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.

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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.

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Blitz Magazine 2009

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Gun Violence, Music & Advertising: Enough is Enough

Blitz Magazine, January 2006

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I, like all Canadians, am proud of how we’ve been able continue our various cultural traditions, grow our own superb artists and successful industries, and maintain a distinct Canadian identity (no one can quite describe it, but it’s there). We’ve done this in spite of our proximity to the United States, whose culture has permeated that of every nation on the planet.

I, like all Canadians, am also proud of how we’ve been able to keep out the worst of the US—especially the war mongering and the obsession with guns. The proliferation of handguns, long the scourge of that nation, has been kept at bay. Rather, had been kept at bay.

Since last January, Canadian cities have been seen a shocking increase in gun-related violence. Edmonton has just clocked its 37th murder, while Toronto experienced a veritable bloodbath, losing 50 of its citizens to bullets. A couple of weeks ago, a promising young artist was shot dead on a Vancouver street by a complete stranger with no apparent motive.

You want creepy? Visit http://www.nra.org. As I look at it, it’s headlines are: ‘NRA to File Lawsuit Challenging San Francisco Gun Ban’, ‘Historic Victory for NRA as President Bush Signs Protection of Lawful Commerce In Arms Act’, and ‘American Rifleman Wins Folio: Gold Ozzie Design Award’. Yee haw.

The NRA exists for no other reason than to ‘protect the right of Americans to own guns’. (In fact, the US Constitution does not specifically grant that right.) Given that the only purpose of guns is to take life, you have to shake your head at the mentality of people who fight tooth and nail to own lethal weapons and endanger the lives of their fellow citizens. In Florida, Jeb Bush—who is obviously as dim and malleable as his brother—has enacted a law that justifies homicide if the killer (read: shooter) feels threatened by the, uh, dead person.

What has this to do with media communications?

Last week, I get home from a party. I flick on the TV, to CNN. But I’ve pressed the wrong buttons and I get MuchMusic.

It’s 3:00 a.m. and I’m watching a ‘music’ video (there’s no actual music in evidence). In it, a scantily-clad young woman is ordered onto all fours, then a man puts his foot on her back and pushes her to the ground. She gracefully submits. I stand there and watch a couple of these videos, one by a band named ‘Pitbull’, sandwiched between ads by Coca Cola, Cadbury and Maybelline. All of the videos feature thug wannabes yacking about who-knows-what and surrounded by half-naked, writhing women and I’m thinking: “Please tell me that these losers aren’t the role models of Canadian teen-agers!”

The ‘musicians’ in all of these bands are black. And they’re twisting themselves into knots trying to show their ‘Street Cred’ and their ‘Hood Gangsta membership, making themselves look very foolish in the process. It’s not only boring, it’s sad. This is not what people should be led to believe of black culture. Black culture is not about crime and rape and abuse and drugs and guns. Millions of people are working to get away from this garbage, and it helps no one to see it glorified and to have these stupid and shameful stereotypes perpetuated.

In the US, the latest media darling is rapper 50 Cent (aka Curtis Jackson). He recently made a movie: Get Rich or Die Trying, and has had great success with songs like How to Rob, Ready to Die and No Mercy, No Fear. His parents (murdered long ago) were well-known drug dealers, he has a very long rap sheet and has survived being shot nine times. “Well, good for him,” everyone says. “He got out of the ‘hood and has become a success.” (The media rarely mentions black teachers and doctors who rose from the ‘hood—too boring. It’s violence that sells.)

50cent

Jackson has already faced censorship in Canada—a planned concert was barred from taking place. But I’m loathe to encourage censorship. It can’t be the role of government to control what people read, see and hear. Parents have to do it. And many of them are doing a lousy job, thinking it’s better if their teen-agers play blood-soaked video games and watch the aforementioned crap at home, rather than hanging out at malls.

Advertisers also have to take some responsibility. Marketers have to look at what their ads are supporting—it’s their money and their choice. Does Maybelline, for example, want its customers to think that it’s OK for women to submit to abusive acts by men? No? Then it has to be careful about what it’s advertising around.

