Saturday, August 02, 2008

On The Media should get On Its Knees and blow me

OTM is apparently "the weekly, one-hour program [that] is America's only national radio program devoted to media criticism and analysis." But is it criticism if they end up condoning, tacitly or explicitly, whatever practice any given outlet engages in?

Case in point: I recently was annoyed and disappointed to learn more and more of the heavy hand of editing and "fiction" in the primarily and nominally non-fiction "This American Life." (There is apparently also a growing -- and by growing I mean I've now heard it from 4 people rather than 3 -- backlash against the "cool" ironic hipster style of TAL. It never occurred to me to be bothered by this, because I felt that Ira Glass was knowingly twee and ironic in a way similar to that of many people I know -- indeed similar to many of the people who dislike him/TAL so. I didn't get it, but I'm starting to -- I think it's because he is always twee and ironic, and that he makes all the stories twee and ironic, so that not only does it ring false, it IS false, because all of life is not composed of arms-length irony, and such a diversity of stories can't all be meant to be told in the same way. But I get ahead of myself.) I have read that Glass edits the pieces down to the exact number of seconds or parts of seconds that makes the perfect ironic pause, the ideal hesitation, the most of the recently revived art of discomfort humor from preternaturally long awkward pauses. That rather bothered me, but I managed to ignore it. But then came Malcolm Gladwell.

In this piece, Gladwell comes across as a big bit of a dick to me, a feeling I shared with a friend on Facebook, who rather felt that people should know enough not to trust reporters, and that as a reporter his particular or special obligation to clarify when he's joking/lying and when he was less significant than the idea that "we" shouldn't take "anything at face value." The real shame was on us for believing, and anyway, Malcolm Gladwell (and James Frey) didn't really matter in the scheme of things.

Ok. So I admit I may be an over-serious killjoy. Check, moving on.

I feel that as a big-name star reporter, Gladwell has obligations. Journalists are, after all, a specially Constitutionally protected group. Rights have responsibilities with them, imho. So Gladwell had a segment on TAL where he basically said that as a cub, naive reporter he found out he could influence events and have fun by making up bits of stories -- that he once (accidentally) caused a 10-point fall in a stock by misreporting a company's earning, and that he realized he could do whatever he wanted, like fabricating possible sights for convention so that he could go on vacation where he wanted to covering said convention.

Except that his story, this part and others, are largely untrue. And he has the flimsy but real excuse that he told the story in a place where people often spin tall tales. But Glass put it on TAL in front of 1.7 million listeners.

In an article I largely agree with, Slate's Jack Shafer reports:
This American Life host Ira Glass gives no indication that any part of Gladwell's performance is fictional when he breaks in to end the Gladwell segment. Instead, he encourages young listeners not to follow Gladwell's example.

"By the way, if there is any ambiguity in here at all, young journalists, please note, putting false information into the newspaper is wrong," Glass says.

Gladwell... adds that they promised to run a disclaimer.


Ira Glass of This American Life says via e-mail that the show agreed to include a comment at the end—about The Moth being a place where "people come to tell both true stories and occasional tall tales"—to indicate that the talk "contained elements of exaggeration or untruth."

As disclaimers go, Glass' is weak, something he acknowledges.

"It seemed best for the story if this were kept a little vague," writes Glass. "I thought it would be lousy and undermining and killjoyish if—at the end of a story—a radio host came on and said 'that wasn't true.' Seemed nicer and more artful to simply raise the possibility that it might or might not be true. I figured: the audience is smart. A little goes a long way."

So what's got my boxers in a bunch? This constant pedantic "I know better than thou,"-cum-inverse condescension. "People are smart enough to know better" -- which has the quite clear converse that if you don't, you're not smart. "On the Media" -- the original target of my rant -- pulls similar and quite annoying shit:
NPR's Executive Producer for Training Jonathan Kern is overseeing a year-long project on news standards, which will likely result in the network providing listeners with more information on production techniques. But he doesn't see much utility for the public in adding transparency for transparency's sake.

JONATHAN KERN: Do they really want to know how we edited every actuality and whether there were internal edits? I would say no, they probably don't want to or need to know that. Would it be a good idea occasionally to explain how it's done? Absolutely.

