Miracle of Miracles

Jackie Lyden had a story on Weekend Edition this past Sunday about the repair and re-costuming of a beloved icon of the Virgin Mary at a Catholic church in Harlem. This tacky statue is credited with countless miracles by parishioners and the Catholic church itself. And, so anyway, it has a new fancy dress up dress and stuff.

Wait, what? Back up. Who cares about the freaking dress, Jackie? A KITSCHY STATUE HAS BEEN GRANTING WISHES AND PERFORMING MIRACLES ON THE REG FOR DECADES NOW. There’s your headline, obvs. I mean if even one miracle were real it would change everything science knows about the universe. That’s not an exaggeration.

It is well worth asking why supposed miracles are treated so casually by the media. Here are a few theories:

  • The media has “learned helplessness” about trying to prove miracles happened, so they just report that lots of people believe they happened and move on.
  • The media is wary of alienating religious folks, so they get as close as possible to calling the miracles real (by quoting people who believe in them, aka “witnesses”) without actually confirming them.
  • The media is cynical and really doesn’t believe in miracles at all, but they overcompensate for their bias by condescending to the believers with their coverage. “I’m sure it helps you be a better person to believe in such things, though of course I don’t need to” might be the subtext here.

Miracles are spoken of with no suspicion with surprising frequency in conjunction with the canonization of new saints (3 “proven” miracles required), the death of religious leaders who are often credited with having performed miracles during their lifetimes, and, as with Lyden’s latest, some travelogue about holy places or icons.

If such stories are worth air time, how much more are the reported miracles worth the attention of the press? If a statue is routinely healing people and otherwise changing lives in dramatic ways then this really is the biggest story on Earth because miracles really don’t actually happen.

And since the press refuses to investigate claims of miracles, who do they expect to do it? Does James Randi have to do all of them himself?

And, finally, the question must be asked, if we accept the premise that miracles are happening all over the place, why don’t the gods heal amputees?

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!

To Infinity…And Beyond!!! (and beyond that, too!)

The meaning of the word “infinity” is impossible to comprehend. It contains multitudes, literally. In fact, it contains everything and keeps coming for more. It is the the most famished concept in math and cosmology, devouring all sums and spaces, gleeful as it swallows exponents and parsecs alike. It is sinister, for everything that lives will eventually disappear into it without so much as a ripple or blemish on its mirror surface. No human mind can grasp it. The vertiginous vastness of its nature is beyond communication. It’s one of the first ideas children encounter that truly blows their minds. I’m still not over it.

Mathematicians have tried to tame it; infinity is useful and necessary in that abstract realm. They selected a symbol for it, as if it could be captured in a mere rune. But in practice infinity is a Hell’s Angel badass singularity that is fatal to applied logic and reasoning. All you have to do is ask a computer to divide any number by zero, the result of which is axiomatically infinity, and the computer will promptly behave like a a person injected with an LSD-PCP-Bath Salt speedball. The poor computer will immediately generate a deeply felt and wounded message reading simply “Divide by zero error”. The computer is saying “OMG did you just seriously ask me to try to calculate infinity? I just cannot even. I don’t even know where to go from here.”

My point here is that infinity is really, REALLY beyond humungous, akin to an ineffable deity. We can name it, try to talk about it, but never truly know it or grok it. And, like an angry god, its name should not be invoked for cheap effect.

And so a few days ago when I was listening to a Laura Sydell story on All Things Considered, as one does, I was suddenly struck by this comment, made by a worthy named John Seely Brown.

“The ability to imagine is the key challenge, because we have infinitely powerful tools to build whatever we imagine. As a result we’re limited by our imagination.”

Do you see the problem there? If not, read it again. There it is: Infinitely powerful tools.

Yeah, as they say, no. “We have infinitely powerful tools” is something only comic book super-villains should say with a straight face, usually followed by a prolonged, evil cackle and some kind of intimidating knife-switch being closed.

John Seely Brown doesn’t have infinitely powerful tools. No one has infinitely powerful tools. No human will ever have infinitely powerful tools. Theologians even debate whether or not the omnipotence-claiming god of Abraham truly has infinitely powerful tools. Can God throw a curveball so sneaky even Jesus can’t hit it? Is God constrained to moral actions? (The answer to the latter seems like a big old “No!” of course. #theodicy)

But John Seely Brown is thought-leading us to believe he is not constrained by the mere finite, but only by the interdisciplinary artist-in-residence-curable constraint of imagination.

After hearing this howler of a hyperbolic claim I unwittingly began a Twitter conversation in which I was quickly accused by an NPR reporter of being hubristic and having neither a life nor an imagination. No, really. Here it is:

Can you believe this shit?
Figure 1. Laura Sydell rips public radio’s infinitely awesome blogger a new one. Rhetorical summary: “I know you are, but what is John Seely Brown!?”

Ouch, right? Plus I was obviously applying the hubris tag to claims of infinite power, not to Sydell as she seems to have misinterpreted. Of course one might be justified in accusing her of something like hubris-by-proxy…

The proper response was, if anything, “allow John Seely Brown a moment of exaggeration in his exuberance at the cool stuff he’s doing”, not a spit-take inducing doubling down on “infinitely powerful.” If Sydell had accused me of being over-literal in my reaction to the word “infinitely” she might have a fair point, but her mama-bear ad hominem broadside is over the top. How am I the hubris-befuddled party here?

Were Airbag Moments a blog about language peeves I would have cause to opine about the overuse and cheapening of the word “infinite” simply on the basis of style, like the overuse and cheapening of the word “literally”, but there are actually much more serious reasons, especially for journalists and industry spokespeople, to eschew tech triumphalism and to treat it with skepticism when it appears. This idea that “the only limit is our imagination” is the obnoxiously perfumed Disney-film epitome of tech triumphalism. The same exaggeration can equally inappropriately describe a pencil, or Play-Doh ™.

Tech triumphalism flourished, as one would expect, in the mid twentieth century, when the development curve of fundamental invention was arguably at its steepest. Magazines like Popular Mechanics boasted unintentionally hilarious (even then) covers featuring flying cars and plans for working robots you could build with free boxes from your neighborhood grocer.

flying car
Figure 2. “Your flying car for 1967, Hiller’s Aerial Sedan” PM said in 1957.

Wired magazine periodically takes up the mantle of Popular Mechanics for contemporary techno-gushing, and has proven to be almost as hilarious in some of its predictions over the years.

Sydell is not the only public radio personality to overestimate just how awesome our present and near future are. Remember when that guy from 99% Invisible said we now have everything from the Star Trek tv show except the teleporter? Good times! When I thoroughly corrected him on the inanity of that claim he also refused to back down. I guess nobody likes corrections. Or reality.

The idea that there is eventually going to be a technological fix for all of our problems is a deadly one. It inculcates lassitude and inattention towards very real, very, very hard to fix dynamics in the world. If Doctor John Seely Brown has an infinity gadget then I guess anthropogenic climate change is nothing to worry about. In fact if it’s even close to true that the only limit to his power is imagination I hope the United Nations will quickly dispatch John Seely Brown to start fixing some things real quick, like the anthropogenic hellscape living nightmare that Fukushima Daiichi has turned into.

