Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Hysteria v History

Breaking news: Hey, it's winter. Sometimes it snows, sometimes a lot.

This just in: Media and government weather hysterics in New York and New Jersey look a little foolish today (again) as the snowstorm, widely hyped in dramatic government and media accounts yesterday as being "historic," well,  the damn thing failed its history test.

We're used to seeing politicians like the excitable New Jersey Gov. Chris (Thar She Blows) Christie   all in a frisson about some impending crisis or another, when he's not chasing around the country in the delusion that he might become president, or yelling from behind his bodyguards at a Jersey teacher who had the temerity to ask him a pointed question. (I awarded Christie the "Thar She Blows" moniker some time ago for his tendency to overreact and blow his stack during past impending forecast weather disruptions, not to mention pointed questions from the public -- and not because of his size, incidentally).

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo might be given a pass for his overreaction this time, because the poor fellow is stuck in Albany, N.Y., and that's enough to affect anyone's good sense, especially during the dead of winter.

The New York mayor, Bill de Blasio is a new entry in the Chicken Little derby that transpired as the fairly routine, if big, winter snowstorm developed yesterday, and the implications of his own reactions and especially exclamations are troubling. De Blasio, who knew nothing more about the impending weather than what he read in the papers or saw on TV, all based on urgent National Weather Service bulletins, basically shut down the city Monday night and into Tuesday morning.

De Blasio will long be remembered for telling New Yorkers that, not only could they not drive a car or ride a bus or subway, or pedal a bicycle to deliver Chinese food, they shouldn't even be on the sidewalks. The Boston mayor said the same, but made it sound more like an order under martial law -- but that's just Boston again. Remember how they ordered all citizens to remain indoors when the cops were looking for the Marathon bombers, who were found, as I recall, cowering in a stored boat in someone's backyard?

De Blasio made several painfully memorableutterances yesterday, and the best one (as the New Yorker magazine pointed out today without being so rude as to make note of 9-11, the Draft Riots, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire or the Giuliani Administration) was: "prepare for something worse than we have seen before,"

Even today, under fire for overreacting yesterday, de Blasio seems to be continuing with the overly dramatic language. "We dodged a bullet," he said.

"Sweety, get me rewrite!"
Of course the media were crucial players in the Chicken Little Derby yesterday. Reading and watching from a continent away, I was amazed at the high degree of excitement in media accounts. The media fanned the official overreactions, tripping over themselves not only to dramatize a weather forecast but to do so with endless updated bulletins, each more urgent that the previous, all characterized by overly dramatic language including, in several online accounts I saw yesterday, the use of the word "tragic" to describe the likely effects of this forecast storm.

City halls and the state houses are probably hopeless, and the National Weather Service, where I believe the origin of the word usage "historic" will be found from yesterday, seems to have been a basic part of the problem. Still, I do hope someone starts looking more closely at the propensity of government officials who anticipate a crisis by invoking various measures of what can accurately be called martial law, like ordering citizens to "shelter in place." We're probably going to want to have some checks and balances on those martial impulses, the next time there is a genuine civil crisis to deal with.

The apologists are at work today, pointing out that it did in fact snow hard east of the New York area and, of course, in Boston -- where a routine big snowstorm didn't used to be treated as the end of the world.

I think the essential problem was the alarming language used yesterday in this endless incremental news-updating,  the incessant lunges for immediate attention that the online world has created, and which will never be un-created, So as we assimilate these realities, let's hope the better elements of the media reflect on this poor performance, The bright rookie "web design" whiz-kids constantly updating online news reports to incessantly grab attention definitely do know one big thing, but the reporters and editors who have been around the track a few times know a lot of little things. The two should talk more often.

(And just as a side note: When an editor describes a rookie's reporting on breaking news as "breathless," that is not meant as a compliment about the reporter's enthusiasm.)

The New Yorker online today reliably has a sensibly humorous take in a piece by Colin Stokes. [Here.] Among the suggestions for city dwellers "braced" for winter's worst: "Wear ice skates all the time." Also, "When the blizzard doesn't actually happen, take the day off work."

