Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Cable News Left and Right

Oops, I did it again, which is not about Britney Spears singing something inane, but me singing, metaphorically speaking, having been interviewed once again by Palash R. Ghosh for the International Business Times, following up on the previous interview he did with me, which I blogged about recently under the heading of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of TV News (remember?).

So, this next interview was published by IBT on November 19, and entitled Fox Vs. MSNBC: The Ideological Battle In Broadcast News. And you can click on the link and read it there, or stick around and read it here, either way's fine with me.

So ready or not, here we go with the interview:

The latest presidential election between the victorious Democrat Barack Obama and losing Republican Mitt Romney, as well as the continued gridlock in Washington, D.C., underscore the extremely polarized state of politics in contemporary U.S.

Mass media, particularly cable news networks, feed into this scenario by frequently presenting biased -- and sometimes even inflammatory -- accounts of current events, in defiance of traditional journalistic standards and the concept of impartiality.

Like any other capitalist enterprise, mass media is primarily driven by a desire for profits and high ratings. Consequently, the age-old precepts of responsible journalism have dramatically eroded.

Conservatives think most of mass media exhibit a liberal bias, while liberals reject this assertion, claiming to the contrary that, as corporate entities, media adheres to right-wing ideologies.

The International Business Times spoke to an expert on broadcast media to sort out this complex phenomenon.

Dr. Lance Strate is professor of communication and media studies and director of the professional studies in new media program at Fordham University in New York City.

IB Times: Critics and detractors of cable's Fox News claim the network has a right-wing bias and serves as a kind of propaganda arm for the Republican Party. But could one not make the same accusations about MSNBC -- that it espouses a decidedly left-wing bias?

Strate: Rupert Murdoch, the right-wing media mogul, hired Republican political consultant Roger Ailes to create the Fox News Channel, and it was conceived and planned from the very beginning to present a highly conservative view of the world. MSNBC at first tried to take the non-ideological approach traditional to broadcast news operations but was unable to compete effectively with CNN's long-established reputation and Fox's combination of entertaining format and political focus.

So, in order to distinguish itself from its competition, MSNBC became the mirror image of Fox, trying to do for the left what Fox had done on behalf of the right.

Thus, the answer is yes, MSNBC has become infected by the bias virus and turned into the counterpart to Fox.

IB Times: Where does CNN fit into this ideological battleground?

Strate: CNN, in turn, uses this to bolster their image as the leading source of objective journalism on cable and could be considered the heir to CBS as the Tiffany Network in regard to news -- an image that is augmented by their strong involvement in international news.

Recent promotional spots during the election had them claiming to be on the side of citizens, rather than one party or the other. Of course, the right claims that CNN exhibits a liberal bias, albeit one more subtle than MSNBC, and the left claims that they are ideologically conservative in essentially upholding the status quo.

For example, in presenting the election as a horse race between Democrats and Republicans, and in all of the shouting matches between liberal and conservative spokespersons, where are the numerous other candidates and representatives from other parties, such as the Greens and Libertarians?

IB Times: When did the very notion of liberal media bias arise? Was it during Richard Nixon's administration or before that era?

Strate: It pretty much became a meme during the Nixon campaign, with his vice president, Spiro Agnew, complaining the loudest.

During Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency, the talk was mainly of the press, and newspapers tended to favor Republican candidates, which was one reason why Roosevelt resorted to the radio in the form of his famous Fireside Chats.

The shift from talking about the press to talking about the media came about during the '60s and was largely due to fact of television's newfound dominance in our culture and the influence of critic Marshall McLuhan in making the media part of popular discourse.

IB Times: On an episode of “All in the Family,” Archie Bunker called Walter Cronkite a “pinko” and a “communist” (presumably due to Cronkite's opposition to the Vietnam War). But wasn't Cronkite widely admired and embraced by Middle America? Or was he also vilified by the right wing?

Strate: Known as "the most trusted man in America," Cronkite began reporting that the Vietnam War was not going well in 1968, and from the right's point of view, this was a betrayal almost as egregious as Jane Fonda's visit to Hanoi. For the majority, however, this was a turning point in popular opinion, a visible demonstration of Cronkite's honesty and courage, and the anti-war movement did not really take off until after this occurred.

Archie Bunker, and the kind of conservative views that he represented, was considered far on the fringe up until Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. Cronkite retired in 1981 and therefore did not run into much of a conflict with the ascendency of conservative politics in America.

Interestingly, prior to the 1980 election, with Reagan perceived by many as an extremist and Carter as ineffectual, there was some talk of trying to get Cronkite to run for president, with polls showing that he had the potential to win such a campaign.

IB Times: What do you make of the fact that Fox News consistently attracts higher ratings than either MSNBC or CNN? Does this mean that there are a lot more conservatives in the U.S. than liberals or moderates despite Obama’s reelection?

Strate: It does reflect the strength of the conservative movement over the last few decades and the willingness of the audience to at least put up with that perspective. It also follows the rise of conservative talk hosts on radio -- such as Rush Limbaugh -- who have proven to be extremely popular.