There’s actually a benighted school of thought in Economics comically named “Cornucopianism” that is accepted as dogma by some noted economists. It essentially teaches that we humans are such clever little buggers that we will always invent ourselves out of every hole we are capable of digging ourselves into, including problems like disease, resource scarcity, and overpopulation. (Sounds like hubris to me.) The effect of this is to encourage us to dig ourselves into ever deeper holes. Jabbering about infinity devices, or flying cars for that matter, encourages that delusion. Who needs to recycle or buy a fuel-efficient car or practice safe-sex when Doctor John Seely Brown has an infinity machine?

Of course I could be wrong. Maybe John Seely “Thanos” Brown actually owns and operates an infinity machine. But the examples from Sydell’s story of what our nation’s infinity labs are doing certainly don’t inspire the expected awe. For example I’m sure the 3D-printed model of San Francisco’s antique cistern system is attractive and interesting, but it isn’t exactly a cure for Malaria, much less a fix for the continents of plastic debris laying waste to our oceanic biosphere. In fact I’m guessing odds are good that the plastic 3D-printed model of San Francisco’s antique cistern system is fated to choke a Sea Lion in the not too distant future, shortly after the forgotten gewgaw is discovered in an attic and junked by a mystified tenant.

oceans_impacts_seas_degradation_garbage_plastic_pollution_galapagos_q_16148
Sea life greet 3D-printed tchotchkes with less enthusiasm than Laura Sydell and Ira Flatow.

Now, in spite of her vituperations against yours truly and her not-very-imaginative or infinite dreams of a smart fridge, I do generally respect Sydell. So I went ahead and looked up this Doctor John Seely Brown as she so icily demanded.

Instead of finding a list of Tony Stark-like world-changing inventions, I discovered that Doctor John Seely Brown has a lot in common with none other than my frequent target, professional religion-adorer Krista Tippett. Like Krista Tippett, John Seely Brown won admission to Brown University. Like Krista Tippett, John Seely Brown is the eponym for his own website. And like Krista Tippett, John Seely Brown is clearly a very talented, intelligent person, an accomplished self-marketer, and sometimes talks in ways that, while verbose and grandiloquent, fail to convey specific meaning to the average listener.

Here are a few TED-talk-ready Seelyisms (Holy Cow does he give a lot of lectures!) from his website:

“Today, I’m Chief of Confusion, helping people ask the right questions, trying to make a difference through my work”

“Learners craft their own pathways, through a rich ecology of learning experiences” (I guess they craft their pathway through the ecology with some sort of imagination machete?)

“Welcome to the Imagination Age where the arts, humanities & sciences fuse creating a new kind of alloy.” (applause, presumably)

“For the problems we now face in the 21st century we need vividness and texture to sense what might be needed given their complex nature.” (who can argue with that?)

“His personal research interests include digital youth culture, digital media, and the application of technology to fundamentally rethink the nature of work and institutional architectures in order to enable deep learning across organizational boundaries – in brief, to design for emergence in a constantly changing world.” (emphasis mine)

Do those mean anything tangible to you? It’s all a bit vague for my apparently raisined, lifeless, and pride-distorted imagination. I assume he has nurtured vivid imagishperical ecologies that have enabled deep utility for the world, such as the copier his team developed at Xerox PARC that could actually predict when it was about to break and call for repair – which is very cool, except, you know, Malaria and all – but he sure has produced a lot of triumphalist techno-evangelical jargon as a by product. A lot of research outfits manage to produce incredible breakthroughs without that sort of hype. Hell, Apple Computer is a shrinking violet compared to this stuff.

But Sydell clearly drinks the rhetorical Kool-Aid and so do a lot of very smart and successful people in business and the academy, so I’ll check to see if Google Translate has a “Thought-Leader Lecture –> Unimaginative Egotistical Zombie Grunts” translation mode.

If not I’m just going to have to sharpen my imagi-machete and get to work crafting a new path through my personal learning ecology.

Obit or Eulogy?

Journalism has been called, aptly (and possibly tautologically) in my opinion, the “first draft of history.” This expression is beneficial because it implies both the limitations of journalism and its obligations. It also implies that journalism, like first drafts, is basically disposable.

Journalists on deadline have two disadvantages that historians don’t: they can’t know what crucial information will be revealed after their story has gone to print, and they don’t have time to do deep research on the context of a story.

Obituaries of celebrities are less difficult than breaking news stories in both of these regards. News organizations have the ghoulish good sense to write obits of famous people well in advance of their deaths. Because the deceased are famous the context is already established, and new revelations about the dead that will dramatically alter an obit are unlikely. The death of a person is the ultimate not-ongoing event, and editors can make considered choices about what parts of a person’s life to include.

In this context we can consider the All Things Considered obit of televangelist Robert Schuller broadcast yesterday that could have easily been mistaken for a press release. It was the epitome of the kind of kid-glove treatment religious figures are granted by NPR. The obit writer, Nathan Rott, was happy to highlight Schuller’s rhyming and alliterative projects, including the “Hour of Power” and the “Crystal Cathedral”.

If you only had Rott’s obit to go by you’d assume that Schuller was simply a feel-good godly genius whose life was one big success after another.

The true picture is rather different. The “Hour of Power” was one of those shows that begged for money in the name of religion from the poor and lower-middle-class folks who watched it. In spite of the millions raised from Meemaw and Peepaw’s social security checks the Crystal Cathedral went bankrupt and the Schullers eventually sold it to the Catholic Church. In the process there were dramatic family squabbles. Schuller himself died seemingly in poverty and, perhaps, senility.

So how is it that none of that appeared in the obit? NPR is practically obsessed with old age and mental illness after all!

All we need to do is look back at NPR’s coverage of the death of Jerry Falwell to see another example of the spineless coverage of religious figures, especially Christian evangelical figures.

(Note: I’m not a journalist. It’s not my job to provide footnotes about Schuller, but just Google “Robert Schuller controversy” if you want the details. NPR apparently didn’t.)

What’s Annoying on Public Radio Now

On a Tuesday, this is Airbag Moments returning to air – or wifi anyway.

I notice with horror I made zero posts in 2014. I am tweeting a lot, though, so blame the siren song of social media and fear of the Riyadh Flogger for my lack of blogging. (@airbagmoments)

What has driven me beyond the 140 character restriction today, the first time in over a year? Only a brief list of weird/annoying micro-trends in Public Radio, especially NPR, that I feel need some publicity – so they can stop.

Let’s do the numbers!

1. The Daily Grind

Apparently Steve Inskeep feels our pain. (Well he doesn’t feel my particular pain, since he took to his fainting couch and blocked me on Twitter at some point – see below.) But apparently he feels the rest of you, because he has pioneered a new version of the useless day-of-the-week intro ritual (ie “on a Wednesday”) he and other hosts have adopted over the last couple of years. Now he’s taken to uttering pseudo-ominous inanities like “well, you’ve made it to Tuesday!” I think everyone out here in listener-land is pretty aware of what day of the week it is and whether or not surmounting the previous midnight is worthy of succor and sympathy.

I will go so far as to say I would not mind being calmly reminded of the date, Steve, which you never do for some reason.

2. Yay us!

NPR or its shows were mentioned in two nerdy inner sanctums in the past week, the game show “Jeopardy” and the NY Times crossword puzzle. Given the exuberant twit-storm about this from NPR staffers I can only deduce that it’s apparently everything they’ve been working towards for their entire lives. What will they do now for a second act?

