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Disaster … That’s entertainment

17 Mar

[T]ragedy is promoted on television as if it were entertainment: the trial of O.J. Simpson for a grisly murder, the car-crash death of Princess Diana, Chilean miners trapped below ground and yes, even the combination earthquake-tsunami-nuclear calamity in Japan. It is the nature of TV that everything is promoted the same way, no matter how ghastly the event.
There are rewards for doing so. According to FishbowlDC, “The Japan tragedy sets a new record for CNN.com with more than 60 million viewers watching.”

So writes Roger Simon of Politico.com. His complaint (posted March 17) echoes Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman’s 1985 classic critique of the “Age of Television,” which includes prescient passages like this:

There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly — for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening — that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, “Now … this.” The newscaster means that you have thought long enough on the previous matter (approximately forty-five seconds, that you must not be morbidly preoccupied with it (let’s say, for ninety seconds), and that you must now give your attention to another fragment of news or a commercial.

That’s not precisely what’s going on now, in the age of 24/7 cable TV information, but Postman was on to something.

Go here to read Roger Simon’s column, which includes several other trenchant points.

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The Adjustment Bureau: Stylish, thoughtful, clever and full of holes

7 Mar

The Adjustment Bureau is a fine, fun movie that’s a good place to start a conversation about free will, fate, “God’s plan for my life,” and all that. But it’s not a good place to finish that conversation. Go see this movie — it could make for a smarter-than-usual date flick — but do not let it change your theology, cosmology. psychology or any other -ology.

The Adjustment Bureau, based on an old story by  legendary sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, stars Matt Damon as David Norris, a talented, up-and-coming New York politician who meets and falls in love with Elise Sellas, a talented, up-and-coming modern dancer played by Emily Blunt. But they’re not supposed to be together, according to a cosmic plan sketched out by a godlike “Chairman.”

We never see the Chairman, but we are introduced to members of the Adjustment Bureau — supernatural “case officers” dressed in 60s-style suits, overcoats and fedoras who monitor people’s comings and goings and, if necessary, perform incremental “adjustments” to make sure the humans stay on their life plans. John Slattery  (AMC’s “Mad Men”), Anthony Mackie (“The Hurt Locker”) and Terence Stamp are the main “bureaucrats” working on the David-Elise case.

The Adjustment Bureau could have either veered off into silliness or into a cinematic slog through existential philosophy. To the film’s credit, it does neither: We get to enjoy a very human story while playing mind games with what it all means.  Damon and Blunt make the movie click: they have great on-screen chemistry. (Note to casting directors: Return to this pairing, but not too often. Please don’t make them a cliché.) The movie finished second in the box office during its opening weekend.

The ideas behind the story derive not from just a good question, but some of the great questions that have inspired and haunted humans for ages, from the 4,600-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh (perhaps the world’s oldest written story) to meditations on the Nazi Holocaust. How much of life is controlled by fate, by God? Do humans have free will? Is there anything such as pure, random chance?

This is like native soil for director and screenwriter George Nolfi, who carries both an enviable box-office record (Ocean’s Eleven, The Bourne Ultimatum) and a notable educational pedigree: After graduating summa cum laude from Princeton (public policy), he did graduate work in philosophy at Oxford and in political science at UCLA.

No surprise, then, that he’s given us a movie that’s not only stylish, clever and often slyly humorous. (Metaphysical case workers doze on the job, misunderstand the boss and must deal with staff shortages — some truths really are universal.) It’s thoughtful and thought-provoking too.

Still, I felt frustrated at several points. For instance, Nolfi seems to lump all concepts of god and/or fate together, without any nuance: ancient Greek myth, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, pantheist … it all comes out in the wash. I don’t know his personal religious views, but his movie’s concept of a deity was like an Impressionist painting: interesting and engaging when considered from a distance, but fairly muddy when viewed up close.

