Who will walk in Carlin’s shoes?

George Carlin: American Radical:

“I don’t consider myself a cynic. I think of myself as a skeptic and a realist. But I understand the word ‘cynic’ has more than one meaning, and I see how I could be seen as cynical. ‘George, you’re cynical.’ Well, you know, they say if you scratch a cynic you find a disappointed idealist. And perhaps the flame still flickers a little, you know?”

We will all miss George Carlin. There’s no one to take his place. Most comedy today dances on the edge of vulgar racism, sexism, xenophobia and the catalog of mean thoughts, thinking that it makes fun of racism or sexism or hatred of others while heartily engaging in it.

Cozy movie promotions

Times screen grabWant to see the impact of the too-close relationship between media and the media it covers? Look at the promo for Mike Myers’ apparently awful new movie on the front page of The New York Times.

While the deck on the front page says “Mike Myers floats through ‘The Love Guru’ with serene confidence,” the actual review is a complete pan of the flick that says “’The Love Guru’ is downright antifunny, an experience that makes you wonder if you will ever laugh again.”

Now, why write a deck that conveys the opposite message than the review? Because The Times needs movie ads. Someone breezing through the front page would get a favorable impression, despite how bad the story judges the movie to be. It softens the blow to the film studios, who would surely recognize the reason for the powder-puff promo. Maybe the managing editor thought this was a clever play on words, but the message is clear: “We need to cover up how bad this movie is.”

Sure, it’s just a movie review. We should expect more from the Grey Lady. If the film is terrible, promo the review with that message and set readers expectations for a bad review. Either way, they’ll read the review because a strong message gets read every time.

How about “Impotent ‘Love Guru’ suffers from Mike Myers’ insincere confidence”? People will read that, and they’ll come to the article with a clear idea about what they are about to read.

Scribes and professionals

Clay Shirky, in his Here Comes Everybody, devotes a chapter, “Everyone is a media outlet”, to a comparison of the decline of scribal production to the decline of “professional” journalism. He sets up this analogy on faulty legs that leave the argument that “what was once a chasm is now a mere slope [between “professional” journalism and committing acts of journalism or journalistic-like writing or photopublication]” completely unsupported.

The problem is that the scribe’s production of books, which was, for the most part, merely rote copying (with mistakes sometimes adding very interesting flavor to the resulting books), is not analogous to the acts of research and authorship that a journalist does. And I don’t mean a “professional” journalist, just the act of researching and writing a thorough report of an event or events.

Clay mixes in photojournalism and stock photography, two very different functions in the scheme of things, as one is concerned with immediacy and the other with illustration of events with handy and cheap symbolic images, to make his point that it is in organizing data that most value is created:

“Who is a professional photographer? Like ‘journalist,’ that category seems at first to be coherent and internally cohesive, but it turns out to be tied to scarcity as well….. Much of the price for professional stock photos came from the difficulty of finding the right photo rather than from the difference in quality between photos….”

Photojournalism was and still is expensive, because someone has to take the bet that they can be in the right place at the right time. As a result, one photo can be worth months’ or, even, a year’s pay, because it took a year to be in the right place. Likewise, the reason stock photos exist is that they have been composed in the past from false realities (models posed in “natural” settings) or captured during the long effort to make a valuable image, and were ready for the future need as a result. In both cases, production rather than distribution is the essential cost. Widespread amateurization doesn’t make it cheaper to produce a staged photo, it simply increases the likelihood that you can find a “real” image of something at a lower cost than the composed image of the photojournalist or stock photographer.

He cites the music and film industry, which engages in “distributing music and moving images” that is being undermined because “laypeople can now move move music an d vido easily.” Without getting into the distinctions between artists who can produce themselves and those that need packaging by a marketer before their music doesn’t suck too much for human consumption, the real value in these industries is production, not just distribution. Try to make The Lord of the Rings trilogy on less than $500,000 and you will see what I mean. Production includes the financing of risk, too.

Additionally, Clay dwells on “professionalism” as the essence of journalism. I’d like to see his take on the evolution of journalism, which is characterized by amateur writers becoming paid writers as they try to fill their own or a friend’s press with content. Over the long run, most great journalists never had a journalism degree. Professionalism actually rose with the proliferation of media outlets as a way of credentialing people, mostly to the detriment of the dedication to reporting the perceived truth that drove the rise of mass journalism.

In many ways, Shirky treats anything flowing over a network as an undifferentiated mass of content on which his economic and social rules operate.

