Archive for the ‘Media’ category

Privacy vs. Freedom of Expression

April 6, 2010

There is an on-going battle happening in America that is as quiet as a cat but as vicious as a pit bull.

This battle is a relatively new one, exacerbated by the popularity of the World Wide Web.

This is a battle that is being fought on all possible fronts: the White House, the Pentagon, the offices of the Central Intelligence Agency, the chambers of Congress, schools, street corners, public libraries, and even private homes.

This is a battle between personal privacy and freedom of expression.

But first, here are a few thoughts to help set the stage for this discussion:

We live in an unprecedented age of information. The social observers of the 1990s famously referred to the Internet as the “Information Superhighway” because of the vast amount of information that is available at the mere click of a mouse.

Today that highway has grown to stretch across the globe; surpassing all national, linguistic, and cultural boundaries. This information comes in all forms: news, politics, opinions, history, art, pop culture, personal stories, etc. The popularity of blogs created in itself a fairly new phenomenon where more people are willing to put their personal lives out for everyone to read.

And this is where things get very interesting. More and more people, some as young as middle school students, are willing to put their private lives on the Internet for all to see. Through written blogs or video blogs posted on Youtube, people share private information about their lives, including their love life, sex life, opinions on politics, office/schoolyard gossip, opinions on pop culture, and anything else that will attract a loyal following.

Internet pseudo-celebrities will post daily (or weekly) videos of them chatting to their “fan base” about whatever comes to their mind. Certain people will tune in because of the voyeuristic pleasure they get from peeking into the seedy lives of “ordinary” people.

I say “ordinary” people because one never knows how real these “confessions” are. Then again, is that really the point?

The rise of social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace has given people more channels to advertise themselves. Our world is becoming more interconnected. All this leads to one conclusion: our “private” lives are entering into the public domain like never before.

At the same time, consider the controversy that sprung up in the wake of the domestic surveillance scandal of 2005. It was revealed to the American people that the infamous Patriot Act of 2001 had given the FBI the right to spy on foreigners and U.S. civilians without a judge’s permission. Eliminating the need for a federal subpoena, as argued by dissidents, destroys our constitutional right to “due process.”

Many Democrats and civil liberties advocates argued such a practice violated American’s rights to privacy. President Bush argued such measures were necessary to protect Americans from future terrorist attacks. Terrorists do not respect individual rights, Bush and his supporters said.

The outrage from “Spygate” proves that Americans are not completely willing to sacrifice their personal privacy for the sake of protecting themselves from potential harm. Other similar controversies include the installation of video cameras on street corners, photo-enforced red light traffic cameras, and unwarranted phone tapping.

Yet, there exists a completely different trend in American society. As mentioned earlier, Americans are becoming more comfortable with spilling their deepest, darkest secrets on the Internet. Even if they maintain a certain degree of anonymity, there always exists the possibility that someone will find out who they are.

Voyeurism is the sexual interest of spying on people engaged in intimate behaviors that is normally relegated to the private sphere. Alfred Hitchcock’s breakthrough 1954 film “Rear Window” famously depicted Jimmy Stewart as a crippled man who spends his free time spying on his next door neighbors. When his character witnesses a potential murder, he becomes involved in a dangerous conspiracy that never would have happened had he kept his peering eyes away from other people’s business.

“Rear Window” argues how dangerous it is to step into the lives of private people without their permission. There is nothing inherently illegal about spying on people (other than the creepiness factor), but when watching leads to taking action, a line has been crossed that leads to very unholy territory.

This unholy territory is “stalking,” the practice of giving unwanted attention to individuals by either physically following them, researching intimate details of their lives, or trying to contact them without their permission.

There is a joke among Facebook users that when somebody finds out intimate details about someone by reading information posted on their profile, they are referred to as a “Facebook stalker.” The irony is, of course, that all this information is willingly posted on the profile by the person. This information is available for all eyes to see, especially the eyes of your “friends.”

But sometimes this is no laughing matter. Recently, a Tacoma teacher named Jennifer Paulson was murdered by a stalker who casually knew her in college. Her death signifies how serious stalking can be; that intruding on someone’s privacy can possibly lead to violence.

Naturally, there is no way to monitor this except though self-control and utilizing common sense. The government cannot control what information people are willing to put out there. And likewise, people are limited in what they can do to stop government intrusion on their personal lives.

This is an issue that should be “discussed” more than “debated.” Why are we willing as a society to spill more secrets about our personal lives while at the same time getting outraged whenever we see the federal government intrude on our personal space? Are we becoming more open about our privacy, or are we really becoming more protective of it?