As enjoyable as The Adjustment Bureau is (yes, I’d watch it again), it won’t take long during a post-movie chat to start poking holes in the movie’s “universe.” That random events seem to happen isn’t the problem: that’s one of the movie’s central questions. But there are also points of incoherence that aren’t satisfactorily covered by the “laws” of the story. What was Elise’s motivation at a key point in the story? What was the “fate” of one of the agents who bent the rules? Is a very good, really long kiss actually that powerful? (I’m trying not to give away any spoilers.)

And where can I get a hat like that?

Reporting on priestly celibacy in Germany … sort of

2 Mar

All Things Considered,” NPR’s evening news program, ran an interesting segment on Wednesday about how some Roman Catholics in Germany “pray” that the church will rethink its teaching about celibacy for priests. Here’s the start of the text story on NPR.org., which follows the audio closely:

In Germany, calls are going out for the Catholic Church to rethink some of its basic principles, including the rule of celibacy for priests.

Many say the German church is experiencing a period of crisis. It’s been rocked by sex and abuse scandals and no longer even has enough priests to serve its parishes. These days, even more traditional-minded Catholics in Germany have begun calling for far-reaching reform.

That’s fine for a general summary lead. The problem is that the rest of Kyle James’ story doesn’t dig much deeper than that. Aside from hearing the voices of four individuals, we get very little information about what is really going on over there.

There’s no indication of who are the “many” making these calls or who say the church is in crisis, or if there’s been some recent development in this controversy. The story mentions surveys and projections, but doesn’t offer specifics about the surveys, not even percentages.

As it turns out, more than 140 Catholic theologians in Germany, Austria and Switzerland issued a petition in early February, calling for changes in the church, including celibacy. But we didn’t learn that on NPR.

The  individuals who are quoted apparently represent various segments within the church: a former priest, now married with children and still in the church; a theologian; a Religion News Service correspondent who covers the Vatican; and a “well-known conservative Catholic politician.”

The four are unanimous about how clerical celibacy — among other “rules” — is an albatross around the church’s neck, sure to drag it down.

They may be right about that, but the story would be stronger if there were more evidence that these voices run the gamut of German Catholic opinion, which seems unlikely. No one in Germany, not even a bishop, was available to offer a different view? How about more detail on where these “calls” for change are coming from? How about a little background or explanation?

“Celibacy rules were originally introduced on practical grounds, and so I think that they can be changed for practical reasons as well,” claims the politician in the story, Hermann Kues.

Really? What’s that about? Is he correct? I thought there was actually some doctrine involved, but we’d never know from this story. A little historical background would have helped — not to mention hearing from a church leader or  theologian who could explain Roman Catholic teaching and the Vatican’s position. (In case you’re wondering, I’m not arguing for or against priestly celibacy right now. I’m just talking about how this story was covered.)

This was an anomaly. NPR usually airs stronger religion stories, especially when Barbara Bradley Hagerty is on the case. (She was busy on Wednesday, reporting on the Supreme Court free-speech decision, providing listeners with a closer-than-usual look at the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., which was at the enter of the court’s ruling.) But this story from Germany, sorry to say, was an example of how news media — even the Normally Pretty Reliable news media — can get the reporting not … quite … right.

By the way, this gives me a chance for a shout out* to Get Religion, a blog by journalists that looks at how mainstream news media** cover religion and how they can get it right … or not. You might want to check it out.

* Do people still say “shout out”?

** Are there really any “mainstream media” anymore, or is that just an old concept?

The future is now – really, really now

17 Feb

By strange conjunction of media, the future came knocking rapping banging pounding on the door of my consciousness on Wednesday:

1. Borders, the nation’s second-largest bookstore chain, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy today. The company will close about 200 of its 674 Borders and Waldenbooks stores in the U.S. The reasons for the failure aren’t mysterious: Buyers have migrated to Amazon.com and to Barnes and Noble, which dived into new media more aggressively than Borders, which apparently wasn’t hard to do. Borders may survive, thanks to an injection of almost $500 million from investors, but it won’t be the same. Think digital. Think new media. Think the end of bookstores as we’ve known them, although I could imagine the survival of the very small, very local boutique-like stores.

