Wednesday, July 22, 2009

This is why we are stupid

Obama plans to speak to the nation tonight about healthcare reform, one of the few issues that actually affects all Americans in the meaningful way politicians often claim things do. That said, it would be nice if we paid attention, but apparently several networks were hesitant to carry the broadcast because it interfered with regularly scheduled programming.

You have got to be fucking kidding me. Apparently, FOX declined to air it outright, and NBC and ABC only jumped on because the White House "shifted the event's time from the previously announced 9 p.m. to the lesser-watched hour of 8 p.m."

So, if I'm reading this correctly, these networks wouldn't provide their audiences with much needed information on one of the most important issues of the day because they were afraid of losing viewers had they failed to air reruns and reality TV shows. Moreover, by airing it at 8 p.m., this means fewer people will watch.

Following this train of logic, either the networks are wrong if they don't air the news conference and are completely irresponsible in fulfilling their public duty to the American people, or they are right to fear a losing viewers because the American people are that stupid and/or apathetic. I can't decide which is worse.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Thoughts on Uncle Walter

Last Friday, Walter Cronkite died in his New York home. The Times wrote a pretty solid obit that's worth a look. I was sad to here the news even though I did not come of age during the Cronkite years. The man was a legend, and as a journalism student, it's been a foregone conclusion that he set the standard for what television journalism was supposed to be.

But, I suppose in truth I'm not really sad abouthim dying (seeing as I didn't know him), but rather his work and what it represented dying with him. I suppose that makes his death a bit like Michael Jackson's passing: I'm a few decades late in mourning what we liked him for in the first place.

Still, I think sometimes we give Cronkite's generation more credit than it is due, probably because of what Cronkite and other journalists of the era embodied. That statement merits some explaining.

I think Walter Cronkite was a legend in his field for three reasons. First, you have to give credit to the man. I don't care how much circumstances affect or influence success, somebody's behind it calling the shots. Chalk one up for Walt.

Second on the list has to be the culture. Though Cronkite was managing editor of the CBS evening news for most of the 1960s and 1970s, his most memorable moments -- as well as the country's -- occurred during the 1960s. That decade had a lot going on: civil rights movements (race, gender, sexual orientation), assassinations (JFK, MLK, RFK), the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the explosion of rock 'n' roll, and a MAN WALKED ON THE FUCKING MOON. That time was everything at once. A collision of hope and hate, love and war, and the last moment in American history when straight, wealthy, white patriarchy faced a legitimate challenge to its cultural authority from united countercultural forces. News of that magnitude is historically important no matter who the voice behind it is. In my lifetime the only news events I can even remember are the collapse of the Berlin Wall and 9/11. Most everything else -- O.J. Simpson's trial, Clinton's blowjob, the little Cuban boy, etc. -- seems fairly trivial.

Lastly, the media environment cannot be ignored. CBS was one of only three network stations during most of Cronkite's run as anchor. With fewer television options, Cronkite had a much easier time commanding a larger audience as well as the nation's respect. Having a captive audience gave Cronkite the freedom to run a newsroom with some journalistic integrity.

The business of television has changed since then, though the profit model has not. Now we can just as easily escape the news for something more trivial as we can pay attention to current events. This reality isn't necessarily bad until the news becomes watered down in order to compete with entertainment programming. Television journalism is, for all practical purposes, as dead as Cronkite himself.

But this is what I meant earlier when I said that I think we give earlier generations too much credit. I'm not sure they appreciated the value of actual news more than we do now; I just think it may have been the only thing on during a time when channel surfing took all of three seconds. Would they have given Cronkite the same attention and respect had he been competing against more "entertaining" pundits or reality television? I don't know. Probably no more that we would.

I will say this much: Cronkite knew the business, and he was good at what he did. In the way of news anchors, we don't even come close. Brian Williams is okay, but that's about it. Charlie Gibson seems like a smart man, but unfortunately he doesn't play one on TV; and watching Katie Couric is like watching a trainwreck smile at you. I just hope someone is waiting in the reserves to bring back some of the old Cronkite integrity, but I see no reason to be hopeful, and that's the way it is.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Journalism's death rattle

Yesterday, The Colbert Report aired one of its funniest episodes ever, which opened with this segment about Stephen wishing to be named the "worst person in the world" by Kieth Olbermann:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Stephen Wants to Be the Worst Person in the World
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorJeff Goldblum

This would have been completely hysterical, except for the hint of a very sad truth inherent in his satire. Namely, when Colbert remarks, "And why not hold me to the same standards as others in the conservative media. I'm just as much a journalist as Fox News." I wish that weren't true.

There's a really great scene in the film Almost Famous where Phillip Seymour Hoffman's character talks about the early 1970s as being the final death rattle of rock 'n' roll. The early 21st century may be the final death rattle of television journalism.

There's no question that Fox News is -- for the most part -- a mouthpiece for the right. It slants so far to the right that the Earth would tip off its axis unless MSNBC weren't there to balance the scales. What's worse is that such blatant pandering is becoming an excepted reality and, even more startling, this reality is not the most contemptible slap in the face to journalistic integrity.

