“Spicy, Watchable Coverage”

I happened to notice today on Facebook that a particular story was trending, a story about a reporter who was suspended over something she tweeted.

It is precisely the type of story that tends to trend in social media (as I mentioned in my last post). It gives sharers the opportunity to make an identity statement– agreeing with the original tweet: “House passes bill that could limit Syrian refugees. Statue of Liberty bows head in anguish.” Or arguing vociferously against it. It allows people to express outrage either at her suspension or at her opinion.

Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple was the reporter who called the tweet out as an example of partisan bias. He said it was out of character for CNN, which positions itself as the nonpartisan news channel. This is what set the whole thing in motion.  I agree. It was editorializing, and it did not sit well with how CNN wants to position itself. CNN wants to be the unbiased netowork. This is how it distinguishes itself from its competition FOX and MSNBC.

There is something that troubles me in this, however, and it is a bit difficult to articulate. It is the whole question of what is “partisan.” There is something disconcerting in how we assume people will respond to particular issues and that they will have clear political or ideological poles. This comes from our social media use of news as a vehicle for self-expression and fears of expressing points of view that differ from our peers.

It bothers me that responses are predictable enough that expressing an opinion on certain kinds of stories will inevitably identify you– rightly or wrongly– with a particular “team.” So a person might not express a point of view out of fear of assumption creep. If I express an opinion that you associate with a particular political pole you will assume that I am saying everything else that people in that camp are also saying. The fear of offending team A or team B accepts and reinforces existing polarities. We accept, en masse, that certain topics are by nature fodder for partisan confrontation. By making something “partisan” then you can avoid dissent by anyone but people who are assumed to be your enemies and they can just be written off.

The Huffington Post ran a story comparing another opinionated tweet by the same reporter criticizing President Obama that did not result in a suspension. I do not believe the difference was a political bias on the part of management. It was simply that a well-known media critic called out one of the tweets and not the other, which could simply be a product of when he happened to log on to twitter on a particular day.

Thanks to CNN suspending the reporter, her statement got far more exposure than the tweet ever would have.  (I happen to agree with her assessment, but that is not really the point for my current purposes.)

What really struck me in the commentary on this story was a description of CNN’s editorial policy from media critic Wemple in New York Magazine.

“CNN strives for a tricky balance in its news programming. It wants spicy, watchable coverage enlivened by perspectives and opinions — but no partisan biases from its corps of reporters and anchors.”

“Spicy, watchable coverage” is perhaps the best– and also the most worrisome–summation of the “entertainment” bias in television news I was describing in a previous post.

I couldn’t really put my finger on what I found so troubling in the notion of “spicy coverage” until later in the day when I happened to turn on MSNBC where I saw a reporter talking about the latest ISIS propaganda video, a slick, well-produced video showing a Hollywood quality special effect of the Eiffel Tower being downed.

The talking head tried to downplay the threat in the video by saying that it was created as propaganda. “They are designed to grab attention and to get the media to show them,” she said and then with seemingly no self-consciousness whatsoever she played the video and it played on a continuous loop on a split screen as she interviewed an expert on the other end of the screen. Incidentally, studies show that news viewers react more strongly to the images on television than to the verbal content. It didn’t matter much what the talking head on the other side of the screen had to say. What people saw and internalized was a vision of ISIS taking down a beloved landmark in a way that conjured memories of the destruction of the Twin Towers.

Let me repeat this point: She said “ISIS created this video so the media will show it” and then went on to carry out ISIS’s wishes as if the network had no say in the matter. We have to put it on, it’s really dramatic, and if we don’t, people will tune into CNN or FOX to see it…

Modern war of the ISIS variety is made up of a series of television friendly events. Mass shootings are media events. They are performed by angry, violent young men who feel powerless and ignored and they want attention.

I don’t care much that Elise Labott thinks that the House vote to make it more difficult for refugees to come to America is contrary to our values. Nor do I much care that the same reporter thought Obama was “wining” at the G-20 summit instead of proposing real solutions.

None of that has the kind of real world implications like the automatic nature of our reporting on the visually exciting, dramatic and cinematic. ISIS sent us a video, and it is really scary. Now that is spicy. Let’s get it on the air fast!