Time, Feb. 21, 2011

2. My Feb. 21 issue of Time magazine arrived in the mail today. (Two old-media words in that sentence alone: magazine, mail.) The cover was a stark image of a bald human head with a wire coming out the back of the neck, a la Matrix. Cover line: “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal.*” The asterisk directs us to the small type at the bottom of the cover: “*If you believe humans and machines will become one. Welcome to the Singularity movement.”

“Singularity,” the cover story explains, is “the moment when technological change becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.” I haven’t read the entire story yet, but this “movement” promises — or threatens, depending on your point of view — to change us to the core, right down to what it means to be human. It even raises the prospect of what might be called eternal life, but not the way we find it described in the Bible or Koran.

3. Today’s “Fresh Air” program (NPR) featured Biz Stone, one of the co-founders of Twitter. (I love the name. Well, both of them: the network and the guy.) Stone joined host Terry Gross for “a wide-ranging discussion about the service, including how it was used recently in Egypt to help organize the revolution and how it has been used to spread democracy movements in other countries,” as the “Fresh Air” website says. It was a terrific, informative and, at some moments, inspiring interview.

My estimation of Twitter’s value as a social medium pretty much quadrupled,, especially listening to Stone talk about how the network has dealt with playing a major role in several major events in its five-year existence. (Five years!) But at some point during the interview, I realized in a deeply profound way that what Twitter and other social networks is doing is — pardon the cliché — the new normal.

It hit me at a gut level as never before: This is it. Unless we somehow throw ourselves back into a tech-less dark age (cf. Canticle for Leibowitz), we’re living in a new world and we’re not going back to the old one. It hasn’t been too long — less than six months — that I’ve said something like this: “Twitter is cool, and I see some good uses for it. But what’s the big deal?” I’ll never say that again.

4. Two words: Jeopardy. Watson. (In case you’re wondering: Watson, the IBM computer, easily outscored two human champions in a three-day match on the 25,000-year-old game show.)

5. And finally, in local news, WETS-FM, the public radio station for northeast Tennessee, where I live, announced it’s launching digital broadcasts in the autumn. It is probably the first radio station in this area to go digital, adding three HD channels to its existing analog broadcast. The station radically changed its format last year. It used to air a widely varied mix of NPR news and weekend programming, classical music and local “Americana” programming. Then last February it switched to all-news-and-talk during the week, with some NPR programming and Americana music on the weekends. Classical was gone. Were many listeners ticked off? You could say that. But going digital will let WETS-FM add a station just for Americana and another for jazz and classical.

Good timing for the announcement, by the way: East Tennessee State University, the station’s owner, received a $70,000 grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to install the equipment. The CPB is in Congress’ budget-cutting line of fire this year. Maybe this served as a not-so-subtle message from the station that federal funding for NPR and PBS can actually add value to the community.

Sex and the church (Hooray for Hollywood)

4 Feb

Hollywood Boulevard, from the Kodak Theater

It’s a safe guess that only a few pastors can utter the following sentence: “They do casting for porn films in our building.”

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Pastor Joseph Barkley of Ecclesia Hollywood is the only one who can. Just to be clear: the church hasn’t sold its soul to supplement its offerings. It leases space in a building two blocks from the famous corner of Hollywood and Vine, and the skin-flick casting company happens to be in the same building.

The church is also next door to Ultra Vixen Vampwear, a lingerie shop that counts strippers among its customers. (“We have a wonderful relationship” with the store, Barkley said. “They put up signs for our Christmas Eve service. We give them cards.” He doesn’t personally walk in; he leaves that to women church members.)

