Monthly Archives: March 2009

The best demonstration of why newspapers are dying

is articles like this.

Jon Stewart, the iconic media critic and political satirist from television’s “The Daily Show,” had a sold-out crowd howling Saturday night at the University of Vermont’s Patrick Gymnasium — and mined Vermont’s marriage-rights debate for material.

True to form, he waded into an emotionally charged issue (and one sharply debated in the Legislature) with healthy doses of absurdist logic.

“I can understand being against gay marriage — if they decided to make it mandatory,” he said. “This isn’t a cultural divide: They’re wrong.”

Thanks, Detached Anchorman Tone, for robbing Stewart of all character and wit.

As expected, during the rest of Saturday’s performance, Stewart, 46, strayed from the edgy scripting style he forges for TV audiences and returned to his roots as an irreverent stand-up comic.

He talked about Burlington: "Could your town be any prettier?" Later, remarking: "I saw a guy with a 'gay pacificists for Nadar button. It's an usual place."

Stewart has hosted “The Daily Show” since 1999, and has received numerous Emmy awards as a writer and producer.

No stranger to controversy, Stewart has also earned renown as a candid and aggressive guest on politically conservative talk shows.

He has also written or co-written two books and acted in several films..

It's like they're writing about some obscure Romanian pop star who's touring New England.

My reporter-friend Derek says that the failure of newspapers isn't on the content side, it's on the business side. The papers are as good as they always were, it's just that the advertising base has rotted out from underneath them. I agree with this generally, and it's a ridiculous disaster how most American newsrooms have to fill the same-sized newspaper with half-sized staffs every morning.

But look at this article. Jon Stewart isn't some mysterious figure who has to be presented to us with phrases like 'he has earned renown'. Stewart is an extremely public figure, and anyone under 35 will be familiar with his show and some of the movies he's been in. Well, 'Half Baked', at least.

One of the ongoing failures of print journalism is this Current Events 101 tone, as if everything has to be written for the layest possible audience. If science publications don't explain how photosynthesis works every time a new plant is discovered, I don't see why newspaper culture pages have to present Jon Stewart to me like I just moved to Vermont from Malawi.

Newspapers are dying of specificity. Just as the diversity of content into sports, politics and technology publications killed Life Magazine in 1972, the diversity of voices into young and old, left and right, naive and snarky is wilting newspapers in 2009. Why should I read a Jon Stewart for Dummies review when I can hop online and find one written with a context and perspective I can relate to?

To my mind, it's this prisming of authority that threatens newspapers the most. Rather than read one weekly movie reviewer in my front-porch lump, I can choose from 500 online, and decide to follow the ones that reflect my sensibility. Plus, I can participate in discussions of movies, TV and comedy long beyond their airdates, and don't have to rely on the 'no spoilers' model that newspapers have been delivering the past five decades.

I'm not trying to engage in the Death of Newspapers cheerleading you often come across on the 'neener neener'-net. Less journalism (by which I mean reporting, not reviewing what's already out there) is always and necessarily a bad thing, and we're gonna have a decade or two of some serious Informed Democracy Fail before we come up with a new model.

But for now, newspapers should compete where they can add value.

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Go tell it to the mountain

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As a voter in a 'spectator state', I totally agree with this. It's about time presidential candidates started sucking up to me, rather than the Evangelitards in the swings. 

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I’m not a born romantic

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The best thing I’ve read all year

– by far — has been 'Epileptic', by David B.

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It's a graphic novel about how the author's childhood was hijacked from him by his brother's epilepsy and his parent's attempts to cure it. The family goes from hospitals to gurus to cults to fads looking for a cure, and the author, 'the normal son', becomes increasingly neglected and isolated.

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It's a great dissection of our culture's relationship with illness and family, and it's illustrated with a mellifluousness that contrasts with the few-words-per-panel voiceover and dialogue. Here's a panel depicting how people on the street react to the seizures, which happen with increasing frequency throughout the author's brother's life.

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This is fabulous shit, and you come to realize that comic books can do metaphor better than books or movies, where this kind of exaggeration comes off as pretentious or Oprah's Book Clubby.

