Friday, December 01, 2006

 

Reflections on my blogging semester

Before I took this class I knew what blogs were and I was even consistently reading a select few for the following purposes: A.) So that I could steal smart political commentary and pass it off as my own in conversations and B.) To satiate my gargantuan appetite for gossip. However, before this semester the actual act of making a blog was entirely foreign to me - something reserved for individuals much smart and computer savvy than myself. Not so anymore! I now know how to create and maintain a blog. I'm excited about this acquired skill and its potential uses. Without this class I may have never felt inclined to figure out how blogs work. I agree with Professor Middlebrook’s assessment that this is a mode of communication we really should be equipped to use.

My blog ended up being an attempt to meld my personal opinions into academic essays on media and news coverage. This was a challenge because the way the topics were presented in class, I felt compelled to address issues that I had not previously seen addressed elsewhere - many of my posts were things I'd never thought critically about myself before I was assigned to the essay. More so than WRIT 140, this class required a lot of thinking in order to develop arguments that were not only coherent (as it seems was the primary goal of WRIT 140) but also fully informed and nuanced.

Having not written academically for more than a year, I had to retrain myself in the process of essay writing and step away from the journalistic writing I have become so used to. I'd like to think I was marginally successful in the endeavor. I valued the experience and training in how to turn my thoughts into critical essays - however I realize I could have made a more valiant attempt to use "it is" instead of "it's" and I could have done more to spurn the other contractions I'm so fond of. Overall I am highly satisfied with my work in this class because I can see the future practical function of the skills I gained both in blogging and in critical writing.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

 

Steve Lopez: The Power of the Individual

The best that we could hope for the class of 2008 is that they will go on to be active, socially-conscious members of society who realize the power of the individual. Their acceptance to the University of Southern California and completion of their degrees already denotes their cognitive capacity and spirit of industry. The last best lesson we could give our students would be to find an individual who exemplifies our hopes and institutional values for this class and bestow said person with an honorary degree. Thus I would like to propose the Los Angeles Times columnist and author Steve Lopez as a candidate for an honorary degree from the Annenberg School of Journalism and potential commencement speech giver. I recognize that there may be some contention from those that believe Lopez to be too politicized or celebrity-seeking, but his efficacy outweighs these factors and without the level of recognition he has garnered, he might not have been able to create the impact that he did.


The central mission of USC is to develop "human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit," according to the university's mission statement. With that in mind, there should be two main criteria for issuing an honorary degree: one is distinguishing intellect, the other is public service. "In bestowing an honorary degree, a university makes an explicit statement to its students and the world about the qualities and character of attainment it admires most," said James O. Freedman, the fifteen president of Dartmouth College and author of Liberal Education and the Public Interest. Other criteria have been used: fiscal donation, celebrity or merely a special occasion that for whatever reason merits the dispensation of a dozen honorary degrees. And all of the latter criteria have only served to debase this particular form of recognition. When determining if an individual suitably fills the criteria Freedman outlines it is necessary to take a look at the individual's craft, the compensation he received and the moral concerns of his endeavors. These points are outlined by Mike W. Martin, author of Meaningful Work: Rethinking Professional Ethics. In the ensuing paragraphs I will demonstrate why Steve Lopez is a worthy candidate, a candidate that exemplifies public conscience and intellectual product, and a candidate that will uphold the values of USC.

Steve Lopez has been on the Times staff since 2001. Before that he was a writer and editor for Time Inc. publications including: Time, Sports Illustrated, and Entertainment Weekly. He was also a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and traveled to Bosnia, Iraq, Columbia and the former USSR to report. And though up until recently he was stationed on the East Coast, Lopez has California roots. His journalistic career began with a stint at a number of local papers in Northern California.

The timeline of Lopez's career evidences his calculated drive for success. Altruism is a difficult thing to prove, so it is fortuitous and desirable in the choosing of an honorary degree that Lopez's person goals correspond with public service - a desirable trait when seeking out one to honor. To accurately judge an individual we cannot merely look at his actions and disregard motive, this would be an incomplete assessment. "A life is more than outward events and we understand persons only when we grasp the value commitments embedded in their motives, character and world view," herein Martin explains that when craft and morality are conjoined we may view an individual highly because his motives are clear.