The Status of Modern-Day Newspapers

March 15, 2010

It has just occurred to me that I have not blogged anything in what seems like years. I guess that’s the danger of creating a blog that tries to be deep, longer-form, and not a messy set of stream-of-consciousness ramblings. My life has been immensely busy these days, but that is no excuse for not writing.

I have accepted the fact that my readership has dwindled down to nothing. That’s okay. I never really intended this blog to become anything else except for a vehicle for me to showcase my writing. I even got an internship opportunity (which I later resigned from after only a few weeks aboard) because the boss read my blog and was intrigued by what I can do. So that is proof that blogs can be a valuable tool for getting jobs. Unless, of course, your blog is just a glorified daily diary.

What upsets me about the status of today’s journalist is how much we are reducing our profession to just that. Writing whatever comes off the top of our heads and disregarding any respect for fairness, objectivity, and verifiable truth. Consider newspapers who publish the works of “community members” so that readers can read what their next door neighbors have to say. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but consider the subject matter many of these columnists choose to write about:

Shopping choices, opinions about pop culture, their own personal struggles, and their own observations about life and the world around them. There is nothing, like I have said before, wrong about these topics, but is this really the best use of precious publishing space?

These are topics any of us can write about. We don’t have to do any extensive research or thinking to come up with these articles. The News Tribune, the largest newspaper in Tacoma, has a guest columnist who hasn’t even graduated from high school yet. What about people like me, who have a four year degree in journalism? I guess we’re being left out because we’re not “personal” enough.

Today’s editors seem to think people want to read about personal stories more than faceless writers writing about boring stuff like politics and news. If newspapers are supposed to educate, why are we instead trying to entertain them? What enlightenment are we going to achieve by reading about a high school girl’s struggle to apply for colleges? I’m sorry honey, but we’ve all been there. You are not the first person who has stressed over college hunting. Why is her story more important than a journalist embedded in Afghanistan or reporters reporting from the devastation in Haiti and Chile? It makes no sense.

I sound bitter because I am. Television journalism is a whole other monster that I will not even get into. But there is something to be said for professional integrity. I will not go as far as to suggest that editors like those at The News Tribune have sold out, but it does make you wonder if following the “me first” trend in today’s society is healthy for our profession.

Call me old school, but just because you have been published in a newspaper does not automatically make you a journalist. A journalist strives to report other people’s stories, not your own.

But maybe that is what’s missing in today’s journalism. We feel that our opinions are so valuable that being an “objective reporter” would do nothing but diminish our creativity. God gave us opinions, so why shouldn’t we express them, right?

Wrong. A journalist is a different kind of breed. A true journalist should be able to separate personal biases from the story. A true journalist asks credible sources for information, not consult with their own skewed worldview. And when it comes to sources, make sure the sources are knowledgeable and fair in their own right. Try consulting with multiple sources who might come from different perspectives.

Why is this happening? The vilification of the “MSM” (the Mainstream Media) definitely plays a part. Society has some how been convinced that our main sources of news are corrupted for a variety of reasons (sold out to corporate interests, sold out to liberal/conservative focus groups, glosses over real news, relies on celebrity coverage/sensationalism to gain an audience, etc.).

This belief encourages people to turn to alternative sources of news, sources that usually come from a specific ideological/cultural background. We will read “underground” publications because their reporting style is edgier and less bogged down in corporate deadlines and a “rich white man’s point of view.” This is partially why people think anyone can become a journalist. All you need is an idea and a computer. And who doesn’t have those at their disposal?

The solution to this problem is for journalists and editors to return to their roots and become the newspaper reporters they were back in the day. Talking heads on television do not count as reporters. We need more journalists who genuinely want to teach the public, not just entertain them. Let movies and television shows entertain us. We should read a newspaper to learn about what is happening in our world, not what my next door neighbor does in his or her spare time.

Who should lead the charge? I have no clue. This is a collective problem that will require collective action. I should note that the fact that I’m writing this on a blog is irony that is not lost on me.

Those JFK Assassination Conspiracy Theories May Not Be So Crazy After All

October 19, 2009

On November 22, 1963, something happened in Dallas that would haunt the American psyche for generations to come.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was gunned down in a motorcade in the heart of Dallas, Texas by an assassin’s bullet. He was later pronounced dead and was immediately replaced by then Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Lee Harvey Oswald, a former U.S. Marine and apparent defector, was charged with Kennedy’s murder. He was later gunned down by Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner who had shady connections with the Italian mafia. The Warren Commission, a federal investigation panel appointed by President Johnson to look into the assassination, deemed Oswald to be a “lone nut” who acted alone in slaying Kennedy.

