This is the first of a three-part series of posts on the media:

  1. Media & the Selective Outrage Machine
  2. The Culture War Is Not Really Taking Place
  3. The Big Hit:: CBC v. The Canadian Cancer Society

While it’s not new that news journalism is a business in financial dire straits and the newspaper already has its death date set in 2043, the pressure to remain relevant has pushed it from infotainment into a neo-Hearstean monster. While William Randolph Hearst would engage in fabrication, known for his quote, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war”, news these days is about dramaturgy in the narrative in a cynical grab for viewers, subscribers, and pageviews.

Jon Stewart coined the term “selective outrage machine” to characterize Fox’s outrage at the Common-White House controversy. In order to be fair, the same tactics can be seen on MSNBC, as well as on the far right and left of the political spectrum. It’s how the game is played in the attention economy.

I think in our current culture of optics, the other side of the “fail” coin is the blatant attempt to manipulate the news media’s thirst for the dramatic. It’s a Goffman world, ruled by the tenets of The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life.

DSK & Roman Polanski

Watching the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape allegation was particularly cringeworthy. I thought Cyrus Vance’s {Manhattan District Attorney} mouthing off to the press was setting the stage for disaster. While some were playing the angle, I was thinking of the Duke lacrosse players. Let’s face it, the story as it unfolded was red hot. A rich, powerful champagne socialist with a history of womanizing rapes an asylum-seeking Islamic immigrant  housekeeper at in his pricey suite at the Sofitel. It was one of those divisive stories where even being neutral was deemed as tacit complicity in violence against women. The media frenzy created an indefensible whipping boy in DSK, which, to me, seemed premature given that the facts surrounding the case left some ambiguity with respect to its supposed airtight nature. The case started to unravel, with allegations that the accuser lied and had inconsistent stories, along with supposed assertions by the NY Post that the victim was part of a prostitution ring. has annoyed me over the years by actively creating an adversarial mosh pit, where feminism is positioned in ways to extract maximum ire. I would argue that Kate Harding’s 2009 piece on Roman Polanski, reminding readers that the self-exiled director raped a child, served the single purpose of invoking the outrage machine against someone Harding deems as indefensible. Rather than explore the nuances of the case and the strange prosecutorial and judicial circumstances of 1977 that was the crux of the matter in 2009, readers were reminded what a monster Polanski is and implying that due process be damned. My post on Roman Polanski was a reaction to Harding’s piece, which I felt was troubling to say the least, in its knee-jerk simplicity that plays to generating controversy. Then again, 722 comments and 236 Facebook likes probably added up to mission accomplished.

Fast forward to this month. Salon posts an OpenSalon blog entry by Heather Michon in the same vein as Harding’s as a Editor’s pick. The focus is on the discrediting of the accuser because of her past lies, some of which are more material to the case than others. Michon is concerned that there’s a gulf between what transpired and whether the government thinks it has a case to make a conviction. This supposed “disconnect” is due process. So, how does this all play out? Salon selectively ignores the accuser’s conflicting stories that can sink the case, while focusing on the scrutiny of the accuser’s past. Meanwhile, others in the media pat the system on the back for “working”, by eventually coming to some “truth”. The reality is that this is all pure theatre and a theatre that’s entering into the logical calculus of those within the institutions that should be above using the media to generate hype for publicity and political gain. This isn’t new, but the ubiquity of media is and this should concern us. The alignment of interests of the media and the state is the logical extension of infotainment presaged by Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities and my sense is that the genie is out of the bottle with little that can be done to put it back.

Casey Anthony & Nancy Grace

The public outrage regarding the Casey Anthony acquittal was pretty predictable. The stage was set for this generation’s OJ trial, fuelled by another media frenzy. The most interesting article I read in the aftermath was Brian Dickerson’s column on how Anthony’s #1 detractor, Nancy Grace, made her acquittal possible.

Nancy Grace became part of a media hype machine, using her punditry soapbox to paint Casey Anthony as incarnate evil, complete with the derisive moniker, Tot Mom. Dickerson argues that the publicity given to Anthony vaulted her from indigent defendant obscurity to a criminal defence lawyer career maker. Grace used Anthony as a punching bag in her well-orchestrated drama of the indefensible defendant. Polanski raped a child and Anthony killed hers. Manufacturing the outrage provides for a clear and easy target to direct the hate in the name of justice. Through the outrage, everyone can participate in meting out justice for the victim, Caylee Anthony.

