Media

Thinking Outside the (X)Box

There was soul-searching to spare at the Game Developers Conference, as attendees had some warranted stress over diversity—but they should be sure to remember to work on improving the world outside the industry too.

Flickr/Official GDC
Brian Taylor O n the narrow sidewalk outside the building where the Game Developers Conference was held, a group of enthusiastic marketers offer free t-shirts that say “0% THE MAN 100% INDIE.” It seems like a call to arms, but a tiny bit of research unearths that it's a new campaign by Samsung to attract game developers to their app store. Sure, Samsung may be an underdog in this realm, when compared to Apple, but you gotta admit the Korean phone giant is at least 30 percent The Man. This style of borrowing progressive language in the game industry is quite common—as noted and skewered in a presented “rant” during the conference by game designer Chris Hecker. The Game Developers Conference is held each year in the Bay Area, taking place during the last week of March this year. It's the major professional conference of the video game industry, where the people who make games gather to network and give presentations about the year's successes and failures. GDC is the most inwardly-...

Why Are Lists So Irresistible?

Flickr/atibens
Yesterday I gave a talk at my grad school alma mater—the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania—about what journalists and scholars can teach each other. Interestingly enough, the academics in attendance all nodded their heads when I went on a little rant about how awful most academic writing is, and made the case that just because it has always been that way it doesn't have to continue to be that way. (Though when I quoted Elaine Benes—"People love interesting writing!"—the students looked at me blankly, obviously having no idea whom I was referring to. Kids today.) The abysmal quality of academic prose is something that every grad student complains about and every professor acknowledges, but nobody seems to have the gumption to do anything about. That's a topic I'll return to later, but in discussing the current state of the media, I described how the most-read piece on The American Prospect 's web site in 2012 was "My So-Called Ex-Gay Life," Gabriel...

Sunday Shows Continue Long Tradition of Suckage

Oo, fascinating!
The Sunday political talk shows—your "Meet the Press," your "This Week," your "Face the Nation"—embody just about everything that's wrong with American politics, with Washington, D.C, and with the media. Every Sunday, you can flip between them and watch one party hack or another mindlessly deliver talking points, then watch the host try fruitlessly to trap said hack in some piece of hypocritical position-switching, then watch a bunch of "party strategists" bicker through the delivery of more talking points. I can understand why people who aren't interested in politics would find them unbearable, but even I can't stand them, and I'm someone who listens to C-SPAN radio in the car. (If you're interested in the depths of my disgust, you can read more here ). But there's no doubt they play an important role in Washington's political life, through the twin powers of agenda-setting and status conferral. The topics discussed on the Sunday shows are considered important topics, and the people...

"Jackass" Goes Geopolitical

Vice's foray into doumentary film may make you shake your head, but you can't deny it's good television.

Vice Productions
Vice Productions HBO's new Friday-night newsmagazine, Vice —as in the uppity print-mag dudes turned YouTube stuntmasters who recently made news by sending Dennis Rodman to North Korea, not the police beat—comes on like a revved-up 60 Minutes for the tats-and-testosterone set. Trouble spots around the globe are high on the menu; either danger or the threat of it gets amped up with shameless music cues and attention-grabbing cutting. All three regular correspondents are, as may go without saying, male, with original Vice co-founder Shane Smith in the Mike Wallace Yoda slot opposite a couple of younger wiseacres: Thomas Morton, Vice 's anxiety specialist, and Ryan Duffy, the show's jaunty answer to Kid Rock. The whole thing comes to us courtesy of executive producer Bill Maher, whose contending yens to be a thoughtful guy and a hip one often remind me of a ventriloquist who hasn't caught on yet that his dummy is psychotic. All the same, any of you who still keep an Edward R. Murrow...

We're All Buzzfeed Now

Not the NRCC web site.
A year or two ago, people would heap scorn on the Huffington Post, since although it employs excellent journalists who do valuable reporting, it also practices a brutal click-driven kind of management, in which celebrity news and grabby headlines are used to pull readers in, leaving some vaguely ashamed they read it in spite of themselves. HuffPo may not have invented the sideboob slideshow, but they brought it to such a high level that they eventually created an entire sideboob section on their web site, which is, not surprisingly, the top result you get on Google when you search the term. The section was created as a joke, but also kind of not. Yet these days, you don't hear many of those complaints about HuffPo anymore. Why? One word: Buzzfeed . One might not have thought that another web site could find gold in the combination of guilty pleasure clickbait and actual journalism that HuffPo pioneered, but Buzzfeed did. Today, if someone is lamenting our short attention spans and the...