If indeed Annenberg chooses to bestow its degree on Lopez, it will not be the first time he has been recognized for exceptional work. He also has a National Headline Award for Column Writing, an Ernie Pyle Award for Human Interest Writing, and an H.L. Mencken Writing Award. What separates an honorary degree from the other awards Lopez has received is that a degree would not only highlight the strength of his writing but also the reach and impact of his work. One of USC's honory degree criteria is "to elevate the university in the eyes of the world by honoring individuals who are widely known and highly regarded for achievements in their respective fields of endeavor." Lopez is indisputably one of the most noted columnists of the day. Plus, with the speech, Lopez would have the chance to impart his knowledge and experience for the sake and betterment of the class of 2008. It can be inferred that such a speech could be particularly impactful to journalism students, but would also provide meaning to the student body at large, because Lopez's career, especially at the Times, has gone far beyond mere reporting particularly with regard to the homelessness issue in Los Angeles county.

Over the past year Steve Lopez provided relentless effort in his campaign to shed public light on all the faces and facets of homelessness in Los Angeles - still ascribing to Martin's criteria, this is likely the clearest example of how his craft and moral concerns are conjoined. He has covered politicians like Bobby Shriver who are attempting to find solutions, he has written about an old white woman who lives in her car, prostitutes on Skid Row that live in outhouses, and all the vivid details of desperation, hopelessness and horrific poverty that comprise life on Skid Row:

"Five portable toilets stand at that corner in the darkened heart of skid row. T.J. says she sometimes has a customer in each of them — a john in every john — and scurries from one to the next, taking care of business. 'I run this corner,' says the stocky 52-year-old woman, whose initials stand for Thick and Juicy. 'I'm the madam, and those are the cathouses.'" (From Lopez's article A Corner Where L.A. Hits Rock Bottom October 17, 2005)

Lopez went as far as to actually live on Skid Row for a week so that he could gain greater insight. The quote above was taken from the series Lopez wrote about his stay. This piece of writing is one among many that illustrate how tenaciously Lopez pursued his beat. The people he was able to meet and the vivid stories he recounted could not have come from a one-day visit or a mere passing-through of Los Angeles' most destitute locale. Lopez had to spend many hours in the trenches. The quality of the work exemplifies Lopez's personal values and caring motives, "the desire to enter into a relationships ... with the greater community," according to Martin.

In a more recent article, about a man who landed on Skid Row due to a combination of mental illness and drug habit, Lopez wrote: "Riddick got into fights, stayed up all night to keep from being robbed, got locked up for unpaid jaywalking tickets, blacked out a couple of times and was rushed to the hospital once by paramedics." It's passage like these that evidence Lopez's mastery of his craft. The passage makes Riddick's plight palpable without making it lugubrious. Lopez also does a smart job of humanizing matters of policy. ' "How in God's name," Leiweke bellowed, can Mayor Mike, as he calls himself, get behind people who are saying "not in my backyard? That's a shame," ' Lopez wrote in an article on LAPD's inability to go solo in Skid Row. Rather than write a boring policy story, Lopez showed the tangible day-to-day issues officers must contend with.
In 2005 the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count was released. It’s impossible to say or quantify what exactly garnered so much attention towards the issue. And when the study reported that more than 80,000 people were homeless in the county, many did find the number troubling and surprising. But would the number alone have caused so much public attention? Would politicians have called so many meetings? Would the concern have been the same had not the stories and photos from Lopez’s reporting accompanied the Count - thus attributing a tangible image to a raw figure? These are questions without answers. But in the midst of all the to-do one thing is certain: Lopez’s name was oft cited and inextricably linked to the issues at hand, evidencing his impact. Thus Lopez's bestowment with an honorary degree would surely be in step with the school's mission to "honor individuals who have distinguished themselves through extraordinary achievements in scholarship, the professions, or other creative activities."

