4/30/2008 11:59:02 AM
A few weekends back I spurned my habitually uninspiring Sunday Times fare and sunk into the couch with Keep Loving, Keep Fighting / I Hate This Part of Texas (#7), a beautifully written combination of two zines out of New Orleans. Hours later, I peeled myself off the cushions, lost in a reverie for a lost city, but comforted by stabs of gratitude for the folks there still fighting the good fight. The zine’s writers, Hope and John, present a series of sporadically ordered flashes of Katrina aftermath, from plugging away at a youth-oriented bike clinic to spreading the news of a beloved friend’s murder:
It felt like evacuation all over again, people calling one another with jagged voices, hushed hoarse whispers not wanting to utter the unthinkable. Asking to check in about this person or that, ending every conversation with I love you.
In our May-June 2007 issue, we reprinted Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose’s wrenchingly honest chronicle of his descent into depression covering Katrina’s destruction (article not available online). Hope and John’s diary-like recollections moved me in a similar way, for their candor in grappling with the ugliness, kindness, resentment, beauty, fear, and pain that so many must navigate in their efforts to survive and resurrect life in New Orleans. At the end, a list of organizations doing good work in the city comes as a welcome coda of opportunities for action.
4/30/2008 11:07:45 AM
Let’s play word association. Except, when I say, “Rupert Murdoch,” you don’t hiss and croak, “sulfurous prince from the bottomless pit.” Instead, do like Columbia Journalism Review and see Murdoch’s Fox Business Network as potentially the most relevant and useful—not to mention populist—resource for financial news out there. It may have its irritating quirks and it may not be widely watched (yet), but its perspective is fresher than wealthy-investor-oriented CNBC. Maybe that jargon barn is hell’s true diplomat.
Image by World Economic Forum, licensed under Creative Commons.
4/30/2008 8:51:45 AM
I know more about Ireland’s Green Party than I do about the U.S. Green Party (thanks in part to a charismatic lecturer in an environmental policy class), but I certainly wouldn’t mind learning more about my hometown Greens. It seems, however, that I can’t rely on the American media for this information, argues Green Party cofounder John Rensenbrink in the Spring issue of Green Horizon (article not available online).
It's a point well taken—but unfortunately, in the course of Rensenbrink’s rant about his party’s invisibility (full disclosure: he includes Utne Reader in a list of lefty magazines that ignore the party), he does not explain the Green Party’s principles or flesh out why it should hold such irresistible appeal for American progressives. Rensenbrink gushes about Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney’s nomination speech this winter—“brilliantly crafted, beautifully delivered, convincingly argued, and courageous”—but he doesn’t include a word of what McKinney said.
If Rensenbrink is just blowing off steam to fellow Greens, fine. But he’s not going to win any information-starved converts if even he doesn’t devote print space to explaining his party.
Image by Lili Vieira de Carvalho, licensed under Creative Commons.
4/24/2008 6:22:38 PM
Here in the Midwest, passive-aggressiveness is a way of life. The written form of this affliction, the passive-aggressive note, is ubiquitous in most workplaces and roommate situations (frequently relating to disputes over food items). Now, thanks to the internet, we can share these wince-inducing gems with the world. Passive-aggressive notes is the home for hilarious written notes from roommates, co-workers and understanding mothers. Another blog, Postcards From Yo Momma, provides a place to share those heartwarming email notes from mom that are so helpful.
4/22/2008 1:19:06 PM
Is there anything Chuck Norris can’t do? Besides loyally patrolling Dallas for eight years as a Texas Ranger, supporting Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign, and reportedly single-handedly creating the baseball steroids scandal by breathing his superhuman strength into such players as Barry Bonds and Jose Canseco, the man has sparred with Bruce Lee. And now, Norris is a blogger for Townhall.com, a conservative news site. Like everything in the martial arts legend’s life, Norris brings the analysis full-force in his writing, turning out columns with titles like “Bruce Lee vs. Me” and “Guns, God and Gays.” But don't worry: Just because The Chuck is a blogger now doesn't mean he’s gone all intellectual. He can still kill a man with his steely gaze and drop an entire pro football team with one well-placed roundhouse kick.
