Why Is New York City Planning to Sell and Shrink Its Libraries?

Defend our libraries, don't defund them. . . . . fund 'em, don't plunder 'em

Mayor Bloomberg defunded New York libraries at a time of increasing public use, population growth and increased city wealth, shrinking our library system to create real estate deals for wealthy real estate developers at a time of cutbacks in education and escalating disparities in opportunity. It’s an unjust and shortsighted plan that will ultimately hurt New York City’s economy and competitiveness.

It should NOT be adopted by those we have now elected to pursue better policies.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Reading on the Internet vs. Reading a Book You Picked Up Browsing In Your Library: Yasha Levine’s “Surveillance Valley- The Secret Military History of the Internet”

You go into a library, a big public building, around you are tables and desks where other patrons similarly drawn to the offerings of the library read and turn pages.  Venturing into the stacks, you see the shoulders and bent necks of other people pulling books off the shelf, reading an index or table of contents, or perhaps their fingers running over the back of book spines naming authors, stating titles and showing the Dewey Decimal numbers that group books of similar content and concerns together. Somewhere, not far out of eyesight, is a desk with one or more librarians who can help and answer questions if you ask. Maybe one trundles through to squeeze past you to replace some of the books to the stacks.  The environment may be hushed and quiet, but it doesn’t seem entirely private.  It might even seem that there is a social aspect to this commons you are occupying.  There is the possibility that, seeing the title you might ask your neighbor, “Good book?”, and in return get an entirely unexpected answer teaching you are amazed to have learned.

By contrast, finding yourself at home reading an article on the Internet in that corner where sun doesn’t come in to glare on your computer screen may seem like a far more private experience. . . .  But is it?

Yasha Levine's book “Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet,” which came out in February is a stern reminder of a fact that gets regularly overlooked and/or forgotten: Reading on the Internet is a very unprivate experience.  In other words, as he explains, the history of the Internet, from its very inception, is intimately intertwined with surveillance and the military. .

Fire up your browser to interface with the Internet and it can track you (your browser probably recently offered to have all your devices share the information it can collect about your browsing habits).  Tell your search engine like Google what you want to look at and it will collect that data from you along with what you actually wanted to click to open from amongst the links its presented.  Along the way, some advertisers will be clued in about what ways you may be a good target for various things.  The websites you land on will also likely try to advertise to you and may know a lot about you even before you get there.   If you are reading an ebook, the publisher may be paying attention to whether you are reading certain parts of it fast or slow, what you want to bookmark and what statements in the book you are researching as you go along.  They may be paying attention to where you are, what your reading habits are time-of-daywise.  Send your friend a few thoughts about what you just read via Gmail and Google will read that email.  And that phone in your pocket that is a powerful little computer? It knows your voice, by default might be listening for it now, recognizes your face; keeps track of where you are reporting that information to the provdiers of various apps. . . .What about your Internet provider or providers?: What are they keeping track of with respect to you?  Who sold you your computer?; What are they keeping track of in terms of your use of it?. . . . And we haven’t even brought up what is formally called “spyware” or deemed “malicious.”
In other words, even if curling up in an easy chair with your laptop in an empty apartment seems like a solitary experience in which you alone are participating, it is really quite the opposite.
Here, via our YouTube channel, is a quick overview about what Yasha Levine's book is about, delivered in the creepiest possible way by Amazon’s Alexa.  

    Alexa Explains Surveillance Valley (+ Siri on Alexa) (click through to YouTube for best viewing)

    Amazon's Alexa is happy to describe "Surveillance Valley," Yasha Levine's new book about how surveillance and the military history are baked into the DNA of the Internet including the partnerships between big Internet companies (like Amazon, Google and Facebook) and the military.  Siri also has some things to say about Alexa.
Your first instinct might be to console yourself by telling yourself that all the many companies tracking you as you read are private companies, not the government, and that no matter how much of a nuisance it is that you are being followed by advertisements omniscient about what you last shopped for, their only goal is to help and make life more convenient by anticipating your every next thought before it even pops into your head. . .

. . . But that would be to ignore the Edward Snowden revelations that the flow of information through all the major Internet companies has been tapped into by the U.S. Government.  Further, as Yasha Levine documents extensively in his book, these big Internet companies with surveillance and data collection at the core of so much of their basic purpose, are integrally connected with the government including through all sorts of partnerships.  Mr. Levine also has some scary observations about why hopes for privacy seemingly offered by Edward Snowden are likely just pitfalls instead.

Although those doing this vast amount of surveillance would like to hope that the public makes a distinction between government surveillance and the surveillance done by private corporations and thus consider the situation somehow more benign, Levine makes clear that it is increasingly a distinction with no real difference flowing from the implications attached.  (One thing that Levine’s book does not mention is that the law does make some technical distinctions in this regard, the result of which is that the government can probably more easily do surveillance if it is the outcome of partnerships with the private sector.  One reason partnerships are often in play is because the Internet, something the government created, was privatized through actions undertaken without fanfare in the mid 1980's a convoluted chapter of the overall story Levine tells.)  Levine does not write about whether the intelligence agencies have actually involved themselves in picking the winners and losers in the silicone valley races, which firms will step up to become the Internet giants, but with firms like In-Q-Tel scouting for Internet firms and investing in them since before 9/11 that is not a far-fetched proposition.      