This brings me to a more general annoyance, which is the self-aggrandizing vanity retweets many hosts and official public radio program feeds indulge in. I guess I’m glad that @doctormom420 cried in her driveway during the segment when Scott Simon sang “Danny Boy” to Draggy, GoryCorps creator and aptonym David Isay’s 2-legged Golden Retriever, but I don’t need to know about it.

Let’s make a deal: if you are going to retweet the effulgent praise then I expect you to retweet the trenchant critiques also, which you can find more easily if you unblock me on twitter.

Which brings me to…

3. Throwing a block

I try to be a resource for people by following every public radio personality and show I can find on Twitter, unfollowing them only when their feeds become choked with baby pics and vanity retweets.

Those of you who are familiar with the effete and grammatical pokes I take at public radio must marvel at Steve Inskeep’s (and EXCITING UPDATE “Vocal Fry Guy” Raz!) precious sensitivity. This is unbecoming in one who makes a living ostensibly asking tough questions in interviews. If Twitter actually notified users at the time when other users blocked them I could know which comment of mine tweaked Inskeep’s and Raz’s hair-trigger peevishness.

Then we come to On The Media, a show I myself have praised effulgently in this space. Yeah, they blocked me for some reason. Really, OTM? You are the show that hates censorship so much you have produced entire episodes about it. What could I, who have called OTM the best show on radio, have said to offend them so much that they would block me from their official Twitter feed? What does that even accomplish other than tainting the purity of my love for them? At least Brooke and Bob, the hosts, have yet to block me from their little-used personal feeds.

I admit that I do sometimes say things that don’t follow the public relations guidelines for human society known as “political correctness.” But I am not one of these ignorant, racist, sexist, conspiracist or wing-nut (left or right) knee-jerk public radio trollers you find in the comment sections dangling under so many segments’ web pages.

To those who block me I have this to say: no matter what you claim, vous n’êtes pas Charlie.

4. Same old pundits vs. Sarah Chayes

I have written before about how outrageous it is that Chayes, one of the most valuable voices about Afghanistan we have and a former NPR correspondent, has been ignored ever since she left her radio job to actually do something instead of just “getting a sense.” I have also written about how weird it is that smart voices only seem to appear on radio shows like Diane Rehm when they are coincidentally on a book tour.

Well the second phenomenon has, at least for a brief period, solved the first because Sarah Chayes is on a book tour, which is the golden ticket to get back on the radio. Yay!

Meanwhile most of the regular pundit slots remain filled with people whose responses are entirely predictable: either political talking points or conventional wisdom.

I’m out of time, but not out of bile, so stay tuned!

I do, I like Green Eggs and Ham!!!

You’d think a purported master-debater like Ted Cruz would know that the protagonist of “Green Eggs and Ham” learns to freakin’ LOVE green eggs and ham – once he actually tries them.

You’d think NPR’s news department would be smart enough to point out this amusing fact.

The whole damned point of that book is to get children (Republicans?) to try new things.  Sound familiar?

Who knows, maybe Cruz will come to like Obamacare!  If he’s like other Republicans who individually change their minds when it suits them it will happen the moment someone in his family needs an expensive life-saving procedure that they can’t afford.

Where’s the Pork?

NPR reporter Julia Simon had a story today that exemplifies the best and worst of public media.

She starts with an incredibly good question: all educated Americans know that the US gives mega money to Egypt annually, but what does that money actually buy?

In a  very easy to understand narrative Simon takes us on a guided tour of what happens with this money.  SPOILER ALERT!  It never leaves the USA.  It actually purchases a bunch of bloated, American-made cold-war weapons systems of which Egypt already has plenty.  Best quote:

There’s no conceivable scenario in which they’d need all those tanks short of an alien invasion.

– Shana Marshall, Insert Relevant Institution Here

Simon then follows with specific examples of companies who lobby Washington to keep these purchases going.

So far so awesome.  But then the story just ends.  There is the requisite comment that this is just how things are and the inertia of existing programs is difficult to change etc.  We’ll just have to leave it there.

Conventional wisdom achieved: the military industrial complex is what it is, sigh.

But there’s a giant Nile crocodile in the room that is utterly absent from this story of a corrupt developing country spending proxy billions of American taxpayer money on unnecessary American made weapons, isn’t there?

Anybody?

Bueller?

Oh wait!  Corruption!

The subtext of the story for those actually paying attention is that someone, somewhere, is getting a lot of kickback for these deals.  Probably a lot of someones.  In fact a lack of corruption in this set-up would be so astonishing as to deserve its own mention.

But I guess that sort of exploration is for the kind of investigative reporting that either doesn’t exist much anymore or is too focussed on Anthony’s Wiener.

Random notes on a Friday

Days of our Lives

Speaking of “on a Friday”, what is it with local and national NPR hosts telling us, every few minutes, what day of the week it is?  Is it because a lot of the listening audience resides in “memory care” apartments?

This happens enough that, sort of like the “give us a sense” style of interviewing, I am convinced it is some kind of “best practice” enforced by policy and not just a fad.

I’m no Pope Gregory XIII, but I am usually pretty on top of what day I’m having a case of or humping over or thanking God that it is.  I’d like to humbly suggest that you guys go all the way and tell us the date.  Try “it’s Fridy the 18th” instead of the truly useless “on a Friday, it’s Morning Edition” or “good Friday morning to you.”

Either that or add even more tautological information so we can all meditate on what it means to be told things we already think by the journalists we choose to listen to.  “Here on Earth, just like yesterday,  it’s Morning Edition.”  “Reality is comprehensible by applying reason to the information detected with the human sensorium, and it’s All Things Considered.”

Speaking of days, does anyone inside NPR or out actually know what the hell “Weekends at All Things Considered ” means?  I can’t parse it.  What was wrong with Weekend Edition Saturday/Sunday?  I smell a committee.

Death

Just a brief item to note that the guys and ghouls at “Story Corpse” have again incremented their body count and the world’s collective misery.  Today’s heart-soup immersion blender’s victim was canine, which at least shakes it up a little.

I think the producers over there dream of a day when every death of every beloved person, animal, or object with great sentimental value can make the whole world cry.  These stories are, as we are constantly reminded, archived in the library of congress, so they can make the space aliens who’ll be sifting through the wreckage of our civilization in a few years cry too.

StoryCorps Producer David Isay (visual approximation)

I can find one positive note: at least the pun-loving Keeper landed a job after the regrettable cancellation of Tales From the Crypt.

Lies

There was a pretty good piece by David Folkenflik today dissecting the press coverage of Notre Dame’s girlfriend-gate.  At one point he spoke of the problem of how much the reporters wanted the story to be true (like the one about Saddam’s WMDs I suppose).

Let’s think about that statement.  The reporters wanted a young, football-star-beloved woman to have died of cancer long before her time?  That really helps me understand Story Gore’s morbid editorial bias.

