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Bob Goldfarb on Media

Sunday, March 28, 2004

    Old News, Short Memories

    For the second time in a few months the Sunday New York Times has plumbed a stilted locution for its deeper significance.  Today's Sunday Styles ("News Reports for Ultra-Short Attentions") notes how one Fox anchor substitutes the present participle for the present tense -- "Amazon.com celebrating a birthday!" -- and quotes Shepard Smith as saying "We don't communicate in full sentences any more.  We don't need all those words."  It's "all about speed," agrees reporter Warren St. John.  Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg made a similar observation in The Week In Review some months ago.

    Is this, then, a revealing symbol of the accelerating tempo of our lives?  Hardly.  The identical usage was a trademark of Lowell Thomas, billed as "America's foremost newscaster" on his nightly broadcasts on CBS Radio from the 1930's into the 1970's.  Using the present participle this way certainly attracts attention, but it's nothing new, and reflects no special meaning about the way we live now.  It's related to ultra-short attentions only in the minds of those with ultra-short memories.

    posted by bob @ 3:38 pm | Permanent link
    I'm Back

    My laptop had a near-death experience a few weeks ago, from which it has miraculously emerged with only partial memory loss.  In the interim I had no easy way of posting to this blog, but now that I have Internet access at home again I'll be posting more regularly.  Sorry for the unintended hiatus.
    posted by bob @ 3:33 pm | Permanent link
Friday, February 20, 2004

    Indecency on the Air

    Janet Jackson gets all the headlines, but it's radio -- not television -- that's more often accused of crossing the line of indecency.  And it's radio that has scrambled to get its act together fast enough to forestall FCC intervention.

    Viacom's Mel Karmazin, who runs both CBS and the Infinity group of radio stations, testified before the House Telecommunications Committee on February 11, where he apologized for the notorious half-time show.  And well he might, since legislators and the FCC are trying to outdo each other in imposing bigger penalties for broadcast indecency.  Meanwhile, the industry's trade association, the National Association of Broadcasters, has announced an "industry-wide summit on responsible programming."

    It's much more typical for the FCC to take action against a radio station than a TV network.  This past Wednesday it fined Chicago's Q-101 (WKQX) $28,000 in connection with four separate indecency incidents in the first half of 2001.  The station is owned by the Emmis group.  Meanwhile, considering the current climate, Disney/ABC Radio has promulgated a "zero tolerance" policy.

    It was an Infinity show, "Opie and Anthony," that broadcast a live sex act from St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York a couple of years ago.  So, predictably, Karmazin also announced a "zero-tolerance" policy to his radio managers, saying "Don't screw up.  If you don't comply you'll be fired for cause."

    A regulated industry naturally prefers self-regulation to government intervention, so we can expect more public gestures on the part of the major media companies to show that they won't stand for indecency.  Of course their listeners seem to like a certain amount of it: Howard Stern is one of Infinity's most successful personalities.  Portraying the listening audience as victims of the media giants glosses over that uncomfortable fact.

    posted by bob @ 4:08 pm | Permanent link
Wednesday, February 18, 2004
    A Tale of Two Ombudsmen

    This past Sunday the Public Editor of the Portland Oregonian, Michael Arrieta-Walden, wrote about the letters he had received from readers asking for more coverage of issues in this year's political campaign.  Here are a few excerpts:

    An informal survey of regular readers and comments from others who have been writing or calling about the presidential election urge the newspaper to focus on these steps:

    BRING MORE SKEPTICISM: The inundation of other sources of information, from cable news to talk radio, and the impending flood of advertising from candidates means readers want the newspaper to sort through the spin and deliver the truth....

    MORE ISSUES COVERAGE: The newspaper needs to provide in-depth stories on the candidates' stances on issues, particularly comparing what they're saying today with what they've said and how they've acted in the past. Too much campaign coverage, they say, focuses on the latest stump speech or poll....

    AVOID MEANINGLESS FLAPS: While pushing for more skepticism about the candidates and their claims, several readers also say the newspaper should take care to avoid seizing on issues that are misleading or irrelevant, simply because other media are focusing on them. They cited the distortion in 2000 of Al Gore's statement about starting the Internet and the lack of context for the Howard Dean "howl." "Try to do it right," writes Dale Coberly of Corvallis. "Gotchas about meaningless errors . . . are not useful or even fair."

    Readers nationwide are looking for better campaign coverage.

    Meanwhile, at the New York Times the same day, ombudsman Daniel Okrent used his space in the Week in Review to interview himself about how his job is going.  He didn't address any journalistic issues directly, but he does tell us how he's getting along with his colleagues, his bosses, and his readers.  And he objects when readers complain about The Times in the second person:

    Last bit of advice: don't call me "you," as in "Why did you [or "your people"] put such-and-such on the front page?" I'm not The Times; I'm an independent contractor. I don't attend editorial meetings, engage in personnel discussions or review anything before it gets into print - nor should I be able to. That's why newspapers have editors.

