NOTA BENE BOOKS BLOG

Musings on Place, Travel, Books, Literature, Poetry, Literary Criticism, Collecting, Media, Life and the Arts

Nigel Beale’s Recent Journalism

Review of On Criticism by Noel Carroll, Rain Taxi Review of Books, May, 2009.

Review of the Met’s JMW Turner Retrospective, BorderCrossings magazine (108)

Review of the National Gallery of Canada’s The 1930′s: The Making of the New Man, Canadian Art Magazine Winter 08

A Roadside Conversation with Miriam Toews, Canadian Bookseller magazine

Book Revue, A Maritime Road Trip…, Saltscapes Magazine, Nov/Dec. 2008

The ancient art of keeping it real, Guardian Books Blog, October 21, 2008

Profile of Rawi Hage, Canadian Bookseller magazine 

Bonding with my rock ‘n’ roll barber, Guerilla magazine 17

Speaking of CanLit…, Review of Stephen Henighan’s A Report on the Afterlife of Culture, The Globe and Mail, July 26, 2008

Sudden Death for the Home Team, Review of DeNiro’s Game, The Washington Post, June 24, 2008

 Biography and Fiction: Somerset Maugham and Of Human Bondage, Guardian Books Blog, June 13, 2008

 A Question of Taste, Guerilla magazine, June 1, 2008

Review of Roberto Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas  in The Quarterly Conversation, June 1, 2008

Profile of Author/Bookseller Larry McMurtry Canadian Bookseller Magazine, May 25

Review of BorderCrossings Magazine here at Luna Park, Summary of Meeka Walsh’s fine workshop on Writing Art Reviews, here. May 20, 2008.

Putting Faces to Fiction, Guardian Books Blog April 23, 2008 

Wyndham Lewis: Overlooked Sourge of Mediocrity Guardian Books, April 17

Great Prose can make the Earth Move Guardian Books, March 27, 2008 

Metaphorical Excess Guardian Books, March 7. 2008

Profile: Neil Smith A Beautifully Weird Debut Cdn. Bookseller Magazine, Spring, 2008 

Karl Marx as Copywriter Guardian Books, February 18, 2008 

Book Review: The Irresponsible Self Filthy Habits, Literary Website, Feb17, 2008

Why don’t publishers use Helvetica? Guardian Books February 15, 2008.  

Desiderata on Farting Feathertale Literary Review

What’s the good of bad reviews?Guardian Books January 16, 2008

Isn’t To Autumn about – autumn?Guardian Books January 11, 2008

Readings to put you off books Guardian Books December 20, 2007

 

 

 

Old, sometimes embarrassing, Journalism:  Strategy Magazine columns from 1994-1999 below:

 

British media: From the sublime to the ridiculous

I’m not sure if it’s because Britain is home to such a large, super-literate population that the media over there is so vibrant and intelligent, or the other way around. What I do know is that reading the more refined British papers is pure joy. Instead of the harried kind of brain-dump reportage we frequently encounter over here, the better Blighty-bound broadsheets are replete with beautifully efficient descriptions, choice turns of phrase, enlightening commentary and tightly drawn, elegant arguments. Time has been spent with the words.

And you don’t have to feel guilty about watching television. Every time you turn it on, there’s something genuinely, and often unexpectedly, interesting. For example, did you know that giraffes, thanks to their ultra-tough lips, can lick off, laceration-free, the succulent fruit of some fancy-named African tree that sports spikes so sharp they frequently impale the hapless little, fast-moving African birds that fly into them? Or that thanks to the amazing chemicals in its saliva, the self-same giraffe can crunch contentedly away on leaves that are otherwise lethally poisonous?

It is truly amazing how consistently spellbinding British documentary television can be, night in, night out, no matter the subject. Same with entertainment programming. The dialogue is actually clever; the humour actually funny. It’s television that respects the intelligence of its viewers.

In short, everything that is best about the media can be found in Britain. Interestingly however, so can everything that is worst. Cool Britannia leads the way on both brows, high and low.

Within hours of my setting sole on England’s green and pleasant soil last week, the latest "scandal" had broken. Or more accurately, the latest honey-trap had bagged its trophy.

Here’s the scenario: Ruggedly clean-cut, horny England rugby captain Lawrence Dallaglio meets succulent Louise Oswald thinking she’s a fan who might be impressed by boasts of wild partying and drug doing. Instead she’s a tape-toting reporterette from the News of the World. Boasts morph into headlines. Lawrence resigns, pleading no contest.

Assigned to slide into Dallaglio’s circle because of rumours of alleged drug use, Louise, according to former News of the World reporter Helen Carter, may have waited weeks or even months to get to talk to him in the right environment. A hotel room that is; the perfect place to extract confessions out of celebrities, she writes. They’re private and intimate, with no interfering background noises (sounds like cold war espionage). Apparently Louise reeled Lawry in with more than just her good looks. She told him that she represented Gillette, and had big sponsorship dough she wanted to blow.

Arguably, in a court of law, Dallaglio’s cocaine/ecstasy admissions would have been thrown out. Entrapment, case dismissed. No such rules in the court of journalism. Gillette is contemplating legal action.

The tabloids have been using this end-justifies-means technique with great success for some years now. Creating news, not covering it (over here, the closest we get is Frank magazine telestaffers assuming fake identities in order to make MPs look like jerks). The highbrow papers may not approve, but they aren’t about to complain in any meaningful way. Damn it man, everyone sells scads of papers! And they did again several days into my visit, when a full-page $600,000 snapshot of Sophie Rhys-Jones’ beautiful 23-year-old breasts hit page three of The Sun. Lots of indignation, massive interest, excellent sales all around.

As long as human nature remains what it is, and commercial interests are at play, gossip creep and news creation will continue to thrive and infest all types of journalism. When the corrupt are afflicted, it’s hard not to enjoy. However, when the innocent get crushed in the crossfire, the joy disappears.

And there’s no real cure. The state could stiffen penalties against the use of fraudulent information-gathering tactics, but the media’s freedom of speech lobby would quickly strangle this baby in its cradle. Only by supporting and encouraging the best in the media, can the public help keep the worst to a minimum.

* * * * *  If you’re a fan of trash talk, you doubtless enjoyed the televised debate broadcast during Ontario’s recent election campaign. This Springeresque spectacle, an exercise in democracy, amounted to little more than a shouting match between party leaders who continually interrupted and contradicted each other, called each other names, and bandied about rehearsed sound-bites and statistics. Between rounds viewers were treated to a series of glib questions flipped off by a panel of respected journalists.

Given that most voters live lives too hectic to bother with candidates’ meetings and party functions, television, with its wonderful in-home convenience, plays an unduly important role in determining where the electorate scrawls its collective X. This is bad enough. When you toss in the fact that political party operatives and TV executives are the ones that dictate – by bickering their way toward a consensus – what we plebes are allowed to watch, it’s downright terrifying.

If Canadians are at all interested in basing their votes on intelligent discussion, they should push their chief electoral officers to establish forums and structures on television that help instead of hinder them in the process.

Enough with the Jerry and Geraldo show already. Bring on Bill Buckley and his PBS Firing Line model.     

© Nigel Beale. May 24, 1999 No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the express written permission of the author.

A tale of two solitudes

 

Here’s a tale of two cities, two solitudes. Two games actually, or more accurately, the same game, but two markedly different ways of packaging it as entertainment.

About a month ago, within the span of a single week, I was blessed with the opportunity to witness not one, but two NHL hockey games. One in Ottawa, where the Sens took on the Leafs, the other in Montreal, where the Leafs met the Habs.

Considering that the on-ice product is virtually identical (all players wear jock straps, helmets and skates, dump the puck in a lot and use their sticks as sabres; all referees are blind), the difference between hockey night in Ottawa and hockey night in Montreal is surprisingly distinct. Not a best of times/worst of times kind of difference. Rather a subtle, hockey-centric versus Hollywood-centric one.

A not so subtle difference, however, is the venue. The positioning, if you will. In Ottawa, the Corel Centre sits, plunked down Brasilia-like, amid a farmer’s field some 20 minutes drive west of downtown. An unmistakable odour of cow patties and real estate transactions scent the surrounding air. The Corel Centre is a destination. Getting there is a pain in the ass.

Contrast this with Montreal’s new Molson Centre (The Keg). Three minutes, by my watch, to get from seat to street, another three to Crescent and Ste. Catherine and all the excitement money can buy.

Hockey night at the Corel Centre is non-stop, high energy entertainment. A high-decibel "Are you reaaadeeee," in-your-face speaker system serves up constant, fast-moving Gary Glitteresque tunes and exhorting, drum-piercing, sound effects. The videotron is busy with fast, funny big-screen movie cameos and film footage of Senators scoring goals and kicking butt. It’s thrilling, breathless, non-stop, whistle-to-whistle Hollywood excitement.

Down time is verboten. Every minute must be filled. Spontaneous fan involvement is frowned upon. Multimedia hand-clapping and noise-making signs call the shots here.

While there’s no denying that this high-voltage "entertainment" holds an appeal, it comes at the expense of the hockey game. An unwelcome intermediary that deadens the natural interplay between sport and spectator – diminishing the quality inter-whistle time that discerning fans need in order to contemplate and fully appreciate their game.

By following NHL HQ’s Disneyland, cookie-cutter plan, the Senators may well be attracting new audiences to their product, but in so doing they’re also alienating those purists who hunger for the natural sights and sounds of the game itself.

Montreal is a different story. There are a lot more kids and families at the game. There’s a festive, celebratory atmosphere. And when the real-life, traditional Quebecois fiddlers start playing and the nice old, grey-haired usher steps up to the camera and jigs his heart out, the crowd goes nuts. Singing and dancing abound. But all with the understanding that hockey is the central reason for the party. Rather than bludgeoning the natural mood of the audience, the technology in Montreal serves only to heighten and highlight it.

Although I hate the Montreal Canadiens with a passion, I do admire and salute the sensitive manner in which their management presents the product, and the way their fans celebrate, appreciate and enjoy it. Now if they can only kick that vulgar smoking habit.

