Thursday, December 25, 2008

How the Media Perpetuates Stereotypes

I was thinking about this recently after reading Maureen Dowd's profile of Tina Fey in Vanity Fair. 

Fey was known on Saturday Night Live as "Herman the German" for her ability to make a plan, stick to it, and get the job done. Dowd even threw in a Rommel reference - the Nazi general from World War 2 who was called with admiration the Desert Fox by his competitors in the battlefield. He's also one of the "good Nazis" for his role in the plot to kill Hitler, and he committed suicide in 1944.

It was an interesting stereotype about Germans, one which they love: sort of the hookers with the heart of gold spiel, like Rommel, who ignored orders to kill Jewish civilians. 

This stereotype was popular during the 1950's in Germany, thanks to media representations. Des Teufels General, a play about the moral conflict of a Nazi officer; The Enemy Below, which has a very moving speech by the German submarine commander: "it's not a good war". In their context, these were real breakthroughs: Germans not being painted as cruel oppressors, much in the same way blacks emerged in films as more than slaves or stupid house help through more complex roles. 

But I wonder what the new stereotype of Germans will be, as the baby boomers get older and die in that country. They were caught in the middle, too young to be personally guilty, but desperately questioning their parents and relatives to understand their role in the national mass hysteria of National Socialism. Americans are easily impressed by Germans who come here to work and study - their Herman the German mentality is efficient and let's face it, they do follow orders very well. 

But a few friends of mine who work for German companies in American offices point to lack of creativity, off color remarks about minorities, and a world view that is resistant to change, even in the face of the most compelling evidence otherwise. These are the reasons why German companies in Germany are recruiting international candidates for top positions in German companies - the country is very good at producing worker bees who are easily trained - but not so good at developing leadership. We have the opposite problem in the U.S. - everyone wants to be in charge and thinks they should be! 

Because the baby boomer population in Germany is incredibly large, I expect this to dominate for another 20 years. They didn't have a boom in the late 80's and early 90's as we did, so their younger generation's voices get drowned out, and the fall of the Wall means that we will continue to be deluged with stories from the former East German Republic in our media landscape, some grim (The Lives of Others) and some nostalgic (Goodbye, Lenin!)

I suspect we may be forever stuck with the Herman the German stereotype - but in fact Tina Fey is undeniably American. I can't think of her German equivalent - as I can't think of one for Jon Stewart. So that's what I look forward to - the media political cartoon that at once confirms stereotypes while at the same time destroying them. 

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Generation Gap of Interactivity

I attended a live television broadcast the other day - the governor of Ohio came to the southeastern part of the state to hear ideas about how to make the school funding formula more equitable and understandable. A discussion worthy of live television.

Here's the thing though: the host rather half-heartedly asked viewers to email their responses during the broadcast to the governor as part of the broadcast's interactivity. However, none of the emails ever made it to to the governor. 

So what makes this interactive? As far as I could tell, it was still uni-directional transmission of information. 

The other thing that struck me as I sat in the audience was how carefully orchestrated the event was. Now I know television is rarely done live, off the cuff - this was a major criticism of Barack Obama and his reliance on teleprompters - but he did in the end agree to those town hall meetings. 

The entire broadcast wasn't scripted, just the part where the governor explained the current funding formula for Ohio's school districts, and then he listened to responses from the audience. But the average age of people in the audience must have been 50 (and probably would have been higher if it hadn't been for me and the 3 other thirty somethings in the audience.) 

I came away with this realization: the technology was not being effectively utilized. The public station, who organized the whole thing, and taped it, didn't engage its viewers through its website. The governor's staff had a website, which they directed people to, but in the interest of a partnership, couldn't the public station, and its website, have been leveraged more? The conversation ended at the moment they hit the stop button on the cameras - and it got me thinking how public broadcasting could be more of a tool of a civic engagement, and revitalize itself, if it could figure out how to connect the audience with its content via the web. 

There are stations, and programs, already doing this - but it just hit me as I sat there, watching the traditional model of "interactive" media, that we have a generation gap about what interactive even means. And of course, one could argue that the purpose of the forum wasn't to make it interactive - it was to allow the governor the opportunity to hear from people he doesn't normally hear from (although I really question that - the forum sounded like an education conference with the familiar refrains of calls for all day kindergarden, lengthening the school year, and redistributing taxes more equitably to fund more impoverished areas.)

Clearly, public broadcasting has the ability to pull off what I saw this weekend. But I wonder what it will take for them to take it to the next level of "interactivity". 

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Do We Need So Many Reporters?

An article in the NYT caught my eye: fewer reporters covering Washington as papers either cut or entirely close their Washington bureaus.

