Thursday, October 20, 2016

Digital Life and Newsprint Death

Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation Lost in Space
With no time left to start again
From American Pie by Don McLean

Hello reader,
got digital?

So there I was, at a Canadian Thanksgiving supper, in mid-October, where our host and cook was a grandmother named Judy. How strange, because “Judy” is a name I once associated with daughters like on Lost in Space and The Jetsons. Then again, we’re older now: those shows aired back in the vacuum tube days as TV changed from black-and-white to color: Strange, now, to watch daily reruns of Lost in Space going from the first season with futuristic space clothing being in black and white, and then to the next season showing space clothes in living color.

Grandma Judy’s rule for the thanksgiving supper table was: No baseball caps, and no digital devices.

A good rule. We all talked. After the women and children moved to the living room we remaining males, including three grown sons and the grandfather, talked some more. Often we noted with surprise and pleasure—and told Judy—that we were talking more than we have all year. This included wonderful turbulent talk about Yankee politics. Judy’s rule worked very well, partly because we couldn’t turn any swirling discussion into dead still water… not by some wise guy merely turning to his smart phone to look up a stupid fact.

Back at my house, smartphone functions are displayed on my laptop, where I have some blogs bookmarked: This means if a blogger’s creative philosophy or concept is just too new to me to believe, then I can return to his blog and try again, trying to assimilate his new view of our strange digital world.

I’m fascinated by some blog essays of Professor Clay Shirky. He’s a computer genius; smart like Bill Gates, but with much wider social interests. Today I’m thinking of his thoughts on how journalism is changing

Here’s the link, still current as I write this, to a web page of Shirky. At the top is a public tweet broadcast by a man Shirky had criticized, saying to the public that he can’t respond because he’s on vacation, “…but for now, F--- you, Shirky.” (Dashes mine)

You see, Shirky had earlier wrote from a position of anger at seeing that man, a noted expert, being so knowingly dishonest about the chances for success of a wealthy old guy in California. The hapless old guy was idealistically trying to save print journalism by starting up a good newspaper—not realizing it was mission impossible. The paper folded. You can read it for yourself, as Shirky includes his original essay.

What fascinates me is not the human relations between Shirky and the expert, forget that noise. Instead, consider Shirky’s concept that traditional journalism is not on a decline, not on sloping path to one day level out at some new level of lesser relevance: No, because it’s on a death spiral.

Makes sense to me, because my old university student newspaper, which, according to my memory, would be normally be at least 36 cramped pages at this time of year, is only at a loose 18. The students at the paper know full well their young peers, for all their school spirit, would rather go on-line than read newsprint. I truly don’t like this change, and I re-e-e-eally don’t like to think that traditional newspapers are not sustainable… but then I read on his blog where Shirky, a university professor, writes that “for obvious reasons” at his campus you can no longer major in journalism, but you can still minor in it. A death spiral. Terminal.

Sure, I want to adjust to this reality, but I also want to be like that old guy thinking newsprint can still be saved. After all, as a boy I had a paper route; as an adult I was a student newspaper reporter. Back then, we would have been offended at the idea of our paper having a “fact checker.” To us, “journalistic ethics” meant we were always on “Scout’s honor.” As “gentlemen of the press” we were expected to be just as honest as any of our fellow students we saw walking on campus. Meaning: No matter how exciting a fact was, if we couldn’t attribute it (document) or have someone saying it, (quote) then we left it out. Such honesty was common sense.

Not now. For decades, of course, television “news,” being “moving pictures” with concern for Neilson ratings, has long been “infotainment.” Now, in our crowded digital age, I can see that new digital media, social and otherwise, ain’t just newsprint cut and pasted to the screen. No, because now I see junk journalism—no Scout’s honor. I see exciting link bait, “Ten things about X” and so forth, where getting your attention is more important than giving, as Detective Joe Friday said flatly, “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

You may recall that Joe Friday was on the weekly radio cop show Dragnet, later a TV show. (And even a 1987 movie, lovingly reviewed by Roger Ebert) I can’t resist adding that Dragnet was taken from actual police files, where “only the names have been changed to protect the innocent,” and note how the deadpan Friday had no charisma at all. None. Not like a modern vivacious news anchor, or even some poor nerdy TV weatherman, wishing to stay intent on his introverted interest in isotherm lines, who now has to smile-smile-smile. In the digital age, plain truth without flashy exaggeration won’t sell. Duuum, dee-DUM dum. (Dragnet theme)

