A Word from Our Sponsor

Today’s blog entry is a commercial for my upcoming poetry reading at the Main Branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh at 2 p.m. on Sunday, September 20. 

The Library has a budget shortfall and faces the sad possibility of reducing hours, so I decided to give the Library my part of the proceeds of the sale of any copies of my book, Music from Words, at the reading.  I also got the publisher, Bellday Books, to agree to give its portion of any sales to the Library as well.   That means if you buy a copy of Music from Words at the reading, 100% of the proceeds will go to the Carnegie Library, which operates about 20 libraries in Pittsburgh.

And here’s the best part for the thousands, hundreds or maybe just dozens reading this blog entry: If you buy a copy of Music from Words directly from the publisher during the month of September, 2009, 100% of all proceeds will also be donated to the Carnegie Library.   To order the book and to read or hear a few of my poems, link to www.belldaybooks.com.

Wall to Wall Sound

Last Sunday afternoon under a perfectly mild late summer Atlanta sun, I saw the Atlanta Braves play the Florida Marlins in a tight back-and-forth ball game topped by a late inning rally by the home team. 

Yes, I saw the game, but what I heard was an aural bastinado of song snippets and sound effects, and what I viewed behind the field was a constant whirr of color dedicated to selling products and services.

Once I noticed in the third inning that virtually all air space was cluttered with blaring sound, I began to count the seconds between each public address system eruption: only once did more than 10 seconds go by before the completion of one sound and the beginning of the next, many serving as the aural accompaniment to the Jumbotron activity above center field. 

These sounds included:

  • Snippets of recorded songs to announce home team players
  • Snippets of songs played by the organist to announce road team players, often puns, such as “The Weight” for a Marlin named Ross Gload (take a Gload off Fanny…).
  • The Braves’ famous Tomahawk chant and hack
  • Snippets of other songs redolent of American-Indian culture, such as “Apache”
  • Snippets of still other songs, all tending to middle-of-the-road pop, e.g., country pop and pop grunge
  • Three or four different clap chants
  • The “Charge!” bugle call
  • Other sound effects, e.g., someone slipping on a banana peel or a growl of anger
  • Two trivia contests with fans, both with a corporate sponsor
  • Two other fan drawings, with corporate sponsors
  • Music to camera scans of fans in the park
  • The “stuffed animal” race that most ballparks seem to have now
  • The same vote on which of three songs to play that most ballparks have, except that in Turner Field, they don’t wait a half inning to play the winning tune, but do it right away.

None of this sound and sound-with-pictures ever lasted more than two minutes and about half of it was less than 10 seconds.  It was as if the Braves’ management decided that the game was not enough and that most people have the attention span of a three-year-old. 

And of course, virtually all of the sound that was more than a grunt or a few bars of a pop song was sponsored by a corporation, including some of the biggest names in the business world.

By the playing of “God Bless America,” I was numb from the shock wave of commoditized sound emanating constantly from the speakers.  But many people seemed to like it, dancing in place to the music, clapping when the announcer exhorted them to clap, cheering when told to cheer, doing the tomahawk chant and hack. 

Just as many movies have become little more than video games (“The Taking of Pelham 123” or “300,” for example), so have sporting events become little more than VH1 documentaries or “Pop-up video” TV shows, spectacles of short but garish entertainments strung together and hung on the background narrative that is the topic of the documentary or the game.

They Believe the Lies

The news media everywhere covered a survey released this week by Indiana University that shows that a majority of Americans believe the lies—excuse me, myths— about health care reform that have been polluting the airwaves, virtual space, blogosphere, print pages and other public forums for months.  These myths, all false, include:

  • The federal government will be directly involved in making decisions about care: 50% believe this lie.
  • Taxpayers will have to pay for abortions: 55%
  • Illegal aliens will be covered: 46%
  • Waits for medical services will increase: 67%

Some people who believe the myths are surely frightened seniors or those who usually don’t get involved in political or social issues and therefore have not learned which media they can trust and which routinely distorts. 

But I’m going to postulate that the people who believe these myths largely coincide with the same “true believers” who have swallowed the many falsities promulgated by the religious right. I call them “true believers,” because they mostly decide matters of fact with anecdotes and beliefs and not facts; the origin of the expression is Eric Hofer, I believe.  The fact that many more Republicans than Democrats came down on the “lie side” of the IU survey supports that supposition.

The true believers are not bad people, but they do tend to believe a subset of the news media prone to lying and distorting facts, even when the truth is readily available.  These lying media, which include websites, some print media and a lot of talk radio, first ingratiated themselves with the true believers by tapping into their prejudices regarding religion, social issues such as abortion (and, for a while, gay marriage) and race, and connecting these core “true-believer” beliefs with a free-market, anti-government bias which I believe was always the true agenda of the right-wing media.  As the IU survey demonstrates, years of feeding prejudices with lies and distortions continue to pay off.

