Tag Archives: media criticism

Great piece from David Simon

David Simon, who was one of the creators of “The Wire,” has a fantastic piece in the Sunday Washington Post. It’s a great reminder, if we needed another one, of the value that professional watchdog journalism brings to civic life. Here’s a little excerpt:

On Feb. 17, when a 29-year-old officer responded to a domestic dispute in East Baltimore, ended up fighting for her gun and ultimately shot an unarmed 61-year-old man named Joseph Alfonso Forrest, the Sun reported the incident, during which Forrest died, as a brief item. It did not name the officer, Traci McKissick, or a police sergeant who later arrived at the scene to aid her and who also shot the man.

It didn’t identify the pair the next day, either, because the Sun ran no full story on the shooting, as if officers battling for their weapons and unarmed 61-year-old citizens dying by police gunfire are no longer the grist of city journalism. At which point, one old police reporter lost his mind and began making calls.

If you haven’t seen “The Wire,” it’s worth watching. Netflix the first season. Or if you’re willing to figure out who people are in midstream, watch the fifth season, which focuses on The Sun.


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Yelvington with some good ideas

I’ve decided I’m not going to be depressed over the Rocky — after all, True/False is in town and that should provide plenty to distract me.

Steve Yelvington has a really great blog post today that echoes a lot of what I’ve tried to tell people: The newspaper is not competing against other newspapers, or even against TV, radio and magazines. It’s competing against all the entertainment options available all the time everywhere in the world.

I don’t want to steal too much of Steve’s post, but the point is that we don’t often look at our news sites through the eyes of the consumer. The magazine industry, IMO, is better at doing this. That’s at least partly because magazines have known for a long time that they are competing against a very broad market, and that their value exists inside a very specific niche.

Newspapers, on the other hand, have been run generally by news editors — who are some of the best people in the world, but who think of content in terms of exclusivity and value compared to other similar content. The upshot of this is that they tend to have a view of content that says 1) exclusive is better; and 2) if it’s not ours it’s not worthwhile.

There’s certainly value in exclusivity (see: WSJ). But there’s also a lot of value in the “portal” strategy, where your homepage becomes a place to go for every possible bit of something you might want. The Missourian has started to get better about this — we’re understanding the value of linking to KOMU for school closings, for example. But we aren’t perfect at it yet.

Oh, and for the hardcore news junkies: I realize that you don’t mean “news” to be “entertainment” and I’m not suggesting that the Missourian become Maxim. But entertainment value is exactly why people spend time with newspapers. There’s an old truism that says we spend time on things for only two reasons: to solve a problem or to give us pleasure. Does your newspaper do either?

(Speaking of the Rocky, it went out in style by linking to some of its best pieces. Like this.)

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No, social media isn’t killing you

The New York Times’ Lede blog has an interesting roundup of events in Britain, apparently sparked by a speech in the House of Lords this week by a baroness/neuroscientist. Lady Susan Greenfield apparently feels that spending too much time on Facebook, Bebo and Twitter is “infantilising” childrens’ brains. She goes on to suggest links between ADD and video gaming, among other dire consequences of being plugged in.

Here’s a taste of the Guardian article linked above:

She told the House of Lords that children’s experiences on social networking sites “are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity”.

Arguing that social network sites are putting attention span in jeopardy, she said: “If the young brain is exposed from the outset to a world of fast action and reaction, of instant new screen images flashing up with the press of a key, such rapid interchange might accustom the brain to operate over such timescales. Perhaps when in the real world such responses are not immediately forthcoming, we will see such behaviours and call them attention-deficit disorder.

That’s nothing that we haven’t already heard in the U.S., but her comments are getting some attention in Britain at least partly because Lady Greenfield is a neuroscientist. But here’s the problem with her argument:

Part of what young people are doing on social-networking sites, blogs, Twitter, etc., is creating a sense of identity. The thing that freaks old people out about the Internet is that anyone can be anything online. Anonymity, while it can be scary, is also empowering — consider the going-to-college experience, satirized brilliantly by the Onion, that many of us engage in. Sure, kids manage their Facebook profiles and tweets to fit in with their group, but I don’t see how that’s different, developmentally, than managing your real-life peer group at school, or the outfits you wear, or the music you aggressively blast out of your car, etc.

