DOPING, NASCAR-STYLE

Posted in Quick Hits on June 9th, 2009 by Ed

Baseball, the Olympics, and every other high-profile sport have been rocked by drug scandals in recent years as athletes turn to science to make them grow, heal, and move faster. These sports aren't immune from the occasional recreational drug scandal either, as millionaire athletes with 9th-grade educations indulge their love of weed or, in rarer cases, rich man's party drugs like heroin or coke.

Then there's NASCAR, which ends up suspending superstar driver Jeremy Mayfield for failing a drug test…for Adderall XL and crystal meth. The last person I knew who did either of those drugs was 18, unemployed, and lived in a mobile home in Janesville, Wisconsin. Keep it classy, NASCAR.

NEWS THAT MATTERS

Posted in Rants on June 9th, 2009 by Ed

Like most news media, CNN devoted heavy amounts of coverage today to the potential and later the confirmed release of a new version of the iPhone. Being something of a Luddite and in any case insufficiently wealthy to purchase one of these sacred, life-affirming gadgets, this "news" is not relevant to me. But more to the point, it simply isn't relevant. The number of things wrong with this coverage go a long way toward explaining why the mainstream media, the alleged Hard News, is indistinguishable from Stuff magazine. You own an iPhone? You're interested in it? You like electronic gadgets? That's all great. It doesn't change the fact that this. is. not. news.

Information about the release of a new consumer product used to be called advertising; apparently the media now believe that if enough yuppies in their target demographic people own said product it becomes news. The media plead that their hands are tied. News about new cars, hot fashion accessories, and new beeping gadgets is What Viewers Want. And if children want to eat Pixy Stix and a jar of Smuckers for dinner, then by God, that's what their parents should give them.

We need a little paternalism from our media. We need them to take the attitude that, goddammit, you're going to sit down and watch this story about Afghanistan or read this lengthy piece about Congressional spending bills because it's important. Because you need to know in order for our society to function like a reasonable approximation of an informed democracy. Instead we are so conditioned to believe that what we want is what we must get, the real news is pared down gradually but continually and coverage of the iPhone fills the void – news which is indistinguishable from advertising in any significant way.

I try to impress upon my students that discussions of "bias" in the media are a red herring; our society is hypersensitive to the specter of political bias when the damage is being done by more subtle commercial bias. In short, CNN and FOX carry segments about the iPhone because they want people to tune in, not because they have an insidious agenda to eliminate hard news. Their fates are dictated by Nielsen ratings, subscription figures, and advertising rates. If running actual news brings in x viewers and crap about a phone brings in 10x, the decision is made for them.

So it's your fault. And the media's fault. It's everyone's fault. Decades of anti-intellectualism, atrophy of basic reading comprehension skills, and the decline of civic-mindedness have produced a citizenry that neither wants nor is capable of understanding a real and potentially complex news story. Indeed we feel it is right that the media respond to market incentives and give us what we want. We really want to know about SpacePhone and its new apps! How does it match up with the Palm and Blackberry competitors? Such stories have always been legitimate fodder for journalists but were understood as dessert items, just-for-fun pieces provided as a refreshment after the real news. Alas, we've done away with any pretense of eating a balanced meal and our media obligingly provide a buffet of candy.