Look, Ma (.com)

I have sometimes talked about the way NPR uses what I consider to be over-gentle, linguistically pre-chewed forms of expression in its writing along with a story-time vocal style that combine to subconsciously infantilize the listener. I do not believe they are trying to infantilize us on purpose, it’s just the unintentional result of a lot of smaller style choices. In any case it’s one of the things that makes NPR so much more pleasant to listen to than the TV-news-standard stentorian delivery of someone like Andrea Mitchell. The closest NPR comes to this is Mara Liasson, who happens to moonlight on FOX TV News. (Or is NPR her moonlight job?  Hard to tell.)

But advertisers are another story. Baby-talk modern company names are generated from pure cynicism. And I mean “baby talk” literally. Words like “mama” are common across cultures as the first sounds made by an infant, and in many languages they are used as parental names.

Listen more carefully next time you hear the national underwriting messages pronounced in Jessica Hansen’s lovely voice. You’ll hear “ooma.com“, “myemma.com“, and “moo.com“. They are practically baby-talk anagrams for one another. I’m waiting for “goo-goo-gaa-gaa.com.”

So, is it a coincidence that at least three “baby talk” companies advertise heavily on NPR? Or maybe there are just so many nonsense-word baby-talk companies now that you should expect a normal distribution to be clotted with them.

Google Inc. took its name from the number “googol,” a one followed by one hundred zeroes, which a mathematician allowed his young nephew to name. Google it!

Iowait, Wait Don’t Tell Us

The 2012 Republican Cadidates:

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out why responsible news orgs like NPR and NYT are so itchy for the Iowa caucus (and straw poll before those) results.  They’ve created endless coverage of the various Republican primary candidates, who increasingly resemble the nutty villains from the campy old Batman TV show with Adam West, as they wend their smarmy ways through every barn, outhouse, and corndog-extrusion facility in the state.  The press does this in spite of the fact that responsible people, including Jon Stewart, keep pointing out that the results are meaningless in almost every way that matters.

So why do they do it?  I think I figured it out the two reasons,

First things first.  Iowa is first.  The press loves “breaking” news, and there’s no breaking election news like the “first” primary-ish event.

Second, and this is more important, by making such a big deal about the Iowa caucuses the press actually causes the Iowa results to matter.  Think about it.  Who would care about the Iowa pseudo-primaries if the press didn’t give them wall-to-wall coverage?  Conversely you might care about the Daytona Beach Seniors-Only Bridge Club’s choice of candidate if the press jabbered about it 10 hours a day.

Choosing something silly and making it important gives the press a kind of agency.  They become the story.  The story is not the results themselves, the story is the amount of attention the press focuses on the results.

And we’re all pretty tired of it, except of course for some members of the tiny and pointless demographic that actually takes part in the caucuses.  Oh well, just another clownish, predictable aspect of our increasingly cartoonish and alienating electoral process.

Highlights for Children

I’ve long noticed that NPR correspondents, with or without conscious intention, water down the language they employ in their reportage.   I’m not quite sure why.  I might imagine they were trying to create the journalistic equivalent of “easy listening” music – or maybe “new age.”  But their selection of topics (war, disease, the economy) belies this.

The “M”-word is the perfect example of this tendency.  Whether from spontaneous groupthink or ironclad editorial edict, NPR reporters go out of their way to avoid the word “mother” the way an alcoholic avoids free wine tastings.  Jennifer Ludden did an entire piece on the fertility of women in their 40s without once using the word.  This is only possible due to her substitution of the much more popular word “mom”, which she uses four times.

One explanation would be a polite differentiation of biological motherhood from “family of choice” momhood so as not to implicitly stigmatize those who come by at least some members of their clutch in ways that are not, uhmm, “in-house” as you might say.  But Ludden’s story, with its subject entirely devoted to the difficulty middle aged women encounter when trying to, ermm, “grow their own” so to speak, would be the perfect place for the biologically specific term “mother.”  Its total absence in this particular story, along with the clumsily repetitive use of “mom,” indicates something else is going on.

Maybe it’s the fact that “mother” is sometimes used in a rather extreme piece of two-word profanity that, let’s just say, implies a globally frowned-upon form of over-parenting.  Having it all, so to speak.  Sometimes, to avoid inevitable bleeping, that epithet is shortened to “Mother-f-” or just “mother-” on television.  So is it this?  Is the word “mother” now anathema just because it occasionally hangs out in the wrong part of urbandictionary.com?