The AP Gives Up "Illegal Immigrant"

Flickr/Emilio Labrador
The Associated Press, whose stylebook is used by lots of different publications, has announced that it will no longer use the term "illegal immigrant." This essentially accepts the argument that advocates for immigrants have been making for some time, namely that the fact that someone immigrated illegally doesn't make them an illegal person, any more than the fact that you got a speeding ticket means you should be labelled an "illegal driver," despite your violation of the law. Unsurprisingly, conservatives were contemptuous of the AP. On the right, however (and in the conservative media), even the term "illegal immigrants" is considered unduly generous, the preferred terms being "illegal aliens" or just "illegals." The AP also doesn't like "undocumented immigrant," which is preferred by immigration activists, "because it is not precise. A person may have plenty of documents, just not the ones required for legal residence." That seems kind of silly; if you refer to someone as an...

The Pointlessness of Contrarianism for Its Own Sake

Contrarianism!
When you write for a magazine with a particular ideological bent, it's natural to wonder whether you're being too soft on "your" side. This question comes up more when your side is in power, since they're the ones who are implementing policies and making decisions; when the other side is in charge, most of your time is spent documenting and analyzing all the harmful and dangerous things they're doing, and your side is occupied with fighting the ruling party and waiting for its turn. Obviously, politics is a neverending conflict, and that conflict can produce a certain siege mentality. For instance, when a Democratic president proposes a plan for universal health coverage and Republicans attack it with a campaign of mind-boggling hysteria and dishonesty (death panels!), it's natural to spend a good deal of time correcting the record and defending it, even if you think that plan is less than ideal. There are some people (like Glenn Greenwald) who write largely about one set of issues,...

Dissecting Donglegate

Flickr/Chuckumentary
Flickr/Chuckumentary When is a dick joke not just a dick joke? That’s the question at the heart of what’s being called “Donglegate,” the latest tech-industry skirmish in the ongoing battle over the sector's rampant sexism. The answer: When it's scientifically proven to impair a woman's ability to do her job. First, the basics: Tech professional Adria Richards was attending an industry conference called PyCon. Earlier that day, a fellow (male) attendee had made a joke to her about looking up women's skirts. She knew that such sexual comments were against PyCon's explicit community standards and tried to address it with him, to no avail. Later, when she heard some men sitting behind her cracking jokes about the size of their "dongles," she tried a different approach. She snapped a photo of the men and tweeted it, along with her location in the hall and a complaint about their behavior, to the attention of conference organizers. To their credit, PyCon officials took her tweet seriously...

The Evolution of MSNBC

What MSNBC used to be.
At the New Republic , Rebecca Dana has a profile of MSNBC chief Phil Griffin, during which she points out that the network's current incarnation as the liberal's home on cable came about only because Griffin tried a bunch of other stuff that didn't work. There wasn't an ideological motivation, just a financial one. "Fox News is a TV network that succeeds because of its ideological slant," she writes. "MSNBC is a TV network that has an ideological slant because that's what happened to succeed." That came about after a period in which the network tried hard to duplicate Fox by hiring a bunch of conservatives. At various times the network gave shows to the likes of Pat Buchanan, Michael Savage, Tucker Carlson, and Alan Keyes (the latter, called Alan Keyes Is Making Sense , for some reason didn't include "No, really!" in its title). When it turned out nobody wanted to watch any of those programs, they kept trying different things until Keith Olbermann tapped into the zeitgeist of the...

Always Be Monologuing

Al Pacino's endless arias are the only thing that save David Mamet's Phil Spector from being mere propaganda.

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP
"This is a work of fiction. It's not 'based on a true story.'" So goes the disclaimer preceding director and writer David Mamet's Phil Spector , which premieres Sunday on HBO, and what sense are we supposed to make of that Bizarro World claim? The movie features Al Pacino in a surprisingly convincing impersonation—or maybe I just mean a disconcertingly affecting one—of the 1960s record producer now doing time for the 2003 murder of Lana Clarkson (real name also used). Nothing already known to the public deviates from the record, including Spector's cuckoo array of wigs in the courtroom. As if Pacino's participation doesn't already lend enough heft, Helen Mirren, flagrantly miscast—but, as ever, classy, and cowing us into being predisposed in her character's favor is what she's been hired for—plays Linda Kenney Baden, one of the battery of legal eagles who represented Spector during his first trial. (It ended in a hung jury; a 2008 do-over convicted him.) The real Baden is also...