This is from Mr. Levine's prologue to his book:
Google is one of the wealthiest and most powerful corporations in the world, yet it presents itself as one of the good guys: a company on a mission to make the world a better place and a bulwark against corrupt and intrusive government‘s power around the globe. And yet, as I traced the story and dug into the details of Google's government contracting business, I discovered that the company was already a full-fledged military contractor, selling versions of its consumer data mining and analysis technology to police departments, city governments and just about every other US intelligence and military agency.  Over the years it had supplied mapping technology used by the US Army in Iraq, hosted data for the Central intelligence agency, indexed the National Security Agency's vast intelligence databases, built a military robots, colauched a spy satellite with the Pentagon, and leased its cloud computing platform to help police departments predict crime. And Google is not alone. From Amazon to eBay to Facebook – – –
Levine over and over again makes clear how little the difference is between the surveillance tactics of the private Internet firms the government.  At page 164 he writes about Google’s content extraction and collection of data culled from the emails of those using its “free” gmail service (introduced in 2004) and concerns of UC Berkley law professor Chris Hoffnagle who noted its similarity to the “Total Information Awareness” program of President Reagan’s national security advisor John Poindexter. 
Concerns about Google‘s business model would continue to haunt the company. Time proved Hoffnagle right. There wasn’t very much difference between Google‘s approach and the surveillance technology deployed by the NSA, CIA, and Pentagon. Indeed, sometimes they were identical.
Levine notes how the military surveillance programs hailed back to the Vietnam War and efforts then to anticipate and thereby control the direction the populace of the country would go in.  Not to split any hairs, the goal was that the country should not head off in any communist directions.  When transplanted back and used with respect to the populace of the United States such programs also had incorporated built-in notions of the political directions in which the citizens of this country should not be allowed to head.  Levine writes that Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering a speech after the Detroit riots of 1967 was viewed in military terms as a “counterinsurgency.”  Levine notes that the secret CONUS Intel program, exposed in early 1970 that involved thousands of undercover agents spying on United States Citizens, seemed to focus primarily on the Left, “anyone perceived to be sympathetic to the cause of economic and social justice.”  This is not to say that the program didn’t have or utilize its capacity to spy on the John Birch Society (now essentially morphed into the Koch network) at the other end of the polical spectrum.

Levine writes (at Page 76) about the CONUS program:
They infiltrated domestic antiwar political groups movements, spied on left-wing activists, and filed reports in a centralized intelligence database on millions of Americans. “When this program began in the summer of 1965, its purpose was to provide early warning of civil disorders which the army might be called upon to quell in the summer of 1967,” reported [Christopher] Pyle [in his exposé in the Washington Monthly]. “Today, the army maintenance files on the membership, ideology, programs, and practices of virtually every political group in the country.”
On page 85 Levine writes about the investigation of CONUS Intel led by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina in a series of 1971 hearings:
    . . . His committee established that the US Army had amassed a powerful domestic intelligence presence and had “developed a massive system for monitoring virtually all political protest in the United States.” There were over 300 regional “record centers” nationwide, with many containing more than 100,000 cards on “personalities of interest”

    * * *

    . . . the army referred to activists and protesters as if they were organized enemy combatants embedded with the indigenous population.

    * * *

    “The hypothesis the revolutionary groups might be behind the civil rights and antiwar movement became a presumption which affected the entire operation,” explained senator Irving and a final report…
What happened then, as reported by Levine is even more of a revelation.  In light of the public outrage resulting from Ervin’s hearings:
The arm promised to destroy the surveillance files, but the Senate could not obtain definitive proof that the files were ever fully expunged.  On the contrary, evidence mounted that the Army had deliberately hidden and continued to use the surveillance data it collected.
Those files were, as Levine recounts, fed into database that was that was at the core of the early Internet.

Levine has something in common with some others who have worked to lift the veil about the unrecognized level of surveillance and inelegance gathering by the United States: At one point, like some others, Levine's book takes on a personally harrowing caste as Levine receives death threats and worries about his safety and that of his family.  Those threats, as we will get to in a moment, came after he started to promulgate information about how perhaps everything people thought they knew about obtainable level of privacy after the Snowden revelations were not what most people informing themselves about these subjects thought they knew.

At the very beginning of his book talking about the military efforts to control the population of Vietnam, Levine mentions the fairly notorious Pheonix program giving an estimate that under that program some forty thousand to eighty thousand Vietnamese were assassinated to neutralize their potential or suspected influence in their society. Acknowledged by the CIA, the CIA officially puts the number of such assassinations at just twenty thousand.

It is one thing that Levine could have gone into in greater depth, but in the age of Internet surveillance and control, such "wet" assassinations become far less necessary.  Like in "The Matrix" it is enough to neutralize a person's cyber identity.  As our venturing forth to interact in public spheres is increasingly in the form of our digital cyber selves, whether we disclose our real identities as we do so, or cloak ourselves theorizing that pseudonyms can be effective, and as we increasingly see others through the digital goggles of services like Google, it is enough that our digital world avatars are neutralized when they threaten the powers that be.  

