Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: The Media

Life Goes On

You really have to wonder about someone who is disappointed that the world did not end on Saturday. Somebody like John Ramsey, a 25-year-old from New Jersey who, inspired by preacher Harold Camping’s incessant calls that the apocalypse was on its way, quit his job, re-arranged his life, gathered his extended family around him and waited for the rapture.

(He also donated a couple thousand dollars to Camping’s Family Radio network. If the end were indeed nigh, why did they need donations?)

As the Huffingtonpost reports, Ramsey’s family huddled in his apartment flipping news channels and checking for word of action movie-sized tsunamis on facebook. (Maybe they played some Farmville in the mean time). “They cried. They argued. But mostly, they waited. Nothing happened.” On Sunday, Ramsey said he now faces a “mixed bag”. His wife, who is nine months pregnant but was resigned to never give birth, now must prepare to go into labour, maybe this week.

“Life goes on,” Ramsey said. “I get to live. I get to be a dad.” You can almost hear the disappointed sigh.

I don’t want to be mean. There’s a lot of naive people out there, and by ‘naive’ I actually mean brain-dead-stupid-who-should-probably-not-be-allowed-to-drive. No culture, time period or religion has a monopoly on snake oil salesmen scamming the gullible masses.

But my question about the May 21st non-apocalypse is why did we all end up talking about it? Why did I make a joke on facebook, inviting friends to go see ‘Bridesmaids’ Saturday night if “we’re all still here”? Why was it a casual topic of conversation all dayat the cafe where I work, up there with the wonderful weather?

It’s unsettling that a fringe figure can preach thunderclaps and fireballs and not only gain a following but hog media attention. Could I just start raving tomorrow that a giant, purple hippopotamus was hurdling towards earth, set to destroy us all with his voluminous violet derriere, and get hash-tagged all over the twitter-verse? Camping even did this once already in 1994! But, spoiler alert, life went on, which was especially fortunate for the cast of ‘Friends’.

Isn’t it irresponsible to give publicity to someone ripping off the money of his very own followers? In defence of reporters, it’s not like there’s real news out there; no natural disasters; no historic uprisings in the Middle east; no sex scandals involving formerly-influential middle-aged politicians with too much testosterone.

Camping sheepishly stayed quiet at first, but he gave a press conference Sunday outside his home. “It has been a really tough weekend,” he said. (I thought my hangover from watching drag queens at Crews and Tangos was bad.) Some have noted that Camping’s employees appeared to have planned to go to work on Monday. There’s no implication that his radio company, which is worth about $120 million, will give any donations back.

Despite the Reformation, the Enlightenment and Revolutions both Industrial and Digital, we’re not that different from medieval peasants who were taken in by wandering, wailing doomsday ‘prophets’. The human race knows a million times more about math and science than we did then but many of us don’t know how to use it. Just as disturbing, we live in a time when we’re as saturated with media as they were in the Dark Ages with bubonic plague, but we lack the skills to analyze claims critically and rationally.

“It’s not [Camping’s] fault,” Ramsey said. “I read the Bible. The math added up. I don’t think anybody would do something like this and not mean it.

Scientists (remember them?) do think the world will end in a couple billion years when the Sun cools down, but unlike the child Woody Allen at the beginning of ‘Annie Hall’ (“He won’t do his homework!” “The universe’s expanding; what’s the point?”) I believe that our relationships with other people and human beings’ incredible capacity for love, friendship and empathy, makes life worth living. Rather than as some sort of consolation for not receiving the loving embrace of God after his ascent, Ramsey should see that the love for and from his newborn child is what will keep him going.


This Hopey-Changey Stuff

Sometimes it feels like I’m the last supporter of Barack Obama still out there. Maybe ‘supporter’ isn’t the right word, as there are still many people who respect his intelligence, who understand the difficulties he inherited and who recognize that the opposing party is filled with crackpot ideologues who would continue to drive the American economy off the cliff.

Perhaps ‘well-wisher’ is a better word, because the most depressing political event of the last two years wasn’t how fast the Republicans regrouped, demonized the president and ‘energized their base’. The most depressing thing was how fast his would-be supporters on the left cut him adrift, folded their arms and threatened to take their toys and go home until the next easily-vilified Republican president was elected. Progressives tend to hold their ideals dearer than their leaders; right-wingers stick with their elected politicians no matter what. In a vastly-oversimplified manner, can this not help explain why lefties have such trouble staying in office?

Also depressing was the CNN coverage of the midterm elections last week, with the ‘Republican tidal wave’ storyline prepared and locked in long before the first results arrived. Rather than focus on the Democrats’ failure to get their base to the polls (along with the fact that young voters never turn out for midterms in the same rate they do for presidential elections), the anchors and pundits suggested that all of Obama’s voters had turned Republican as “punishment” for the economy, for the size of government and for healthcare reform (How dare he!).