© Nigel Beale. April 1999 No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the express written permission of the author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TVO shows CBC how it should be done

It happened innocently enough. Just another newscast. CBC news anchor Alison Smith, the best they’ve got, was interviewing this guy from some world policy institute about Kosovo.

Not your usual polished up, soundbite-spitting rent-a-pundit either. This guy had a nice stack of bed-head going. His delivery was refreshingly laboured and unrehearsed, his content serious, complex, intriguing, useful and highly appropriate given the context – very un-TV in other words. I was impressed. Television news worthy of a public broadcaster.

Then it happened. Just after world policy guy had made the first of a promised two-part observation on Russia’s involvement in the conflict – the second having been billed as the more important – Alison pulled the trigger. In less than two shakes of a black lamb’s tail we went from genocide to General Motors. She’d hung bed-head out to dry and served us up to the sponsors. Now granted, she did, to her credit, look a little sheepish about this boorish behaviour, but sheepish really doesn’t cut it here.

Commercial TV news has this magnificent capacity to trivialize the sacrosanct, one that leaves it devoid of any legitimate claim to seriousness. Today’s CBC television news cannot, sadly, be taken seriously either, thanks to its convoluted, contradictory mandate.

Canada’s 1968 Broadcast Act prescribes a broadcasting system controlled by Canadians that safeguards and strengthens our cultural, political, social and economic fabric, promotes unity, and provides entertaining, informative programming that caters to a wide range of audiences. The CBC’s impossible mandate simultaneously calls for:

- Promotion of a single, nebulous national identity and culture;

- Diverse, challenging programming that appeals to a wide variety of tastes; and

- Production of "popular" shows that Canadians will watch and advertisers will support.

Back in 1995, a splash of lucidity landed in the swamp of ignored prose that engulfs public broadcasting in Canada. "Making our Voices Heard," Pierre Juneau’s report on Broadcasting and Film for the 21st century, recommended that the CBC eliminate advertising from its schedule, and that Canada adopt the British broadcasting model.

Unlike Britain, which opted to invest in public non-commercial broadcasting in the early ’60s, Canada chose a hybrid route, freeing the CBC to augment its Parliamentary appropriation with advertising revenues, and coaxing the private sector to provide Canadian content. While lavishing praise on the CBC’s accomplishments, Juneau’s report concludes that the hybrid approach has failed miserably.

Mounting numbers of Alison-like incidents and the prevalence of celebrity news anchors/ reporters inclined to think themselves more important than the news they deliver (Jason Moscovitz and Hanna Gartner come immediately to mind) make it easy to agree with this assessment, at least when it comes to television news.

Like a good waiter, television newscasters and reporters should, ideally, appear invisible. Attentive but not imposing, helpful but not cloying, the best TV journalists are unobtrusive presenters who enhance the news viewing experience without getting in the way of it. The BBC has long set the standard in this regard. Hapless Canadian cable subscribers wouldn’t know this, of course, given that all they get are fleeting glimpses of this standard (via CBC Newsworld), their English-language channel selection being limited to a paltry 500 North American pseudo-options.

All is not wasteland however. There is a channel on this side of the pond that provides serious, and, as a result, valuable Canadian current affairs/news programming. It’s TVOntario, and the program is called Studio 2.

Free from the imperatives of attracting mass, lowest-common-denominator audiences, Studio 2 is easily the best prime-time news package currently available to television viewers in Ontario. Providing thoughtful, extended commentary and discussion with intelligence and style, Studio 2 stands as an impressive example of what the CBC might be able to offer Canadians if its mandate weren’t so screwed up.

© Nigel Beale. March 15, 1999 No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the express written permission of the author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No fear of boredom in Magic Kingdom

 

Passing strange that a trip to Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Fla. should bring on thoughts of boredom.

My fair five-year-old and I had just finished larking in the daily Main street parade with Mickey, Goofy, Snow White, Mary Poppins and all the other familiar pre-fabbed childhood icons, when my thoughts turned to Bertrand Russell and his book, "The Pursuit of Happiness."

In it, Russell pays homage to the enormous motivational power of boredom. Without it, little of greatness can be achieved.

Back in the good old days when men wore plants, ate rodents, courted woolly mammoths and routinely hacked each other to death, there was little time for boredom. Then came agriculture, domesticity and centuries of stultifying drudgery… along with an explosion in creativity: magnificent art, literature, architecture and technology. The two went hand in hand.

Thanks to "progress" (one of Walt Disney’s pet projects), we aren’t nearly as bored as our ancestors were. And yet, boredom is today feared as never before, like a plague, to be avoided at all costs, largely, if the success of Disney is any indication, through the "vigorous pursuit of excitement."

Russell sees this pursuit as addictive, exhausting and ultimately unfulfilling, one in which "continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure." Not that there’s anything wrong with the occasional excitement, it’s just that without the capacity to endure boredom, a happy life is not, according to Russell, easily attained. In suggesting that this capacity is one that should be acquired in childhood, he reminds parents of the innate need that children have to experience the slow ebbs and flows of terrestrial life. Illustrating this point with extraordinarily moving prose, he describes a two-year-old’s first walk in the country. "The season was winter, and everything was wet and muddy. To the adult eye there was nothing to cause delight, but in the boy there sprang up a strange ecstasy; he kneeled in the wet ground and put his face in the grass, and gave utterance to half-articulated cries of delight. The joy that he was experiencing was primitive, simple and massive. The organic need that was being satisfied is so profound that those in whom it is starved are seldom completely sane."

In conclusion, Mr. Russell tells us that a generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little people unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of people in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase. "A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live."

End of sermon. Now, if you can hear me, back to Disney.

I’m a fan of Russell’s. Much of what he says has value, particularly for those of us immersed in modern popular culture. It’s true: kids that OD on the Wonderful World of Disney don’t need to use their own imaginations, and as a result, aren’t as motivated to create their own independently joyful worlds. Perhaps Disney should be a place reserved only for creative geniuses: Go to Disney. Give your imagination a holiday!

Perhaps we should also leaven the dough a bit here. Disney can be magical. Sure it’s a copy of a copy of a copy. It’s a fake world, but boy they do a good job on the details. Cinderella‘s castle is as solid and well-made as many a medieval version I’ve seen (has to be, given the traffic). Its tile murals look pretty authentic. The heavy wooden tables in its restaurant would look right at home in any Princess’s dining room. The food? Absolutely delicious. The staff? Uniformly polite, friendly and helpful. The place is clean. The rides are exciting, the lineups, though lengthy at times, move relatively quickly and efficiently. The music, though repetitive and saccharin, is strangely uplifting. The activities (more than just stuffed animals and merry go rounds here: golf, sailing, dancing, stock car driving, theatre), brilliantly positioned to appeal to every market segment on the radar.

Conceptually, I’m with Russell. Learning to accept and endure boredom is an important key to a satisfying and happy life. Something must however be said for the odd burst of super-sensory, brain-numbing excitement. Not for what it offers in and of itself, but for the simple fact that it can be shared. The two days my daughter and I spent at Disney were wonderful. Yes it was fake, but not to a five-year-old. There are many years ahead for the "real" thing. In the mean time, we’ll have memories of a shared adventure that brought us closer together. She loved it. And if there’s one thing that beats boredom as a motivator, it’s love.

© Nigel Beale. 1999 No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the express written permission of the author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tim Hortons blends in with news programming

Some days teem with moments worth multiplying. Take Saturday, Dec. 19, 1998 for example. I’d just spent the previous evening Christmas-partying in Toronto with a group of clients/colleagues – showing them how real men dance, drink tequila and rap (with microphone) to salsa music.

 

After three hours of deeply refreshing, rem-filled sleep, I awoke mid-morning, successfully performed my ablutions, and hit the hotel restaurant for a belly-filling brunch. Then back to the room with the tv clicker, the Bills-Jets game, the impeachment vote, Baghdad bombing highlights and four luxurious hours (I’m the father of two under five) till the plane back to Ottawa. Now that’s an entertainment package. Suspense, farce and special effects, violence, pomp and patriotism. No down time. Enough simultaneous, ongoing inter-channel action to avoid having to watch even one commercial.

A variegated purée of lowest common denominator titillation, sports, politics, war and "news" all ride on the same plane. There is no difference on television.

Is television to blame for trivializing profoundly serious and life-threatening events? For the massive erosion of trust in institutional authority that has occurred during the past decade or so? For turning journalism into a mockery? For endemic cynicism? Many argue it is. But the answer is not so simple.

In his essay "Postmaterialist Values and the Erosion of Institutional Authority" (Why People Don’t Trust Government, Harvard University Press, 1997) Ronald Inglehart reports that by 1993 the American public’s confidence in Congress, the press, television, education, and organized religion had fallen to its lowest levels since 1974 when data was first recorded. His thesis: prosperity is to blame.

When people feel secure, it reduces their tendency to defer to authority. When they feel insecure, they seek and idealize strong, authoritarian leaders. Once people start taking physical survival for granted – through higher incomes, better education and improved occupational status – they start reporting lower levels of subjective well being. They become increasingly critical of their political leaders, and increasingly engaged in elite-challenging activities.

Contrary to the widely held belief that Americans have become apathetic and disengaged from politics, Inglehart suggests that they are now more likely to discuss politics, more likely to sign petitions, participate in boycotts, join issues-oriented groups and engage in other "noninstitutionalized"[read: non-party] forms of political activism.

Gary Orren, writing in the same book, sees denunciation of government by political leaders and the media as a troubling sign of the times.

"Government bashing has become a powerful stream of dissatisfaction in its own right…it is now a dependable and constant feature of the contemporary political culture." Politicians attack each other now with even more venom than they unleash at the institution of government. In the process, they alienate the public and erase their own credibility.

It’s hard to know which deepens public distrust more, says Orren, the "demarketing" of government by political leaders or the defaming of government by the new, secure, jaundiced media.