But more than anything, Fox News has embraced an entertaining format, and television is above all an entertainment medium. As author and critic Neil Postman put it, it is attention-centered, image-centered, emotion-centered, and Fox has come up with a successful combination of sensationalist reporting and political discussion that emphasizes dramatic confrontation, not to mention a stable of good-looking on-air personalities, and this has made it possible for them to attract and hold audiences better than their competitors.

Of course, their audiences are still pretty small compared to the major networks.

IB Times: In the recent presidential election, the New York Times endorsed Obama, while the New York Post and Daily News endorsed Romney. When a newspaper endorses a political candidate, are they not sacrificing their journalistic impartiality? What's the point of these endorsements? Do they have any influence on the electorate?

Strate: Endorsements by newspaper editors is a longstanding tradition in the press and goes back to the days of the partisan press of the 18th century, long before the rise of objectivity in journalism in the 19th century.

But keep in mind that for most of the history of the press in the U.S., cities typically had a number of different newspapers competing with one another. So the reach of each newspaper was limited and local rather than national, with many competing points of view.

This is quite different from a handful of television channels competing for a national audience. Newspapers never had the reach or power of television programming.

Moreover, in the papers, opinion was clearly segregated from objective reporting of the news and relegated to the op-ed pages, whereas on television clear boundaries of that sort simply do not exist. This is not to deny that different papers had different slants and their political allegiances could influence their coverage, but newspapers were also very responsive to their readership, being directly dependent on them, whereas television is more beholden to advertisers, with audiences being the "product" they sell to commercial interests.

Perhaps the bottom line is that newspaper editors, in endorsing a candidate, were expected to provide a reasoned explanation for their support, that it was not an automatic display of ideological allegiance, which is why newspaper endorsements actually meant something and carried some weight with their readers. They are not without influence today, although nowhere near as much as they had before television came into the picture.

IB Times: With regard to Fox and MSNBC, at two polar opposites of the ideological spectrum, what is behind their business model? Are they simply “preaching to the converted”? How can they increase their ratings and revenue if they stick to their respective ideologies?

Strate: To a large degree, yes, they are “preaching to the converted,” and audiences generally seek out sources of news and opinion that are in line with their own prior values, beliefs and attitudes -- this is known as selective exposure.

As a business strategy, it parallels the political logic of campaigning to your base. You are creating a homogenous audience that is relatively stable in size and predictable in terms of its characteristics, and advertisers like that -- they like to know exactly what they're getting and exactly what they're paying for. Beyond that, the goal is to provide an entertaining programming option. If folks will tune in to Bill O'Reilly to see who he yells at, even if they agree with the victim and not O'Reilly, then Fox's programming strategy is working. And it has worked well for them, much better than MSNBC, although they are improving with the likes of Rachel Maddow. But is there any doubt that if they could steal them away from Comedy Central, MSNBC would be happy to run "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report" on their network?

IB Times: Was U.S. political debate always as polarized as it appears to be now? Or is this something new?

Strate: We were even more polarized in the period immediately preceding the Civil War.

What is strange about our time is that there is this extreme polarization between candidates and, to some extent on values, but it seems to be a divide based on emotional responses, not rational evaluation of the issues. Say what you want about it, slavery was one hell of an issue, there were rational explanations and motivations on both sides of the divide, and everyone knew exactly what the conflict was about and what was at stake.

In this last election, there was little in the way of rational debate on economic issues, health care or foreign policy, and the differences between the two candidates were hardly clear at all. I think it all came down to which candidate voters felt to be most like them in style and tone and, yes, appearance and not whose thinking, ideas and ideals best matched their supporters and their interests.

IB Times: Are on-air personalities at Fox and MSNBC selected primarily for their political views?

Strate: They have to be willing to toe the party line, so to speak. Beyond that, on-air personalities everywhere are selected based on appearance and personality, how well they come across on television.

IB Times: During the Cronkite-Murrow-Huntley/Brinkley days, did the network executives and advertisers pressure the news departments to slant controversial news topics, like McCarthy's communist witch hunt, the civil rights movement and Vietnam War?

Strate: There were pressures from network executives and advertisers, absolutely, but there also were courageous individuals leading network news divisions whose allegiance was to the ideal of journalistic objectivity and public service, backed by FCC requirements for devoting some of their time on-air to the public interest, a notable example being Fred Friendly, who worked with Edward R. Murrow and helped to put an end to McCarthy and his "red scare."

But television came to be characterized as the timid giant, because executives became frightened to death of controversy, of offending any segment of their vast audience, and, therefore, sought out the least objectionable content (which fits nicely with detached, objective reporting).

The deregulation of broadcasting under the Reagan administration allowed executives to break down the ivory tower of broadcast journalism and place increasingly more emphasis on getting good ratings and, therefore, on creating entertaining programming.

And cable is almost entirely free from the oversight that broadcasting requires, so not only news but all sorts of nonfiction programming from National Geographic, Discovery, Learning and the like become outlets for various kinds of nonsense, distortion or disregard for facts, pandering, and the trivialization of important issues and concerns.

IB Times: ABC, CBS and NBC news have all seen their ratings eroding for years -- I assume cable TV and the Internet is responsible for this. What can they do to stop their declining numbers of viewers?

Strate: There isn't much they can do about it. Most viewers today were long accustomed to watching nightly network news programs and continue to do so -- just as many have been in the habit of reading a daily newspaper.