These are the established “official” facts. Anything beyond this depends on your predisposition to believe any of the conspiracy theories that have been circulated over the years.

The New York Times recently reported that the CIA is still resistant to releasing documents from the early 1960s that could possibly shed some light on the assassination. If you believe the Warren Commission, Oswald was a “lone nut” who acted alone under no orders. If you believe Oliver Stone, an Oscar winning filmmaker whose controversial 1991 film “JFK” brought almost every major conspiracy theory into the public light, Oswald was anything but a lone wolf out to put his name in the history books.

The JFK assassination has been discussed many times before in the nearly 66 years that have passed since it happened. The image of John Kennedy Jr. saluting his dead father as his body was carried past him will forever be ingrained in our collective memories. It is not hard to view these conspiracy nuts as insensitive paranoid jerks that refuse to bury the past.

However, “conspiracy buffs” will argue that it is the rest of us who need to wake up. If we are so naïve to believe that it is impossible for our own president to be killed by means of conspiracy and deception, then we need to get out more. America may be the most free and democratic nation in the world, but we in no way immune to government/military corruption.

We all know that politicians sell their souls to special interest groups, corporations, and religious organizations in order to get their votes. We all know the military will cover up any scandal if it puts them in a bad light (My Lai massacre, anyone?). We should all be aware that during the Cold War, the CIA was doing things so secret even they probably had no idea what they were doing. None of this should come as a surprise to anyone.

It has been reported that shortly after 9/11, the CIA secretly authorized for top secret assassination teams to travel around the world killing al Qaeda leaders in retaliation for the attacks. This should sound familiar to anyone who knows about the “Wrath of God” operation set up by Mossad to kill Palestinians linked to the Black September terrorist group after the murders of 11 Israelis at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Though the CIA supposedly cancelled the al Qaeda assassination plan before it could begin, it is not a stretch to imagine that this practice is nothing new.

So what does this all mean? That the CIA really did kill Kennedy? And for what reason? Because he refused to support the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, which sought to remove Fidel Castro from power? Or perhaps it’s because he was soft on the Soviets after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and allowed them to swallow up more nations to Communism. Or maybe because he didn’t want to play ball in Vietnam. All of these theories have been spread around.

To be completely serious and objective, we can never know for sure until all these secretive documents have been released to the public. The government claims they contain top secret information that could jeopardize our national security if they are leaked. Even though the Cold War is long over, apparently our new enemies in the Middle East can catch on and learn something valuable if they got their hands on them.

What we do know for sure is that all options should be put on the table. It’s not unpatriotic to believe that our own government would kill our own Commander in Chief. The 1960s were a rough time in U.S. history. The paranoia of the Cold War during the 1950s had us seeing Communism everywhere, even in our own backyard. We just came off an apocalyptic nuclear showdown with the Soviets that brought us to the brink of mutual assured destruction. And of course, there was the Domino Theory (which some scholars believe to be a fabrication), which believed that if South Vietnam fell to Communism, all of East Asia would soon follow.

We lived in times that were unparalleled before in our nation’s history. The intelligence and military communities actually believed our way of life was being threatened by the Soviet Union and their umbrella states. Kennedy was accused within many circles (mostly unfairly) of being “soft on Communism” and letting the Soviets have their way. This “appeasement” argument believed that it was the lack of resolve against fascism in the 1930s that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and Imperial Japan.

All of this can possibly lead to many people concluding that Kennedy was killed because either he was too soft on Nikita Khrushchev, or Fidel Castro, or Ho Chi Minh, or all three of them. Whether he was or not is beside the point. What does matter is that many people believed he was not doing enough, and some of those voices came from within the Pentagon, CIA, and the White House.

This should lead any one of us to rethink our view of America and see that we are no different from any other country in the world. We may be bigger and richer than most others, but that does not mean we cannot do some terrible things in our own right. Critiquing our country is not the same as hating it. In fact, criticism means you love your country because you want it to improve and be better.

And we should all want it to be better. This is why it is essential that we learn about the activities of government, corporations, and other organizations/people that make important decisions in our country. This is why the media are so important. We need to keep the powers that be in check. If we do not, who is to say our current president or future presidents could not fall victim to assassination?

