Telling stories

Archive for the ‘The Media’ Category

When It’s Not Cool to be Hip

Posted by southwrite on September 9, 2014

Bald WriterWhile there are many ways to improve your writing one quick and easy – if not painless – way is cut the clichés, the hip sayings, and (all kinds of) jargon that cloud rather than advance communication.

Let’s confess, we love them even if we don’t always see a cliché as a cliché. The job wasn’t easy. No, it was a slam dunk. You didn’t get chewed out (an aged expression if ever there was one). “No man, I got chirped!” Want to tell someone you scored something really good? It was “swag money.” Pass a test? No, you were “killin’ it.”

It’s not that they really describe a situation – they don’t – but we feel that by uttering them we have acquired a bit of the cache of the trend setters. It makes us feel cool and not in its original meaning of early jazz musicians like Charlie Parker. HIs 1947 classic Cool Blues aptly conveyed the composure and style that was highly creative and original. Cool is still with us – always; but its meaning has been appropriated by media – especially advertising. Now cool is no longer about the style and detachment, but about…anything. Everything is cool. And, nothing is cool.

Leslie Savan, in Slam Dunks and No Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and Like, Whatever explained it this way: “The catchwords, phrases, inflections, and quickie concepts that Americans seem unable to communicate without have grown into a verbal kudzu, overlaying regional differences with a national (even an international) pop accent that tells us more about how we think than what we think.”

Of course, many of the expressions we use are much older than we think. Black Americans have gifted – not always willingly – white Americans with a host of expressions. Many phrases that we use every day comes to us from Shakespeare. (Think of too much of a good thing, one fell swoop, flesh and blood, sea change and the long and the short of it among others.)

It’s one thing to pepper water cooler conversation with pop references. At worst you’re only boring a few office mates. Once you start incorporating them into the written word, you automatically begin to date your work. If your article is posted on the web, it’s going to have a much longer life than you might imagine and buzz phrases will seem awfully dated.

Better to just admit you can’t keep up with pop. That phrase has already been uttered millions of times. Worse, the hipster who coined it has long since moved on to something else long before you got around to it. Thanks to the media you’re trying to feed, it’s disseminated over and over again. Every bit of life and originality has been painfully squeezed from every pop phrase.

The same goes for the endless stream of specialized industry jargon. Oddly, enough although most of the media including books, articles and blogs have been dumbed down to the point that it’s unlikely you’ll come across any unfamiliar word, business reports, white papers, sales copy and brochures are often filled with words that nobody outside the industry could possibly know. Don’t use them – unless you’re required to do so.

If all of the clichés and cool expressions are out, then what is left? Well, there’s plain old English. Using simple accurate words always work. You can also come up with your own turn of phrase — one that is more original and fitting.

When you do that, then you will be hip and more than a little cool.


Posted in The Media, Writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

You Can’t Have What You Already Own

Posted by southwrite on August 17, 2014

The familiar rotating comic rack.

The familiar rotating comic rack.

I decided to pay a visit to a local comic shop. You know the kind of store I’m talking about. If you’re a fan, you’re intimately acquainted with the racks of new books that line the walls surrounding tables filled with cardboard boxes of older books. There are also the glass cases filled with toy replicas of the super heroes now familiar to anyone who has visited a movie house in recent years.

Comics are big business now.

It’s been a long time since I had been inside a store like this one and it brought back a flood of memories – of childhood pleasures and adult years trying to recapture them. I thumbed through some of the new titles. They are quite different now than when they became part of my life in the mid-1960s. For one thing, they’re more costly (several dollars compared to the 12 or 15 cents) and much more adult in their story lines. The cheap paper has given way to quality stock and brighter, more vivid colors.

My visit also confirmed again for me a hard truth– owning is not the same thing as having. You might think that the two are the same. That owning is at least necessary for having something, but it’s not.

This is also why I’m no longer a comic collector – or collector of anything for that matter.

Oh, I do own a lot of things which might be considered collectible in one sense of another. Like most writers I have hundreds of books. Some I have with me, but most are in storage. I own, yes, but I don’t really have them. The difference between owning and having is in part about access, but it’s also an intellectual and even spiritual experience.