But younger generations do not share these habits. And where once it was an absolute requirement that a network provide a certain amount of news programming, it is now entirely possible that one of the major networks may simply decide that they no longer want to do the news, which was never profitable for them, always a loss leader, or perhaps they might decide to outsource their news coverage to a cable news source.

But the era of the Big Three broadcast news divisions is over. We're seeing a return to a new, audiovisual version of the partisan press and to a wide variety of news sources online via blogs, Twitter, YouTube, sites from established news organizations domestic and foreign, sites like Wikileaks and human and algorithmic aggregators. This may be good in some ways, bad in other ways, and certainly suggests major changes in the ways in which campaigns are conducted and governments operate.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Slow Down You Move Too Fast...

So, time being somewhat of a theme here on this blog'o'mine, I thought I should add a post about this gadget I recently came across over on the DVICE website under the heading of Decelerator Helmet slows down reality, in real time

Now, who among us hasn't wanted to slow down reality at some point? So the idea seems to make a great deal of sense, on the surface, at least. And it seems to summon up those fantasies of having some sort of universal remote control where you can hit the pause button and the world around you freezes.  You know, like the Adam Sandler movie, Click, although that is more about fast forward and rewind functions.
And then there was Clockstoppers, where the effect is a function of moving at superspeed.  That was a somewhat innocent version of the fantasy.  A more mature, albeit in certain ways immature exploration of the fantasy was the independent film, Cashback.  

But this invention is about reality, not fantasy. Or reality in a virtual, augmented, or simply altered sense. 

Look, there is nothing new about using technology to give us a view of reality that was previously unobtainable.  Think telescope and binoculars, think microscope and magnifying glasses. And prisms and kaleidoscopes, for that matter.  Not to mention the old mirror, mirror, on the wall. McLuhan stressed the idea that media are extensions of the senses that altered our modes of perception.

And for more traditional categories of media, the camera and photography gives us the close-up, and make that point-of-view commonplace. And if you think about it, it's a way of seeing that is impossible for the naked eye–if you got that close to something, you would be unable to focus. Of course, it is intrinsic to the very nature of photography that it captures a frozen moment in time, a snapshot of reality. And after photography comes the moving image, which adds slow motion and fast motion to our repertoire of unreal realities.

So now, let's take a look at the next step in time distortion.  Let me start with the write-up in DVICE:

Now, if you're thinking what I'm thinking, then words like, uh-oh, or huh??? are running through your head. This certainly doesn't look very advantageous, or like it would be much fun, does it? Well, let's get the rest of the brief write-up from DVICE:

Of course, crossing the street in a traffic-filled city with this thing on wouldn't be a good idea, but in almost any other controlled, assistant-guided situation, this device could deliver an amazing slo-mo vision of reality that has never been seen before. 

Potthast makes no mention of the software facilitating the device's functions, nor if he has any plans to take it commercial, but in the meantime you can see the Decelerator Helmet in action in the video below.

 Okay, so there's an admission that this doesn't seem like the most practical product in the world. But let's take a look at the video and see it in action:

And here's the write-up from Vimeo:

The Decelerator Helmet is a experimental approach for dealing with our fast moving society. The sense of vision is consigned to an apparatus which allows the user a perception of the world in slow motion.

In a increasingly hectic, overstimulated and restless environment are the calls for deceleration omnipresent. The inconceivably amount of information and influences in our everyday lives leads in many cases to an excessive demand.The idea to decouple the personal perception from the natural timing enables the user to become aware of his own time.

I'm just going to interject here that this is an interesting idea, and a worthy enough goal, but is the answer more technology? Or might it be alternatives like meditation, prayer, and/or going for a walk?  But of course I'm being silly, so let's return to that write-up from Vimeo:

In the inside of the helmet the video-signal of a camera is processed by a small computer. The slowed-down images are displayed right before the user's eyes via a head-mounted display and are simultaneously shown on a monitor on the outside. The helmet has three different modes which can be selected by a remote control: In the auto-mode time is slowed down automatically and re-accelerated after a defined interval. The press-mode allows the specific deceleration of time. In the scroll-mode the user can completely control the speed of the elapsing of time. The Decelerator gives the user the possibility to reflect about the flow of time in general and about the relation between sensory perception, environment and corporality in particular. Also it dramatically visualizes how slowing down can potentially cause a loss of the present.

Well, if you want to see some more pictures of this device, and read more about it (if you can read German), go check out the website.

As for me, this puts me in mind of an old hit song from my childhood in the 60s, The 59th Street Bridge Song, aka Feelin' Groovy, by Simon and Garfunkel.  Those were slower, more relaxed times, and I do remember my father driving us over the 59th Street Bridge as we traveled from our home in Queens (not far from where Simon and Garfunkel grew up), to Manhattan and back. And when I was in high school, I crossed that bridge when I came to it a couple of times on foot, as part of some marathon walks with my old friend, Marty Friedman. 

Much time has passed since those days, a lot of water under the bridge you might say, but it's nice to know that old Paul and Art can still sing it nice and tuneful:


And I know you wanted to see the lyrics, so here they are: 

Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.
Just kicking down the cobble stones.
Looking for fun and feelin' groovy.