Conflict and fear are dramatic. Stoking them is good for ratings. It is entertaining television. It does not make for good public discourse.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote in The Intercept, “In the wake of Paris, an already-ugly and quite dangerous anti-Muslim climate has exploded. The leading GOP presidential candidate is speaking openly of forcing Muslims to register in databases, closing mosques, and requiring Muslims to carry special ID cards. Another, Rand Paul, just introduced a bill to ban refugees almost exclusively from predominantly Muslim and/or Arab countries. Others are advocating exclusion of Muslim refugees (Cruz) and religious tests to allow in only ‘proven Christians’ (Bush). That, by any measure, is a crisis of authoritarianism. And journalists have historically not only been permitted, but required, to raise their voice against such dangers. Indeed, that is one of the primary roles of journalism: to serve as a check on extremism when stoked by political demagogues.”

There is a French saying, “qui ne dit mot consent.” He who says nothing consents. To put a camera on someone as he plays to fears and to say nothing is to normalize it. To say nothing is to consent. It puts it within the realm of acceptable and reasonable discourse.

In the future will we say about this time?

“We will not walk in fear, one of another,” Edward R. Morrow said. “We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine; and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular.”



“Mother of Exiles”


amd-statue-liberty-jpgNot like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

-The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus

The Medium and the Message


The other day I was watching the news with my mother and she pointed out that all of the commercials on the cable news channels were for the AARP and for drugs. “Don’t young people watch the news?”

Indeed, I believe that they don’t. Young people are more apt to get their news from the internet and from social media feeds.

I should mention, by the way, that this doesn’t mean– as one friend of mine lamented– that young people only read about Justin Bieber. (Who I am reliably informed is avoiding Charlie Sheen.)

This observation got me to thinking about how the medium affects the type of news that gets broadcast and received.

Television news has a finite number of broadcast hours and it can only point its camera in one direction as a time. So viewers are at the mercy of news producers to determine what is newsworthy. On the internet, people can choose for themselves what stories to follow and they can, therefore, find out about everything that is happening in the world. (And yet generally they don’t.)

In both environments certain types of stories get attention. The television news channels have a bias. It is not a right or left bias, as people on either side of the political divide sometimes claim.  It is an entertainment bias. (I hate it when Fox News pundits complain about the “mainstream media” when they are the most watched TV network in America. Isn’t that the standard definition of “mainstream?”)

As an advertiser supported medium, news channels owe their existence to capturing an audience that could be watching Kardashians and keeping their attention. That means that the stories that lead have an element of drama. You are not likely to hear “Our lead story tonight, an analysis of the proposed budget.” (Snooze) The news will lead with a bang– literally, or a courtroom drama, or a downed airliner, a celebrity scandal or the disappearance of a woman who looks like a model and the networks will do their best to figure out what interests and entertains us and deliver it. Television news is the perfect environment to foster a reality television star’s presidential campaign.

The types of stories that trend on social media are slightly different. People post links to stories on their Facebook feeds and on Twitter as a means of self-expression. Each story shared is in some way a reflection of the person who posted. The types of stories that thrive in this environment are those that lend themselves to some kind of identity building. For example, people post political stories that identify them as being like or unlike the Tea Party, or the religious, or the liberals. “I am a person who stands for…”  A story about Kim Davis who wouldn’t issue marriage licenses to same sex couples is the perfect story for this kind of news environment because it gives people an opportunity to post their commentary and present themselves as an upstanding fundamentalist or as the type of person who favors gay rights.

The red Starbucks coffee cups are a social media driven story. There is almost no content to the story at all. It is just a vehicle for people to showcase their opinions and their sense of humor. “I am offended by secularization” or “I believe in diversity” or “People are so superficial, and I am deep enough that I can point it out.”

So what are the ramifications of news as self-building? It must surely be a factor in the increasing political polarization we see and the rise of the “no compromise” style of governing. But there must be other, less obvious, consequences of how we spread the news.





