Friday, December 10, 2010

List addict

Want in-depth stories about the growing wealth gap in our country and how that portends very bad things for our future?

Want to know the details behind Iran’s nuclear aspirations?

Interested in what London’s student riots say about the future of education inequality?

Well, you’ll get none of it here.

Why? Because we have lists, lists and lists.

For some reason news sites, magazines and the TV news readers are obsessed with lists of all kinds. And they should be because we gobble them up.

I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said before, but I make note of it because this morning I noticed myself getting caught up in it (like I do just about every morning).

I go to cnn.com (my first click, usually) and what do I choose? Let’s see if you can guess.

  1. A story about Chinese dissident and Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo.
  2. A story about student protests in London.
  3. A list of the Top 10 places to spend Christmas.

I chose C, thank you very much.

The UK has nearly tripled the cost of tuition for university in a story that speaks volumes about the world economy and volumes more about the rights to education and the gap between the haves (the upper crust who can still afford the cost) and the have nots (working-class people for whom a college education is the great equalizer, allowing them to compete the haves and succeed on their talents). This is an important story for many many reasons.

Likewise, the story about Liu Xiaobo is important because it says a lot about modern China and its place in the world. As the locus of economic and industrial activity moves east, with it comes the bright glare of the world stage. This could probably be the most interesting and important thing I read all day.

Or not.

Guilty as charged. See a list story … must … click … on … list … story.

Just last week I clicked through 100, count ’em, 100 top places to live. Why? Well, because I wanted to see if any N.M. towns made the list and also because my wife and I could be open to a move in the not-too-distant future and I wanted to see what's out there – so I tell myself.

Lists are easy – easy to compile, easy and fun to read – and they don’t require us to grapple with any of the hard questions. They are breezy. In the end, they are what we want from our news.

Infotainment.

Who cares about the weighty issues? Who even cares about the criteria that goes in to populating these lists?

I always say we should demand more from the media, but this morning they gave me choices and I chose list porn.

I guess my point is to not beat ourselves up for the choices we make, but to recognize there are other choices – more substantive ones. And like mom who made us eat our vegetables because it ultimately was good for us, maybe we should make an effort at least once a day to delve into an important story and learn the context of it.

And then get back to the list of top albums of 2010.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Sanctimony alert and Rule #52 about the media

I began my career in a newsroom and one little secret you all must know is that newsrooms are hot-beds of gallows humor, inappropriate jokes and snark.

As someone who worked in a newsroom, I am as guilty as anyone else. I took part and I laughed at tragedy or when it was not appropriate. It’s just something that happens.

This week, reporter Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic needled Arizona Cardinals quarterback Derek Anderson for a short clip of video of Anderson chuckling on the sidelines during a blow-out loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

The endless line of questioning was along the lines of: What’s so funny? What were you talking about? Why are you laughing during a blowout? What’s so funny about that?

You can watch the exchange here.

Ugh – what a douche-canoe. Seriously.

This is a guy who probably yucks it up all the time at inappropriate moments in his own newsroom. Now he’s firmly planted on his high horse – getting to the truth, man, taking down the big, bad jock.

All right, already, we get it – you’re a crusader.

Milton Kent at the San Francisco Chronicle has an interesting take on this story.

The worst part of this whole episode is that the sniveling PR people with the Cardinals or the NFL had Anderson go back out a few days later and apologize.

Let me play Anderson for a second – this is what his “apology” should have been:

Anderson: “Yeah, I had a chuckle on the sidelines, so what. There’s nothing to apologize for, so go screw.”

That’s what I’d like to hear. Not the choreographed: “Well, I let my emotions get the better of me and” yadda yadda yadda.

Rule Number 52: Don’t let reporters let you think they are better people than you. They are just people. They do stupid things (like all of us), they have vices (like all of us), and they have no more moral superiority than any one of us.

They already have a measure of power with their cameras and their pens, don’t give them moral power that they are no more entitled to than you are.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Your baby monitor will kill you

First, watch this asinine story from the Today Show this morning that was broadcast to millions of Americans.

Next, read this nonsense that I found while researching the subject.

Be afraid, be very afraid.

Or don’t.

The truth, most likely: No burglar or home invader is out there driving around with baby-monitor receivers waiting to pounce. They’re more likely casing you in less high-tech ways.

Think about it. Are criminals, probably meth tweakers, going to Babies R Us to buy multi-channel baby monitors or to Radio Shack to buy a receiver so that they can drive around slowly trying to pick up feeds?

Sure, that’s a much more likely crime scenario than, say, someone noticing you are always gone from 11-3 and your home’s entrance is set back and obscured by bushes.

I could get on a high horse and call this story fear-mongering and pointless. It is both, but I won’t.

Why? Because if some rube is willing to take this story seriously – like the woman in the piece who worriedly expresses her concern that (heaven forbid) pedophiles are driving around listening for baby monitors – then this has become yet another unexpected April Fool’s story to enjoy in November.

Here’s a tip – TV news in almost all forms, is just entertainment. It’s no more useful than reality TV.

At least watching Top Chef I learned what an amuse-bouche was.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

CNN.com at 9:17 a.m. -- Holloway trumps Korea missiles

Missiles are flying between North and South Korea and cnn.com is dominated by the purported jawbone of Natalee Holloway.

Does that say more about us or more about the media?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Think fast … or don’t think at all

The following is an example based on a real-world situation. Some details and names have been obscured:

It’s 4:23 p.m. on a Thursday and I get a call from a reporter.

“What’s your candidate’s position on the Medicaid shortfall and how would she seek to close the gap which could be as much as $300 million in the coming fiscal years. My deadline is 6 p.m.”

Fantastic.