Here’s how I can adjust: By charitably reflecting that my neighbors have a right to give in to their weakness. Just like folks in my day. Back then, most students didn’t read our newspaper, or join any student club or leisure activity. Most would never find their school spirit at a corner cafeteria or in the still moonlight on the quadrangle. Forget saying excelsior! Even today, at the campus Olympic speed skating oval, the vending machines sell the athletic students “junk food” and “sugar water.” At the food court idealistic students can find fried food counters, but no vegetable bar. Folks would mostly wish to have ideals, for their lives, and for their digital media too, but the few who actually live up to their potential… are the exceptions. ’Twas always so.

Back when I was of student age, younger and more hormonal, I could get damp eyes, late at night, reading from an old collection of Poems Worth Knowing. The poems are still there, but lately I’ve allowed myself to be distracted. —Hey, at least I don’t drive distracted. But let’s face it: Nobody can make a living writing poetry full time anymore. I can accept this. An age without poetry or serious journalism? Seriously possible.

As some rock dude would sing:
“Where have you gone, Joe Fri-i-day,
our lonely nation turns it’s eyes to you,
boo hoo hoo…
‘just the facts’ has left and gone away”

It’s so lonely to face the truth about our new, improved, good-for-the-kids digital world, but at least I know one way to be less lonely: No smart phones at the supper table.

Sean Crawford

~My big look at Media Ethics was archived November 2012.

~I suppose Lost in Space came from the gold key comics Space Family Robinson, which came from the classic Swiss Family Robinson about a family of island castaways.

~ In Canada, unlike in certain U.S. newspapers, in a story on Bill Gates, we wouldn’t put “many people believe Bill Gates is the smartest man in America” unless we could attribute it to a pollster saying it: As a fact, not an editorial opinion.

Therefore it was out of deference to my U.S. readers that I put Shirky “is smart like” Bill Gates. I didn’t want some Yankee looking up from his screen with, “But they say Bill Gates is the smartest!” … As print journalists know: Some of the biggest lies start with ‘they say’. Always attribute.

~If you still have a pre-digital age attention span, then you can attend past the lengthy beginning of this (link) MTV parody of the first music video ever broadcast, as Amy Burrel sings Digital life has changed who were are. She made it for her night school class. The cute kid in the video is Amy’s.

~The song being parodied, Video Killed the Radio Star, is one I have essayed about, attracting four “likes,” as Activists and Music Videos, archived December 2013.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

George Carlin and Diversity

It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of Jerry Hamza in my career and life.  Without Jerry, I don’t think I would have escaped from the financial and creative swamp that bad choices and drugs had landed me in by the late seventies. Without his support and unerring instincts I would’ve never had the confidence to go beyond stand-up and begin to explore comedy as art. Along the way he also became something I’d never allowed myself before: my best friend.

George Carlin,
Strident, funny,
and gracious in person

I can relate to comedian George Carlin, as seen on Youtube. There he stands: independent, realistic, with his roots in diversity. That’s a buzzword these days, “diversity.”

In Carlin’s case, he came not from New York City, but from an all-Irish neighborhood within New York: Nuns, schoolteachers, nuns as schoolteachers, cops, everyone he knew in the youth gangs—all Irish. I suppose New York was ahead of the rest of the U.S. in replacing their old traditional belief in “melting pot” with “pluralism”: In fact, I think New Yorkers had never melted in: “Who’s your rabbi?” was the question a politician, back in Grandpa’s day, would ask of any individual who wanted action or help on something: asking this literally of any Jews, and figuratively, I guess, of any member of any diverse group. The impoverished concrete jungle was rough; you gained power from your group, fronted by “your rabbi.”

Carlin was intelligent but poor. He made it to ninth grade, and went off to the air force at age 17—where he hung out with black servicemen. Not from being diverse, but from being independent of white conformity. If the only fellows in the barracks who listen to jazz records and toke up are black, well, that’s where you go.