“The entire basis on which scribes earned their keep vanished not when reading and writing vanished but when reading and writing became ubiquitous,” Clay writes. Indeed, it is so, but that is also when those scribes began to write their own works, as he points out with regard the Abbot of Sponheim’s 1492 defense of the scribal life, which he chose to print and distribute through movable type. Rather than a chaos during that 100 to 150 year period when scribes and printing presses competed with one another, there was a long process of change that was largely comprehensible to everyone involved. For an excellent history of this period, see Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Social Change.

What changed for the scribes was that the church would no longer pay for their work, because it no longer had a monopoly on readers, so they had to evolve different skills or, rather, focus on improving existing skills for the new channels of distribution. In other words, they had to become authors.

Scribes were copyists whose errors did introduce some of the most interesting elements of the books they reproduced (and, so, were failing as “copyists”). At best, they were masterful annotators and commentators on those works that passed beneath their quills, but not authors in the modern sense. Both authoring and annotation/commentary survived and thrived because of the enlarged markets for printed work. The scribes didn’t die off, they evolved into, among other things, academics, scientists and historians.

When put on the spot, make something up

“If there was any consistency to his opinions, it was the consistent lack of consistency, and if he had a worldview, it was a view that proclaimed his lack of a worldview. But these very absences were what constituted his intellectual assets. Consistency and an established worldview were excess baggage in the intellectual mobile warfare that flared up the mass media’s tiny time segments, and it was his great advantage to be free of such things.” Haruki Murakami, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.

Alas, today we follow the lead of the consistently inconsistent, never forming a clearly articulated thought, because it’s so much easier to provide a scandalous quote.

Does unreliable mean “honest”?

Politico.com’s Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith pontificate that:

“The day, and the weeks before and since, capture what may be the most striking new feature of the 2008 media landscape. Matt Drudge has upended the conventional wisdom that he and his powerful online vehicle are stalwarts of the conservative message machine.”

The posting goes on for pages, with Ariana Huffington saying Drudge has a “great grasp of the zeitgeist” and attributing the shift from right-leaning coverage to “left-leaning” coverage to Drudge’s “libertarian streak.” Ultimately, someone does point out that Drudge is mostly interested in traffic.

But does any of this make his coverage more meaningful? Does it assist Drudge’s readers in understanding how much of the “truth” they can expect from this guy? No. He’s simply important because he has “continuing power to drive the stories and shape the narratives that define presidential politics.” It doesn’t matter that he is all over the map or that he arbitrarily chooses what to ignore and to promote—the primary criticism of the mainstream media, if memory serves. In the end, the story merely increases the power of Drudge by rehearsing all the stories he has done lately.

Drudge merely gives lazy writers something to write about in lieu of doing real journalism. I don’t read Drudge, because he doesn’t mean anything or add anything to the debate about issues affecting the country, because he is only interested in Drudge. His power is political, rather than a phenomenon of the media, which is what matters about it. He hasn’t upended wisdom, just kept people prepared to pander to his whims. That is the formula for something other than truthful reporting based on hard research.

Really a notebook

As I have been getting my life back—it’s been remarkable discovering how out of it I have been for the past year and more—I’ve been pondering the value of blogging. I’m going back to what the tagline for my blog has always been: Mitch’s Open Notebook. I’ll be taking notes publicly.

Albert Camus wrote in his recently published (in English, for the first time) later notebooks, Notebooks 1951-1959:

“From the moment private life is thrown on display, explained to so many people, it become public life, and it is vain to hope to maintain it.”

Too many bloggers write about themselves and only themselves and their thoughts. The artificiality of “celebrity” permeates public dialogue like the plague eating through a Medieval city, pulling the private and considered from life. I’m tired of the artificial spontaneity of blogging, the “this rocks” and “that sucks” absence of reflection that follows fads, fashions and style. We’re never inspired to think about why things happen, only to judge.

Blogging isn’t a sub-set of life or the practice of writing that excuses bloggers from the responsibilities of other writers.

It’s an insupportable culture. Vapid and dull. Writing should demand more of the keyboardist and the reader than most blogs do.

Some blogs, like my friend Susannah Breslin’s Reverse Cowgirl Blog, come from the very marrow and are worth reading in stark contrast to most blogs about sex and culture. Susannah writes about sex, not about her sex life, and, so, one gets to see her think, wrestle with experience and put it into words. That’s what blogging should aspire to, because we don’t need more fanboy press—the mainstream media has that brainless niche nailed.