I’ve noticed that journalists tellingly universally loathe the preachy, shallow character-filled Sorkin series “The Newsroom”.  I love it.  It’s almost like “Airbag Moments” the tv show.  It takes the media to the woodshed weekly by doing what Folkenflik does, only in narrative form.  It Monday-morning (“On a Monday…”) quarterbacks the news.  It’s one big thought experiment about, knowing what we know now, how should the press have handled big events in recent history.  Who else is even having this conversation in this way?  The Daily Show  last week even expressed a devout wish that the show depicted a journalistic drive that actually existed.  In reality there isn’t enough money in profit-driven journalism for the logistics of investigative reporting about things less interesting but more important than gridiron paramour three-hankies.

The more vital question for reporters, I suppose, is whether or not the platonic ideal of reportage Sorkin tries to model would have made any real difference.  What if the answer to that is no?

As punishment, anyone who reported about the Notre Dame story has to watch a “Love Story” / “Brian’s Song” double feature tonight.  I’m assuming the Story Corps folks were already planning to because, you know, it’s Friday!

Taxes

Speaking of unpleasant stories the media wants badly to be true, NPR loves the “Military Veterans Aren’t Getting The Support They Deserve and it’s the VA’s Fault” headline.  I can’t recall a single positive NPR story about the Veterans Administration.  I happen to know that the VA, especially the health care delivery side known as the VHA, not only delivers a lot of great care, but also delivers it in ways that are years and sometimes decades ahead of the private sector.  Computerized patient record keeping is a powerful example of this.  Given how many stories NPR does about the tragicomic struggles of the private sector with this technology you’d think they’d cover how the public sector already nailed it.

Something else the press usually misses is that a large number of VA employees are themselves, by mandate, for better and for worse, Veterans.  This is especially true in the VBA, the branch that determines what benefits Veterans receive, and the recipient of the most frequent and bitter excoriations.  By policy the VA hires some of these Veterans preferentially over non-Veterans who might be more qualified.  (Not every Veteran is an angel straight from heaven, and that should not be a controversial sentiment.) So please be aware that when you criticize the VA you are criticizing a whole bunch of Veterans many of whom are working hard and some of whom are hardly working.

We can all agree that many Veterans do need and deserve more services than they are getting, but journalists need to stop acting like the reason is some faceless implacable bureaucracy.  Like most things, it comes down to money and logistics (sound familiar?), not a lack of desire on the part of the VA to serve the Veterans.

On a local note: please keep in mind, NHPR, there are good economic reasons why there’s no full VA hospital in your state.  Politicians and scoundrels love to talk about how much they care about Veterans, but forcing the VA to waste money on a facility that won’t have enough patients to stay in business or provide a full range of services does not serve the only constituencies that matter, Veterans and taxpayers.  Between the Boston area, Maine, and Vermont, northern New England is as well served as makes economic sense.  If you’re concerned about drive times, talk to Veterans who live in far flung towns in hypertrophied western states.  This whole “New Hampshire needs a VA” thing is just political grandstanding and cap-feather acquisition.  So in spite of your knee-jerk sentimentality and desire for the big bad VA narrative, please add some more balance to your coverage of this.

On a personal note, it’s good to be back.

Aaaaaaand they’re off!!

Some at NPR are getting a little sensitive about folks like me decrying their horse-race coverage.  Diane Rehm jumped down the throat of a caller who legitimately brought up this problem on her show the other day.  (Note to Diane: it’s not always about you.  The caller made clear he was talking about “the media”, not your show.  Also, I’m guessing we’ll be hearing some starter trumpets on your episode dedicated to Iowa results today.)  In tweets, correspondents like Don Gonyea get all defensive when you wonder aloud why he spent so much energy covering the brief “surge” of the made-for-fail Bachmann campaign.  He couldn’t help it!  He was a prisoner of poll results!

So they seem to understand on some primitive level that listeners and media analysts alike don’t appreciate the breathless “horse race” coverage, but they just can’t seem to stop themselves.

The Iowa caucus is the most embarrassing example.  “It’s A Photo Finish For Romney, Santorum” the headline at NPR.org shouts.

I am tempted to do a meta horse-race by recapping minute-by-minute the competing minute-by-minute reports filed from Santorum and Romney headquarters by Ari Shapiro and Don Gonyea, but who has the time?  (I will mention one of them actually used the phrase “neck and neck and neck”.  Nope, no horse race here.)

The bottom line is that Iowa doesn’t matter.  Iowa never matters.  It’s a stupid distraction, but it’s covered like the World Series, which also doesn’t matter.

Nobody but Rick Santorum believes he will be the nominee.  If the caucus had been held during any of the other also-ran surges one of the other no-chancers would have come in second.

The only good thing about all this fail?  At least we got to hear multiple references to “surging santorum”.  Thank you again, Dan Savage.

Gotta Have A Gimmick

Black Friday has come and gone, but the sales of dime-store epiphanies remain brisk, ever brisk!

As every burlesque performer knows, to sell yourself, or at least something you’ve created, you just gotta have a gimmick.  It’s the way you stand out from the crowd, the way to rapidly multiply among those precious viral growth medium slots in the public radio demograshpere like some kind of upper-middlebrow version of the disease in Contagion.  You know the carriers:  Diane Rehm, Bob Edwards, Morning Edition, and the Holy Grails: Colbert or Stewart.

We’ve seen gimmickless books fade away without that kind of invaluable free publicity:

Cokie Roberts and her unfinished Wellesley-theses-turned-book-club-also-rans about famous women in history.  Susan Stamberg autobiographies.  Scott Simon family tear jerkers.  They all lacked that oomph, that one-liner pitch cum subtitle that will set those Christmas encrypted credit card numbers sailing along the Amazon.com Digital River when someone needs a gift for the retired former philosophy major or the not yet employed twenty-something soul searcher or Wall Street occupier.

But some public radio correspondents know how the game is played.  They become proxies for our curiosity.  They inhabit, or at least pretend to inhabit, some intellectually titillating aspect of the spirit of their audience for long enough to satisfy the dilettante urge for just enough exploration…not so deeply as to be boring or uncomfortable, mind you…just enough to limn the edges of a possible cure for the common mid life crisis.

Take for example Neal “Not the Barbarian” Conan.  I don’t doubt that he was actually curious about devoting a year of his life to being an announcer for NPR’s official sacred pastime, the sport of baseball, especially as a break from arduous years as a foreign correspondent, but I have to imagine his gimmicky book plan was what allowed him to go through with it.  And so he did, thus baseball fans out here on Planet NPR didn’t have to.

Conan’s quest (“Conan’s Quest”, amazingly, is not yet a video game title or second gimmicky book) is similar to Gimmick King AJ Jacobs’ book The Year of Living Biblically.  In case you don’t know, AJ Jacobs is the guy who manufactured a different gimmick-based holiday-gift-ready codex about reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica  (so we don’t have to.)  From that “experience” he managed to land at least eleven (!) promotional spots on Weekend Edition.  That might be a record, as it even beats the number of spots given to gimmick-queen Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s silly book about neuro-imaging the soul. (I did not make that up.)

Like Neal Conan, Jacobs also claims to have spent one year doing something supposedly holy, living according to the rules of the Old Testament (so we don’t have to): “Raised in a secular family but increasingly interested in the relevance of faith in our modern world, A.J. Jacobs decides to dive in headfirst and attempt to obey the Bible as literally as possible for one full year.”  Why would you try to live according to Old Testament rules followed by no modern person if you were truly interested in “the relevance of faith in our modern world?”  You wouldn’t.  It’s a gimmick, and a pretty clever one.  Gimmicks sell books.  And while some of the promotional copy surrounding the book holds out the promise of epiphanies to be found within by “readers both secular and religious”, the book’s actual approach seems to be light hearted.