But let me offer some serious media post-mortem suggestions, for starters:

1. Let's definitely avoid using the word "historic" when there is no actual "history" to report yet.

2. Other words to avoid in weather-forecast advance reporting: Barrel ... Fury, usually accompanied by "unleashed" .. Bear down. ... That list is longer, but you get the drift. (So to speak, since the subject is snow).

And be wary of  anyone today who says "Better safe than sorry." That excuse is posted at the trailhead of a long, slippery slope, even if there is no snow underfoot to speak of.


Thursday, January 08, 2015

Je ne suis pas Charlie

Those "Je suis Charlie" proclamations are sprouting within the Worthy Media like American flag lapel pins in the House of Representatives. Hoist 'em high!

Are we all in fact Charlie? 

Maybe you are, and if so you have my profound admiration.

But me, alas, I am not brave enough to be Charlie Hebdo, and I guarantee you that few of those worthy journalistic organizations rushing to hoist their logos are Charlie either. The massacred editorial staff at Charlie Hebdo, practicing biting satire of a kind that has been vibrant in Paris since the run-up to the French Revolution, had the guts to continue pissing off murderous Islamicist thugs, even after Charlie offices had been previously firebombed. 

Would I have that kind of brazen, defiant courage in this kind of a situation? I consider myself a stand-up guy and have some scars to prove it, but I am damn sure that I would not have had the guts to stand up as boldly and bravely for editorial freedom -- yes, for the right to be a smart-ass when the stakes are very, very high -- as those slain journalists did in Paris. 

Already, some of the usual suspects in the media are equivocating, to make sure no one is offended by the "Je suis Charlie" bumper stickers they've slapped on. After all, religious insensitivity is abhorrent, they say. Take USA Today, which arrives today running this op-ed piece by a self-described "radical Muslim cleric and lecturer in sharia." The radical Muslem cleric declares essentially that the Charlie Hebdo infidels had it coming because they recklessly chose to ignore the clear consequences of causing offense to certain quarters of Islam. The editors posit this as a way to provide "balance" and "perspective" in their mission to defend free expression and encourage robust debate! There are two sides to every story, they say in effect.

Are such editors defending freedom of expression, a la Charlie? Nobody's questioning your right to print ravings that the French satirists got what they deserved for causing offense. What's in question here is your judgment and your adherence to a discredited journalistic concept called "balance" (the next time someone mentions that the world is round, I will look forward to the opposing viewpoint that it is actually flat).

Would would those same editors publish, or even allude to, serious opinion pieces like this one today by Jeffrey Taylor, in Salon, which has the headline, "We must stop deferring to religion," and states in part that Islam is "the prima facie yet material motive" for modern terrorist barbarities that invariably commence, as of course the one yesterday in Paris did, with bellowing of the war cry "Allahu akbar!"

I doubt it. They'll give a terrorist-apologist a say with impunity, because the mullah is so obviously an idiot with no constituency among our readers, but let's not cause the Archbishop to get upset about any suggestion that religion itself might be a problem.

Overall, what is the sensible response? "For starters, we need to cease granting religion, and not just Islam -- an exemption from criticism," Taylor writes.

But oh, if we do that, the letters we would get!  

The murdered cartoonists, writers and editors at Charlie Hebdo worked in a tradition that extends back to the earliest days of mass-circulation print, and encompasses the biting satire of Paris radicals who vilified poor hapless Marie Antoinette and ridiculed the king and helped to create the emotional atmosphere that brought down the ancien regime. (OK, the revolution was followed closely by the Terror, by Napoleon and the rape of Europe, but it did all eventually work out somewhat better).

Being a provocateur against the ancien regime in 18th Century Paris was relatively safe, even in the last throes of an absolute monarchy. 

(And let's not overlook a basic fact in today's France, a country that has been enthusiastic in legislating political, cultural and religious correctness. As law professor Jonathan Turley notes in this piece in the Washington Post, "if the French want to memorialize those killed at Charlie Hebdo they could start by rescinding their laws criminalizing speech that insults, defames or incites hatred, discrimination or violence on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, disability, sex or sexual orientation." (At least for starters, I would add, please try to define what "insults, defames or incites hatred" means specifically.))