Thus the story of the night became whether Obama “got the message” (because clearly, the voters spoke with one voice) and whether he would change course. Reporters from across the board seemed shocked when the president, in his press conference the next day, didn’t accept their premise that the Democrat’s loses were a repudiation of all his policies and that he didn’t reverse himself entirely and embrace far-right neo-conservatism. Imagine what they would have said about him if he had.

No, polls seem pretty clear that while one segment of the electorate equates expanded health insurance and employing more workers with government contracts as Nazi fascism, they are counteracted by voters who thought health reform and the stimulus package didn’t go far enough. These are the supporters who didn’t come out in the numbers they did in 2008 and who Obama will need to woo back in time for his re-election bid.

You’re never going to please everyone, especially the columnist/blogger caste, who have the luxury of treating one issue in isolation (bank bailouts, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’, climate change) as their sole deal-breaker. The average American middle and working-class voter has very few luxuries these days, and the Democrats have to continue to work for them, softening the recession while passing legislation which will prevent future greed-fuelled financial meltdowns.  The contrast shouldn’t be too hard to draw as Republicans, for all their lip-service about the ‘heartland’, are distracted with holding on to the Bush era tax cuts for millionaires.

America still needs ‘Change’.

America still needs ‘Hope’.

“What’s to celebrate?”

The above question was asked by Kindra Arnesen, the wife of a shrimper from Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. “My way of life’s over.”

For the first time in 86 days, oil has stopped flowing into the Gulf of Mexico after BP succeeded in capping the blown-out well yesterday afternoon. Officials are cautiously optimistic that this might be the beginning of the end of the worst environmental disaster in American history. But they point out that the cap is only a test to determine whether the well below the seabed is intact.

“It is a positive sign,” President Barack Obama, whose poll numbers have dropped along with BP stock, told reporters. “We’re still in the testing phase.” BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells told CNN that the company was “obviously very encouraged” before adding that they are focused on collecting data and determining their next step. “I don’t want to create a false sense of excitement.”

There’s little worry of that, as news of the cap has been met with hesitant relief at best and hostile incredulity at worst.

“It’s a beautiful thing that it’s shut off,” Shamarr Allen told the Associated Press. “But there’s still a lot of years of cleaning.”  Stephon France, in the same report, claimed “It’s a [expletive] lie! I don’t believe they stopped that leak. BP’s trying to make their self look good.”

This is the company, after all, which spent $50 million (US) on an image-saving ad campaign to convince Americans “it won’t happen again”.

Much of the coverage of the debacle has contrasted the statements of politicians and BP executives (whose reassurances, Campbell Robertson and Henry Fountain wrote in The New York Times, were “mocked” by the never-ending footage of the unstoppable oil plume) with those of the residents of Louisiana whose lives have been forever altered.

“It’s kind of like putting a Band-Aid on a dead man in my opinion,” Jeff Ussury told The New York Times. “I started out kind of believing them, but I don’t believe in them at all anymore.”

“There’s still places you can scratch out a day’s work,” Mr. Gercia, a third-generation fisherman, told The Globe and Mail’s David Ebner. “You can survive another day. You’re not putting anything away, you’re just paying bills.”

The juxtaposition of personal stories with the studied statements of officials helps reporters cast themselves as cutting to the chase of the story, of not falling for the official line, even when they must repeat it. But it also serves to remind us of the human dimension of the disaster for people like deckhand Manuel Meyer, who tempers his relief with the knowledge that the clean-up has just begun: “It’s gonna continue for several years… and it ain’t gonna do nothing but get worse before it gets better.”

Even if the cap holds, the damage that has been done to the environment, the lives of people of the Gulf Coast and the already tarnished trust of the public in their government’s ability to hold irresponsible corporations accountable, will take generations to cleanse.

Being Young and White is not a Crime, Ms. Blatchford

Christie Blatchford begins her Globe and Mail column today warning of the “increasingly opaque” Canadian justice system as the case against the 17 protestors charged with conspiracy in connection to the G20 summit begins behind closed doors, with tight security and a media ban.

The idea behind the ban is that the accused, nick-named the G17, are presumed innocent until found guilty, and, in Christie’s colourful language, “should be protected from heinous publicity disseminated against them by the state, its agents and the scum of the press for fear of prejudicing their fair trials.”

While infringement of human rights via last-minute draconian police laws and the exclusion of the public and the press from the court are both issues which should concern all Canadians, Blatchford does her best to undermine her own argument that the media is needed to challenge the spin of the authorities, lawyers and defendants, by slandering an entire age group.