Thus, does this mean the CIA must be hiding something incriminating because they refuse to release so many documents? Possibly. Does this mean our country is continuing to be run by secret fascists who want nothing more than U.S. hegemony at all costs? I will not go that far, though there are plenty of people out there who would.

I think it is fair to say that we need to keep an open mind and rethink our definition of patriotism. If patriotism means loving your country no matter what decisions they make, then count me out. If patriotism means loving your country but being allowed to question your fellow countrymen with the desire to make things better, then I can get aboard with that. And all of us should, too.

It is no wonder why so many people today distrust their government. It didn’t start with Iraq, or torture allegations, or the JFK assassination, or Vietnam, or Watergate, or Monica Lewinsky, or Hurricane Katrina, or the Iran-Contra affair, it all started in 1776 when those colonists decided to form their own country free of monarchy, tyranny, and authoritarianism.

Things have been far from perfect since then, but it is the intrinsic human desire for freedom that will carry us well into the next century and beyond.

Walter Cronkite’s Death Reminds Us of What Television Journalism Used to Be

July 21, 2009

I never watched Walter Cronkite when he was on television. I was never really a big TV guy. Sure, I watched some when I was little, but there came a time when I decided that there were better things to do in life other than sit in front of a box.

But with the recent passing of Mr. Cronkite (and really, who isn’t dying these days?), I am reminded of a time when TV journalism wasn’t just confined to 24 hour cable news shows. There once was a time, not too long ago, when basic television programs on stations like NBC, CBS, and ABC provided all the information people needed to get through their day. Today, networks like CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC hog all the spotlight.

Mr. Cronkite was known as “The Most Trusted Man in America” because he delivered the news as straightforward and accurately as people needed it. He told us what we needed to know about our nation, our elected leaders, and the decision makers around the world. He let us know what happened during the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam War, moon landing, the civil rights movement, and other momentous occasions in U.S. history.

I regret that I never watched him in action. I am a little skeptical about TV journalism as it is, but to see someone whom people actually trusted would have been a treat. It would be pointless to talk on and on about all his accomplishments and career highlights. I am not as up-to-speed on Mr. Cronkite’s career as other people are, so I should not attempt to make this blog entry a eulogy.

Instead, it should be worth mentioning how it is a TV journalist can be known as “The Most Trusted Man in America.” Today we think of TV journalists as “reporters” who only think about ratings, making money, and upsetting politicians. Anyone who has seen screaming heads on cable TV or “journalists” using valuable air time to cover useless trash like celebrity gossip probably has a low view of television news. But anyone who has seen a journalist like Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow in action might think differently.

Trust is developed when we know the other person is not trying to deceive, manipulate, or use us for any purpose. We know their intentions are good, right, and honorable. We have no reason to question their motives or think twice about what they’re doing or saying to us. Trust is when we don’t have to doubt what is told us and we can truly believe what we’re hearing. Apparently, Cronkite developed that kind of trust with the American people. And with his passing, we have lost yet another voice that we can have faith in.

A trusted journalist is what we need, not just for today, but for all eternity. We need to trust the people whom we get our news from. We need to trust that they are telling us the truth, are accurate about all their facts, and are not trying to mislead us in any form or fashion. Some of today’s more sell-out reporters care more about ratings than they do about serving the people. I don’t need to name names. We all know who they are.

But then again, journalism is a for-profit business. One cannot deny that fact. Newspapers, magazines, TV programs, radio shows, and websites need money in order to survive. Newspapers are closing because they aren’t making money in an era of Internet news. TV news programs are relying more on covering Michael Jackson’s death than anything else because that’s what people are talking about.

This of course, brings about an interesting question: do TV stations cover stories like celebrity news because they think people want it, or do people want it because it’s given to them? I think this is more of a vicious cycle than anything else. Both parties are to blame. So when we see newscasters giving their opinion on matters, when no journalist should ever do that, we don’t think anything of it. Journalists pandering to our interests have become the norm.

Is anyone bothered that anchors like Keith Olbermann or Sean Hannity tell us their opinion when delivering the news? Probably not. But I am. I think it gives people the impression that not only should the media tell us what to think, but they should tell us how to think about it. They should tell us that Obama’s healthcare plan is an ambitious but challenging endeavor, or that Bush’s Afghanistan policies were doomed to fail. They don’t trust us to come up with these conclusions on our own. They need to tell us like the children that they think we are.

And with commentary comes biases, and with biases comes that horrible word “agenda.” The so-called media “agenda” is a concept developed by media watchdogs and critics to put blame on the media for creating a conspiracy to brainwash us to think a certain way. There is supposedly both a right winged and left winged media agenda to turn America into a fascist socialist terrorist nation. Is this true? I’ll let you decide for yourself.