It turns out that theory is also faulty.  The proof is that NPR reporters avoid the words “children” and “fathers” with as much awkward sidestepping and repetition as they do “mother”.  They compulsively prefer “dads” and “kids” to party with all the “moms”.  When a “father” shows up, things can get ugly, as in the Loudon Wainwright song “Me and All the Other Mothers”.

Maybe, as with some profanity, it’s some kind of word origin problem?  Is “mother” from some poorly thought of word root and “mom” from an original language that’s a bit more presentable in polite society?  Turns out that’s not the case either.  Both the hated “mother” and the beloved “mom” seem to originate from the same semi-universal infant sound “ma” or “muh”, which may itself derive from the satisfied “mmm” infants sometimes utter after a bout of nipple noshing.  So there’s another theory shot-down.

Let’s examine the larger context.  As their Twitter feeds attest, most NPR reporters *cough* Scott Simon *cough* are child or grandchild-addled.  Or do I mean “kid” or “grandkid”-addled?  It’s so odd how different these exact synonyms can feel.  One would never say “wicked stepmom”, “kid of the depression”, or “dad of our country”.  At least not yet.  “Mother’s Day” is holding on with 35 million Google results, but “Mom’s Day” is coming up fast in the rear-view with 994,000.

Anyway, to me all this linguistic pre-chewing smacks of parental and grandparental overcompensation.  The same way marketers forced used-car dealers to start referring to their jalopies as “pre-owned”, and realtors to start calling houses “homes”, parents continually try to spin reality to their children as something more palatable.  It’s the difference between “shit”, if you’ll pardon the expression, and “poop”.  It’s exactly the relationship of Ray Liotta’s character to Jeff Daniels’ in the totally brilliant and allegorical “we’ve all got a darkside” Jonathan Demme film “Something Wild.” A word clothed uncomfortably in gym shorts and a t-shirt purchased hastily at a gas station is still naked underneath.

So is this the answer?  Do NPR reporters actually know the difference between Shineola and that other nasty substance that isn’t Shineola, but they just don’t want to come out and say it in so many words?  I really hope so.

The alternative is that they actually mentally inhabit this baby-proofed, rose-colored Nicey Niceland.  In Nicey Niceland, Wall Street math-prodigy mountebanks aren’t prodigious monsters, they’re “number crunchers.”  And in Nicey Niceland the politicians don’t “lie,” they “exaggerate” or “mis-speak.”  When the lies come flying, the reporters at Nicey Niceland Today report on the public opinion reaction to the dishonesty rather than even noticing the rude fact of the moral unfitness of the liar.  Nicey Niceland Public Radio (NNPR) reporters are so happy just to get a “sense” of things.  Reality had them at “hello.”

In this formulation, evil is real, and the banality of evil is to perceive and describe it in child-friendly gauziness.  Like Jeff Daniel’s character, Gallant is so Gallant that he becomes Goofus without realizing it.  (“Gallant lets his children starve to death because stealing bread is illegal.”)

Public Radio is a format that features vocal intonations sometimes too closely resembling the cadences of a parent reading a storybook to a child at bedtime. I hope they are at least explicitly aware of these linguistic habits, and that they have a good reason.  I would also love to hear the reason.  Journalism is the first draft of history, and that draft should not be written with sparkle pens and hearts over the “i”s.

Maybe the first step to fixing all this is for NPR staff to ban their kids (adult or not) from listening…

Target Demo

Your humble web logger has never been much of a joiner.

Popular activities like religious and athletic observance are about group identification and herd bonding, “grex” as Robert Frost put it, more than they are about the disposition of foreskin and pigskin.  They have never appealed to me.  Kurt Vonnegut’s enduring neologism, “granfaloon,” is a concept as essential as heliocentrism: once you hear it you know it to be one of the few reliable truths in the universe.  A granfaloon is defined by Wikipedia as “a group of people who outwardly choose or claim to have a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless.”  Perfect.

So it’s always a shock to me when I find myself close to the madding crowd, inescapably identified in the middle of a social category.  Demonstrably demographical. Caught.

I had one of these moments yesterday.  If you’ve read my “about” you’ll know I’ve always recognized that I share a number of properties of NPR Nation, but from my posts you’ll know I am alienated from many, many of Public Radio’s collective enthusiasms: baseball,  sentimental attachment to religion, precious language,  obscure yet banal musicians and composers, horse-race political coverage, and the list goes on and on.