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Ladies and gentlemen, here are the first-nighters!

Most bloggers are part of a mad crowd of Mr. First-Nighters, imagining they are breaking news when they are really spouting trivia, making significant their participation in events to satisfy the need for vicarious thrills. Their own vicarious thrill of imagining that they’ve “broken a big story.”

Sure, people will say I am knocking the medium. But I am using the medium right now to publish, so get over the sense of indignation. Blogging is a channel of communication, not a style. The blogging style that dominates is that of the man slipping into the center aisle and whispering to the audience, “The house lights have dimmed and the curtain is about to go up on tonight’s production.” Ooh, personal experience you can’t get anywhere else! Crap.

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Really a notebook

As I have been getting my life back—it’s been remarkable discovering how out of it I have been for the past year and more—I’ve been pondering the value of blogging. I’m going back to what the tagline for my blog has always been: Mitch’s Open Notebook. I’ll be taking notes publicly.

Albert Camus wrote in his recently published (in English, for the first time) later notebooks, Notebooks 1951-1959:

“From the moment private life is thrown on display, explained to so many people, it become public life, and it is vain to hope to maintain it.”

Too many bloggers write about themselves and only themselves and their thoughts. The artificiality of “celebrity” permeates public dialogue like the plague eating through a Medieval city, pulling the private and considered from life. I’m tired of the artificial spontaneity of blogging, the “this rocks” and “that sucks” absence of reflection that follows fads, fashions and style. We’re never inspired to think about why things happen, only to judge.

Blogging isn’t a sub-set of life or the practice of writing that excuses bloggers from the responsibilities of other writers.

It’s an insupportable culture. Vapid and dull. Writing should demand more of the keyboardist and the reader than most blogs do.

Some blogs, like my friend Susannah Breslin’s Reverse Cowgirl Blog, come from the very marrow and are worth reading in stark contrast to most blogs about sex and culture. Susannah writes about sex, not about her sex life, and, so, one gets to see her think, wrestle with experience and put it into words. That’s what blogging should aspire to, because we don’t need more fanboy press—the mainstream media has that brainless niche nailed.

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FCC sure we’re headed to Hell, ass first

WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) — ABC is appealing the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to fine the Walt Disney network and 45 of its stations a total of $1,237,500 for airing scenes of a woman’s buttocks on a 2003 episode of “NYPD Blue.”

Five years after the fact, the FCC is fining ABC for showing the backside of a woman in an encounter with her lover’s young son. The visual joke, which is captured in the screen shot to the right, depended on portraying a very normal morning behavior, getting into the shower. Yet, this is what the FCC, which endorses greater and greater consolidation of media, spends fives years on.

The FCC is supposed to be managing the airwaves and cabled media in the public interest, not acting as a nanny to the television viewers of the United States.

The viewer can turn off what they don’t want to watch. But if the FCC lets three or four companies own all the media in the country, we won’t have a choice in the future. After all the progress of the past 60 years, it will be as though the major networks that gave us three viewing choices in 1960 have conspired to give us 500 variations on a single right-conforming puritan viewing choice in 2008.

UPDATE: I cross-posted this to my ZD Blog, where a lively comment argument is developing.

McCain’s believability: He has compromised with the public’s trust before

John McCain's believabilityJohn McCain, presumed Republican presidential nominee, has presented his denials to a recent New York Times story that suggests he had an improper relationship with a lobbyist, Vicki Iseman. Slate has an interesting video, which superimposes the trust expressed by 901 voters in McCain’s words during the press conference, which shows that people have some difficulty believing his categorical assertion that he has at “no time [done] anything to betray the public trust.”

I don’t know whether the Times got the story right—though I think they did capture a factual level of concern among McCain’s aides about the relationship. The point of the story was that McCain is apparently unequivocal in his statements that he is morally upright, despite the fact that, like many politicians, who are people first and foremost, has a history of questionable activities on behalf of supporters, such as Charles Keating, who had McCain’s support in trying to skirt the consequences of the collapse of Lincoln Savings & Loan.

Let’s quit trying to elect saints and start electing people based on their qualifications for office, the policies they propose, and their record of keeping promises to the people, while keeping firmly in mind that, as people, politicians are flawed.

McCain is no saint. I won’t vote for him because of his approach to the War in Iraq and terrorism generally, his misguided tax and economic ideas (which, in the form he supported throughout the Bush years has landed the United States in a world of hurt), and my general feeling that he caters to the extreme right in the belief they are essential to electoral victory.