Category Archives: journalism

sound & vision

The Trump administration has lately taken to doing something I like, and I hope they keep doing it.

For whatever reason, the public relations apparatchiks now insist that some of the press briefings be audio only. No cameras allowed. Presumably the point is to make the briefings – which cable news hypes incessantly and which rarely end well for the Trump side – less entertaining because, well, there’s nothing to watch.

I suppose it’s a loss that we can’t see Sean Spicer or Sarah Huckabee Sanders taking incoming, or get the sense of the press room as MMA ring. You can’t see them sweat, as we learned when studying the difference between the 1960 presidential debate on TV, (Kennedy won as Nixon sweated and scowled on camera) and radio (generally scored for Nixon on points or at worst a draw).

You do, however, get to concentrate on the words themselves, how they hang in the air. Today, former FBI director James Comey  repeatedly used the word “lie” in connection with President Trump. Asked about it at a briefing later, Huckabee Sanders responded “I can definitively say the President is not a liar.”

The “definitively say”caught me, because it’s the language spokespeople use to suggest they’ve gone and looked into something and are bringing the results back to the unwashed mass of journos. Maybe it’s just me, but the answer sounded a lot like “Yep, I went and checked it out, asked around, talked to my sources, and we’re now sure he’s not a liar.”

I might have missed it, had I been watching instead of listening.

By the way, the President himself is a great listen. He’s word salad, all the way down – I find watching him distracts from the doubling back/vamping/free association/fall back on patented riffs that is a Donald Trump speech. I love it when he does something  like ‘And we’re going to bring the jobs back for the coal miners, the miners who’ve been treated so badly, so badly. You know, I love coal miners. They gave me a great victory here…’ Sometimes he finds his way back to the text. Sometimes we’re off to the races. Regardless, for as long as it lasts, this is a great time to be listening to what’s coming out of the White House. What was once said about jazz applies here too; it’s the sound of surprise.

 

the great war

Before I have to return it to the inter-library loan system, I want to note a book that will stick with me for a long time and, really, should be read by anyone practicing media these days.

It’s from 1995, it was written as an academic study and as far as I can tell, has had no afterlife. Which is a shame, because “Media at War” is superb history and most relevant to the current moment.

(By the way, there are a few books with that main title; the one you want is “Media at War: Radio’s Challenge to The Newspapers, 1924-1939” by Gwenyth L. Jackaway.)

What’s it about? Back when radio was first becoming a thing, it toyed with broadcasting news bulletins. Newspapers, which used stories about radio to goose circulation, treated the new medium with gentle condescension.  Except it turned out that radio in all its forms, including news, was phenomenally popular. It rapidly became a threat to the utter dominance of newspapers as the public’s source of news, prompting a 15 year “war” is which the newspapers tried to beat back radio by, variously, withholding access to national and international news, setting up their own “radio bureau” by which a trickle of news to radio could be tightly controlled and, most interestingly to me, making appeals to morality.

My takeaway is threefold – and remember, this slim book (168 pages) was written before the real rise of the web, and maybe more important, before the rise of smartphones. Takeaway 1, and this is minor: newspapers had roughly the same attitude toward the internet that they did towards radio, and it’s ended about as badly; Takeaway 2, and this is more important: that the war between old media and challengers is about economics but it’s never just about economics – it’s about who gets to say what’s news and be paid attention to; Takeaway 3, and most important: whether it’s newspapers, radio, TV, whenever an established medium feels threatened, it falls back on a handful of responses, most of which are self-interest disguised as something else.

None of the internet stuff is explicitly in the book, though the author pretty clearly was writing with one eye towards the immediate future, but it’s right there in the text anyway.

Two paragraphs from pages 147-148:

“New communication technologies threaten to replace older ones. By definition this means that they threaten to render the established media institution functionally obsolete. If the new technology can perform the same communication function as the older one, and do a faster, more efficient job of it, the older institution is no longer needed. Not only is this an economic threat, but it is also quite threatening to the social, cultural and political power enjoyed by the established institution. The established media institution fights back in self-defense. One of the best ways to defend one’s own interest is to link it to the interests of society at large. The use of democratic or other “sacred” rhetoric effectively masks the self-interested nature of the argument, for who can argue with someone claiming to be protecting democracy?

“At stake in battles between old and new media is the struggle for the enormous power that comes with controlling the channels of communication. It is a power that derives from serving certain communication functions in a society. The story of the Press-Radio war suggests a pattern: Faced with the possibility of being displaced from a long-established role, communication institutions are likely to fight back by accusing the new medium of being dangerous to one of society’s sacred values. They will wrap their own interests in the flag of democracy, the family, the church, or whoever appears to be the best ideal to hide behind. They will take this sacred rhetoric to Congress, the FCC, the courts, or whatever regulatory or legal body has the power to protect the communication status quo, and they will argue that unless they retain their role and continue to serve “their” institutional function, this sacred ideal will be endangered or destroyed entirely.”