That is not to say Lopez is without his detractors, nor is it to say those who are not Lopez fans are without valid contentions. In the blogosphere there are those who critique him for a flagrant liberal bias; some go as far as to say Lopez has manipulated facts to serve his agenda. However, he now enjoys columnist status which entitles him to voice the opinions he chooses. But it could also be argued his pieces rely rather heavily on emotional argument - as could perhaps be said of a piece from Oct. 22 wherein Lopez portrays one family's loss in Iraq. Lopez writes the story in first person and says of his visit to a recruiting office, "I notice three youngsters in the office." The connotation of youngster is seldom used to describe 18-year-olds who are adults by all legal measures. One could certainly argue the word choice is emotionally manipulative.

One could also argue that Lopez’s celebrity is counter to the goals of the traditional journalist. But Lopez made his name by producing quality articles. And when the reader recognizes a byline, all of a sudden it’s not just about the story. The byline allows the reader to be informed by the other work of the author. In many cases one may want her reader to judge a story exclusively by its content. But in the case of Lopez, his celebrity served a point. Lopez wrote many singular poignant pieces on homelessness, but these individual pieces are invaluably more powerful as a composite body. The value of a singular - and perhaps "star" - reporter is best manifested in Lopez's series where he lived on Skid Row. People knew and respected Lopez's name, which in turn garnered more attention to his series of articles and hence garnered more attention for L.A.'s homeless. Most newspapers divide their reporters by beat. But very rarely does a beat – be it courts, police, education, or anything else – make a reporter famous. Lopez articles were just that effective. Politicians had a name to refer to, people picked up the paper and saw Lopez’s byline knowing what they were in for.

As for the issue of Lopez’s bias, that is a more difficult contention to respond to. It is a contention that can only be fully answered by taking a holistic view of the traditional media industry.

Media bias is not news, nor is it a disputable notion – it inarguably exists.

And it is not some sort of gray, intangible, unknown either. There have been plenty of studies and surveys on the subject to formulate a set of guidelines that outline the basics of media bias:

The first is that traditional media is never extreme. It gravitates toward the status quo and contemporary culture. One example of this would be that after September 11th many papers stashed their photos of a bumbling gape-mouthed President Bush in lieu of pictures of the big man looking calm and steadfast. In J-school they call it ‘rally-around-the-flag-pole’ the media – like, well, normal people – seek solidarity and try not to buck the tide in times of crisis. In retrospect, many criticized mainstream media for not being more circumspect of Bush’s path to war in Iraq.

The second guiding principle of mainstream media bias is that it tends to be liberal. Plenty of surveys have been done, and they have all found that republicans are few and far between in the newsroom. In 2005 a study done by UCLA found that even Drudge Report, which is renowned for its alleged right-wing content, leans left. No, it is not a left-wing conspiracy as some would have you believe. Most journalists are probably democrats for the same reason academics and entertainers tend to vote blue – or moreover, for the same reason there are not many accountants with membership in the Communist Party; it’s the nature of the field and the type of people it attracts. Regardless of one’s political views, or how hard one strives for objectivity it would be nearly impossible to write all articles without bias, or even a single article without bias. Journalism is highly time-dependent, there are only so many hours to write and report – and the majority of stories are qualitative not quantitative. Inevitably personal judgment must play a role.

That said, polls show that people trust the media less today and seek alternative news sources now more than ever. Perhaps this is not so much a negative as it is an acceptance of the nature of the beast. Most people still seek their primary news from major outlets. And most still desire someone to tell them what is important that’s going on in the world today – an inevitably qualitative, and inobjective judgment.

Therefore I could have suggested a prominent blogger, someone in new media, maybe even someone who has pinpointed the weakness or error of mainstream sources. Certainly these individuals are deserving of credit, but they would hold less relevance than Lopez to today’s graduating class of journalists. Most students leaving USC in pursuit of careers in news media are not setting out to build their names on the blogosphere. They are leaving school in the hopes of being picked up by a traditional newspaper or news station. Moreover, an accomplished blogger would have even less relevance to the student body as a whole since new media is still a developing frontier and not one familiar to everyone, especially those who are not highly concerned with news.

