Saturday, April 28, 2007

Self-censorship, freedom of speech and the internet

A friend has told me that he would comment on recent Red Electric postings, but he is hesitant because what he has to say would become part of his Google-able "public record" and one day might be used against him.

In particular, my friend, who is an atheist, took exception to the recent post regarding the "Ten Media Commandments."

I find his concern troubling. Certainly we need to be circumspect about what we say on the internet, but not to the point that we suppress what we legitimately want to say in the course of civil discourse.

To me "freedom of speech" is worthless unless we can use it. Moreover, those who would judge us and reject us because they silently disagree with what we have written, are part of the problem. We who speak out with open minds and invite discussion are part of the solution.

We should be free to be wrong—or right.

Of course, freedom of speech is also the freedom NOT to speak, but our reason for remaining silent shouldn't be fear.

The intriguing idea called the "spiral of silence" posits that unless we articulate and repeat an idea, it will die. In the same way, the suppression of speech through fear of reprisal is nothing less than the killing of ideas.

Just because an idea is "bad" or wrong or even hateful shouldn't mean that it is suppressed. Rejected after debate, yes, but not killed.

Rereading this, it strikes me that my friend's concern, though overtly about freedom of speech, may in fact be as much about freedom of religion—or to be more exact, freedom of non-religious belief, or atheism.

Significantly, the First Amendment protects both and, as we see in his case, they are inextricably bound.

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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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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Blacksburg transformed

I want to share a moving reaction to last week's tragedy in Blacksburg, Virginia. It comes from a Blacksburg resident, David Pitonyak, who is a friend of my friend Lisa Lieberman here in Portland.

Lisa shared a letter David wrote in the hours after the massacre, and David has kindly given me permission to share it with you. To find out more about David and his work you can visit his web site.

Friends and Family:

I was in Vancouver, Washington, when the terrible events of April 16th unfolded. Cyndi called me early in the morning and asked me if I had the television on. She was in "lock down" at Kipps Elementary School and all she knew at that point was that a gunman was on the loose, having killed one or two people, injuring seven or eight others.

I turned on the set and there it was, the story unfolding — the now all-too-familiar images of cops running up the steps of Norris Hall, ambulances racing away with possible survivors, confused students looking on. First it was two dead, then it was eight; suddenly, impossibly, it jumped to 22 and soon it would be 33.

My community was being turned into another place. Some other place I could barely recognize.

It's Wednesday and I am catching the red eye home. For the third night in a row, I can't sleep. The plane is equipped with satellite TV and I can see those images from the other Blacksburg flickering from the backs
of seats.

I am so fed up with watching, but I can't stop myself from watching. Where is that place? Why is everyone crying?

So many of you have been so sweet to write or call. Cyndi and I want you to know that it has meant the world to us. As much as we would love to write or call each of you, as much as we would love to give you the details, we are too stunned and too tired to make much sense of anything.

So, with that said, a simple summary:

We are OK

The boys are OK.

We are all safe.

We are praying for those who have been killed or injured. We are praying the man who did the killing.

Mostly, we are thinking about the Moms and Dads who lost their babies in all of this (we simply cannot imagine what they have been going through).

So pray for them if you have a minute. Pray for them even if you aren't the praying kind. While you're at it, pray for the whole damn planet because there are just too many Moms and Dads losing their babies these days.

We will catch up when we find energy and heart.

I plan to put on my hiking boots soon and walk everywhere I can — down our Main Street, through the Tech Campus, over and around Kipps Elementary.

I will let you know if I find my town again.



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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Solutions masquerading as problems

The events of this long day have delivered me to one of life's wonderful paradoxes: How often we become so focused on "problems" that we fail to see them for what they really are — solutions.

The negativity of grappling with "a problem" prevents us from embracing it as a "solution."

But when we do manage to step back and perceive "problems" as "solutions," it is often nothing short of liberating.

An example or two might help. Being rejected for a job may seem like a problem, but it can also be a valuable learning experience and the chance to land a job where you are valued. The end of a relationship may not be an end at all, but the beginninng of a new, stronger, healthier one with the same person as well as with someone else.

(Yes, I know this is beginning to sound like one of those self-help or pop psychology texts, but bear with me. I know where this is going.)