Image by pvera, licensed under Creative Commons.
4/22/2008 11:06:38 AM
Once upon a time, Wikipedia and other user-generated sites were the upstarts, pushing against the pay-for-content paradigm. Now their form of information dissemination is the status quo, informing the way 250-year reference veterans like Encyclopedia Britannica do business.
Encyclopedia Britannica recently announced that it would open its subscription-required online database to bloggers and other web publishers to link to, TechCrunch reports. Because a paid subscription is required to view the encyclopedia’s material, search engines aren’t able to index its content. This means the encyclopedia has little online presence to speak of, which, as TechCrunch succinctly puts it, means it essentially doesn’t exist. The idea is to change this by increasing the number of visitors to the encyclopedia’s site through links, while still charging users for subscriptions to view content that hasn’t been linked to.
4/22/2008 10:53:21 AM
Long before the Yes Men satirized Exxon and Halliburton, and before Ashton Kutcher was born, Alan Abel was the undisputed king of media hoaxers. Abel rose to fame as the president of the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA), an organization that advocated clothing animals for the sake of decency. With the tagline, “a nude horse is a rude horse,” SINA lasted for more than three years, until it was exposed as a satirical commentary on censorship. He also started an organization to ban breastfeeding and a school to teach panhandling techniques.
The recent biopic Abel Raises Cain documents a side of Alan Abel not often shown by the media he pranked. Rather than the fast-talking Omar, teacher of panhandlers, the film—directed by his daughter Jenny—depicts an endearing father always who wanted to have a good time.
Many of Abel’s stunts were attempts to satirize the vapid media landscape of his time, especially the talk shows. The problem was that the pranks ended up pushing the media to new lows. His offensive talk show appearances displayed to networks that people wanted spectacle, with little more than a whiff of believability. The gags often had serious underlying political or social commentary, but the messages were often lost in the spectacle.
Although his pranks lacked the political edge of the Yes Men, Abel always showed commitment to a bit. Even after he was exposed publicly on television, he would often keep up the charade, and sometimes try the joke again on a different network. Speaking with Brooke Gladstone of WNYC’s On The Media, director Jenny Abel confesses, “sometimes I still wonder when my dad is falling in and out of character.”
Image from the film Abel Raises Cain.
4/21/2008 5:33:32 PM
Barack Obama’s recent comments about some small-towners being “bitter” were delivered at a fundraiser where journalists weren’t allowed. Samantha Power’s gaffe, calling Hillary Clinton a “monster,” was declared “off the record,” moments after it was said, albeit politically posthumously. Both of these moments quickly made their way to the web and went viral. That’s because in today’s journalism, “there is no such thing as ‘off the record’ anymore,” Robert Niles writes for the Online Journalism Review. With cell phone cameras in every pocket, life is more like “a small frontier town, where everyone knows everyone else's business.” So be careful what you say, on or off the record.
4/21/2008 12:10:05 PM
As old-school newspeople continue their progression toward dodo-hood, a museum seems the perfect honor for their soon-to-be-extinct profession. Enter the newly remodeled Newseum, a $450 million, seven-story behemoth just off the National Mall in Washington, D.C., which is tasked with memorializing the profession’s long history. While the museum has received considerable praise in the press, not everyone is thrilled with the price tag. The money would have been better spent, according to Slate’s Jack Shafer, “to actually support journalism. Like endowing a newspaper, for instance.” Or a journalism school debt-forgiveness program, perhaps. Just a thought.
4/15/2008 3:32:16 PM
An Advocate survey of the “homophobosphere” mentions a valuable theory for understanding the haters lighting up comments fields with antigay bile. It's called the John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, explains journalist and NYU adjunct professor Clay Shirky, and it breaks down like this:
Normal Person + Audience + Anonymity = Fuckwad.