Hello lamppost,
What cha knowing?
I've come to watch your flowers growing.
Ain't cha got no rhymes for me?
Doot-in' doo-doo,
Feelin' groovy.

Got no deeds to do,
No promises to keep.
I'm dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep.
Let the morning time drop all its petals on me.
Life, I love you,
All is groovy.  

Groovy sounds real old-fashioned now, I know, and it wasn't long before it became a cliché and fell out of favor. But it was very much a musical and technological metaphor, a reference to vinyl records whose grooves captured the vibrations or vibes that reproduced those groovy tunes for us to listen to. So, just go ahead and decelerate, and dig those grooves, man, dig those grooves... 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of TV News

I was recently interviewed by Palash R. Ghosh of the International Business Times about the present state of broadcast journalism and cable news networks, and the interview appeared online on November 10th under the title of TV Broadcast News: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.  As you may have guessed, you can click on that title, and the link will take you to the article over on the IBT website, or just stick around and I'll share it with you here, as I am wont to (and as I want to do as well).

The article begins with the following introduction from Mr. Ghosh:

Superstorm Sandy brought to the fore the efficacy and immediacy provided by local television news stations. For millions of homebound New Yorkers -- those whose electrical service did not vanish -- the local TV outlets afforded gripping accounts of the unfolding disaster and its overwhelming impact on residents.

However, TV broadcast journalism has many problems: Given that news outlets must depend on ratings and advertising revenue, news programs frequently focus on trivial subjects (entertainment, fashion, etc.) or deliver simplistic, superficial accounts of complex topics like crime, health care, poverty, unemployment, and war.
International Business Times spoke with an expert on mass media to discuss the current state of TV broadcast journalism.
Lance Strate is professor of communication and media studies and director of the professional studies in new media program at Fordham University in New York.

IBTimes: TV news broadcast stations are purely commercial enterprises that are driven by ratings. Do you think this is why "broadcast journalism" has become so degraded and "dumbed down"?
Lance Strate: The increasing emphasis on profits certainly exacerbates the declining quality of broadcast journalism, along with the deregulation of broadcasting that was instituted under the administration of former President Ronald Reagan, and the concomitant loss of a commitment to social responsibility on the part of media corporations.
But the fundamental problem is that the medium of television, broadcast and cable, stress immediacy and imagery, rather than careful statement of fact, in-depth analysis, and thoughtful verbal dialogue.
The broadcast news adage, "if it bleeds, it leads," sums up the emphasis on exciting visuals that captures the viewers' attention, as opposed to making determinations based on the significance and seriousness of the content.
And in the absence of dramatic footage, drama can be generated by heated exchanges between individuals, because television also favors the close-up, and puts a premium on nonverbal expression, so the cool, calm demeanor of the news anchor conveys credibility, while the pundits provide an agonistic appeal akin to boxing matches.
The medium of television is designed to deliver information quickly, instantaneously, and in favoring the rapid it ends up giving us the vapid. And the medium of television is designed to be watched, to give us visual stimulation, dramatic scenes that stimulate the emotions rather than the intellect, in contrast to print media which require a great deal of cognitive effort to decode and interpret.

IBT: Women reporters and newsreaders on TV are almost all physically attractive and slender -- some are even stunningly beautiful. Are they hired principally for their looks (as women are in the worlds of fashion and entertainment)?
Strate: Just as photography gave us the idea of being photogenic, television gives us the concept of being telegenic, which is similar but not exactly the same.
It is clear that individuals who appear on television tend to be attractive to viewers, and if not attractive, have a distinctive appearance that viewers find appealing in some way.
Coming across well on camera should not be equated with being attractive in real life, however, as some physical characteristics are over-emphasized. For example, television personalities often have larger-than-average heads in relation to their bodies, which plays well on the screen.
When it comes to television news, there are exceptions, but there is a tendency to favor a certain look, attractive but not too attractive, because even if they are just reading the news off of a teleprompter, they need to be taken seriously. This is especially true for local broadcast news, while on cable broadcasts Fox News has pushed the envelope in their emphasis on very attractive, typically blonde, conservative news personalities. Broadcasters will say that all of their journalists are qualified, and being presentable on the air is simply an added requirement of the job, but I think it is safe to say that once the minimum requirements are met, say an undergraduate degree in journalism or communication, employment comes down to looks and personality.

IBT: One sees very few women who are overweight or middle-age. Are such women "banned" from TV news broadcasts?
Strate: To say they are "banned" is perhaps too strong a word, but they are certainly not favored.

IBT: Men seem to fare better -- there are quite a number of older (and unattractive) males on news broadcasts. Or are they also increasingly hired primarily on looks, too?
Strate: This reflects our cultural notions on what constitutes “attractiveness.” Men have traditionally had the advantage of being seen as distinguished as they age, but male newscasters still tend to be handsome, or at least clean-cut, since they are provided with proper attire and immaculate hair styling.
And while men have it easier than women in the looks department, how many men on news programs can you think of who have a high-pitched voice? Broadcasters favor the baritone to convey seriousness for anchors, reporters, and analysts.