I can relate. A friend once said, “You out-liberal the liberals” as I wouldn’t let fear of losing my “straight white privilege” keep me from doing the right thing. I couldn’t control my natural fear, but I could control my actions. Well. To this day one of my brothers thinks I’m homosexual. I think he’s frustrated.

Late in Carlin’s career he stopped doing jokes about dogs and cats, driving habits and department stores. Instead he started doing angry jokes about the world. As Carlin learned at last regarding his stage comedy, italics his:
QUOTE (p 247) Laughter is not the only form of success. Boy, what a liberating recognition that was! UNQUOTE

Success could be making people think. So idealistic. Of course, then he needed to become an informed idealist. Here’s the previous, younger Carlin:
QUOTE (p228) “…I didn’t have any synthesized sets of feelings or information about politics. Beyond a few one-liners about racism or Vietnam I had no coherent point of view. It was more a question of: “Let’s just get HIIIGGGHHH! Yeah, man, I’m against this and I’m against that, but who the fuck knows why?”” UNQUOTE

That’s from George Carlin’s memoir, Last Words with Tony Hendra. I am sure George would want me to include Tony’s name, as George was a gentleman. For example, when he wanted to use ideas from Jurassic Park for his Save the Planet sketch, he got permission from Michael Crichton… (Remember Jeff Goldblume’s character? In the movie he merely gets to say, “You did it because you could, without asking whether you should!” But in the book version he gets several good long passages for speaking against hubris) …I know Carlin asked him, because Crichton said so on his web site where, until around Crichton’s death, Carlin’s Youtube sketch was embedded.

Carlin again:
QUOTE (P234) “My new direction was slowly making itself known to me—by the reading I was choosing and the things I was tearing out and circling in periodicals. I was beginning to keep what amounted to a journal in another form: a record of my reactions to issues.” UNQUOTE

I smile to think of the older Carlin having reactions, because, like his father who beat him, at an earlier stage George didn’t have much access to his feelings. I can relate. Today, like Carlin, I don’t join any political parties, although I know maybe I should. In Carlin’s case, in his memoir he admits readers might find it “escapist” that he doesn’t join parties and things, but he likes all people as individuals, and he thinks they lose something when they conform to a group. In Carlin’s defense, let’s remember he was a wide-ranging comedian, which to me means he shouldn’t be tied down
to one race, religion or (political party) creed.

Like Carlin, I may be left-wing, but I’m also like him in being independent.

QUOTE (p 232) “…The habits of liberals, their automatic language, their knee-jerk responses to certain issues, deserved the epithets the right wing stuck them with… Here they were, banding together in packs, so that I could predict what they were going to say about some event or conflict and it wasn’t even out of their mouths yet. I was very uncomfortable with that. Liberal orthodoxy was as repugnant to me as conservative orthodoxy.” UNQUOTE

I learned the word “orthodox” as a child from the science fiction novel Nineteen Eighty-four, by George Orwell. After that, I’ve avoided being orthodox, even as I leaned left. If I’m a liberal, then maybe it’s because I read science fiction. You know that amazing inter-racial kiss on the original Star Trek? (Kirk and Uhura) Maybe it was controversial to watchers of the telly; but not to readers of sf. Not to me.

But here’s the thing: I get homesick reading about the white picket fence towns in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, written back in the 1940’s. If tomorrow I wrote a detective novel set in a sprawling U.S. Mars colony, with gleaming hydroponic tanks, then I might include slums for my gritty hero to walk down, but not enclaves of diversity, let alone walled ghettos. I say: Forget diversity.

A cry of disbelief, directed down at me from the peanut gallery: “What? —You can’t forget diversity! (It’s so true, good and beautiful) Don’t you want to nurture and fertilize it?”  

Let the last words be George Carlin’s, (p 158) italics his:

I used to be Irish Catholic. Now I’m an American. You know—you GROW.

Sean Crawford

~Last Words by George Carlin
with Tony Hendra
Free Press
New York, NY
Trade paperback edition, quoted here, November 2010
A Memoir,
with Introduction by Tony Hendra

~I think Crichton was a guest on the PBS Charlie Rose show more times than any one else: I wish Crichton’s estate would put the Charlie Rose interviews back on his web site…

~I wrote of Crichton and the “politicization of science” in my essay Angry With Michael Crichton archived November 2011