But getting back to the late Walter Cronkite, I don’t think there are too many people who believe he had a preconceived and planned “agenda” to brainwash Americans to buy into government (or anti-government), corporate, or political propaganda. He just told us what was going on without considering what special interest groups would think. He wanted to inform us, not persuade us to think a certain way.

Some say these values are missing in today’s journalism. I think that is true to a certain extent. This is definitely a fair accusation in the mainstream American media, but not in all corners of the news reporting world. There are journalists out there who stand for telling the truth and informing us on what is important in our world. We just need to find them. They’re out there, trust me.

For now, it might be fair to say that a man of Cronkite’s statue might never be seen again in TV news. His death, while tragic and sad in its own right, does not signal an end to an era. His era of straight talk news seemed to have died years ago.

Will Cronkite be sorely missed? Perhaps. But what he stood for will be missed even more.

What Facebook Quizzes Say About Our Society

July 4, 2009

Facebook quizzes make no sense. How can you possibly try to describe a human being in terms of what Harry Potter character they are? Or what neighborhood in Seattle they are most like, or which of the “Rocky” movies they would be.

I realize that these quizzes are nonsensical and are not meant to be any serious measure of who you are as a person. But it is intriguing to think about whether people can be described through abstract comparisons instead of traditional character traits like age, race, gender, weight, height, nationality, and personal interests.

Take, for example, a recent quiz a friend of mine took that told her which Hogwarts teacher she is most like. For those of you who don’t know, apparently “Hogwarts” is the school that Harry Potter and his compatriots go to where they learn their wizardly craft. I have never read any of the books nor seen any of the movies (and things shall stay that way forever, mind you), but I know this at least.

Given the fact that I have never read any of the Harry Potter books, I can assume that each teacher has their own special quirks and individual characteristics. And they all must be different from each other, I suppose. And if the Facebook quiz matches you up with a strict and hard-nosed Hogwarts teacher, that must mean you yourself are a stern and authoritarian person. It must be that simple.

This annoying trend is simple in its approach. We are slaves to pop culture, therefore we are dying to find out how we measure up to the people/characters/movies/television shows/cultural time periods that we love. It might be unfair to call us “slaves” to popular culture, but in reality, what we read, watch, and listen to does in fact occupy a significant amount of our time that we spend on earth.

Besides, all of this is very trendy, after all. The plethora of Facebook quizzes are so numerous that there has even been a backlash against it. I have seen several people update their Facebook status to read that they are sick and tired of seeing their friends take these pointless quizzes. How annoying it must be to have your homepage inundated with the latest news of which Shakespearean character your girlfriend is most like (note to the reader: if your girlfriend is most like Lady Macbeth, get out of the relationship now!).

Trends are common in our society. We jump on any bandwagon that seems exciting at the time. We jump on it especially if our friends are too. Look at the almost record-breaking five day opening of Michael Bay’s loud and disastrous “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” With a $201 million box office gross, it was $2.6 million shy of the record set last year by the vastly superior film “The Dark Knight.” (I will confess that I have not seen the second Transformers movie, but judging from the negative reviews it has received, I think it is a safe assumption that Christopher Nolan’s film is a lot better)

So if taking these myriad of Facebook quizzes are trendy, when will it all stop? Maybe when people discover that comparing your life to superficial pop culture creations are not a very good idea nor a good use of your time. People can be so immersed in popular culture that they feel like they are part of it, not just passive consumers. It might be ridiculous to actually think people will believe that they are comparable to “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” but one can never know.

Consider this: with the recent death of pop singer Michael Jackson (I mentioned his name this time), tributes have poured out all over the world. Everyone from celebrities to politicians to common everyday people are publicly telling the world how much the King of Pop meant to them. Baby Boomers who grew up with Michael Jackson might consider him to be the distant cousin they never had. African Americans of that generation might think of him as a hero for breaking racial barriers in the music industry.

There are folks who are mourning him like they knew him. The same goes for Farrah Fawcett, who died of cancer the same day. This goes for any famous person who has spent years in the public spotlight. Us common people may not have ever met them, but we sure as hell feel like we have.

In a more interesting case, during this past Fathers Day President Obama invited several boys and young men from troubled urban areas to visit the White House. He spoke of his absent father and how his story relates to those of the young boys and men, many of whom never met their own fathers. One 16-year-old boy named Danilo Downing, who never knew his father, said the President’s story resonated with him.