Laura K. Donohue is a Professor of Law at Georgetown Law, Director of Georgetown's Center on National Security and the Law, and Director of the Center on Privacy and Technology who writes on constitutional law, legal history, emerging technologies, and national security law has spoken about how in the cyberworld of social networks where everything is virtual, individuals whose growing influence is threatening to the security state can readily be readily identified (all the social network programs these days automatically count followers these days, what could be easier- plus they have other tools).  Then their virtual cyberworld existences can neutralized by various means such as isolating them or interfering with or interrupting their communication network to suppress their message.  See: Meta-Irony Of Trying To Mount A Social Network Campaign To Get People To See Oliver Stone’s Movie “Snowden” and To Pardon Snowden- How Efforts To Help Snowden Could Be Impeded, Monday, October 31, 2016.

In other words, who actually saw the Facebook post of this individual?  Are their Twitter posts escaping attention?  Do their Internet posts disappear into the rarely explored nether regions on page 5 or 10 of Google searches?  If the monitored tribe of followers of such individuals is very small, perhaps they are not even a threat, but possible a help as they draw off and help further fractionalize the communication and coordination of an opposition that might otherwise congeal into something fiercer and of more concern.

Maybe these individuals of influence don't need to be neutralized at all.  And maybe with the kind of Internet monitoring being done today, the anticipating and steering of society doesn't have to be thought of any longer as individuals at all: Such individuals can be thought of as just as components of overall trends that can be countered by launching countervailing counter-narratives, or distractions that will sidetrack the potentially influenced segments of society.  Perhaps it is enough that the political candidates supported by such individuals never win (or are consistently co-opted after election) so that their energy deflates with a Sisyphean string of constant defeats.  On the other hand, to say that more and more frequent monitoring may be used to control the flocking behavior our populace in terms of what may be trending, is not to say that nano-targeting of voters on an individual basis won't be a tactic to control the outcome of elections and engineer those defeats.

Something to think about: If the most important thing is for the surveillance state to be monitoring the flocking trends of followers, not leaders, then, although you may not consider yourself a leader with dangerous ideas that they may care about ( nothing that you need care about keeping private), they have as much interest or more in getting an accurate garage of what you as  a follower may be thinking as any leader.  That way they can work to swing trends the other way when they need to.  Which is to say that ideas are not, in and of themselves dangerous: Ideas are only a threat if they take hold.  And in terms of the main centers of power, the mainstream media of this country is pretty innocuous in terms of the ideas it passes along that might threaten those centers.

In Ms. Donohue's estimation, monitoring Internet social network activity is not the best tool for dealing with small secretive terrorist cells, but effective to stymie trends in political opposition:
If you are looking at a social network, the denser that network is the more you can tell about it, but in a cell structure where they are communicating very rarely and you are dealing with peripheries it's very hard to tell where those important nodes are in a sparsely populated communication network.

So, ironically, it turns out to be an incredibly powerful tool to head off potential social, economic, political opposition and not as an effective way to head off concerted terrorist cell structure activity.
The concerns for Levine's life and the safety of his family due to what was angrily posted openly on the Internet was in response to what Levine was researching revealing about the Tor service, and how Tor likely did not provide the secure unsurveilled channels for communication and accessing information through the Internet that it was supposed to.  Why?: Because Tor had deep ongoing ties, including financing to the U.S. government.  (Tor was nominally nonprofit and independent of the government.) And yet it was being embraced as a privacy app by privacy community advocates.  A Tor logo sticker was prominently visible on Edward Snowden's laptop in photographs of him meeting with reporters to leak information about the almost incomprehensible extent of the surveillance by the United States government, including its own citizens, including surveillance that was illegal, and inclining  surveillance that Congress had been told was not going on.

Levine concluded that the personal attacks and threats against him were to fend off his message about Tor, that expressions of personal animosity against him were just a distraction from the main issue.  While Levine analyzed that Tor could perhaps provide some privacy, to use it effectively would require great technical acumen and assiduous care to avoid all the other ways that a communication could be intercepted in various steps along the way.  Even then, the U.S. government would likely have a back door to it.  This is not to say that Tor would not have uses.  It would be useful to U.S. intelligence agency spies themselves, but only if they could disappear into a cloud of other users.  It would also be useful to activists in other countries battling to change or overthrow their governments so long as  the U.S. government did not share its own intelligence with those other governments unable to crack through Tor.  Levine also posits Tor as a "honeypot" to attract and concentrate more accessibly for evaluation all the communicators who really do want hide significant things from the U.S. government.

Levine never uses the term "limited hangout" anywhere in his book. A "limited hangout" is where the intelligence community releases true but partial (or potentially distorted) information intending it to be misleading or relied upon by its recipients in a way that manipulates them into wrong conclusions or actions that are not in their interest.  Levine does write about an  interesting, flamboyant young man who was one of Tor's principal promoters at hacking and privacy conferences around the globe, an encryption and security software developer, by the name of Jacob Appelbaum.

Appelbuam made appearances in two of reporter Laura Poitras' documentaries, her Oscar winning "Citizen Four" about Edward Snowden coming forward with his leaks through the journalists he met with in Hong Kong, including Poitras, and her later released documentary, "Risk" about time Poitras spent with Julliane Assange.  Poitras' documentaries make clear how Appelbuam gained the trust of both Snowden and Assange.  As you can learn from "Risk" and as Levine writes about, Poitras, a journalist trusted by the privacy community also became close enough to Appelbuam to have an affair with him.

