The Idiot Wind of Internet Journalism, Revealed in One Simple Interview

It takes a fair amount to get my blood boiling at 5:21 a.m., but an NPR Morning Edition interview with a new savior of investigative journalism, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, managed to do it.


The idiot wind of breathless techno-utopianism continues, with Omidyar’s efforts to build from scratch a good site for investigative journalism online.

This sounds great to me, in principle.

I’ve long held that when we subscribe to or buy a “newspaper,” we are not buying the literal, papyrus-based tactile experience of having a newspaper thrown on our front stoop in the morning, with pages whose ink inconveniently stains our fingertips.

No, we’re paying for news, for information, and for the reportage infrastructure that undergirds these enterprises.

In this spirit, Omidyar’s proposal really makes sense. He will dance on the grave of the old delivery method that eBay itself helped to kill (at one point in the interview Omidyar chuckles oddly in apology for having killed the traditional newspaper), and conjure a new online delivery method for investigative journalism.

Technology saves us again, folks!

Except that his concept of journalism, if this interview is indicative, leaves behind not only the 20th century delivery method—a newspaper—but also the ethics, sensibility, and journalistic matrix of the 20th century.

Instead, journalism as Omidyar will deliver it bears the pungency of the idiot elements of life online that a newspaper might perhaps have saved us from in the past.

In sum, Omidyar envisions as the next wave of “investigative journalism” a kind of writing where the reporter’s perspective and “passion” for a topic is front and center, since people don’t “trust institutions” anymore, and where “an opinion” is clear, delivered in this new online genre.

The transcript of this interview doesn’t seem to be available yet; otherwise it would be tempting for me to use the “track changes” editorial function, and make little bubble comments next to every statement in this interview that casually yet confidently subverts the whole idea of journalism.

First, let’s deal with the need for a reader to see that a “reporter” has an opinion. As a moderately-educated 6th grader can tell you, opinions, such as these columns, are not reportage. They are not objective. The purpose of investigative journalism is not to share an “opinion,” but precisely to transcend that narcissistic perspective in the quest for something much bigger: facts, and reality-based narrative of meaningful world events.

Online life, of course, is almost nothing but opinions most of them thoughtless, dumb, and reflexive. It’s about “likes” on Facebook or savage—and savagely ungrammatical and misspelled—comments in the comments section.

It is about, in short, the blog-ification of news.

Maybe Omidyar has in mind a resurgent muckracking sensibility from the 1800s, where exposes on slaughterhouse atrocities or the inhumanity of mental asylums were written with some moral passion and urgency.

If so, fine, but, if not, we’re back to getting the apple of “blogging” that dresses itself up as the orange of “journalism.”

But, never mind journalistic ethics and standards, which commit the cardinal 21st-century sin of being boring:  Omidyar feels that he must present his investigative journalism site this way because, you see, it is what readers want—an opinion.

Ah yes. Humans and their appetites. We want so many things. Kids want to eat a gallon of ice cream and play Sim City all day. Some grown-ups would like to drink a gallon of Jim Beam and watch ESPN all day.

And, as Omidyar’s comment proposes, we should give them whatever they want, since all products, unmoored from institutions, are simply commodities floating out there in the ether. 

Who would know that better than the founder of eBay, the global emporium for the circulation of junk, unmoored from its contexts or natural habitats, and just floating out there as stuff that you might want, valued and validated simply by the extent to which it is wanted?

Newspapers have always competed, and have always tried to deliver what readers want. This is the pulse of the free market, and there is nothing irretrievably wrong with that. Except in those olden days, the Chicago Tribune and, say, the Sun-Times competed within a shared institutional framework of journalistic standards that forbade them from delivering precisely and exactly what the reader “wanted” simply because he wanted it.

Omidyar’s half-articulated rationale for putting the reporter front and center, since people really want that approach, is because we no longer “trust institutions.”  We don’t really trust newspapers. I love it how the founder of eBay seems not to think of the behemoth eBay itself, and its techno-kin, as “institutions.” To which I say: Pot, this is kettle. You’re black.

So, in lieu of having to trust the “institution” of a traditional newspaper, Omidyar explains, people really need to see the “personality” of the writer.

I suppose it’s easier and more rational to trust a celebrity, or a celebrity-reporter—and their “personality” is a more reliable, stolid metric of trustworthiness, than to believe in an “institution,” which ideally serves the stodgy function precisely of transcending the subjective vagaries and occasional violations of its individual members.

Oh, and by the way, the notion of the primacy of the personality of the journalist only subverts about a century of really noble, meritorious ideas of the reporter “getting out of the way” of a story, or the old adage that the reporter is not the story.

Will the plague of celebrity and narcissism ever end?

Journalism has always had its gonzo elements—the “reported memoir,” or the experimental interleaving of personal experience and the story. But that’s not the bread and butter of investigative journalism. Nor should it ever be.

America’s education system is centuries old. Can we build something better?

The Lumina Foundation lays out steps for increasing access to quality post-secondary education credentials.

Sponsored by Lumina Foundation
  • America's post-high school education landscape was not created with the modern student in mind. Today, clear and flexible pathways are necessary to help individuals access education that can help them lead a better life.
  • Elizabeth Garlow explains the Lumina Foundation's strategy to create a post-secondary education system that works for all students. This includes credential recognition, affordability, a more competency-based system, and quality assurance.
  • Systemic historic factors have contributed to inequality in the education system. Lumina aims to close those gaps in educational attainment.
  • In 2019, Lumina Foundation and Big Think teamed up to create the Lumina Prize, a search to find the most innovative and scalable ideas in post-secondary education. You can see the winners of the Lumina Prize here – congratulations to PeerForward and Greater Commons!

First solar roadway in France turned out to be a 'total disaster'

French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.

Image source: Charly Triballeau / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • The French government initially invested in a rural solar roadway in 2016.
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What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
  • After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.