However you view Time Magazine\\’s decision to name every somewhat cognizant citizen \\\”Person of the Year\\\” a cop-out, flattering the deadline-burdened staff got something right: There is increasingly active dialog between the average citizen and the mainstream media. And it isn\\’t always amicable.
YouTube has garnered most of the praise on this count, and for good reason: One could argue that more than one political career has come to a screeching halt thanks to the perfect union of video-posting and hand-held video technology. Corruption — caught on camera phone — suddenly gains thousands of witnesses.
But what of the blog, that friendly little online diary once heralded as the new journalism? Two-thousand-six wasn\\’t exactly 2004, when Merriam-Webster chose “blog” as its word of the year and made it a legitimate dictionary entry.
Lest you think that online video streaming has made the blog look stodgy, know that 2006 saw Texas A&M alum Nick Anthis get NASA press officer George C. Deutsch fired by publishing some alarming allegations on his blog, Scientific Activist. Presidential appointee Deutsch had lied about his résumé, fudging the fact that he had actually never graduated from Texas A&M.
The star-studded Huffington Post gave Jim Moore, author of the presidential critique Bush\\’s Brain, a podium to speak about his experience being inexplicably put on the \\\”no fly watch list.\\\”
Kimberly Williamson Butler, embattled candidate for mayor of New Orleans, was shamed when a lively photo on her Web site was revealed to be photo-shopped: Although Butler claimed to be standing in the French Quarter of her own New Orleans, bloggers quickly pointed out the Disney insignia on a trash can in the background.
But the blog\\’s accessible nature isn\\’t its only strength; in the age of Wikipedia, archived issues of major newspapers and, OK, other bloggers, accountability may just be at an all-time high.
De-constructing the path to 9/11
As the fifth anniversary of the largest attack on U.S. soil approached, ABC and Disney went a step beyond the romantic heroism of World Trade Center, or the stark, tragic realism of United 93, offering up The Path to 9/11, a supposed docudrama. It appeared the perfect chance to direct our grief at upper brass\\’ failures, to unite indignantly at the way our intelligence networks had failed us.
Discussion of whether it was too soon for the televised event was quickly overshadowed by the mini-series\\’ numerous factual inaccuracies and the potential libel cases ABC/Disney might have on their hands. Star power — well, Harvey Keitel — was used not to highlight how we might move forward, but to underscore how much Clinton was allegedly to blame for the attacks.
Advanced screeners of the series were sent out selectively, but much of the media and many high-profile personalities depicted in the film were left off the mailing list. Former president Bill Clinton and his staff had many complaints about what little they\\’d been able to glean anecdotally about Path. The film implied, for example, that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sabotaged an attempt to kill Osama bin Laden by warning Pakistan that the missiles were coming; the film even condemned the wrong air carrier by claiming American Airlines failed to pull aside hijacker Mohamed Etta after a security warning popped up in a Portland, Maine, airport. The problem? Etta had flown U.S. Airways.
Progressive bloggers were livid and quickly posted Disney president Bob Inger\\’s office contact information, organizing a massive letter-writing campaign in opposition to the film. The same day that John Bravos at Americanism posted Scholastic, Inc.\\’s main phone number, the educational publishing giant reversed its partnership with ABC/Disney, opting out of providing schools with supplemental lesson plans that strengthened the drama\\’s alleged inaccuracies.
At ThinkProgress.org — the Center for American Progress\\’s blog — editor Judd Legum reflected on all that had been accomplished in the week after news first broke of Path. He credited readers with shifting ABC\\’s marketing of the series — within a few days, commercials stopped boasting that Path to 9/11 was actually based on the 9/11 Commission Report — and for forcing extended and repeated disclaimers that many of the events in the movie were dramatized.
The word Santorum can\\’t live down
When former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum deigned to give the Associated Press his take on same sex marriage in April of 2003, many were outraged by his equating of homosexuality to deviant behaviors like incest and bestiality. One of the offended parties happened to be gay activist Dan Savage.
Savage could have chosen to lash out simply by wielding the pen — he is, after all, the editor-in-chief of the Seattle-area newsweekly, The Stranger. He could have written a weekly Santorum condemnation as an introduction to his internationally syndicated sex advice column, “Savage Love.”
But he decided instead to tackle Santorum semantically, no doubt recognizing the buzz appeal of the man\\’s unusual last name. Savage decided to reduce Santorum to vulgar slang. He decided to make Santorum a neologism.
Savage made a contest of defining the man\\’s name, and from the off-color, lowbrow and just plain bizarre responses, he unearthed an apt definition so foul, so needling, it probably ought not be reprinted here. Luckily, curious readers need only Google “santorum.” The number-one result makes heavy reference to the winning entry in Savage\\’s contest.
And it appears that Savage\\’s Web supporters bought the santorum.com domain name, adding a Flash-animated demonstration of what santorum — in the minds of Savage fans — might look like.
This campaign came to fruition back in 2003, but the ripples were felt strongly by the outgoing senator himself in the recent midterm elections. While Savage hardly credits himself with dethroning Santorum, he writes, \\\”I did help to make Rick Santorum into a national laughingstock — an international laughingstock … with an invaluable assist from Rick Santorum, of course. There\\’s a reason why monarchs and despots used to lock up political cartoonists and satirists.”
Let this be a cautionary tale to budding politicians out there: Make sure you own your domain name before it can fall into the hands of vengeful word smiths like Savage.
Truthiness and consequences
Stephen Colbert\\’s fiery guitar duel with literate progressive rock force The Decemberists last week firmly planted him in the hearts of hipsters everywhere. But he had earned his street cred long before.
At the White House Correspondents\\’ Association\\’s televised dinner last April, Bush\\’s flat interaction with a presidential impersonator seemingly overshadowed any mention in the mainstream media to the draw-dropping 25-minute routine that followed. Colbert, adept at sending up arrogant pundit TV-types, took to the stage and brilliantly ripped on Bush while maintaining an appearance of unwavering admiration for the man.
Later, little was said about Colbert\\’s direct address to the president, which contained nuggets like, “Guys like us, we don\\’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in ‘reality.’ And reality has a well-known liberal bias.\\\”
When the “old media” made muttered excuses about Colbert not being that funny and, hence, not newsworthy, Colbert fans were quick to refer to the press’ omission as a “media blackout,” an argument that gained some traction when television critic Doug Elfman of the Chicago Sun Times expanded it to characterize the American press and the presidential administration at large.
“How\\’s this for a newsworthy lead?” Elfman challenged. “It was perhaps the first time in Bush\\’s tenure that the president was forced to sit and listen to any American cite the litany of criminal and corruption allegations that have piled up against his administration.\\\”
Blogs like Boingboing.net were vocal when clips of the performance went missing from YouTube (where it had been the most frequently viewed video), only to pop up on Google. And during the media\\’s mum period, Yahoo! saw searches for “Colbert” increase by over 5,000 percent.
Feeding the information gap
Newspaper industry journal Editor and Publisher’s online edition reports that their coverage of Colbert’s speech “easily drew more traffic than any other E&P story this year,” prompting a pretty obvious suggestion: Before deeming an item as less-than-newsworthy, the mainstream media — increasingly referred to as “old media\\\” — would be well-advised to check out the “top searches” and “top 100 blogs” features of Technorati, the blog search engine.
Web traffic reflects more than trends in a fickle media industry, it reflects public interest, making it perhaps the ultimate bellwether of an issue’s “newsworthiness.”