OK, mister reporter, do you want a thoughtful plan or do you want empty campaign rhetoric? Because, if you were truly interested in a thoughtful plan, you’d maybe give us a day or so to respond with something, oh I don’t know, thoughtful.

But, since you are giving us an hour and 37 minutes, we will endeavor to provide passable pablum that hopefully will not bite us in the ass should we win this election.

See where I’m going with this?

That day I took my hour and 37 minutes, I huddled with our research team, I tried to get experts on the horn, I consulted in depth and detail with the boss who was on the road with spotty cell service.

We came up with a principled statement. We oppose cuts to health-care for the poor, but recognize that the benefit package can be revisited and savings could be realized through a less robust package of benefits. We would also prioritize efforts to root out waste, fraud and abuse; and seek to negotiate better deals with the insurance companies that manage the program.

Does that get us to $300 million? Not hardly. But it’s not bad for an hour and 37 minutes.

Now, some of you may say we should have that plan already roughed out and the public has a right to know the plan.

Fair enough.

But campaigns don’t work that way. Our campaign had an extremely robust and detailed policy agenda, but we didn’t have answers for every single contingency or policy area. No campaigns do.

So regardless of what we said, it was an easy excuse for a certain paper that shall remain nameless to opine something along the lines of: Campaigns light on details about how they’d solve Medicaid crisis.

Well, no, you set up the hour-and-37-minute fire drill – you got what you wanted. If you really wanted thoughtful answers, you’d have provided more time.

So, just what does the public want or deserve?

The reporters and editors will say we need to put you on the spot to get unvarnished answers.

But all that does is drive campaigns and interview subjects to develop finely honed stock messages – words and sentences that mix and match easily but ultimately reveal little.

Why?

Well, for a number of reasons.

  1. This message will be filtered through a reporter, editor and headline writer – so we need to keep it simple so it can’t get screwed up. “No new taxes.” “No cuts to education.”
  2. In a world of talking heads and gotcha, you must avoid saying anything where you will later be called a flip-flopper by your opponent or media talking heads.
  3. The public is generally half paying attention (they’re busy, remember) so you need something that resonates. Hence the term: “sound bite.”

Therein is the death of deliberation.

Reporters want answers now and subjects are often all too aware that absolutely everything they say can and will be used against them in the future.

That mix leads to no meaningful information entering the public discourse. Just more empty fodder for faces on TV to yak about.

And this is how we get our information to make our electoral decisions.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Showering in the dark and subsonic sirens on police cars

The first thing I do each morning is click on the local news to get the rundown of shootings, stabbings and car crashes that occurred overnight.

Today, our local NBC affiliate had a story about how our metro police department was getting new squad cars complete with “subsonic sirens.” No explanation of exactly what that is or what it might mean for perpetrators – or dogs – for that matter. They were just words on a tele-prompter – a nugget of empty information to help fill a second-and-a-half of a newscast.

This is Lesson One about understanding the modern media. You want insight? Go look somewhere else.

My wife and I looked quizzically at each other – subsonic sirens? What could possibly be the point of that? And why put something in a newscast script that demands more explanation?

The answer: No one watching is paying any attention so it doesn’t really matter.

People are busy – they’re showering, getting ready for work, getting the kids out the door – they only have time to half-hear the news and are mostly only tuning in to see the weather.

The other stuff? Those are just words and images to get you to the next commercial break.

And me? Why do I care? Well, after the most recent election, I find myself with time on my hands, a curiosity about how the media shapes how we think and a desire to jot down my thoughts about it.

For the record, click here to read about what a subsonic siren is. It makes me wonder why the news reader couldn’t have just added: “subsonic sirens, which emit a low-frequency rumble motorists can feel.”

I know you’re asking yourself, why lead off with such a trifling piece of nonsense.

Well, I believe decades of trifling pieces of nonsense, cobbled together over time, have led to media illiteracy on a mass scale. This, combined with an explosion of 24-hour news-talk, means that now more than ever we are being showered constantly with images and words that we are all less equipped than ever to comprehend and process.

Don’t worry. I’m not one of those conspiracy theorists. I don’t believe that it’s the government and the corporations holding us down, maaaan.

In reality, we’ve let it happen to ourselves and the vast majority of us will continue to let that happen. I can’t change that. But I hopefully can do something about it.

On to the shower

Thinking about subsonic sirens, I sent Georgette and the kids off to work and school and took a shower.

Feeling the need for some sensory depravation, I decided to turn the lights out in the bathroom. (We have a shower with no windows or skylight.)

My wife has about 10 bottles of various cleansers and salves in our shower, so I needed to find my body wash, shampoo and conditioner by touch and smell. It was a painstaking process, and as a result, this morning I smell like jasmine infused melon with a touch of vanilla.

As the shower wore on and my eyes adjusted, the bathroom slowly became illuminated by faint light coming from the crack under the door. Over time it became bright enough to see my hand and even my shadow.

Here’s were I get philosophical.

When my eyes adjusted I thought about throwing the door open and letting the light flood in so I could at least see the shampoo bottles. I thought maybe this is a metaphor for what we all need to do: take off the blinders and get exposed to the light – the truth about how we are communicated to and about how the constant stream of messages and images that wash over us shape everything about us.

Eh, not really – that’s Pollyanna.

The world is a dark place, it will continue to be a dark place and the vast majority of us are blissfully comforted by the darkness.

What we can do is help people develop their senses of smell and touch so that they can better negotiate the darkness and then make their own choices about how much light to let in.

And that’s how this experiment starts. Not with throwing open the curtains to reveal mysterious men pulling the levers. It starts with little nuggets, quirks and the subtleties that come together to paint a broad picture about the pervasive role mass media play in so many aspects of our lives.