Appelbaum in "Citizen Four" about Edward Snowden
Based on the portrait and information about Appelbaum in Levine's book there is an obvious question as to whether Appelbaum was working for the intelligence agencies as part of a limited hangout when he was promoting Tor.  Being careful, questions must also be asked about the ties he was able to make with Snowden and Poitras and his befriending of Assange.

Another possible limited hangout?: On page 222 of Levine's book he describes how one day he arrived home to find a heavy brown box sitting on his doorstep.  It was an answer to a freedom of information act request he had filed and it documented with further information and details much of what he'd been saying about the connections between Tor and the federal government. Should it have been that easy for him to get the information he was requesting, and, if not, why was the information, now public through his book, furnished to him as it was?

Near its end, Levine concludes his book with the following finishing his observations (at page 269):
Now Internet billionaires like Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg slam government surveillance, talk up freedom, and embrace Snowden and crypto privacy culture, their companies still cut deals with the Pentagon, work with the NSA and CIA, you continue to track and profile people for profit. It is the same old split screen marketing trick: the public branding in the behind the scenes reality
Internet Freedom is a win-win for everyone involved – everyone except regular users, who trust their privacy to double-dealing military contractors, while powerful Surveillance Valley corporations continue to build out the old military cybernetic dream of a world where everyone else watched, predicted, and controlled.
Now think back about that depiction of a visit to the traditional library set forth at the beginning of this discussion-  Reading in the traditional library was a comparative private experience with no such tracking.  You could have access to all sorts of books, books you never thought about or even knew existed before you got to the library and no one would be taking note of any trends that you and the other library users were setting in terms of the books you were plucking from the shelves.

These days, traditional libraries are under siege: Citizens Defending Libraries was formed in response to the across-the-board plans New York City is implementing to sell and shrink libraries, eliminate books and libraries, typically with real estate schemes helping fuel their fast pace.  Meanwhile, the library space that remains in the city system or which is being substituted for what is sold off is becoming, akin to Internet reading, more susceptible to surveillance with books being  kept off the library premises and needing to be requested by computer Internet request, probably searched for and asked for in advance.  The library systems are also seeking to induce patrons to increasingly use digital books that are more expensive for the library.  Or the net result may simply be that library patrons are simply encouraged to do more of their reading on the Internet, perhaps even while at the library.  More about the difference between digital books and physical books, and more about surveillance in the libraries here: Physical Books vs. Digital Books, Articles About Library Privacy and Surveillance In Libraries, and It's Not Just The Real Estate Industry Threatening Libraries: Examining The Panoply of Other Threats

If you watched our video of Alexa explaining what the book "Surveillance Valley" is about then you learned at the end that Alexa is named after the Library of Alexandria, by reputation the greatest library of all time, a repository of the world's knowledge in an ancient time.  Alexa may also store a vast amount of information, but Alexa was not set up to collect the world's information in books, Alexa was a company that was set up by Amazon to collect information about us, information that in previous times, before the Internet, was largely private.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Testimony To City Council Subcommittee Respecting Proposed Sale of Inwood Library for Redevelopment and Upzoning of the Inwood Community

The community's message in chalk outside the library vs. that of elected officials creating "done deals" without public knowledge or participation: Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer standing next to City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez in blue suit as he promotes the sale of the Inwood Library.  The man with the folded arms on Gale Brewer's other side is from de Blasio's HPD, also there to promote the sale of the Inwood Library. The man with the lowered head is a PR official from the NYPL.
Here is the testimony that Citizens Defending Libraries is submitting to City Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises respecting its July 10th hearing on the proposed sale of the Inwood Library for redevelopment and the upzoning of the Inwood community.

* * * * 

July 10, 2018

City Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises
Council Chambers
City Hall
City Hall Park
New York, New York 10007
Re: Testimony respecting proposed sale of Inwood Library for redevelopment and upzoning of the Inwood community
Dear City Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises:

Don’t let the NYPL and de Blasio administration put another notch in the belt sacrificing a public library to real estate interests with real estate deals that harm and don’t benefit the public as they waste and squander public assets.  We are asking that your committee and the City Council not let another such notch be put in that belt with the sale for redevelopment of the Inwood Library which is tied in with another attack on the Inwood neighborhood. . . that is the upzoning of the neighborhood as real estate greed goes on the war path.

As the community will surely testify, the upzoning, a radical rezoning, will drastically change the character of the neighborhood with the expected introduction of upsurging gentrification that will displace existing residents.  Existing lower income residents are likely to be hit especially hard.  Plus what thought has been given to how the existing fabric of the neighborhood and its culture will be shredded as change evicts the familiar and affordable mom and pop stores?
The sale of the library has been laminated to the upzoning.  Why?  What a strange thing to do.  At the developer meeting held in connection with the prospective sale of the Inwood Library the developers when they asked were told by city and library officials the library sale would only go forward if the upzoning goes forward.  Therefore the developers were told not to prepare any packages of proposals that did not assume that the upzoning would not go forward at the same time.