As we see from multiple examples, gimmicky books that delve lightly into subjects that public radio listeners find interesting get huge publicity from public radio programs.  That probably seems logical and harmless to you, so let me explain why I think this is a pernicious trend.

Public radio has limited time, especially during their highest rated hours.  As listeners we should expect them to use that time well.  As monetary contributors (not looking at you, Sam Negus) we have a right to demand that they use that time well.  In theory the best radio shows would present the most informed and most articulate voices speaking on topics of interest and import.  Yet this almost never happens.  The practice of presenting gimmicky book authors who happen to be on publicity tours is one of the reasons.  Bookers and producers are either over-worked or lazy, so the temptation in either case to cherry pick from authors currently on book tours shilling their latest non-fiction gimmick-fest is irresistible.

Newspaper editorial page editors use a similar shortcut for filling column inches.  Authors (or their publicist proxies I sometimes suspect) are only too eager to pen editorial-length versions of their gimmick books for placement in newspapers.  I call these “advertorials”.  They can be quite stealthy, but having read many I can usually identify them by the end of the first paragraph.  There are a couple of give-aways.  They are often on topics that must be awkwardly twisted to appear relevant  to the events of the day, and they never fail to end with a byline that just happens to include the name of the advertorial author’s latest book, which just happens to be recently published and in full promotional mode.

To sum it up: smart people (think college professors) with deep knowledge are rarely heard at length on public radio unless they happen to have a new book to sell.  Meanwhile people (smart or otherwise) with shallow knowledge get loads of airtime simply because they have a new book to sell.  This is what happens when notions are productized.  It’s a positive feedback loop, meaning it keeps getting worse.

Which brings me, at long last, to Eric Weiner and his new gimmick-book, Man Seeks God.

At this point I want to mention that until I did some research for this post I had little prior knowledge of and I have no animus towards Mr. Weiner.  I recall his byline but could not name a single specific report filed by him.  As with Scott Simon, I’m certain I’d enjoy a beer summit with him to try to change his mind about a few things, and as with Scott Simon this blog post will have to substitute.  Speaking of “beer summit,” if you think I’m not shoehorning Henry Louis Gates Jr. (i.e. civil rights) into this before the end you must not be a regular reader.

As I have pointed out elsewhere on this blog, the semi-official religion of public radio is what Daniel Dennett termed “Belief in Belief”, described by Christopher Hitchens as “the strange idea that, though faith itself may be ludicrous and incoherent, the mere assertion of it may possess some virtues of its own.”  Or, as I put it, in order to be thought of as a good person it doesn’t matter what clothing you believe the emperor is wearing, as long as you can’t tell that he’s naked. While Weiner does come out (spoiler alert!) as something like an Atheist at the end of his exhibitionistic spirit-quest, Man Seeks God seems vying to be the ecumenical Bible of Belief in Belief.  He’s practically a Belief in Belief street preacher, as you will see.

The premise of Man Seeks God is little more than the title indicates.  Mr. Weiner is, at least for the purpose of selling the book concept, hot to get some religion in his life.  As a result he decides to take a grand tour of the world’s faiths (so we don’t have to) in hopes he can adopt one for himself.  So maybe it’s more like he goes to the sacred animal shelter?  Anyway, if you are a regular public radio listener you already know the rest: all of the religions offer something wonderful.  But they all also present the Goldilocks dilemma: too this or too that, never just right.

While I found the idea of the book redundant with the seemingly infinite public personal (oxymoron?) spirit journey books we’ve had to date, with several hundred thousand unique titles from Jane Fonda alone, it was too innocuous for me to pay much attention to.  When I heard the inevitable log-roll piece on Morning Edition I just sort of tuned it out.

But then came the final straw: Weiner’s advertorial was published in the New York [freaking -ed] Times.

It’s a minor Christmas miracle of awfulness, managing to be simultaneously insipid and bigoted, both trendy and old hat.  Worst of all it was crass and commercial about its subject even as it inhabited the already crass and commercial form of an advertorial.

I did not like it.

I am very much not the only one who didn’t like it, but I am the only public radio blog that did not like it so keep reading.

What’s not to like, aside from the arch but not arch enough writing style?  He gets into trouble as soon as paragraph three where he demonstrates lazy, conventional, and frankly bigoted thinking when he divides his model of current religious discourse between “True Believers” and “Angry Atheists” (capitalization his).  And yes I’m an atheist, and yes, this comment made me angry.  But my point is that I wasn’t angry until he called me a name.  In fact atheists aren’t generally angry until someone like Weiner points at them and yells to anyone who’ll listen “Hey, look how angry that guy is! He’s soooo angry!”  Calling atheists angry is glib dismissal.  The expression “angry atheist” generates mild fear and revulsion.  It turns atheists even more into the infamous “other” through the language of warning.  Growing up in the southern states I frequently heard many phrases that served a similar purpose.  “Militant Blacks” and “Pushy Jews” are two such poisonous pairings which were used to mentally censor whole races and world-views, that could retard the “arc of history”, that could succor repression.

And do I really need to mention that there is more anger in a single homophobic Westboro Baptist Church protest than in all meetings of atheists and freethinkers throughout all time combined – even as gelato mongers near to an atheist convention hall refuse entry to the godless?  (Hmm, denying groups of people access to eateries, where have I heard of that before?)

You might think that in spite of the ugliness of “Angry Atheist” Mr. Weiner was being quite fair because his phrase “True Believer” was also meant as something of an insult, creating a balanced pair of “others,” neither of whom merit attention.  But the phrase “True Believer” has no essential negative character.  People are happy to call themselves “true believers”.  Many religious people are even happy to call themselves fundamentalists, and even to describe themselves proudly as “intolerant.”

This autonomic drawing of false equivalence between atheists and fundamentalists (often employing the phrase “fundamentalist atheist”) adds nothing to the discussion and serves to obfuscate the profound difference between the entire thought processes of the two groups.  The ultimate goal of this language is to seem to place Mr. Weiner, his book, his advertorial, his readers, and his interviewers in a privileged corporate suite looking down on all the silly culture warriors clashing by night.  He does this explicitly by trying to coin a new meme for all the hep cats like him: “Nones” (capitalization his.)

“Nones” are defined as “people who say they have no religious affiliation at all” though, according to a poll (so it must be true), only seven percent of them are claimed to be straight up Angry Atheists.  (At the None conventions the atheists should have separate but equal water fountains.  That’s just science.)

