Television

Northern Exposure and Nostalgia for Places You’ve Never Been Before

 

 

Yesterday, on our travels, we had the opportunity to stop in Roslyn, WA where the exteriors of the television series Northern Exposure were shot. The famous mural that the moose strolled past in the opening credits is there, as is a preserved KBHR radio set, and The Brick. The facade that served as Dr. Fleischman’s office is now a Northern Exposure-themed gift shop where you can pick up a walking tour map.

The final episode of Northern Exposure wrapped up with Iris Dement’s melancholy “Our Town,” suggesting that the fictional Cicely, Alaska was the real star of the show.

10391758_233868150947_1219663_n Northern Exposure was a fresh new show at a time when I, like the viewpoint character Dr. Fleischman, had moved from a more urban area to a northern town in order to start what I then thought would be my career.

I was the afternoon drive announcer on WKJF FM/AM in Cadillac, MI.

Unlike Dr. Fleishman, who, in spite of himself, became central to a community with its own culture and habits he did not understand, I was mostly isolated. I never found a community outside of work, and the life of a radio announcer mostly consisted of being the only person in a building talking to the air. I watched Northern Exposure every week, and it provided a fictive community.

Cicely, Alaska was not a typical small town. It was a place where the entire community would turn out to witness a philosopher-turned-DJ engage in performance art. Although it was isolated and rural it was diverse, thanks to the Native American population, and a spiritual dimension– a mystic searching for meaning–permeated the place. The drama came from the quest to figure out what it means to be a human being in the world living with other human beings.

While I was playing music programmed by a “clock hour” and index cards (pictured above) and later by computers, Chris in the Morning was playing an ecclectic mix of different genres as his mood and his sermon of the day dictated. It was an ideal of local radio as the voice of the community in all of its human unpredictability.

In the years that have passed all three of the local radio stations that served as the setting of my career have gone out of business. Local radio has been largely homogenized and replaced by huge media companies with nationally syndicated content.

A few years ago I returned to Cadillac, Michigan. I wrote:

Early in my radio career, I lived in Cadillac. (I was the afternoon announcer at the now-defunct WKJF AM/FM, “Your Light Rock, More Music Station.”) Cadillac surrounds a lake, and each shore of the lake has a distinctly different feel. My house was on the non-tourist side. It was then one long highway of mom and pop shops. (An appliance repair shop was one of the prominent businesses.) It seemed to have changed little since the 1950s.

I lived in the town for half a year before I even knew the resort side of the lake, with its hotels and restaurants, was there.

There is a lot to do in Cadillac for the person who enjoys hunting, fishing or snowmobiling. I was more of an indoor girl…

Something has happened to the town-side of Cadillac. Most of the mom and pop operations have closed down and been bought up by chains with their plastic facades and bright colored logos. The 1950s era businesses that remain, which once had an untouched charm, have been made shabby and out of date by the juxtaposition. Cadillac seems somehow both more built up and more run down than I remember.

The radio station building where I once worked remains, although it is a lifeless, automated router for another station. The “Incredible Broadcast Machine”– a decidedly credible Winnebago painted with the station logo– has driven (or been towed) into the sunset. Half of the office space (which was once home to Muzak) has been given over to H&R Block.

A few years after that I revisited my second radio station, WFRA and Mix 99.3 FM (“The best mix of today’s hits and great oldies”) in Franklin, PA.

 

 

That’s me as the midday voice of the station in the early 1990s, and on the right is what the station looked like a couple of years ago. The door with the station logos and the empty rooms may be gone by now leaving no trace of the place.

Last year I learned that the house in a residential neighborhood that housed my last radio station WAGE AM in Leesburg, VA was up for sale. I might have bought it if I’d had the money.

The death of local radio is a metaphor for something larger, the loss of the community voice, the separate, quirky local cultures. As Chris in the Morning put it in this clip “The total blitzkreig towards isolation.”

In the Roslyn gift shop, a friendly woman handed me a map of all of the sites in the town that had been used in the show. On the wall were large photographs of all of the show’s cast. Something about them felt off to me, because it took me back to the fact that what had taken place there had been a television production. But I had not come to see a film set, and that was not what I had been feeling walking down that familiar street.