Those deserving of the moniker are spread far and wide beyond homophobes: “Fuckwad” can justly be applied to anyone from the patriots on patrol for lapses in allegiance to Old Glory to the sad souls who vehemently blast intellectual troglodytes for not fully grasping the nuance of Marx’s later works. But the scope and volume of the wretchedness spilled in the blogosphere against homosexuals is uniquely alarming. The Advocate reports that tens of thousands of people felt compelled to register their rage against performance artist Chris Crocker for his “Leave Britney Alone!” video (the YouTube phenomenon has garnered more than 19 million views and almost 275,000 comments—one of which is pictured above). And bloggers, from Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Dish to Xeni Jardin at boingboing.net, report clogs of antigay backlash.
The quandary is what to do about it. Sullivan and others make a convincing case for a First Amendment free-for-all: You have take the good with the bad. Besides, other commentators often end up dampening antigay flamers. “Call it free-market tolerance,” says the Advocate.
At boingboing.net, Jardin and her colleagues have another approach: disemvowelment. When their comment moderator spots a nasty comment, she hits a button that removes all the vowels (and much of the bluster). So “Xeni is a transgender Lebanese terrorist, and her butt is big” becomes “Xn’s trnsgndr Lbns trrrst nd hr btt s bg.” What once was irrational animosity becomes a slightly amusing puzzle.
“It’s like they’re flinging poo at you,” Jardin says. “You still let them fling it, but the poo doesn’t stick anymore.”
4/15/2008 11:25:16 AM
Most news about international journalists focuses on reporters imprisoned, killed, or otherwise silenced. Morbid news of this sort does take up some space in the “World Watch” department of Global Journalist (issue not available online), but the magazine is adept at balancing stories about the challenges journalists face with the positive achievements of media-makers worldwide.
The Spring issue of Global Journalist, published by the Missouri Journalism School, features a photo essay of an Afghan family grieving the death of a young mother. The images, by photojournalist Jean Chung, offer an intimate glimpse into maternal deaths in Afghanistan, which claims the world's second highest maternal mortality rate. Another story traces how Kenya’s government increased control over the media, hoping it could also control post-election violence. I also enjoyed a quick two-page primer explaining why Russian journalism programs fail to produce critical reporters. There’s a string of rosier stories, too, about the importance of covering women’s news, generous media attention given to the Australian prime minister's apology to Aboriginal people, and a program to empower Brazilian youth by creating a community newspaper.
4/14/2008 11:06:06 AM
Saudi clerics deemed bicycles “The Horse of Satan” in the 1960s. Now with similar logic they refer to the popular Arab reality TV show Star Academy as Satan Academy. The common evil they see, asserts global communications scholar Marwan Kraidy, is the threat of women’s public presence.
The controversy in Saudi Arabia surrounding Star Academy has provided years of research material for Kraidy, a University of Pennsylvania professor who spoke last week at the University of Minnesota. The show, which Kraidy describes as a hybrid of Big Brother and American Idol, is produced in Lebanon, but it provokes the most heated controversy in Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s most important media market. Even though Star Academy allows no swearing, alcohol, or sex, the visibility of women on the show draws ire from conservative Saudis and clerics.
“It’s really about keeping women under control in public space,” Kraidy says. Portraying women as sexual objects is one thing, but Kraidy points out that Saudi media policy doesn’t stop at banning indecently dressed women. Women engaged in sports are also banned from the airwaves. “The concern here,” Kraidy says, “is about women being social agents.”
Such policies square with the ubiquitous American perception of oppressed Arab women. But the reality is more complex. Saudi women hold positions of power in business and medicine, Kraidy notes. And they're winning reality TV shows, even more often than in the West, Kraidy says. (An Iraqi woman, Shatha Hassoun, won the fourth season of Star Academy with the help of 8 million Iraqis who paid to vote for her victory. She's now a national symbol, says Kraidy, in the state's public service announcements.)