The realization that owning prevents me from actually having a thing really came home when I went from being a comic reader to a comic collector.

The colorful pages of comics were one of the delights of my childhood.

The colorful pages of comics were one of the delights of my childhood.

My love of this popular art form  began when I was a young boy spending  Saturdays in the small town of Eastman where I grew up. While my parents shopped for groceries and other items, I found my way to the corner drug store with its rotating rack of comics in the window.

I always faced an agenizing choice. With just 12 cents in my pocket, I could only have one. But which one? Superman? Spiderman? The Fantastic Four? The Challengers of the Unknown? Or maybe a western? With limited funds and wide choices, I leafed through each one carefully before making a choice.

I learned early on the loss that comes with each choice. By saying yes to Iron Man, I was saying no to Batman and all the other super heroes left in the racks. I would take a selection to the counter and carefully count out my coins. Then it was back home clutching the issue and eagerly devouring the latest exploits of my heroes.

Once read, it would go into the small cardboard box on the floor of my bedroom. I treasured each one. As time passed each comic book became well-worn as they opened up that world of excitement and wonder that every small town boy needs.

For one reason or another I lost most of those early treasures. They went to trades with other kids or were left behind as I moved on to other things – like college and non-comic reading friends. They were forgotten and thrown away – after all comics were designed to be quick and cheap entertainment.

Eventually, I ceased both buying and reading comics. Years passed and then I came back to them.

With a job and income, I could afford to buy back what I had once loved. And, I did. Comics that I had spent 12 or 20 or 25 cents for were now big money as they acquired collectible status of examples of the so-called Silver Age of comic publishing. I paid for them and began to amass a new collection. Instead of throwing them into an old box, I had to store them in special plastic bags. The cheap paper on which they were printed aged and faded quickly. In fact, finding a well preserved copy of older titles from the 60s and 70s was difficult. For those produced in earlier decades it was nearly impossible.

Today's comics have become more popular and more adult.

Today’s comics have become more popular and more adult.

As my desire to flesh out my collection grew, I began to acquire professionally graded issues encased in hard plastic. The cases certified their condition and value and also prevented further deterioration – the real enemy of any pop culture collectable.

The one thing I couldn’t do was read them. No creasing the spines as I lay in bed engrossed in epic battles between heroes and villains. I was a collector now – not the small boy clutching his beloved comics.

I assembled hundreds of comics. Many such as  a pretty decent copy of Fantastic Four #1 were quite valuable. At last I owned them, but I couldn’t have them.

One day, I don’t remember exactly when, it came to me – collecting is a profoundly disappointing experience. I only really enjoyed it when I didn’t have what I wanted. Hunting for a title was exciting. So was getting it, of course, but the thrill quickly faded.

Once I had a particular book, it was in a real sense lost to me. I had it, but I didn’t have it. The only thing left to me was to gaze at the collection and try to draw some excitement from the idea that a part of my childhood had been recaptured. It was a delusion. The thrill of comics for a young boy was in the holding, the reading, the talking with friends and the trading. After buying all those now valuable items, I was right back where I had started – I knew they existed, but I couldn’t touch them. I couldn’t recapture those days. They truly were lost.

With that realization came another. Owning something that I couldn’t use and enjoy meant not really having it. I stopped being a collector.

I haven’t given up on comics as I did before. I still read them, but in digital form on tablet. Most of the old issues that I had loved as a child can now be downloaded in electronic format. Once again I can read them as I did as child — without worrying about the horror of leaving finger prints on the cover. I can also see them through the eyes of an adult knowing that I can’t recapture that childlike wonder. That too has been lost, but in the process I’ve gained something else.

Posted in Life, The Media | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

People Still Lie In the Age of Transparency

Posted by southwrite on July 15, 2014

Man in HatThere’s very little about our lives that is secret anymore – or is likely to be secret for long.

Facebook keeps track of your typed posts even if you decide to delete them. Google knows everywhere you’ve been on the web.  And everything they know the NSA knows as well – and a lot more. And, of course, big business owns your personal data and probably knows more about you than your spouse.