In defense of Lopez, it would be hard to pinpoint the exactly right way to report on homeless in Los Angeles that would be free of bias. Lopez has painted a vivid picture of true human stories. Regardless of politics, most would agree homelessness is bad - finding the solution is where the controversy is. Perhaps one could argue that Lopez’s coverage of the issue was overdone and there was too much attention to the issue, evidencing a left-leaning issue But the notoriety Lopez gained from the stories could have only been achieved by garnering a concerned audience. Lopez did not force his way into the spotlight, he simply reported and people paid attention. Moreover, the point of bestowing an honorary degree is not to find the most altruistic and least controversial individual - this would eliminate a great deal, if not the majority, of qualified candidates. "Rarely is caring about clients ... or the public entirely selfless, but usually it is not wholly self-interested." (Martin, 18) Lopez is undoubtedly one of the highest -paid journalists in the country. But who could begrudge him a six figure salary (which in other industries could be considered rather paltry for someone at the top of their game) when accounting for the body of quality work he has acheived?

The bestowing of an honorary degree could have measurable benefit for USC. "Honorary degrees are, of course, one of the ways in which universities advertise themselves," according to Freeman. The association of Lopez with USC and specifically the journalism program could only benefit the school. The third criterion listed for honorary degree recipients of USC is "to recognize exceptional acts of philanthropy to the university and/or on the national or world scene" - while Lopez may not have necessarily donated monetarily to a cause, the attention he garnered Skid Row is invaluable. No, there is not a price tag that those concerned with Skid Row could put on Lopez's contribution, but if there were it would undoubtedly be a hefty figure.

Most USC graduates will not become journalists. In fact a sizeable amount of the journalists graduating from Annenberg will sooner or later transfer fields. But the lessons and values Lopez stands to impart transcend disciplines. He has led, and is leading, an industrious and impactful career. Whether or not graduates are pursuing careers in media and human services or engineering, accounting, or anything else USC doles out a degree for, Lopez exemplifies industry and social conscientiousness - there are no two greater characteristics a university could hope to impart to its alumni. For USC, Lopez could be come an invaluable association.




Sunday, September 24, 2006

 

Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone: The Almost-But-Not-Quite News Site and What it Tells Us About the Future

As newspaper circulations plummet and network news station fret about dropping advertising revenue, internet news services are proliferating at a break-neck pace. For the first time last year the Wall Street Journal's website made more money than its print circulation service. However, the competition is steep for those looking to catch the new media wave. Sound, image, speed and multimedia-orientation are the new measures of the news of the future. And some of these qualities helped land the Yahoo-sponsored Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone: Conflict Journalist and Video News website a 2006 Webby nominee. Sites’ site boasts a lucid layout, as well as video, sound and written elements that are easy to find and easy to understand. The multimedia facets are the website's best feature. But as a whole the content lacks timeliness. Different than the traditional news website, Sites himself is an integral part of the finished product, not just a mere vessel for the dissemination of information. These facets of Hot Zone evidence the meld of entertainment and news, but they leave the consumer wondering what the ultimate intent of Sites’ site actually is.

Kevin Sites began his Hot Zone tour of duty about a year ago. In partnership with Yahoo! News, Sites and a small production crew traveled the world’s “conflict zones.” Never mind some of these alleged “hot zones,” while still comparatively dangerous, have not had an outright war for years or even decades. For instance, Sites has a particularly disturbing entry about the strife encountered by one woman in the Congo:

'"They killed my husband. After having killed him, one tied my arms on a tree. He also had sex with me as before," she says. She was three months pregnant when she was raped the second time, she says, but two days later she had a miscarriage.

' "They mutilated my husband's body. Cut off his arms." And then, she says in an unfathomably calm tone, "they forced me to eat my
husband's flesh. They said they would kill me if I refused."'

No one would argue that these ghastly events were not indeed horrifying, but Sites' article failed to answer why these things had happened to this woman – information that may have proven useful to his viewers.