I came to see a place that I had once belonged, which I thought had vanished like so many other places of my past. In Roslyn, that magical place, and all of its possibilities, re-appeared like Brigadoon.

Cicely, Alaska was fictional and Chris in the Morning and all the others were fictional. They never lived there, and they will always live there.

 

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How the Story Ends: Thoughts on the Move Christine (2016)

The 2016 film Christine is based on the true story of a Sarasota local news personality Christine Chubbuck. I did not know her story when I selected the film under the category “critically acclaimed dramas” on my streaming service. The blurb described the movie this way: “In a film based on true events, an awkward but ambitious TV reporter struggles to adapt when she’s ordered to focus on violent and salacious stories.” Journalism movies are a genre I often like, so I selected it. It was not at all what I had been expecting based on the description.

In retrospect, I believe I had read about Chubbuck when I was studying broadcasting in college, but I didn’t connect it to the film I was watching. The filmmakers undoubtedly assumed that the people who bought tickets would know how the story ends. It is not a spoiler to say that what is best known about Chubbuck is how her life ended. One morning on live TV before her regular segment she read the following “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color, you are going to see another first: an attempted suicide.” And then she shot herself on live television.

 

Had I watched the trailer before selecting the film, I would have had more of a sense of its tone. This is one case where I feel knowing the ending in advance would have made the experience of watching the film better. It would have added a tension and urgency to what was unfolding on screen. Instead, I spent most of the film wondering why I was watching this woman struggle with mental illness. What was the purpose, the point of view, of this story?

It is, however, a film that has stayed with me and in retrospect, what seemed to be its weaknesses while I was watching, are its strengths. It is a film in which easy answers and clear villains are absent. She has co-workers and family who are patient with her mood swings and who want to help. Chubbuck’s frustration with the shift towards sensationalism for ratings is present, but it is not a bogey man, just one of many problems that Chubbuck is ill-equipped to deal with. She is not seen as worthy of promotion by the powers that be, and the sexism of the time is present, but even if there had been a level playing field, it is not clear that Chubbuck had what it took to succeed in her field. Her erratic behavior, and outspoken insubordination would have gotten her fired in most places of work. She was stiff on camera. The obstacles she faced were real, but her internal struggle was bigger than anything external.

It is rare to have a film in which a woman who is difficult to understand and to like is the viewpoint character. That alone makes the film interesting. Rebecca Hall who played Chubbuck in the film said she was drawn to the film for just this reason. “There are a lot of films about the coolness of being a misfit,” she said, “I don’t know how many films there are, certainly about women, where it shows how painful it is to feel that you don’t fit in and that you are different…”

In this era, where we are sensitive to the idea of appropriation, something that comes up quite a bit in articles about the film is the fact that the writer and director are both men. Should a man have been the one to tell this woman’s story? Is this just exploiting Chubbuck again?

Each of us has many facets to our identity. Yet we consider some identity categories to be more fundamental than others. I am firmly of the opinion that the best person to tell as story is the one who is taken with a story and can’t let it go. Craig Shilowich, the writer of Christine, was drawn to the story because he had experienced depression himself. In the lead up to her dramatic last act, he saw a vehicle to explore mental illness. I would argue that the most important aspect of Chubbuck in this story is not her femininity but her mental illness.

Shilowich refuses to turn Chubbuck into a symbol of a greater cultural message. It might have served the drama better if he had, but he was right to resist the easy sensationalism that Chubbuck’s final statement seems to critique. In the end, I was left with a visceral sense of the frustrations of trying to reach someone who is depressed and who makes herself unreachable. Most of us have experienced–if not clinical depression–at least periods of feeling like an outcast, feeling misunderstood or unable to connect to others.

I was not left with an answer to the perhaps more compelling question of why Chubbuck chose to act in such a public manner.  Why did she chose to make her final act a violent rebuke? It was a death that was engineered not only to end her own pain, but to inflict trauma on others who were forced to witness it.  We can understand and empathize with the person who finds it too difficult to go on living, but the person who wants to force other people– strangers, society at large– to suffer with her?

I find a line from the Boomtown Rats song repeating in my head: “They could see no reasons ‘cos there are no reasons.” It is fortunate that most of us find this incomprehensible and can’t truly empathize.