What's more, ordinary Saudis have fairly liberal views about women’s rights. A 2007 Gallup poll showed that a majority of Saudis support women having the right to drive, work, and lead in government. Reality TV shows might irk conservative Saudis, but they may reflect the reality of prevailing attitudes in the society.
Dismissing reality shows as mindless and inconsequential is an easy reflex. But Kraidy makes a convincing argument for reality TV’s ability to upset preconceptions about women in the Arab world, for Westerners and conservative Saudis alike.
4/10/2008 12:04:57 PM
Harper’s editor Ken Silverstein went undercover last winter to reveal the inner workings of Washington, D.C. lobbying firms. Neither his subterfuge nor his findings—firms “proposed laundering money” and “bragged that they had ‘strong personal relationships’ at every major level of government”—were particularly surprising. But the journalism community’s condemnation of Silverstein’s method prompted Aaron Swartz, writing for Extra! (article not available online), to investigate why undercover journalism is suddenly so unpopular.
Journalistic ethicists agreed that undercover reporting is pointless and unethical “when you indulge in subterfuge to merely provide the conventional wisdom with a concrete example.” The irony in that judgment, of course, is that the most successful undercover reporting often does just that, putting a face to social problems we know only vaguely about—Barbara Ehrenreich’s foray into “unskilled” work, chronicled in Nickel and Dimed, is a prime example.
But stories like Ehrenreich’s are harder and harder to come by. One reason is their cost in court: A string of litigation against undercover reporters in the 1990s forced media outlets to pay millions to private companies. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Silverstein blames lazy reporters for the dearth of undercover stories, especially “the smug, high-end Washington press corps” who have “become part of the very power structure that they’re supposed to be tracking and scrutinizing.”
Where does new media fit into all this? It’s nice to imagine bloggers as the rogues who will dig anew into investigative journalism. Assuming the public trusted bloggers to deliver the real story (still, admittedly, a shaky assumption), how would bloggers protect themselves from the retaliation of powerful people and companies?
Image by striatica, licensed under Creative Commons.
4/8/2008 1:15:21 PM
Media have often been used to incite violence, perhaps most infamously during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when radio station Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines played a major role in organizing Hutus to kill Tutsis. But in Kenya, where a disputed election this past winter resulted in much violence and chaos, radio and other media are being used to more positive ends, as Michelle Chen reports for In These Times.
Community radio stations are reaching more than 2 million listeners with a combination of local news and anti-violence messages. A new project of the Africa Initiative Media Foundation features reporting and commentary by ordinary citizens. And several media collectives, including a Kenyan Independent Media Center, are building networks of journalists and highlighting activists' ideas for preventing violence, healing ethnic strife, and achieving reform.
4/8/2008 9:43:14 AM
Last week, Jordan’s Queen Rania kicked off an East-West dialogue by posting a video on YouTube called “Send me your stereotypes.” From now through August 12 (International Youth Day), Rania will work to address “some of the common stereotypes that [Westerners] hear about the Arab world,” by responding to video questions submitted on her YouTube channel.
Zeynab at Muslimah Media Watch is both hopeful and skeptical about Rania’s YouTube diplomacy.
My main worry about this project is that it will be an excuse for Islamophobic ranting, with loud voices who aren’t interested in allowing others to refute negative stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims. That it won’t be a dialogue, that no one will learn anything. Or that the “truths” presented won’t be accepted because they are not black-and-white, but instead are complex and sticky: for example, explaining that female genital cutting is not an Islamic practice, but one that is tied to local cultures, might not satisfy a poster who thinks this practice and all who engage in it are barbaric.
More than 40 responses have been posted
4/7/2008 6:05:24 PM
If 55 veterans gathered in the same place, at the same time, prepared to give disarmingly honest testimonies about their on-the-ground experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, would anybody listen?
Because that happened, just a few weeks ago. Vets convened in the Washington, DC area for IVAW’s Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan—and for the most part, mainstream media have either ignored the momentous gathering or relegated coverage to their metro sections, reports Extra!.