Why Weiner includes the atheists in the “Nones” group I don’t know because he goes on to make a set of weirdly contradictory claims about Nones:

  • “Nones … drift spiritually and dabble in everything from Sufism to Kabbalah”
  • “Nones are running from organized religion, but by no means running from God”
  • “Nones may not believe in God.”
So this whole “Nones” thing is a bit of a muddle.  Like the idea of religion Nones supposedly enjoy it’s something like whatever you want it to be.  Nones don’t care if a religion is “true” as long as it makes their mental trains run on time.  The “Nones” thing is such a Thomas Friedman-like assignment of a catchy name to a superficially constructed model of something going on in this crazy modern world of ours that you can at least see why it was accepted by the New York Times.
Brief aside: atheism rarely posits things like “There is no god.”  Such a statement often means nothing because of the difficulty of defining deities.  Atheism usually takes the form of questions, such as “What do you mean when you say god(s)? Can you explain why anyone should believe he/she/they exist(s)?”  So far, to my knowledge, there’s been no satisfying answer to this sort of question. (see the postscript)
But then the whole advertorial takes an unexpected and yet still entirely Thomas Friedmaniacal twist.
Are you sitting down?  Okay, read on:

The answer, I think, lies in the sort of entrepreneurial spirit that has long defined America, including religious America.

We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious.

Wow.  I did not see that coming.  But now that it’s here…still wow.  We’re beyond Krista Tippett, folks.  In fact this statement may allow us to finally create a complete scale of profundity of statements about religion:
  • The Sublime: “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must remain silent.”  – Ludwig Wittgenstein.
  • The Profound: “Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense..”  – Carl Sagan
  • The Pseudo-Profound: “Mmm…I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the word pray rhymes with the word…play…mmm”  – I’m just guessing someone on Speaking of Faith or Krista Tippett On Being has said that.
  • The Dumbest Thing Ever Said About Religion: “We need a Steve Jobs of religion.” – Eric Weiner
We need a Steve Jobs of religion?!?  To the extent that sentiment means anything it’s a very bad idea.  Steve Jobs was long considered a cult leader.  Apple was maybe the earliest company to actually call its marketing people “evangelists.”
Weiner goes on, in the name of buzzwords, to further technocratize religion by calling for “a religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.”  It’s just very creepy and so willfully ignorant of history.  Do I really need to mention that every popular religious reformer in history has been their own “Steve Jobs of religion?”  They’ve all come up with new ways of being religious.  But as fun as it is to explore this, many others have already sharpened this particular point so I’ll move on to the next horror from this piece.
In evangelizing for his church of “Nones” Weiner puts this yucky chestnut out there:
We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt.
Terrence said “you believe that easily which you hope for earnestly” but I guess he was wrong.
Where, aside from obvious parental/cultural guilt, does this desire to believe in God come from?  And why not gods since polytheism is usually a lot more fun?  Weiner claims to be an Enlightenment-loving rationalist, but he fails to understand that his statement sounds to the freethinking ear like “I’m not a drug addict but I hope to be one day.”
He seems to have taken the propaganda that you can’t be good without God so deeply to heart that he will be forever torn between his desire for belief (goodness) and his respect for his own powers of cognition which tell him clearly that a religion may do good but is, at its very core, a lie.
Mr. Weiner, if you read this, I would suggest you spend less time browser-window-shopping at the ebay of world religions and more time analyzing the origins of your personal need to believe.

To everyone else, Merry Christmas, and if you are interested in the topic of the varieties of religious experience, try Sweet Heaven When I Die by Jeff Sharlet, the writer who outed the shenanigans at the C Street house.  Then read his other books too.

POSTSCRIPT:

I’d like to quote Louis CK from his quite recent live online reddit.com crowd-sourced interview.

Louis CK: I’m not an athiest. I think god [sic] is there and that he is watching and he made us. I just don’t give a shit.

Reddit person “Brenner14”: This will come as a surprise to many.

Louis CK: well i [sic] don’t “Believe in god” i [sic] have zero idea how everythign [sic] got here. I would personally say that, if i [sic] had to make a list of possibles, god [sic] would be pretty far down. But if I were to make a list of people that know what the fuck they are talking about, I would be REALLY far down. aids [sic].

Really, what else is there to say?  If only Louis CK had listened to Ludwig JJW.

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…

Really Morning Edition?

WARNING: This post contains much more profanity, large fonts, and profanity in large fonts than are commonly employed here.

I like to use public radio content as a jumping off point to discuss some larger idea in journalistic practice or politics.  I never meant this blog to just be sniping about this or that story or person day to day on the air.

But today I’ll make an exception.

My question today for the producers of Morning Edition:

“What the F**K?!?”

It’s really all I can think.  Seriously, what the f**k, guys?

Three, count them, three long, ear-bleedingly bad pieces.  And I didn’t even listen to the entire show.

Crappy story 1: No surprise that Barbara Bradley Hagerty would create a staggeringly credulous puff piece on a purported Catholic miracle.  What’s shocking is that nobody at NPR listened to it and said “Uhmm, Barbara, you know this is basically Catholic propaganda that could have been released unchanged by the Vatican’s PR department right?  We can’t possibly run this.  Also, you always do this, so you’re fired.  Really, really fired, as in we are removing all of your old stories from the NPR website because we suddenly noticed they are all like this.”

It seems that Hagerty “reporting” on religion is like Sean Hannity “interviewing” Sarah Palin – only without the uncomfortable sexual undercurrent.

Crappy story 2: A super-mawkish “Storycorps” about a self congratulatory divorced dad and his self congratulatory daughter taking a break from self congratulations to congratulate each other on being such an awesome dad/daughter.  Now I know I shouldn’t complain because at least no one died in the fascinating stories they told about throwing frisbees around, but cloyed nausea is not a feeling I relish a lot more than the usual existential dread inspired by StoryCorpse.  But again, I don’t resent the daddy/daughter combo for making the recording.  What they do in that storycorps booth is none of my business.  But why was it chosen by someone at NPR to be put on the air?

Crappy Story 3: They actually interviewed the vapid author of and promoted the hideous book “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids”. Which is enough for me to condemn them for all the reasons that will be obvious to people who aren’t douchebags.

But they ran this on Earth Day.

Really?

Now, NPR, I give you money because I listen to you, not because I agree with everything you say.  People who listen regularly  but don’t give money because they don’t agree with all of the content are straight up assholes, especially if they have Scottish accents.

But if you make it so unpleasant to listen to your programming that I have to turn you off, well, the money goes away too.

This Douchebag on On The Media

I am way too busy at the moment in my non blog life to do the necessary bloviating on what’s going on with NPR right now.  I hope to be able to do so soon.

Just a quick note to say that people who admit to listening to NPR all day long but proudly declare they don’t support NPR financially because they perceive some bias they don’t like, are douchebags.  Bonus douchebag-points if you, while listening and not supporting, also believe taxpayer dollars should not support NPR.

Really the distilled essence of holier-than-thou douchebaggery.

Got Milk?

Have no fear, dairy fans, Laura Sydell is still on the job!  Indeed, she’s all over the whole milk-detecting “smart refrigerator” thing like Judy Miller on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.  Her bio on Twitter says she’s interested in “looking at the intersection of culture and technology.”  Who knew she meant “milk culture”?

The only problem is that her Vitamin-D fortified monomania may be blinding her to the larger world of technology.  Have you ever heard the old saw that “if your only tool is a hammer then everything looks like a nail?”  Evidently every technological advance is, to Sydell, just another inevitable step on the many-streamered path to our glorious smart-fridge future.

The opportunity arising from the opening up of new wireless spectrum for digital devices?  Milk-detecting smart fridge!

Coolest thing she might find at the 2011 consumer electronics show?  Duh!  Milk-detecting smart fridge, obviously!