From footage recorded by a undercover police officer of a meeting of the Southern Ontario Anarchist Resistance, Blatchford observes that the G17 “for the most part appear to be the middle-class progeny of the middle-aged urban profession class of this country. They are, in other words, reasonably affluent, lucky, mostly white kids with good teeth.” She also alleges that some of them still use their parents’ cars and cottages. I have not been covering court cases as long as Blatchford, so maybe the connection between Muskoka, dentistry and conspiracy charges is less obtuse for her than it is to me.

Christie goes on to link, through guilt by association, the young people who came to the courtroom with the accused 17, for they were “cut from that delicate yet entitled cloth so familiar to teachers who work in large Canadian cities.”

Blatchford is insulted that a pair of young women dare to request that an unnamed reporter change seats so that they can sit together and mocks them for getting upset because one of their friend’s is in jail. When the women are eventually able to sit together, Blatchford adds some mild-homophobia to her youth-bashing: “Frankly, it looked as though what they really wanted was a room; they were constantly stroking each other’s hair, doing deep-breathing and clucking softly.”

The article ends, not with a return to the legitimate concerns of secretive courts and restrictions placed on media, but with Blatchford’s interview with a father of an accused, who claims that his daughter is not doing too badly in jail and that “Being a parent is knowing how to do the job after the job needs to be done.”

So there you have it: if only some parents had been a little stricter, perhaps taking away cottage-privileges from their spoiled anarchist offspring, perhaps they wouldn’t be in jail.

And they wonder why young people don’t read newspapers.

Most troubling is the realization that, while making the case for the press’s involvement in court cases, Blatchford shows just how biased and superficial that reportage can be.

Post script: I was going to comment on the Globe’s website and hopefully get some hits from it, but they disabled the comments. I hope “lucky, affluent, middle-class white kids with good teeth” crashed the site.

Sunday Reflections

“I don’t know if you should call it that. It sounds like church.”—my Dad

This is a good, quiet, rainy morning to take a moment’s pause. It’s been almost a week, but it feels much longer. To keep you loyal readers coming back, I’ve been trying to post something every day. It can get pretty exhausting, especially when you aim to post an article of a higher calibre than the average blog-whining: something with a snappy lead and last sentence, a focused argument and witty observational details. Plus, despite my Grammar Nazis rant, I want to keep errors to a minimum (would like to seem professional, don’t cha know).

I am not a new-comer to the blogosphere. I had my first livejournal account the summer after first year. All I can remember writing about was the election campaign I volunteered with and the treatment of John Kerry in the media. Then I had another one a few years later, after my epic break-up, which unfortunately featured the odd histrionic take-down of my ex-boyfriend. I have learned a lot since then. I had a blogspot two years ago, on which I wrote about Obama, my adventures at UofT and some cultural-criticism I’m still proud of. I moved to Ireland and started ‘Canadian Boy in Dublin’ and wrote about my landlord, gay bars, homesickness and other places I travelled. I wanted this wordpress to last longer, which is why the html is my name, something that still scares me. But if you’re going to put ideas out there you should have the courage of your convictions and take responsibility for them.

Here’s the other thing about wordpress that only the initiated would know: they have this neat little thing called ‘blog stats’ which allows you to see how many times your site was viewed, where the viewer was referred from and what links they clicked on your page. So dangerous. Having never had this option before, I have become a poll-obsessed. How can you not get obsessed with a line-graph, especially when it resembles a spiky Lawren Harris iceberg, as it did after I received 60 visits on Tuesday. I was all excited, jumping around, thinking that if I could average about that each day I was on my way to Arianna-status. Then Wednesday I had 40 visits. By Thursday, it was down to 32.

“I’ve lost them all!” I wailed to my parents, who have already become accustomed to me entering a room and reporting a two-digit number with no explanation.

It was beautiful on Friday and I decided to walk to work. I thought the walk may give me an idea of how to shake things up, and it did. Halfway there the interviews I had been reading on the WORN blog along with one of a friend in the Toronto Star mixed with my desire to involve more people in my blog and I said to myself, ‘I could do interviews! It’s not difficult, especially when you know cool people!’ Months ago, reflecting on how blogs have a tendency to be self-centred and navel-gazing, I had the idea of dedicating one to ‘Other People’ (other than myself) and that’s where the title came from. The Emily post (haha, Emily Post) replaced the former zenith of 60 views and by the end of yesterday had become my most-visited page.

Although I’m going to keep the number to myself, as I don’t want to brag.

