Thanks for clarifying, work Style Guide.

Thanks for clarifying, work Style Guide.


WWJD? Insult Muslims, apparently.

This week I wrote a column for IrishCentral about the whole “our government is now censoring art based on right-wing rantings” thing.

(The briefest of recaps: The National Portrait Gallery is featuring an exhibit which displays the work of homosexual artists, and one video installment, created in the ’80s, includes shots of a crucifix on the ground with ants crawling over it. The artist, who died of AIDS, intended the image to convey the suffering and abandonment he felt as well as the idea that Christians at the time were forgetting the examples in compassion that Jesus set for them. When a conservative news site got wind of this, it blasted the Smithsonian and the government, and pretty soon John Boehner called for the exhibit’s removal, threatening to cut the museum’s budget. They capitulated and removed the video installation.)

In response to the column, titled "Smithsonian should have kept ‘ant-covered Jesus,’" several commenters called me ignorant and/or dishonest, which is par for the course, but what never ceases to surprise me, although I’m sure it shouldn’t, are the comments that spin the entire issue into yet another tirade against Muslims.

The general idea, which I’ve found on many other blogs as well, seems to be that Christians suffer far more greatly than Muslims in America, because people would never dare to depict Muhammed in such ways, or else the terrorists would kill them. (Also, the creation and exhibition of this particular video is supposedly a direct attempt to ruin Christmas. Obviously.)

Everywhere, conservatives are calling for a similar depiction of Muhammad. They are all over it. “Put a bacon-covered Muhammad in the Smithsonian!” Right now, American Muslims are shaking their heads, saying, “Hey, how exactly did we get dragged into this? Oh right, just by existing. Our bad.”

It’s a disgusting display of bigotry and hypocrisy, to say the least, that when Christians feel attacked, they think the most appropriate action is to… attack another religion? By their own logic, they find this kind of thing offensive, and so the answer is to offend another religion that has nothing to do with the exhibit at all.

The exhibit is not about Islam. The artist had no statement to make about Islam. I would personally hope that if an artist did have a statement to make about Islam and did so with a compelling, original piece of artwork worthy of our collective consideration, that the Smithsonian would display it.

"But no!" cry the conservative crazies. "If they did that, they’d be murdered by terrorists!" This is sadly a consideration. But shouldn’t it be a good thing that in general, American Christians are not inclined to murder artists for things they find offensive? No? Maybe these Christians think they should start slaying artists too so that people will think twice about letting ants crawl on Jesus!

The debate over whether or not Americans should display art critical of Islam is an important one, but completely irrelevant to this issue. It’s a sad day in America when not only does a Congressman think it appropriate to dictate what privately funded exhibit is displayed in a national museum, but the museum gives in to this partisan demand. It’s an even sadder day when right-wing pundits everywhere will literally use any excuse to denigrate Muslims, and will do so while supposedly defending religion.


Job Search Schizophrenia

We’ve officially entered that magical time of year: Christmas shopping! Job applications! I’m joining the ranks of those soon to hold Master’s degrees in Journalism in one hand while manically scrolling through Craigslist, MediaBistro, Ed2010, JournalismJobs, Gorkana Alerts, Career Builder, Monster, and the website of every single major (OK, and minor) publisher in a 100-mile radius with the other.

Luckily, my journalism program prepared me to be not just a reporter and a writer, but a social media strategist, camera operator, photographer, blog founder and promoter, video editor and general visionary for the future of the industry. But that’s not enough when you’re applying for the very few viable jobs in media right now. It used to be that if you wanted to write for newspapers, you’d get a job as a junior reporter and work your way up. If you wanted to work in magazines, you start as an editorial assistant, etc. Now, however, the paths open to young journalists are far more varied and uncertain, and the necessary qualifications just as varied.

Currently, I’m in the middle of trying to prove on paper that I am a social media goddess who lives and breathes Twitter feeds and can adopt the voice and expertise of a men’s health and lifestyle magazine, while simultaneously writing a cover letter that shows off my earnestness in conducting serious investigative journalism on topics such as government misconduct and healthcare. Later on, I’ll explain to an HR department that I am the perfect candidate to editorially assist the style department of a major magazine whose readership consists primarily of mothers of school-aged children, and then I’ll be sending out my resume to a local print newspaper, a national online magazine’s culture department, and a bridal blog.

In the meantime, I will continue to write an opinion column for an Irish news website, produce videos, blog posts and newsletters for a women’s magazine, review off-Broadway plays for a theatre site, pitch stories to a Brooklyn-focused blog, and crank out a profile of an award-winning high school. Oh, and I’ll also be putting the finishing touches on a 6000-word narrative, op-ed revisions, a film review, and an issues piece on race and theater. And blogging, for several different blogs. And drinking coffee. Lots of coffee.

