Friday, March 27, 2009

Big boxes, how they censor, et al...

The week that ends today was centered around our class discussion of ch.8 of No Logo, by Naomi Klein. The topic of said chapter is the existence of a movement to censor, perhaps normalize, the output of artists of mostly the recording media in retailers of a certain heft. Corporate entities like Wal-Mart, Target and Kmart, to name a few exercise their influence upon corporate parents to recording artists like Nirvana, Marilyn Manson to have their content restyled until it passes muster or is removed or never placed in shelves.
This practice effectively creates censorship boards at the corporate level, in an otherwise freely expressive society. Censorship per se is not unheard of. The consumer exercises such power on a daily basis. On a community basis, we live among people that share some common belief with us, and we effectively censor our surroundings.
This ability to move into a neighborhood of people of similar income, religion, number of children, etc. is not really practical in other places, like Manhattan. You don't know what kind of freak lives next door there and you tell yourself that you don't care in any case. But you do. The fear is there. You hope it'll be a nice freak, one that won't put you through the ordeal of finding another place to live.

Here in Happy valley, we can be sure that the person next door is actually more wholesome than you, listens to less weird music than you, and we hope they won't judge you as harshly as you do others.
Censorship is at the heart of community building. By common accord a community can ban a set of elements that it determines are hostile to its survival. Similarly, corporate agents can and do select for us those things that they decide are suitable for us, the buying public. We the public have a critical element available to us, and that is the ability to directly research and bypass the retailers by finding online sellers of whatever is banned or unavailable locally.

That democratic freedom, unnamed in the Bill of Rights, of finding whatever you can imagine online is not altogether defended, exactly. Yearly it seems there is an attempt or another to put in place censors to web content.
Let's get real for a moment. The United States won't turn into China anytime soon. But China already leads the world in one thing, and that is the ability to censor content in large scale and in real time. The day may come soon when the people of China will be free to surf the web at will and without fear of plainclothes police visiting them at their homes. For now though, it's our turn to enjoy a pretty close to wide-open society.

In page 169 of No Logo, Klein writes about the personality conflicts of Disney, Inc. and their attempts to distance themselves from one of their holdings that ended up acquiring the exhibition rights for a movie, Kids by Larry Clarke. In her analysis, Klein points out that "On the one hand, [the Disney label] Miramax now has deep resources...; on the other when the company decides whether or not to carry a politically controversial[like Kids], it cannot avoid how that decision will reflect on Disney and ABC's...reputations as family programmers..." This means that the censorship not only happens in corporate identity layers (at one point, said movie was released by a corporate facade, to further put it away from the parent) but also because, interestingly in this example, censorship was shielding a reality.

I won't defend the movie in question, but I will say that airbrushing, as it were of reality and turning it into an ideal was a topic of discussion in several lectures in Errin's class in the past. In Susan Douglas's book we accepted censorship because it was meant to portray our ideals, not our deeds as a society necessarily. When there was a couple talking about 'going all the way', it really meant that they were in a way, turning the heated moment of passion between teens into something ritualized, debated and full of hand-wringing, like kabuki theater. Reality, um, ain't like that. You know who you are, and what you did. But the point is, we as a society accepted the subterfuge and took it to mean, yes it's reality. A version of it.
In bell hooks' perspective there is censorship that affected her directly, and our american perspective as well. Someone dutifully exercised censorship over the cultural output so that the black footprint was adroitly blended and co-opted to appear as invisible as possible.
Censorship in Klein's book shows that there is a great deal of content that could possibly change our common perspective, but it gets shut down and goes unseen. In war time, we want to cheer for the soldiers, but those that have seen war up close know that the one thing 'people back home' don't get is the harsh images they carry in their scarred minds. Someone censors what the people should view from the battlefield, someone that calls it either kosher for back home or documentary-only footage. Or how about coverage of crime in New Orleans post-Katrina. Do we really know what is going on there, or do we Want to know?. Someone is censoring the feed from those TV stations and making sure the American public doesn't fixate on the 'violent black city' stereotype. Someone is always going to censor content.
I propose we recommit ourselves to always finding the truth, no matter how unsavory it may be...