Until yesterday I had begun to think myself above, or at least adjacent to, the general public radio public.

I was jolted back into my demographic identity when Guy Raz started his interview for the story “Fun and Intrigue with the Periodic Table.”

This is what he said:

So no one needs a description of the periodic table, right? It’s sort of as iconic as an Eames chair or the Chrysler Building.

There’s a lot to talk about here.  First of all, I don’t know where Guy lives, but I’m guessing I can at this very moment go into the middle of my small, preppy New England town, throw a stick, and hit several people who couldn’t begin to describe the periodic table, much less an Eames chair.

But my main point here is not the hilarious implication that everyone alive on Earth today knows about Eames chairs, or even, frankly, the Chrysler building.  It is not even the more credible but still amusing implication that everyone within the low-on-the-FM-dial and listener-supported sound of his voice considers these things iconic.

Here is the point:

In my home, not three feet away from one of the speakers converting electricity into the sound of Guy’s voice, is an Eames chair.  Ten feet further on into my house is a folk art sculpture of the Chrysler building.

Coincidence?  I think not.  I could only have been hit harder by those design allusions if I had a poster of the periodic table hanging over my stereo.  Either Guy Raz can see me through the radio or I have to own up to my membership in this group.

Does this mean I have to start watching baseball?

You’re Soaking In It

America's Teens At Play

Careful readers of this blog will have picked up on a few broad themes :

  • mild, barely noticeable antipathy towards the Palinista wing of the Republican party
  • cringing at the over-use of certain words and phrases by Public Radio personalities
  • distaste at the shameless promulgation of Karen Armstrongian ecumenical pseudo-deism by the likes of Krista Tippett
  • rejection of conventional wisdom (“Con-Whiz!”  it’s like Cheez-Whiz for the mind) talking point ping-pong tarted up as “analysis”
  • mortified attention-calling to the pathological hyper-mega-parenting that has become the norm in today’s global yuppie culture

There’s some saying about fish not being able to see the water they are swimming in, and I think it applies to Public Radio staffers’ attitudes to the last four of these.

Studs Terkel wisely lamented that journalists have become too bourgeois to question the status-quo they are now totally invested in.  He was correct.  The toothless and intellectually passive correspondents of the supposedly liberal mainstream media have turned the likes of Stewart and Colbert into Woodward and Bernstein by comparison.  You can’t see the elephant in the room if you are the elephant.

And thus the entire meaning of today’s little Morning Edition story about a dramatic drop in teen driving orbited high above the head of story-filer Beth Accomando.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m all in favor of the clear benefit to society we’ll see when America’s pimply texters reject their traditional role as scary statistic generators for MADD. It’s not the result that bothers me, it’s the cause.

Beth Accomando posits that the cause must be the internet.  Or maybe video games.

But no, Beth, you totally, totally blew it.  The cause is simply and obviously the invisible fence 21st century teens have had conditioned into their brains by a relentless combination of agoraphobia-by-proxy created through an unprecedented level of parental anxiety and the debilitating sloth inculcated by a culturally humiliating practice of parents behaving like harried personal assistants to a celebrity.

This is the kind of attitude that turns the theme of Cormack McCarthy’s “The Road”, which is that we’re all mortal and that having children is no redemption because they too are mortal, into “a love story between a father and a son” as the progeny-besotted director stated yesterday in a Morning Edition story about the adaptation.

So small point: overparenting is trying to ruin the next generation.  If they don’t even want to drive, the traditional dream/lust of all teen-agers, what the hell will they ever want do of any value?

Large point: get your heads out of your asses.  We’re at war.

Hagerty Inanity Ubiquity

This I believe.

I believe Barbara Bradley Hagerty is a shill for religion and shouldn’t be a reporter in the legitimate news media.

The public radio echo chamber is unbearably loud this week with vapid discussions of NPR religious correspondent Hagerty’s new book “The Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality.”  Incredibly, they’re giving her a five part series that amounts, of course, to a national book-tour of inestimable value.  Maybe NPR’s got a piece of the book sales proceeds, or maybe they’re so accustomed to lavishing attention on every page ejected from Cokie Robert’s laser printer their brains have changed and they don’t realize this is inappropriate.