Hot Zone is organized so that the viewer can click to a page dedicated to one of the nineteen countries Sites visited. Each page includes photo essays and interviews or “video stories” (which may or may not be just footage without narrative). There are nine articles on the conflict in the Congo on the page, but one has to dig to find any history lesson. Most of the articles are fast-paced, emotionally driven, easy reading. But the only writing on the history that led to the tragedies Sites documents is hidden at the bottom of his entry, Week Two: Reflections from the Hot Zone. The history lesson, which is actually subtitled A Brief History of the Congo (yawn), is short, dry and does not do a very good job of compelling the reader to pore over it since it is buried below Sites emotional response. Basically, the visual lay out of Sites’ Congo entry implies that history is not of great importance to the site.

As a “news” website, Sites' reporting on the current state of each country he visited serves as a background to the stories he gathered. To Sites’ credit, formatting news as an element that informs a feature story was a creative way to let readers in on the current status of the countries he visited. But this information is presented almost as a side note, and it too fails to receive prominent placement on the website. Much like the note on the history of the Congo, the information on contemporary Somalia was summed up in a few buried paragraphs where Sites states, “Somalia, though brutally poor, is a kind of libertarian's dream. Free enterprise flourishes, and vigorous commercial competition is the only form of regulation. Somalia has some of the best telecommunications in Africa…”

Some entries are marginally better at providing historical context, such as the Haiti entry. The most prominent article is a story of a poor fisherman's wife but Haiti's history is neatly woven in to the woman's tale:

"But if the poverty wasn't enough, the family also has to endure the violence that often plagues Cite Soleil.

"After Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in a coup in 2004 — widely believed to have been engineered by the United States, France and Canada — Cite Soleil erupted repeatedly in violent clashes..."

However, this is the greatest inconsistency in the website's overall design: Most of the different entries on the nineteen countries contain some historical information within the articles presented, but the reader must dig for this information - it is not always the most prominent article that contains the history, sometimes it's a buried article, as was the case with the entry on the Congo. This is in dissonance with the recommendation of Web Style Guide which calls for "chunking" material so that readers may easily retrieve and scan condensed bits of information. Browsers are unlikely to spend a long time poring over text on the internet, which is what one would have to do to grasp any historical detail from Hot Zone. This is also probably the singular element that is most incongruous with the Webby awards judging criteria. The placement of history on Hot Zone detracts from the site's functionality and impairs interactivity - why should a reader feel inclined to read stories of suffering if he is not told why individuals suffer?

Yes, there is inherent value in detailing the human struggles of the under-served populations of the world. Sites focus on child brides, tiny soldiers, terrorist victims, and underage prostitutes certainly inspires pity. But one wonders what the purpose is behind merely evoking pity. Without highlighting historical context, it’s hard to argue that Sites work helps make more informed citizens. Despite the top-notch design elements, Hot Zone fails to give readers a rational reason to want to read these stories. Reading stories of rape, murder, starvation and death without clear historical, political or current-day context is nothing but morbid.

Essentially Sites' studies on the nineteen countries he visited can be chalked up to a sensationalist’s mini-encyclopedia on developing countries: It is unclear what exactly is going on, but there is certainly a lot of tragedy to be detailed. Even if one does not condemn Hot Zone for its exploitive nature, Sites must be reproached for falsely billing Hot Zone as a news site. Really, the website appears to be stuck somewhere awkwardly between trying to entertain and trying to inform. The page layouts are easily navigated, but the video essays are distractingly pixilated and the lack of narrative can leave the viewer wondering why he is watching; the writing is captivating and clear but since neither historical facts nor hard news are highlighted it is difficult to figure what the value is in reading or watching Sites’ material.