The film succeeds, then, in what it attempts to do. It is a think piece. A story about a sensational, tabloid-esque story that is consciously anti-sensational and humanizing. It is at the same time disturbing and, for a film that is framed around an ending, strangely unresolved.

There was a line in a Rolling Stone review of the film that struck me. It was, wrote Sam Adams, “a time when things could happen without being recorded.” This led me to a whole series of reflections on how the dictates of what constitutes a good story, and a proper ending, effects our day to day lives and how we see ourselves. This article is already too long, so I will leave those thoughts for another day.

If I Ran a News Channel

I have a pet peeve. I cannot stand the expression “the other side.” By that I mean when people on television talk about political issues and describe a group of people as “the other side,” generally as a euphemism for a member of the political party to which the speaker does not belong. It drives me crazy because it flattens everything into only two possible worldviews. It assumes that the only way to view things is as a liberal or a conservative and that what you will say about any given issue can be pre-determined by which you are. It even comes up in conversations about ending polarization. “Talk to someone from ‘the other side.'” Well there are lots of sides, and we have lots of identities and lots of feelings.

I saw an interview lately with Senator Elizabeth Warren. She was asked about how immobilized Congress is by partisanship and she pushed back against this. She told a story about a bipartisan bill to make hearing aids available over the counter that made it through both houses and was signed by the president. Why did this happen? Because it was not an issue that played into any culture war narrative about the left or the right.

We can discuss all the same issues, but there are important topics that we need to depoliticize. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in a recent Ted Talk said “We have an existential threat on our hands. Our left/right divide is by far the most important divide we face… This is the urgent needs of the next 50 years and things aren’t going to get better on their own.” (A few seconds later he used my hated expression “the other side.”)

I don’t have a billion dollars to launch my own cable news network to compete with the big three, but lately I’ve been giving some thought to what I would do if I had. If you look at the cable news networks today, there is a network that has a left focus and one that has a right focus and one that tries to position itself in the center, but they are essentially doing the same thing. There is a great deal of agreement between them as to what kinds of things constitute news, what types of issues warrant discussion as news and how to talk about them. They frame almost every event in terms of what it means for the democrats or republicans chances of re-election. There was, for example, much more discussion of whether the ACA (Obamacare) would pass or be repealed and how it would effect politicians careers and the balance of power in congress and the White House, than what the law consisted of. Same with the recent tax plan.

A while back I found myself watching this Youtube clip of Alain de Botton promoting his book “The News: A User’s Manual.” I was taken with his idea, which comes in about the 35:00 mark, (sorry, I couldn’t figure out how to book mark the video with a start time on Word Press) that the problem with news is that it does not have enough biases. That is to say, rather than framing discussion through the lens of left/right we could frame them through other biases or perspectives. His example of possible alternative biases are a Buddhist bias or a psychoanalytic bias or through the perspective of Walt Whitman.

Some biases that I could imagine, and would like to see represented on my imagined network, would include an aesthetic bias, a community bias, a citizenship bias. Perhaps these would be particular hours of programming– the Buddhist hour, the aesthetic hour…

De Botton’s “School of Life” experimented with the idea of news through a philosopher’s bias in the now defunct The Philosopher’s Mail.

A key principle was that news should target our needs. When a train in France was fatally derailed by a falling rock, we took the view that this was important news; not because we need to know about the state of transport in mountain regions but because it provides a sombre memento mori: a lesson for everyone about the fragility of existence and therefore, of our duty to forgive others, to get on with what really matters and to appreciate what is good in our lives. 

(I am reporting on this late in order to combat a bias that de Botton points out early in his Google talk, the news’s assumption that the most important things are the most recent.)

In any case, if had my own news empire, its bias would be focused on eliminating left/right framing. There would be no talk about “both sides” of an issue: because there are many sides to every issue. And I would love to see hours devoted to these different sorts of biases with watchable, well-informed hosts who took fresh views at the events of the world.  This might produce a different way of looking at the same events being covered on other networks, or it might priorities different stories entirely.

If politicians or political candidates came on the network to discuss current events or legislation, they would not be identified with an R or a D. This would take some getting used to. People look to those letters to decide, before the person speaks, whether they should agree or disagree.