IBT: Are the ratings of these shows driven by the popularity and attractiveness of the anchors and reporters?
Strate: Yes, to an extent, but it's a tricky business. Look at the failure of Katie Couric as a network news anchor. Being “perky” is fine for a morning show that mixes news and entertainment, and perhaps for a special correspondent, but she lacked the credibility and gravitas we look for in an anchor, and it is important to understand that credibility and gravitas are dramatic qualities, relating to presentation of oneself on the audio-visual medium, a performance attribute that again brings us back to looks and personality, with the need to fit into a certain character type or role.
We can relate anchors and reporters to the host of talk shows and their associates, so popularity is based in part on those elements, and in part on the content that they are able to summon up in their roles and within their programs.

IBT: Back in the halcyon days of Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, did they not also have to worry about ratings? Or did they just focus on delivering serious, hard news?
Strate: Ratings were never entirely irrelevant, but news was seen as a public service, necessarily fulfilling [Federal Communications Commission] requirements, but also the media moguls of that time like [NBC chief David] Sarnoff and [CBS boss William] Paley had a sense of pride in delivering a certain quality of journalism.
But tensions over ratings did exist back then, along with pressure from advertisers, and from government.

IBT: One sees a good number of ethnic minorities (blacks, Hispanics, Asians) on New York news stations. Are they hired according to a "quota system"? If so, do you view them as window-dressing"?
Strate: Maybe not a strict "quota system," but there is an idea of presenting a certain mix. Some time ago, it shifted from the emphasis on male anchors to a news team consisting of an older, distinguished-looking man and a younger, attractive woman, creating a sense of family, with the sports and weather reporters being the "playful kids.
More recently, the preferred mix emphasizes racial diversity, and news programs were for a long time the only place on television where you would see Asians, often Asian women, who provided racial diversity while playing off of the stereotype of Asians as being “serious and intelligent.”
Overall, there is an almost democratic notion of having the on air mix be representative of the audience's demographics, but, of course, that is fundamentally impossible to obtain.

IBT: When a major story breaks (Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, 9-11 attacks, Iraq invasion, etc.) news stations are forced to cover it and refrain from their usual lightweight/entertainment subjects. Does this, in a way, hurt their ratings and advertising revenues?
Strate: For cable news stations, major events increase their ratings, which will help with advertising revenues on the whole. When there is real news, especially news that affects us, and when there is great uncertainty about what is going on, people will turn to news programming.
However, when nothing is going on, viewers will choose entertainment programs-- consequently, news channels are forced to "manufacture" news through interviews, talk, discussion, etc. This is what Daniel Boorstin referred to as “pseudo-events” in his book, The Image.
And they will try to present this manufactured "news" in a format that is entertaining, which has the effect of trivializing serious discourse, as Neil Postman argued in Amusing Ourselves to Death.

IBT: I have noticed something very peculiar -- almost no one on any New York news stations has a "New York accent. Rather, they all speak in what I would call a flat, broad, Midwestern accent. Even down South, very few TV news-readers have a "Southern accent"! Is this done on purpose? What's the point of "diversity" if everyone talks and sounds the same?
Strate: That's a longstanding practice -- the elimination or at least minimization of regional accents in broadcasting. When you are trying to reach the largest possible audience, you want to eliminate any hint of the local and regional.
A "New York accent" or a "Southern drawl would only be played for comedy under these conditions. But it also reflects the decline of regional accents generally, which is a result of great mobility, especially more migration to the south and southwest. But what counts as "diversity" on television is not the sound, but the look, because television is a visual medium.
And given a visual bias, television favors a diverse set of attractive faces to gain the attention of its audience.
There is an interesting subtle message here, though, that there may be differences in the way we look, but that acoustically we are all Americans.

IBT: Do you think the quality of TV news broadcasting will continue to get worse?
Strate: Yes and no. As what we call television expands into an ever larger array of channels, it has opened the door to greater political bias, first with Fox News becoming the voice of conservative Republicans, and then with MSNBC becoming its mirror image on behalf of liberal Democrats.
I think we can look for further diversity of politically oriented news channels, and more specialized channels in the sense that we already have several channels devoted to business news, sports news, and the weather.
But this may also allow for one or more networks to reclaim the mantle of objectivity in reporting, and to some degree of in-depth coverage.
I believe there will be a market for high-quality journalism on television, although it may be confined to elite and highly educated audiences, much like the audiences for PBS.
Overall, though, objectivity in journalism was born out of print culture, and it is dying along with it, we're seeing a return to an electronic version of the partisan press, and in audiovisual formats sensationalism and personality will continue to dominate, while an elite minority will turn to text-based news sources for a better source of fact and opinion.

And that's my news about the news, but no doubt you already knew it!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

They Became What They Beheld

Last year I put up a post after Ted Carpenter passed away,  Edmund Carpenter 1922-2011, and that was certainly not the first time that this innovative anthropologist and media ecology scholar has come up here on Blog Time Passing.

Carpenter, as you no doubt know, was a colleague of and collaborator with Marshall McLuhan, at the University of Toronto during the 1950s, where they worked together as part of an interdisciplinary group, and put out 9 issues of the groundbreaking journal, Explorations, and here at Fordham University where Carpenter joined McLuhan for his year as the Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities. And in case you missed this last year, click here to see a page on the Fordham website where you can listen to a class that was taught by Carpenter, and one taught by McLuhan.

