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.

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In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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