Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A God in Colchester

Did we really need this?

Bush Highly Revered in Utah
Support for the president continues to be nearly unanimous in the tiny town of Randolph.


It's an amusing headline, recalling conquered barbarians worshipping distant Roman emperors as gods. The story, alas, is a mass of faux-anthropological cliches. The residents of ultra-red Randolph, in northern Utah, regard dijon mustard with suspicion. Evoking James Watt, the county is proud of its one Catholic, one Mexican (married to the Catholic), and the pair of African-American twins on the cheerleading squad. Residents have none of the problems afflicting the rest of America (Iraq casualties, homeless people, hurricanes, etc.) and thus no clue about what is going on anywhere else in the nation or world. A political analyst (another journalistic stock character) attributes their avid support for Bush to a lack of cynicism. David Finkel (who did similar portraits of Red and Blue communities before the 2004 election) implies that, like the president they revere, these people are living in a fantasy.

Perhaps they are. But this article tells us more about the Washington Post than Utah. Randolph and its inhabitants are rendered via typical elite media formulas: at best, they are salt-of-the-earth innocents, at worst, rubes. Part of this was doubtless a function of time - Finkel probably had very little of it, making it difficult to get a three dimensional portrait. With more time, perhaps he could have discovered hints of doubt or disquiet under the relentless cheeriness, or plumbed the sources of the town's ideological lockstep in people's lives and experiences. But he didn't, and you don't get the sense that insights were what the Post was after here.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Colbert and God

Here is a fascinating post on Stephen Colbert and the dissonance, or tension, or convergence, between comedy and religion (not Pat Robertson, that is, or the one about the Pope, the Rabbi, and Bill Clinton in a rowboat, but the way in which a religious sensibility may influence comedy):
Speaking of Colbert and religion: Did you see his show on Thursday, with Paul Begala as the guest? Begala is going on about how he needed to teach Bill Clinton how to get his ideas across in short, simple form for the news. Begala describes how he made his point to Bill Clinton, who was bellyaching about how his wonky policies couldn't be condensed into sound bites. Begala reached in his back pocket and pulled out a copy of the New Testament that he's been carrying since 1979. At this point on the show, Begala actually pulls out the tattered, taped-together book and says he highlighted John 3:16 and handed it to Clinton. Begala hands the opened book to Colbert, points to the verse, tells Colbert to read it, and says he's going to time him to prove -- as he proved to Clinton -- how much can be said in 5 seconds. Colbert takes a slight glance at the book, flips it shut, looks straight at Begala and says, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that those who believe in him shall not die but have eternal life." Begala says, triumphantly, "Four and a half seconds!" And Colbert says "That's the Christian sound bite."
I was struck by this moment on the show. The interview was going very well -- Begala speaking crisply (about speaking crisply) and Colbert slipping in perfect zingers. And then Begala wants to use the New Testament to prove a point about how he got through to Clinton. I felt that, reciting the verse, Colbert was not being the Colbert Report character but that his own religion was dictating that he had to say the verse as a demonstration of his own faith, and it wasn't right to fool around with that. I can't say why I feel so sure. The Colbert character would, I think, have been more pleased with himself to know the verse. You'd have felt the preen. I experienced this moment as a startling statement of faith, the kind of thing you don't normally see on TV.
The real Colbert, whom we can only catch glimpses of on TV behind his mask of absurdist pomposity, is a thoughtful and interesting person. He is a practicing Catholic. His father died in a plane crash. You get the sense that the facts of his life and personal history temper his comedy a bit, and for the better. He isn't impishly mining the zeitgeist like his colleague Jon Stewart, at least not in the same way; there's something a little more complex going on.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Grip and grin

Consider those photos of Jack Abramoff and George Bush, floating out there somewhere in the ether, shielded from view. The White House is doing everything it can to ensure no image of the president and the disgraced Republican lobbyist/felon together ever graces your computer screen. Media outlets of all stripes are doing all they can to put those jpegs in the public domain.

This is a race between two titanic forces of American political/cultural/media life -- the Bush-Rove Machine and the Tabloid Culture. The former depends on the iron control of information and perception, and on the unerring loyalty of its followers. The latter thrives on the public's bottomless appetite for exposure and embarrassment. And it has a lot of cash to spread around. Which will win?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Oprahfreygate

Oprah staged an amazingly complete reversal of her mealy-mouthed support of serial exaggerator/fabricator James Frey today on her show, going so far as to stage a parade of her own critics, from Richard Cohen to Maureen Dowd.

Some attribute this to cynicism -- she did it to put this behind her -- and others to ego -- she did it because he defiled the Church of Oprah. These suppositions have some truth to them, but none of them fully explains what happened.

Anytime someone like Oprah (0kay, there is no one like Oprah) gets into a mess like this, there is no way to separate the public drama from whatever private motivations may have shaped it. Her statement was clear and that's what counts. One of our most revered media figures was on record saying its okay to lie - giving the stamp of approval to a media already saturated with spin and other forms of deception. Now that's cynical. And in the therapeutic culture she champions, she is once again a champion of self-examination and public-truth-telling, not an enabler. All is right again in the Oprah universe, and in the places it overlaps with ours.

