January 3, 2017 Last Updated 9:34 am

House Republicans vote to gut ethics office, then back off; Hearst UK restructures sales

Morning Brief: Saving books from automated book-culling software lands librarian in trouble, but the real issue discussed is regarding so-called ‘datafication’

The New Year is upon us, and so it begins, the kind of moves you would expect to see if those in government wanted a free hand to do as they please. Last night, Republicans voted to rename the Office of Congressional Ethics, the independent ethics office created in 2008. It will now be called the Office of Congressional Complaint Review and whatever power it had to rein in Congressional corruption would be eliminated.

For journalists, the biggest change to the oversight office is that office will now no longer employ a spokesman, nor investigate anonymous tips. It will be completely under the control of the Ethics Committee, which means any attempt to investigate corruption would have to go through a political process where the investigation could be killed simply by the desire of a majority on the committee to prevent any disclosure. Currently, the OCE can release a public report on their findings even if the Ethics Committee chose not to take any actions against a member.

Leading the charge to gut the office was Virginia Republican Representative Bob Goodlatte (above-right) who issued a statement defending the move:

“The amendment builds upon and strengthens the existing Office of Congressional Ethics by maintaining its primary area of focus of accepting and reviewing complaints from the public and referring them, if appropriate, to the Committee on Ethics. It also improves upon due process rights for individuals under investigation, as well as witnesses called to testify. The OCE has a serious and important role in the House, and this amendment does nothing to impede their work.”

Comments on the Representative’s website are uniformly negative, as one might expect. But the representative has no worries, he is in a safe district, one Rep. Goodlatte has represented since 1993.

Later, in the first session of the House today, the proponents of the bill withdrew the proposed changes, with many in the media immediately crediting Donald Trump’s rather weak criticism of the bill in two Twitter posts:

“With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it . . . may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, health care and so many other things of far greater importance!” Trump wrote on Twitter, adding the hashtag DTS which is shorthand for “drain the swamp.”

Speaking of swamp, it all sounds rather fishy to me.

Politico, Rachael Bade and John Bresnahan:

House Republicans gut their own oversight

In one of their first moves of the new Congress, House Republicans have voted to gut their own independent ethics watchdog — a huge blow to cheerleaders of congressional oversight and one that dismantles major reforms adopted after the Jack Abramoff scandal.

Monday’s effort was led, in part, by lawmakers who have come under investigation in recent years…

…President-elect Donald Trump ran on a platform of draining the swamp of an often all-too-cozy Washington D.C.

Monday night’s moves go in the opposite direction, severely loosening oversight of lawmakers’ potential conflicts of interest, use of campaign money and other ethical matters.

“Republicans claim they want to ‘drain the swamp,’ but the night before the new Congress gets sworn in, the House GOP has eliminated the only independent ethics oversight of their actions,” snarked House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a statement after news of the secret-ballot vote. “Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress.”

The Washington Post, Mike DeBonis and Karoun Demirjian:

House Republicans vote to rein in independent ethics office

Democrats, then in the House majority, established the OCE in 2008 in the aftermath of the lobbying scandal surrounding Jack Abramoff to conduct ethics investigations free from political influence. But in recent years, some members of Congress have sought to limit the office and its work.

At the start of the last Congress, Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) pushed for a rule change to stress that people being investigated by the OCE could not be denied their constitutional rights and had a right to counsel. According to media reports, Pearce raised the objection because he felt a staffer in his office had been treated unfairly.

Anybody else find this love letter to Pearl Automation odd? The concept seemed right, a look at a company made up of mostly former Apple employees, doing business in a more transparent and employee friendly way. But I still can’t figure out why the profile of the company, its one product has limited appeal and most readers will see the story more as criticism of Apple than a profile of some hot new company.

The author, Vindu Goel, used to work at the San Jose Mercury News, but joined the NYT in 2008. He covers Apple and Yahoo, which means there is not much to cover these days, so I suppose drumming something up makes sense. But Pearl Automation?

The New York Times, Vindu Goel:

Growing a Different Apple: At Pearl Automation, former Apple employees are blending their old employer’s high quality standards with less paranoia and more openness.

The start-up, which makes high-tech accessories for cars, holds weekly meetings with its entire staff. Managers brief them on coming products, company finances, technical problems, even the presentations made to the board.

“It’s very liberating to know what’s going on,” said Mr. Latimer, who left Apple in May to join Pearl. “Everyone is contributing here, so everyone has a need to know.”

Best of all, Mr. Latimer is working with many of his old Apple colleagues.

If you work long enough in this business you see trends in sales management come and go. The one being pursued today is to consolidate sales teams into one large group that sells across many titles. The rationale for the move is that it is best to sell the total audience rather than siloed brands. It makes sense, until it doesn’t.

The drawback, as some publishing executives will see, is that magazine titles that had dedicated sales support will be weakened, and eventually shuttered.

That doesn’t mean it is a terribly bad idea, just that there will be consequences, which is why the strategy is often dumped in favor of brand specific sales at some later date.

Of course, the other reason to consolidate sales is to eliminate positions – not only sales people, but publishers and ad directors, as well.

Campaign, Gurjit Degun:

Hearst Magazines UK restructures commercial team to sell across brands

In an interview with Campaign, he (chief revenue officer Duncan Chater) said that the commercial teams will be split into sectors so that they can cross-sell against different brands. Hearst publishes titles including Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Men’s Health.

For example, there will be a luxury and interiors team. They will mainly work on Elle Decoration but will also be able to speak to advertisers about other titles such as Harpers Bazaar, Town and Country and Red.

Chater said: “From previously where we’ve been very brand-focused with our commercial efforts, we’re now building more central functions to service our clients with one point of contact across all of our brands and platforms.

“It means we can have a broader conversation whenever we’re out with agencies or clients.”

I find this a sad tale. But the issue being brought up here, and in an earlier story on the same website, is an important one. It involves the use of data to make important decisions.

We are told “data is king” but sometimes fail to understand that there are decisions being made as to what data to consider and how to interpret it. In the earlier essay, linked to in the story below, Cennydd Bowles says “the appeal of this datafication is ideological” rather than “neutral and objective.”

Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow:

Automated book-culling software drives librarians to create fake patrons to “check out” endangered titles

Two employees at the East Lake County Library created a fictional patron called Chuck Finley — entering fake driver’s license and address details into the library system — and then used the account to check out 2,361 books over nine months in 2016, in order to trick the system into believing that the books they loved were being circulated to the library’s patrons, thus rescuing the books from automated purges of low-popularity titles.

Library branch supervisor George Dore was suspended for his role in the episode; he said that he was trying to game the algorithm because he knew that these books would come back into vogue and that his library would have to spend extra money re-purchasing them later. He said that other libraries were doing the same thing.

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