She is giving this gallons of coverage. She tweets “Getting ready 2 talk about CES on ATC. So far what interests me most is internet connected appliances:refrigerator, washing machine.”  In that  two-way on ATC she brings up the whole milk thing right at the beginning to make sure it isn’t edited out for time.  Additionally she writes in the synopsis/blog-post that accompanies the audio for this on the ATC website yesterday that “I want my fridge to tell me when I’m out of milk, but,” she adds moovingly, “I don’t know if we are there just yet…”

Courage, Laura!  Don’t be a milquetoast!

Listen, I’m as interested in the status of my domestic milk supply as the next blogger, maybe even more than some (looking at you, veganlife.blogspot.com…), but if you think about it for a couple of seconds you’ll realize that this 2% solution to our admittedly nightmarish collective ignorance of our own milk quantities is probably not all it’s cracked up to be, even in theory.  What if the smart fridge knows we have gallons of milk but doesn’t know it’s all gone horribly off?  What if we have to constantly monitor and recalibrate the accuracy of the M.I.L.K.?  (Milk Indicator Level from Kitchenaid)  What if the fridge is ignorant of some sort of catastrophically unanticipated increase in our milk requirements, like providing enough nog for the NPR Arts Information Unit staff holiday party?  And this is not to mention the privacy issues.  What if the Department of Social Services learns about our failure to keep our child’s bones strong through maintenance of an adequate dairy supply?

As fascinating as the topic is, one has to wonder why Sydell keeps milking it.  Is there a sour note here?  Does she have some udder motivation to constantly call our attention to the national tragedy of our milk ignorance?  Your humble blogger has discovered there exists not only a “Sydell” brand goat-milking stand, but also a “Sydell Spa” brand milk-based facial cleanser.  Coincidences?  You, dear reader, or better yet the NPR ombudsperson, can make that call.  (Memo to FOX News: get Juan Williams on this, please!  What else does he have to do?  Oh wait, I forgot, FOX News doesn’t do actual journalism.)

I suppose it could be personal.  Does Laura live several hours from the nearest milk provisioner?  Is she exhausted from wasting entire days when she returns home for a nice virgin White Russian only to find that the fiendishly opaque milk carton, when hurriedly opened with that funny little cap they all have now, reveals nothing but her hopes and dreams?  Everyone knows you can’t drink those, unless you are newly-appointed house speaker John Boehner.

Or perhaps this is the consumer technology equivalent of what Reagan termed the “soft-serve bigotry” of lowfat expectations.  How can any careful observer not be disappointed by the state of consumer technology?  I, too, am cowed by the fact that here we are in 2011 and we still have no warp drives, no teleportation, no clean and infinite fusion power, pretty much nothing we were promised by the imagineers of the greatest generation 50 years ago.  (Except, of course, that stupid Facebook game that Isaac Asimov predicted in his speculative novel “I, Time-Wasting Fake Farmer” in 1947.)

Maybe, just maybe, if we can do this one stupid thing, if we can just have a refrigerator that can put a cussing update on our cussing Facebook wall to tell us how much cuss-damned milk we have, maybe we can, as President Kennedy promised in his stirring oration announcing the Apollo program, “do the other things” too.  Was it Browning who said “Man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Alright, dammit,  I’m on board!  I’ve talked myself into it!  From this day forward I hereby dare to believe that one day, in some shining Sydellian Utopia, we’ll even have a fridge that can tell us when it’s time to buy more Half and Half.

Good luck in Vegas, Laura!  Those of us who dive for dreams are counting on you!

A Radio Show About Nothing

“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Loosely translated: “About which we cannot speak, we must remain silent.”  In other words if you don’t have something intelligent or useful to say, just be quiet.

If Public Radio lived by Ludwig’s rule then some things would change.  “Speaking of Faith” would have been called “Not Speaking of Faith” and would have consisted of an hour of blessed silence.  Of course that show, which I think I’ve mentioned once or twice on this blog, has been born again as “Krista Tippett on Being.”  It would have to become “Krista Tippett on Nothing,” which can only be an improvement.

But the main thing that would happen, freeing up countless hours of currently wasted time, is that NPR would have to cease its breathless, obsessive handicapping of upcoming elections.  I have railed against the horse-race nature of what passes for political coverage on NPR several times before but, shockingly, it appears to be having no effect.  In fact things are getting worse.

How many radio hours have been wasted in the last month breathlessly poring over the latest poll numbers and pre-announcing the imminent demise of the Democratic majority?  Even more than the number of hours spent during the approach of last year’s “nothing to see here” off-year elections.  Remember how it was supposed to be a big revolution?

I have three explanations for the amount of blather on this topic.  First of all the press thrives on reporting on conflict and change, so the prospect of party turnover interests them far more than what the new party in power will actually try to do.  Second the coverage of polls is a low risk for them politically because they’re just talking about poll results so they can go on for hours without worrying about appearing to be, God forbid, non objective.

Finally it’s easy.  Which makes me think they are lazy.  It’s like filler.  “Hey, guys, can you fill up ten minutes talking about poll results?”  “No problem!!”

If Zonker Had a Radio Show

Renee Montagne interviewed Gary Trudeau today on Morning Edition about the last 40 years of Doonesbury.  They jawed on quite a bit about the characters, especially B.D., the veteran who lost a leg in Iraq.  Somehow the lengthy (almost 8 minute) piece failed to talk about politics.

Now I know it’s not polite to talk about religion or politics AT A DINNER PARTY, but this is a news show.  How is it that a normally politically obsessed radio program avoids talking politics with the guy who changed the comics page forever by invading it with explicit political cartoon content? (Sadly he thereby paved the way for such luminaries as “Mallard Fillmore.”)  That’s really the main thing about Doonesbury, right?  It’s like interviewing Bob Dylan and only talking about his Christmas album.

Thinking about why Montagne was so careful not to mention politics in this context (or to include a single example of the strip’s outright political content in the collection of strips on display at the NPR website) I realized the explanation holds the key to many of NPR’s journalistic failings.

What we listeners want from journalism is passionate investigation to discover truths that matter to us.

Let’s break that sentence down contextually.   “Passionate” means we want journalists to take their profession seriously, maybe more seriously than many yuppie parents of young children are capable of.  (See Studs Terkel on this topic.) This means putting their careers and even lives at risk when necessary.  “Investigation” means to use skills, contacts and other resources we laypeople don’t have.  “Discover” means that the information we receive should be new and non-obvious.  “Truth” means the discovered information should shape the story, not other way around.  “Mattering” in this case could simply mean quenching our curiosity, but it could also mean inspiring us to change our vote, whistle-blow at our job, or do something nice for the family of a deployed soldier.

If we use that carefully worded sentence as a set of filtering criteria for news stories, and we require all stories to meet all of the terms, 90% of nightly news stories fail.  100% of FOX News stories fail.  I’d say something like 60% of NPR stories fail.  That last is actually pretty good, but only by comparison to the dismal performance of everyone else.

One of the key terms that stories fail to meet these days is “investigation”.  What are the recent stories most passionately investigated by NPR?  They are all about wounded veterans, and most of those are by Danny Zwerdling.  While I would criticize some of the content of those stories because Zwerdling has a preconceived narrative that he tends to impose, his investigations are clearly passionate.  But they’re not risky.  Everyone wants veterans to get all the help they need – or at least everyone who can recall the fact that we are at war.