As coverage has turned from critical to condescending to contemptuous, leaders have increasingly been presented as duplicitous and self-serving. With shrinking amounts of unpaid time and space devoted to their own words, these leaders have little defence against this unflattering portrayal. As Orren puts it, "The media have fed the cynicism of an already cynical public…not only does the media intrude more deeply into the private lives of political leaders, but it shines its spotlight more brightly on their conflicts than on the actions and institutions of government…Even when reporters and producers try to emphasize substance over personality, it is the appearance and demeanor of the person on the screen that grips the audience."

Orren quotes respected social scientist Hanna Arendt as saying, "The screen brings into view those imponderables of character and personality which make us decide, not whether we agree or disagree with somebody, but whether we can trust him."

So how does a God-fearing, law-abiding advertiser stand out in this sorrowful, brain-dead, emotion-laced quagmire? I quite like what Tim Horton Donuts is doing. They’ve taken all the right human interest ingredients – war, patriotism, family, community – mixed them together in a sentimental narrative (young Canadian soldier writing home telling wife what he misses) that looks like the news, and played it on The National. It escapes the zapper precisely because it doesn’t stand out. It uses the same successful formula that television producers use to capture and engage their audiences. Bravo!

© Nigel Beale. January 4, 1999 No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the express written permission of the author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Polling needs support of media analysis

 

While comparisons may well be odious, they’re essential in the communications business. Without a reasonably accurate benchmark to compare against, the impact of PR, for example, is pretty difficult to measure.

 

Question is, how to come up with a valid assessment of the public opinion environment – a quantifiable handle on the status quo? Most in the biz, if they use anything, use polling. Yes, the same polling that now enjoys a reported 70% rejection rate from potential respondents. For the record, my patented tele-pollster response is a two-pronged, pecuniary one: 1) Who’s paying for this? 2) How much are you paying me?

The first question usually draws a blank, the second, frequently accompanied by nervous laughter, is "nothing". The conversation generally ends abruptly here.

As unfortunate as this may sound, today’s polling samples – thanks to the aforementioned rejection rates – are composed largely of losers: freewheeling folk who’ve nothing better to do than waste time on the telephone. They’re either flattered to be asked for their opinions, or too simple or lonely to be bothered by the exploitative nature of what’s going on.

The polled are, in short, people without lives.

But enough. I come here not to bury polling, but to praise the benefits of legitimate research. Despite its many deficiencies (biased questions, dishonest respondents, data collection errors, lack of accreditation, etc.), polling should not be entirely dismissed. Any tool that helps shine a light into the dark recesses of the mass mind is to be valued, at least by those whose goal it is to manipulate.

What surprises me, however, is the extent to which polling dominates the public opinion assessment and communications measurement business.

Heavy, often complete, reliance on such a fallible evaluation tool is simply poor research practice.

In order to establish valid benchmarks against which change can legitimately be measured, you need to pursue more than one line of evidence. Arriving at similar conclusions by using different, or at least independent, methods of getting there, provides researchers with a much higher degree of confidence. You’ll recall several years ago that "Cold Fusion" just didn’t cut the mustard in this regard. Communications strategies based solely on polling are, in my opinion, cold fusion.

True media content analysis is the best method that I know of to validate the conclusions of polling. As a public environment assessment tool however, it still goes largely ignored, dismissed as a luxury used only if there’s money left over after the fact. This is foolhardy.

Whenever polling is conducted, independent media content analysis should be along for the ride. In addition to its verification role, careful examination of media coverage renders valuable, measurable detail that polling simply can’t deliver. Content analysis can be used to develop, among other things: a comprehensive, prioritized list of issues and stakeholder groups that define a specific public opinion environment (something that pollsters themselves could use in framing their questions); benchmarks on the degree to which client messages, and the messages of competing and/or complementary interests, are getting through; and objective profiles of the issues and sources that journalists and different types of media tend to rely most upon.

Media analysis is a powerful, underutilized communications research and resource allocation tool. You want to proceed with confidence in your communications efforts, use it.

© Nigel Beale. November 23, 1998 No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the express written permission of the author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Public good offers media convenient rhetorical flag

 

…and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave…

- Book Seven, Plato’s Republic

What’s with all the flak the hacks have been giving the flacks lately? During the past two weeks, The Globe and Mail, Report on Business Magazine and the cbc have all blindsided the pr business with exactly the kind of damaging smear jobs that send so many vulnerable souls scurrying for professional cover.

Guy Crittenden, in an article entitled "Flack Attack," (Globe and Mail, Oct. 31), writes of the frightening influence of pr. He accuses practitioners of threatening democracy by "flagrantly manipulating the 4th Estate… diminishing its [the media's] credibility as the public forum for democratic discourse," using, he implies, deceptive, unethical, "cloak and dagger" tactics to forward their clients’ unsavory interests.

Using the same trowel, Jared Mitchell, in the November issue of Report on Business Magazine, contradicts his confrere, stripping practitioners of their influence, painting them as inconsequential gutter-dwelling liars, "disregarded, downsized and locked out of the corner offices…dismissed by senior executives, mocked by the media and distrusted by the public."

Unlike the articles, "Truth Merchants," a cbc documentary aired last week, does allow some pr practitioners time to defend their trade, however, the lasting impression, typical of tv, is emotional: pr is one sinister, grainy, murky, nasty, evil, scummy business, man. Definitely conspiratorial.

As for the wide-eyed media, Crittenden writes, "Pity the poor journalist anxious to report both sides of a story who unsuspectingly interviews doctors, scientists and other experts who are secretly on corporate payrolls."

It’s all a might rich for me, this holier-than-thou, pot-calling-the-kettle-black business. One that screams out for objective treatment from a higher wisdom. Perhaps the best answer for these pitiably confused, cave-dwelling hacks arrives in the form of a simple civics primer.

In an ideal state, those who govern have an innate, absolute knowledge of what constitutes real truth and justice, and they act accordingly. As a result, everyone is happy, confident they’re being treated fairly. Since there is no mechanism, short of force, to ensure this kind of government, we are left with the least-worst alternative: democracy.

Here, there are no absolutes, only compromises. The greatest happiness for the greatest numbers, with safeguards thrown in to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority. The people interfere only once every four or five years or so when elections are held. The goal is to influence public opinion to ensure victory at the polls. The most efficient way to do this is through the media.

Walter Lippmann suggested, about 75 years ago in his book Public Opinion, that it wasn’t enough to see the media as shapers of public opinion. Leaders must formulate how the media itself would cover a given issue.

"Public opinions must be organized for the press if they are to be sound, not by the press as is the case today," he wrote.

For Lippmann, political science is the science of framing public opinion for the media. Its primary aim: perception management.

In an ideal state, the media has an innate, absolute knowledge of what constitutes real truth and justice, and they report accordingly. There is no need for spin doctors and pr people. Everyone gets a fair shake. There is only one truth, objectivity is guaranteed.

Since there is no mechanism, short of force, to ensure this kind of media, we are left with the least-worst alternative: freedom of the press. Here, there are no absolutes, only compromises. The greatest revenues for the greatest number of shareholders, with safeguards for minorities thrown in to protect against the tyranny of the owners. The people interfere only once a year or so when annual meetings are held.

Put another way, journalists answer only, in no particular order, to libel suits, their own consciences, profit-oriented management and a very limited number of state regulations.

The true public good, while offering the media a wonderful rhetorical flag within which to wrap its self-interested positions, plays but a minor role in determining what is actually written and reported upon. To position the media as lily-white objective defenders of democracy, fighting off hordes of powerful, unethical information manipulators, is deceptive and hypocritical. Finger pointing and wallowing cynically in the belief that everyone’s a liar serves no good public purpose.

Democracy is about debate. Debate is about marshaling credible information and making convincing arguments. Unlike advertising, effective pr doesn’t require huge sums of money. Rather democratic, in that sense, I’d say.

© Nigel Beale 1998 No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the express written permission of the author.



 

 

Clinton saga an epic of style over substance

 

There’s nothing quite like a little comparative historical analysis to illuminate and edify. So, in order to better understand media coverage of recent White House woes, it’s instructive to trip back some 3,000 years to the scene of a foreboding Trojan tryst.

A young buck named Paris, son of the King of Troy, showing colossally poor judgment, gets it on with Helen, the wife of Meneloas, a Greek prince from Sparta. The two consenting adulterers then high tail it back to Troy. All hell breaks loose as Meneloas’ older bro, Agammemnon, leads a bunch of his Greek prince buddies and thousands of their noble soldiers in a raid on Troy to retrieve their booty – Helen. It takes 10 years and thousands of lives.

The story, after much telling and toil is preserved for us in the Illiad by Homer, and/or an amalgam of unknown poets. It revolves around Achilles, the great though imperfect Greek warrior. Throughout most of the action he sits pouting in his tent, pissed with Agammemnon for moving in on his sweet slave-mistress, Briseis. Finally, after oceans of bloodshed, and the death of a close buddy, Achilles storms out, kicks butt, vanquishes Troy and gets killed.

All this carnage thanks to sex. Trivialities, small jealousies and treachery. What survives, however, is something quite different; quite magnificent. In spinning their story, Homer and the poets downplay the sex. It’s not about sex. They transcend the tawdry. As a result, we are left with what is commonly acknowledged to be the greatest, most influential epic poem our civilization has ever produced. It is a relentlessly gruesome, tragic tale of warfare and the follies and foibles of men and Gods. Thousands of brave mortals dragged in the dust, heroically slaughtering each other, while the Gods play them like pawns, engaging in petty games of debauchery and deception. Men, in spite of their weaknesses, are depicted as noble creatures, constantly struggling courageously in the face of frightful mysteries – powerful uninvited emotions and urges – that are visited upon them unexpectedly.

The epic form, as epitomized by the Iliad, possesses a number of typical characteristics: a long narrative presenting adventures on a grand scale; objective treatment of one major theme or action that is organically united through a central figure of heroic proportions; intense, magnified life and death issues that have a transforming impact on individuals and nations; action that frequently starts off in medias res (in mid-stream), but ends conclusively; episodic, cyclical (rout and rally) patterns where repetition is all pervasive, verse is noble and style often exaggerated. The earliest epics were usually formed from the collective works of various unknown poets.