The problem again is that due process takes a back seat to the hype. Let’s face it, due process isn’t sexy. Particularly when it evokes examples of “technicalities”, allowing the “guilty” to go free.

In another media twist, the defense team used social media to fine tune their approach by analyzing public sentiments. While the efficacy of such maneuvering is still up in the air, crowdsourcing opinions of testimony in high profile cases is likely to be de rigueur.

The selective outrage machine has the potential to morph how we the public form opinions. Appealing to a sense of justice in a juicy narrative is where the media is at, while social media digests it and puts it back out there. This further influences others and serves as a feedback loop into social institutions, such as the courts. I don’t see news as getting better or journalists becoming more ethical about their craft because, frankly, the market could care less and I don’t see any way of legislating style or professionalism, in light of free speech.

"Real Men Don't Buy Girls" Campaign, Eva Longoria, Ashton, & Demi

In December, I blogged about the cartoon-childhood violence meme that morphed from something else and was being criticized for being another example of “one-click activism.” There were interesting comments that are definitely food for thought.

Celebrity Causes & Controversial Issues

While the crowd can start a viral meme, celebrities can use social media to promote their cause to their followers. The idea of increasing awareness for causes can be tricky, particularly when there are “sides”. I don’t think anyone is countering Sarah McLachlan’s pleas to stop animal cruelty, but issues like Jenny McCarthy’s advocacy surrounding better knowledge surrounding childhood vaccination and autism does. She’s facing a backlash, particularly in light of the fraudulent Wakefield study. Mary Elizabeth Williams in bashes her as a misguided mom, acting as if she’s railing against a mountain range of “science”, but, let me be frank here. The journalism of Mary Elizabeth Williams doesn’t scream health sciences expert, plus, it seems like she doesn’t even read what she links to. She cherrypicked a quote by McCarthy on the Oprah site, but conveniently left this out::

“I am all for [vaccines], but there needs to be a safer vaccine schedule. There needs to be something done. The fact that the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] acts as if these vaccines are one size fits all is just crazy to me…People need to start listening to what the moms have been saying.”

This is hardly the ravings of a lunatic. Plus, the problems with the “science” that Williams cites is that they do not prove that a vaccine-autism link does not exist. It may well be more complex than the studies are allowing for, with certain, very specific subpopulations at risk.

Is Bad PR Better than No PR?

So, this week, power couple Demi & Ashton started a campaign to fight sex trafficking, “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls”. The ads have people scratching their heads.

YouTube Preview Image
YouTube Preview Image

I get the execution of the ads, but I think it’s a bad one. It’s using hyperbole and humour to make a point, while riffing on the Old Spice “Your Man…” campaign. The idea is that “real men” do certain things and don’t “buy girls”, so be a real man and don’t buy girls.

Jezebel took the trafficking ads to task, but included a quote by Helen A.S. Popkin didn’t sit right::

“One might argue that faux-zany vignettes in which Jamie Foxx opens a beer bottle with a remote and Bradley Cooper eats cereal bachelor-style are as effective at wiping out underage sex trafficking as posting the color of your bra in your Facebook status is at eradicating breast cancer. The video campaign just costs way more money.”

Popkin’s post is chock full of snarky cleverness and deconstructs the false syllogism, apparently unaware that effective advertising or campaigns need not be logical. Let me see, “the war on terror = the war in Iraq, hence…,” oh, nevermind. Popkin’s use of a Facebook meme example points to a recurring theme that people resent what they feel is tantamount to doing nothing. This may well be the case, but it doesn’t mean it’s always the case and I think it’s short-sighted to see anything having the appearance of an “identity” campaign, where a user identifies with a cause ostensibly to raise awareness as doing nothing. The challenge is to leverage the identity and awareness into action. Here’s a better critique of the ads on bumpshack.

Demi Moore isn’t concerned about the backlash::

“People’s criticism has created even more conversation…While we didn’t want to offend anybody and it’s certainly not our intention to make light of any issue we take very seriously, we see that it’s actually doing what we intended.”

The question I have is what exactly is the intent? Well, Demi and Ashton have a foundation and you can donate to fund more multifaceted campaigns to promote…awareness, as well as demand reduction strategies. They also have a page listing what you can do to help, including flagging/reporting ads on Craigslist.