So, just before McLuhan came to Fordham, his bestselling book, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, was published, illustrated by Quentin Fiore, and produced by Jerome Agel. That was in 1967, it was entirely experimental and innovative, and opened the door to a number of other books of a similar nature, as I discussed in a post last month, Dancing the Book.

And one of the books to follow in the footsteps of that awesome Agel production was created by Carpenter, together with the photographer Ken Heyman, and entitled They Became What They Beheld.  The title is an allusion to Psalm 115, which McLuhan also quotes in Understanding Media. Here it is in its entirety, in the King James Version:

115 Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth's sake.
Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is now their God?
But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased.
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands.
They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not:
They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not:
They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat.
They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.
O Israel, trust thou in the Lord: he is their help and their shield.
10 O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord: he is their help and their shield.
11 Ye that fear the Lord, trust in the Lord: he is their help and their shield.
12 The Lord hath been mindful of us: he will bless us; he will bless the house of Israel; he will bless the house of Aaron.
13 He will bless them that fear the Lord, both small and great.
14 The Lord shall increase you more and more, you and your children.
15 Ye are blessed of the Lord which made heaven and earth.
16 The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lord's: but the earth hath he given to the children of men.
17 The dead praise not the Lord, neither any that go down into silence.
18 But we will bless the Lord from this time forth and for evermore. Praise the Lord.

This Psalm stands as an early expression of a media ecological sensibility, the idea being that the technologies we create in turn recreate us, or as McLuhan's associate and former Fordham professor John Culkin put it, we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.  It also expresses the polemic against imagery that reshaped the media environment and hence the culture of ancient Israel and the Jewish people.

So anyway, I was delighted to come across this video recently by Vi Hart, who has produced some amazing pieces over on YouTube, this one being called They Became What They Beheld: Medium, Message, Youtubery.  Here it is:

Note that her discussion of the relationship between artists and audiences relates directly to the concept of formal causality, as discussed in the recently published Media and Formal Cause by Marshall and Eric McLuhan.  It also brings to mind Walter Ong's wonderful point, that "the writer's audience is always a fiction." And her argument in favor of content connects to Neil Postman's well known critique of television in Amusing Ourselves to Death, and while he'd probably differ on the extent to which content leads the way on YouTube, I know he'd enjoy and appreciate this video. 

As for myself, I am content makes for an interesting pun, don't you think? Me content, you audience? And happiness is a warm medium? Or maybe a cool one...

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Word (A Pecha Kucha on the Walter Ong Centenary)

So, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Walter J. Ong, one of the scholars most central to the media ecology intellectual tradition. And in honor of  his centenary, I created a pecha kucha presentation, which I performed live at the 80th annual meeting of the New York State Communication Association on October 19-21, 2012.

A pecha kucha is meant to be a live performance, a short talk accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation in which there are 20 slides, and they are set to advance every 20 seconds, so the entire presentation lasts approximately 6 minutes and 40 seconds. This presentation fudges that slightly because I added a title slide that is not part of the 20, kind of like the front matter in a book that has the small letter Roman numerals and so is not part of the regular page numbering.

Now, you may remember my post from last year, The Medium Is..., where I explained how doing pecha kuchas at NYSSCA was all the idea of Mary Ann Allison. And on the blogpost you can find the pecha kucha I created last year in honor of the Marshall McLuhan centenary. If you haven't seen it before, you might want to take a look. Or maybe not.

Actually, what's over there is not an actual pecha kucha presentation, which as I explained is a live performance, but rather a video I created based on the PowerPoint visuals and a specially recorded version of the talk.  And that is also what you'll find here. This year's video (and that link will take you over to YouTube to see it on its own page) came out a bit rough, audio-wise, and a bit fuzzy, visual-wise, but I decided to leave it that way as it somehow fits with the subject matter.

So now, without further ado, here is The Word:

And as an extra added bonus for Blog TIme Passing readers, I'm going to include the written text of the talk here as well.  I've put into italics any passage that is a direct quotation from Walter Ong, or a close paraphrase of what he's written (as well as book titles).

The Word
A Pecha Kucha in Honor of the Centenary of the Birth of
Walter Jackson Ong, SJ

The presence of the word 

Our common human heritage
The cause of great commotion
Commiseration, commemoration
Commitments, commendations
Commerce and commodities
Commandments and their commentary
Communion and community
And the distinctive character
Of human communication

The word is spoken
Speech is the word
The human species is hardwired for sound
With a larynx that makes possible
A wide range of vocalization
And a tongue that allows us
A broad range of articulation
So that with the breath of life
Comes the spirit of the word

The word is governed
By the human brain
Within the cerebral cortex
Broca's area gives us speech
Wernicke's area comprehension
And language acquisition
Begins in early infancy
With babbling and baby talk
Signaling the readiness to learn

The language that we learn
Becomes our mother tongue
And the words that we learn to speak out loud
We later learn to say
In silence only to ourselves
Our outer dialogue becomes
An inner monologue
As the words we speak transform into
Tools for thought
The mind an echo-chamber

The words we speak are tools we use
To construct the world we live in
Guiding our senses
Directing our attention
Telling us what to ignore
How to think, feel, and act
Different languages give us different words
And something is always lost in translation
As different words give us different worlds