Those two paragraphs come at the end of the book, so by quoting just them you don’t get the detail the book is built on, the careful recounting of how the press tried to tame radio, then oppose it, then make a sort of peace with it, and finally, simply lost the argument. It’s well-written, carefully researched history, and is a model of good academic writing.

Of course, the current moment, with its severely partisan media, its viral fake news, its increasing concentration of the public’s news sources in two or three places – Facebook, Twitter – is different from the newspaper-radio conflict. History doesn’t repeat itself; it echoes and yes, the downside risk to democracy is greater now that it was 80 years ago. But perhaps those of us who practice media for a living can take a page from what happened then, and realize that all the disruption of the last long while is new – but not entirely so.

the nub of it

The thing about dystopias is, they’re only fun to consider if you’re not actually living in one. My guess is a real dystopia is not very interesting, and what is interesting is probably scary.

That said, I was intrigued by President Obama a week or so back, responding to Donald Trump’s latest invocation of fear and loathing. (You’re not safe! You don’t have a job! You have no hope!) The president said something like ‘America is not a dystopia.’ He’s right of course, as you’d expect the adult in the room to be. But did I hear just a little of “he’s trying to convince us” mixed in?

So of course we’re not a dystopia, but one would imagine a dystopia doesn’t happen all at once; you don’t wake up to a blighted landscape, martial law and neighbors from Neuromancer. With that in mind, I note the following from the New York Times front page Saturday:

Bonus reference: from NPR (and a bunch of other places) “Anthrax Outbreak in Russia Thought to Be Result Of Thawing Permafrost.”

Money quote: “That means anthrax outbreaks in Siberia could occur every summer, she says. And it’s not just anthrax that could be a problem.

“People and animals have been buried in permafrost for centuries. There could be bodies infected with all kinds of viruses and bacteria, frozen in time. She says scientists are just starting look for it.

“So we really don’t know what’s buried up there,” she says. “This is Pandora’s box.” ”

Yes, I know you could cherry pick examples like this every day. Yes, I know you could push back with other, optimistic examples. It’s just that sometimes, it feels like we’re roaring headlong for the 11th century, complete with iPhones.

on not writing

There is a sad reflex among blogs as they die in which the author, not having posted for three or six months, makes some apologetic noises and promises to do better.

That’s usually followed by an entry or two, then a longer, more final silence.

From what I’ve seen, many of these blogs had pretty good runs before they hit the skids; there’s usually a year or two of steady work, followed by some months of sporadic posting, followed by the above. Which is to say, they aren’t examples of failure to launch – the people who put up six entries and run out of things to say don’t generally bother to apologize – and blogs that gets past year two or three are apt to keep going.

So this is not that note, but writing here has been oddly difficult for the last several months. That’s not a lack of interest in the world; if anything, I’ve read more – and more deeply – lately. The Soviet Union has caught my attention, as has, belatedly, the Iraq war. I’m poking at climate change, though for all that’s written I have yet to find a book that works for me. And I’m drawn as always to the history of technology.

But writing is another matter; I follow the race for President closely but there is so much written about it every day – and then so much written about what’s written and so much written about that, a pile-up of self-referential stuff – I have nothing new to add. Trump and Clinton exhaust me, though like everyone else, I can’t look away.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about cell phones and writing about the minutiae of the ones I use, and that’s fine – I think the FM radio business is a real issue – but the topic has its limits. I have not noted (until now) that the Moto E I enjoy so thoroughly died an unceremonious death 10 days back. For no particular reason, the speaker made a loud buzzing noise and quit. It’s at Motorola for repair/replacement now. Motorola will likely just send me a new one, and then I’ll have to beg Verizon to waive $30 in activation fees. It’s a hassle, but I don’t think it means anything; there’s no larger lesson to be extracted from it, not even “It’s a $29 phone.”

In honor of my 60th birthday, our daughter delivered a set of Sonos Play:1 speakers to me, which I have now set up as a stereo pair in the family room. For the moment, they’re on top of my regular stereo, and I’m not sure how to handle my very, very large collection of CDs, but I can see the day when I get rid of most of the stuff under the TV and just go with the paired Sonos for listening. They’re that good. I got a three month trial to Spotify, and am impressed by the depth and breadth of the thing. But I think it’s a terrible deal for musicians, and don’t know how to resolve that.

So, writing. If I had to describe what stops me before I start it would be – I’m tired of the sound of my own voice. The cure for me traditionally has been to get very, very interested in something or things outside of my own head, and get the itch to talk about it. (Hence the title of this blog.)  My current reading gets me part way, but only part way, there. I may read two or three more books about the Cold War or the run up to World War II and be well satisfied, but have nothing to add.

Meantime, I fashion little bursts of words and am going on the assumption that at some point the wheel turns, the gears click and there’s more where this came from. I’m reading Neil Gaiman’s “View From The Cheap Seats,” which is a collection of non-fiction, much of it about writing and writers, and it helps. Gaiman reminds me this is work, and that the simple truth, as always, is that writers…write. (Except Douglas Adams, but that’s a different story.)