“I think of him as my father now. He’s really special to me. He’s an amazing man,” Downing said.

Downing only shook Obama’s hand and received a pat on the back from him. That’s it. Yet despite their limited meeting, this young man considers, at least in that moment, the President to be his father figure. Not a small deal. This illustrates how powerful a public figure’s persona can be. They can change people’s lives without ever having to meet them.

The same goes for pop culture figures. Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, and Captain James T. Kirk have impacted more people’s lives than some actual people. They may not be real flesh and blood human beings, but their appearances on television screens, movie theatres, and pages on a book do just the job.

I’ve had friends who said they cried when a major character in the Harry Potter series died. A character, let me remind you, who exists only on paper. There are those who shed tears for Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, and Karl Malden, I’m sure. And they never even met them. Is there something wrong with this?

Maybe, maybe not. The media are so pervasive in our society that media figures exist almost like a real person. But this is dangerous. We need to realize that those who are really important in our lives are our family, friends, and close associates. Victims in Darfur might be an exception. But, nevertheless, it is weird to mourn someone who doesn’t even know you exist, let along your name.

So now it makes sense why we love to take these seemingly innocuous Facebook quizzes. We need to find out which “Friends” or “Lost” character we are because they are, after all, our actual friends. They might not be real, but that doesn’t matter. We spend time with them. They make us laugh, cry, and think. What’s so fake about that?

There is a media theory out there that hypothesizes that people treat the media like they treat real people. We expect the media to do things that people do: entertain us, educate us, inform us, titillate us. We want the media to be our escape from reality. We even watch “reality television” because their lives are so much more exciting then ours. Our realities are boring. The Real Housewives of New Jersey are exciting.

But, if we consume media to escape reality, but our reality is becoming more saturated with the media, what’s the difference? What are we really escaping? If we spend all our time sitting on our sofas watching reality TV shows, that becomes our reality. There is nothing else. Nothing else to fill our “free” time. The media aren’t our escape. It’s where we have to escape from.

And that should make your mind boggle. But if you don’t want to think about it, turn on the tube and see what Oprah is up to.

You Know His Name. You Know His Music. But Please, For God’s Sake, Let Him Rest in Peace.

June 29, 2009

I refuse to mention his name. You know who he is. He passed away on Thursday, June 25, 2009 of a heart attack at his home in Los Angeles. You’ve heard his music. You’ve seen his videos on MTV. You’re read all the gossip about him, talked about his bizarre behavior with your friends, laughed at all the jokes about him on late night television. You know exactly who I’m talking about.

But I still refuse to mention his name.

“The Man Who Shall Remain Nameless” was an undisputed giant in American pop culture. He was a gifted performer, peerless dancer, sensational singer, and an inspiration to musicians everywhere. His contributions to our collective popular culture cannot be underestimated. His records have sold more than 750 million copies worldwide. His fame as an entertainer has drawn comparisons to legendary icons such as The Beatles and Elvis Presley. That is quite an accomplishment for just one man.

That said, people (in the sense of both media creators and media consumers) need to stop dwelling on his death and let him rest in peace. For the sake of his family and close friends, all this media attention is doing nothing to help them cope with his sudden death. Sure, tributes by famous celebrities are nice, but enough is enough. Some people want to mourn a loved one’s death without paparazzi cameras flashing in their face 24/7. I know I would.

But none of his should be surprising. After all, he is a music icon loved by the world. In the 1980s, he was the face of the music scene. He electrified audience members all over the world with his dazzling concerts and indisputably catchy songs. He started as a child star, growing up in the national spotlight as the “front man” of a singing group comprised of his brothers, also gifted singers. He became famous before most of us start middle school.

As his musical fame waned, he started to act strangely in public and became involved in pedophilia allegations. His celebrity status became tainted with off-the-wall personal antics, odd physical deformities, and once again, charges of pedophilia. His death precluded a scheduled 50-performane “come back” concert series that was promised to bring him back to the national spotlight and international stardom. Instead, he died just like anyone else. Just like those courageous Iranian protestors. Just like our troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just like people everywhere in every country in the world.

This is not to say that his death is insignificant. Every death of a human being is significant. His music did in fact impact people from all corners of the planet. But does his particular death deserve constant front page news coverage of every newspaper and news website? Definitely not. Should the public be informed of more important news issues like Iran, federal bailouts, tobacco regulation, gay rights, and state budget woes? Definitely yes.