All of this over exposure was supposed to make us a lot more transparent. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s now creepy statementPeople have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time. We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are.

So if we now live in an overexposed world in which its pretty easy to find out lots of things about lots of people, why tell lies that can be easily found out? Why tell your new date that you’re a company CEO when a Google search will reveal that you’ve just gotten out of prison.

Decide it would fun to take your top off in a bar and a score of cell phone cameras will send images of your bare breasts across the web. Forget about keeping that Miss America crown.

These days it’s easy for a company to search public records and Facebook accounts to ferret out the truth and lies hidden in resume and job applications. There’s a long list of coaches, CEOs and assorted academics who have lost their jobs because they claimed degrees they never bothered to earn.

In fact, the only reason the dark secrets of your past stay out of sight is when others don’t even try to find them.

With so much information so accessible to so many people why does anyone think they can get away with anything?

Of course we all lie at one time or another. Usually it’s to avoid conflict with someone or fudge the truth so that our behavior looks a little better. Sometimes we simply convince ourselves that events transpired a certain way when they really didn’t. Police and prosecutors are well aware that witness memories can be notoriously unreliable.

We tell small lies designed to keep us out of trouble and avoid conflict. We fudge the truth about our accomplishments to impress someone and even if we know what we’re doing in the beginning soon we accept the lie as whole truth.

But how do you explain some of the more outrageous lies that have been part of the public consciousness in recent times. Why does a public figure tell a personal story – such as decorated military service – that can be easily proven false by the public record?

Consider the story of the story of little 3-year-old Victoria Wilcher, disfigured by a pitbull, getting kicked out of a Jackson, Miss. KFC. The girl’s grandparents said that a manager at the fast food restaurant told them to leave because the girl’s scarred face was “disrupting our customers.” The accusation quickly went viral and the fast food chain quickly apologized and pledged $30,000 to the girl’s family for her care. Almost as quickly a local newspaper debunked the story. It not only didn’t happen, it appears that the family had not been in the KFC on that day.

Why did the family believe they could get away it? Didn’t they think someone would check a little further? Or did they believe the public is gullible when it comes to false stories that seem to fit with their deeply held beliefs – in this case businesses are run by heartless people.

The morale is that we need to be skeptical of stories – particularly when they sound too good to be true or fit too neatly into our own beliefs and biases.




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This Hospital Might Just Save Journalism

Posted by southwrite on July 7, 2014

CCJ director Tim Regan-Porter

CCJ director Tim Regan-Porter

Everyone knows that journalism is in trouble. Newspapers are on life support and there are few occupations chancier than being a reporter. Not many media companies have figured out how to make money off the news and actually pay writers at the same time.

Yet, a growing number of people of people in the profession are saying that one good answer might be found on the campus of Mercer University in the Middle Georgia City of Macon. Here the Center for Collaborative Journalism (CCJ) is taking a “hospital” approach to training journalists and in the process is reviving professional journalism.

The 186-year-old Macon daily, The Telegraph, and Georgia Public Broadcasting have co-located to a new mixed use development on the Mercer campus. Students from the journalism program are now working side by side reporters leaning by doing a good bit of the legwork for newspaper and public radio reports. It’s a lot more than just fetching coffee.

These students are producing real journalism. Mercer junior Jane Hammond did an early  story for National Public Radio on the Atlanta’s Braves move to  Cobb County and another on the Mercer basketball team’s upset of Duke. She also did a four minute feature on concussions in youth football.

“I’m fairly confidence that this is the only one like in the nation that has a public broadcaster and a (professional) newspaper in a school,” explains Tim Regan-Porter, the Center’s director. “There’s nothing else like this in which we’re integrating the professionals into the curriculum. It’s a first as far as we can determine.”

Journalism schools have long offered internship at media outlets. I spent three months at a weekly in Barnesville, Ga while at the University of Georgia’s journalism school. None have ever put students this close to real newsrooms enabled this much mentoring by editors and reporters.

The idea for the journalism center originated with the Macon Telegraph’s former publisher George McCanless. The energy and enthusiasm that he saw among the students he met at UGA was in sharp contrast to the generally pessimistic feelings of professional journalists. Why not move the newspaper out of its aging and cavernous building and onto the campus so that his reporters could experience some of that passion?

