Thursday, April 27, 2006

Cultural Protectionism, CanCon Style

What do the Barenaked Ladies, Avril Lavigne, Sarah McLachlan, Chantal Kreviazuk, Sum 41, Stars, Raine Maida, Dave Bidini, Billy Talent, John K. Samson, Broken Social Scene, Sloan, Andrew Cash, and Bob Wiseman have in common?

They're all founding members of the new Canadian Music Creators Coalition, which is looking like a rather radical (and simultaneously very Canadian) sort of organisation. Its chief tenets are:

1. Suing Our Fans is Destructive and Hypocritical
2. Digital Locks are Risky and Counterproductive
3. Cultural Policy Should Support Actual Canadian Artists

Moreover, they believe that "[i]t is the government’s responsibility to protect Canadian artists from exploitation," which seems to me to be a very rational thing to believe, especially in a Canadian context where the US media juggernaut always vaguely looms on the horizon, and so, if the government doesn't protect Canadian artists (who often essentially have no power against their own labels), who will? The labels themselves? Don't make me laugh.

Do check them out. They have a spiffy, fast-loading bilingual website, and a place to sign up for a newsletter, if you are so inclined, and if you yourself are a Canadian artist, you can lend your support too.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Privilege is a Lace-Edged Frame

There's a big flap right now in the blogosphere (Echidne of the Snakes has done a bunch of writing on the subject, for instance) about right-wing shill Caitlin Flanagan's new book, in which she exhorts all of us female types to embrace our inner housewives and learn once more to love The Man. However, the problem with her rhetoric is that she's deliberately placed herself in a frame where it's obvious she doesn't belong. According to her, she's a sort of latter-day Happy Housewife, perky and shiny and making sacrifices in her aspirational and professional life (which she undoubtedly has) so that Hubby and the Kiddies can enjoy the "home" she's "made" for them.

Unfortunately for her, if you poke behind the June Cleaver facade a bit, you'll find that she doesn't so much "make" her home as administer it, and that in a similar capacity to a skilled Human Resources professional, since she employs a nanny, a maid, and a "personal organizer," whatever that is, and doesn't seem to do much in the way of her own cooking, childcare, or housework. On top of that, she had a semi-regular writing gig with the Atlantic Monthly and is now on staff with the New Yorker, aside from having a book out, which she's busily flogging.

In other words, Ms. Flanagan is hardly a dilletante housewife with a few "little magazine" poems to her credit; she's a money-making writer for some of the biggest slick mass-market magazines out there, with a sterling rep that could likely get her past even the hardest-assed editor and into the pages of pretty much anywhere she pleased to be. That is to say, she does pretty much exactly the same job the same way as I do...

...which makes me rather frustrated and amused by her. I wish she'd be honest about her job. I don't care what she truly believes or her political philosophy (although I'll say that if she truly does believe she's in a "traditional" marriage, she's either blind or stupid), but I wish she'd be honest about her actual job description.

Ms. Flanagan, you're a telecommuter, not a "stay-at-home-mother" or a "housewife" or any of those things. You're just fortunate enough to have a lucrative gig of your own, plus a high-earning husband, and enough domestic help and manufactured moneyfolk suburban bliss to ensconce you in a veritable fluffy cocoon of white, upper-class, able-bodied privilege, which lets you get away with calling yourself whatever you want to be called.

Out here in the real world, where people often don't make enough money to hire an army of staff and therefore have to do their own housekeeping, cooking, and everything else, we'd call you self-employed...

Sunday, April 16, 2006

It Ain't An Insult

As the old Kenny Rogers song goes, I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in, and it turns out the unwashed barbarian hordes have taken it over. A friend of mine just sent me a link to this Language Log post called "A Brief History of Spaz." All this was brought on by Tiger Woods' saying, "I was so in control from tee to green, the best I've played for years... But as soon as I got on the green I was a spaz" in an interview.

I found the Language Log article rather wryly illuminating, particularly in that apparently, across the pond in England, "a BBC survey ranked 'spastic' as the second-most offensive term for disabled people, just below 'retard.'"