    The contrast is striking between the solipsism of one man's column and the public-service concerns of the other.

    posted by bob @ 8:22 am | Permanent link
Tuesday, February 17, 2004
    The Economist's Religion Problem

    The Economist is remarkable for the breadth and seriousness of its coverage, and for its irrepressible sense of humor as well.  All too often, though, its idea of fun is to gape at religious people and smirk at their nonsensical ways.

    The current issue, for instance, has a piece about mail in Israel that's addressed to God.  "Every year," reveals the writer, in a poor attempt at wit, "[the Israeli postal service] delivers hundreds of letters addressed to God, though they usually contain very little information about the recipient's exact whereabouts."  The contents?  "Most letters contain praise, requests or complaints."  The article's author doesn't acknowledge that there is a name for messages like that: prayer.

    The editors of The Economist are equally amused by all religions, it seems.  In the issue of January 24th, an item datelined Cairo reports,

    Saudi schoolchildren learn that a good way to show love of God is to treat infidels with contempt. They also learn that such “ideologies” as communism, Arab nationalism, secularism and capitalism are all forms of apostasy. Yet none of those things is quite as bad as pretending to be a proper Muslim, then sneaking off to perform rituals in tombs. Anyone who does so forfeits his right to life and property; his womenfolk may be captured and enslaved.

    That's not really so remarkable -- in most societies the severest sanctions are reserved for those who subvert its norms.  When the norms are religious, however, The Economist can't see the underlying parallel, only the superficially puzzling behavior.

    In the Economist for January 17th, the "Economics Focus" page reports on a couple of studies that show -- shockingly, to the writer -- that religious sectarians act in economically rational ways:

    Although ascetic behaviour is intended to reap rewards in the afterlife, Laurence Iannaccone, now of George Mason University, observed a decade ago that it can pay off handsomely in this world. By studying American Christian groups such as the Amish, who forgo modern technology, and the Mormons, who give years of their life as missionaries, he calculated that the costs of religious membership are, despite the sacrifices, lower than the benefits received.

    The Economist seems surprised that religious people aren't crazy after all.  Maybe it's The Economist that isn't behaving rationally.

    posted by bob @ 7:09 pm | Permanent link
Monday, February 16, 2004
    Questioning On the Times Front

    It's always telling to see how assumptions creep unconsciously into language.  In today's New York Times, Ben Brantley's dispatch from London gives a nuanced account of the way current debates over war can be felt in West End productions of both classic and new plays.  The headline, however, has reached a more partisan conclusion:  "All Questioning on the London Front: Theater Reflects War's Bleak Futility."

    There we have it: war is futile, according to the headline writer.  Imagine, for the sake of comparison, that there had been a spate of pro-war plays; would the headline have said "Theater Reflects Need for War"?  It's unlikely, because that would have jarred the sensibilities of someone along the way.

    Headline writing is an art with very strict limitations, and of course there is no room for subtleties like "Theater Reflects Feelings of Futility in War."  Maybe this headline was the best one possible under the circumstances.  Then again, maybe the headline betrays its author's belief that war is indeed futile.  Ideally that question should never come up.

    posted by bob @ 9:01 pm | Permanent link


MEDIA RES archives

About Me
I'm a consultant in the arts and media, specializing in classical-music radio and recordings. My professional expertise ranges from marketing to management to artists and repertoire, but my enthusiasms embrace just about all the mass media, with a particular emphasis on the arts. More

About Media Res
Society and culture in the age of the Internet are more exposed than ever before, subject to examination and investigation instantaneously and ubiquitously. But we human beings still haven't outgrown our capacity to overlook the obvious, or to believe what we want to believe no matter what the evidence to the contrary, or to mistake our narrow prejudices for high ideals. This blog will look at the interrelationships between the media, culture, and society from different angles, maybe with a few surprises now and then. More

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Sites I like...

One of the greatest success stories on the Web must be Jim Romenesko's daily roundup of media industry news, under the aegis of the Poynter Institute.  Crisply written and totally in touch, it's indispensible. 

For news about radio I check the home page of the industry publication "Radio and Records." 

The weekly NPR show "On the Media" takes a consistently fresh look at the media, and the Website makes it easy to listen to segments of the show if you don't find it on your local public radio station.

Among the best media critics around is the Los Angeles Times' Tim Rutten, who writes its "Regarding Media" column twice a week.

And some of the most entertaining and penetrating coverage of the media comes from satirist Harry Shearer on his weekly radio program "Le Show," originating from the fertile ground of KCRW Radio in Santa Monica, California and broadcast nationally.  Current and past shows can be heard online through the Website.

To keep up on current books, performers, and issues in the arts, I listen when I can to Leonard Lopate from New York's WNYC.  The media are not the main focus, but the show is brilliant, always timely and well-researched, and with terrific guests.  As an interviewer, Lopate is in a class by himself: curious, witty, articulate, extraordinarly well-informed, a superb listener.  It's one of life's great mysteries that his show is not broadcast nationally, but at least it's streamed on the Web.



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