But to show you how out of control this process is, a developer at the meeting noted that the Request For Proposal guidelines specified that the proposals for a redevelopment of what is now the Inwood library should take into account the character and nature of the surrounding neighborhood.  The developer pointed out that the upzoning was going to change the neighborhood tremendously, probably in ways that can’t even be predicted.  He asked whether proposals should take into account the character of the existing neighborhood or the character of the neighborhood as it might possibly be after the effect of the rezoning.  “You figure it out,” library and city officials told him.  That illustrates not only how out of control these proposals are, it also illustrates an attitude that is execrably cavalier.  The last thing it illustrates is just how completely laissez faire public officials are being in turning over the public welfare to the whims (or worse) of the real estate industry and those trolling for profit at public expense.

The real estate industry looks at libraries, not as the community does, but as playthings with which to manipulate the community and perhaps bamboozle it into accepting what is against the community’s interest.  At a January 12, 2015 New School conference that addressed the real estate uses of libraries the New School’s host told the assembled professionals that in the end “a library is real estate” and that she had found:
it's often a nice placating gesture in a real estate development. You want to do commercial development?: Put a library in it and you win a new public that you might not have had on your team initially.
The sale of the Inwood Library may have been strangely and confusingly laminated to the upzoning in this instance, but probably the greater fool-or-confuse-the-community manipulation associated with the proposal to redevelop and privatize much of the site where the library now stands is the talk of the so-called affordable housing that is unlikely to replace the affordable housing lost when existing residents are displaced.

It is wrong to sell a library that has just been renovated and expanded.  It is impossible to recoup that investment when you destructively tear down and have to rebuild all over again.  The proposal is to give up most of the library real estate that the public now owns and put a replacement library in the bottom of a privately owned residential building.  That means the library can never be expanded when it needs to be.  If the library were to be put into a city-owned building that was also commercial it could be expanded, but that is not the proposal. .

. . . The proposal is the shrinkage of what the public owns, a shrinkage of the public realm, a shrinkage of the public commons.  And because libraries are the public commons that represent democracy so quintessentially, this is a shrinkage of democracy.  Because the shrinkage is laminated to an overall upzoning of the neighborhood that shrinkage is proportionately all the greater.

And the NYPL and de Blasio officials do not care one whit about that loss.  At the meeting they held for developers submitting RFP’s to tear down the Inwood library and acquire the site for redevelopment we made sure certain questions were asked and answered.  Will developer proposals supplying a bigger library get extra credit? No. Will developer proposals supplying more above ground space for the library get extra credit?  No. Will developer proposals that create the possibility for an expansion of the library in the future get extra credit?  No.  Is there a particular shape or configuration that would be good for the library that officials would like to specify would be good (rather than just leaving the public with the dregs after the developer has creamed off for itself the space the developer likes best)?  No.   

It is to be remembered that all these Nos were after the plan to sell the library was presented to the community as a `done deal’ with unaccountable local politicians signing onto the plan before it was ever communicated to the public for reaction in any way.

As others in the community will surely testify, the library is an essential ancillary facility to the neighborhood schools it abuts and is immediately proximate to.  These schools stand to suffer loss for a generation of the student classes passing through.  This loss should not be underestimated.  No interim arrangement is going to come close to meeting the community’s true needs- But then, from the standpoint of the real estate industry, and therefore city and library officials, that is not the point.  Don’t let them put another notch in their belt.

If you let them sell the Inwood Library for a concocted real estate scheme, you put every other library in New York City more at risk.  And even if you want to move out of Inwood after the rezoning and loss of the library you stand to be affected in those other neighborhoods.

Citizens Defending Libraries, formed in the beginning of 2013, has been witness to the callousness of the many concocted plans of the real estates industry supported by the library and city administration officials. We invite you to study our web page where we lay out and catalogue a record on the part of those officials that is not at all pretty.  Please consult the attached addendum with more information about what is on our web page.  It is the intent of Citizens Defending Libraries to shine a light and hold accountable over the long term all those participating in the irresponsible sale of our libraries.

Michael D. D. White
Citizens Defending Libraries   

- - - - -

Citizens Defending Libraries Web Page Information

Citizens Defending Libraries Main Web Page is at:
Or you can read the page LONG FORM if you want to read straight through to go more deeply into topics without clicking on them to do so as you read:       
Here is the way that our web page now breaks down into important subject headings, each of which can be individually read:
SIGN OUR PETITION TO SUPPORT LIBRARIES (Defend our libraries, don't defund them. . . . . fund 'em, don't plunder 'em)

When Citizens Defending Libraries Started and Why
Achievements of Citizens Defending Libraries

What Libraries Are Affected By New York City Plans To Sell Libraries As Real Estate Deals, Shrink And Underfund Libraries And Eliminate Books?

Are The Libraries Being Shrunk, Pushed Underground, Books and Librarians Eliminated Because the World Is "Going Digital"? NO, That's NOT a Reason It Should Happen.

Are Libraries Just Too Expensive a Luxury to Pay For? Absolutely NOT!

NYC Libraries Are Being Sold For Huge Losses And For Minuscule Fractions of Their Value

WHO Is Selling Our Libraries?

When Did The Plans To Sell Libraries (Plus The Launching of The Concomitant Underfunding of Libraries) Begin?

It's Not Just The Real Estate Industry Threatening Libraries: Examining The Panoply of Other Threats

Who Is Hurt Most When Libraries Are Defunded and Dismantled? The Poor, The Racially Discriminated Against, Scholars, Future Leaders

How Many Books Are Disappearing From New York City Libraries?

