why sales of breakfast cereals have started to slide.

“There’s a sea change going on,” Larry Johnson, head of the food and beverage practice at U.S. consultancy Stanton Associates, was quoted by The Globe and Mail’s Eric Atkins as saying about consumer attitudes towards breakfast cereal.

This is also why I have hope for net neutrality. The reasoning is simple: online content falls just behind food and shelter in the ranking of stuff we need to live, and we don’t want money to regulate the flow of this particular stuff. One of the benefits of the fragmented social mediascape that we now both view and create is that consumer choice is dictated more from the ground up as opposed to the top down approach that had for so long shaped our assumptions and habits about food choice.

Net neutrality means that Internet service providers can’t vary the speed of online content delivery in accordance with the amount of money content providers pay them. To be sure, the issue isn’t black and white. There are some circumstances under which an ISP should have the right to control what comes through its pipes.  Industry, policymakers, and the general public should debate what to do about applications that commandeer huge chunks of bandwidth. But a regulatory regime that allows controls based solely on efforts to hobble competition would effectively turn ISPs into robber barons and don’t square with the principles of free trade. The FCC is mulling moves that will keep net neutrality intact until the issue is cleared up through legislation.

The history of business is littered with deals struck between government and industry that have limited consumer choice, often with negative consequences for quality of life or the environment. Absent such collusion, we might have had reliable electric cars on the road many decades ago. But the general public might just be smart enough now to balk at any suggestion that ISPs should have free reign to decide what content comes through the pipes first. That would be sort of like turning on the water tap and getting Kool Aid first.

(For anyone concerned about Comcast’s proposed takeover of Time Warner Cable, the Wall Street Journal explains how the move might bolster net neutrality.)

The Trouble with China’s Press and Margot Robbie’s Breasts

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By Robert Delaney

Why is press freedom in Greater China so important for the New York Times?

Sitting in the Raffles Hotel’s storied Long Bar in Singapore this week, the bartender gave me a copy of the paper’s international edition.  Stories about press freedom in China occupied prominent spots on pages A1 and A3: one about the sudden departure of the editor-in-chief of a well-respected Hong Kong newspaper known for investigating corruption and corporate malfeasance, the other about a Beijing-based New York Times journalist, Austin Ramzy, whose work visa wasn’t renewed. Ramzy had to pack up and leave China.

These are bad developments, but they concern me much less than what’s happening to the press in North America.

As a journalist, press freedom has been important to me on two levels: the implications for an industry that has been my livelihood for almost two decades, and the essential role that objective, well-researched, and professionally edited journalism plays in keeping politicians and corporations more honest than they would be in an environment free of committed journalists.

Unfortunately, the value of journalism has dropped sharply in North America, and I can’t help notice the lack of concern about this. For every Austin Ramzy forced to leave China, there are hundreds of journalists in North America who are essentially forced to take buyouts or are simply let go. The reasons for this are too complicated to analyze in one blog post, but consider this: When the Globe and Mail puts anything that suggests nudity on its home page, the clicks far exceed those on important stories that take days, weeks, or months to research and edit. That’s why videos like this one about Margot Robbie’s nudity stay on the site for weeks and reports this one by Janet McFarland and Jeff Gray cycles off within hours. The latter should be of interest to anyone who aims to retire comfortably.

Many analysts have faith in bloggers, some of whom produce engaging and relevant content. But this I’m sure of: it takes a newsroom to blow the lid off the ugliest of scandals. For example, the investigations of Toronto mayor Rob Ford and his family by the Globe and the Toronto Star has required multiple reporters, editors, and lawyers working together.

The devaluation of hard news and analysis is a societal problem. As with the financial crisis that we still haven’t recovered from, we can’t blame one industry or institution. Unless we as a society and as individuals become more mindful about our priorities, we will lose the capacity to find the termites.

Let me be clear. The plight of Austin Ramzy and other journalists locked out of China disturbs me because I believe the country where I spent much of my life benefits when journalists work to uncover corruption, institutional overreach, and illegal activity. But, I would always be a “laowai” (think “gringo”) in China, regardless of how long I stayed and how well I learned the tones of Mandarin. And, as I say so often it’s becoming my mantra: there are 1.3 billion people in China. Many of them quite intelligent. It’s up to them to demand the system they want.

I have to wonder if there isn’t a concerted effort among some politicians and CEOs to encourage a focus on China’s attitude towards reporters. After all, in our post-crisis economy – which remains frail in terms of job opportunity despite some improving indicators – there is plenty to dissect. And many answers that readers should demand.

(For my analysis of why no one should expect China to embrace complete press freedom, see this.)