Paul Martin was slammed (by the Conservatives) for promising a handgun ban at the launch of his election campaign. People called it “opportunistic”. Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan had to do some fast talking in her home province, telling an Edmonton reporter: “The handgun ban doesn’t apply in Alberta. It’s a provincial opt-in.” Her Tory riding opponent, Laurie Hawn, took the tried-and-true NRA route, calling it an “excuse to target law-abiding citizens.” Well, law-abiding citizens don’t own handguns. Handguns are not an effective means of protection: they’re used for crime and, when kept in the home, are often used by children—to shoot other children (anyone remember Columbine?).

As far as I’m concerned, if Martin enacts a handgun ownership ban and makes possession a heavily-punished crime, he’s a hero. The bloodshed and violence and fear associated with handguns is one part of American culture that we do not want, and the Canadian media and advertising industries should not be encouraging it by seeking to profit from it.

 

On Unhelpful Journalism

Blitz Magazine, September 2004

As anyone who’s ever organized an event knows, there’s nothing more crushing than low turnout. You put your heart and all of your energy into organizing something, you do your best with limited marketing and promotion dollars, you keep your volunteers hyped and hope your committee members do their jobs. Then, on event day, only half of the expected numbers appear, and you feel absolutely sick.

unhelpfulThis is, I’m sure, how the organizers of the Athens Olympics feel right now. As I write this, the Olympics are half over and there have been very few events at which the seats were more than 50% filled. In fact, in most cases, it appears that no more than a relative smattering of people bought tickets for events. Watching the world’s finest athletes competing in echo chambers adds a sense of real Greek tragedy to the games.

Why has this happened? The media, of course. August in Athens can be pretty uncomfortable, but reportage focusing on the heat and the city’s problems with traffic congestion and pollution was unhelpful. It’s true that all businesspeople try to extract as much profit as they can from a world-class event, but the news of hoteliers and restaurateurs being slapped with huge fines for gouging tourists? Unhelpful. The Greeks are known for being a bit laid-back when it comes to scheduling, but having the ‘Unreadiness of Athens’ become a staple for late-night comedians? Unhelpful. News reports of the ease with which terrorists could infiltrate the games? Unhelpful. And wrong—none of the media’s almost gleefully-dire predictions have come true.

The same thing happened with the recent Canadian federal election. Every single poll proved to be completely inaccurate. Every analyst had to backtrack. Every pundit was dead wrong. The Liberals were not voted out, the Conservatives did not win, or even make their projected gains. Yet all of this advance speculation and ‘educated’ opinion clouded the decision-making process for millions of voters. Why do the networks commission polls? Polls are useless, because the samplings are so small. The only way to get an accurate measurement of public opinion is, hello, an election.

In the US, Scott Peterson is on trial for the murder of his wife. How an untainted jury pool was found for this trial is beyond me. Because, from the moment Laci Peterson disappeared, nearly two years ago, every detail that could be dug up was announced to the public. It appears that even law enforcement officials held nothing back; indeed, the Modesto Police Department has a website devoted to this case, including file details, timelines, news releases etc. And from the beginning, there was the media—the already smarmy, and the ‘legits’ on their road to smarminess, predicting, predicting. There was Larry King and his panel of experts telling the public what would happen to Scott, how long he’d get, what would happen at his trial—and this was long before the guy was arrested.

One has to wonder how the media became so thoroughly obsessed with reporting on events that have yet to transpire. Why do reporters persist in analyzing possible scenarios and then projecting them to the public as probable outcomes? Why are we subjected to facts not in evidence, groundless statistics, baseless innuendo—all negative, of course.

Because, I guess, the news had just become another sideshow. Another form of entertainment. Reporters no longer dig and dig to find their own stories; they use their imaginations. The networks and newspaper owners no longer what to find the news—why pay for staff to go out and do actual research, when they can get some polling firm to come up with something they can do a story on? Is it about economics? Lethargy? A loss of ethics? A combination, I suspect. And it’s all really unhelpful.