Meanwhile she appeared today for an hour on Diane Rehm (further expanding Diane’s reputation for gullibility I’m afraid).  I’m guessing these aren’t the last.

Hagerty is a sometimes-admitted supposedly former Christian Scientist, which is sickeningly appropriate given the book’s title.  Although she has many connections with more fundamentalist people and organizations (brilliantly exposed by Better Angels and Eschaton), she soft pedals it here suspiciously in line with the latest gratuitous anti-atheist pushback from the likes of Terry Eagleton and Stanley Fish.

The theist argument can be split into two questions, “is there a god?” and “if there is a god, what things must follow from that fact?”  The second question is much harder because you have to start making a lot of extremely questionable truth claims about things like the age of the universe, virgin births, Roe vs. Wade, and, of course, whether zippers are okay.

The easy road is to start with the whole divine existence question.  You have to appear to approach it very timidly and humbly.  The tricky part is to first define god with such sweeping generality that the definition conflicts with no faith.  It’s “something larger than ourselves”, a “spiritual feeling”, or (straight from the book) “the unearthly wine of transcendence”.  Then you interview some scientists and ask them unanswerable leading questions like (again from the book) “When people pray, do they connect to God or tap into a dimension outside of their bodies?”

When you ask a question like that a lot of scientists will try to avoid seeming arrogant or hurting your feelings.  Often they are religious themselves.  So they’ll respond as the scientist in the book did :

Even if I do a brain scan of somebody who tells me that they’ve seen God, that scan only tells me what their brain was doing when they had that experience, and it doesn’t tell me whether or not they actually did see God.

Then you come to the safe conclusion, as Hagerty does in her book and on the air, that belief in this extremely nonspecific God has the same validity as non belief, that it’s all just a matter of opinion and everybody is equal and everybody wins.

Never mind the fact that this conclusion is nothing more than a hazy tautology, that making this statement after putting a bunch of people in fMRIs is no different than making the statement without the fMRIs.  Never mind the fact that this sloppy sentiment contributes not one iota to the eons old debate about god.

The real problem is that Hagerty has, quite intentionally,  just made it easier for dogmatists of all stripes to peddle their pernicious claims.

Is your refrigerator metaphor running?

Laura Sydell, correspondent for NPR’s feared “Arts Information Unit,” tried (not very hard) during tonight’s ATC to come up with a way to communicate the futurrific potential of the wireless bandwidth the FCC is about to auction off. The heart of her metaphor, to which she returned throughout the report, was a refrigerator that you could call with your cellphone to find out if it thinks you need milk. As the story progressed, the relevance and utility of this terrifying half-fridge half cellphone chimera became increasingly unclear.

First of all, the ability of a refrigerator to communicate with the outside world is in no way hampered by our current telecommunications infrastructure. (Thank God!) Millions of people have always-on high speed internet access in their homes ideal for such a fabulous ice-box to take advantage of right now! It could text your cellphone with all kinds of news about the milk over your home wifi network or over an ethernet cable even if the FCC fails to increase the wireless spectrum available to crucial consumer products ever again. Hell, it could make blog posts so everyone in your extended social network could know exactly how much you are hurting for moo-juice.

Now that you know this I’ll wait here while you run out and purchase your internet-savvy food cooler immediately, before Laura Sydell and the readers of this blog beat you to it…

What’s that you say? You don’t want a fridge with some kind of special milk-detecting shelf that requires a special milk bottle into which you must transfer all milk so the custom sensor can inform the fridge of the milk level? And the magic thingy can’t tell the difference between a fresh bottle full of delicious, bone-building, grade-A milk and a month-old bottle full of putrid chunky microbial growth medium that used to be milk? So you mean you don’t want it? Luddite! It’s your fault we don’t have flying cars!

So, Laura, I guess that there are just two things wrong with this picture: milk detecting fridges have nothing to do with new bandwidth, and no one wants a milk detecting fridge.

But other than that, strong work!

Stockenfreude

Have you ever noticed the weird excitement Public Radio reporters exude when they talk about the stock market diving?

What’s that about?

Are they feeling superior to those who bought into the capitalist economy? Or are they nervous about their own holdings? Or maybe the breathlessness stems from some kind of apocalyptic feeling?

This morning I could hear it so clearly as they announced “only a couple of hours before US markets open…” in the wake of the Asian and European sell-offs.