News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to MinneKota@gmail.com

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The honkey and his ho



A new movie about global pollution is titled "The Age of Stupid," but climate change is not the only topic that seems to overstimulate those who regard stupidity as a virtue.  Journalism also provokes an outpouring of ignorance, illiteracy, and the fence-post brand of cognition.

The demise of journalism and its failings  are  favorite themes on blogs.  There is no doubt that the news media performs miserably at times. It deserves a constant stream of criticism.  That is why journalism reviews were instituted, and why many newspapers have daily editorial conferences to review performance and plan future coverage and assignments.  However, the criticism coming from blogs is mixed.  Many national blogs feature commentary by established, competent journalists.  A few South Dakota blogs also feature the perspectives of journalists.  But the most vociferous  anti-journalists in the South Dakota blogosphere have never read a real book on journalism. negotiated the first chapter of a journalism text, or, apparently, been exposed to even a high school course in expository writing.  The anti-journalists know one thing for certain:  they don't like journalism, whatever it is.  They sure as hell don't practice it or any of the fundamentals of writing that make communication possible and even productive at times.

The fact is that politics has shifted from being a representative forum for identifying and resolving issues to a game of malignant character assassination.  There are people possessed of witless malevolence throughout the political spectrum, but those who call themselves conservatives have adopted the presence of malice as the essential definition of their political belief system.  As is demonstrated on the South Dakota political blogs, character assassination, gross misrepresentations, insult and abuse are the only kind of grammar that the conservative faction can command.

What is ridiculous is that bloggers, on the basis of publishing a few bits of gossip and hearsay that turn out to have some truth, claim they are making the mainstream press irrelevant.  They take up the case of young Hannah Giles and James O'Keefe who dressed up as ho and pimp, like middle-schoolers going out to trick-or-treat, and went into ACORN offices to set up a sting by saying they were asking advice on setting up a whorehouse staffed with juveniles.  They videotaped the proceedings.  The conservative movement thinks the young pair set a standard of journalism that the mainstream should either emulate or get out of the news business.  Legislators and government officials have ended any federal funding that ACORN gets.  A few of us old hands in the news business are puzzled and disturbed that the press has taken this story seriously at all. The Columbia Journalism Review has two articles covering the matter.  (Number 1; Number 2.)

First of all, most credible news agencies have policies against investigative reporters misrepresenting themselves.  Investigative reporters do on occasion get positions at organizations to learn their inside operations.  An example is a series of stories about abuses in mental institutions  by a reporter who got a job as an orderly in one.  Editors questioned whether the reporter could use information obtained by deception, but the stories were not based upon setting up phony identities and deceiving people, but were based solely on careful gathering of documentary evidence.  The ACORN stings were based totally upon a deceptive scam and no documentary evidence was gathered.

The Better Government Association in Chicago often video-tapes reporters who confront government agencies about their finances and practices, but their videos deal with documents and the gathering of  evidence that can be brought into  court.  They do not record reporters misrepresenting themselves.

The New York Times public editor explains why that newspaper treated the story as one of political dirty tricks, not as one that qualifies as valid news in terms of what it claims to have revealed.

A new movie to be released in October, titled Yes Men, features the same kind of scam when two men represent themselves as business entrepreneurs and scam executives in major corporations with outlandish schemes.  In a Washington Post op-ed piece, its makers wonder when the government will take the same reponse to big business that it did with ACORN.


As I have suggested in a previous post, there are obvious aspects of the ACORN scam that raise questions  that have not been addressed.  The impersonations of pimp and ho are so childishly outlandish that it seems ridiculous that any hip community organizers would fall for it.  As was the case with at least one of the people interviewed, it seems more likely that the ACORN people were putting on a pair of presumptuous and foolish kids.   That some politicians, officials, and journalists did not examine the actual circumstances of the videos says  more about their fearful gullibility than it does about the activities of ACORN.  And if ACORN personnel were taken in by the pair of impostors and seriously gave the advice they did, then ACORN needs to be exposed as a refuge for the terminally stupid.  But these matters need thorough investigation and fact-checking,

The O'Keefe-Giles videos are part of the "new media"  hate-based campaigns that include blogs, talk radio, and openly propagandic cable news.  Michael Gerson in a Washington Post essay puts the real significance of the new media in the perspective of journalistic purpose.

...the challenge of this technology is not merely an isolated subculture of hatred. It is a disorienting atmosphere in which information is difficult to verify or critically evaluate, the rules of discourse are unclear, and emotion -- often expressed in CAPITAL LETTERS -- is primary. User-driven content on the Internet often consists of bullying, conspiracy theories and racial prejudice. The absolute freedom of the medium paradoxically encourages authoritarian impulses to intimidate and silence others. The least responsible contributors see their darkest tendencies legitimated and reinforced, while serious voices are driven away by the general ugliness.

Whatever the method, no reputable institution should allow its publishing capacity, in print or online, to be used as the equivalent of the wall of a public bathroom stall.

The exploitation of technology by hatred will never be eliminated. But hatred must be confined to the fringes of our culture -- as the hatred of other times should have been.

No doubt, the media, particularly print journalism, is undergoing some drastic changes. American democracy may well be changing in ways that its critics have warned about since its inception.  It may sink from popular rule to mob rule and the political structure of government may no longer be able to moderate the factions of hate and violent passions.

Or maybe the general populace may awaken from its media-drowse and become hip enough again where it cannot be taken in by juveniles carrying out a parody of a honkey pimp and his ho.  The big question is if the nation can survive The Age of Stupid.

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