Were one to discount the fact that Hot Zone calls itself as a news site, and regard it as an entertainment site instead, then it would have some redeeming qualities. For a site that is chock full of different elements, Hot Zone does a fantastic job of stringing together related elements and making it easy for the viewer to travel from entry to entry without getting lost or not knowing how to get back to the index page. One of the site’s best assets is that it can be searched either chronologically or by location. To the right is an image of Hot Zone's roll-over map. Viewers can either click on the map or use a pull-down alphabetical bar list to choose which country and conflict they wish to view. Hot Zone more than likely earned its Webby nomination because of features like this. The map exemplifies visual design that is both easy to look at and easy to use. To Yahoo’s credit, though the site is billed as a “indie” version of news, it is very professionally produced.

Though this essay criticizes Hot Zone for being heavy on entertainment and light on news, that does not mean it is entirely out of step with contemporary media. Hot Zone definitely has the ring of neo-journalism where reporter is star. Sites is billed as sort of an indie version of Anderson Cooper. Many if not most of the articles contain personal reflections, Sites’ face is prominently displayed on every page and the website’s banner is the silhouette of a man with a camera, reminding the audience that Sites is an adventurer and a one-man show (never mind the producers who traveled with him). To increase entertainment value the site could have included footage of Sites in the fray reacting to things he was being shown. True, this may seem incongruous with Sites' image as adventuresome cameraman, but most any piece of successful entertainment requires a central character that the audience can follow and relate to. Anderson Cooper has greatly benefited from this kind of footage. His emotional display while covering Hurricane Katrina propelled him farther into the spotlight than ever before. Whether one views this as breakthrough news coverage, as Johnathan Van Meter of New York Magazine, or needless theatrics - it certainly proved lucrative for Cooper.

Despite its failure to adequately inform or entertain us, Hot Zone is still an important addition to new media. For one, it is truly the first of its kind: A freelance journalist picked up by a mainstream news outlet for the purpose of producing (and starring in) a news site focused on world conflict. With a little more polishing, Sites’ website could have been much more entertaining. And as the different sources for news gathering proliferate, a market for this kind of infotainment may surface.

Hot Zone's greatest strength is perhaps the solid structure of its interface design. The user-centered design allows for easy navigation from article to article within a subsection as well as easy reference back to the main page. This almost certainly played a part in the site's Webby nomination. Where Hot Zone fails to provide substantial, useful content, it excels at displaying this content. Other news websites could take a lesson from the lucidity of Hot Zone. The website is commendably consistent with many of the parameters designated by the Web Style Guide. Hot Zone contains a sizable collection of videos and graphics, but none of them take long to load (though the blurry quality is aggravating); all of the articles that were written over the past year are easy to find; and although the page is full of visual, audial, and written elements, the visual hierarchy is structured such that the page doesn't appear cluttered.

Today, it may seem rather unfathomable that something like Sites’ website could be viewed as a legitimate news source, but the speed at which technology is changing and at which news sources are proliferating means that this is a possibility that should be taken seriously. The Pew Internet & American Life Survey indicates that 58 percent of internet users have used the internet to find news and political information (December, 2004) and 31 percent look for their news online daily (December, 2005). Anything is possible. If Sites could have injected just a little more hard data or present-day analysis - even if it were in the context of his own emotions- he could have garnered much more credibility.

Even more speculation about the future market for a site like Hot Zone is in order when one looks at the other forms of news gaining precedence on the web. The individual has more prominence than ever before: Slate’s Michael Weiss runs a column exclusively dedicated to what well-known bloggers are saying about current issues; blogs such as Powerline and DailyKos are visited daily by news hounds; and with sites like little green footballs catching mainstream media when it messes up (i.e. Rathergate and the photoshop-wielding Reuters reporter) individuals’ authority is continually on the incline. Further still, finding new ways to deliver news extends outside of the blogosphere. At the University of Southern California researchers from the Annenberg journalism school have paired up with researchers from the Viterbi engineering school in order to study the efficacy of a 5-camera 360-degree perspective. Their project is focused on finding out if a viewer is given control of what to look at (which is the case with the 360-degree system) does he or she walk away with an understanding that is unbiased by editing and producer selection?