Have You Heard? Feminism's Over!

Flickr/Seattle Municipal Archives
Flickr/James Vaughan G ood news, ladies! Feminism has fizzled, and those of us who aren’t suckers are giving up our career dreams to follow our female nature. Our lady brains and lady bodies aren’t cut out for the workplace, you see, and our manly, oafish husbands will never be as good as we are at cleaning the toilet, so why fight it? We’ll all be more fulfilled if we quit our jobs and make like June Cleaver by way of Martha Stewart. At least this is the point of the latest "trend" piece in New York magazine by Lisa Miller. Let's get the debunking out of the way. The essential problem with Miller’s piece is that is doesn’t describe an actual, documented trend. Her entire theory is hung on a small uptick—in 2011—of women choosing to leave the workforce in order to parent. That's not a trend; it's a data point. Otherwise fact-free, this piece is perhaps best understood as an essay on its writer's self-concept, and on that of the publication in whose pages it appears. Miller clearly...

Asking Serious People Silly Questions

Erin Burnett, trying to keep from giggling.
I've written before about the media's inability to talk about the issue of marijuana legalization without turning into eighth graders, peppering their stories with references to Cheech & Chong and making generally idiotic stoner references ("Put down those Doritos and turn down that Dead bootleg—a new policy statement from the Office of National Drug Control Policy could be a serious buzz-cruncher!"). Whether this is changing now that Washington and Colorado passed decriminalization schemes in the last election and momentum is building in other states for similar measures, I'm not sure. But Mark Kleiman, who has done extensive research on the potential consequences of drug legalization and is now acting as a consultant to the state of Washington as it finds its way toward implementing the law the voters there passed, found himself confronted with a smirking Erin Burnett on CNN, who wanted to know whether he's a pot smoker or not, and handled it perfectly . "I don't think there's...

Just How Bad Is Television News?

Every year, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism releases a huge report called "The State of the News Media," and this year's installment contains some surprising results, far beyond what you'd expect about declining newspaper revenues and the generalized slow death of journalism (though there's plenty of that). In particular, television news is undergoing some rapid changes, most of which are driven by finances and many of which look seriously problematic. Let's start with local TV news (we'll get to cable in a moment). For decades, it has been the most-used of all news media, despite the fact that it provides the sorriest excuse for journalism you can find anywhere. Why has it been so popular for so long? For starters, it's easy; you can just turn the TV on while you're cooking dinner or working on your toothpick sculpture of the Taj Mahal, and it won't require any concentration to keep up with. Second, it's on all the time; since news is the central profit...

Working for Free on TV

That's me working for free.
In the last week or so, the world of people who write and publish for a living has been consumed with the question of whether and when freelancers ought to work for free. As you probably know, the internet has killed journalism, and this has made it all but impossible to make a living as a writer. Not really, of course, but this whole thing started when an editor at The Atlantic asked a writer if he'd like to give her an edited version of a piece he'd previously written, which would be published on their site without any pay, and he responded , "I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for-profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children." This then touched off a lot of soul-searching and navel-gazing among writers and editors, the most enlightening bit of which is probably this post from Alexis Madrigal. I...

How Many Big-Time Pundits Are Plagiarists?

Juan Williams is obviously too busy to write his own columns. (Flickr/Nick Step)
Not long ago I was getting a shiatsu massage in my office when my assistant came in to tell me that he'd gathered the data on government spending that I'd asked for, and written it up in text form so I could drop it into my next column. When I read what he'd written, it looked suspiciously like turgid think-tank prose, so I asked him whether these were his own words or those of the source from which he got the data. When he began his response with "Um..." I knew he had failed me, so I flung my double espresso in his face, an act of discipline I thought rather restrained. Over the sound of his whimpering and the scent of burning flesh, I explained to him that real journalists don't pass off the work of others as their own. As part of his penance, I forced him to write my columns for me in their entirety for the next three weeks. The scars are healing nicely, and with my benevolent guidance he is well on his way to becoming the journalist I know he can be. OK, that didn't actually...

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