Ideological Subtext, Part 2

NPR gave us a wonderful example of an aspirational kind of ideological subtext this morning in a story about an Iranian-American student at Columbia University and his long-distance relationship with friends in the homeland during these turbulent times.  Near the beginning, the earnest young man reminisces about hearing his father talk about current events happening in Iran when he was a boy and tuning him out!  Since I and my brother and most of the kids we knew hung on every word when adults talked about current events, I found it peculiar that this boy did not.

It does not matter if the Iranian college boy said it or not.  He said a lot of things and the reporter chose to select that one detail of not caring about the news as a means to structure the introduction of the subject.  Once more, the news director accepted this decision to have the young lad describe himself as a former dunce, just an average Columbia Joe until something or someone changed his life. Keep listening to find out…

The ideological subtext of this detail is clear: children are naturally uncurious and even anti-intellectual.  To “not be an intellectual” has been one of the three basic foundation stones of aspirational subtext in the mass media since at least the 1920s, along with identify and follow the in-crowd and buying something brings happiness.

What has always puzzled me is why writers—the intelligentsia in any society—choose to be the instrument that conveys that to be smart is a bad thing.

Tar Sand in the Eyes

Michael Lynch, a so-called energy consultant who used to be involved in energy research at MIT’s Center for International Studies, has a silly little piece of specious reasoning in today’s New York Times. The point of Lynch’s article is that the widespread belief in the  “peak oil” theory is leading to wasting money investing in “hairbrained renewable energy schemes” and imposing “unnecessary and expensive conservation measures.” 

Of course, Lynch never gives a single example of a “harebrained”  scheme or of unnecessary conservation, preferring to spend his limited words on attempting to demonstrate that the earth has 2.5 trillion barrels of oil and not a mere 2 trillion as claimed by some “peak oil” advocates.  As Wikipedia tells us, the peak theory, first proposed by M. King Hubbert, is a mathematical way to determine when the production of petroleum from any given oil field peaks, after which the yield from the field will start to dwindle inevitably to nothing. 

Let’s say that all of the adjustments that Lynch proposes to make to the peak oil theory are accurate and appropriate:  Won’t we still  run out of oil one day?  Are we better off sticking our hands in the tar sands (from which oil companies hope to one day pull oil) because we have more oil than one set of engineers say we do?  And isn’t the burning of oil for fuel still a major cause of global warming?

The interesting part of the article of course is the sly way in which by changing the argument from “when will we run out of oil” to “have we reached what can technically be described as the ‘peak’ in possible oil production,” Lynch hopes to justify less regulation and less investment in a viable energy future.  It’s an old rhetorical trick, akin to throwing (tar) sand into the eyes of the reader. 

They’re Still Doing It!

They’re still doing it!  Corporations are still saying no comment, or worse yet, not being available for comment.  I just did a Google news search for both “no comment” and “not available for comment” and found pages of recent examples of both. 

  • No-commenters included the TNA Wrestling Association, the German Economic Ministry, New York Police Union, New York Racing Authority and Hicks Sports Group, among many others.
  • Those unavailable for comment included Whirlpool, a Michigan school district, several Indian ministries, the South Korean government and the head of the Minneapolis Labor Federation, among many others

Those people should just stop not talking.  Not talking to the news media today is a bad business move.  Whenever a reporter calls an organization, that organization has a golden opportunity to enhance its reputation and say something it wants to say to people to whom it wants to say it.

And when the news is bad, the news media are giving the organization the means to defend itself or give its point of view.  The news media are likely going to report the bad news no matter what.  In most cases it will be in the organization’s best interest to tell its side of the story.

Even if you can’t give a comment because the subject is confidential or related to a lawsuit, you can at least tell why you can’t comment.  When you say “no comment,” the organization comes off as secretive.  But when you say why you can’t comment, you evoke empathy, because most people intuitively understand that sometimes constraints exist.  They just want to know what the constraints are.

Sometimes the news media will call with what they think is bad news, but which really isn’t.  By responding with accurate information, the organization can persuade the reporter not to cover a story or to see that it’s really a positive development.

Often when the news media call, the news is good, or neutral — a reporter may need an expert to comment on a news event, for example.  If it’s good news, the organization can enhance its reputation, using the story as a platform to present the good news and to make some basic messages about its mission and objectives.  And there is no organization that will not benefit from one of its staff being proclaimed an expert by the news media.

In short, there is never a reason not to respond to the news media when they call, as long as the organization treads carefully.  It is all too easy to turn a golden opportunity for positive media coverage into a disaster.

Let’s Focus on the Objectives

I suspect I agree with Bob Herbert more than any other mainstream print columnist I read, but I disagree with his assessment that the now likely health care reform will be a bad thing.

First Herbert’s description of probable health care reform from today’s column:

“If the oldest and sickest are on Medicare, and the poorest are on Medicaid, and the young and the healthy are required to purchase private insurance without the option of a competing government-run plan — well, that’s reform the insurance companies can believe in.”

But doesn’t that description accomplish one of the two goals of health care reform: to cover more people?  Who really cares who is covering whom, as long as everyone is covered with a decent set of health care benefits?  The fact that insurance companies will make profits may matter on other non-health care related issues, but on the issue of coverage, it does not.  Most health care insurance profits are regulated already in one way or another. I’m therefore not opposed to the solution that Herbert describes. 