Now wait just a goddam minute here. Who took over a perfectly legitimate, precise piece of medical terminology and stripped away its medical meaning such that it became a pejorative "slightly less offensive than 'twat' and 'piss off,' and slightly more offensive than 'slag' and 'shit'"?! Granted, that's in British English, where, if they aren't creatively mangling the language out of some kind of perversely offhanded dismissive contempt for loanwords, then every second noun, verb, and adjective has some kind of pejorative connotation. However, the rest of the Language Log post suggests that "spastic" isn't doing so well here in North America, either.

The passage that particularly sticks with me from the comments to the article (and if I could find where to send an e-mail to the poster, I'd comment too, in a similar vein) is this one:
When it crossed people's minds that I actually was a spastic, they were usually surprised and bit embarrassed by having said something with a sense that they hadn't thought of. Then, depending on testosterone levels, whether they liked me, and how polite they were, they either apologised or didn't. But I knew that they knew that they felt they should have. So it must have been reasonably offensive...

I have a similar anecdote, since, if it isn't entirely clear from context, I do have Cerebral Palsy, and I actually am a spastic (quadriplegic). A colleague of mine at my last full-time gig liked to sneak up to my office door in the mornings and rap on the little glass window, which, of course, would startle me, and I'd jump. She started calling me "Spazz," which I put up with for a while, since I just sort of assumed she knew that was kind of accurate for me. Then one day, I said, "You realise that I actually am a spazz, right?" The dialogue went as follows:

Colleague: Get out!
?!: No, really, I actually am a
spastic quadriplegic.
C: You're kidding me!!
?!: No, c'mere, I'll show you...

...whereupon I went to Google and searched for "spastic quadriplegia" -- just to prove my point.

She turned approximately purple and spent about five minutes falling all over herself to apologise for having ever called me "Spazz" in the first place. Now, that's kind of too bad, since as far as I'm concerned, "Spazz" is one of the if not nicer, then at least more accurate nicknames I've ever had. It certainly didn't bother me too much. On the other hand, that does beg the question: How the hell did "spastic" become so much of a pejorative that some people aren't even aware that it's a legitimate medical term?! How did that happen?

More importantly, how can we stop it? I'd really like my descriptor back from the forces of bigotry and semantic pollution, thank you.

Friday, April 07, 2006

And We Consistently Get Voted "Worst Community"

Now I have seen everything. (She said yes, by the way.)

You know, that's really a coup. Getting an A-list blogger with a million hits a day to post your marriage proposal is quite newfangled, considerably moreso than when Slashdot's own CommanderTaco proposed to his girlfriend on the front page (two thousand and change comments) -- after all, it's Taco's site, partially.

Thanks to Atrios for increasing the happiness of processed pork-based products everywhere.

Later Update: If you want to see the original thread, it's here.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Why the News is Broken

In the interests of full disclosure, I'd like to lay out my credentials for making this post, right off the top. I'm in a subset of the media professionally, I used to date a reporter, and I've studied a great deal of media theory, everything from Walter Lippmann to Jaques Derrida to that other Canadian English major made good, Marshall McLuhan.

The closer you are to knowing the first-hand details of any given news story, the more wrong the press coverage seems. Why is that? Well...

The news-reporting process distorts, omits, or unduly weights certain information. It happens in a variety of ways, through news story format, the hierarchy and procedure of the newsroom, time pressure, the culture of reportage, and politics.

News Story Format: A news story is structured in a certain, very specific way. The most common (and almost ubiquitous, at least in daily papers) format for structuring a news story is a top-down structure, or inverted pyramid format. This structure presents the most important information -- or what the writer perceives as being the most important information -- in the first paragraph (or "graf," in the trade), and then fills in the details in the body. A disparity between the actual and perceived importance of the facts in question which results in the most salient facts being in the body of the story (where people are less likely to read it, alas) is called a "buried lede."

Similarly, most newspapers are written generally to about a 6th to 10th grade reading level (6.0 to 10.0 on the Fleisch-Kincaid readability index). Reporters may, when covering factual subjects, omit technical terms in favour of less precise or accurate lay terms in order to keep the readability high. (For those of you who are wondering, my non-documentation writing generally scores about a 12.0 on the F-K scale, which I think may be the highest it can go. You can find out more about readability tests here.)