Ecclesia (from the Greek word for “church”) Hollywood was planted five years ago; Barkley and his wife were among the first leaders, and he became the lead pastor a year ago. It’s a theologically conservative nondenominational church that was running about 500 last December. Now it’s closer to 800.

Why the growth? You might call it sexual attraction.

At the start of January, the church started “Skin,” a series of Sunday sermons and weekly study groups that deal frankly with sex. It started with the first three chapters of Genesis and moved into the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 5, 6 and 15, if you’re keeping score). Last week Barkley talked about homosexuality.

This Sunday – known in some remote regions as Super Bowl Sunday – he will talk about pornography, one of about 300 churches participating in “Porn Sunday.” The timing was providential, Barkley said. Ecclesia planned the “Skin” series months ago, but when a friend of his, who leads the xxxchurch.com, put together the Porn Sunday program, it fit nicely in to Ecclesia’s schedule. (NPR ran a segment about Porn Sunday on Thursday’s “All Things Considered.”)

So let’s think about this: a conservative church in the middle of Hollywood, talking about sex. A lot.

Pastor Joseph Barkley of Ecclesia Hollywood

“I think it’s shocking to most of the city that there’s a church here,” Barkley told me on Thursday. “There’s an assumption that the rest of the city might make. They have this paradigm that what we have to say about sex is anemic, inadequate, judgmental.”

Try again.

“They’re surprised to find out Christians have fun talking about sex. Look, the whole account of creation in Genesis ends up with two people standing in a garden, buck naked,” he said. “We take that as a signal that God wants us to talk about it with freedom.”

Barkley’s elevator speech to explain “Skin” goes like this:

“In a culture where we no longer think the choices we make have any significance, we wanted to teach the revolutionary thought that your bodies actually matter, that they have eternal significance. Your body has a purpose … it’s not an accident. You were handcrafted. The fulfillment of that purpose is the privilege we have. So we’re trying to offer a recalibration of how we value our own bodies and what we’ve chosen to do with them.”

So “Skin” really isn’t about sex. It’s bigger than that, Barkley said, either standing Sigmund Freud on his head or spinning him in his grave.

“The biggest issue, the most nagging disease we deal with, is isolation,” he explained. “We minister to orphans and dreamers. Most people moved here from somewhere else both to chase a dream and to get away from something. They have no roots, no tradition, no sense of family. After a while they realize what that vacuum is doing to their soul. Sexual brokenness is directly linked to that sense of fear, of isolation.”

So the teaching about sex, he said, is in some ways “ancillary, a device that God is using to get to the root of the problems.”

Something’s clicking, if numbers mean anything. Maybe sex really does sell, even for church. But Barkley spoke more about all the conversations he’s been having since the series began, including a constantly ringing phone and 70-plus daily e-mails he’s been getting, a load that’s “off the charts.”

He’s especially glad that people who disagree with him say they’re going to stick around and keep listening.

“Generally, people are appreciative for us being honest,” he said. “A huge value of ours is vulnerability. People are almost surprised at the transparency with how we’re talking about sex. … We try to be honest, with as much plain language as possible. I’ve given the PG-13 disclaimer for parents from the pulpit.”

Barkley is convinced everyone in the room has some kind of sexual dysfunction. Easily half of the congregation on any given Sunday is struggling with addiction to porn in some way, he said. Honesty is the only option, considering where the church is situated and that about 90 percent of its members work in the movie industry (including some whom we’d probably recognize, if he were to name them).

“We’re trying to build a strong church, not a safe church,” he said. “I don’t want to spoon-feed people; I want us to think like grownups, to have the equipment to make theological decisions about life. How is my sexuality a demonstration of the image of God? We’re not helping anybody if we’re not having honest conversations about this.”