Winter Soldier has yet to be mentioned in the
New York Times itself. No major U.S. newspaper has covered the hearings except as a story of local interest; the few stories major U.S. newspapers have published on the event have focused on the participation of local vets (Boston Globe, 3/16/08; Boston Herald, 3/16/08; Newsday, 3/16/08, Buffalo News, 3/16/08).
And you probably didn’t see any Winter Soldier testimonies on television—the major broadcast TV networks (and PBS!) avoided the event altogether—but they’re all available at the IVAW website, organized into panels like “Racism and War: The Dehumanization of the Enemy” and “Divide to Conquer: Gender and Sexuality in the Military.”
4/7/2008 4:05:58 PM
The weight room can be a scary place. Bellowing, muscle-bound Neanderthals toss dumbbells around like baby rattles. The walls are covered with mirrors. Everyone’s in a hurry. Woe upon the gym-rookie audacious enough to rest on a machine between sets or forget to wipe one down after using it. Every bony or pudgy newcomer has felt pangs of inadequacy when trying out a new exercise or working in a crowded gym, especially if that crowd includes members of the opposite sex.
Many college gyms have tried to ease these qualms by introducing times for men and women to exercise separately. There has been some resistance, but for the most part these efforts have been accepted by students, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required). That is, until recently, when the word “Muslim” was injected into a discussion of separate gym times at Harvard. A group of Muslim women had requested some time to work out without male students present. Harvard complied, establishing six hours per week of all-female time at one of the lesser-used university gyms.
The media pounced on the story, making sure audiences were aware that schedule-shift was initiated by Muslim women, even though other women had also expressed a desire to exercise without men present. The discussion quickly turned away from gender and body-image issues to focus on the more controversial religious angle. But what most news services missed or ignored (and the Chronicle caught) is that other schools have enacted similar schedules for religious purposes. Those stories just weren’t meaty enough for coverage, however, since they involved groups of Jewish and Christian women.
4/3/2008 1:14:48 PM
Down with celebrity profiles, the steroids saga, and blow-by-blow business news. Let’s bring back good storytelling.
by Michael Rowe
Does sports journalism suck? In terms of urgency, the question is less national defense and more spilled milk, but I do feel like weeping whenever I peruse ESPN.com, fending off the bilge and looking for a piece that tackles an actual ethical or social issue. Or just tells a good story. Sportswriters don’t deny me this material outright. It’s simply the case that I have to wade through creeping sludge—predictable opinion, endless stats, finance-obsessed business news, empty profiles, and repetitive analysis—to read the kind of investigative and narrative reportage that appears sometimes in, say, Play, the New York Times’ prestige sports magazine. Nevermind that Play is a quarterly—an island in a sea of dead, beaten horses.
My complaint isn’t novel, of course. Gripes about sportswriting have sprung up from various quarters of the press. For a recent example, read the novelist Richard Ford’s crotchety screed from the Fall 2007 issue of Play. Still, few have offered a clear diagnosis. Is something wrong with the way journalists cover sports? Or, are the whiner-critics just impossible-to-please cranks? We can shrug dismissively and say it’s a little of both, but that would ignore the true culprit plaguing sportswriting: the cruddy specter of “insider knowledge.”
Start with the fantasy football syndrome. This internet-facilitated imaginary game, in which you “draft” players whose statistical achievements become points for your team, has become so popular that TV sports analysts and sportswriters routinely advise viewers and readers on which players they should or should not stock on their fake roster. In one particularly entertaining instance, an NFL Network analyst queried ex-coach Jim Mora—who piloted the Saints and Colts before retirement—about his fantasy football squad. Mora dismissed the whole caboodle with mumbles and an eye roll.
Of course Mora doesn’t get it: He used to coach in the NFL. Football coaches rely on probabilities generated by statistical analysis to inform their play-calling. And that's the central appeal of fantasy football: It mimics the act of coaching by passing off numbers—who gains more yardage against whom, who tends to choke when, and how one defense fares against a certain offense—as insight into the game. Thus we play at possessing professional knowledge, and, in the absence of the required muscles, numbers transport us inside the game as virtual shot-callers. Mora has no more interest in fantasy coaching than I have in playing a game of “fantasy infant”—been there, done that. It’s the fantasizing spectator who wants to be caught up in what he imagines are the details.