Why Turning Libraries Into Real Estate Deals Isn't The Good Deal Library and City Development Officials Describe

Selling Libraries And The Broader Issue of Private Sector Plunder of Public Property
The Biggest Lies To Watch Out For When Officials Sell Libraries

How To Defend Libraries - What You Can Do

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Influence of Media Ownership On Content As Foreseen By Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (And How Fitting That The Pivotal “Voice-of-God” Scene Was Filmed In One of World’s Greatest Libraries)

Scene filmed in great world library: Peter Finch playing Howard Beale escorted by Robert Duvall as network executive Frank Hackett to meet Arthur Jensen, Chairman of the owning conglomerate, played by Ned Beatty.
It’s a scene filmed in one of the greatest libraries of the world (at least, it was then) and it is also important to talk about that scene in terms of some very important matters concerning libraries.  This is something we’ll come back to . . .

Watching Paddy Chayefsky’s masterful film “Network” again it is remarkable to think that it was written and made as long ago as it was.  It came out in 1976 Gol Darn it!  (Chayefsky’s “mad as hell” script would have used actual swear words.) The thing that makes it such a devilishly clever satire is the way that it moves in undetectable micro increments from the sane actual world we once thought we were living in to a shudderingly ghastly caricature of what the world might be in the process of becoming without ever letting you put your finger on exactly where the line was being crossed to move between the two.

It’s a testament to screenwriter Chayefsky’s perspicacious insights about society’s direction at the time that the film still works now at least as well as it did when it was first released. If anything, the seemingly increasing transgressive absurdities of life and shifting norms of 2018 might have us wondering whether the crossover point in the film where you can pinpoint that happening has actually moved: A reality TV star president who was elected in an election where the head of the CBS network commented with shameless accuracy about the unremitting, nonstop media coverage of Trump's campaign for office: “It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS.”
Rewatching “Network” might also reveal another startling fact to people who have been engaged in trying to save New York’s public libraries recently: A pivotal scene in the film [Spoiler Alert!] occurs in the 42nd Street Central Reference Library.  It was filmed in the Trustees opulent meeting room and on the grand Carrère & Hastings designed central staircase leading up to the room.  There is even a brief glimpse into the adjacent office of the NYPL president.

Scenes from "Network" filmed in the NYPL's trustees room (including a glimpse of the NYPL president's office) and then, current day, the NYPL trustees meeting in the room.  Also, the Thomas Jefferson inscription over the fireplace and the dedication of the building to serve the public.
The scene is where the Howard Beale character, the crazed former news anchor played by Peter Finch in the role for which he posthumously won best actor, hears the voice of God.  He undergoes a conversion as a result that sets up the film’s final denouement.  Beale doesn’t hear actual voice of God; he hears the voice of capitalism pretending to be God and bring him enlightenment that allows him to preach its gospel.  What he actually hears is the voice of Arthur Jensen (played by Ned Beatty) the Chairman of the global conglomerate that has acquired the network on which Beale is now a rating’s success as the “mad prophet of the airwaves.”

“Enlightened,” Beale about-faces from his populist message to preach the new capital establishment-praising dogma and his ratings plunge, but Chairman Jensen, personally a fan of this new skew to Beale’s script won’t allow Beale’s show to be cancelled.  This plot pivot deftly allows Chayefsky a jump that skewers the effects of corporate ownership on media content from two directions: First, as the movie had done up to that point, it skewered the pursuit of corporate profit-at-any-social-cost as seen in the chase of ratings down the swirling drain of lowest common denominator bad taste, and then it flips to skewer the penchant for wealth and corporate capitalism to want to narcissistically bask in laudatory self compliment even if delivery of that package is insincerely just purchased and paid for.

For starker relief, this satiric critique is presented against the backdrop of a mythically imagined legacy of great newsmen, sober gentlemen in the mold of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid, who were sagaciously grounded in the notion that there is a sacred obligation to transmit the news with fidelity.  Not that the real state of affairs things at CBS News and elsewhere in the news media influencing our country were historically ever exactly what they seemed when the mythos of that veneer was being polished.  Nevertheless, in the early scenes of the film, the pitch perfect performances of William Holden playing Max Schumacher and Peter Finch playing Beale (before his madness flowers) do evoke the gravitas of such men that in a previous time it felt were so reassuring and reliable to have at the helm of the Fourth Estate looking out for our interests as if they were obligated by a public trust.

 -   In case anyone has forgotten, the nation’s broadcasting airwaves are supposed to be a public trust, actually a public commons owned by the American public itself, not the corporations who now control it and treat it as their private property to be bought, sold and used any way they will. Additionally, the model for ownership and tending of the airwaves didn’t have to be one where this precious asset was handed off to profit making corporations controlling virtually everything and wanting to direct all your attention to advertising.  There were other possible non-profit models that could have taken hold.  (Read Tim Wu’s books the “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires” and the “The Attention Merchants: The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads.”)