“The Man Who Shall Remain Nameless” does deserve some recognition for being one of the first prominent African American media musical stars in mainstream society. He rose to fame by breaking out of the Motown establishment and into the homes of everyday white America. He did all this before hip hop became a mainstream genre of pop music. That deserves attention and remembrance. But please, don’t overdo it.

It would not benefit any of us to whine about the media and their celebrity-centered fetishistic reporting. We all know that entertainment news gets way too much press. We all know Americans need to know more about domestic and foreign affairs than what Us Weekly reports on a regular basis. We all know this. So there’s no point in arguing about that.

What does need discussion is who to blame for all this. Do we blame the media creators (also known as “gatekeepers”) for feeding us nothing but celebrity “journalism” or we the people for wanting more and more of it? I always believe that consumers play just as important of a role in these things than those who put it out. Should we blame Big Oil for creating a quasi-imperialistic presence in the Middle East or the everyday consumer who buys oil products on a daily basis? Do we blame tobacco companies for making carcinogenic “death sticks” (Star Wars fans should catch that reference) or smokers who foolishly light up and get hooked?

It is no fact that Big Media are losing money fast. Newspapers are closing everywhere around the country. Television news is depending more on screaming talking heads than civil discussion, all to keep ratings up. Talk radio is becoming more politically polarized everyday, just to pander to a particular demographic. News has become a free commodity because of the Internet. The list goes on.

There may be no clear answer for who is to blame for making the death of “The Man Who Shall Remain Nameless” more important news than a June 30th deadline for all U.S. troops to leave Iraqi cities. In a war that is more than six years old, this is a major step toward scaling back the American presence in post-invasion Iraq. President Obama’s plan to end the war completely by 2011 depends on how well the Iraqi military handles its own security. If they seem independent enough and don’t need U.S. support to fight against the insurgency and al Qaeda, our men and women in uniform can begin to come home. So, this is really important news. But who’s reporting on this?

But, cynicism about the integrity of the mainstream media should not last forever. The popular press has been in worse positions. Think back to the era of “yellow journalism” in the late 19th century when media moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst employed a war over media sensationalism that almost destroyed the American newspaper (that might be an overstatement, but “yellow journalism” certainly did not help make the modern media business model a healthy one). Those days may not be completely over, but it could be worse. Today is not worse.

Young Iranians are hoping for “change” in that country. A change away from despotism. A change away from theocratic rule. A change toward a more free and open society. American whippersnappers claimed last year to hope for the same thing, but they seem complacent to actually bring that about. Paying more attention to celebrity deaths than meaningful political/national/world news is not a good way to change our world. But that is a whole other debate.

For now, briefly mourn the death of “The Man Who Shall Remain Nameless” and move on with your life. Feed your dog. Take your kids out to the beach. Go work out at the gym. Read a newspaper, for God’s sake. And not just the funnies (although, you can do that later). Make sure your life does not revolve around the death of another. Yes, he was famous, but he was only one man. Your life is much more important to you than his is.

But in the meantime, I still refuse to mention his name.

I’m Feeling Lucky: How Google is Changing Our World

June 22, 2009
Look familiar? Weve all used it.

Look familiar? We've all used it.

“To Google” has become a new verb in the English language. If we research something of any topic, we are said to have “Googled” it. That means any person, concept, or piece of information that one needs further information about. To Google is to know.

Google, the Internet’s most popular search engine, is a global phenomenon. Everybody, including myself, uses it to find out anything about anything. We use it to research information regarding our favorite sports teams, movies, television shows, medical problems, philosophical questions, historical data, politics, statistics, pop culture, and of course, people.

We Google people to find out things about them that we might not be able to discover otherwise. If we are thinking about dating someone, or hiring them for a job, we Google them to find out their dirty little secrets. For most normal people, their Facebook profile is usually the first hit you will come across. Anything after that is fair game. If there is dirt on you, it will come out. The Internet never lies, as all of us know.

In the old days (meaning the days before computers), if we wanted to find out hidden information about people, we would have to do good old fashioned detective work. That means researching, going to the library, sifting through public records, or following them. Or we would hire a private detective to do the work for us. Either way, either us or someone else would have to do work that borders on stalking a person. Today, we don’t have to stalk. We just need Internet connection.

An article published by The Atlantic by author Nicholas Carr for the July/August 2008 issue entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid” argues that using the Internet rewires our brain to make us process information faster and quicker. We also start to demand that information be brought to us at a similarly fast pace. Carr talks about how sitting down and reading a book has become more difficult for him. He used to be able to sit down and read a book for long periods of time, but now he becomes more fidgety and loses his concentration easier.