The Media, The Queen and The Gentleman

I’m dating a grown-up. He is a gentleman. Although he’s only five years older than me, he has his own apartment, did military service back in his first country, opens doors for me and never leaves clothing on the floor. But his adulthood only really came into focus when he invited my parents over for dinner. Although my house has always been open to my boyfriends, none of them had had us over in return.

“You don’t need to do that,” I told the Gentleman.

“But I want to,” he answered.

He got me to check their schedules, after checking my schedule, and I reported the best day. Then he made a point of phoning and inviting them officially. Then my parents forgot what time he said to arrive and I said, “Don’t ask me! You’re the ones he talked to.” 

I went to the apartment early to help him cook, but it was already done, so we drank wine instead. I was a little nervous about the evening. Not that it would be anything but pleasant, but it felt like a watershed moment in my young-adulthood: I was co-hosting a dinner for my parents at a partner’s house. I wore a tie.

Between the red wine, my empty stomach and the heat, I was a tad tipsy when my parents arrived. My mother carried a loaf of banana bread and a houseplant. My father explained how, because I didn’t answer my phone (in reality, neither one of them had bothered to update their mobiles with my new number) they had to wait for some tenant to let them into the building like burglars. When guests arrive at a house for the first time, it is customary to do a tour. In an apartment which is essentially one room, everyone just stands around looking at the walls.

Dinner was exquisite. The Gentleman had spent two days on it. My mother especially understood how much effort had been put into it, and oohed and awed. The Gentleman opened up about his family back home and my parents gave him resume advice for a job he wants. All in all, I felt quite lucky.

After they left and we cleared up, we cuddled on the couch (conveniently in front of the air conditioner). Don’t ask me how, it’s not very romantic, but we started talking about governments and conspiracy theories and the media. The Gentleman confided that he didn’t always trust the official version of events. Now, my basic feeling about conspiracy theories is that human beings are way too unorganized to pull off anything that complex. Like, I’m not naive and I know that giant international conglomerates do sneaky, sketchy things every day to increase their billion dollar businesses by even just a cent. But I need facts to believe something, not just coincidences and gut feelings.

Eventually, when the Gentleman was discussing how “the Media” does this and “the Media does” that, I had to interrupt. “The Media doesn’t do anything! The Media doesn’t exist! When you say ‘the Media’ what you’re talking about is a huge collection of owners and editors and writers all just trying to get papers sold and the job done. They’re not organized. They have no plan.”

I quoted Chuck Klosterman (in a chapter from Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs) when he wrote that “the single most important impact on any story is far less sinister [than political agendas]: Mostly, it all comes down to a) who the journalist has called, and b) which of those people happens to call back first.” He goes on to explain that media owners, while often rich and right-wing, barely seem to read books let alone their own publications, and you don’t need to worry that journalists are trying to force their version of right or wrong on you because “anyone who’s been a reporter for five years forgets how to tell the difference.”

After I was finished my little rant the Gentleman smiled at me with his calm-Buddha face. He told me a story about the war that began in his country just after he was born. The newspapers had blatantly lied to the people, and they had done it again and again. And I realized that he had grown up in a world where no one, not the government, media or clerics, was trusted. A world in which, at a very young age, you were sceptical of everything you heard and felt safer drawing your own conclusions. Our newspapers may get things wrong, or our politicians might bend facts, but native Canadians can’t understand that level of propaganda.

So I cuddled back under his arm and we started our movie.

I brought over The Queen because the Gentleman has a weird thing about Elizabeth II (always joking that he has met her or wants to be her representative, the Governor General). I enjoyed it, although I worried that the Gentleman missed a lot of the great dialogue because it was mumbled and too quiet. I viewed the actors in a different light than when I first saw it; Helen Mirren’s performance fell in my opinion (I thought she was a bit too smirky, and the Gentleman announced “It’s kind of bullshit, because she doesn’t look like the Queen!”) but thought the actor who played Prince Charles got his well-meaning nervous nerdiness spot on.

When the Queen and her family were holed up in their Scottish castle, while the rest of the country was mourning Princess Diana, the newspapers smelled blood. They ran headline after headline attacking the Queen for not releasing a statement, not lowering the flag of Buckingham palace, not returning to London, even suggesting the Royal Family had something to do with Di’s death. The movie treats the newspapers as the unfiltered voice of the British people, being taken at face value by both Tony Blair’s government and the Royal servants. Only the Queen suggests that sales may be a motivating factor for the papers’ melodrama. But finally she relents, returns to London and gives an unglamorous (I remember my shock at the vision of the Queen wearing her big glasses, looking just like anyone’s grandmother) television address.

“So,” the Gentleman said. “The Media made the Queen return to London.”

“Shut up,” I said.