There is, however, other information I would include. We have amble space on the screen and have become accustomed to tickers at the bottom and bullet points at the side. So instead of the R or D, the screen would show information about the politician’s geographic region, what the main industries are there– to give a sense of who that person represents. Additionally– and this is important– the biggest sources of campaign funds would be listed.

There is a strange disconnect in journalistic standards in this area. You would expect that if a news source reported on a scientific study on germs they would not leave out the fact that it was funded by Clorox bleach. It may be that the researcher would have found bleach is most effective in killing the particular kinds of germs it studied regardless of funding source, but it is a factor that people should know about. Not so with politicians. Yes, the information is available if you’re proactive. You can find out that your local senator was mostly funded by the chemical and banking industries, but that information should be made available at the time the viewer is evaluating a representative’s statements. The fact that a particular politician’s campaign was largely funded by health insurance companies may not impact her vote on health care policy, but we should be able to evaluate whether it does or not easily.

Being reminded regularly that this is the representative’s constituency, and these are their financial supporters, might change politician’s behavior to avoid the optics of caring more for one group than the other. If nothing else, it would help voters make informed choices.

I would also issue a moratorium on basing which stories to cover on what is trending online. As I’ve noted here before, there is a kind of story which is naturally suited to thrive in the digital environment. That is a story that allows someone to use it as an identity claim on social media. They tend to be tied to the culture wars in some fashion, often revolve around someone saying something stupid, which have little real world impact on people’s day to day lives, but which can elicit outrage and backlash against the outrage.

My channel would also not report on polls and day to day fluctuations in politicians approval ratings, treating that metric like a value on the stock exchange.

While we’re at it, I think enough channels cover the ups and downs of Wall Street. If you want to find that, there are plenty of places to look. Instead, my news channel would find different measures of economic health to report on.

The main point would be to widen the frame and to view the world differently.

If anyone is out there with a billion dollars to launch a new news channel, please feel free to use my ideas.

 

 

Undercover Boss and Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”

This morning I read The Guardian’s “Michael Rosen rewrites A Christmas Carol for modern age of austerity.”

Rosen, a children’s author, explained his motivation for updating Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to reflect the times we live in.  The story was a critique of the Victorian attitude that poverty was the fault of the poor, a view point that seems to have returned with expressions like “makers and takers” or the UK version “shirkers and workers.”

Readers in Dickens’s time were deeply affected by his novels, Rosen added, “by seeing how, for children in particular, poverty was being dealt with totally inadequately by Victorian society”.

Things are not really much better today, said Rosen, who is an outspoken critic of the government. “[The Victorians] had a thriving economy and desperate, widespread poverty. I see that in a sense as happening now – you see people on the telly every night telling you the economy is good while we have food banks.”

It occurred to me, while reading this, that we already have a modern version of A Christmas Carol, the TV series “Undercover Boss.”

Class inequality is the central theme of each of these tales. There would be no drama on Undercover Boss without the awareness of how far apart the world of the CEO is from that of the rank-and-file employees at his own company. The only way to show the contrasting poverty and affluence and to have a happy ending is to have the boss bestow boons on the poor workers.

Whether Scrooge or the CEO Of a fast food chain, by the end of the story, the boss’s soul is saved, his eyes have been opened and he has found compassion. He is redeemed and his goodness is affirmed. Tiny Tim gets his Christmas turkey, but he is more a plot point than a character. The rich man is the one with agency. In the end, while one worker gets a nice gift, the overall social structure remains unchanged.

Dickens’s conclusion, that we should “be nice to each other and enjoy Christmas”, isn’t really a practical solution, Rosen added, but it’s a novelistic way of “satisfying us when we look at it. Taking Scrooge through his life in a way is a great way of saying, ‘Look at how you got to where you are’, so he actually forces you to think about society instead of blaming poor people for poverty. It’s a stunning book, really.”

Undercover Boss on the other hand does none of this.  We get glimpses of the boss’s life of wealth and prestige, but if anything we’re meant to feel envy. There is no ghost of Christmas past to ask the boss “How did you get to this place that you could close your heart to people’s suffering?”