Now, let’s be clear: There is some real research that says that being exposed to rapidly changing images changes our expectations of what we’ll see in the future. MTV is a good example — back when it used to play videos, the network had an effect on our perception of videos such that directors started using faster and faster cuts. Whether that represents a developmental change in the brain or a change in expectations, I have no idea. But I’d guess it’s an expectations change.

Moving on to another segment of the Guardian story (I bolded one phrase for later analysis):

She also warned against “a much more marked preference for the here-and-now, where the immediacy of an experience trumps any regard for the consequences. After all, whenever you play a computer game, you can always just play it again; everything you do is reversible. The emphasis is on the thrill of the moment, the buzz of rescuing the princess in the game. No care is given for the princess herself, for the content or for any long-term significance, because there is none. This type of activity, a disregard for consequence, can be compared with the thrill of compulsive gambling or compulsive eating.

“The sheer compulsion of reliable and almost immediate reward is being linked to similar chemical systems in the brain that may also play a part in drug addiction. So we should not underestimate the ‘pleasure’ of interacting with a screen when we puzzle over why it seems so appealing to young people.”

Greenfield also warned there was a risk of loss of empathy as children read novels less. “Unlike the game to rescue the princess, where the goal is to feel rewarded, the aim of reading a book is, after all, to find out more about the princess herself.”

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that playing computer games gives me a sense of pleasure almost like a high. Otherwise, why would we play them? (Also, I’ve always understood that drugs were addictive precisely because they engage our pleasure centers. And is that high any different, neurochemically, from the one we get from reading a book or hitting a ball or climbing a mountain? I’m not sure it is.)

But I’d vigorously challenge her contention that playing games doesn’t engage us in a narrative. Although there are plenty of games (Pac-Man, solitaire, Tetris, flash games, etc.) that are pretty much devoid of content by their nature, there are plenty of other games that have a strong sense of narrative which is integral to the gameplay — including the Mario series where you rescue the princess. Sure, sometimes the narrative is ham-handed and propped up mainly with “interesting” costumes.

But anyone who’s played the Zelda series, or Resident Evil, or KOTOR, or GTA, or even (God forbid) Halo knows that the narrative is part of the game. Metal Gear Solid has always felt like a movie, to the extent that MGS4 was rumored to have 90-minute cutscenes. (The fact that this was plausible tells you something about the strength of narrative in games).

And let’s not dwell too long on her contention that the point of reading a book is to find out more about the princess herself. Sure, there are some books for which that’s true. There are other books that are more, uh, escapist.

The point is, let’s not decide that the media kids consume has some final defining effect on their futures. If that were true, all we’d need to do is ship underachieving kids en masse to the ballet. Poverty solved!

And not to pile on further, but I’ll let you take a look at Lady Greenwood and decide for yourself.

(As an aside, I’ll say that I always hated newspapers/magazines that make a point of having headlines asking SCARY RHETORICAL QUESTIONS??? when the answer is no. It’s just cheap.)

(As a second aside, that’s a pretty good photo illustration from the Guardian. Beats the heck out of the stereotypical online illos we see from a lot of U.S. newspapers.)

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I expect better out of the NYT

Especially the technology section. Here’s a story about the “slow pace of convergence” between the Internet and TV. I clicked on the link figuring it would be a story about how slowly TV content is coming to the Web (Hulu is awesome, but still very limited).

Nope. Instead, it’s a story about how long it’s taking to build TVs that can browse the Internet.

Now, leaving aside for a moment the fact that a TV is basically just a big image processor, have these people done any research at all? I mean, WebTV still exists. And there’s also the Apple TV, the Xbox Media Center, WinXP Media Center, et al.

But the paragraph that really hacked me off was this one:

For instance, he said that such Internet access could run through the servers of the cable companies, allowing them to screen for viruses, add parental controls, and generally prevent some of the less desirable aspects of full Internet access.

The “he” referenced above is Richard Doherty. He’s described as “an industry analyst at Envisioneering, a consumer-electronics market research firm.” I suppose it’s possible that a research flack doesn’t know that cable companies already provide users with teh Interweb, but seriously?

I’m guessing the reporter meant this to be the nut graf:

Should televisions be able to get access to the Web? And not just the thin slices of the Web allowed by a few services, but the whole cacophonous, unregulated, messy thing? And if they should, how should they?

My answers would be: Yes, Yes, and Through existing and user-controlled means wherever possible.

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