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Anyway, I'm trying to get everyone I know to read it. It's a blast to devour a whole book in an afternoon or two, and a moving, accessible introduction to a medium that still feels like it needs defending.

PS – Maus is scorchingly good too

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Jane Goody: High-trash class

I lived in Britain (well, London) for a year, and the one thing I couldn't get over was how the class system bled into everything. Anecdotes beginning with 'I was in Budgens the other day …' were greeted with a wince. Formerly connotation-free personal habits, such as brushing my teeth, were suddenly signifiers. I was told at one point that I ate my toast in a lower-class way (i.e. sliced rectangularly. Common, don't you know.)

I've been watching with some interest the saga of Jane Goody, a British reality show contestant cum celebrity cum cancer victim who died this week:

The first time she was mentioned in the press, in May 2002, Jade Goody was described as a "pretty dental nurse, 20, from London". But 24 hours later, as she began her gobby, ignorant trajectory in the Big Brother house [It's a British reality show, Mom — Mike], The People went on the attack under the headline: "Why we must lob the gob". Before long it was open season. The Sun called her a hippo, then a baboon, before launching its campaign to "vote out the pig". The Sunday Mirror rejected porcine comparisons on the ground that it was "insulting – to pigs".

[…]

As her performance on Big Brother made clear, her years of formal education had left Jade Goody with little knowledge. She thought that a ferret was a bird and abscess a green French drink; that Pistachio painted the Mona Lisa; that Sherlock Holmes invented the flush lavatory; that East Anglia ("East Angular" in Jade-speak) was abroad; and that Rio de Janeiro was "a bloke, innit?"

[…]

By 2007, when she made her second visit to the Big Brother house on Celebrity Big Brother (alongside her surgically-enhanced mother Jackie), Jade Goody had become, by her own account, "the most 25th inferlential person in the world" and a bona fide celebrity. She was said to be worth £2-4 million, was the proud owner of three "footballers' wives" style homes, a £60,000 turbo-charged Range Rover and was the "author" of a best-selling autobiography.

 

The unexpected fourth ring of this circus came last year, when Goody announced that she had terminal cancer, and had only a few months to live. Thus followed the quickie-marriage to the convict, various TV specials and, somewhere in London, a team of BBC editors cueing up a slow-motion montage set to The Four Seasons.

I was in London for the first few years of the Jane Goody tabloid judgmento-frenzy, and I remember being amazed at the vitriol being aimed at this woman (who I had never heard of), who was just a reality show contestant, not a head of state or a powerful CEO. I shouldn't be surprised that the Daily Mail and the Sun are writing sober, thoughtful obituaries now that the target of their exclamation-pointed normativizing has become un-famous in the only way they will allow.

Any obituary that wants to note the broader social implications of Jane Goody should at least mention the following point:

Nobody wanted to stop and ask: why doesn’t Jade know much? Here’s why. Her mother was a seriously disabled drug addict, so Jade didn’t go to school much because she stayed at home to look after her. From the age of five she was in charge of doing the cooking and ironing and cleaning.

Jade explained: “As early as I could remember I’d spent my whole life trying to protect my mum – frantically hiding the stolen chequebooks she used to have lying around the house when the police barged in on one of their raids; desperately denying to the teachers at school that she’d hit me for fear of being sent to social services.”

Her father treated her even worse. He stashed a gun under her cot, and her first memory was of him shooting heroin in her bedroom, his eyes rolling back and his body juddering. Eventually, after periods in and out of prison, he was found dead from an overdose in the toilet of a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

“He died without a single vein left in his body,” Jade explained. “In the end he’d injected every single part of it and all his veins had collapsed – even the ones in his penis.”

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Go to any extremely unequal society – say, South Africa, or South America – and you will find a furiously suppressed sense of guilt. It’s hard not to ask, at the back of your mind: why am I here in this mansion, while they are in the slums? This guilt is resolved one way: by convincing yourself that the poor are sub-human, and don’t have feelings like you and me. Oh, the people in the barrios and townships? They’re animals! They stink! They’re stupid! Jade and Vicky and the labelling of the poor as “chavs” filled that role for us. They know nothing! They are repulsive!