Back in Macon, he called up Mercer’s entrepreneurial-minded president Bill Underwood. He liked the idea and suggested they include a public broadcaster in the mix as well. And, to make it happen the two approached the Knight Foundation about providing funding.

The Knight Foundation also liked the notion – to the tune of $4.6 million. (Macon’s Peyton Anderson Foundation kicked in another $1 million.) They also informed journalism school deans and presidents of the universities “saying that if you want foundation money you need to start exploring these types of models. Teaching hospitals is the way you need to be thinking about it. Think less about academic credentials and start leveraging professionals to teach,” he adds.

“Bill Underwood went to Knight and made the pitch that of all the professional schools, medicine does the best job of training professionals because they have teaching hospitals,” explains Regan-Porter. “They’re actually serving the community and you have mentoring going on in a very real direct way. And they not only tend to the best educational services and professional services, but they also tend to provide the best hospital services for their area, because the doctors are staying up to speed with the latest medical technologies. That’s what we want to do for journalism.”

The Center for Collaborative Journalism in Mercer Village is now home to The Macon Telegraph and Georgia Public Media.

The Center for Collaborative Journalism in Mercer Village is now home to The Telegraph and Georgia Public Media.

The Telegraph moved its news room operations to the new building in Mercer Village, a mixed-use development in Macon’s College Hill Corridor, near the University’s historic campus, about six months ago. A new student residence hall sits just across the street from the building on a street that includes a variety of restaurants and shops. The original plan was to house the entire company here, but funding fell short. Georgia Public Media occupied another section of the building. More recently the Center acquired its own television station.

Getting professionals involved in the training of student journalists has been one area in which the program has been particularly successful. Regan-Porter came to the Collaborative Center after co-founding of Paste Magazine, one of the nation’s leading Music/Film/Culture publications and a direct competitor to Rolling Stone. He declined offers from bigger and more prestigious institutions both because of the program and the opportunity to live in the hip and historic College Hill neighbor that surrounds Mercer.

Reporters come into the classroom as guest lecturers and also work in the school’s writing lab critiquing student articles. That’s been particularly important as students enroll in the ongoing Practicum class that requires them to do published work. The process is good for students – they get professional mentoring – and for reporters – they get some help with their own work.

So where is the program going from here? Regan-Porter’s answer reflects just how different this effort is compared to the typical academic approach.

“We’re still figuring it out,” he admits. “We’re making changes every year and we will continue to do that – which is unique for academia. They don’t exactly like changes every year, but we’re very free rein. We have a lot of flexibility.”

Posted in Professional Development, The Media | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

When the Sharing Economy Becomes the Stealing Economy

Posted by southwrite on June 27, 2014

Frustrated womanIt’s beginning to look as if the sharing economy has become the “license to steal” economy for some big companies. Oakland, Calif.-based freelance writer and artist Susie Cagle discovered that recently when Yahoo used one of her illustrations as art for its Facebook promotion for a story on the sharing economy, but without any ask or compensation.

Even more galling the topic was one she had written about. In fact it was that story from which Yahoo swiped the art without the annoying bother of asking for permission or – God forbid – paying for it. You can see her article – The Case Against Sharing – and her art here. The article is a clear eyed appraisal of the sharing economy which tends to be very good for companies and their investors, but not so much for the ordinary people for whom it’s designed.

The Yahoo incident seems to be just another indicator of a well-established trend of devaluing the work of freelance writers, artists and other professionals. Content mills and large successful websites like VICE and the Huffington Post have made fortunes persuading writers to offer up their work for nothing or close to it. These sites and even well-established and respected publications like the venerable Atlantic Monthly have lately tried to get away without paying for work.

Like all trends it has filtered down from the big boys to the everyday schmuck trying to save a buck. A few years ago I was working at a university when the graphic designer came in to tell me the track coach had brought in a number of photos that he had copied from various website and wanted to use them in a brochure. Even after explaining to him the images were copyrighted and couldn’t be used without permission, he still wanted to do so.