Of course, there is still the other objective of reducing costs.  Universal coverage, technology fixes and new regulations, all in proposed health care reform, will take care of some part of the funding problem.  But the U.S. won’t really be able to cut health care costs until we as a nation live a healthier lifestyle.  Again, that has nothing to do with insurance reform.

FYI, Herbert’s comments on drug manufacturers in the same column are on point.

How About Some Fact-Based Thinking?


Why are so many of the bedrock principles of the rural-suburban right wing based on misinformation, distortions or bald-faced lies?  Consider these following cornerstones of current conservative thought:


  1. That global warming does not exist and that what warming is occurring does not result from human actions
  2. That private sector solutions are always better than the intervention of government
  3. That people are safer when everyone carries a loaded handgun around
  4. That locking people up deters crime more than rehabilitation
  5. Everything in the U.S. is better than in Western Europe and the rest of the developed world


Repeated studies by multiple groups have disproved all five of these conservative beliefs:

  • Global warning is occurring and human activity is a primary cause
  • The government has done a better job than the private sector in several areas, including prison management, pensions and health care.
  • Studies show that more people are killed by ordinary citizens or friendly fire than by robbers and other criminals year after year, meaning people are less safe with more guns in society
  • Again, study results virtually always favor rehabilitation, just as they favor therapy over prison for drug offenders
  • We have the worst health care system in the developed world, more expensive than any western European country, with higher infant mortality rates and lower life spans.  Europe also has better mass transit and more secure pensions for its workers.

I understand the old-fashioned “black” propaganda that religiously tinged right-wing broadcast and Internet media constantly spew: that concoction of anecdotes, scenarios, provocative questions, inferences, innuendoes, invalid studies financed by right-wing interests and quotes from so-called experts like Charles Krauthammer, Juan Williams, Michelle Malkin, William Kristol, et. al., all of whom are paid by right-wing interests.  Yes, it’s a deeply stimulating if pernicious brew.  But why do so many people zero in on these lies, shoddy facts and arguments and ignore or reject the mainstream natural and social sciences?   Why do so many people believe what so many facts disprove? 

Dumbing Down

The description of “The Marriage of Figaro” in the Pittsburgh Opera’s season ticket solicitation marks a new low in dumbing down the arts.   Here it is:

“What is this thing called love? 

Imagine protecting your fiancée from a lecherous rival, finding your long-lost son, and healing an ailing marriage – all in one day! Most of us would pull out our hair, but this is Mozart, and on Figaro’s dizzying wedding day, love is in the air, behind a door, under a chair, and in everyone’s hearts. And you thought your wedding day was chaotic.”

Now let’s disregard the fact that there is no connection between the headline and the paragraph that follows it.  And let’s also disregard that there is absolutely nothing in the description about the magnificent music, nor about this most literary of librettos, based on Beaumarchais’ play, one of the most subversive, anti-establishment works of the past 250 years.

Let’s focus on the way the paragraph tries so very hard to connect with those who regularly read and take seriously fashion and bridal magazines.  Arts organizations, and especially serious music ensembles, have been engaged in this kind of dumbing down for about 10-15 years now, despite the fact that it doesn’t seem to work.  I can’t say specifically what the Pittsburgh Opera’s financial situation is, but most arts organizations have not been helped by dumbed-down marketing gimmicks; ticket sales are still down for virtually all arts organizations.  But these gimmicks do manage to piss off those core customers who don’t like the anti-intellectualism and mindless consumerism that are the ideological bedrock of fashion, bridal and similar periodical fluff.

For the record: I would be even more perturbed if the description of the opera took a smutty or Sinatra-cool laddy-mag approach.

Or Maybe it’s Occam’s Razor

The New York Times has another great example of ideological subtext in a story on the front page of the August 7, 2009 business section titled “Trickle-Down Costs” and again it had to do with the selection of photos.

The story concerned the pressures on state governments to cut Medicaid costs and focused on Medicaid challenges and cutbacks in the state of Washington.  There was one photo on page B1 and another on the continuation on page B4 (all national edition).  Both photos were of African-Americans on Medicaid in the state of Washington.  Keep in mind that only 3% of all Washington state Medicaid recipients are African-American and only 12% of all recipients nationwide are African-American, according to the latest study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.  The possible ideological subtext that we can infer from this selection of photographs is odious and clearly plays into some old and ugly myths, to say the least.

Remember that as with the Times article described in my August 7 post, the writer of this article, Clifford Krauss, and the editor made a conscious decision to run just these photographs.

But maybe there is another explanation:  Maybe both reporters were cutting corners—grab a few case histories and take a few photos in one city and don’t be concerned with what subtext they might communicate.  Cutting corners or saving on costs or both—that would be the “Occam’s Razor” explanation.  (Occam’s Razor is the idea that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.)  While I’m reasonably sure that the Times does color its stories to convey, and overestimate, the centrality of Christianity to contemporary society in the U.S., I’m also fairly certain that the Times absolutely does not routinely trade in inaccurate racial stereotypes.