Media Musings

A blog for students and stalkers of Brian Steffen, centering on issues of concern in media studies.

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Location: Indianola, Iowa, United States

Hello all... I'm a professor of communication studies at Simpson College and a junkie of all things media. I'm blogging on life on the faculty at Simpson and working with some of the best young future professionals in the world.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Culture in Denial

After a day of 9/11 rebroadcasts and the inevitable, inane and predictable cable-news questions like "are we safer?", I thirsted for something profound somewhere, anywhere today. Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times provided it in his examination of the state of popular culture in the five years since the attacks.

In 2001, Goldstein predicted the beginning of the War on Terror would have a sobering effect on a culture that, at the time, regarded Rudy Giuliani as America's Adulterer rather than America's Mayor and elevated the sexploits of then-Rep. Gary Condit to fodder for C-Span discussion. In 2006, Goldstein insists that he was right -- for about a week. But it didn't take long for Americans to relish a return to normalcy thanks to Janet Jackson's breast, John Mark Karr's business-class flight back from Thailand to face "justice" in Colorado, and Tom and Katie's uberbaby.

"In this atmosphere, it's hardly surprising that Sept. 11 has the sound of distant thunder," he argues, "treated with great solemnity but rarely given a thought in our daily lives."

It's not just the fault of audiences, Goldstein says. It's the artistic community's failure to answer creative and existential questions of the tragedy that is a large part of the problem. "We've had authenticity, but precious little poetry," he writes. Even Oliver Stone, the director who alleged massive plotting behind the murder of JFK, was reduced to making what essentially qualified as a Lifetime movie of the week in autering "World Trade Center".

It'll take a long time for us to figure out exactly what 9/11 meant -- especially when we're not interested in wrestling with the big questions that surround the biggest crime of our time.

Monday, September 11, 2006

So Who Needs Rolling Stone Anyway?

Arctic Monkeys was a big indie-music find earlier this year, a phenomenon that ignored the old-media rules of radio airplay and coverage in the music-fan magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin. Now add Broken Social Scene to the list of out-of-nowhere bands that are telling Clear Channel that they're needed as much as Clear Channel needs the Dixie Chicks.

What both are taking advantage of is Internet-based music distribution tools and online fanzines that have low overhead and thus can promote bands on quality alone and not on the "need for popularity," as Michael O'Shaughnessy and Jane Stadler argue in our Mass Communication and Society textbook.

In the case of Brooklyn-based Broken Social Scene, the golden nugget has been pub with online music tastemaker Pitchfork. As Dave Itzkoff reports in this month's Wired, Pitchfork editor Ryan Schreiber "plucked the record from the slush pile at random" among the thousands of discs he receives, most of which he doesn't have time to listen to -- even if he wanted to. On the one hand, Schreiber wrote, BSS had bad packaging that made them appear to be "the most unimaginative, bleak, whiny emo bastards in the whole pile."

Then he listened to the CD and found that it "explodes ... with song after song of endlessly playable, perfect pop." That was enough to make bandleader Kevin Drew's phone ring off the hook, and a June appearance on Letterman confirmed the band as summer indie-music darlings.

How can Pitchfork pay attention to the music rather than the fad? Itzkoff, a former editor at Spin, says it's simple: "The trouble we had at Spin was that although there were still new and emerging indie-rock acts worth getting excited about, none would ever be big enough to sell a magazine that had to reach half a million consumers every month just to stay alive."

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Setting the Newspaper Free

A couple of weeks ago, it was The Economist that fretted over the future of newspapers. Now the BBC is asking whether the day will soon pass when consumers will be willing to pay a plug nickel (or even a half pence!) for a newspaper.

The event that has the Beeb asking the question is the launch of London's third free daily newspaper on Monday of this week. In the lowercase world of Internet URLs, the new paper is titled simply thelondonppaper, published by Rupert Murdoch's News International. It comes on the heels of the launch last week of London Lite (tastes great? less filling?), which is the work of Associated Newspapers.

The business models may differ from the old fashioned idea of people actually paying for the news they read, but the newspaper wars among the competing franchises are refreshingly the same. London Lite's owners say Murdoch's company stole its business plan for London Lite in starting thelondonpaper, and the pages of each paper are full of content slagging the other side. I love in when newspapers hate each other with the intensity of a thousand suns.

Will the new papers steal readers from the old, established papers, such as the Times or the Telegraph that actually separate Londoners from their pocket change? No, says Stefano Hatfield, editor of thelondonpaper. He wants to reach the 18 to 35s who currently read no newspaper at all.

"This generation never really developed the newspaper habit. Unlike their parents, they didn't get into a long-lasting relationship with any one paper. Instead they tend to get their news from various different sources, in particular the internet.

"We're winning over new readers, so I don't think that will put pressure on the paid-for papers to lower their prices or go free."

Monday, September 04, 2006

PBS Give Us Some AIR

PBS' new series, America's Investigative Reports, begins this coming week, airing on Friday nights at 9:30 p.m. on Iowa Public Television. Not the most convenient time for most college students, I realize, but still worth watching or TiVO-ing if you can't watch it.

The new series is designed to show Americans how investigative reporters go about their work, even when it isn't as suspenseful as "All The President's Men." The New York
Times gave the series a positive review
last week.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

'Surviving' the Race Card

So the producers of CBS' "Survivor", finding that their franchise is running into the inevitable boredom of audiences over the show's concept, have decided to grab pre-season headlines by playing the race card in its upcoming fall run. As most know by now, the new twist in the Fall 2006 run of the show will be its use of race as determinants of team membership. Africans-Americans will compete on one team, opposed by teams of whites, Asians, Hispanics, etc.

The question, of course, is whether the strategy will play with viewers, or whether the younger demographic highly courted by advertisers will run.

General Motors is voting with its feet. A prominent advertiser since the opening of the show in July 2000, GM is immediately dropping out of "Survivor". And they're not alone: Coca Cola, Home Depot, United Parcel Service and Campbell's Soup also are dropping the show.

Collectively, the sponsors accounted for 18 percent of all the advertising revenues generated by the program in 2006.

This is not good news, even when the advertisers insist the decisions to drop the show have nothing to do with the racial format. But others are explicitly upset with the race card being part of the new "Survivor":

• New York City officials say the program will promote racial division and are calling for CBS to call it off. "The idea of having a battle of the races is preposterous," City Councilman John Liu said. "How could anybody be so desperate for ratings?"

• "I hate it," James Pritchett, professor of anthropology and director of the African Studies Center at Boston University, told The Boston Herald on Thursday. "This program is drumming up every old stereotype, and I don't think it is going to be useful at all. What next, a show pitting Jews and Muslims and Christians against each other?"

• Millennials may not find the new format amusing. USA Today's David Andrukonis notes that "Gen Nexters of different races live together and think nothing of it. Nearly all the young people [interviewed by USA Today] talk passionately about the work that lies ahead before society truly functions as though it were color blind."

The students in Mass Communication and Society will be talking this term about the ways that media represent race. Lots of questions follow: Will CBS' gambit challenge traditional notions of racial division? Does it help society accept diversity?