As with Yahoo the people stealing should know better. I once found a magazine article I had written reprinted under the byline of a local blogger. Not only did she not pay for reprint use, but she didn’t bother to credit either me or the magazine. The article came down, but I wondered what were you thinking? You’re at least presenting yourself as a journalist, so you should have some idea of what it means to create something.

These are just a few examples, but there are hundreds, no thousands more.

Susie Cagle's illustration that found it's way to Yahoo article.

Susie Cagle’s illustration that was used to promote a Yahoo article about the sharing economy.

It’s hard to say where it will end, but in some ways we are at least partly to blame for this situation. Every time a writer agrees to contribute his work to a profit making site it cheapens the entire craft. The miserable writers who give away their work to enrich others make it that much harder for everyone else to make money. Soon it begins to seem that we’re not even entitled to make a living – of any kind.

So, if you’re thinking about not charging for your work not asking what you think you’re worth or not complaining when someone steals it, think again. You, me and everyone who makes this a profession are entitled to be paid.

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Don’t Believe Everything You Read – Even if it’s True

Posted by southwrite on June 25, 2014

1319095_90422633You know you’re not supposed to believe everything you read – whether in newspapers, books and especially on the Web. Yet, most people – including those who give you advice like this – often do.

You probably heard the story of three-year-old Victoria Wilcher, who was thrown out of a KFC restaurant in Jackson, Miss. after an employee decided that her scars—leftover from an attack by her grandfather’s pit bulls—were scaring customers. That angered a lot of people and you could hear the explosion on social media. And, rightly so. It was so bad in fact that KFC immediately apologized for its franchisee’s behavior and ponied up $30,000 for the child’s medical bills as a way of saying we’re sorry for this outrage.

As you also now know, it was all a media savvy hoax cooked up the grandfather and his girlfriend to boost thier  own fund raising campaign for the girl’s medical bills. This nationally reported story was uncovered not by the national media – which like KFC bought it completely – but by a local newspaper – The Laurel Leader-Call. It did the fact checking and basic reporting while everybody else was running with a tale that was too good to pass up.

I mention this incident not because it’s unusual, but because it’s so commonplace. There have always been hoaxes and frauds and misinformation. What’s different today is how fast these stories travel and how they can impact people and even corporations. KFC acted fast to contain what initially looked like a social media-fueled PR disaster. No doubt their publicity experts understood that it didn’t really matter whether it was true or not – everyone was going to believe it.

This particular story was corrected pretty quickly, but there are countless others that never get corrected. Tune into the cable news shows on any particular night and you will be treated to a veritable smörgåsbord of half-truths, misinterpretations and outright lies. Most of these tales are never corrected and even if they are most viewers continue to believe them. [A small, but stubborn percentage of the American population still believes that President Obama is a Muslim born outside the U.S. even after release of the birth certificate and considerable investigation and evidence to the contrary.]  Some of this is politically motivated lying, some is willful ignorance and the rest is…well…ignorance.

With many stories it can be hard to know the real truth – even if you’re not in the low information voter category. Consider the recent New York Times story about how the student debt crisis really isn’t a crisis at all.  It offers a Brookings Institution study that only seven percent of young adults with student debt owe $50,000 or more. In a classic case of making numbers mean whatever you want them to mean, it turns out this story too is not exactly what it seems.

Screen-Shot-2014-06-24-at-9_21_22-AM-e1403616118133The seven percent figure is correct for the skewed selection of households surveyed. You have to read the caveat closely to get that fact however. It is in fact “based on households with people between 20 to 40 years old with at least some education debt.” Gawker’s Choire Sicha explains it this way:

Those aren’t households with people between 20 and 40; those are households headed by people between 20 and 40. Which is to say, this data excludes all people living in households headed by, say, their parents, or other adults. The way Brookings put this is: “households led by adults between the ages of 20 and 40.” Just another way to say it excludes all households led by anyone over 40! (Those households might be identical in student debt to “young” households! Or they might not? WHO KNOWS!)

I suspect most readers of the story walked away thinking the student debt was no big deal. Yes, even the well-respected New York Times gets its wrong. [If you doubt it just repeat to yourself Judith Miller.]