Quote of the Day from an Impassioned Defense of Humanities on Slate

Sen. Rubio, rants like yours about the uselessness of academe can be disheartening. (Same goes for you, President Obama, when you ignore the humanities and call only for more STEM education.) But if there’s anything we academics are able to do, it’s to recognize that these rants are poorly argued and lacking in evidence. Often they are the self-congratulatory blather of those whose success is predicated—in more and less obvious ways—on the existence of higher education, but who in hindsight credit that success solely to innate ability. In short, the rants are stupid, and a key part of my job is identifying and fighting the stupid wherever it is found.-Alan Levenovitz, Why I’m a Professor of Philosophy and Religion

Immediate Emotional Reactions

BeirutA friend of mine shared his Facebook meme this morning. it is a well-written appeal for a wider sphere of compassion penned by Karuna E. Parikh who has a personal connection to Beiruit.

I would like to talk about my subjective emotional response to this appearing in my feed this morning.

I lived in France, just outside Paris, as an exchange student when I was 16, which is a foundational period in life. I consider my French family to be part of my family in a real sense. So Paris is not an abstraction for me. Last night as I watched what was transpiring in Paris, I remembered the messages of support and concern from my French family that came in following the attacks of September 11 and I felt that it was appropriate to express a similar solidarity. I posted a one line status update in French expressing condolences and I changed my Facebook picture to the French flag.

I agree with Parikh that my fellow Americans can be myopic. We have, for example, a “special relationship” with England because of our common language, but we often forget the historic contributions the French made to our nation. We forget that there were 4,000 French troops and 24 French ships at the Battle of Yorktown to George Washington’s force of just 2,500 under-equipped men. Whenever French politicians fail to support a U.S. mission someone is sure to say that they owe us because we supported them in World War II, entirely forgetting that we were only returning the favor for their support of our nation’s existence in the first place. Our founding fathers were heavily influenced by French philosophers when drafting the constitution.

We do not share this history with other nations. I grieve and mourn for all people who suffer anywhere in the world. I agree that the real enemy of peace is people who want power through violence. In this the victims of a shopping mall shooting in an American suburb are linked to the victims of attacks in the Central African Republic. And so I mourn for the victims of violence. I can imagine a better world where people are not divided and seeking power.

But my grief for the people of  the Central African Republic is more abstract than my grief for people in France, whose history is intertwined with ours, whose way of living resembles our own, we can see ourselves in them, and these attacks were a message “to the west,” to our family of nations.

I am saddened when someone in my city dies. I am more saddened when someone in my neighborhood dies. I actively grieve and mourn when a friend dies. And when a member of my family dies, a part of me dies with him. How would you feel, then, if someone told you your mourning for your friend was misplaced because you were not equally mourning for everyone who had died that day in a similar fashion?

I refuse to feel ashamed or to accept that it is misplaced to post the French flag. I understand the fear of nationalism, which the op ed by Clair Bernish I linked to above expressed. I am one who also worries when there is too much flag waving. But I remember how different it felt to see the flag after the attacks of September 11. Do you remember? In that moment, the flag did not mean “America #1.” it meant we are still here. We have not been destroyed by this. And when my friends are hurt, I stand with them in that feeling.

So no, Ms. Bernish. I do not agree that I should “shake that flag from your social media profile; and your home; and your thoughts. Because as long as you wear just one flag, your attempt to stand with victims of terror is a most embarrassingly hollow solidarity, indeed.”

I am not embarrassed.

I think I understand on some level what Parikh feels when watching the news (or more accurately, I think, watching hashtags trend on twitter) when the amount of attention given to a story is determined by who news producers think “we” are as Americans; when they make decisions about what parts of the world are relevant to “us” and what tragedies, therefore, deserve wall-to-wall coverage and which should be wrapped up quickly to get to important matters like the color of Sarbucks coffee cups. I would like our television news to have a broader international scope and to be less inwardly focused.

(If you get your news from the internet, which most younger people do these days, you have the option to follow the news from all of the nations you like. There are news feeds in English from all parts of the world. The fact is, most of us don’t. We blame “the media” anyway for our own apathy.)

My partner is Russian, and therefore Russian news is always interesting to me. Parikh wrote on her Intagram “I understand Paris is a beloved and familiar space for a lot of people, but it troubled me that Beirut, a city my father grew up in, had received so little attention after the horrific bombings two days earlier. It also troubled me that Baghdad, a place I have absolutely no connection with, received even less attention after the senseless bombing took place there last week. Worst of all, I found the understanding of the refugee crisis skewed and simplistic.”