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‘She would be the best mother in the world’

What's that, you haven't cried in the last 10 or 15 minutes? This outta do the trick.

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Grace in the hole

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The fun of getting older is realizing all the weird shit your family did that seemed totally normal to you at the time. This usually comes up in conversation about, for example, Christmas traditions, where you find one of your friends saying, 'Wait, you guys didn't skip around the tree backwards while singing 'Unforgettable' by Nat King Cole?' And you hear a little click as he realizes that, no, his was the only family on the planet doing that.

There's no way to tell the widespreaditude of your family's wilted traditions. For example, mine:

Growing up, my family said grace before every meal. This is one of those things that makes Europeans sort of cringe, as it confirms a number of semi-offensive stereotypes that only come up when Europeans mock Americans with their Euro-buddies.

Even in the category of 'Grace as a Family Tradition', though, my family was pretty thick n thorough. Most serious conversations with my parents ('Mommy, why did the elderly, infirm librarian stop coming to work?') would end with holding hands and Gracing. In practice, this meant closing our eyes, bowing our heads and the parental duty-bearer saying something like 'Dear Lord, please give Mike's librarian the strength to enjoy her ebbing days and weeks and melt into your embrace'.

It's amazing to me now how routine these little conversation-cappers were. Mom, what university should I attend? Cut to 10 minutes later: 'Dear Lord, help Mike make a wise and prudent decision regarding his studies'.

Mom, why do my armpits smell funny? 'Dear Lord, help Mike navigate the choppy waters of puberty unscathed and broad-shouldered.'

I remember being in the grocery store once when I was about 12, and the guy in front of us was dangerously skinny.

'What's wrong with that guy, Mom?'
'He probably has AIDS, honey'

My mom was a preacher, but she majored in biology. This meant that 10 minutes of T-cells and mucous membranes later, we were in the car, holding hands on the gearshift: 'Dear Lord, please make that man feel better until antiretroviral treatments become medically feasible'.

On road trips, whenever we drove past a car accident, we always stopped our Rudyard Kipling audiobook or Jesus Christ Superstar Original Cast Recording to pray recovery to the injured and peace to the dead.

Familial catechisms never retain their literal meaning. By age 14, atheism firmly entrenched, I was still reciting these prayers with my parents through pot-bloodshot eyes and hangover breath, ignorant of the dissonance. I still have the instinct, when I see the shivering homeless or the struggling blind, to say something in my head, to send some sort of 'live long and prosper' vibe their way. Sometimes becoming an atheist is like trading your security blanket for a pair of flip-flops.

It's only recently that I've realized how fucking weird my family is for this shit. I figured at least my religious friends would have some sort of parallel, but even the Evangelicals are like 'You did what?! That's fuckin loser, guy.'

So being 27 means accepting that your childhood was not quirkily cinematic, it was in fact astonishingly lame, even to experts on self-lameness. I'm sure turning 30 will mean accepting the inevitability of begetting Lameness: The Next Generation.

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Next time someone talks about how we should return to ‘traditional values’, remember this

During the Depression, the Home Owners' Loan Corp. was formed to rescue families whose homes were in foreclosure. Not a single loan went to a family of color. The black section of Detroit was simply excluded. After World War II, GIs received government-subsidized home mortgages, but there was no oversight to ensure that soldiers of color got their fair share. Of the 67,000 mortgages issued under the GI Bill in New York and northern New Jersey, 66,900 went to white veterans.

 

wow

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I finally uploaded the photos from London

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Just when you thought the standard for trend stories couldn’t get any lower…

I clicked on this New York Times article because I read the (awesome) headline

Mistrial by iPhone: Juries’ Web Research Upends Trials

The use of BlackBerrys and iPhones by jurors gathering and sending out information about cases is wreaking havoc on trials around the country.

Nine paragraphs and three anecdotes later, just as I'm starting to think, 'OK, here comes the creamy statistical center', I get:

There appears to be no official tally of cases disrupted by Internet research, but with the increasing adoption of Web technology in cellphones, the numbers are sure to grow.

This is still an interesting issue (in that the jury-trial system is gently but firmly being revealed as kind of a joke), but that news hook is loser. The number is sure to grow?! This is journalism done backwards.

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