Fast forward to our own heroic times, where Democratic prince Bill, who likes to flex his presidential muscle – on and off the court – shows colossal poor judgment, by engaging in cigar-centred sex games with young, Republican(?) princess Monica.

Starr Republican warrior Kenneth, pissed that he can’t fell Bill on the battlefield, goes to the Gods, submerges himself in dirt, and counter-attacks with thousands of paper slings rife with trivialities, small jealousies and treachery.

Today’s largely unknown tv producer/poets, looking through the wrong end of the telescope, fixate on the slings. Adopting the epic style, without the substance, they present a grippingly superficial human narrative that drags on for months: where the blow job theme is organically united through a central figure of heroic proportions; where groping is painted in grandiose, nation-threatening strokes; the story line is episodic (rout and rally) and cyclical (first Gennifer, then Paula, then Monica); repetition is all pervasive (how many times have we seen them hugging in the Rose garden), presentation is noble, and content is exaggerated (expectations of really good dirt in Starr’s "lurid" report went hugely unfulfilled). What we are left with is mock epic without the satirical intent.

The requirement for climactic closure (resignation, impeachment, death, abject apologies with tears and humility) guarantees that producers will do everything to ensure such an ending. Had Clinton been aware of this, had he delivered a dramatic finale on Aug. 17, the saga would now be complete. Instead, producer-prompted pundits, in their zeal to prolong the drama, interpreted the scene as just another episode.

It’s not about poking fun at the ludicrousness of the situation. It’s not about creating anything of lasting value, and it’s not about better understanding and appreciating the human condition. It’s about going with the sure-fire storytelling technique to attract and captivate an audience, and, more importantly, it’s about economics. To paraphrase John Cassidy in a recent New Yorker article: once the big money has been spent on packaging and producing, extra programming can be cranked out at little cost, so prices tend to fall as output increases. The only additional required inputs are an attractive face to read the stories, some film footage to illustrate them, and an assortment of pundits to discuss them. Viewers who have invested the time to learn the minute details are understandably reluctant to move on to new learning curves.

Here’s what literary critic Northrop Frye had to say about the whole situation: "It is hardly possible to overestimate the importance for Western Literature of the Iliad’s demonstration that the fall of an enemy, no less than of a friend or leader, is tragic and not comic. With the Iliad, once for all, an objective and disinterested element enters into the poet’s vision of human life. Without this element, poetry is merely instrumental to various social aims, to propaganda, to amusement, to devotion, to instruction: with it, it acquires the authority that since the Iliad it has never lost, an authority based, like the authority of science, on the vision of nature as an impersonal order."

Television journalism has no authority.

© Nigel Beale. 1998 No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the express written permission of the author.

 

PR creates universe but advertising rules waves

 

"Get the facts first. You can distort them later."

- Mark Twain

What with the great spate of "media" movies on screen lately – Wag the Dog, Mad City, The Truman Show, L.A. Confidential, the current Bond flick – you’d think that manufacturing "news" was a recent phenomenon. Of course, it isn’t.

Media manipulation has been practised professionally, to brilliant effect, since the dawn of our soon-to-be-spent century. The only difference between now and then is that today’s millennium-bound publics are a little less gullible than their predecessors, and, thanks to technology, public- and media-relations people now have more sophisticated, mind-bending tools with which to deliver, analyse and warp reality. Aside from this, little is new.

In his thorough, somewhat pejorative P.R. A Social History of Spin, (Basic Books, 1996), Stuart Ewen discusses the key role that pr has played in the battle between American business and government for the mantle of true custodian of the common good. Starting in pre-First World War America, Ewen describes the ground-breaking tactics used by both sides through the Roaring ’20s, the 1929 stock market crash, the Depression and fdr’s New Deal, the Second World War, McCarthyism and beyond. He traces the roots of public relations back to, among others, Edward L. Bernays, one of the field’s most influential pioneers, "a person whose biography…left a deep mark on the configuration of our world."

For Bernays, who was born in Vienna in 1891, the double nephew of Sigmund Freud, public relations involved more than merely disseminating snappy press releases and pretty pictures. Its goals were far more ambitious: to fashion and project "credible renditions of reality itself." He defined public relations as the science of "creating circumstances," mounting events that are calculated to stand out as genuine, unstaged and "newsworthy."

According to Ewen, Bernays was the architect of modern propaganda, who, from the 1910s onward, successfully married theories of mass psychology with real-world techniques of corporate and political persuasion. During the First World War, Bernays worked with the U.S. Committee on Public Information (cpi) to package, advertise and sell the war as one that would "Make the World Safe for Democracy." cpi strategies have served as the model upon which all subsequent war marketing efforts have been based.

In the 1920s Bernays pioneered social marketing. For example, while working for the American Tobacco Company he persuaded women’s rights marchers in New York to hold up Lucky Strike cigarettes as symbolic "Torches of Freedom." He also put together the world’s first global media event, "Light’s Golden Jubilee," a world-wide celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the electric light bulb, sponsored, behind the scenes, by General Electric.

Sharing Bernays’ Platonic view that America was best ruled by a highly educated class of opinion molders who constantly, as Ewen rather melodramatically puts it, "monitor and analyse the social terrain…adjusting the mental scenery from which the public mind, with its limited intellect, derives its opinions," was journalist and Progressive intellectual Walter Lippmann.

In Public Opinion (published in 1922), and other works, Lippmann described how leaders in a democracy could best govern without the impediment of an active or participatory public. His answer: to manufacture consent through the use of symbols, because symbols were capable of short-circuiting the inconvenience posed by critical reason and pubic discussion.

With the world of the 1920s getting more and more complex, people’s ability to understand their universe became less and less grounded in personal experience. Lippmann argued that mass-mediated words and pictures increasingly informed ordinary behavior, that public opinion was a largely irrational force, and that people understood their reality thanks to an invisible "fortress" held together by a given culture’s repertoire of stereotypes.

The prescient Lippmann figured that if patterns of perception, commonly held ways of seeing things and experiencing reality – common fictions – could be identified and understood, then so too could persuasive "pseudo-environments" be engineered, symbols co-opted, and publics governed.

Based on this thinking, Lippmann suggested that it wasn’t enough to see the press as shapers of public opinion. Leaders, and their factotums, must formulate how the press itself would cover a given issue.

"Public opinions must be organized for the press if they are to be sound, not by the press as is the case today," he wrote.

For Lippmann, political science was the science of framing public opinion for the press. Its primary aim would be perception management.

Fast forward seventy-five-odd years to the movie Wag the Dog, where presidential factotum Robert De Niro hires old buddy movie mogul/ producer Dustin Hoffman to create a pseudo-war with Albania to successfully deflect media heat from, what else: a nation-threatening presidential peccadillo.

A running gag throughout the film has a disgusted Hoffman sneering at a series of mindless, ultimately useless, little presidential television ads, while he creates a universe that saves the presidency. The point is valid.

Huge sums of money are spent on advertising. In part because it works, but largely because of the great pr job that the media and ad agencies have done to convince advertisers of its value.

Advertising is enormously profitable. Without it, the media doesn’t exist. Ads are relatively easy to create (not much content involved), and it’s very easy to spend and collect money placing them.

Perhaps this explains why, although pr can create a universe, when it comes to dollars, advertising rules the waves.

© Nigel Beale. 1998 No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the express written permission of the author.

 

Cultural institutions edging toward mediocrity

Call me a crusty old reactionary fart, but I’m concerned. CBC Stereo, the Stratford Festival, and The Globe and Mail. Three staples for the cultured Canadian mind. Distinctive sounds, styles and divertissements for those who count, those with dough to throw, those with a taste for luxury, those of the desirous demographic that buy quality, not price.

Yes, you’d think that these staples would know what a great thing they’ve got going and stick with it. Maintain a distance from the rabble. Distinguish themselves. Offer a pure, dependably enlightened alternative. But no. Thanks to that bugaboo competition, these three formidable institutions are now edging out, in varying degrees, onto the slope that lands in mainstream mediocrity. All in the name of market share. All at the risk of alienating the faithful.

A recent article in The Economist summed up the issue perfectly. In comparing today’s news with that of 100 years ago, the article, entitled "Here is the News", contends that the newspapers which used to be full of politics and economics are now "thick with stars and sports."

Market competition is held responsible. Today’s news is moving away from foreign affairs toward domestic concerns; away from politics toward human interest stories; away from issues to people.

The article rather curiously argues that this "dumbing down" may not necessarily be all that bad. For those who want it, specialist information, foreign newspapers, and serious domestic journals are more readily available than ever before. So what if there’s a shift in focus by mainstream media away from government and bureaucrats toward companies and how they affect people? So what if there’s less foreign coverage? People seem, at least according to an Economist-commissioned poll, to be as "clued-up" about world affairs as ever.

"Remember", the piece concludes, "that dumb is not necessarily stupid, and news that entertains may also be news that informs." But before signing off, this: "And if all else fails, we need hardly add, there’s always The Economist." In one dandy little sentence, the entire straw man of a dumber-ain’t-so-bad-argument is kicked ass over tea kettle.

There’s always The Economist.

Will there always be a CBC Stereo, a Globe and Mail and a Stratford? Perhaps, but there’s some annoying, market-driven tinkering going on here that does not bode well. Giving the people what it is perceived they want, instead of sticking to an uncompromised ideal, may yield short-term profits, but long-term it’s bad for business. Catering to all satisfies none.

CBC Stereo (currently dubbed Radio 2), in an evident move to attract a broader audience, now has its commentators tag everything they say with "classics and beyond." Instead of concentrating on riveting, relevant details about the life and times of composers and musicians, announcers now expend inordinate amounts of air pumping upcoming shows, and boosting each other’s profiles. What was once the only calm "brand-free" harbor on an otherwise choppy radio dial, now sports an irritating, albeit thin, patina of commercialism and hype.