Here’s the thing - I am utterly sincere in each of these endeavors. I genuinely love interviewing a minister to reconstruct his account of the day he felt renewed hope in his congregation’s fight for survival, as much as I love making holiday gift guides for food lovers and reviewing a graphic novel about Hurricane Katrina. I completely believe in my own ability to both dominate the social media side of a publication and to independently conduct investigations into corruption, or to write about neighborhood issues, or produce interactive content on hairstyle preferences, etc.

Are there some of these jobs I’d like better than others? Of course. But I would happily, proudly, enthusiastically accept any of the many positions I’ll be applying for - and I think I could do a cracker jack job at any of them, if I do say so myself.

I’m left to wonder, as I frenetically switch between Facebook maven and Very Serious Investigative Reporter, whether I should abandon it and stick to one strength. The problem with job schizophrenia, however, is that at some point you forget which personality is the “real” one.


Media Goes Loko

The New York Times has published 9 pieces about Four Loko in the past month. The Wall Street Journal has done about 14, including multimedia pieces. Local and network news shows have been having field days with the subject of Alcoholic Energy Drinks. Twitter is abuzz. By all accounts, the ban on Four Loko is Big News.

This seems like a bit of a stretch to me, and a case of the unhelpful self-perpetuating media cycle, in which something shows up in the news so people think it’s important, so more people talk about it, and then it shows up in the news again. This is what happens when journalists (and I’m guilty of this myself) look for story ideas based on trending topics on Twitter. While it can sometimes lead to great insights, it can also lead to overblowing a story.

Like, for example, the coverage of the uproar over the new TSA requirements that call for either a full-body scan, or, if refused, a thorough pat-down, before boarding a flight. Some people claim that this is an invasion of their privacy and they won’t stand for it. OK. Their prerogative. But can we please stop hearing about it in the news?

Maybe it’s more newsworthy than I’m realizing, but I guess what’s so bothersome isn’t the specific coverage of these issues but the fact that much of the media seems to miss the bigger, more important stories in both cases.

A ban on Four Loko won’t stop dangerous binge drinking on college campuses. Why is this so prevalent in America? What cultural values do we perpetuate that lead to this? Should we reconsider the drinking age? Alcohol education?

A protest that only serves to slow down Thanksgiving weekend travel won’t solve our airline security and anti-terrorism problems, nor will it answer the question of how many civil liberties we are willing to give up in order to remain safe. People don’t want a technician to see through their sweater, but are they OK with the ways that Guantanamo detainees were treated and now are being tried? These things are related, and no one seems to be asking these questions.


Morning Glory: Hollywood’s Take on TV News

Today I saw the movie Morning Glory, for several reasons. One is that I am curious about how Hollywood depicts the current state of journalism. Another is that it was an assignment for my Arts Criticism class. Another is that I liked The Devil Wears Prada (same screenwriter), cheesiness included, and I also heart Harrison Ford. (Here’s why, aside from Air Force One, obviously: I attended the U.S. premiere of the latest Indiana Jones movie and saw him up close. He wore an earring and wobbled between complete awkwardness and strangely unaware snobbery - discussing the multiple planes that he owns and flies, etc. - during interviews with BET correspondents. Please don’t ask me why BET sponsored the premiere of a film with not a single black person in a substantive role.)

Here’s a preview clip:

My love for awkward iconic actors aside, the film raised some crucial questions that I and all of my journalism school colleagues are facing. It’s about a 28-year-old morning show producer, Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams), who is laid off to make way for a slickly educated MBA-holding executive producer. When she finds a job as the exec producer for a poorly-rated network show, she has to turn the ratings around and reinvent the tired show.

The film has its weaknesses (it was rated 54% on Rotten Tomatoes, which I think is lower than it deserves), but I still enjoyed it. And I was interested in is the idea it presents - that to be successful, a news program has to mix hard and soft news, line up breaking news reports next to fluff segments on making creme brulee.

What ultimately saves the show, however, (spoiler alert, for those too dim to guess how the movie ends) is not the cutesy antics of the hosts but a coup of a breaking news scoop. Morning Glory doesn’t really care about what it says about successful news shows, but for what it’s worth, it seems to promote the idea that compromise is key - between the adorable hard-nosed producer and the gruff Peabody-winning former nightly news anchor with anger issues, between the public’s demand for candy-coated television and a journalist’s imperative to present useful information.

This is an interesting premise for young journalists to consider, but it’s not necessarily the path we should follow. Morning Glory assumes, first of all, a world in which everyone watches morning news shows (they’re just watching The Today Show instead), when the reality is that viewership from those ages 25-54 represents, at best, about half of the total viewership of the three major morning shows on NBC, ABC and CBS. That means, to put it bluntly, that viewership is dying off.

