Friday, April 27, 2007

TV critic as loathing grammarian

Peter Carlin, the Oregonian's TV critic, wrote a real jaw-dropper Wednesday about TV-Turnoff Week, which is happening now.

I took special interest in the column because I help organize TV-Turnoff locally.

I've encouraged several friends to take a look at the column and give me their reactions.

"Mean-spirited," "off-the-mark," and "tongue in cheek" are responses I have received.

If Carlin intended his column to be "tongue in cheek," he failed to signal his intent to this reader.

"Mean-spirited"? "Off-the-mark"?

I'm not so sure.

In fact the intent of the column escapes me. Carlin is hostile about the organizers of TV-Turnoff Week, even as he says he is "in favor of everything TV-Turnoff Week is trying to achieve."

After that sweeping endorsement he proceeds to say he "loathes those guys" who are organizing the event. Actually, many are women, but never mind.

He attributes a motive to "those guys" (and I do take this personally) of trying to establish "their own superiority."


These "guys" and gals are simply asking folks to assess the role of TV and "screens" in their lives. To what extent are the media addictive, for instance? Are they beneficial? Are they harmful? When and why?

Just how much time is devoted to watching? Is it time well spent?

It doesn't take a superior person to ask those kinds of "check-in" questions. In fact, you'd think that any TV critic worthy of the name would be asking those questions all the time.

But, for some undetermined reason, Carlin is hot in pursuit of "evidence" to prove that we in the media literacy movement are "not really all that smart." He finds it in a phrase and a line from the TV-Turnoff web site. He allows that his discoveries make all of us "come off like jerks."

That's a flaming, Limbaughesque/Imus-like leap, but let's take a look.

He reads condescension into the web site's line "...if you care about your're going to listen to what we have to say." Carlin suggests that the phrasing implies that you, dear reader, don't care about your children if you allow them to watch too much TV.

Hello? The "If you..." device is purely rhetorical and he knows it. Often it implies "and we know you do" as is the case here. Or it may go like this: "If you care about your children (and what parent doesn't?) etc."

Next Carlin is off on a truly bizarre critique of the web writer's use of ellipses. That's right, that little row of pixelated dots. Here he is flat out wrong, not that it matters except he makes so much of it. In the AP Stylebook (Carlin should have one at arm's reach) an acceptable use of an ellipsis is to "indicate a pause or hesitation in speech." And that is exactly how it is used in the example Carlin excoriates.

Utterly fascinating, I know....

Next comes a riff on another line from the TV-Turnoff site: "Empowering people to take control of technology and not letting technology take control of them so they can live healthier lives."

I wouldn't want to live or die by those words. They are a sentence fragment and don't parse, but, frankly, they are perfectly understandable. I hope Carlin isn't suggesting we decide whether writers are jerks or non-jerks, or causes just or unjust, based on grammatical perfection.

Life is too short.

The rest of his critique is mildly funny and does indeed seem to morph unexpectedly into tongue-in-cheek satire.

So where does this leave us?

After cranking my jaw back into position, I actually feel pretty good about Carlin's wild ride. I've often said that those of us in the media literacy movement will know we are making progress when those in the industry show signs of paying attention. Carlin isn't "in the industry" but he clearly is an adjunct to it. As a TV critic, he picks away at television's content, but he avoids critiquing the medium itself.

If no one watched, he'd be out of a job.

Let me shed my superiority complex for a moment and suggest that there's a lot to criticize about the media literacy movement beyond ellipses, sentence fragments and non-parallel constructions.

For example, it concerns me that when we create our own media literacy videos ("Game Over," "Merchants of Cool," "The Ad and the Ego" et al.) we unquestioningly employ the very techniques that we often find worthy of criticism in the mass media.

We also have failed to take our concerns directly to those responsible, the advertising and media industries. Instead, we have assumed that there is no common ground. There may not be, but at least we should open up lines of communication and explore the possibility.

When and if we do, rest assured we will not loathe "those guys" and suggest they are behaving like jerks.

If that attitude somehow makes us superior, so be it.

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