Now programs airing under the guise of "TV journalism" are actually selling themselves to overt sponsors. Now we have Morning Joe: brewed by Starbucks and the complete relinquishing of an entire network to a figurative stroke job of Obama's healthcare plan. Ever since the Twenty-One quiz show debacle, not even game shows have had single, overt sponsors. And though I would not argue that understanding the healthcare plan is bad, airing what essentially amounts to an infomercial and calling it journalism is irresponsible as best and outright wrong at worst.

The death of television journalism coupled with declining sales in newspaper subscriptions leaves me to wonder where the hell we're going to get information in the near future. I'm not sure the Internet is always the best answer and I don't see radio making a comeback.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Abortion: The jury is in

I've been following the Senate confirmation hearings of Judge Sonia Sotomayor over the last several days. Her confirmation, as admitted by Republicans, is almost a certainty. It's difficult to argue against her qualifications, so all that's left is an attack on her opinions, which may or may not reflect her judgment.

Today, The New York Times reports that Republican senators are pressing her to speak about her stance on abortion and all the legal precedent surround Roe vs. Wade. This move is idiotic for three reasons.

First, Sotomayor gains nothing from taking a stance one way or the other, so she won't. Republicans know this, and so does everybody else, so go ahead and pander to your constituents, but let's just all acknowledge that it's grandstanding and move on.

Second -- and this one might be my own crackpot theory -- Republicans could give a fuck about making abortion illegal. Overturning Roe vs. Wade just sends the issues to the states, and it's virtually a guarantee that abortion will be legal somewhere in America if the legal precedent is changed. While this move might help local politicians grab single issue voters (and if you are one, please kill yourself, or at least stop voting), it does nothing for pro-life politicians on Capitol Hill. Gaining votes on the promise to abolish abortion is a much simpler -- and a much more renewable -- path to campaign success that actually changing the law. There's too much political capital to be gained in preserving the status quo.

Third, given my strong belief that the status quo will remain, I don't think Roe vs. Wade is going anywhere, and rightfully so. In a country founded on the principals of freedom, it seems counter productive to take certain freedoms away. If one disagrees with the practice of abortion, there are ways to limit it without taking painfully slow legal action -- like moving beyond abstinence-only education for instance. Yes, somewhere along the line adventurous teens make mistakes and shack up with a drifter with a motorcycle (for me it was Bob, but to be fair, prison is a lonely place), so let latex be your savior and prevent the "problem" before it starts.

Perhaps more importantly, the existence of abortion as allocated by Roe vs. Wade is part of our social contract, and it creates a point where we have to address incongruities within our sanctity of life arguments. My stance here is utilitarian and somewhat abstract, so I tend to agree with thinkers like Peter Singer.

According to Singer, not all life is equal, nor should it be. Voluntary euthanasia, abortion, and perhaps even infanticide are justifiable in certain circumstances as acceptable utilitarian reactions in the world in which we actually live, not the world in which we hope to. This means reframing the abortion debate completely.

Logically, there is no significant dividing line between the fetus and the newborn infant. "The location of the being," says Singer, "-- inside or outside of the womb -- should not make that much difference to the wrongness of killing it." Singer doesn't argue this as a victory for conservatives, for he believes infanticide could be justifiable in certain cases since the fetus/baby distinction is so poor. (I won't attempt to explain this argument in full here. It is complicated an typically misunderstood, but if you are interested in further reading, I highly recommend his book, Writings on an Ethical Life.)

Furthermore, given the fact that a fetus or an infant is essentially a blank slate, there are valid arguments for bettering the lives of those involved in killing decisions by invoking ideas of replacement value. "A woman may plan to have two children," says Singer. "If one dies while she is of childbearing age, she may conceive another in its place. Suppose a woman planning to have two children has one normal child and then gives birth to a hemophiliac child. The burden of caring for that child may make it impossible for her to cope with a third child; but if the disabled child were to die, she would have another. It is also plausible to suppose that the prospects of a happy life are better for a normal child that for a hemophiliac."

I'm aware that this is an emotionally cold stance, but I appreciate Singer's ability to jar one's standard way of thinking and force his reader to approach difficult issues from a new vantage point.

If, according to the sanctity of life argument, all life is equal, why should it matter if one aborts a child now and gives birth to one at a later date? Assuming the woman wishes to have only one child, the end result is the same either way. The only change is timing. Is this wrong? I honestly don't know, but it is worth consideration.

And while I disagree with Senator Coburn on many issues, he raised an interesting point about our societal approach toward abortion during the hearings:

At another point, Mr. Coburn observed that "we now record fetal heartbeats at 14 days post-conception. We record fetal brainwaves at 39 days post-conception."

"And I don’t expect you to answer this, but I do expect you to pay attention to it as you contemplate these big issues," Mr. Coburn continued. "We have this schizophrenic rule of the law where we have defined death as the absence of those, but we refuse to define life as the presence of those."

I would argue that lacking those characteristics mark death, but having them is necessary but not sufficient to mark life. But he is right to urge for a clearer understanding of what constitutes life or death. My opinion though, is that we move forward from a framework in which Roe vs. Wade is intact, because I don't see us backtracking.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Lazy post, but funny

In continuing my theme of posting about Twitter, I thought it pertinent to share a story from The Onion. I'd comment on this one, but I've got little more to say than I think this one is pretty funny.