As a person in that age category who does not watch morning news shows as a rule (and I’m a journalist), I can tell you that it’s not because I don’t appreciate and need fluff in my life. It’s just that I don’t waste my television time with it. If I want to see a celebrity chef demonstrate how to roast a turkey, I’ll look it up on YouTube. If I want to here a movie star’s latest PR spiel on her new project, I’ll check in out on Entertainment Weekly’s website. If I want to hear a serious report on the latest cancer research, I most definitely will not want to hear about it from Meredith Vieira. If the network morning shows were more about the day’s actual news, I might tune in. As it is, the balance between hard news and frivolity is difficult enough to maintain in my life and my career.


Our Abysmal Record

In last week’s midterm election, one that turned the House of Representatives to Republican control and served as the first litmus test for the 2012 presidential election, about 41 percent of American citizens eligible to vote did so. The youth turnout, defined as those between the ages of 18 and 29, was about 20 percent.

I’ve spent this weekend with family, celebrating my grandmother’s 85th birthday, and politics has been a duly avoided topic of conversation in the name of love and civility. Voting did come up, however, when an uncle brought up his time in East Timor a few years ago. A former police detective, he went as a private security employee of the UN’s stability forces to monitor the country’s first democratic elections in 2007.

"The polls opened at 8:30 in the morning," he said. "People came out of their huts and the bushes and were lined up first thing. Everybody voted. They were so grateful. These people had nothing and they were so grateful to vote. They came up to me - I was wearing an American flag patch on my uniform - and thanked me. Then they went back to their huts, and we stayed the rest of the day, but everyone had already voted."

He then turned to me, and said, “You’re a journalist, you know what’s going on - why don’t people in this country vote? Why aren’t people engaged?”

I gave my best guess of an answer - the problem is with the education system, that students don’t learn current events, that too much class time is spend on pilgrim and Indian myths, etc. - but the very depressing fact is that I don’t know for sure.

After the Rally to Restore Sanity and the Tea Party surge and the many different factions all getting out the vote, still only 40 percent of those allowed to vote came out to the polls. Forget the Republicans who claim that they aren’t being heard. Sixty percent of our country feels significantly insignificant or disillusioned or simply does not understand the reason to vote that they just didn’t even bother.

I’m note sure why this is, and I’m aware that there is no simple and single-faceted answer. But it does make me feel a responsibility, as a member of the media, to do a better job of helping people stay informed and letting them understand what the people of East Timor knew, intuitively, was the most important action they can take to improve their lives.


Should Monthly Mags Host Blogs?

Marie Claire is taking some major (and well-deserved) heat for Maura Kelly’s blog post about how fat people disgust her. To date, it has received 3,111 comments, most of them lambasting Kelly. The basics: Kelly, at the suggestion of her editor, wrote about the show Mike & Molly, expressing her extreme distaste for overweight people doing offensive things like walking across rooms and kissing their spouses. People were pissed. Kelly issued a complete 180-degree apology. Joanna Coles, EIC of Marie Claire, gave a bland, pandering non-apology, as reported by Fashionista:

“Maura Kelly is a very provocative blogger,” Coles told us. “She was an anorexic herself and this is a subject she feels very strongly about.”

While the world responds to the subject of the post, with articles, a “big fat kiss-in” protest outside of the Hearst building, and calls to boycott Marie Claire and Hearst, it got me thinking about the underlying issue - monthly print magazines hosting blogs.

This controversy raises many questions about that. What obligations do MC editors have to vet their bloggers’ opinions and postings? (Shouldn’t someone have pointed out - among many other things - that a recovering anorexic should not be waxing snarky about body image?) Coles seems to think that the only necessary response is to label Kelly as “provocative.”

While it seems unlikely that this incident will increase subscriptions for MC, it has certainly boosted their online traffic, which is a good thing for the magazine - but at what cost? Should magazines let their bloggers throw credibility and decency to the wind for the sake of page views? Should magazines, which by necessity put their books through months of oversight, rewriting, copy-editing, more rewriting, fact-checking and rigorous editing, be in the blogging business at all?

I understand the need to stay relevant online and drive traffic to a magazine’s online content. I’ve written posts for another monthly women’s title, Ladies’ Home Journal, for their blog, the Ladies’ Lounge. The blog supplements articles from the magazine that also go on the website in full when each issue hits newsstands. It can be a great way to carry on conversations about the articles, post follow-ups, include extra tidbits that had to be cut, answer readers’ questions, alert people to other related pieces, etc. But it wouldn’t have life without its attachment to Ladies’ Home Journal.

At some point, Marie Claire made the choices to hire their particular bloggers and said to them, Have at it! Write whatever! Be controversial! It’s an editorial decision and a style, and this time around it backfired. Several blogs hosted by MC probably would stand on their own; the relationship is simply that MC hires these online personalities to blog in its name. If Kelly weren’t employed by Hearst, she may not have posted her useless apology. (I’ve written before about bloggers apologizing after their words garner negative feedback. I still say it makes the original offense even worse. Simply saying “I didn’t mean it” doesn’t help.) And maybe she’d be able to stick with this topic, explore it further, subject herself to the criticism and deal with it and open it up, make it a real conversation. Instead, she’s back to blogging about slutty Halloween costumes and her dating life.

