Journalism in America: Blues, Buffs & Buttheads

In 1836, in The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens wrote the following:

It appears, then, that the Eatanswill people, like the people of many other small towns, considered themselves of the utmost and most mighty importance, and that every man in Eatanswill, conscious of the weight that attached to his example, felt himself bound to unite, heart and soul, with one of the two great parties that divided the town-the Blues and the Buffs. Now the Blues lost no opportunity of opposing the Buffs, and the Buffs lost no opportunity of opposing the Blues; and the consequence was, that whenever the Buffs and Blues met together at public meeting, Town-Hall, fair, or market, disputes and high words arose between them. With these dissensions it is almost superfluous to say that everything in Eatanswill was made a party question. If the Buffs proposed to new sky-light the market-place [sic], the Blues got up public meetings, and denounced the proceeding; if the Blues proposed the erection of an additional pump in the High Street, the Buffs rose as one man and stood aghast at the enormity. There were Blue shops and Buff shops, Blue inns and Buff inns;–there was a Blue aisle and a Buff aisle, in the very church itself.

Of course, it was essentially and indispensably necessary that each of these powerful parties should have its chosen organ and representative; and, accordingly, there were two newspapers in the town-the Eatanswill Gazette and the Eatanswill Independent; the former advocating Blue principals, and the latter conducted on grounds decidedly Buff. ‘

This passage stuck in my mind a long time ago, but I remembered it recently when I watched the brouhaha about Barack Obama’s speech to the schoolchildren of America. The reaction to the announcement of Obama’s speech was enough to elicit, from people with brains, gasps and giggles, as American parents bought the idea that Obama was going to brainwash their children, use mass psychology to indoctrinate them, and steal into their brains and turn them into little robots. These are the same people who think that Obama is a closet Muslim, that Obama rhymes with ‘Osama’ for an actual reason, and that Obama’s a socialist who is somehow connected to Hitler and Kim Jong-il (no kidding-check out the blogs).

And it wasn’t just parents; there were teachers–people with university educations, who were reluctant to let their students watch Obama’s speech. I sat through the painfully comical interview with the painfully stupid Arizona State School Superintendent who could say little other than that allowing children to watch Obama’s speech was nothing more than ‘hero worship’. He didn’t appear to know what the term meant-he just kept saying it because, obviously, someone had told him to.

‘Course, Obama told children to persevere, work hard and stay in school. Tsc tsc tsc…bad president. I didn’t happen to watch the speech, but I assume it was more entertaining than that of Ronald Reagan, who did the same thing but spoke to America’s kids about tax breaks and Republican policy. No indoctrination there!

The Dickens passage popped into my head just a few weeks later when, horrified and disgusted, I watched the mortifying behaviour of Americans during the town meetings held to discuss Barack Obama’s healthcare reform package. This, however, was a much more serious case of one party shooting down an idea because it was the other party’s idea. Who can forget the middle-aged woman who told the Senate committee how she was nearing the end of her life because, when the lump in her breast was found, her insurer cut her off?

In America, girls are encouraged to marry doctors because, if they do, they’ll be set for life. Parents hope that their children may become doctors because, if they do, they’ll be rich. In America, medicine means profit. And in order for healthcare to be reformed in that country, Americans have to get it into their heads that, when it comes to healthcare, profit is not the foremost consideration. That’s a gargantuan leap. Those who make their living managing hospitals, marketing hospitals or managing companies which supply the healthcare industry, and the shareholders of all of those companies, do not want people to make that leap.

Of course some of the hysterical people at the town hall meetings were on the payroll of interested parties. In this age of rampant corruption, that’s to be expected. But the level of ignorance displayed in the Man-on-the-Street interviews was more shocking, as we saw that an astonishing number of people actually believe that Obama’s plan would institute ‘death panels’, which would deny care to the elderly or disabled. And that Canadians have to ask permission of bureaucrats before they can see a physician. ‘Didn’t help that the Republicans were able to rustle up a disgruntled Canadian-and I’d like to know what her pay-off was.

The question becomes one of where these people got their information. And how they became so hopelessly mired in ignorance. But it’s a question easily answered–they got it from their journalists.

journalism rush

Just as there were ‘Blue’ and ‘Buff’ journalists in Dickens’ day, there are journalists today who are so stuck to their political parties that they’ve forgotten that they are journalists-or that they’re supposed to be. Either they’re truly and hopelessly indoctrinated, or it’s a matter of the fact that they cash cheques which come from media organizations whose shareholders tell them what side they will fall on–or their advertisers tell their bosses which side they will fall on. These people aren’t really journalists; they’re simply mouth organs for political strategists, who dismiss the concept of ethical behaviour because winning is all that matters.