Gone are the days when the old white man behind the desk tells us what’s going on in the world. So to think a site constructed like Hot Zone is completely without merit or the potential for credibility is simply uninformed. The amalgamation of news and entertainment is on a dramatic push forward. If Sites could provide just a little more of both he could one day find himself in step with the likes of Anderson Cooper. If Sites continues with Yahoo! or something similar, his authority and credibility are sure to rise mirroring the rise of individuals' power on the internet at large.


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

 

lonelygirl15 and Viral Marketing: Accepted and Expected

All mysteries solved, the lonelygirl15 saga probably has about 5 seconds left of its 15 minutes of fame. But before it escapes our conscience entirely, it should be noted how the mystery unraveled, which red-herring conclusions were drawn first, and what this says about America's media consumption:

After it became apparent lonelygirl15 was not a one-girl operation - instead of inferring she was the theatrical brainchild of a few young filmmakers (much the same as the majority of YouTube uploads) - bloggers, mystery enthusiasts, and even the Los Angeles Times guessed she was most likely the newest and sneakyest vessel of product placement or at least an elaborate preview for an upcoming horror flick. Shortly after that her creators were revealed. She really was an autonomous piece of film-art, no Pepsi/Nike/Honda advertising dollars needed for that production. How telling it is that, though viral marketing is a fairly new concept, consumers already suspect someone is trying to sell them something at every turn. Moral questions aside, viral marketing is training us to be a more discerning society: We see a 16-year-old in her bedroom on our monitors and we almost immediately ask, what is she trying to sell us? Smart Mobs has a facinating post on viral marketing, though I disagree with its degree of cynicism. Ypulse also had a piece on lonelygirl15 and how she relates to marketing potential. My comments can be read at the bottom of both posts.


Saturday, September 09, 2006

 

Hamburger and Erratic Driving; Stars and what they can tell us about drunken driving in America


She was driving a $500,000 Mercedes Benz to In-N-Out despite the fact she wore a skimpy bathing suit in a Carl's Jr. commercial a couple years ago!!!!! And she's was booked for driving under the influence.

A Google news search brings up links to articles about Paris' alleged post-DUI party, the kurfuffle over her In-N-Out penchant, and an article detailing her half-a-million dollar car before any article that merely details the circumstance of her arrest comes up. Apparently our reaction to her drunken driving was more of an "Oh" than an "Oh my God!" We're just not that surprised.

And why should we be? Hilton is in good company. Perhaps now she can attend AA meetings with one of America's favorite family men. The Malibu chapter of AA may be the new celebrity-sighting hotspot.

Hilton's publicist excused her DUI as, "probably the result of an empty stomach and working all day and being fatigued." So I guess all who work for a living deserve a get-out-of-jail-free card for erratic driving.

The real tragedy in the case of Mel Gibson and Hilton is the incalculable damage they've caused every organization, private and public, that strives to prevent and discourage drunken driving. I like to think I'm too intelligent to have my sensibilities altered by the actions of celebrities, but one need look no further than Hilton and her ex-bestfriend Nicole Richie's reality show The Simple Life to see how effectively celebrities can change a culture. The show familiarized America with the two heiresses' hyped-up version of Valley Girlspeak and suddenly the former foul-mouthed insult "bitch" became completely innocuous. Moreover, it's now actually acceptable as a term of endearment as in "where are my bitches?" or "Later, bitch!" Thank you, Paris and Nicole. In the same way the word "bitch" became more socially acceptable with each Simple Life episode, drunken driving becomes less shocking with every A-lister who, despite a net worth in the hundreds of millions, could not bother to bum a ride from their bodyguard or their assistant's assistant.

In the weeks following Gibson's arrest a number of polls came out measuring his popularity with the American people. The overwhelming majority said they wouldn't think twice about buying a ticket to another Gibson movie. But most of these polls were phrased to quantify Gibson's popularity with respect to the anti-Jewish and sexist remarks he made to police officers. As odious as any form of discriminatory speak may be, merely saying hateful things does not endanger the lives of others. Drinking and driving does.