FUCK YOU! "Transparency for transparency's sake?" Isn't that the point of transparency? Simply to be open with what you're doing? It's not as if transparency is meant to be reserved for only when you actually HAVE committed a crime or impropriety; the whole point is that one shouldn't be forced to let YOU (in this case, NPR) decide for yourself what's proper. Transparency is for the sake of others to make their own decisions about methods and approach; when you start picking and choosing based on your perception of what we "need to know," that's hardly transparency any more. RRrrrgh. I mean, no one/nothing can be completely transparent, but this attitude of "Well, only a pedant would find this concerning" when quite clearly that's not so (earlier in the article on OTM, it's mentioned that "NPR's Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin believes trust in television news has declined in part because viewers see it as over-produced entertainment. Is it possible that the fact listeners are unaware of how much production is involved has helped retain their trust in NPR News?"). It can't possibly simultaneously be a cause for a decrease in trust in television news, and unworthy of being transparent about. (For the other reason OTM pissed me off, see this PoorMojo rant by Pappy Hants here, titled "NPR Allows Caller to Put His Dick in My Ear, Parts I & II.")

That's what gets me, in the end. Glass, Gladwell, and OTM act as if they KNOW that what they're doing is as least plausibly questionable. But they cover it with the concept that anything questionable they do is either already known by or irrelevant to the audience... without explicitly asking the audience. (Certainly a colleague of mine buys into their world view; I leave it as an exercise for the reader to guess my stance.) As Shafer says in his piece:
Gladwell's spiel works not because the stories are particularly funny but because of his reputation as a reliable, meticulous journalist. Puncture the illusion that he's telling the truth, and the laughs leak into the ether.

A storyteller can't have it both ways, instructing listeners to "look it up" while stretching the yarn beyond the breaking point or claiming that smuggling the "baffling" phrase into Post copy became "literally" an "obsession." Gladwell's method, and his decision to let This American Life air his tale, raises … well, new and troubling questions about his attitude toward his audience...

On March 13, after I interviewed him, Gladwell had second thoughts about his Moth talk, qualifying it on his blog with these words:

There is a disclaimer at the end of the This American Life broadcast, to the effect that the Moth is a place where "people come to tell both true stories and occasional tall tales." As I think should be obvious if you listen to it, my story definitely belongs to the "tall tale" category. I hope you enjoy it. But please do so with a rather large grain of salt.
Virginia Heffernan of the NYT makes what I believe is the unwarranted assumption that since most random people don't tell interesting stories, and since Glass works so hard to mold "everyday" stories into amusing ones, that perhaps indeed, "[A]lmost no one has a bona fide story, though most have arguments to make, consolations to offer and widgets to sell." (I think this is bullshit, but it would take too long to get further into it here.) BUT Heffernan's point that Glass' methods on TAL are "A way to take the wheel of stories when it’s clear that the everyman he’s recruited isn’t saying exactly what the producers want him to." As she says of the TAL story she reviews, "Ultimately it’s maddening to watch Mr. Glass force this point on Ralph and Sandra, two fascinating people whose dual intimacy with the fading art of ranching and the ascendant art of cloning should have earned them the microphone for the full hour. But Mr. Glass apparently can’t help himself. Only one person really has a story to tell here."

The problem isn't just that, as my TAL-loving friend asserts, that there is artistry in Glass' manipulation that has its own worth, different (greater than?) the worth of true stories told truly without an overriding outside point of view, it's that Glass seems defensive about this idea, that not only is it true but that it doesn't matter. It's more fun if you believe it's true and not heavily filtered, and it's unimportant or killjoyish to let you know that it's not and it is, respectively. It's that this point of view doesn't seem restricted to Glass; it's the official point of view of NPR. They admit that, unlike TV, you can't even see the cuts, deceptive or not. But ultimately, they assure us, their version of reality is close enough, that we should know it's reality presented with their own opinion of fealty to the source, and that -- this is my favorite (ugh) part -- not only do we not need to know that explicitly, but truly, we don't want to. Of course, that's just their opinion -- but what does that mean when they feel that their point of view is more important than reality?


One might ask "What's the alternative?" -- to which I would say that at least as far as "real news" goes, journalistic integrity and the advantages of the web would mean that they could post full, unedited versions of interviews -- raw transcripts, as are published for such venerable and truthful institutions as Fox News for many of their shows. True, they do this primarily for Talk Shows -- news-light angry folks like O'Reilly -- but NPR could innovate it with raw transcripts of interviews, at least, if not audio and/or video of interviews and raw transcripts for their reporters. (The OTM piece reveals that they sound so intelligent, urbane, pithy, and concise because the reporters are also edited such that the "uhs' and "ums" come out; apparently this is what some people "appreciate" about NPR -- it's polishness. I could give two shits for polish -- I'd rather see it as it was. All communication is a lie, in a way -- nothing can be communicated in absolute true purity -- but that doesn't mean all alterations are the same, or irrelevant. In general, the more alteration, the further one gets from reality, so it seems to me that a minimum of editing and alteration should be the goal. I'll give you editing for time -- an artifice but a necessary one. But not "polish", which is pure aesthetics. Beauty may be truth to some, but I prefer my truth with morning breath and frizzy hair, not truth that's been groomed enough to appear on America's Next Top Model.)

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