One of the most horrific terrorist attacks that I can recall was the school siege in Beslan, Russia.  It happened on the first day of school, usually a day of celebration. More than 700 children, elementary school age, were held hostage for three days and in the end 186 children were murdered. it was one of the most horrifying and inhuman things I could imagine, and because of my connection to Russia, I had a strong emotional reaction to it.  Our news did cover it, but not with the wall-to-wall treatment like that devoted to Paris. Much of the commentary on the politics and culture of the region seemed detached and overly simplistic.  For most Americans, however, the Russians are “them.” They are not “us” the way Western Europe is. We try to understand Russia with a view towards abstract geo-political consequences. So I wondered, why didn’t they give more attention to Beslan? If these were British children there would be no end to our grieving and outrage. I get it. I really do.

It is a scientific truth that human beings feel more empathy for those who they perceive to be part of their social group. We are not gods, our brains and our emotions have limitations. “Pray for the world” is beautiful poetry, and it is an important ideal. But when you actually consider the scope of the world, the number of tragedies happening every day, it is an overwhelming and impossible demand. Yes, refugees in Papua New Guinea deserve our compassion. The victims of Boko Haram violence in Lake Chad deserve our compassion. The victims of domestic violence in Bolivia and the Pacific Islands deserve our compassion. The victims of sexual violence in South Sudan deserve our compassion. Mexicans displaced by drug related violence deserve our compassion. The Lumand indigenous people of the Philippines deserve our compassion.

When we’re made aware of a tragedy we can give it our focus. But “praying for the world,” for all victims of violence and tragedy, is so abstract that we can’t really feel any of it. To focus on everything is to see nothing.  This is not to say that we could not and should not always endeavor to expand our sphere of compassion and understanding. It is simply to explain that it will always be the case that we will focus on the individual tragedies that we believe are closest to us. The world is too big to take it all in.

For the majority of Americans, Western Europeans are perceived to be part of their larger social group whereas Middle Eastern people and Russians are perceived to be part of other social groups. We make all sorts of distinctions as to who is “like us” and who is “different from us.”  We each occupy different circles and spheres and have different emotional bonds. So I, for example, think of Russians as “us” because I am intimately connected to Russian people, even though as an American growing up in the cold war era I was trained to think of Russians more as “them.” So the boundaries of who “we” are and who “they” are can shift. If you knew about Russia only from news stories about Putin on CNN you would have a very incomplete view.

So there is much that I find to agree with in Parikh’s appeal, and if Paris were more of an abstraction to me, I might have found myself nodding entirely in agreement. But reading it after just changing my profile picture to the French flag, I felt a bit slapped by this graphic. It was asking me to feel ashamed for my expression of sympathy for the French. In particular, I was struck by the line that no one’s Facebook status said “Bagdhad because not a single white person died in that fire.”

This line in particular made an expression of solidarity with the French akin to saying “White Lives Matter.”

I will be the first to admit that I am a life-long beneficiary of white privilege. Through no effort on my own part, I have the advantage of being similar in a lot of major ways to the group that our mainstream culture identifies as “us.” I am white, I am from that group that politicians pander to– the great middle class. I come from the Protestant tradition. I’m not a sexual minority. If I want to, I can go through life largely unaware of the challenges faced by people with physical disabilities, or  immigrants or the rural poor. Even when I want to be compassionate, as I have said here before, if you are experiencing a kind of pain that I have not, I might not just be unsympathetic, I might not even notice.

So in that sense, I applaud Parikh for using an emotion that “people like us” might be feeling to try to use it to expand our awareness of something we might be blind to.

But it feels bad to have motives attributed to you by someone who does not know you personally. It feels bad to have someone say they know what you “really mean,” and that it is something negative.

I spoke about this in my last entry when I tried, clumsily, to express what bothered me in a review of my novel. It was not that the reader objected to what I had written. She has every right not to like my work. What bothered me was when she explained why I had written what I had, as if she could see inside my mind. She said she knew my motives– and they were unflattering.

Saying that people did not rally behind the hashtag “Baghdad” because Iraquis are non-white is a gross over-simplification. There is a difference in the level of shock that people will feel when confronted with an act of violence, even to civilians, in an area that has been at war for decades than in one that is perceived to be at peace. When there are repeated stories of violence in a certain area, or of a certain kind, people become numb to it. We are not shocked by violence in Israel, even when victims are white or even American.A terrorist attack in Jerusalem would not evoke the same response.