I don’t even want to know how many people listen to likes of Rush Limbaugh, a man who has failed at everything in life except radio; an under-educated, hate-spewing rube who has likely never fact-checked anything before spouting it as gospel. Then there’s Ann Coulter, a very clever lawyer who should know better than to say anything without fact-checking it, and who continually gets caught lying about people and statements and events, but who just keeps on raking in the dough earned by her never-ending spew of bile.

And who can ignore Bill O’Reilly, who actually does have a journalism degree, but keeps on shoveling the shit anyway, distorting and twisting everything that crosses his path and, when he’s caught, shouts down opposers? It’s amusing to me that O’Reilly is a graduate of Harvard, and that Harvard’s seal reads ‘Veritas’.

If you take a look at the website of the Society of Professional Journalists, you’ll note that it points out that ‘professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility’. Then, if you look at its Code of Ethics, you’ll see that the main points are: ‘Seek Truth and Report It’, ‘Minimize Harm’, ‘Act Independently’ and ‘Be Accountable’.

Well, that pretty much knocks out Coulter, O’Reilly and Limbaugh, as well as a huge number of North Americans who are working as journalists, but who are really nothing more than suits and haircuts being told what to do and say by special interest groups. Either they don’t think about the enormous amount of damage they do when they deliberately mis-inform people, or they don’t care.

One hopes that there are parents who are now embarrassed about listening to all of the crap about Obama’s speech and now know better. One hopes that, each time they realize how very wrong their sources were, that people will stop listening to these base sources.  One especially hopes this when it comes to those who are listening to biased sources about American healthcare reform.

When we read Dickens (who was a real journalist), we see that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Our ancestors brought this system, and that mentality, to North America, where it flourished to such an extent that, today, journalists ‘belong’ to their political parties, and blithely lie so as to support the needs and desires of their masters. In the case of healthcare reform however, this practice, and the idea that the opposition’s idea must be shot down, regardless of whether or not it is a good idea, is going to continue to cost people their very lives.

dickens

Blitz Magazine 2009

On Being Fed Up With Crap Television News

When you read the Letters section in this issue, you may be one of the many who will empathize with Robert Fripp, the former Fifth Estate producer who says that he hasn’t watched television news or current affairs programs for over 10 years because “The steady drip-feed of Shock-Horror, negativity, finger-pointing and a press-room compass eternally pointed towards noire, is no more conducive to good mental health than is television.”

badtv

I can remember a time when I would have been mortified if I’d been caught not being informed; if, during cocktail conversation, I was found guilty of not knowing about the latest gaff of some politician, or what kind of reviews a certain movie received. Now, I don’t care. Neither do a lot of people. Because the trend seems to be that we’re backing away from the media. No one is embarrassed to say so any more. I have friends who no longer own television sets. People have made the decision because anything to do with mainstream media these days is maudlin crap, slanted reporting, That Blowed Up Real Good!, or Oh The Humanity! It’s stressful and depressing.

When I first heard about the Tsunami in December, I thought ‘Oh, poor people.” Then I thought ‘I bet newsroom journalists all over North America are just jumping for joy.’ I was right. There was a palpable giddiness in the reportage of the event’s aftermath, as if producers were shouting ‘We’ve got enough Human Interest for last for months!’ Reporters flocked to the region to report on sick orphans and starving people. Global News BC sent a native of the region, along with a reporter and cameraman, for that ‘first-hand, personal’ touch while, at home, its reporters were doing remotes from coffee shops whose owners were smart enough to see a great promotional opportunity when it arose.

When the Tsunami story started to cool, the same news organization invented its own story. A Thai princess came to Vancouver to settle legal and insurance matters relating to a property she owns here, and that almost burned down last year. Global reported on that fire at the time, and likely knew exactly what she was doing here. Instead, it reported that she came here to ski, swarmed her at the airport, demanded an interview with her representative here, and did ‘people on the street’ interviews.

Man oh man oh man….

While North American news organizations were squeezing every last sad drop out of the tsunami story, and many of us were hoping for some other disaster so the subject could be changed, the temperature plummeted to a (Vancouver) record of -7. I’m schlepping winter clothes to the Salvation Army and thinking “Hmmm…we’re sending millions and millions and millions overseas but, uh, doesn’t charity begin at home?” That same day, Nelson Mandela’s son died of AIDS. In South Africa alone, 600 people die of AIDS every single day—that’s 219,000 every year. While recording artists in every country are organizing concerts for those affected by the Tsunami, I’m thinking: “Whatever happened to Bob Geldof’s push for famine relief in Africa?, and “Why aren’t more people fundraising for HIV meds there?”