Classical theatre at Stratford is also threatened because of a drive for numbers. Difficult Shakespearean plays are being dropped. And, as Ray Conlogue, arts reporter for the Globe and Mail, writes in a recent article, "The ones they still do are flossy and dumbed down, the comedies played for laughs and the tragedies for melodrama. To anyone who went to the Stratford Festival in its late 1970s heyday, when hard research into movement and speech made the old plays blossom like orchids, 1998 is a rough awakening."

Ideological capitalism, neo-conservative attacks on government-subsidized art, naive hopes that the cultivated public would expand if exposed to enough great art, and pressure to prove "relevance" through growth, are all cited by Conlogue as reasons for Stratford’s now-diluted product. Its current tv spot for Man of La Mancha, with that comely television wench Cynthia Dale, looks more like something from Phantom of the Opera than from a serious theatrical company.

This move to broaden appeal could arguably be justified on the grounds that, without profitable popularized shows, funding for serious, textually faithful productions, and training, would not exist. The problem is, that serious textually faithful productions, and training of substance, are nowhere to be found.

Serious stuff is not, however, in short supply at The Globe and Mail.

Serious changes at any rate. The Globe and Mail is now brought to us in glorious technicolor. The official reason, according to publisher Roger Parkinson, is to complement and strengthen an already improved news storytelling capability. Despite the coincidental timing (just prior to the arrival of Conrad’s new national daily), introduction of color was, says Parkinson, planned years ago as part of a larger enhancement process.

According to Ali Rahnema, the Globe’s director of communications and public affairs, color, judiciously applied, can enhance a news story, offering the reader more accuracy and truth. I can buy into the benefits of using color on info-graphics and weather maps. However, I couldn’t give a desert donkey’s derriere about what colour shirt the ceo de jour is wearing. In fact, color photos, regardless of their capacity to convey greater truth, are distracting. I read the Globe, which at this point remains the best paper in the country, for its content, not for pretty pictures.

On the dirty business of ad revenue: prior to this colorful Globe development, advertisers had the hues all to themselves. Now they don’t. Color editorial detracts from advertising’s distinctiveness, lessening its impact. Globe ad sales reps must, if they’ve thought of it, be mourning the loss of this valuable "distinctive" usp. Media relations practitioners must, on the other hand, be rejoicing.

Once real, as opposed to phantom, competition arrives – and readers are aggressively wooed and wowed – it will be interesting to see just how distinctive the Globe itself remains.

Again, at the fear of sounding like Mr. Antediluvian, the short message for staples on the go is to approach change very carefully. Handle it like dynamite. Use its power sparingly and be deeply respectful of its destructive potential. Do everything you can to know, hold and entrance your core audience. Bastardize the best at your peril.

© Nigel Beale. 1998 No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the express written permission of the author.



Picasso exhibit offers lesson in creativity

You don’t have to be a jerk to be a great artist, but it helps. Just ask the women in Pablo Picasso’s life, they’ll tell you.

This prodigiously "egotesticle" Spaniard clearly thrived on chaos, laying waste to the emotional lives of many, wringing the most out of imagination and experience. Whatever the source, whatever his character, Picasso, for sheer energy and inventiveness, possessed an unsurpassed artistic genius. No artist has been more fecund, or more influential.

Strategy readers searching to understand creativity would do well to study his life and work carefully. They’d learn, for example, that it’s not about searching. It’s about finding. Or as Picasso put it:

"In my opinion, to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing. Nobody is interested in following a man who, with his eyes fixed on the ground, spends his life looking for the pocketbook that fortune should put in his path. The one who finds something, no matter what it might be, even if his intention were not to search for it, at least arouses our curiosity, if not our admiration.

"Among the several sins that I have been accused of committing, none is more false than the one that I have, as the principal objective in my work, the spirit of research. When I paint, my object is to show what I have found and not what I am looking for."

This reinforces my impression, arrived at during a recent gambol through the Picasso exhibit, "Masterworks from the Museum of Modern Art," currently on display at the National Gallery of Canada, that, in many cases, Picasso didn’t know what he would end up with. He was a doodler.

Much of his work exudes a palpable sense of exploration; of humorous, irreverent surprise; of discovery and unbound joy. His life was characterized by the need for new. By a craving to innovate and revolutionize. By ferocious ambition.

Perhaps his was an unloved, attention-starved childhood. I haven’t read much about his early life, but it could, I think, be usefully mined for insight into creativity.

As psychiatrist and author Anthony Storr has put it: "I believe [creativity is] motivated by a ‘divine discontent’, which is part of man’s biological endowment. Mystery and disorder spur man to discovery, to the creation of new hypotheses which bring order and pattern to the maze of phenomena. But mystery and disorder pertain to our own natures as well as to the external world."

Maybe it pays to have a dysfunctional family life.

Astonishingly energetic and inventive, Picasso was trained in Barcelona before establishing a precocious reputation for himself in Paris between 1900 and 1906. The only constant in his career was change. Radical change.

He broke every rule, borrowed and adapted from obscure, primitive far-flung predecessors, played around with lighting, perspective, viewpoint, color, and form.

He looked at the same object in hundreds of different ways. He built and bounced off others, created works from and with every medium known to humankind, stuck extraneous objects to pictures, and turned pedestrian, inanimate, found objects (auto parts, broken pottery, baskets) into exuberant, charming, life-affirming sculptures (She-Goat, 1950). He defined and mastered multimedia before the term even existed.

Not surprisingly, women loom large in his work, much of which is charged with a playful sexuality. Eyes, noses and breasts pop up in all sorts of unusual and entertaining places. Of those external events that affected Picasso’s titanic imagination, war, notably the Spanish Civil War, had the most profound impact. It’s hard not to draw parallels between the cluttered chaos and carnage found on battlefield and canvas.

One of Picasso’s most famous paintings, Guernica, depicts the destruction, by German warplanes, of a historic Basque town of the same name, in Northern Spain. His simple, graceful, tender doves are among the most moving images I’ve ever seen. A testament to his deeply held anti-war sentiments.

How then to contain and present such creative genius? Ellen Treciokas, a senior designer at the National Gallery, helped illuminate this mystery for me as we passed through Masterworks from the Museum of Modern Art together.

Strolling up the ramp to the Great Hall we were greeted by brilliant red and yellow banners hanging from on high. Adorned with Picasso’s bold, emphatic, confident signature, they are, according to Ellen, designed to convey the heat, energy and passion of artist and origin. The contrast with the Gallery’s cold stone interior is particularly stark. Thanks to early knowledge of Midland Walwyn’s sponsorship of the exhibit, the company’s striking blue logo (yes, it’s a "blue period"), is prominently yet tastefully integrated into the external primary color scheme.

Inside, the approach is simple: get out of the way of the work. As you move through the exhibit, wall colors change subtly from dark to light grey, reinforcing a progression through time. Subdued, yet sympathic, context is very much in the background.

Creativity, while often tempestuous and difficult, deserves respect.

Picasso may have been a jerk, but his work stands as a towering monument to unfettered creative genius. The National Gallery, as it does with so many exhibits, has presented Picasso with impeccable taste and good judgment.

It’s hard not to be bullish.

© Nigel Beale. 1998 No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the express written permission of the author.

 

 

PICKING ON DON CHERRY

 

This column was to have been about Picasso. A discussion of inventiveness and energy, highlighted by subtle references to Kandinsky’s theory of color, crowned with a conclusive statement about the influences of early childhood and world events on creativity.

Pablo, however, must wait. Something much more profound has skated onto the radar.

Alan Fotheringham has joined Jeffrey Simpson among the ranks of the self-righteous who lay everything that is wrong with the game of hockey at the feet of Don Cherry. His attack in the April 25 issue of the Ottawa Sun is ill-conceived, defamatory and bush league.

Fotheringham’s blind side starts off by moaning about Wayne Gretzky being the only North American in the top five scorers in the NHL.

"That," the syntactically challenged scribe notes, "tells you all you want to know about what has happened to the game we think we invented and is now under the sway of such intellectuals as Don Cherry."

In addition to calling Cherry a "blue collar…minor league goof," Fotheringham portrays him as a racist, drawing parallels with television character Archie Bunker and former British Conservative MP and bigot Enoch Powell.

Cherry is accused of opportunistically criticizing Quebec athletes at the Nagano Olympics, and making a fortune off "videos of hockey thugs regularly smashing each other in the teeth." Finally, saving his dirtiest play for last, Fotheringham insinuates that Cherry is to blame for the serious concussion Anaheim Mighty Duck star Paul Kariya suffered as a result of a post-goal high stick from Gary Suter.

Following in the footsteps of Jeffrey Simpson (who recently parroted what Lord Kenneth Thompson of the Globe and Mail wrote some months ago on the same topic), the sycophantic Fotheringham concludes: "This is….the Don Cherrification of the game ‘we’ love. Which is why four of the top players in the game come from somewhere else across an ocean."

Here, from what I have been able to glean over many years of watching Cherry perform, is a summary of the message I have heard him deliver: The NHL, due to a variety of factors including: a draconian (to use a popular media word) crackdown on fighting, the introduction of visors and face masks, and an influx of international players, has experienced over the past several years a notable, unwelcomed, increase in illegal stick work. The incidence of serious injuries has risen as a result.

To suggest that Cherry’s version of the game resulted in Kariya’s injury is a cheap shot. The player was hit in the head with a stick: one of the very infractions that Cherry has been arguing so vociferously against for so many years. To suggest that Cherry criticized Quebec athletes (too many Canadian flags) at Nagano to get attention and "help his future income" is laughably hypocritical coming from one who attacks an icon he knows is revered by many of his newspaper’s readers.

And finally, to suggest that Don Cherry runs the NHL is proof that Fotheringham is little more than a clueless dilettante when it comes to hockey, floundering in waters beyond his depth. The league is run by New York lawyers. The Foth’s brand of etymological thuggery should be banned from the game. Let him save this gutless, dirty play for what he knows best: politics.

If Don Cherry’s amusing, tongue-in-check bravado is lost on the pompous, that’s their problem.