Doing what those who were murdered in the offices of Charlie Hebdo did was clearly dangerous. Their bold exercise of free expression took guts and, as USA Today's radical Muslim cleric and lecturer in sharia so piously points out from his protected pulpit in London, it demonstrably had consequences.

For a perspective on roughly the same issues from a respected voice in mainstream religion, kindly see this terrific piece today by Michael Sean Winters in the National Catholic Reporter.

And also this, from a Moslem point of view.


Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Waiting For Piety in the Free-Speech Furor

It's gratifying, I suppose, to see so many organizational journalistic worthies hoisting their logos high to rush out statements condemning the massacre by Islamist religious terrorists at the offices of the infamously rascally French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Good for them. Let's hope they all stay on course and affirm their unequivocal support for free speech, including speech that might offend a religious sensibility to the degree that the editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo chose to push it, for the sake of satire.

But let's just say I'm skeptical.

I remember back in 1989 when American journalistic worthies convened symposiums and arranged somber press conferences after a panjandrum of fundamental Islamists in Iran issued a "fatwa" against -- on my old block in Philly we would have called it "put a contract on" -- Salmon Rushdie,
for the crime of blasphemy.  At one press conference in New York that still stands out clearly in my mind, Norman Mailer and Gay Talese, along with lesser solemn cynosures of the Manhattan literary establishment, spoke in condemnation of the threatened violence -- but nevertheless managed to cough up empathy for the aggrieved zealots at the same time.

Each man clearly stated, while we media wretches scribbled respectfully, affirmation of the precept that while freedom of speech is paramount, free speech also needs to avoid showing undue disrespect for the sensibilities of ... well, of bat-shit crazy religious screwballs who will threaten to kill you if you are known to have said something offensive to their well-tended sensibilities.

When I ventured a surprised question to Mailer -- Mailer! -- as to whether he truly believed that free speech came with restrictions not to offend those who are perpetually poised to be offended, the great man glowered darkly while the other assembled media reacted as if I were Helen Thomas barking an inane question to a baffled Ronald Reagan.  My question went unanswered.  Mailer and his even tinier but exquisitely well-tailored companion Talese turned instead to the better behaved among the questioners.

So excuse my cynicism now in anticipating similar reactions from some elements in the higher echelons of media respectability, all currently wringing hands over the massacre of the French journalists. Just watch,  As soon as the horror fades and it's less shockingly rude to note that these murdered French journalists and cartoonists were essentially merry, noisy, wise-ass journalistic provocateurs, the grand declarations of support for free speech from some of the dreadfully serious editorialists will come forth with well-considered admonitory caveats.

(The New York Times tonight has a compelling paragraph in its sidebar on the exploits of Charlie Hebdo: "Week after week, the small, struggling paper amused and horrified, taking pride in offending one and all, and carrying on a venerable European tradition dating to the days of the French Revolution, when satire was used to pillory Marie Antoinette, and later to challenge politicians and the police, bankers and religions of all kinds."  

--That brilliantly distilled ounce of history is very crucial to the debate.)

But basically, I fear that we soon will again hear stated a proposition in some of the media that I still can hear Mailer -- Mailer! -- making that day, which is that religion in any of its astonishing variations somehow must be ceded exemption from ridicule, harsh criticism, disdain. Because, well, because we're talking about religious belief, is why. And we must respect religion after all.

And that will be an insult to the memory of those murdered French journalists, who believed no such thing, and died horribly, practicing what they preached.


Here's an interesting short documentary, released in 2013 at the Oslo Freedom Forum, called "Collision: Free Speech and Religion," which addresses the right of free speech as a foundation of freedom itself, as opposed to "the supposed right not to be offended:"

COLLISION: Free Speech and Religion


A Magazine and a Massacre

Undoubtedly shrieking that all-too-familiar war cry "Allahu Akbar!" religious fanatics massacred at least 12 people in the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Here is a link, via the Daily Beast, to some of the covers that the magazine has run in its ridicule of medieval religious fundamentalism.

Charlie Hebdo covers

And here, from 2012, is a prescient and important article in the New Yorker

New Yorker and Charlie Hebdo