Both of these examples – and there are many, many more – point to a need for a healthy dose of skepticism of many of the stories you come across every day. It’s good to check multiple sources, but sometimes it can seem that everyone is wrong as with the KFC story. Then you have to ask yourself just how plausible the story really is and extend that skepticism even to those stories that reinforce your own preconceived beliefs. Make that especially then.

Posted in Culture, Social Media, The Media, Writing | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Only Good Words are Harsh Words

Posted by southwrite on June 24, 2014

Image by Flickr user smileham. Creative Commons Noncommercial 2.0 Generic.

Image by Flickr user smileham. Creative Commons Noncommercial 2.0 Generic.

There have been a lot of words – some of them quite extreme – about how rude and uncivil we’ve all become – particularly in our online lives. If you feel like being abused and attacked, then social media is the place to go.

Apparently, most people agree. An annual study by global public relations firm Weber Shandwick found “70 percent of Americans believe incivility has reached crisis proportions.” Quite a few people even think it’s leading to violence as people react to those “fighting words.”

Of course, much of those “fighting words” can be found on the internet, in blogs, Twitter, Facebook and just about everywhere else on the Internet. It’s probably not a surprise that the language and the ideas expressed are extreme – and often highly personal. Dip into the comment section of your local newspaper’s website and you’ll find a virtual cesspool of racist and xenophobic comments, name calling, general stupidity and a lot of poor spelling. Recently, some newspapers have tried to enforce civility with real human monitors or by requiring that people use their real names or sign in with Facebook.

Others, like National Journal have ended comments completely saying they have better things to do – like actual journalism – than policing feuding and name-calling. “For every smart argument, there’s a round of ad hominem attacks—not just fierce partisan feuding, but the worst kind of abusive, racist, and sexist name-calling imaginable,” wrote editor in chief Tim Grieve.

Extreme language isn’t limited just to the benighted readers of online sites. The writers, bloggers and journalists can sometimes be just as bad. A common piece of advice I’ve gotten is that to be an effective blogger, you need sharp opinions. Realizing you don’t have all the answers and seeing both sides of the issue may be realistic, but it won’t get readers. The more sound and fury, the better.

One of the reasons the name calling goes on is that using extreme language attracts readers.

To gain attention, the words you use need to be sharper. It’s not about being clear and concise and presenting fresh ideas, but about giving your readers more of what they already happen to be thinking.

It’s not enough to simply argue a point of view on its merits, but invariability you have to attack your opponents personally. They don’t just disagree with you, they’re evil and stupid. If your favorite political blogger hasn’t compared the other side to Hitler and the Nazi, just wait.

That helps explain why there are so many highly partisan bloggers with large and devoted followings. It’ can be disconcerting sometimes, but we don’t really want to hear anything that challenges our view of ourselves and the world. Fox News viewers don’t switch channels to see how MSNBC commentators are contradicting their conservative favorites. They watch more Fox News. It’s not all that different on the left.

And, it’s not just politics. Many so called religious bloggers, whether Christian or otherwise can get just as vile as any political partisan.

So this is what we have come to in our internet and social media lives. It’s a world that sometimes seems in an arms race of words. The more powerful and explosive they are the better. Words don’t usually end up killing people or maiming innocent bystanders, but they can still hurt. Words can be used to dehumanize. They can destroy a reputation or damage the psyche of the venerable. The more sharp words flying around, the more people tend to avoid getting involved.

And, that can be harmful to us all.

Posted in Life, Social Media, The Media, Writing | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Bad News is Good News

Posted by southwrite on June 23, 2014

Eva Green and the revealing Sin City movie poster

Eva Green and the revealing Sin City movie poster

We say we like good news, but the reality is we prefer our news bad. Bad is good. Bad is interesting. Bad is worth our time.

I’m not talking about bad news from your relatives or boss. We don’t want to hear anything bad from them. But when it comes to the news we consume – in newspaper, magazines, and mostly on the internet – we like it bad (for someone else).

Sure, we say the media is too negative and we wish it would report more on the positive side of life. We say we want to hear about the triumphs, the important issues and the people doing good. Yes, we say that, but we don’t mean it.