And that’s why Montagne felt so comfortable talking about Doonesbury’s own wounded warrior: no controversy but loads of human interest even if the human is imaginary.

Meanwhile the Doonesbury strips that really mattered over the last decade were the many that effectively challenged the conventional wisdom coming out of the White House, especially regarding the Iraq war.  It was on that topic that the news media, NPR included, failed us to the point of debasing our very democratic principles.

It’s no coincidence that even now NPR is too timid to talk to (let’s be frank) a mere cartoonist about that particular part of his career and our recent national history.

D-, Renee.

Juan But Not Forgotten

NPR recently inspired a surprising number of listeners to self righteously declare that they will never contribute another dime to their NPR station.  What caused this self-defeating outburst from the former fans?  The fact that NPR issued an official internal memo forbidding employees to attend the Stewart/Colbert Rally for Sanity in Washington unless they are officially covering the event.  Behind this action, of course, is the hoary mid century j-school notion that reporters should not have political opinions that might influence their coverage.  Because no human can actually turn off the opinion-having part of their brain without rudely invasive surgery, journalism has often settled for what might be the worst of all possible worlds, the mere appearance of objectivity.  As consumers of news we can either pretend we are getting an objective report or we can play the game of constantly trying to guess how the journalist’s bias is affecting their reportage.  Unfortunately this results in a kind of bias amplification.  Our own bias will multiply our perception of the reporter’s bias and distort the actual message we get from the story in dramatic ways.

You can see this clearly in the wide variety of opinions listeners hold about NPR in spite of said attempts to remain unbiased.  Here are a few excerpts from just a short stretch of the comment beard under a Huffington Post story about this whole Rally for Sanity flap:

“I would have imagined such blatant anti-left bias would have disappeared at NPR by now. Yet every time I listen to All Things Considered, I end up turning it off in anger because of just that problem.”

“I stopped contributing and listening when you became another mouthpiece for the ultra-cons­ervatives.”

“I try to stay away from NPR since it became a Republican propaganda organ.”

Even correcting for the road-rage-like hyperbole that seems to be a prerequisite for blog comments, we can see that a lot of left-leaning folks have begun to despise the bias they personally detect in current NPR content.  I’ll leave finding the right-leaning hate speech against NPR’s liberal bias as an (easy) exercise for the reader.

Which brings me to one Mr. Juan Williams and a scrappy little up-and-comer known as Fox News.  By adopting the slogans “Fair and Balanced” and “We Report, You Decide,” Fox News, intentionally or not, raised the bar for satirizing modern journalism to a level that not even the combined forces of Stewart, Colbert, and the Onion working with the ghosts of Dryden, Swift and Twain could ever hope to approach.  It’s like the old definition of “chutzpah”: the guy who murders his parents and then begs mercy from the court on account of his being an orphan.

No, it’s actually worse than that.  It’s more like the guy who kills his parents right in front of the judge and jury and, while standing over their still-warm bodies, says that he never had any parents and also he’s the president and founder of the Anti-Parent-Murder Coalition of America and also Obama is a Hitler-Stalin-Satan-Bin Laden chimera and the real parent killer.  You’ve heard of that guy, right?

The elephant in the press-room is that everyone knows that Fox is outrageously biased.  It’s a political organization to an infinitely greater extent than it is a news organization.  This is axiomatic.  They may deny it in their hilarious slogans, but their actions are unmistakable.  They have content that is, to borrow a phrase from the late great Douglas Adams, almost but not entirely unlike news.  They use this fishy news-like substance the same way Republican politicians use Christianity.  They aren’t interested in the meaning found within it, they are interested in the sui generis and ersatz authority it confers on them to use their really big microphone.

Why am I taking this opportunity to slam Fox News – other than the fact that it’s really fun?  It’s because the fact that Fox news is an honest-to-Todd (Palin) propaganda organ is directly relevant to National Public Radio’s stance on the “Rally for Sanity”.

Let’s follow the logic:

  1. NPR would like its reporters be objective
  2. Being objective isn’t humanly possible
  3. Therefore NPR wants them to seem to be objective by not associating with activities that are political
  4. The Rally for Sanity is an event with an inherent political bias or agenda of some kind (precisely what is not identified by NPR)
  5. Therefore NPR employees should not attend

Pretty sound logic.  Let’s use it again.

  1. NPR wants its reporters to seem to be objective by not associating with activities that are political
  2. Fox News has an inherent political bias and agenda
  3. Therefore NPR employees should not appear on or be paid by Fox News

That’s also sound and consistent with the first.  Originally I was going to wield my plus-3 big red font of absolute denigration against NPR for their inconsistency in allowing the likes of Juan Williams and Mara Liasson to appear on Fox, but then they fired Juan Williams supposedly for comments he made about Muslims.  Is the timing just a coincidence and the stated reason specious or are they suddenly reevaluating what it means to appear objective?

If the latter then Mara Liasson (and any other NPR employee who works with Fox) needs to make a very quick decision about butter and her bread side preference.

If the former then NPR is an awful corporate coward.  If, for reasons of the appearance of objectivity, NPR reporters are not allowed to even attend the politically tepid Rally For Sanity unless they are covering it as a story then those same reporters really, really should not be allowed to take money from Rupert Murdoch to appear on Fox News.

I’m a Beale-eiver

Okay, now I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.  (more after the image)

Beale
Crazy Like a Fox...Network

Evidently Republicans turn off the movie Network when they get to the part, only a few minutes in, where everyone is encouraged to run to their window, throw it open and yell the famous phrase.  Maybe Republicans become hypnotized and actually obey these instructions, so they miss the rest of the movie in favor of waking their neighbors.

But it seems that political commentators never make it all the way to the end either, though they seem to have a slightly longer attention span.  Take today’s well stated but still missing-the-point commentary by Mike Pesca.  He does better than most. He makes an important connection that Republicans seem to miss: the fact that the character Howard Beale, accidental savior, is stark raving mad.  Beale’s not held up as a noble hero by the the screenwriter, Paddy Chayevsky (yet another Greatest Generation casual genius).

But Pesca, like every other Network-mentioner I’ve heard since Glenn Beck created his Howard Beale tribute-band persona, fails to mention the most important and relevant aspect of the film.  You see Howard Beale is crazy in Network, but he nevertheless spouts quite a lot of truth in his highly-rated Jeremiads.  Many of these truths have to do with the failure of television to actually inform.  But the truths that really get him into trouble are those which inveigh against his corporate masters, the mega-company that owns his network.

As a result the company subjects him to an artificial epiphany in the form of the god-like presence of (believe it or not) Ned Beatty, one of the exalted executives from the parent company.  He converts Beale to the sort of Ayn Randianism favored by major multi-nationals. You can watch this scene here.

God Inc.
God Inc.

Beale becomes a Eunuch, singing the corporate message beautifully, all the sound and fury drained of significance.

And thus we have Glenn Beck, whose religion is apparently that which helps the bottom line of Rupert effing Murdoch.

Postscript: The 90s version of Network is The Matrix.  While the dialog is far less artful, the message is even more subversive.  Plus there’s awesome Kung Fu.