A Quick Note on News Coverage Versus Everything Else: The person who inspired this entry was quick to point out that certain writers appearing in newspapers writing on certain subjects have no compunction about name-dropping obscure people or making allusions or references to works of high, low, or indeterminate culture of breathtaking obscurity. The writer of the piece which inspired his complaint, Ben Goldacre, writing an article in the Guardian called "Don't Dumb Me Down," seems to think that humanities graduates (of which Your Humble Narrator is one, thank you) are the root of all evil when it comes to bad reportage, especially in science writing.

Note to Ben: Never confuse the system with the actors in it, thank you.

As to the charge that when discussing non-science-related subjects, writers are quick with obscure references and slow with explanations, that mostly happens in non-fact-based writing -- also found in newspapers -- that may superficially look like news coverage, but isn't. The main offenders in this category tend to be opinion pieces and various types of reviews, neither of which are news.

Relatedly, to Goldacre's contention that "nobody dumbs down the finance pages," I would argue that yes, in fact, they do. Most stories in the finance section are written exactly the same way as other news stories, and don't draw much on knowledge of economics, finance theory, operations theory, or anything more intellectually challenging than the tacit assumptions of the dominant (editorial?) culture. Insider tip: Actually, many business section stories, like other news stories, draw on corporate press releases.

Newsroom Hierarchy and Format: Most reporters are not generally given a lot of choice in what they get to write about. I'm not talking about the Judith Millers and John Markoffs of the world; I'm talking about the anonymous little stringers who make thirty or forty grand a year and have an editor or two breathing down their necks. Usually the editor or editors to whom the reporter is responsible assigns them a handful of things to chase after, and then decides which of the submitted finished articles are going to run. (The other ones are referred to as "spiked.") The editorial decision to run a piece or not can be influenced by the length and divisibility of the finished product (will it fit in the page layout?), the quality of the writing and research, the "fit" with the rest of the newspaper's (section's) content, and political considerations, up to and including pressure from politicians and advertisers. (For instance, a newspaper may be reluctant to run a story on a major social problem if a major advertiser in the paper doesn't want their ad juxtaposed with that story.)

Time Pressure: Most rank-and-file eporters are generally on deadline to file two or three stories per working day. That may be in addition to any longer-term stuff they're chasing after, although admittedly, the budgets for long-term, in-depth reporting are going way down at most newspapers, which means that reporters who specialise in such pieces (like Sy Hersh, for instance) are now finding their work appearing magazines (such as The New Yorker or Rolling Stone) or books. Since most stories are short pieces (200-1000 words) on current, short-term events and need to be filed almost immediately, and since it does (as many of you know) take some time to actually physically type in anywhere from 6-3000 words in a day (my record for typing 3000 words in a day is about 4h), this intense deadline pressure often means reporters might have a couple hours at most to research a topic. This perforce is not going to turn news stories into masterfully-researched, intricately detailed, theoretically sound articles; it's going to result in newspapers full of things yanked off the wire services, or pounded out under pressure, or pulled (almost?) verbatim from the aforementioned corporate press releases. Final deadline is usually around midnight; after that, it's gone to final layout and printing.

The Culture of Reportage: In a lot of cases, the culture of reportage is such that reporters consider themselves capable of becoming "instant experts" on everything, although the contraints of the system basically prevent them from getting to the point in knowledge where they realise that their initial assumptions are wrong or distorted. As a first class example, who could forget Judith Miller's "I was proved fucking right!" outburst, even when it has pretty much always been clear she was fucking wrong? The belief in the infalliability of the reporter's own reportage runs fairly deep in newsroom culture, influenced by the public's generally credulous approach to news-reading.

Once reporters have done as much research as they feel is necessary, or have time for, whichever comes first, they then decide what of that gathered information is most important, that is, what goes in the first paragraph of the story.

Politics: As I've mentioned before in this essay, politics is also a major shaper of the news. This may apply to partisan party politics, although that trend is diminishing and becoming diffused by chain ownership of media outlets. The larger question of political bias introduced by media magnates is probably best addressed by books such as Ben Bagdikian's The Media Monopoly, and fact-checked at More often, the political considerations involve not offending advertisers, local movers and shakers, or the Editor-in-Chief. These pressures can sometimes turn the already selective news-presentation process into outright censorship.

Based on those factors, and probably some other ones I've missed, it's no wonder stuff comes out a little bit broken. The medium is the message, and in many cases, the medium is kind of dysfunctional.