Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A "1 percenter" and proud of it

The Occupy Wall Street movement could help the sale of "Philip's Code," enough, I hope, to lift me into the "1 percent" category. One point the book attempts to make is that language is no longer dictated through usage but is imposed by an increasingly powerful mass media. The use of "1 percent" is a perfect example.

A few months ago the term "1 percent" was used by the media to refer to the percentage of people who served in the military or had relatives in the armed forces. Even before that, the Hells Angels thought of themselves as representing "1 percent" of motorcycle riders. That's because in the 1960s the American Motorcycle Association, worried about the "Wild One" image, issued a report saying that 99 percent of bikers were law-abiding citizens. Today the Hells Angels patch proclaims 1 percent. Now, suddenly, the term defines the richest Americans.

I used to think of myself as being in the old one percent, which became even more important when my Marine grandson came home recently from Afghanistan, joining a long list of relatives who served, including two grandfathers and four uncles.

I gave this a good deal of thought today, Pearl Harbor Day, when I realized that World War II veterans will soon all join the final muster. When they are gone, who will be around to fact check the history of a war whose impact can be felt today?

The book also tries to show that the past is alive, or, as Faulkner wrote, it isn't even "past." It makes mention of how the veterans spoke up during the controversy over the Smithsonian Museum's exhibit on Hiroshima. I learned later that they challenged the basic facts of the PBS show, "The Liberators," which the veterans claimed gave credit for liberating Germany's death camps to the wrong Army outfits.

Today the Internet allows even the lower 99 percent of the population to air its opinions. Still, it is the media with the money that counts. Think not? Don't you find it strange that 35,000 people can march in San Francisco and get little notice from the media - which is what happened to anti-abortion protesters.
Internet or no Internet, when the last WWII veteran dies, look for a rewriting of history from a university near you.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Royal Girls Rule: The Rest of the Story

The coverage of the change in the line of succession to the British throne was a lesson in reporting right out of "Philip's Code," although I grant that few Americans care much about the subject matter.

Most stories I saw or heard zeroed in on the fact that the 16 nations that recognize the British monarch struck "a historic blow for women's rights" when they abolished primogeniture, the male precedence in the order of succession to the throne. Every headline was along the lines of "Girls Rule" or "Girls Get Equal Shot at Crown." That crown won't, however, sit on a Catholic, whether male or female. The Commonwealth countries did allow that the king or queen could marry a Catholic, which was formerly a no-no. Other religions were OK - just not Catholic.

The New York Times' story by John Burns was right on target: the move was a "blow for women's rights," but, seasoned reporter he is, Burns also stressed the religious angle, noting in the opening paragraph that "the possibility of a Catholic monarch will have to wait." The San Francisco Chronicle used Burns' story under a headline that read "Girls rule: Boys lose first dibs on ascending the throne."

My local papers, the Daily Journal and Daily News, made no mention of religion. Both used Associated Press stories by Cassandra Vinograd. What an appropriate first name for a reporter, particularly for this story - a Cassandra is one who can see in to the future but is not believed. My first impression was that this Cassandra could guide the future by simply ignoring one fact and stressing another. Remember what Phil Davis said about the truth being the sum of the facts. True, the AP story emphasized the gender angle, but it also noted the change regarding Catholics, albeit buried. What I can't understand is why my local dailies used the AP story but dropped the Catholic part. I will ask the editors. Stay tuned.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Economist and the future of news

The prestigious British magazine The Economist, which traces its lineage to 1843, predicts advances in technology will eventually take news consumers "back to the coffee house" era when men in whigs and three-cornered hats debated public policy ad nauseam. Has the author been in a coffee house lately? I've never heard anyone in my local Starbucks debate anything. Most flee with their hands tightly clutching cups. Those who stay stare down at laptops that resemble tombstones, making me visualize the line in Eleanor Rigby about "all the lonely people." I think a better analogy for the future would be a beer hall - that's beer hall as in putsch.

I can not understand why the 14-page special report in the July 9th edition failed to mention wire services, the main gatherers and distributors of news. Perhaps bringing up the subject might undermine the article's premise that "news is becoming a social medium again, as it was until the early 19th century - only more so." Just who was the author? I was just about ready to conclude that "it beats the hell out of me" when I spotted very small print at the bottom of the first page that informed me of the availability of "an interview" with the author. I checked it out and got an earful from Tom Standage, the magazine's "digital" editor. Digital is apt, since he gave the finger to some honored journalistic traditions - such as a byline. The first graf of the report states: "The Internet has turned the news industry upside down, making it more participatory, social, diverse and partisan - as it used to be before the arrival of the mass media, says Tom Standage." The graf is set off in type much darker than the rest of the piece, making it seem more like a headline than part of the story. Standage's name is given, but not his job title or qualifications. All I could think of was those phony names people use in postings under "comment" lines.

Looking to the future is an easy assignment since no one knows for sure what tomorrow brings. We can take a pretty good shot at the past, however, and on that score the article came up short. In seeing that "in the Internet age, transparency may count for more than objectivity," The Economist goes on to report that "during the 19th century newspapers gradually adopted a more objective stance" in order to appeal to a wider audience. Really? Anyone heard of Mr. Hearst? Newspapers then were outrageous in their partisanship. Everyone connected with the Economist report should be forced to watch "The Front Page." The wire services were the real pioneers in objectivity. Truly, they could not afford to offend. That, perhaps, is one reason many people criticize news agency writing as bland.

The section on objectivity delves in to what it refers to as "the Foxification of news." Why the surprise at the power and success of Fox News, or any outlet that gives conservatives a voice? Several of my earlier postings concern the birth of talk radio, which wouldn't have seen the light of day if print media had been more balanced.

The Economist report is better, I think, when it concerns the business end of news. I am the first to admit that I know little about that subject, although I am sure bad business decisions are responsible for more newspaper deaths than bad reporting. I know that first hand, having worked at UPI for 25 years and saw the stake put through its heart. Under bold type reading "Fun while it lasted," a chart shows the decline in newspaper ad revenue from 1980 to today. I was there when newspapers were pretty much the only game in town. My book reports on what I saw which was what happens when no one stands up to the neighborhood bully. The important part of newspaper is news, not paper.