I’ve never heard Cherry promote the kind of clutch-and-grab thuggery and intimidation that Fotheringham would have him advocate. On the contrary, Cherry’s position, if I read it correctly, is that the NHL should aspire to providing good, solid, fast physical play – without the dangerous stick work that is now so prevalent. If the occasional fist fight happens to break out, so be it.

This way of settling grudges is fair and honorable, unlike the vicious, stick-wielding tactics we now witness.

Pulling Cherry off the CBC, which seems to be on the agenda here, would be a big mistake. His flamboyant, insightful, and hugely entertaining commentary is one of the few things that color up an otherwise drab Hockey Night in Canada intermission. His enthusiasm for the game is palpable, and his gibes at Europeans provocative. He is less a xenophobe than a Canada-phile. His love of Canadian players is infectious.

Are this country’s players slipping because of an insidious, Cherry-led goon conspiracy in the aspiring leagues? Of course not. Our players collectively are more talented and skilled than they have ever been. The fact that fewer happen to be among the leading NHL scorers, and that we happened to have barely missed a berth in the Olympic gold medal match (without two of our best) does not justify the kind of vitriol and half-truths that Fotheringham and others are now spewing.

I don’t know what game Simpson and Fotheringham love, but I love the one that Don Cherry loves, and so, I suspect, based on the popularity of Coach’s Corner, do millions of other Canadians.

© Nigel Beale. 1998 No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the express written permission of the author.

 

 

 

On fat-free labeling, Oprah and the Olympics

 

I’ll never forget how, about 15 years ago, a university buddy of mine rolled down his window, stuck his head out, inhaled deeply and bellowed, "Now that’s air," as we cruised over the 1000 Islands Bridge into the usa. It is in this spirit that I head south annually to imbibe in, and reflect upon, all things American, for you, the most sophisticated of Strategy readers.

Fat-free labeling, Bill Clinton’s pec… cadillos, Oprah in cattle country, and the Olympics highlight this year’s experience.

*****

How is it that when virtually every single food item on American supermarket shelves is labeled "Low Fat," or "Fat Free," obesity runs rampant throughout the population?

The food marketing folks must have figured out that Americans have a weight problem. What better way to move product than to call it fat free – a great shopper magnet tag that hits consumers right where it hurts: in the Achilles heel.

Another trend in food flogging: portion inflation. There’s no such size as small any more – and it’s so cheap to go from large to Jumbo.

Another: Eating as recreation.

*****

Throw a State of the Union Address, a social policy document, or a report on international poverty up for serious public debate and the media yawns. But let a faint whiff of sex escape into the ether, and they go ape shit, quickly reverting back to their vaudevillian, political-puff-sheet origins.

The carnival coverage that Clinton’s dalliances are receiving is further evidence of the tabloidization of mainstream media.

The story here is not that Clinton has a robust libido, and likes to have sex with young consenting adults. It’s that the American public, according to the polls, has rejected as irrelevant what the media unanimously considers important, serious news.

*****

Cows may be stupid. But cattlemen aren’t. They happen to be among the most astute communications strategists in the world. One reason is that they have been using in-depth media analysis to understand the public environment in which their issues play for much of the past decade.

While Oprah may have won her court case, the cattlemen also won. They knew that they would have about as much luck fighting freedom of speech in a u.s. courtroom as Ken Starr is having at proving that Bill and Monica had sex in the Oval office.

Their decision to launch the Oprah suit had little to do with winning a legal case. It had to do with communications. In taking on a high-profile, respected entertainer, they got two things: extensive publicity for their legitimate contention that beef is safe and doesn’t cause mad-cow disease, and credit for articulating a widely held belief that responsibility must accompany the freedom-of-speech birthright that is so vehemently defended by the media.

Through strategic use of the judicial system, the cattlemen got their message across to vast audiences with clarity and credibility, and they did so without having to blow millions on advertising.

*****

Speaking of ads: the best thing about u.s. coverage of the Olympics was the advertising. Three or four memorable spots conveyed at least one of the following crucial ingredients: humor, drama, spirit, novelty and humanity. They all benefited from something I imagine many ad agency and television execs would recommend against: a limited number of airings.

I won’t bore you with descriptions of each, but the most impressive of the lot does bear discussion. Filmed in a grainy, fast-moving, documentary style, featuring shots of the Sarajevo Olympic stadium that now serves as a cemetery, this John Hancock Insurance spot is at once relevant, gripping and moving. It draws attention to the plight and spirit of the people of Sarajevo, asking viewers to call 1-800-357-KIDS to support efforts to rebuild the city that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympic Games.

"As an Olympic sponsor, we have two goals: First, to use the rings to help meet our marketing objectives, and second, to use the rings to reinforce those values that make the Olympic movement and spirit so important and compelling – integrity, strength, perseverance, and dedication," says David D’Alessandro, president and ceo, on the company’s easy-to-navigate Web site. "We recognize as a corporate sponsor that no one tv advertisement can solve the problems of Sarajevo. But if we can help, in even a modest way, to rebuild some sense of community and hope, we think it is an important contribution to make."

He continues: "The proceeds from this ad will go directly to the American Refugee Committee’s existing effort to create outdoor and recreational opportunities where children and parents of all religions can meet, play and enjoy the kind of activities that we take for granted, but which have been missing in Sarajevo since the war began."

This wonderful ad reflects extremely well on John Hancock. More companies should be using advertising to tell their customers about the things they think are important. Just look how well ethical mutual funds are doing these days.

© Nigel Beale. 1998 No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the express written permission of the author.

 

 

 

 

Phony grassroots efforts hoodwink the public

 

It’s called "fake grassroots marketing" in Toronto; "astroturf lobbying" in Ottawa. And it’s being practised by everyone from hip-hop street teams to uptown lobbyists.

While not exactly the new phenomenon that some in the self-ordained enlightened press are calling it, fake grassroots campaigns do seem today to be enjoying a renewed popularity, particularly in the United States. (In fact, Campaigns and Elections magazine reports that astroturf lobbying was an $800-million industry back in 1995). And if it’s there, it’s coming here.

Here’s how it might work in Ottawa: Lobbyists dressed in concerned-citizens’ clothing call up unsuspecting Albertans and get them riled about the Rio anti-global-warming treaty. Appeals to pocketbook and provincialism are made with respect to possible energy tax hikes and lost jobs. Mr. and Mrs. Alberta get pissed.

"What can we do to help?" they ask. "Join our `grassroots’ team, folks. Help Albertans fight federal taxes and stop Chretien and those damned Liberals from toughening global-warming regulations in Kyoto." Many will sign up, believing they’ve joined a local campaign.

They will have been had. When asked, callers say they represent the Westerners Always Get Screwed Association, an innocent-sounding group that is actually a front for the petroleum industry.

Come to think of it, this may not be a terrifically good example of astroturf lobbying (Albertans don’t exactly need the prodding of disguised lobbyists to hate Ottawa or environmentalists). However, you get the idea.

It’s actually adapted from a real u.s. case described by Ken Silverstein, co-editor of CounterPunch, a Washington, D.C.-based newsletter, in the December 1997 issue of Mother Jones magazine. He reports that lobbyists have mobilized thousands of people who have no idea that they are actually speaking up for blue-chip giants such as Philip Morris, Ford and McDonald’s.

Astroturf lobbying tactics include letter-writing campaigns; patch-through calls (where telemarketers get voters fired up on an issue, coach them on how to voice their opposition, and immediately forward the call to elected officials’ offices); enlisting "white hats" – local groups with broad political appeal – to support a campaign, allowing the client to remain hidden. (Silverstein cites the case of Detroit automakers opposed to a bill that would have required them to build more energy-efficient cars. Their lobbyist enlisted groups representing seniors and people with disabilities – both of whom have a hard time getting in and out of smaller cars – to voice their dissent. He also got support from police officers, who feared the bill would result in them having to drive Toyotas); and "virtual petitions", where phone operators find supporters, fax them letters of support to sign and fax back, scan the signatures, transpose them onto petitions and send them to lawmakers, with the hope of deluding them into thinking that they were collected by a constituent who went door to door in their riding.

Moving a bit closer to home, the January 1998 issue of Shift magazine looks at how record companies are recruiting "street teams" of cool kids to pump hip hop.

"In what is becoming an age of manufactured street credibility," says author John Turner, "labels are striving to snare buyers for new rap without coming off like crass direct marketers. To the innocent eye, the work of these teams looks like little more than graffiti. And that’s the idea – it’s got to appear like the enthusiastic handiwork of actual fans. But whether handing out promotional cassettes to streetwear-clad, Walkman-toting kids or postering strategic locations frequented by these same consumers, the street teams’ goal is single-minded: promotion, promotion, promotion. The artful hustle has the power to create a buzz in the right corners and the sweet sound of cash registers ringing in the record stores."

A representative of Loud Records (supposedly the first to formalize street-level marketing), is quoted as saying, "Kids want to copy the cool guy, and the cool guy works for us."

Pity the poor, desperate-to-be-cool Torontonian teenager and the persecuted Albertan, for they are helpless.

Marvel at the professional communicators, for they know that there are very few absolute truths or certainties out there, that they are free to use every ounce of ingenuity they can muster to persuade others to think the way their clients do, and that there are so many cool ways to get the job done.

Lobbyists, media hacks, pr flacks, marketers of the world, throw off your chains. You have only your morals, conscience and the odd legal impediment to stop you.

© Nigel Beale. 1998 No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the express written permission of the author.

 

 

Hill and Knowlton brochure confusing, if elegant

 I have a confession to make. About a month ago, I came into possession of some newly minted Hill and Knowlton promotional material. I haven’t been able to stop fondling or thinking about it since.

Sumptuous and saddle-stiched, the booklet sports a soft-ribbed, fold-out cover, leaves of revealingly translucent paper and a beautifully placed circular die-cut in the back. Shape and proportion are refined and elegant.

The graphic design is eclectic, combining an Internet/caveman, big word/small word/underlined word look. Lots of lines, buttons and arrows. Colors, of which there are many, are subtly placed, tastefully understated.

No doubt this omnibus approach is intentional. All elements work well on their own. But togetherÉI’m left slightly confused. Just as I am with the content.