I used to be a fundraiser—I organized my first event at 14 and hung up the ball gowns about 10 years ago. I know how easily good causes can fall out of favour, or lose their cachet. There’s a status attached, or not, to each one. But once the media sees the opportunity to show the Blood & Guts, and countless images of suffering and pain and loss and damage, our response is to jump on! Do something now! Buy an Armani t-shirt (made in Mexico—I checked), send little kids on door-to-door collection excursions. That’s great, but then the cause in question seems to become obscene to us. After a very short period of time, people turn away, repulsed, or bored. It’s March now, and few of us think of the tsunami disaster; by the summer, most people will have pretty much forgotten about it. (The answer of course is for everyone to give a monthly sum to a broad-reaching charity.)

I digress. I turned on the news today. Services for the slain RCMP officers—an event that has grieved and disgusted the entire nation. Paul Martin’s ongoing support from his party. The US border’s closure to our cows. This is good—this is news that is relevant and meaningful to Canadians. But I’m watching the CBC. At 6:00, I will turn to one of the local channels—Global, CTV or CHUM. I will hear about the latest car accidents, house fires, some out-of-bounds skier being rescued. In ‘international’ news, it will likely be news of a landslide in California, a bad car accident in Holland, or a flood in Wales—anything gut-wrenching to fill the time.

We need to write to news directors and ask: ‘Why are you doing this to us? Why can’t we have fresh stories, discovered and developed by Canadian reporters, about things that actually mean something to us? Why is it that, when we are finished watching the news and there was an important issue mentioned, we’re left asking questions about it? Why give reporters 2 minutes, when they need at least 6 to lay out the facts? Why is all of our news coming from the wire services? Have you forgotten that there is, or used to be, something called ‘investigative journalism’? Are you appealing only to those who use TV as a dinnertime opiate? Or are you trying to frustrate us all and force us into blissful ignorance?’

That may be the route I’m taking. In fact, it is. I used to spend time writing essays about ‘Big Important Issues’. Now, I’m writing children’s books. My new main sources of news are the New Yorker and Vanity Fair. I’m tired of being depressed by every news show. I’m tired of listening to junk no one cares about. I’m turning over a new leaf. I have a new ‘tude: Don’t ask me nuthin’ because I won’t know nuthin’.

Blitz Magazine, 2006

On the End of Tobacco Companies as Event Sponsors

Blitz Magazine, September 1998

bantobacco

A recent Goldfarb poll commissioned by Maclean’s Magazine found that 45% of Canadians reject the notion of a government ban on the sponsorship of sporting events by tobacco companies. The notion is supported by 23%, 31% don’t care.

          Another lobby which would like to end the sponsorship of sporting events by distilleries and breweries. The poll found that 52% of Canadians reject this notion, 15% support it, 32% don’t care.

          So the federal government is pandering to the minority by imposing Bill C71, which will delete tobacco money from the balance sheets of those organizations who depend on it. Motorsports in Canada will be damaged (although now that Quebec has a Formula 1 mega-star, things may not turn out as expected.) The Molson Indy Vancouver is only one of many BC events which have two years to find new money.

          Each June, the DuMaurier International Jazz Festival is attended by 350,000 people and brings $10. million in economic benefit to Vancouver. Although it is a fully viable event with the infrastructure needed to continue, it exists because of tobacco money.

          Each July, the Benson & Hedges Symphony of Fire provides four nights of world-class fireworks. Benson & Hedges spends $2. million on the event; Vancouver reaps $10. million. Two million people enjoy these fireworks, free of charge.

          We could have the Cheese Doodles Symphony of Fire, the McDonald’s International Jazz Festival, the Pepsi Indy. But then other well-funded groups who are obsessed with sanitizing society will produce ‘studies’ suggesting that Cheese Doodles, McNuggets and Pepsi cause dire consequences for The Fate of the Nation.

          Tobacco and alcohol aren’t good for us. Junk food isn’t good for us. Household cleaners aren’t good for us. But these are products which exist because members of society want them. They are legal products, governments profit from their sale and their producers have the right to advertise them.

          Events funding is a form of advertising. If corporations can’t promote their products in this way, we’re going to lose events which spin off into greater economic benefit, cultural enrichment and affordable entertainment for increasingly financially-squeezed and stressed-out Canadians. Stress isn’t good for us either.