The idea is related to one that comes up in my "Information Gathering" class. Researchers advise us to "look for the questions in our answers." Of course each of THOSE questions lead to more answers — ones we would have missed had we stopped with just one answer.

So how is this related to reframing problems as solutions?

Ultimately, we should merge these two dualities (problem/solution and question/answer) into one.

There's nothing new in any of this. The Chinese have taught the wisdom of merging Yin and Yang into Yin/Yang for centuries.

And Zen Buddhism advises us to go a step farther by expunging the very words "problem" and "solution," and "question" and "answer."

That's hard for us, but it's worth a try—except that we shouldn't "try" it at all.

The only way to do it, Zen would say, is to be it.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Media trifecta: sponsored columns, advertising banter and mega names

Normally I don’t hit a media-watch trifecta, but yesterday The New York Times served up one. One score was on the sports page; two were in the business section (of course).

The crumbling wall

First we have further erosion of the once purported impervious barrier between advertising and editorial content in newspapers. Now the Philadelphia Inquirer, under new management, is selling off “sponsored columns,” assuring its readers that the editorial integrity of said columns will be maintained.

Never mind the appearance of conflict of interest.

What’s to say that every newspaper reliant on advertising (and they all are) hadn’t sold out in its integrity long before this? Well the theory was that if you spread out the revenue source widely, no single part of the paper would suffer the loss of its independence.

Under the new game, advertisers can pick off individual columnists one by one.

I suppose there’s a model for this in broadcasting. If networks can sell whole programs to single sponsors, why can’t newspapers sell columnists to advertisers?

I fear that a newspaper industry spiraling to its demise just steepened its descent.

Shilling for dollars

Then there’s the curious situation in Dallas where our old friends at Clear Channel (they own most of Portland’s billboards and KPOJ) have dropped commercials — sort of — at its radio station, KZPS.

Instead of running real commercials, the announcers will weave plugs into their banter. “Excuse me a second while I take a gulp of my refreshing, delicious Coke” or “I sure do love the smell of my armpits today using this new Gillette roll-on” or “The traffic is bad out there this morning but I hope all you commuters are using Shell. You know I find it runs so much cleaner.”

A rose by any other name would be sponsored

Finally I'm ready to bestow my "how-many-sponsors-can-we-sell-a single-event-name-to?" award.

It goes to “the Subway Fresh Fit 500 Nextel Cup Race.”

That’s the Nascar race they ran in Arizona last Saturday.

The Times dutifully reported the entire bastardized moniker on its sports page, thereby helping lend value to the whole naming rights travesty.

But do race car fans actually call this motorized marathon between very sleek billboards on wheels "The Subway Fresh Fit 500 Nextel Cup Race"?

I don’t think so.

They leave that to the willing, laughable media.

By the way, I think I know the Subway and Nextel parts—but don’t try eating one while talking over the other.

But excuse me for a moment while I google what a “Fresh Fit 500 cup” is. I'm thinking some kind of jock strap or bra....

Well, who would have thought?

The race is 500 miles long and the “Fresh Fit” bit is actually a variety of Subway sandwich touting a lot fewer calories than Big Macs and Whoppers. Of course just about anything west of a New York cheese cake has fewer calories than the two bun burgers.

Oh, the name's unsold "Cup" part is still a container — I hope....

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Encountering Paul Pintarich

What a treat it was run into Paul Pintarich at the Hillsdale Post Office today. I hadn’t seen Paul in maybe five years even though he lives quite near Hillsdale and frequents the Town Center.

Paul was once the book editor at The Oregonian. After he parted ways with the paper, I invited him to write a regular reminiscence column for the Southwest Community Connection, the monthly newspaper I founded and edited.

A life-long resident of Southwest Portland, Paul, who is 68, has rich memories of growing up here. Memories of jazz clubs along Barbur, drive-in movie theaters, massive snow storms and summers spent swimming in the cool but polluted Willamette River.

They all became subjects for the column, which we dubbed “In My Time.” For effect, Paul managed to repeat the title somewhere in each column’s narrative.