 

lost in space

Saw “Independence Day: Resurgence” on its opening weekend. It’s not very good, but then neither was the original, and I’ve watched it at least a dozen times over the years. This was more of the same, and I think the critics are maybe being too hard on the new movie – yes, if it’s possible for an already ridiculous movie to get even more CGI-ed ridiculous (an alien ship 3000 miles wide?) this certainly qualifies. But it’s basically the original movie told all over again, and that’s fine.

One thing: the real science fiction of “Resurgence” isn’t the weapons or the alien ships or the giant alien queen. The real science fiction is that in the 2016 of “Resurgence,” the world is at peace. There are, the President says early on, no more wars and the planet is united. Back in this world, it feels very much like an old and faded dream.

Reading and listening:

Finished “Eccentric Orbits,” a captivating new book on a topic I knew nothing about – the strange history of the Iridium satellite phone.  (I think a couple of Iridiums make cameo appearances in “Resurgence.”) Because I cared nothing about cell phones for the longest time, I missed some big stories. This is one of them.

Cued up: “The Network.” A book about David Sarnoff and Edwin Armstrong and the early crushing of FM by Sarnoff’s RCA. I’ve known for a long time that Sarnoff tried to kill FM, which he saw as a risk to his AM radio business. This new book is a deep dive on the subject.

Also, Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial.” I’m belatedly reading some history of the Iraq War. Even though Woodward gets criticized for being a captive of the insider accounts he writes, he still gets an enormous amount on the record that might otherwise stay submerged. 10 years down the road, it’s easier to see just how good a piece of reporting this book was.

Cued up: George Packer’s “The Assassin’s Gate.” I got to both the Woodward and the Packer by way of John Gray’s “Black Mass.” Gray pretty much defines the idea of a sobering read.

Listening: I traded in a bunch of box sets I never listen to and ended up with a few hundred dollars credit at the record store in Syracuse. I made a dent in it this weekend: Bill Evans, “Some Other Time”; Allen Toussaint, “American Tunes”:  Giles Peterson/Sun Ra, “To Those of Earth & Other Worlds”; Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, “Multishow Live.” I listened to half of the Evans, half of the Veloso and the Toussaint so far. Money well spent.

 

soul danger

Roger Cohen in the New York Times today:

The journalist is a stranger who moves in the opposite direction from the crowd, toward danger, leaving the settled majority perplexed. Why, they ask, are you going over the lines? Why do you choose such a lonely existence? In search of a fair understanding, you say, and they shake their heads. There is nothing to understand, they insist, just write the truth!

I especially like this because it gets at something I have trouble putting into words, which is why so much of today’s journalism strikes me as a failure. It’s easiest to see if you take the Cohen quote and apply it to an overtly, crudely ideological operation like Fox News; to people who defend Fox, the network is one big challenge to the conventional wisdom, the entrenched interests of America’s presumed liberal elite. The idea is that the pushback – Fox coming at the news from a conservative point of view – serves as some sort of antidote for unchecked liberal assumptions, that somehow you get a better picture of the world if you have the contending voices of a Fox on the right and an MSNBC on the left.

At one time I kinda, sorta believed that too, and someone I admire very much points out that the press used to be a lot more partisan, and that the cool, technocratic journalism that rose up in the 1960s and continued for a few decades is the aberration.

But here’s what I think is missing: the point of journalism isn’t to have an argument with the other fella. It’s to have an argument with yourself. As I’ve noted here before, too much of what passes for hard nosed digging in journalism these days looks an awful lot like dressed up confirmation bias – or to put it another way, when was the last time you were surprised by a story you read or saw or heard?

So to get back to the quote from Cohen, while you can say it’s melodramatic, and it is, it also catches the underlying sense of the best journalism. One thing he notes is that a journalist moves “toward danger,” a point that may not be obvious if you’re covering city council meetings. Where’s the danger? I think the danger is always in finding out that the world is put together a lot differently than you think it is, that it is indifferent to you and the things you value, and sometimes it’s downright malevolent. It’s the old line about staring into the abyss and having it stare back at you. Call it “soul danger,” which is nothing a self-respecting newspaperman from the 50s, or a market-oriented “content manager” from the ’00s, could say with a straight face but is exactly where the real stakes of journalism lie.

If you are a real journalist, you don’t believe in The Truth. You believe in a lot of little, gapped truths, and you believe equally in the big patches of darkness between them. You’re at constant risk of looking away, of convincing yourself that a person or party or the world is really this way or that, of growing too tired to listen to the doubt in your head, of simply being human and needing more emotional and spiritual security than the job can give you, of settling.

Mind you, you can still be Powered By Journalism even if you’re not quite the journalist I describe; I suspect the clannish reporters of Washington DC don’t struggle so much with these issues – they are part of a caste which specializes in the study and exercise of power, and what I suggest is a kind of intentional powerlessness, a radical doubt. Also, my guess is the bright young bloggers of the online world are getting their juice from the same kind of batteries, ones that don’t allow for a lot of movement against the grain.