Perhaps in Gibson's circumstance it's because we really aren't that very far removed from the Civil Rights Era, and the struggle for a prejudice-free culture continues. That would be a worthy explanation as to why there was a greater uproar regarding Gibson's language than his driving. But in both cases, Hilton and Gibson, the headlines indicate that drunken driving just isn't that shocking. One would guess there would have been much more reproach had the headlines read "Gibson walks around mall with live explosives" or "Hilton runs down busy street blindfolded with butcher knives in each hand." Surely those two incidents would be farther out of the ordinary, and hence more greatly denounced by media. But neither incident would be much more dangerous than drunken driving. Clearly we have not come far enough in the fight to eradicate the social acceptability of drunken driving.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

 

fun while it lasted

" 'Cause I'm leaving in on a jet plane, don't know when I'll be back again. Oh babe, I hate to go," says John Mark Karr as he prepares for his flight to Sonoma where a heap of kiddie pornography charges awaits. Lets hope they don't waste taxpayer dollars on roast duck and prawns on the plane ride west this time around.

But this begs the question: How do I even know what Mr. Karr ate on his trans-Pacific voyage last month?

Karr is more than likely dealing presently with the trauma that comes when you realize Johnny Depp will not be playing you in the script you penned.

Surely we empathize with Karr's disappointment judging by the collective awkward pause when the DNA results came in and the following media-frenzy hangover which called to mind the kind of depression one feels when the circus leaves town. Boo-hoo.

For two glorious weeks Mr. Karr's picture, often accompanied by a slideshow of glamour shots of the young JonBenet, commandeered the largest headlines on MSM websites. Iran, Iraq, Gas prices, and mid-term election coverage quietly sunk farther down the page in favor of the decade-old murder mystery. But why?

James R Kinkaid boldly suggested on Slate's Culturebox that America's obsession with Karr is a form of cultural scapegoating; we zealously reproach him to mask our own, though more subtle and less sinister, tendencies to sexually objectify children.

His article was met with a predictable dose of outrage . I wont go as far as to say he was completely off-base, but perhaps slightly misguided.

Our insatiable appetite for the Ramsey case is reminiscent of a traffic jam on an LA freeway: After a collison, California Highway Patrol clears the lanes so that the wreck itself has minimal impact on traffic flow, but all four lanes still proceed at a crawl because each passing motorist wants his or her chance to study the damage.

Kinkaid thinks we are obsessed with Ramsey because of our own dark, subliminal desires, but what about our dark, subliminal fears? Just because we crane our necks at car wrecks doesn't mean we actually want hideous accidents in our own lives.

It should be noted that in nearly every Karr picture we saw in the last month he looked like a wet noodle: His pants come up to his ribcage, his shirt is too big, his expression is vacant, and people are always grabbing him. Now perhaps some of these elements were beyond the photographers' control, but there is a manifested similarity in tone and composition among the various photos out there. And it would be foolish to think journalists and editors don't pick images based on the sense they convey .

Basically Karr looks sort of like your child's dorky fourth-grade teacher. Except creepier. He is almost normal, but not quite. And that's what makes him most frightening.

Our primary interest is inevitably ourselves. One of the first lessons in J-school is "localize the story!" People care when there is a connection to their own lives. We may never meet Karr or the Ramseys, but we know there are others out there like them. And our morbid curiousity is as much a comfort as it is a tool for self-education.

The Ramseys are as relevant to our lives as freeway wrecks: Something terrible happened to the individuals involved in both incidents. But we still get to continue on our way to work. How fortunate!

It's the same reason tabloids announcing celebrity divorce sell so well. Misery loves company, and it's nice to know that there are others out there doing the same - or in the case of Mr. Karr and the Ramseys far, far worse than oneself.

I could stand around all day and denounce the Ramsey-Karr hooplah as evidence of a depraved culture. But if we didn't have detached, morbid curiousity what would take its place? Would we ever dare drive over 30 m.p.h? Would we lock our children inside and never let people outside our immediate family see them?

Perhaps curiousity is a form of courage. If we could not bear to bring our eyes to the T-boned Volvo or the slimy ex-elementary school teacher, perhaps we would simply be afraid.

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