Here’s how he did it in closing out a column about neighborhood eccentrics. After describing a few, he ended with…

“And there were others too. The wild Pilcher clan, who lived behind us, the prolific Petersens, who lived next door, the old man with the bulldog on the corner — and many more.

“In my time, our old neighborhood could hold and hide them all.”

Paul also has written two books since leaving The Oregonian: "The Boys Up North, Dick Erath and the Early Oregon Winemakers” about the rise of Oregon’s wine industry and "History by the Glass, Portland's Past and Present saloons, bars & Taverns."

He’s at work on another book, the story of a Portland-born spy and adventurer. In fact Paul was mailing a chapter off to his publisher when I encountered him at the post office.

Well over 6 feet tall (I’d guess 6' 4”), husky, out-going and deep-voiced, Paul is an engaging presence. Our encounter carried into the parking lot. I mentioned The Red Electric and invited him to send me some writing. He suggested poetry.

I always admired Paul’s prose. Now the thought of sharing his poetry in future entries is more than inviting. We'll see what happens.

I suggested that he might want to start his own blog. He’d have an instant following from the many Portlanders who have enjoyed his work.

He said he’d think about it. After all, he admitted, he's never even read a blog. The word itself was unfamiliar to him.

Anyway, his new book is keeping him busy enough.

“Ever written a book?” he asked.

“No, I’m too much into instant gratification,” I answered.

“Right, newspapers will do that, but books get you into some meaty things. Kind of fun.”

And then he was off, no doubt getting back to more meaty things…and fun.

Here’s an excerpt from an “In My Time” column about Paul’s recollections of Portland movie houses in the Forties and Fifties. For this one, Paul interviewed June Fortune, 82 at the time of the interview, about her memories selling tickets at the old Multnomah Theater.

“Though Fortune can neither recall when the theater opened nor remember when it burned down, the memory flickers in her mind like an old silent movie: slow, pleasant and warmly familiar — just as we both remember Portland being, way back when.”

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Quick. List 10 reasons for leaving Iraq

Before I give you 10 reasons for leaving Iraq that the American Friends Service Committee has compiled on its web site, try to come up with your own.

If you are like me, you will find reasons that aren't on the AFSC list.

As good as the Quaker-affiliated organization's list is, it is 16 months old — and the situation in Iraq is far worse now than the calamity it was back then.

Moreover, the American mid-term elections, which came 11 months after this list, also produced a popular mandate for change. The administration is opposed by a growing majority of Americans. Chalk up another reason to leave.

You can go to the AFSC web site for a fuller discussion of the 10 reasons given in Dec. 2005. Here are the headings for each, along with my own read of how the situation has worsened in every case.

  1. The human cost of war is unacceptable. The cost in life on all sides has risen far higher since Dec. 2005. And the pace of the loss of life has quickened. There are no degrees of "unacceptability" but more and more Americans have adopted the "unacceptable cost" position.
  2. The U.S. occupation is a catalyst for violence. The level of violence has continued to mount since December 2005. Last year was seen as a year of the escalation of violence and this year's "surge" is not working.
  3. U.S. actions inflame divisions and the chance of civil war.
    Fewer and fewer analysts are talking about "the chance of civil war." By nearly all accounts, Iraq has devolved into civil war.
  4. Iraqis want the United States to leave now.
    Polls continue to show large majorities want American troops out.
  5. Democracy cannot flourish under an occupation.
    It is farther from "flourishing" today than it was even when this was written.
  6. The United States has failed to rebuild Iraq or provide for Iraqis’ basic needs.
    This situation also worsens with more and more evidence of graft associated with American assistance.
  7. The Iraq war and occupation waste resources needed for U.S. domestic programs.
    As true as ever, with a widening disparity between rich and poor.
  8. The U.S. occupation of Iraq destabilizes the Middle East.
    The recent spread of terrorism to North Africa is further evidence of the Iraq fall-out. Tensions between Israel and her neighbors continue. The fighting in southern Lebanon and the missile attacks on Israel happened after this list was drafted.
  9. Humanitarian aid is crippled by the occupation.
    I have read nothing about this subject, but the worsening of the general situation is certain to have hampered humanitarian aid further.
  10. The global community wants the war and occupation to end now. It still does.
    The reputation of the US continues to fall
    in the world community.

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