After all, the television producers need to get the bosses to agree to do the show, and to do that, they must expect that it will be a good PR move for their companies and that they will come out looking good.

Undercover Boss shifts its moral slightly. It makes a show of rewarding hard work– although a viewer can’t help but feel that the reward is entirely random. Some other hard-working employee could as easily have been featured and been gifted the scholarship and over-the-top vacation package.

By pretending, however, that these workers were singled out for their work and dedication it not only fails to criticize a social system that creates gross inequality, it reinforces the idea that hard work is inevitably recognized and rewarded and that therefore poverty is the fault of the poor.

An Open Letter to the Media

120604093148-tsr-king-new-electoral-map-00002708-story-topDear Media:

Seems like it’s been a rough week for you. I’ve been reading your mea culpas, and I am pleased to see your soul searching about the effect of the economy on the working class, the amount of coverage you give to rural issues and labor issues. I hope that these post-election realizations lead to real action on your part. And I’m glad to see the issue of fake news circulating on Facebook coming to the fore. It turns out all those “media elite” gatekeepers do perform a needed service, helping us to know what is fiction and what is news. I’m sure you take some comfort in the idea that it is the delivery system and not the coverage that is broken.

Before these narratives get too locked in, I would like to ask you to do a bit of soul searching about another kind of media bias– the bias for drama and suspense. I will admit that by addressing this to “the media” I am being overly broad. What I am responding to mostly is television coverage of this election. While more people may see stories by passing them around social media, television still sets the stage for water cooler talk, and gives certain stories prominence by covering them or not. What did the major news outlets cover? Not policy issues.

In watching TV news coverage of the campaigns, which I did a lot of, I saw two things. Controversy and pundits reactions to it, and predictions of who would win the horse race based on demographic stereotypes of different regions. (I’m a woman from Michigan and I’m kind of tired of being seen as a rust belt, suburban, female, college educated…blah, blah, blah)  This is all exciting, and perhaps it succeeds in getting clicks, in the case of newspapers, and steals viewers from American Idol in the case of TV, but it doesn’t help voters make informed decisions.

I am suddenly seeing lots of coverage of potential conflicts of interest with Trump’s businesses. I recall one news cycle and one well-publicized story about that in the twelve years or so (at least that is how long I think it was) leading up to the election. Suddenly there are lots of stories about it. It is late to start focusing on that now, isn’t it? Was the fact that Trump’s organization did business with an Iranian bank linked to terrorism out there before the election? Because I don’t recall seeing any stories about it, and I watched the news every day.

Perhaps the lack of this scrutiny was due to your original sin of not taking seriously the possibility that Trump could win. If you had believed that, I have to believe, you would have given more thought to the conflicts and issues that would arise if Trump was elected and brought them more to the fore. Wouldn’t you? God, I hope so. Or were they just too boring and not tied enough to the Red/Blue culture wars to generate clicks, likes, shares and viewers?

There must have been some time you could have taken away from the big board speculations to ferret out some of these issues.

Now, I have to say that I am a writer myself and I’ve worked as a journalist and I am writing to you because I respect you so much and value what you do. The “media” is made up of a lot of individuals who are doing great work– many of you agree with all I am saying. Keep fighting the good fight.

Before I let you go, there is another thing I’d like to mention. Election turn out was down this year, contrary to predictions. Democratic turnout especially was down, and this more than anything sealed Clinton’s fate. I know you see your job as explaining the results and creating a narrative. What I am hearing is a lot of analysis on how Clinton failed to speak to voters. But is it possible you might yourselves have played a hand in this? What impact might it have had when, a month or so before the election, when the pussygate bus tape came out, you declared the election over, and said Clinton had a 90% chance of winning? If you like Clinton, but you have a couple of kids you have to get to school, and you work the kind of job where you don’t get paid if you take time off to vote, and you have been told that there is a 90% chance that the candidate you like is going to win anyway, that there is really no chance the other guy can win– how motivated will you be to get to the polls? How much will you believe your individual vote matters?

So yeah, you missed some things. Try to to better next time, won’t you? Because it’s kind of important.

Respectfully yours,

Laura Lee

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“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.”

 

 

The Medium and the Message

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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.