Young people who grew up on the Internet and the Google Age can perhaps testify to that as well. The attention spans of today’s kids are shorter than in previous generations, some child behavioral experts say. The invention of fast-paced television shows, where images are flashed on the screen faster than Ichiro Suzuki can beat out an infield base hit, has been blamed for making our kids more dependent on increased stimuli.

Movies like “Transformers” and “Terminator Salvation” depend more on quickly edited special effects than character, story, and dialogue. If you want to maintain an audience’s attention, having two characters sit down and discuss politics like what Frank Langella and Michael Sheen did in last year’s “Frost/Nixon” is not the way to go. Even the Best Picture of 2008, the smash hit “Slumdog Millionaire,” told its very human story with style, flash, and quick editing. Merely telling a straight-forward love story is not enough. Now we need more razzle and dazzle to keep our attention.

(On a side note, a previous blog entry of mine dealt with why young people don’t go to the theatre as much as older generations do. One explanation might be that the theatre isn’t as visually stimulating as movies and television are. Other than big Broadway musicals, most plays are small, intimate, and character-driven. They require us to be active participants in the story, not passive observers. We have to pay close attention to the dialogue or we will miss key plot points. Young people might find the theatre boring because of this. And that might be a tragedy in the Google Age. After all, why pay $30 to go out and see a show when you can see short exciting clips of anything you want on YouTube for free?)

But back to Google. If our lightening-speed entertainment media are rewiring our brains to demand more visual stimuli faster and harder, then Google is doing the same for research and learning. We want our information served to us on a nice platter with chips and salsa on the side. We want the short and simple Wikipedia version of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy, without having to actually read any of his writings. Why bother reading any books about the Spanish Inquisition when Wikipedia summarizes it up nicely for us?

No one can deny that technology and the media change the way we process information. How often do you sit down and read an entire article you find on the web? If you have made it this far on my blog, then you are on the right track. My blog posts tend to be longer than that of most other bloggers’. I think it is important to have some depth to my thoughts. Other writers might not think so.

This is why I am against Twitter, but with the recent election riots going on in Iran, my view of Twitter has slightly changed. The Iranian government has shut down all foreign news coverage of the protests and are making sure their people are kept ignorant about what is happening, as well as keeping the rest of us ignorant. But those brave enough to use Twitter are sending 140-character or less updates on what is happening in Iran. They are risking their lives and personal safety to get the word out on what is happening in that autocratic Islamist regime. Twitter might be the death of Iran’s theocratic government. If that is the case, then micro-blogging does have a place in the world.

I was initially against Twitter because I think it is ridiculous to reduce news items to 140 characters or less. News organizations who have Twitter accounts are making the news less and less deep by feeding Googlephiles their news the way they want it: short and to the point. But short and to the point loses any sense of depth, meaningful analysis, and big picture reporting. And besides, who cares what celebrities are up to at this very minute in their lives? I don’t care if Ellen Degeneres is going shopping or if Terrell Owens is working out at the gym. That means nothing to me!

If living in the Google Age provides any sense of progress, it’s that information is easier to access and has become more democratic. It used to be that the gatekeepers to information were book publishers and media tycoons. Today, anyone can gather, synthesize, report, and publish information. That has its advantages and disadvantages as well, but those issues are too numerous to mention in just one blog entry.

Nor do I think that we are worse off for living in the Google Age. Google is a very helpful tool for learning. It has changed the way college students do their homework (I, as a recent graduate, can now freely admit this), and perhaps the way college professors do their teaching. Google, and online tools like it, gives us more information at our finger tips than we could ever have imagined. Its effects on society are enormous and more research definitely needs to be done.

The invention of blogs makes it that anyone can make their voice heard online. People ranging from me, to you the reader, to famed journalists, to oppressed protesters in Iran. And searching for blogs on topics of your interest is only one Google search away. But don’t expect blogs to give you all the depth and intelligence that you need (mine do, of course!) to fully learn about news, politics, philosophy, and society. That requires you to actually pick up a book and read it, not just skim a short CNN article.

This is not to say that living in Googleville is making us smarter or stupider. All that can be concluded is that the Internet is changing the way we think. It changes the way we process information, the way we expect to learn, and the way we discover our world. This is a fascinating subject that anyone who uses a computer needs to think about. Those of us who grew up on the Internet need to realize that our brains are wired differently than our parents are as a result. Absolutely fascinating.

If you want to know more about how the Internet alters our neurological development and ability to concentrate, I suppose you know how to do that.