We remember Michael Moore with his characteristic glee explaining what he saw to be the Achilles heel of capitalism in his ability to get his message out: So long as I am making a profit for them, they don’t pay attention to what I say. .  And so, he said, he could keep saying it.  (If you find a link for this send it to us please.)  That bravado is somewhat contradicted by what almost happened to Moore and his anti-George W. Bush message when his publisher wanted to pulp unpublished his book “Stupid White Men: ...And Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation!”  The publisher viewed its point of view as unsuitable for the post 9/11 era.  The book became a best seller and thus made a huge profit for his publisher, but had to be rescued by brave librarians focusing on principles quite apart from the pursuit of profit who were the only reason it wound up being published.
The ability to get a message out and to get out content that has trenchant integrity is an escalating concern in our world given the increasing conglomeration of the media giants and the dwindling number of owners particularly when you consider questions about the way such conglomerates engaged in all sorts of other businesses may see things.  For instance, AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner is regarded as a first significant beachhead for a wave of further consolidations of media company ownership.  It generated an article in the New York Times about the possible fate HBO’s future production culture and content:
Media analysts and tech-industry prognosticators look at AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner and wonder about the future of an industry in flux. Hollywood looks at the deal and wonders what’s going to happen to HBO.
See: New York Times- Will AT&T Be Able to Handle HBO? By John Koblin, June 14, 2018.
In the article, “Richard Plepler, the smooth-talking, perpetually tanned chief executive of HBO” bravely envisioned that HBO would escape ownership directed change because such an escape was needed for HBO to succeed at what it does, referring to “Mr. Plepler’s view that HBO needs to be left alone in order to thrive.”  More specifically:
“You have to have a Chinese wall between the creative process and everything else,” Mr. Plepler told The New York Times shortly after the deal was announced in 2016. He added that he would be “very surprised” if AT&T did not embrace that.
Of course, the movie “Network” is very much about so-called “Chinese walls,” or the actual lack thereof when it comes to media ownership, first when the business oriented corporate types want to take over network’s news division to make it more of an infotainment ratings success and then later when Chairman Arthur Jensen wants his voice-of-God capitalism gospel preached to the world.  In real life, the corporate types at Networks have leaned hard on the news divisions to suppress news.  Two of the movie docudramas about journalism, “The Insider” (about trying to broadcast a whistle-blower’s revelations about tobacco company lies) and “Truth” (about reporting events leading up to the firing of CBS news anchor Dan Rather and his “60 Minutes” producer Mary Mapes) concern what were actually real life events. . . . 

“Truth” focuses on altercations between Rather, Mapes and their team and the corporate types at CBS in the lead up to their forced departure from the CBS network, but they had altercations before that.   Just recently on Democracy Now, legendary reporter Sy Hersh described how sitting on “photographs of torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib” for weeks the corporate people running the CBS network didn’t want Rather and Mapes to run the news story that was unflattering to the government:
They had had it for two weeks. [And they didn’t run it.]  But, you know, the people doing it, the reporters, Dan Rather and Mary Mapes, the producers, wanted to. But the suits stopped them.
It took a deal to forcing publication with the story coming out simultaneous elsewhere.  Said Hersh of the subsequent Rather and Mapes firings: “It’s too bad. It’s not good to be good at your job in network television. That’s my theory.”

By contrast, Mr. Plepler, head of HBO thinks that at HBO the talent of being good at your job is integral to its success:
“It’s very much part of the DNA of HBO: Talent is sacred,” Mr. Plepler said after the AT&T deal was announced. “They bring the magic into our company. Writers, producers, actors. It’s their gifts that make HBO HBO. It’s pretty clear to anybody who looks at our company from afar — and, in AT&T’s case, more closely — we are a talent-centric place.”

In what could be construed as a plea to his possible future boss, he added: “I can’t imagine, with everything that Randall made clear to us, why would you ever change a winning game? I don’t think they have any intention of doing so.”
(Not mentioned in the article is that a fair amount of HBO's content is also political.)

But is it ever just so simple as declaring an expectation that the ownership of our media will stay on the other side of a “Chinese Wall” and won’t interfere?  Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin was a panelist at a June 18, 2018 Brooklyn Historical Society discussion about local news in New York City: “RIP Local News?”  In his opening remarks Dobkin spoke about what happened with a planned merger of  DNAInfo and Gothamist, two local news web outlets that, with an acquisition of the Gothamist were both under the ownership of billionaire Joe Rickets. Dobkin explained that the shutdown of both sites by Ricketts, instead of a merger, that occurred when the employees unionized, was unanticipated because it was unanticipated that the employees would unionize.  Dobkin made it seem unfortunate, almost sad that they did unionize.  Mr. Ricketts, a Trump-supporting conservative Republican owner, has a deep antipathy towards unions.  The shutdown was especially scary when it occurred because it raised the possibility all the past reporting on the sites was about to vanish permanently.  In fact, for a while it seemed to; and it could have.

Explaining the misfortune of the shutdowns, Dobkin told the Brooklyn Historical Society that the “owner. .  had never involved himself in the politics of the site.”  Afterwards, noting his statement about Mr. Ricketts non-involvement with the “politics of the site,” we asked Dobkin about reports that even before the unionization occurred, news and information on the acquired site written about Mr. Rickets, was eliminated or rewritten.  Mr. Dobkin dismissed the importance of the reports saying that it was only a few articles and that he had done it with the hope that people would have jobs and be able to feed their families.  In other words, an owner doesn’t even have to ask before editors try to intuit what they may need to do to keep their jobs and livelihoods afloat.