Well, nevertheless, it’s a good cause, right? Not everyone thinks so. Melissa Gira Grant is calling Demi and Ashton out on their publicity stunt, providing links to organizations working on providing support for those in the sex trade. I must admit that I’m a bit troubled by D&A’s attempts to curb a serious problem, but the execution is just symptomatic of the entire approach. It reeks of paternalism and focuses on “girls” being trafficked, feeding into a saviour theme of philanthropy. Moreover, as it stands, their foundation’s initiatives are paper thin and does smack of a publicity stunt, given how there are many existing organizations doing work in the sex trafficking arena. Finally, the approach is hostile to sex work outside of trafficking by advocating vigilanteism on the Internet, smacking of Amber Lyon’s “investigative journalism” on the matter for CNN.

I think this is less about social media and “one-click activism” as it is about misguided celebrity ventures. While some might piss and moan that the use of social media in getting the word out doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, but I would argue that there’s a danger of celebrity use of social media that can result in misguided actions.





I honestly believe needs a laughtrack these days, as I find much of it to be unintentionally hilarious in its gender-war-pot-stirring making sure the culture war is alive and well to its readers. For over a decade, Salon has done articles on sexuality that push liberal minds to the edge by contrasting prevailing mores that are in conflict with more traditional ones or longstanding notions of “propriety.” Ah, living in the postmodern condition of intellectualized discourse in an era when everything is an untethered floating signifier and the rules are nebulous at best. The target audience seems to be those who struggle with being hip and urbane, but having some vestiges of a more socially conservative order keeping them from totally cutting loose and raising their kids in a bohemian hedonifest. In the process, the social conservatives take their shots and pageviews go up.

Last Friday, Kate Harding posted an article on’s Broadsheet on “Hook-Up” culture. She links to another article on a study finding that hook-up culture may not be that detrimental, but goes on to cite the Teen Vogue editor, Rachel Simmons, and sociologist Kathleen A. Bogle’s interviews for a book on the subject, as evidence that hooking up might not be such a good thing because women are often left in “relationship” limbo. Harding uses this as a springboard to lambaste the media for promoting a “please your man” culture.

While Harding tries to reconcile this with a utopian pining for a world where a multiplicity of sexualities can co-exist without feeling a pressure to conform to a media-manufactured social orthodoxy, I feel she’s totally missing the boat here. Harding thinks that those caught up in the emotional wreckage that hook-up culture can bring are being taught the wrong things and that women aren’t taught to value their own desires::

“It’s that the girls in question don’t feel comfortable admitting what they want. They’ve been taught that saying ‘I want a relationship’ or ‘I’m falling in love with you’ will terrify any red-blooded American male — that is so not What Guys Want! — so young women who are interested in something more serious are terrified of being alone and completely unwanted if they say so…

If we encouraged girls and women to place real value on their own desires, then instead of hand-waving about kids these days, we could trust them to seek out what they want and need, and to end relationships, casual or serious, that are unsatisfying or damaging to them, regardless of whether they’d work for anyone else.”

I find this ironic condescension towards women wrapped up in empty Dr. Phil-esque emancipatory rhetoric a bit too much to take. Ironic, as Harding assumes her own orthodoxy of desires that’s a polar opposite of what the media, in this case focusing on the likes of Cosmo and  Maxim, are portraying. While much of the media have been quick to point out for decades that if you’re not desirable or aren’t in a relationship, you don’t matter, i.e., alone = loser, Harding as an agent of media is advocating what may well be a fiction—longing for the “right” answer of true female desires. Harding implies our real desires are being subjugated by media, but the fact of the matter is that our real desires are intertwined with media and culture. I would argue that much of the rhetoric in the division of values in the US evident in the “culture wars”, well-trodden territory for, is about desires intertwined with media and culture.

We want meaning from our desires. We want meaning from our actions and the constellation of products and brands we surround ourselves with to gain identity. So, what is the meaning of the “hook-up”? I think for many youth, there isn’t a lot of meaning and I don’t mean that pejoratively. I think this is more of an issue for those writing on “hook-up” culture as a wedge issue of morality or bitching about media and society.

The “hook-up” can be reduced to a consumer behaviour, a mode that fits us all like a glove, whether we want it to or not.. We consume things to satisfy our desires, but out desires are never satiated. Is it media? Is it culture? Both. The fuss is that relationships shouldn’t be an act of consumption and that sex shouldn’t be cheapened by commodification. These concepts are just a tad too close to mail-order brides and prostitution, no?

Welcome to late capitalism.