We still get upset by mass shootings in malls, schools and theaters in the U.S., but the response to more recent events does not match the intensity of our reaction to Columbine. I remember where I was when Columbine happened. I remember feeling horror. I remember my desire for information. How could this happen? When the most recent mass shooting happened, the details of which I honestly don’t recall at the moment, even President Obama expressed the sentiment that our response was becoming routine and that we were weary. Were the lives of the victims of that event any less valuable than those of the Columbine shootings? Of course not. The fact that we cannot react with the same horror to their deaths should not be read as a lack of compassion for them.

We are not able to mourn every U.S. soldier who dies or is injured. Every day gun violence kills more people than mass shootings, but we’re not shocked by statistics. We report on these kinds of shootings only if they are local, when they hit close to home.  Ideally our compassion would not be limited, we would not become weary and would not have famine blindness, but we do. We are human, we are finite, and we mourn our close friends in a different way than we mourn others.

So I agree with much of what Parikh has to say. All of these people matter. But I will not accept that standing with a friend who suffers is the same as denying other people’s suffering.

Isn’t it Erotic, Don’t You Think?

angelTwo days ago the long-awaited (by me) second edition of the novel Angel was released by DSP Publications.

DSP is a new imprint of Dreamspinner Press, and the hope is that the new imprint will put an end to Angel’s “erotica problem.”

What I am referring to is the tendency of book selling sites to label it as “erotica.” This has much less to do with the content of the novel than the fact that it was put out by a publisher that is known for some steamy novels and the assumption is that anything from that publisher must be a little bit erotic. (It’s like ra-ee-ain on your wedding day! Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)

So Dreamspinner, which has been branching out for some time into less romantic and erotic LGBT literature chose some titles that they thought would benefit from a different kind of presentation. I’m very glad.

I’ve been thinking about this word “erotica” a bit lately. A couple of months ago I was scolded in a review of my second novel Identity Theft for including a scene that depicts masturbation. “I don’t want to read erotica,” the reviewer said. Or words to that effect, it was a while ago and I am quoting from memory. The same reviewer went on to say that I was a smart and accomplished woman who did not have to resort to that kind of thing to sell books.

Whether or not the scene itself added to the plot or understanding of the character is an argument for other people. What struck me was the use of the word “erotica.” The word is supposed to indicate literary art created to spark the sexual imagination. It is not simply art that depicts sexuality; it is art created to turn you on.

Sexuality is a part of adult life, and something that has different meanings in different contexts. To my way of thinking, the scene she described was, if anything, anti-erotic. It depicts a person who is deluding himself to the point that he can’t really believe anyone outside his fantasy world exists and can be effected by what he does. It is a person who is isolated, and at that moment, self-absorbed and a bit ridiculous and pathetic. If the reader goes away from that scene thinking “Wow, that was hot,” I think I have missed the mark somehow as a story teller.

I’ve written a lot of books now, and I’ve gotten comfortable with the idea that not everyone is going to like everything I do and that some things will resonate with one reader and annoy another. That can’t be helped. It is still odd, however, when you read a review and find that someone has misunderstood your motives in a significant way. Then it moves beyond a critique of the work to a critique of the character of the writer. This reader imagined that I made a calculated decision to “spice things up” because I thought it would sell more books. I have to say that until I read the review, I hadn’t given much thought at all to the sex in the book except as it was part of the story I was telling. The idea that sex was by definition commercial didn’t enter my mind. I am not sure that it is. Sure, someone had a hit with that Shades of Gray thing, but that is a publishing aberration, not the norm.

That little episode aside, it is still worth noting that Angel, which is a story of love and spirituality and includes no on-page descriptions of sex has consistently been called “controversial” whereas Identity Theft, which does show sexual behavior more directly, and which includes characters who make some highly questionable moral decisions, has never been given that label.

Identity Quote of the Day

“What do most of us mean when we say that we know someone well? We mean that we have constructed a mental image of that person, a sort of robot which functions adequately, except perhaps in revealing moments of crisis, and thereby saves us the fatigue of continually wondering what our friend is ‘really like.’ We have decided, once and for all, what he is like–arbitrarily accepting certain aspects of his personality and rejecting others–and our robot embodies our decision.”-Christopher Isherwood