Consider the polls that repeatedly reveal that people prefer hard, in-depth news reporting to fluff and celebrity gossip. Media moguls hear that plea and then see that people overwhelmingly turn to the trivial. Put a long form piece on global warming up against a story on the Kardashians and see who wins.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. You knew you were lying to the pollster when she asked you about your news habits. It’s what we do – we lie to survey takers.

For the entertainment industry, unpleasant news can be good in many situations. Having the poster you created for your new movie banned might seem like a bad thing. Consider this provocative image for the new film Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. It features the voluptuous Eva Green wearing a translucent nightgown and holding a revolver in her hand. The poster was banned by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) “for nudity — curve of under breast and dark nipple/areola circle visible through sheer gown.”

Bad news? If you’re The Weinstein Company (and their genre label Dimension Films), you pretend it’s a bad thing. You do that even as the media hits and page views pile up. The original poster may never appear on the wall of a local Cineplex, but more people will have seen it (and learned about the new film) than would have if the MPAA had not looked so closely at Green’s breasts. (Leave that to teenage boys.) If you weren’t thinking of going to see Sin City before, you might be now. (A more modest version of the poster has since been released.)

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Green said it was “a bit odd.” “It seems like it’s all just publicity — a lot of noise of nothing,” she said. “You have so many more violent things in the movie business and this is kind of soft. I’m not naked. It’s suggested.” She added there is nothing wrong with the poster. In fact it’s “really sexy, actually.”

I can’t say if the movie’s promoters planned to do a poster that would be censored and whip up a heavy dose of publicity. I wouldn’t be surprised. Despite the ban, the poster was leaked to the press and soon spread across the internet.

Similar bad news also raised support and sales for brands such as the A&E reality show Duck Dynasty and fast food chain Chick-fil-A.

In an earlier era advertising agencies would put on publicity stunts designed to attract attention. Today, they’re sometimes referred to as “planned mistakes” that are anything but mistakes.

Yes, bad news can be good – especially when it’s bad news you’ve created.

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You Didn’t Write That

Posted by southwrite on June 18, 2014

chris-hedges posterPlagiarism by famous and respected writers is back – with a vengeance.

Last week best-selling author Chris Hedges was caught extensively plagiarizing a piece for Harper’s Magazine. This is not some run of the mill hack, but a famous and respected journalist. The magazine described how he had lifted large portions of his own article about Camden, New Jersey from an earlier series by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Matt Katz.

It’s always more disappointing when an author you admire and whose books and articles you’ve read closely for years is caught doing something considered so wrong. One of the worst sins in journalism is to steal someone else’s work and try to pass it off as your own. I’ve read Hedges’ books and article for years and considered him a clear and powerful voice for morality and justice in a world which often distains both. Here’s how the New Republic described him in its article:

Hedges had been a star foreign correspondent at the Times, where he reported from war zones and was part of the team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for covering global terrorism. In 2002, he had received the Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. He is a fellow at the Nation Institute. He has taught at Princeton University and Columbia University. He writes a weekly column published in the widely read progressive website Truthdig and frequently republished on the Truthout website. He is the author of twelve books, including the best-selling American Fascists. Since leaving the Times in 2005, he has evolved into a polemicist of the American left. For his fierce denunciations of the corporate state, his attacks on the political elite, and his enthusiasm for grassroots revolt, he has secured a place as a firebrand revered among progressive readers.

With a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard University, Hedges’ writing possesses a highly principled and moral tone. It was one that I found appealing and it also contributed to my own feelings of betrayal.

Like a lot of others, I was reluctant to believe it was happening. Again. This is especially true after so many authors and journalists have done so and gotten caught and seen their careers collapse in infamy.

Blogger Nick DiUlio, who teaches ethics to journalism students, wrote “Once again, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. But part of me can’t help but hang my head in perplexed disenchantment, asking myself the same questions I ask my students: Why the hell would someone like Hedges decide to do this? And how did he go so long without being caught?”

Apparently, Hedges has gotten away with stealing other writers’ work for a long time – perhaps years. That’s surprising. Especially, as DiUlio notes, in an age when you can Google just about anything and there is even software to check whether you’re committing plagiarism.

