The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, February 02, 2004

Regular news and op-ed pieces and contemporary community standards - it's Miller Time, apparently

Via Romenesko - by far the handiest source of media comment I've come across - a strangely disturbing little piece from Folio, a New York media mag I hadn't noticed before.

The journo, Simon Dumenco, was covering the Rosie O'Donnell/Gruner + Jahr judicial donnybrook from his back-yard, and apparently received incoming from Deep in the Heart of Texas. He was having fun, being ironic - what else was a hack supposed to do with the Rosie farce? - and got himself into some half-naked fakir difficulties.

(Winston Churchill's vastly misunderstood quotation on Gandhi last mentioned here on January 9.)

One sentence of Dumenco's:
The New Rosie - a foul-mouthed, angry dyke and demonic manager (who told a cancer-surviving employee that liars get cancer) - was a bait and switch, pure and simple.

Just as Churchill's point was that Gandhi was not a fakir, but play-acting one, so Dumenco's point was that the image he described was unreal - a phoney, untrue:
My point was that when she signed up with G+J to create Rosie, she was in the closet in more ways than one: She was not officially out as a lesbian, and she was still pretending to be America's cuddly Queen of Nice.

His Texan correspondents, and others, thought he was being serious. Or said they did: clearly, there are axes to be ground in this neck of the political woods.

He says he
was sufficiently rattled by the angry emails that I called up Aly Colón, the ethics and diversity expert on the faculty of the Poynter Institute.

(Pause for hearts to sink at the sight of the D-word.)

And if you thought that the Poynter Institute was a place where the defence of journalism would be at its most ferocious...
Colón noted that the Web, in a way, levels media brands and identities. "In the past, you wouldn't necessarily know if people in other states would subscribe to New York, but the expectation was that if they did sign up, they knew what they were getting," he told me. Whether they were former New Yorkers, or the magazine was recommended to them, readers would tend to get New York because they understood it in its totality - and would implicitly be receptive to its brash and outspoken editorial voice.

If I'm not mistaken, the guy is saying that New York rags should consider the feelings of Podunk readers who call their Moms 'Auntie'. Change the name from Poynter to Comstock, why don't you?

Then, he talks to
my old friend Evan Smith (speaking of brash and outspoken), the editor of Texas Monthly. Turns out even hard-bitten Evan is testy about the whole context issue - and he didn't even have to log on to his email to run into it. His magazine recently ran a cover feature about the University of Texas that included a subhead, written by Evan himself, that ended with the phrase "But enough with the talk." His colleagues complained that it was "too Northeast." Evan's reaction: It was code for "too Jewish." (Jerry Seinfeld's work, it seems, is not yet finished.)

And surely that sort of Yinglish is now pretty much universal in the US, because it's fun (in small doses): even I have been known to dabble. (The subhead went in, saints be praised.) And what about Kinky Friedman, for crying out loud...

The milquetoast Dumenco says
Evan's point, I think, is that by occasionally speaking in a language that is not the boilerplate Texan twang that everyone expects, his magazine can go beyond the confines of its context and assert that citizenship.

You don't say?

I'm thinking you'd have to go back to Spain of the 1780s to find a society so atrophied and hide-bound by protocol and niceties of language as to correspond with Dumenco's image of the reading United States. I certainly can't recognise it from the content from American sources, professional and amateur, that I see everyday on my screen.

Folks see all sorts of what one might euphemise as challenging material online; they get enured, like doctors to blood and guts; they want the rough edges, the authenticity, the fact the stuff is not tailored to their needs, like material in their home media.

The familiar and expected is good and necessary: but that's stuff I've chosen to watch or read because it is familiar and expected. But the other stuff is necessary, too.

Which brings me to Miller. Which was the Supreme Court decision in 1973 that established the constitutional boundaries on laws on obscenity. One element of which depended on the notion of contemporary community standards. The idea was that the US was too big to establish any single standard of what was obscene. (The fact that to impose a statewide standard for somewhere like California was equally absurd didn't seem to occur to the Court, so far as a skim reveals.)

And clearly it's an issue that arises in internet cases related to obscenity (most recently, on the Pennsylvania web-blocking law).

Now, of course, I'm making an analogy here: why should a New York magazine directed mainly at those in the area that looks to New York City [1] take cognisance of the odd few dead-tree subscribers elsewhere in the country, or of net users around the world? Think of the dilution!

And do such mags as Folio - except for the purposes of generating rather overheated op-eds - actually do anything of the sort?

(A lot of the content of papers like the New York Times is, I would imagine, tailored for a nationwide readership. But what about the Metro pages? Do they get special dispensation to have a local twang? And local papers would die, surely, if they tried to compromise on style and content for the benefit of net users? Who are mostly those with a personal connection with the locality who tune in precisely to get a taste of home-town authenticity.)

Community standards is a fine notion - so long as it's understood that there are, perhaps, millions of communities in the US alone, stratified by location, class, ethnicity, occupation - you name it. Even a small-circulation rag will be appealing to those in a mix of communities. And the mix will be different from rag to rag.

This all sounds to me like high school journalism course stuff. I can see that Dumenco - column to fill - might have thought to navel-gaze. But the Poynter guy seemed to take it seriously.

Which I find a little disturbing.

  1. What's the word for this? It's wider than the SMSA or within commuting distance. But if Bridgeport, CT is in NYC's magnetic field for this purpose, what about, say, New Haven? Is it the New York Times weekday distribution area?


It is, I suppose, merely a spatial variation on the attempts at speech-chilling on the grounds of politics, ethnicity, religion and so forth with which we are familiar.

The British World War 2 propaganda poster enquired, with the threatening voice of faceless disapproving authority
Is your journey really necessary?

Any American writer [1] has a whole souk of such voices in his head each selling its own angle with the insistence, emotion and guile of a carpet salesman in old Baghdad.

Frankly, it's a miracle that anything gets published at all. Ultimately, the writer (and editor) has to give them all the finger - and take the risk of being visited by that other digit of fame: the fickle finger of fate. Cue The Gregg Easterbrook Story (but not on your ABC station any time soon!).

Now the Village Voice has to think whether its stuff would offend the matrons of Sauk Center?

It's absurd. Clearly. And then I read a story like this one from Kimberly Swygert - and I find I need to recalibrate my absurdometer.

Play the music, open the cage as music-hall comedian Arthur English used to say...

  1. There's some self-censorship right here: to point out that I am talking about the US, and therefore refer to American writers. Which is not to say that similar problems do not arise in other, so-called democratic countries.

    To maintain that someone who mentions a problem in Country A is, by implication, suggesting that the same problem does not exist in Country B is a cheap debating trick, of course.

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