Are you feeling glutted by monopolist mergers?  This week tech columnist Brian X. Chen wrote a column in the New Times, With Latest Acquisitions, Amazon Continues Its Quest for World Domination,” asking “Does anyone else feel that Amazon is slowly taking over the world?”

Chen noted how Amazon was giving discounts on groceries at Whole Foods to those who became Amazon Prime members, how Amazon had also gained, through its acquisition of PillPack, a license to start shipping pharmaceutical prescriptions in all 50 states, and how it was planning to start up its own delivery services, an “army,” to compete with FedEx, United Parcel Service and the United States Postal Service.  Amazon and its owner Jeff Bezos are also part of media conglomerate universe.  Bezos owns The Washington Post, the most important newspaper in the nation’s capital.  Amazon started by selling books, led people into digital books, ‘kindling” there interest, and sells a vast amount of all other content at its site.  It is now making films while often being a sole source for video streaming much of the historical/vintage content you would once find in the video stores that have gone out of business around the country.

We are told that Mr. Bezos doesn’t want to “control the editorial product” at the Washington Post, that the only micro-management stuff at the paper with which he likes to get weightily involved is “on wonky issues like web-page load time and ease of subscription sign-ups.”  We are even told that the Washington Post wrote a lengthy 2017 article “suggesting that Amazon could become a dangerous monopoly” that Mr. Bezos did not react to. (Gee, Amazon really could?- That might happen in the future?)

There is a certain extreme irony when it comes to writing denials that Mr. Bezos as Washington Post owner will exercise any influence over editorial content at the Post at the very same time that theaters were playing Spielberg’s Oscar-contending The Post dramatically lauding the courage of the central character, Katherine Graham, former Washington Post owner, Mr. Bezos’ predecessor, in deciding what content the newspaper would and would not publish when it was presented with the Pentagon Papers. If you want to see the film now, you can get it through Amazon.

Furthermore, one has to figure that the Washington Post almost has to print at least one article about Amazon’s monopolistic tendencies and exploits to help inoculate itself against criticism that such ownership is having exactly the kind of censorship effect.  The test is not whether the Post writes about monopoly and Amazon, but whether any of the legislators in Washington that the Post regularly covers carefully takes up that concern as a cause.  They haven’t.  Lastly, there is also a lot more to criticize about Amazon concerning the immense amount of data it is collecting on everybody in the country and its ties with the CIA and U.S. military.                         
Both these pieces about media monopolies ran in the same edition of the New York Times this week.
Not feeling sufficiently glutted by these mergers yet?  The same day that Brian X. Chen wondered in his Times column whether people noticed that Amazon was taking over the world, the Times ran an editorial noting troublingly that the Disney-Fox merger sailed through exceptionally fast: Opinion- The Disney-Fox Deal Sails Through, a Bit Too Easily, by The Editorial Board, July 1, 2018.  Said the Times:
Government officials appear unconcerned that the combined Disney-Fox will account for about half of the box office revenue nationally this year and about 30 percent of scripted TV programming, according to the Writers Guild of America West, a Hollywood labor union.

    * * * *

 . .  antitrust regulators and judges are usually . . . dubious of horizontal deals like Disney-Fox. In these cases, it’s much easier to show that the combined company would have the power to raise prices and limit choices. In the movie business, for example, Disney already wields considerable clout — its studios accounted for more than a third of box office sales in the first five months of the year. The additional 15 percent share of box office sales that the company will gain through this deal no doubt will increase Disney’s clout when it negotiates with movie-theater chains. For instance, the company might be able to demand top billing for its movies and a bigger share of revenue than smaller studios get. According to a handful of theater owners who talked to The Wall Street Journal last year, Disney has already engaged in such tactics, forcing them to accept more onerous terms if they wanted to show its blockbuster “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
As for ownership and influence?  The Times noted speculation about whether politics came into play in the Trump administration’s rushed approval.  It noted something to be concerned about Trump-supporting Rupert Murdoch and his family: 
While Disney will not acquire Fox News or the Fox network and stations as part of this deal, the acquisition will make the Murdoch family the largest individual shareholders in Disney, increasing their wealth by billions of dollars.
And the gospel that Murdoch and family will want preached?

Now to conclude with an observation we simply must make: Isn’t it bizarrely appropriate that Paddy Chayefsky’s pivotal voice-of-God scene was filmed in the trustees meeting room one of the world’s greatest libraries with that trustees room masquerading as a corporate board room? . . .

As our New York City libraries are being plundered and shut down, their books eliminated, people are, perforce, and quite likely even by plan, being pushed out to the corporately owned media for their alternatives.  The decisions that shut down and plunder our libraries and banish their books while pushing people more and more into the arms and the technology of the new media empires are being made by boards of trustees that look a lot like multiplied versions of the Arthur Jensen character that Chayefsky’s scripting (and the location scout) put into that library trustees room.  The motivations and rationalizations of these new library trustees are increasingly corporate and free market enterprise-deifying in the same way.

As the public is pushed out and away from the traditional resources of public, nonprofit libraries what will we get instead?: The latest glitz that profit-minded corporations are pushing?  Or will we get their stories about how splendid monopolistic capitalism is?

Unfortunately, whatever we get and will have to live with is real.  It’s not satire.