As I said Hedges is not the first to plagiarize and get caught. The list of offenders is long and extends back into the past – beyond the Internet Age and even into antiquity. The 11th-century Muslim scholar Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi claimed the Book of Animals of Al-Jahiz to be “little more than a plagiarism” of Aristotle’s Kitāb al-Hayawān.

More recently names like Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke and Jonah Lehrer have come to symbolize this journalistic transgression. In earlier years we shook our heads at the likes of historians and bestselling authors Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, when they used the work of others without citation in their books. Marvel Comics writer Bill Mantlo became famous for allegedly plagiarizing the work of comic legends such as Stan Lee and Archie Goodwin, as well as a television script by science fiction author Harlan Ellison. [Of course the prolific Ellison has sued seemingly everyone in Hollywood over plagiarism of his many novels, stories and scripts.]

After each scandal we always ask why? What motivated talented and often quite successful writers to steal – usually material from people much less famous than themselves. None of them would be considered hacks. All seemed to have the talent and skill needed to create original work and reporting. Why didn’t they?

Only Hedges and the others can really answer that question. I wonder though if perhaps their own fame and success didn’t become part of the problem. Were the expectations so high – Hedges part of a team of reporters at the New York Times awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for coverage of global terrorism – they didn’t think they live up to them?

Some writers have offered various excuses such as the pressure of time and the distraction of large amounts of source material. It’s understandable a reporter could mistakenly use information without attribution under pressure of deadline. [Hedges was accused of passing off a quote from Hemingway as his own writing in his first book.]  Once. That’s a mistake. Doing so consistently over a period of years is a lifestyle.

No, I don’t know the answer, but I do know the pain I and other admirers of Hedges feel now. Sadly, it’s likely to be one that will be repeated again – and again.

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Sometimes The Truth Can Be Hard To Find

Posted by southwrite on June 15, 2014

Press Pass


“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

– Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride

As writers we use words to describe events, convey ideas and – we hope – provide a glimpse of the truth. Words are our stock in trade and the tools that allow us to provide readers with glimpses of other realities.

But how effective are we in describing what we believe to be “reality?” And, what is our responsibility to ensure that we’re really telling the truth in our work? Most of us may not spend a lot of time musing about “truth” because we believe we’re usually doing a good job of being accurate and getting the facts straight. Yet, if we’re doing any kind of journalistic writing (whether for newspapers, magazines or trade journals) we need to be aware that our readers approach our work with more than a little skepticism.

A Gallup Poll finds that just 23 percent of the public trusts newspapers. Of course they’re ahead of Big Business, Labor, HMOs and of course Congress (just 10 percent have confidence in our legislators and you have to wonder if those who did actually understood the question.) Another poll revealed only 29 percent of Americans believe the media generally get the facts straight, while 63% say that news stories are “often inaccurate.”

That dismal showing should concern all of us – not just full time newspaper editors and reporters. The loss of faith obviously has many reasons ranging from partisan perceptions of bias to well published scandals.

As a writer and former newspaper reporter, I’m all too aware of how hard it is to capture an idea or even an event in words. Words become only an approximation of reality, but never reality itself. Writers of all kinds are limited by their own knowledge and access to sources of information. Even when they witness the event itself, they may only see part of what is actually happening.

The part that makes its way into the story may not be the part that critical – and highly biased – readers want to see. Both the political left and right believe the media isn’t telling the truth and is – fairly or unfairly – biased in favor of the “other side.” This partisan vise demonstrates that the middle of the road is sometimes the most dangerous place to be.

In recent times there has arisen a class of political bloggers concerned primarily with advancing their side’s cause. Truth or accuracy is not a big concern. The facts such as they are will work themselves out in the end. Bias is something to be celebrated, not pushed below the surface as mainstream news reporters try to do.

So what should journalists and all writers do? It seems obviously but we should do what we do best – report the facts the best that we possibly can. The partisan will always believe that journalists are lying if they don’t endorse their side’s claims. There’s just not much you can do about it.

What we can do is our job. What could be more important than that?

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