The front cover says "We live in an increasingly vigilant cultureÉ" My first impression is how can a "culture" be vigilant? A person can be vigilant. Watchful and alert. But a culture?

Does "vigilant" accurately describe the way Canadians live? I don’t think so. But let’s not dismiss this out of hand. I want to hold on. I’m intrigued. The language may lack accuracy (it borders on pretentious, and as such attracts my scorn), but it also captures my interest. Especially the ellipsis.

I fold out the cover to read:

"Émedia curiosity and coverage of business activities in Canada has grown more extensive than ever before.

"With globalization, government has actually increased its involvement in international and even intercorporate relations.

[Why is this so surprising?]

"Everywhere, the plans, policies, proposals, principles and personalities [someone likes Ps] of today’s corporate leaders have become matters of intense public scrutiny [Public? How about media?] As a fact of modern life, this is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. But it is a very real thing."

Flip to translucent page.

"The Good or bad you make of it depends on the Quality of your ongoing Strategic Communications."

[I quite like this].

The copy then says that h&k knows more about strategic communications than any other organization in the world and that it invented public relations. It goes on to outline a selection of tub-thumping benefits including expertise, reputation, etc., and concludes with a call to action and a very nicely crafted: "We embrace challenge. We believe in research first. We feed on strategic thinking and we thrive on providing value."

I want to stay with the first ambiguous paragraph, because I think I disagree with it; or at least with what or who is vigilant.

Canadians know each other and their country through personal experience and what they see, hear and read in the news media. They don’t scrutinize all the information that’s available to them – they skim, select and synthesize (I like Ss). If they were truly vigilant, they’d laughingly reject the bulk of it as the nasty, unbalanced, irrelevant tripe that it is.

Instead they treat it seriously. As a legitimate picture of day-to-day life. Seek out the least commercial, proportedly most objective newscasts in Canada – CBC Radio for example – and you’ll get a routine diet of murder, conflict, misery and corruption both at home and abroad, every hour on the hour.

Vigilance does not define our "culture". Anxiety, with perhaps a mitigating layer of ironic cynicism, does. Statscan tells us that Canadian society is no more violent or dangerous now than it was 20 years ago, yet the media’s false depiction creates a perception of it being so. As a result, we don’t let our children out of our sight. Ironically, if Canadians were more vigilant in their assessment of how media reports affected them, they’d understand that their anxieties were ill-founded and, as a result, probably allow their children more freedom.

Northrop Frye, Canada’s greatest literary critic, has argued that advertisements, "stun and demoralize the critical consciousness with statements too absurd or extreme to be dealt with seriously by it." Ads therefore wrest from people "not necessarily acceptance, but dependence on their versions of reality." I’d argue that this also holds true of the news. Even those smart enough not to take it seriously are affected by its version of reality.

If Canadian "culture" isn’t vigilant, then neither is the news media that Canadians consume. Case in point. The last two decades have seen considerable public effort focused on ethics reform. Expected improvements in behavior and increases in public confidence in institutions where ethics are in question have failed to materialize.

American authors Peter Morgan and Glenn Reynolds suggest in The Appearance of Impropriety (Free Press, 1997) that society’s efforts to improve ethical behavior and the media’s role in this effort have had no impact whatsoever.

"Focussing on appearances isÉjust easier" than rooting out genuinely unethical behavior. It’s easier for the investigators, and it’s easier for the press.

"The entire problem can be short circuited," they write. "Instead of having to learn about the matter in question, critics and commentators can opine sagely that it creates a bad appearance, that a bad appearance undermines confidence just as much as a bad reality and that [the alleged offenders] have obviously done something wrong, even if it is never entirely clear just what."

No place, according to the authors, is more hospitable to this than official Washington, where damage control and spin doctoring are the chief means of business, where "watch what we say, not what we do" is the motto, evasion of responsibility the art, and scoring points against opponents the game. Given the recent Somalia, Airbus, Pearson, Red Cross and helicopter affairs, Ottawa doesn’t exactly look uninviting either.

In a recent Ottawa Citizen article about the "tabloidization" of mainstream media, Chris Taylor, a researcher with TVOntario, speaks of postmodern media non-vigilance in the following terms: "For if modernism is a belief in truth, knowledge and the inevitable progress of humanity, postmodernism is the ironic undermining of all we have held to be true. Truth is relative, knowledge is suspect, and nothing means much of anything anymore. It’s an artistic sensibility that ranges from a kitschy embrace of superficiality to a deliberate subversion of fact."

There is little doubt that Hill and Knowlton knows what Frye, Morgan, Reynolds, Taylor and many others are writing about. As their brochure puts it: "We don’t merely understand these things. We live them."

The irony is that when it comes to actually describing the milieu in which it works, the world’s leading strategic communicator doesn’t know how to express itself clearly.

© Nigel Beale. 1998 No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the express written permission of the author.

 

 

 

Media analysis piggy has strongest plant

 Once upon a time there were two little pigs, Focus Group Testing and Polling. They worked as communications executives for Multi-Material Home Construction Inc. under the watchful eye of its president, Mr. M. T. Wolf.

One day Wolf, who was given to delivering the occasional lecture, called the pigs into his office. He cleared his throat (the pigs looked at each other knowingly), and launched into one of his familiar harangues.

"Marketers work in a public opinion environment. This is, if you will, the marketplace in which they sell their products: messages that further their organizations’ communications objectives.

"Gentleman, our public image stinks, and our ads aren’t doing a damned thing for the bottom line. We need a new communications strategy to help us get the right messages out to the right audiences. Messages that elicit the right responses.

"As of today, a new little whiz pig, Media Content Analysis, will be joining us. I’m asking each one of you to build a solid, well-researched, flexible communications structure that will serve us into the next millennium. Please report back to me in a week."

The first little pig, Focus Group, bolted out the door, ran to his desk, frantically drew up his plan, raced into town, parked himself in front of the local real estate office and hauled the first 10 people to come out the door into his van and off to his special focus group testing suite with the fancy one-way mirror.

The group was asked about home buying behavior, reaction to a home buying club concept that Focus Group pig had come up with, ideas on what the club might offer, and feedback on the creative. Each got twenty bucks for their trouble.

The second little pig, Polling, dutifully went about researching his plan by composing a similar set of questions. He dialed into his database of potential home buyers, handed the questionnaire over to his competent division of tireless telephone interviewers and asked them to go to it. Respondents, those that didn’t hang up, got nothing for their trouble, other than a cold supper (calls were conducted between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.).

The third little pig, Media Content Analysis, trotted down to marketing communications and got a briefing on the department’s existing objectives and its key issues.

He then went to the media monitoring department, gathered up all the coverage for the past year, and subjected it to an in-depth examination. In addition to recording the standard data: outlet name, type and origin; date; article type, length and placement; author and circulation, information was also gathered about issues mentioned, messages (positive and negative), and sources (positive and negative).

Answers were then coded and correlated. The articles got nothing for their trouble, but weren’t terribly upset about it.

Once the week was up, Focus Group pig, armed with what he thought was an impeccably researched document, cautiously entered President Wolf’s office to make his presentation. After looking it through, Wolf huffed and he puffed and then, with a blast of powerful logic, he blew the plan clear out of the water. "I asked for a well-research communications plan, and you deliver me this? You’re fired.

"If, little Focus Group pig, you care to know why, I invite you to visit www.brunico.com and read Tery Poole’s comments on focus group testing in the Nov. 23 issue of Strategy. He pretty well sums up my feelings: He says they’re not rocket science, they’re discovery sessions. They’re neither conclusive nor proof of anything and they’re vastly overused as the `research technique’ they are usually billed as."

With ashen face, the first little pig skulked out of the President’s office, curly tail between his legs.

Next, Polling pig made his way up to the President’s office. Relaxed and confident, he looked forward to making his presentation. It was, to his mind, one of the finest pieces of research he had ever conducted.

After looking it through, Wolf huffed and he puffed and then, with a blast of powerful logic, he blew the plan clear out of the water. "I asked for a well-researched communications plan, and you deliver me this?

"First of all, you’ve blown a ton of company money on this. At best your research provides but a snapshot of opinion, frozen in time. It’s useless for the emerging issues that we have to deal with, since, by definition, you can’t survey ignorance. You didn’t poll any of the opinion leaders who really influence our issues, and what about all these methodological flaws: biased questions, dishonest respondents, field bias and data collection errors É not to mention survey fatigue among the general public. You’re fired.

"If you care to know why, Polling pig, I invite you to pick up the Nov. 14 issue of The Globe and Mail and read Rick Salutin’s column. He pretty well sums up my feelings about polls: they’re unreliable.

"He points to a recent Angus Reid poll on how the federal government surplus should be spent which found that Canadians favor cutting debt and taxes. One week later an Ekos poll said that Canadians favor social spending over debt and tax cuts. The exact opposite.

"This discrepancy problem alone is enough to disregard polls, but there’s another reason. Polls, says Salutin, focus on preset ideas held by individuals. But democracy encourages individuals to discuss their ideas together and move beyond them to a common view. It’s not having opinions that matters; it’s abandoning them for better ones. That’s not as rare as it sounds; many people even like it. They enjoy changing their minds after learning something new.

"Media pros like you, who buy and push polls, don’t always exhibit that kind of flexibility. That’s because you, unlike most of us, have a vested interest in your opinions; its what you’re paid for. Get out of my office. Don’t come back!"

With ashen face, the second little pig skulked out of the President’s office, tattered plan in hand, curly tail between his legs.

Finally, Media Content Analysis pig entered President Wolf’s office. While looking through his communications plan, Wolf huffed and puffed and then puffed and huffed some more, and then an enormous smile crept slowly across his face revealing a rather handsome set of teeth.

"This is exactly what we need, little whiz pig. It’s brilliant! The methodology is flawless. At last we have an accurate, comprehensive overview of all the issues that we have a stake in, and a benchmark of the attention paid to them by the media.

