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.