The problem with this is that it’s taking the best functions of blogging (the ability to get feedback and delve into topics based on reader interest) away and replacing it with the out-sized but supposedly invisible hand of major magazine editorial power. MC needs to either let Kelly run a blog that has nothing to do with their own separate editorial mission, or make damn sure that her posts don’t run afoul of it.


Sex and the City and Anti-Intellectualism

It’s happened. Anti-intellectualism has seeped so far into the culture that it has reached a bastion of what was once considered the pinnacle of woman’s liberation: Sex and the City.

Serendipity brought me a few recent brushes recently with the franchise that never dies. I read a quote fom Sarah Jessica Parker in last week’s issue of New York magazine, her answer to a reporter’s question about the terrible reviews of the last SATC movie that had the fiersome foursome skipping off to Abu Dhabi to ogle servant boys and go shopping. (Disclaimer: I have yet to actually see the movie. The previews were hard enough to watch - and this is coming from a fan.)

Then on a bus ride to Philadelphia, I quelled my motion sickness by surreptiously watching a silent version of the first SATC on the laptop of someone in front of me. Even though I’d only seen it once before, and even without sound, I knew exactly what was going on, and I thought that it held erup much worse on second viewing.

What’s important here is SJP’s statement that she has not read a single review of SATC2. She acted like she had no idea it was critically panned, and then said that the movies are “more for the fans” anyway.

This attitude is becoming alarmingly prevelent in the entertainment industry. James Cameron laughed at accusations of copying the plot of Pocahontas for Avatar, all the way to the bank, but didn’t bother denying them. One of the most popular shows on television, Jersey Shore, is also possibly the worst reviewed show of all time. Producers (and SJP is one) are caring less and less about critical success as long as the box office or ratings are strong.

It’s no accident that some of our popular culture is feeding back Tea Party generated spite for what’s seen as a liberal idea: being smart. Sarah Palin calls the President an intellectual, and it’s meant to be an insult. Sex and the City, the show, was about showing that women have, enjoy and discuss sex - often and a lot. It was cheesy, sure, and unrealistic in many ways (A newspaper columnist living in the Village and buying Manolos every week? I think not.) but it showed a part of society that had been previously taboo, and it was smart. Sadly, SATC is now happy to dumb itself way down to be popular. Just like our politicians.


The Best Law & Order You’ve Never Seen

This has been a sad but hopeful year for Law & Order fans. The original series, which ran for 20 years, was cancelled on NBC. While it is sure to live in perpuity for many millenia on TNT (they know drama, after all), it was a blow to all of us who love Jack McCoy that we won’t see his feathers get ruffled by injustice on new episodes any longer. It was an end to the NYC institution that gave so many little known actors a chance to shine, as well as the premise that no one talks to cops without busily continuing the task before them, be that baking bread or sewing costumes or shoveling coal.

But the indefatigable SVU continues on NBC while it’s bastard cousin Criminal Intent finds a revival of interest, thanks to Jeff Goldblum joining the cast, on USA. And alas, out of the ashes, comes a brand new franchise: Law & Order: LA.

So far, it’s holding up, and hopefully won’t go the way of the ill-conceived (because it varied too far from the formula by venturing into defense and criminal points of view) and ill-fated (because Jerry Orbach died) Trial by Jury.

Law & Order aficianados might be pinning all their hopes on the LA franchise, but I’d bet that few of them realize there’s another horse in this race. Law & Order: UK. Oh yes. It’s a real thing.

The London version premiered in 2009 to critical success on the BBC. The main variations seem to be that the police force doesn’t carry guns and the barristers dress in black robes (and sometimes those crazy George Washington wigs!). It’s also shot at 60 frames per second, as are most non-American shows and films, while we’re stuck with crappy 24 fps because for some reason that’s all we can handle.

The result is not insignificant. To American eyes, the camera seems shakier, but that’s only because it’s capturing more movement, and we get that classic BBC look that screams “This was not shot in Hollywood.”

Gone too are the beautiful extras, the fakey indoor sets and the cut-to-commercial quips from detectives. We also don’t need to be whacked in the skull with explicitness; the English have a way with letting brutal crimes speak for themselves.

If anyone has TiVo and BBC America, you might catch this wonderful fruit of Dick Wolf’s loins, and I highly recommend it, providing you can slog through the accents and cultural slang.

What the Law & Order: LA writing team can learn from the success of the UK spinoff is this - don’t get too flashy. This is crime drama. Unfortunately, most criminal scenarios don’t need to be dramatized to be dramatic.