But one line in particular got my brain pumping: "Those that remain have cut back drastically on Washington coverage, eliminating hundreds of journalists' jobs at a time when the federal government - and journalistic oversight of it - matters more than ever."

This is where I get myself into trouble. This is where I commit heresy, but I'm going to do it anyway. 

I have to question the part where the reporter writes "and journalistic oversight of it - matters more than ever". First of all, doesn't it always matter? Didn't it matter more than ever when the Bush administration was making the case to go to war, one of the most significant decisions a president can make? And where was the NYT? They took a pass, nee, they encouraged it with Thomas Friedman and Judy Miller getting suckered like 1st year journalism students who find out later the police chief or the mayor lied to them in an interview. Meanwhile, they ignored the work of Knight-Ridder reporters who didn't buy the weapons of mass destruction line. 

Here's my second beef, which is much more academic: when our press has failed us in so many ways, and recently too - I'm not just talking about the failure to report the Great Migration in 20's and 30's or the reticence of American journalists to cover what was going on in concentration camps - isn't that the time to say, we made a mistake and we need to make some changes? How about addressing the lack of trust of the press? How about cultivating a sense of information stewardship on the part of your audience, who probably know things that are important? 

Or how about acknowledging that the technology doesn't necessarily mean you need as many reporters? I don't have any hard evidence to support this, but my hypothesis is that one of the reasons we may be seeing a decline in reporting is that the old dogs haven't learned any new tricks, or are struggling to learn them. That's probably the fault of management, who are cutting everything to save a few bucks for their shareholders. 

Some news organizations are developing very sophisticated databases to help them sort information better - in the way the microchip revolutionized investigate reporting, so are computer programmers who come up with the code to sift and mine and analyze. True, you still need someone to go out and do the shoe leather work. Or you could post your data graphically on the web and ask your audience to contribute video, pictures, some text - there are alternatives to the traditional reporting of the past thanks to the World Wide Grid. 

Here's what a boils down to: journalism has attracted a lot of wanna be writers. Not all, but it's there. But because the medium has shifted, the need for the narrative may be less relevant. I'm not saying it will go away - if anything, I love it when the NYT posts audio slideshows of photojournalism. That's a narrative. And the traditional tools to create it - pen, paper, typewriter- have now now expanded to Flash, ProTools, Final Cut. 

So we have a crisis going on in the U.S. Several even. 2 wars, a financial meltdown, corporate corruption. But I would ask, is the problem that we don't have enough information, or is the problem that we, the people, have stopped trusting the entities who deliver it? 

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

When Social Networking Sites Merge with News

I was checking my as usual and something caught my eye. LinkedIn, the professional networking site, is teaming up with the New York Times to create customized news pages for LinkedIn users. So lets say I, who work in public broadcasting, sign up. I would get articles related to that industry. Or maybe you're a school teacher, or an engineer. You would get info customized to your area of expertise.

Whoa. It's so simple it's brilliant. And possibly bring in additional revenue? Too soon to tell, although this article was interesting.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Cuts, Layoffs, Oh My

I recently went on a fact finding mission to Washington D.C. with my cohort in the public broadcasting program at Ohio University. As luck would have it, the day we left was the day NPR announced their cuts...including my mentor and friend, Doug Mitchell. Jeffrey Dvorkin, the former ombudsman at NPR, wrote a glowing tribute much more eloquent than I ever could. (Jeffrey's a great guy as well - I talked to him for maybe all of 10 minutes about reporter training, and the following week I found a package in my mailbox on NPR's reporter ethics guide with a personal note from Jeffrey. That's what we call classy. The man is after all Canadian.)

Chicago Public Radio also laid off 9% of its staff, including a few from its new venture, The CEO's previous decisions to cut music, especially jazz, on WBEZ has now bubbled to the surface as angry listeners question his leadership. 

That's just the tip of the iceberg. Pubcasters around the country are hurting - even powerhouse Minnesota Public Radio had a recent sobering meeting about their budget, and shortfalls in fundraising. 

In my previous post, I wrote about the dangers of nostalgia clouding strategic judgement of public broadcasting. But I think one thing the emotion aroused by these cuts show is that public broadcasting hasn't done a very good job about being transparent. I'm not talking about pleasing everybody. I'm talking about public relations and making the case to listeners, who for the most part, are pretty reasonable, especially when presented with options. 

Public broadcasting isn't a direct democracy, nor would I advocate that it turn into one. But the folks who run the stations are accountable to their stakeholders, some who give money, most who just watch or listen, and now is the time to rally them. Maine Public Broadcasting held a town meeting before making any decisions about layoffs or cuts - what a novel idea. How great would it be if Talk of the Nation did a national call in show with with a group of public radio CEO's and took questions and recommendations. Air it out. Let the sunshine disinfect. 

Let's bring the public into public broadcasting.