The fact that she recognized this would be great TV and played it for all that it was worth, well, why not? If only our politicians could move so sure-footedly.

Luke, I am your father

Of course Tim Russert displayed a particularly icky Washington brand of elitism, insiderism and logrolling on Sunday's Meet the Press, promoting his college sophomore son Luke’s XM Radio show with James Carville. Russert's personal touches are well-known (at least to those who watch the show semi-regularly). He has made his affection for the Buffalo Bills an irritatingly regular feature. He wrote and promoted a book on his working class father's homespun wit and wisdom. When Bill Clinton was about to name his new dog in the late 1990s, a rumor circulated it would be “Luke” and Russert promoted the choice on the show (Clinton picked the more generic, less New Testament “Buddy”).

Some of this is aimed at lightening the show's inquisitorial tone, some to show that Russert is a regular guy. But the effect is the opposite: Russert, Carville and their families evidently inhabit a world alien to the rest of us, a world where you can have naming rights to the president’s dog and conjure “income streams” from thin air. And they like flaunting it. As Tim Noah wrote last week, if journalists want to have some claim on the truth, they must be conversant with the people they write and report on – so why do they broadcast their sumptuous riches to the world?

But the newer, more distressing feature here is not Russert’s evocation of Marie Antoinette, but the fact that he’s doing it for profit. With the media fracturing into a million tiny pieces, each with its own millimeter-sized demographic slice, everyone’s an entrepreneur. Old media are now launching pads for hundreds of new ventures. The media extend their “brand” into a new domain, and give a lift to obscure new enterprises – satellite radio, webcasts, podcasting, etc. There’s nothing wrong with this – the music must change, right? Except that the proliferation of hype cheapens the brand or otherwise screws it up (cf. the TimesSelect disaster). It also erodes credibility, the old media’s most precious and rapidly disappearing commodity. At the bottom of this slippery slope. each in its own niche, sit Fox News, US Weekly and Skating with Celebrities.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The ombudsman's naiveté

The eruption over Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell’s columns is a great case study for the cultural anthropologists studying the bumpy transition between old and new media. Howell, of course, is “old media.” And she was slammed by “new media” in a flood of nasty comments on a Post blog after she mistakenly said Democrats had received “Abramoff money.” She later apologized for the mistake – in fact, Democrats had not received direct contributions from Abramoff himself, though many had received money from Indian tribes under the direction of Abramoff and/or his firm. (This is an important distinction, given that many Indian tribes were giving to the same Democrats long before Abramoff came along – a subtlety Howell does not acknowledge).

Howell’s initial comment was not only mistaken but glib – she implied that the scandal might put Democrats in the dock shortly. It was a knowing comment, implying that all politicians deserve our close observation if not our outright suspicion.

Of course they do. And Howell obviously regards herself as an experienced journalist who has seen it all in her "50-year career." But it’s also obvious that whatever she’s seen didn’t prepare her for this.

Howell’s original column and her responses since then display a kind of naiveté about the nature of the scandal and the media coverage of it. She’s seeing it through a conventional MSM prism: She floats above the political fray, applying even-handedness tempered by cynicism. But as Josh Marshall points out, this once-praiseworthy approach can no longer be taken at face value. It has been deconstructed and compromised by the past decade's nasty political splits and evolving technology.

The MSM have spent years being thrashed by the conservative media/political apparatus for being too liberal and this has made them skittish. "Fairness" has evolved from one of the highest journalistic goals into a bureaucratic yardstick for media outlets to prove they're not biased. So journalists create false equivalencies – for every venal Republican in a story, there’s an unwritten rule that you have to find a venal Democrat. If such “fairness” leads to the reporting of objective falsehoods, though, something’s seriously wrong.

But it’s hard for the media to absorb this lesson. “Everybody does it” covers both the “fairness” requirement and satisfies the Republican critics. Unfortunately, it also coincides nicely with Republican spin, which artfully exploits traditional MSM rules in a variety of ways.

So there’s a backlash on the liberal side, particularly the blogosphere. The majority of critics, unfortunately, are sending flaming emails and comments. But the best critics urge the media to aim at telling a true story, rather than misrepresenting reality with “he-said, she-said” or “everybody does it” formulas. In addition to being intellectually lazy, those reflexive approaches favor those who are better at saying things in a coordinated fashion (i.e., Republicans).

Howell seems to exist a decade or so back so in media time. She appears unmindful or unaware of the history and subtle brilliance of Republican/conservative media coordination and manipulation, or its cumulative influence on the behavior and psyches of MSM-types. And she obviously had no clue about the anger and frustration over this trend on the liberal-Democratic side.

Add into this the Post's inexperience with blogospheric anthropological quirks – the more freewheeling comments on left-leaning sites, the ease with which comment threads can descend into vitriol as rage reverberates – and you have a meltdown in the making.

Howell’s column today doesn’t really resolve things. She concedes on the Democrats vs. Republicans issue, definitively calling Abramoff a “Republican scandal.” But the tone of the column is defensive and doesn’t betray much understanding of the swirling forces at work here. It would serve her and the Post to take a harder look at them rather than huffing about flaming comments.