The push for the inside scoop reduces sports coverage to gossip slinging. The players who merit media scrutiny aren’t professionals, exactly; they're celebrities. Writers cover the indispensable liabilities (Barry Bonds, Michael Vick, and their misdeeds) and the singular talents (Johan Santana, Randy Moss, and their superstardom); readers gawk at their larger-than-your-life lives and want to know more. Sports Illustrated, in its 2007 NFL preview issue, broke from this tendency when it profiled, in brief, a long snapper from the Denver Broncos, emphasizing his minor but indispensable talent—hiking the ball 8 or 15 yards. By and large, however, it’s precisely these workaday pros we relegate to the background.
The untold stories of mere professionals might inform us, though. After all, many of the most successful baseball managers and football coaches were themselves unknown, unheralded, and undistinguished as players. As it turns out, they knew a thing or two anyway and were likely shrewd observers of the pro world. Nevertheless, what you read about sports concerns the superstars: who they are, how they do it, what they think.
Another, less obvious symptom of sportswriting’s blinkered perspective is the endless rehashing of the blogosphere. Online, and increasingly in print, journalists bow down at the altar of each others’ opinions, which typically concern the bureaucratic minutiae of draft choices, business rumors, and team finances. Sometimes, of course, writers rearrange the sacraments or chop the altar up, but ultimately they traffic in news and opinions about the news, nurturing the obsessive in every sports fan.
Some sportswriters readily acknowledge this trend. Robert Weintraub, who has written for Slate, Play, and the Columbia Journalism Review, says that much news-oriented sports coverage is often seen as “not opinionated enough.” In a world of judgment and pronouncement, he says, “everything is framed as an argument.” Sports journalists are insiders in the proverbial know, whatever bloated shape it takes. Accordingly, they dispense with incredible vigor their judgments against, among other things, the personal character of players and coaches and the business decisions of team franchises. For an example, read any Bill Simmons column on ESPN.com.
It’s not that this kind of writing is worthless. Reading it can teach you how the pro game is played. But writers like Simmons, who is very creative, lead their audience into the thicket without stepping back for the long view. They narrate no overarching point; they stir us to be entertained, not edified, challenged, or rocked a little out of our adoration.
“The talking head culture,” says Michael Rand, a sportswriter and blogger for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “is not necessarily the result of the internet.” The 24/7 nature of news, an evolutionary trait that’s ossified over the past 20 years, compels reporters to dig ceaselessly for novel information, rather than hone stories. Or, alternatively, writers hone a few stories (steroids, draft day) over and over, incrementally adding a bite of information here and a snatch of insight there. The end result: stories on repeat, with no takeaway but the intense fandom of all who write about sports. It’s media saturation to make wet blankets of us all.
But so what? What kinds of stories can we really expect in this echo chamber? I’m not asking for sportswriters to be allegorists, uncovering the cultural symbolism of professional athletics. On the contrary, sportswriting already belabors the symbolism of sport. For instance, ESPN.com’s recent profile of Wes Welker, wide receiver for the New England Patriots, reproduces that most common of sentimental sports narratives: Before incredible success, there was the adversity of not being quite as successful. The profile gussies up the chronology of Welker’s high school, college, and pro careers, but in the end Welker’s hard work signifies success only because he’s now famous.
Instead, let’s have more narratives like Chuck Klosterman’s recent piece in Play documenting the lives of several unremarkable NBA players whose careers were transformed when superstar Kevin Garnett became their Boston Celtics teammate. At least to a certain degree, Klosterman recounts the story of professionals, not celebrities.