In every village, tribe or clan
In every society known to woman or man
We find the presence of the word
The opposable thumb gave us primitive tools
But more importantly made it possible
To carry things with our hands
Freeing the mouth for making sounds
Opposable tongues gave us
Our tools for talk and thought

A gesture requires a line of sight
A warning cry can come from any direction
The survival value of the spoken word
Conferred victory in natural selection
Hand signals can substitute if needed
But no human population known
Chooses sign language over speech

But the spoken word is ephemeral
Ong says,
Sound only exists as its going out of existence
When I say the word existence
By the time I get to –tence
Exist is gone, never to be recovered

Pause a video and you get a still image
Pause an audio recording and all that you get
Is silence

Ong says, Sound cannot be sounding
Without the use of power
A hunter can see a buffalo
Smell, taste, and touch a buffalo
But if he hears a buffalo
He better watch out
Something is going on

All sound is dynamic
Especially oral utterance
Which comes from inside living organisms

Ong says, sounded word is power and action
The Hebrew word dabar
Means word but also means event
Prayers and magic spells are inert
When written in a book
Their power comes
When they are said out loud
Neither do an oath or a curse take effect
Until the moment they are spoken

Without writing there is no way
To capture words
And store them over time
And so, Ong says,
You know what you can recall
And what you need to do is to
Think memorable thoughts
Oral cultures depend on mnemonics
Repetition and collective memory
Continual commemoration
To keep knowledge alive

Oral tradition uses rhythm and melody
Formulas and clichés
Proverbs and sayings
Poetry and song
Like the epic of Gilgamesh
From Mesopotamia
And the old English Beowolf
And the ancient Greek Iliad and Odyssey
Said to have been composed
By the poet Homer who was blind
And listened as the muses sang to him

Oral memory is rarely word for word
Verbatim memorization is based on a text
That can be viewed and reviewed to test
The accuracy of memory and thereby
Achieve perfection
Oral memory instead is characterized
By multiformity, variation
Embellishment and improvisation

Sound speaks to interiority
Sight, touch, smell and taste
Give us only surfaces
Sounding gives us depth
Takes us past the exterior
Inside objects, bodies, and minds
We interiorize speech as thought
And exteriorize thought as speech
Every utterance is an outering

The spoken word creates community
As a group we listen together as one
Audience is a singular noun
But as readers we split apart
Even when reading the exact same text
We become separate, private individuals
Lost in our own thought-world
As Ong says,
Sight isolates, sound incorporates

Sound is sacred, vision profane
In the beginning was the word
And the word was spoken
In the Torah God says out loud
Let there be light!
Voice comes before vision
In Christian theology,
Ong says
God the Father speaks his Son
He does not inscribe him

Ong says,
Words are not signs
Signs are seen and not heard
Observations not conversations
While words are sounds and not sighted
Writing is a secondary symbol system
A code of a code representing
Spoken words as visual marks on a surface
Notation for the recording of sound

Writing is a technology
It is the technologizing of the word
It's used to study and edit our speech
Giving us rhetoric and poetics as well
Creating interfaces of the word
Writing on parchment
Which is made from animal skins
Turns the word into flesh
While printing turns words into things
Making them objects instead of events

Writing, printing and now electronic media
Are transformations of the word
But a flood of information and images threaten
The humiliation of the word
While scholars like Jacques Ellul
Neil Postman and Walter Ong
Serve as defenders of the word

Homer spoke of winged words
The Big Bopper sang
That the bird is the word
There are words that delight
And words that excite
Words that bring fright
Words that make us fight
Words that invite
And words we recite
Words that rhyme
And words that don't
But as long as human life remains so will
The persistence of the word

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Ann Coulter Out in the Cold at Fordham University

One of the great things about working for a nonprofit, educational institution is that it's not all about making money, maximizing profits, and efficiency. It's not the way to go if your goal is to get rich, but if your interests lie elsewhere, it is a very satisfying and nurturing environment to operate within.

Saturday night at the Meir Ribalow memorial that was the subject of my previous post, Meir Ribalow Memorial at The Players, one of the speakers reminded us of something that I've heard Meir say a number of times, especially at ceremonies where the Harold U. Ribalow Prize was awarded, named after Meir's father, and given by Hadassah Magazine to the author of the work of Jewish fiction judged to be the year's best. It's one of my favorite quotes from Meir, he'd say, "In our family, making money was considered a perfectly legitimate thing to do...  for those without any other talent." Not surprisingly, Meir thrived in the university setting, and I heard from a number of people at the memorial how much teaching at Fordham meant to him.

For myself, I have to admit that it's easy to take it all for granted, especially when it becomes part of your daily/weekly/monthly/yearly routine.  Sometimes it seems like it's just work, just a job. But then there are times I'm reminded that working at Fordham has given me a chance to join together with some very special people, like Meir.  And there are times when I'm reminded about just how special a place Fordham is. Coincidentally, this happened almost at the same time as Meir's memorial.