Twitterversion:: blasts media/society 4 sturm/drang over hook-up culture.Are true female desires being subjugated? #ThickCulture @Prof_K

Song:: Vampire Weekend – “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”

Vancouver Olympics Freestyle Skiing Gold Medal Winner, Alexandre Bilodeau

Notes from north of 49ºN

I’ve been immersed in Canadianess on several fronts this week. There’s the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, of course, and I went to an innovation talk by the CEO of Porter Airlines, an emerging Canadian success story, at MaRS here in Toronto.

I’ve heard about some backlash about Canada’s “Own the Podium” programme, which I’ve dubbed “pwn the podium,” but I find the whole spectacle fascinating. The first Olympics I remember, which will date me, is Montréal-1976. I remember watching, on a B&W TV in the kitchen, Nadia Comăneci dazzle the world, as well as Gilda Radner’s impersonation of her on Saturday Night Live. I remember the US hockey gold medal in 1980 and the US-led boycott of the summer games in Moscow. I was in Westwood near UCLA during the 1984 Olympics in LA and still recall the pastel iconography and the feel-good pervasiveness that just didn’t jive with my own brand of teenaged angst. Over the years, I’ve followed the Olympics, as I’m interested in spectacle in the Debord sense, but not soooo cynically. So much hinges on the dramas, albeit often hyped by the media. Although, the story of the first Canadian to win gold on Canadian soil, Alexandre Bilodeau, is quite compelling. Alexandre took up skiing, as his mom wanted her kids to take up a more family-oriented sport, which could include his older brother with cerebral palsy, Frédéric.

The coverage of the Olympics is a perfect example of mediascapes, as described by Arjun Appadurai::

“‘Mediascapes’, whether produced by private or state interests, tend to be image-centered, narrative-based accounts of strips of reality, and what they offer to those who experience and transform them is a series of elements (such as characters, plots and textual forms) out of which scripts can be formed of imagined lives, their own as well as those of others living in other places.”

So, what made me laugh out loud was reporting they got hammered for the snarky remarks made by writers on their site on articles on the Olympics . Oh, Salon, desperately trying to be relevant by stirring the pot, which I find it often does with gendered issues—oh cruel fates, why can’t Roman Polansky get arrested monthly?! Salon writers are like ironic hipsters who aren’t quite clued in to how planting “tongue-in-cheek” with one’s writing doesn’t preclude you from looking like an idiot for missing the forest for the trees.

Heather Havrilesky and Steve Almond both poked fun at Vancouver Games. Heather’s “D’oh, Canada!” piece was a play-by-play on how the opening ceremonies were cheesy, boring, and with poor production values—a colossal fail. She ends with a reiteration of her take on how the bland NBC is, along with how they are complicit in not accurately depicting the ceremonies as an embarrassing mess::

“And do Costas and Lauer acknowledge what a big mess it is? Hell, no. Instead they’re happily prattling along as Wayne Gretsky rides to the real outdoor Olympic cauldron in the rain. Why didn’t they just have one cauldron? Sadly, this outdoor one looks just like the malfunctioning heap inside.

Oh, Canada. You may among the friendliest and most welcoming people on earth, but sometimes friendliness, politeness, and “making it be” just isn’t enough.”

Almond went through the various gaffes and SNAFUs of the first few days of the games. Bitch bitch bitch. He concludes with this trenchant observation::

We’re really sorry it had to go this way, Canada. We love your health care system and your uncomplaining tolerance of sub-freezing weather and your almost freakishly low-key attitude. But when it comes to mindless, over-hyped spectacles of late model capitalist excess, you should probably leave the driving to us.

While NBC provides a mainstream mediascape, Salon is providing a cynical, urban-liberal hipster variant, slathered in a fatty gravy of pseudointellectualism and punctuated by cheese curd five-dollar-turns-of-phrase, like so much poutine.

In my opinion, this is nothing to get in a lather about, since it’s so utterly predictable. Mediascapes are all about persuasion, promotion, and, in Salon’s case, pageviews. Their depiction of Canada as bumbling bumpkin cousins to the north is really just the flipside of NBC’s mainstream message of pro-US feelgood candy. Hand in glove. I can just hear George Peppard say, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Salon should have more compassion for Canada. Salon has spent 15 years trying to be an über-hip West coast New Yorker, but are still just bumbling bumpkin cousins to the West.

BTW:: The idea that Canadians are polite. Ha! It’s another myth.

Twitterversion:: pwned 4 snarky #Olympics articles. Urban uberhipster liberalism just flipside 2 mainstream NBC feelgood candy. @Prof_K

Song:: The Smiths-“William It Was Really Nothing”