Or there’s the Times’ investigation of sexual harassment at New York Jets games. Reporter David Picker found male fans congregating near a concourse in the Giants stadium. They were there, as Picker writes, to cheer “an obscenity-laced chant, demanding that the few women in the gathering expose their breasts.” If this portrait of besotted NFL fans doesn’t conjure the loony and occasionally reprehensible character of contemporary sports fandom, nothing will.
From the alternative press, which so often shuns sports coverage, there’s Sherman Alexie’s politically irate sports column, Sonics Death Watch, for Seattle’s alt-weekly the Stranger. Short and incisive, the column digs into the racial preferences of fans, the morality of pure talent, and anecdotal evidence of testosterone overload. It’s a riot.
So why aren’t there more of these kinds of attempts at investigation and storytelling? Primarily, because literary concerns might look a little stupid in the atmosphere of contemporary sports coverage, especially given the sordid epic of steroids. As Hal Crowther, an Oxford American essayist and author most recently of Gather at the River, told me, if you’re “a sportswriter with any sense of yourself as a writer, it’s hard to ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”
It’s not so much that the under-nuanced steroids saga ought to be disregarded; it’s simply the case that doping acts as a gravity well, sucking in the attention of fans and sportswriters alike. It’s easy to get your pique up over such scandals and refuse to understand the motivations compelling pharmaceutical enhancement at the cost of giving in to the 24/7 news cycle and prioritizing scandal over more sophisticated reporting.
And that’s ultimately what I want to read: sophisticated, contemplative journalism—not footnotes to press conferences, business transactions, and player quotes. I want sportswriting to offer evidence of athletic struggle, not celebrity, evidence that “professional” sports tells me something about the cruelty, appeal, and exhilaration of playing. Fans and sportswriters, spectators all, may try to get inside sport, but few of us are on the sidelines and even fewer are on the field. Readers have been left to digest fantasy fluff and their own obsessions. If it has become increasingly difficult to admire athletes and appreciate sports, we ought to realize that their potential for narrative, for story, made them newsworthy in the first place.
4/3/2008 10:51:39 AM
Today, I am confessing precisely one sin: I seek out and watch movie trailers. Online—at Apple’s website, at Empire Movies—I find them piled up, ready to go, waiting for me.
The appeal of the movie trailer is simple. Most of them convey an explosively transparent emotional arc, a film in miniature, with music to cue your emotions as you accept a movie’s premise and experience only its dramatic highlights and plot twists, often inter-cut with rhetorical questions (“What if you lost everything?”) presented over a black and otherwise empty screen. With the resounding basso of the movie-trailer-announcer-man, a preview has the potential to make every movie seem incredible, mostly because you don’t see or hear much movie at all; a few facial expressions, a sentence or two of dialogue, and some rousing music all constitute great movie trailers.
Christopher Orr, an editor at the New Republic, has his own peculiar relationship with trailers, though his is less drooling addiction and more beef. He believes that today’s previews ruin movies, mostly by doing just what they do: revealing too many dramatic highlights and plot twists. To prove his point, Orr recently engaged in a little film criticism experiment. First, he reviewed the movie 21—which he dubbed “a slick thriller about card-counting MIT students”—based solely on the details of its trailer. The next day, he reviewed it again after watching the actual movie. Much to his delight, he found his own trailer-review near-complete in grasping 21’s plot and characters. More to the point, Orr’s critical assessment of the movie remained unswayed and un-dented by actually seeing the film. It was still crap, point proven.
But what gives? Sure, I think it could be interesting if more critics took a swing at Orr’s thought experiment, especially since trailers often do contain spoilers. But the before-and-after critique has its faults. First of all, many a bad movie can be sighted from miles, nay, even leagues, away. Mainstream film is homogeneous enough in narrative structure, character development, and thematic content, that busting 21 might be something of a cheap shot, regardless of its entertainment value. Most importantly, though, Orr’s whole shtick admits the obvious: Critics often have little need to actually watch a film in order to write their reviews. Watch the trailer, make a few witty remarks, and that sucker is cooked and ready to file.
(Thanks, Columbia Journalism Review.)
Image by laasB, licensed under Creative Commons.
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