What I am referring to is the statement that our president, Joseph M. McShane, SJ, made in response to an event planned by our College Republicans student club to invite Ann Coulter to speak. If you're not familiar with this woman, suffice it to say that she is one of those right-wing pundits whose speech is truly hateful and angry, full of putdowns, insults, and incitements to engage in violent activity. I'm sure you can find plenty of examples over on YouTube, I won't bother to embed any videos here, I just don't want her on my blog.

As the parent of an autistic child, what is perhaps the most egregious example of her offensive talk is her use of the word "retard" to characterize President Obama. Beyond the disrespect that she has every right to express in a democratic society, she is using the word in a way that is every bit as offensive, and hurtful as a racial, ethnic, or religious bigot-word, and she has been utterly unapologetic about it.

As much I am lauding educational environments in particular here, I want to note that at most other institutions, inviting Coulter to speak would have been met by a shrug of the shoulders from the administration, and a ducking behind some reminder about academic freedom. And as much as that is a value I wholeheartedly endorse, along with First Amendment rights, I am so very proud of how Fordham's president handled this, that I want to share his statement with you, and preserve it here on my blog of record:

    University Statement on Ann Coulter Appearance | November 9, 2012
    The College Republicans, a student club at Fordham University, has invited Ann Coulter to speak on campus on November 29. The event is funded through student activity fees and is not open to the public nor the media. Student groups are allowed, and encouraged, to invite speakers who represent diverse, and sometimes unpopular, points of view, in keeping with the canons of academic freedom. Accordingly, the University will not block the College Republicans from hosting their speaker of choice on campus.
    To say that I am disappointed with the judgment and maturity of the College Republicans, however, would be a tremendous understatement. There are many people who can speak to the conservative point of view with integrity and conviction, but Ms. Coulter is not among them. Her rhetoric is often hateful and needlessly provocative—more heat than light—and her message is aimed squarely at the darker side of our nature.
    As members of a Jesuit institution, we are called upon to deal with one another with civility and compassion, not to sling mud and impugn the motives of those with whom we disagree or to engage in racial or social stereotyping. In the wake of several bias incidents last spring, I told the University community that I hold out great contempt for anyone who would intentionally inflict pain on another human being because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or creed.
    “Disgust”was the word I used to sum up my feelings about those incidents. Hate speech, name-calling, and incivility are completely at odds with the Jesuit ideals that have always guided and animated Fordham.
    Still, to prohibit Ms. Coulter from speaking at Fordham would be to do greater violence to the academy, and to the Jesuit tradition of fearless and robust engagement. Preventing Ms. Coulter from speaking would counter one wrong with another. The old saw goes that the answer to bad speech is more speech. This is especially true at a university, and I fully expect our students, faculty, alumni, parents, and staff to voice their opposition, civilly and respectfully, and forcefully.
    The College Republicans have unwittingly provided Fordham with a test of its character: do we abandon our ideals in the face of repugnant speech and seek to stifle Ms. Coulter’s (and the student organizers’) opinions, or do we use her appearance as an opportunity to prove that our ideas are better and our faith in the academy—and one another—stronger? We have chosen the latter course, confident in our community, and in the power of decency and reason to overcome hatred and prejudice.
    Joseph M. McShane, S.J., President

Now, I think it is pretty clear from this that Fordham is a special place, one where there still are certain core values and principles that speak to the importance of human dignity and compassion. This stems from the fact that Fordham is a Jesuit institution, but of course these are values and principles that are shared across faiths and creeds, by all individuals of good will and ethical character.

Not long after this statement was issued, the College Republican club announced that they had canceled Coulter's appearance. In response to this decision, the following statement was issued:   

University Statement | November 10, 2012 

Late yesterday, Fordham received word that the College Republicans, a student club at the University, has rescinded its lecture invitation to Ann Coulter. 

Allow me to give credit where it is due: the leadership of the College Republicans acted quickly, took responsibility for their decisions, and expressed their regrets sincerely and eloquently. Most gratifying, I believe, is that they framed their decision in light of Fordham’s mission and values. There can be no finer testament to the value of a Fordham education and the caliber of our students. 

Yesterday I wrote that the College Republicans provided Fordham with a test of its character. They, the University community, and our extended Fordham family passed the test with flying colors, engaging in impassioned but overwhelmingly civil debate on politics, academic freedom, and freedom of speech. 

We can all be proud of Fordham today, and I am proud to serve you. 

Joseph M. McShane, S.J., President

So, I am indeed proud of Fordham, as a member of the faculty, and for the past few months as the parent of a Fordham student (my son) as well.  And I am proud as well of our president, for his willingness to take a stand on this issue and rise up in the defense of common decency, for his judicious response in the form of admonition (rather than relying on some more coercive form of ammunition), and for his eloquence in communicating all this, truly exemplifying the Jesuit ideal of eloquentia perfecta.

And I just want to add that I communicated to Fr. McShane my appreciation, and was further impressed by the fact that he is now concerned about reprisals against the College Republican club for having extended the invitation in the first place.

Quite right! Coulter deserves to be left out in the cold. There would be no better response to her vile discourse than to be completely ignored and relegated to the marginal media outlets and platforms that she appeals to. But for our students, this should be nothing worse than a learning experience, a chance to grow, mature, and learn from role models at the university about character and conduct. That's the kind of conservatism, of conservation, or the conserving activity (to use Neil Postman's phrase) that we all can sign on to!