"Your research is way less expensive than Polling Pig’s and more reliable, plus it’s not static. We can now track the evolution of issues, determine which ones are the most important, and how they’ll play out over time in different regions and among different stakeholder groups.

"We can also conduct detailed analyses of specific issues or specific media relations activities in the context of Multi-Material Home Construction Inc.’s overall public environment. Plus we can evaluate our success at managing those issues.

"And thanks to your thorough profile of our media coverage, detailed profiles of all the home construction writers in the country, the issues they tend to emphasize, the sources they rely upon for their information, their receptiveness to our messaging can all be tracked, measured and catered to.

"In short, thanks to your report, we can now develop some truly relevant messaging and target it effectively. And I like your idea of bringing little Polling pig back on the odd occasion to get some customer response feedback.

"Little pig, you truly are a remarkable colleague."

Wolf only knew the half of it. Media Content Analysis pig, recognizing Wolf for the rat that he was, had made a point of sending copies of his report to the Board of Directors.

At the next meeting, Wolf tried to pass the work off as his own. As a result, he was fired, the little whiz pig replaced him, and the company thrived happily ever after under his prescient media content analysis-based leadership.

© Nigel Beale. December 8, 1997

 

 

Co-opting dead celebrities a soul-destroying tactic.

Call this a public service announcement for the advertising industry.

If you’re in advertising: beware. Several serious cases of Dead Celebrity/Icon Abuse Syndrome (DCAS) have recently been reported.

Indications are that this condition is highly contagious. Forget substance abuse, DCAS is far more dangerous.

Similar to Live Celebrity/Icon Abuse Syndrome (LCAS), a well-known condition prevalent among journalists, dcas poses an added threat. Because those afflicted have scant moral ground upon which to defend their behavior, their souls are at greater risk of being fried in Hell.

Advertising executives incapable of developing legitimately creative ways to infiltrate the hearts and minds of consumers are particularly vulnerable.

Those suffering from lcas, notably tabloid publishers and journalists, exhibit tendencies to pry uncontrollably into the private lives of famous, usually beautiful, people, hunting for salacious gossip and photographs. The condition is exacerbated by the lure of big financial payoffs.

lcas sufferers typically experience an all-consuming urge to dig up and publish or broadcast dirt on celebrities and to feed off them for their own gratification and gain. Involuntary garbage picking and voyeurism are also commonly reported symptoms.

Normal feelings of guilt and remorse are mitigated by easy access to the self-soothing argument that celebrities, because of their public personas, their chosen lifestyles, deserve and require undue attention. Thanks to the codependent, symbiotic nature of the relationship between celebrities and the media – that they are equals feeding off and using each other for mutual benefit, that celebs court coverage, and audiences thirst for it – journalists can comfortably justify their own actions. They can look at themselves in the mirror each morning, and smile.

As a result, lcas is usually a chronic condition that is not life threatening.

Not so with dcas. While living celebrity endorsement of products and services is a common, healthy practice – equal parties negotiating mutually acceptable conditions under which they are willing to bed down together – dead celebrity endorsements are different. They carry a vulgar, dehumanizing, soul-destroying germ that can be lethal to those who orchestrate them.

dcas attacks those who lack creative imagination. It is characterized by an uncontrollable urge to dig up dead icons, usurp their store of emotional and intellectual goodwill, and put it to use pushing products and services.

Just as poor, defenceless unsuspecting public jargon ("Yahoo", "You got it") is brutally co-opted into the service of sales, so defenseless dead icons, who hold a powerful place of position in the minds of millions, are recruited and exploited. It’s the visual equivalent of co-opting vernacular.

Feelings of guilt and remorse – while not present in the early stages of dcas, do eventually surface. Unlike lcas sufferers, dcasers don’t have easy access to arguments that justify their actions.

Sadly, as the condition worsens, sufferers (at least the non-psychotic ones) find it impossible to look at or smile at themselves in the mirror. As a result, they die agonizing, tortuous, guilt-ridden deaths.

© Nigel Beale November 10, 1997

 

 

 Media, public ponder paparazzi issues

In his arresting and eloquent eulogy, Earl Spencer spoke scathingly of the media, blaming them for the death of his sister, Diana, Princess of Wales.

Good had died at the hands of evil. In response, the media have argued that they merely cater to a public passion for celebrity, scandal and sex. Simply a question of supplying demand.

Regardless of where one parks responsibility for this tragedy, culprits abound. At bottom, however, rest three big, unwieldy ones: capitalist society, human nature and freedom of speech.

1) Profit motivates media moguls. Diana sold (and continues to sell).

2) The masses are base, undisciplined beings, fascinated by murder, adultery, larcenyÉ you know the lineup.

3) Infringe on the media’s right to make money (a.k.a. freedom of speech), and the roar over totalitarian threats to democracy is deafening.

This is not to say that journalists aren’t concerned. "The time has come," writes Adrienne Stevenson in a letter to The Globe and Mail (Sept. 3), "for us [I'm assuming she's a member of the media] to consider whether we wish to continue to foster a society with no notion of privacy, responsibility, restraint, or common decency, or whether we will take steps to regulate ourselves. Make no mistake, if the media cannot regulate themselves, and permit individuals, whatever their `newsworthiness,’ to have private lives, controls will come that will have implications far beyond control of the `paparazzi.’"

While Diana’s recent death may have brought this current media controversy to a head, the issue is by no means news. Plato (Oh great, here he goes again with the pretentious, irrelevant references to Greek philosophers) aired it some 2,000 years ago in his satirical masterpiece The Republic.

In it, Socrates suggests that the poets (journalists of the day, I’d argue), be banished from the ideal city because their writing is frequently antithetical to the public good, and because the sentiments they appeal to are ones that undermine the well-being of society.

As Plato scholar Allan Bloom puts it, "The poet hides himself behind his work, and the audience forgets, for the moment, that the world into which they enter is not the real one. The spectators have the sense of the reality of men and events which are more interesting and more beautiful than any they know in their own livesÉ[The poet] cannot force spectators to listen to him or like and enter into the lives of men who are repulsive to them. He must appeal to and flatter the dominant passions of the spectators. Those passions are fear, pity and contempt. The spectators want to cry or to laugh. If the poet is to please, he must satisfy that demand. He is capable of making men cry or laugh; he can refine the expressions of the passions connected with tears and laughter; he can even, within limits, change the objects which move those passions; but he cannot alter the fact that he thrives on the existence and intensification of those passions."

In Plato’s city, the philosophers boot out the poet-journalists, `re-educate’ them and bring them back with healthy souls devoted entirely to the common good. For obvious reasons, this kind of extreme, albeit laudable, action won’t exactly wash in the here and now; some form of enforceable media guidelines are, however, necessary.

Which brings me to a quite remarkable letter written to The Ottawa Citizen on Sept. 14 by one Sidney W. Witiuk.

In it, Mr. Witiuk suggests that a mechanism be put in place to enable consumers to easily identify the sources of photographs that appear in the media. His plan includes a photo classification system consisting of five levels, each indicating the degree of intrusiveness used by photographers to obtain their pictures; a simple set of ratings icons (Witiuk suggests a range of faces – Happy: public relations photographs; Straight: photo opportunity photographs; Frowning: public event photographs; Angry: public place photographs; and Livid: private unauthorized photographs) prominently displayed on publication covers would inform viewers about the photographs; and a voluntary "humanitarian dividend" levied on each picture: a low fee or percentage on first level photos, a high one on fifth. The right to display a trademarked "seal of compliance" would be limited to those media organizations who accede to the system.

"One hopes," writes Witiuk, "such a system would keep publishers, editors and photographers constantly aware of the responsibilities they bear if they wish to exercise the constitutional freedoms that come with being a part of the press in a free and open society." He concludes by proposing that the humanitarian dividend be stored in a trust fund to ensure that grants are paid long into the millennium to individuals who demonstrate significant commitment to humanitarian causes.

Just as the prominent listing of ingredients on packaged food has resulted in healthier purchasing habits and better food products, so the prominent listing and rating of photographic sources on packaged information should, it is hoped, result in a healthier society and better quality media products.

© Nigel Beale October 1997

 

 

 

 

On Media: Print media has no monopoly on integrity

Strategy Magazine’s July 21 editorial suggests that print media is perceived as more trustworthy than other media; that the sacred lines separating editorial and advertising – people in black and people in check – are somehow more rigid and less porous in print.

While this may be the perception, it clearly isn’t the reality. The print media has a long history of blurring lines. In fact, the first newspapers served as little more than organs for political parties. For as long as presses have known paper, deals have been struck between publishers and hawkers of products and positions. "News" has routinely been sensationalized and fabricated to sell papers.

Rock bottom was reached in 1896 when, in response to his newspaper artist’s remonstrances that nothing of note was going on in Cuba and could he please come home, press baron William Randolph Hearst wired off his famous, if apocryphal, "You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war" line.

While bald-faced lies may not be quite so common these days, opinion is being flogged as news like never before. Front page stories in Canada’s most respected newspapers routinely plop editorial opinions into the mouths of others and report them as news. Reports, studies and events are frequently panned, praised and ridiculed within the context of supposedly objective articles.

Journalist Walter Lippmann once idealistically described news as "a conveyor belt carrying `objective’ information." If there ever was such a thing, it has clearly been subsumed by the opinion of media guru Christopher Lasch, who calls journalism "the subjection of preferences and projects to the test of debate."

Today, the first thing that comes out of the mouths of crass (okay, savvy) young media buyer babes, is "What kind of editorial can you give me?"

In fact, marketers aren’t doing their jobs if they don’t try their darndest to blur lines. Editorial coverage, favorable product reviews, even front cover shots (how do you think Versace made it so big?) are frequently negotiated as part of the advertising package. Ad supplements, with the emphasis on supplement, are also very common. Strategy makes good money off them.

No, I wouldn’t say that the print media has any kind of monopoly on integrity. It can perhaps explain issues in greater depth and put events into proper context. But to put print up on a pedestal is a mistake.

This is not to say that print isn’t superior to broadcast (as opposed to narrowcast) in many ways. It is. The mere fa

 

 

 

 
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