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Future of of them, anyway

There's a sea change under way. We've always relied on newspapers to deliver the news for cheap and reliably. Now it turns out the papers are slowly but surely dying out. Denver paper in the link above, Seattle paper here, Chicago paper here, (but referencing LA paper), ditto for Missouri papers, and the story is the same everywhere you look. There's nothing that points to a return of readers to the print media. Where, then, are those readers? funny you should ask. See, the consensus is that readers won't pay for content, or rather, that if you squeeze them out of your website, they'll just migrate to another site that won't charge. And there's plenty evidence that making people go away from your site is a bad deal. The New York Times had a subscription service for a time, then last year, they decided to stop charging and go almost all-free content in order to increase growth predictions. The idea is that you want to show through your server stats that your site has not only volume of hits, but the growth will be there in the future. Then you can pitch your business plan to your prospective advertisers and once more you can be a profitable paper. So the question is, let's suppose that you can make the web site portion of your newspaper profitable, what does it say about your printed on paper side of the business, if the ads space goes unsold? It says it's going to die. It says, let's keep it for the die-hards, but let's make it a luxury item and give it away just for the asking. Do it bundled with fat stacks of ads, though. It's funny, but in the future I see that you'll be able to print on demand, for a fee from a kiosk. Or squint and read the news in your iPhone. I'm not talking about pie in the sky either. There are outlets already that act as portals for multiple news feeds in real time, and there are print-on-demand kiosks like this one that when located at, say, a town library, can give you all the glory of printed paper if you really like it that much. Then there's kindle, that for many will do just nicely, minus the page folding. I like the feel of paper, though...
Since I wrote this, the picture has turned much bleaker. Today I read that a major Chicago Paper, the Sun-Times is under Ch.11. Read it here.

Merchants of Cool commentary...

I commented on Trisha's blog about an iconic girl that has to have a certain combo of brands to feel 'right' about herself, and to be seen in her 'true light'. My point was that like Rushkoff observed, teens and others flock to the perception of 'cool', they surf the perception-wave of cool and dabble in brands they identify with trend-setting or trend-following. The impetus behind the marketing push is the attraction to that slice of the $150 billion pie of money spent by and for teens. The market craves the attention paid to it by the media, and the million ways that they inbreed go largely unnoticed. Read this story at the NYTimes that puts it SO well.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Some thoughts on the freedom of the press...

In today's lecture, we saw the video interview of Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, both reporters at the Fox affiliate in Tampa, WTVT. It was a little like watching a re imagining of the movie The Firm, The Pelican Brief, or maybe Erin Brockovich, going back, maybe even The China Syndrome. A common thread through all these is that there is a group of people operating out of view with the unambiguous goal of silencing those that would tell an inconvenient truth. In one movie it might be a lawyer, in another a journalist but the fact remains that when someone researches the truth, they have an imperative duty to tell it and let the chips fall where they may.
In the rBST or BGH case that we learned about, there were two individuals that were eventually fired from their jobs for reporting their findings and refusing to have their research watered down to not embarrass a wealthy corporation, Monsanto is a large corporation, with revenues in 2008 in excess of 11 billion dollars, employs 18,000 people and is a jealous guardian of its products.
They have sued farmers for a number of reasons, including breeding pigs in a way that Monsanto patented, also for selling grain that was mixed with Monsanto-patented grain in neighboring fields (stuff that the wind blew over, basically) and not least, because farmers had “hormone-free” printed in the carton of milk. They have a number of products that are nominally for human consumption, but have associated with them either questionable performance in animal-trials, or like the Terminator seed technology, that causes plants to die at harvest time, (making the farmer to have to buy more seed every year) that are of a disturbing nature to the consumer.
The rBST controversy has made the public to stampede to organic labels. Only time will tell if these labels mean anything, or similar statements made, like “rBST-free” in fact mean it. Monsanto has been sued for polluting waterways with grievous amounts of PCBs, and lest we think that it was better in the past, it has been associated with a number of industrial accidents, some of them quite spectacular. This makes the Posilac case, as rBST is trademarked by Monsanto, a memorable one. The hormone in question is alleged to be already present in the animal, but if a synthetic version is injected, then another hormone triggers a 15-20% increase in output, albeit at the risk of a number of health problems for the cow.
The marketplace seems to have shied away from the controversy, and Monsanto responded by forming a lobbying group to refute and dilute the criticism. It doesn’t help the public perception when it becomes known that FDA, EPA top-tier people, even a sitting Supreme Court Justice have been in their payroll.
The question one must ask as a consumer is, do I want to be complicit with such a bully of a corporation? You may find that its tentacles reach too deeply into our American lifestyle. Their products dominate the corn and soybean crops in the US, and perhaps in another post we can explore that issue. Suffice it to say, unless you grow your own food (and I mean using your own imported seed, or killing wild animals) you can’t avoid eating products that are directly linked to this corporation.
What I admire in Akre and Wilson is that they took a stand on principle and they did not back down, even if it meant that they’d be fired or ruined. Of late, following the reversal of their win at the lower levels, Fox is suing them for lawyer’s fees, more than a million dollars’ worth. They represent the ethics I admire.