Egypt: The police, the army and the people

29 Jan

All eyes are on Egypt today, and by the time I post this note, the political situation may have radically changed. Tens of thousands of protesters are pressing President Mubarak to leave office, not satisfied by his half-hearted stalling tactic of firing his cabinet. As Saturday ticks away (Cairo is seven hours ahead of U.S. Eastern time), the wind seems to be blowing against his staying for long. Only a handful of people know what’s being said behind closed doors in government offices in Cairo, Washington, the U.N., Jerusalem and elsewhere.

The street battles between protesters and police have been well documented and shown around the globe, especially on Friday, despite the Egyptian government’s shutdown of the Internet, cell-phone service and social media in an attempt to cut off communication between groups of protesters and between Egypt and the rest of the world. By contrast, the protesters are welcoming the Egyptian army when soldiers are dispatched to Cairo, Alexandria and other cities. Compare and contrast this image, taken  yesterday, with this one, from today. (Hover over the links to see photo credits.)

I’ve been wondering why the difference: Why welcome the soldiers and fight the police since they are both controlled by the same government, at least in theory? It turns out, not surprisingly, that there’s a history. Thanks to Wikileaks‘ release of diplomatic cables, we can get a sense of what the Egyptian people have had to deal with during Mubarak’s three-decade-long rule.

First, the Egyptian police. A cable from the American embassy in Cairo to the U.S. State Department on Jan. 15, 2009 summarized:

Police brutality in Egypt against common criminals is routine and pervasive. Contacts describe the police using force to extract confessions from criminals as a daily event, resulting from poor training and understaffing. Brutality against Islamist detainees has reportedly decreased overall, but security forces still resort to torturing Muslim Brotherhood activists who are deemed to pose a political threat. Over the past five years, the government has stopped denying that torture exists, and since late 2007 courts have sentenced approximately 15 police officers to prison terms for torture and killings.
Independent NGOs (non-governmental organizations) have criticized GOE (Government of Egypt)-led efforts to provide human rights training for the police as ineffective and lacking political will. The GOE has not yet made a serious effort to transform the police from an instrument of regime power into a public service institution.

The cable provided numerous examples, including this and this.

The Egyptian military, by contrast, has been more benign or at least less terrifying to its own people. The army lost some stature after the Arabs’ failed 1967 war with Israel, but in the time since then, the military has re-fashioned itself in other ways, possibly being overlooked because of its diminished role. Whatever the reason, to put it roughly, it looks like the military has been going along to get along with the Mubarak regime (and profiting handsomely as they did so) — and biding its time. This week, maybe, its time has come. The Egyptian civilians in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other cities are certainly acting as if the army is on their side.

From a Sept. 23, 2008 cable from the American embassy:

Recently, academics and civilian analysts painted a portrait of an Egyptian military in intellectual and social decline, whose officers have largely fallen out of society’s elite ranks. They describe a disgruntled mid-level officer corps harshly critical of a defense minister they perceive as incompetent and valuing loyalty above skill in his subordinates. However, analysts perceive the military as retaining strong influence through its role in ensuring regime stability and operating a large network of commercial enterprises.

Later in the same cable:

The military still remains a potent political and economic force. Its recent interventions, using the MOD’s (Ministry of Defense’s) considerable resources, to produce bread to meet shortages in March and extinguish the Shoura Council (upper house of Parliament) fire in August (2008) demonstrate that it sometimes can successfully step in where other government agencies fail. The military helps to ensure regime stability and  operates a large network of businesses as it becomes a  “quasi-commercial” enterprise itself. While there are  economic and political tensions between the business elite and the military, the overall relationship between the two still appears to be cooperative, rather than adversarial.

As of Saturday morning in the U.S., at least for amateurs like me it’s too early to know how things will go in Egypt, but the military is the big wild card. For the time being, however, it’s clear that the Egyptian protesters — and probably most Egyptians — know who are their internal institutional enemies and who, they hope, may turn out to be their best friends.

Photo: Gallo/Getty image, via Al Jazeera (English).

Welcome to RPM

17 Jan

Welcome to RPM: Religion, Politics, Media.

When I showed the template for this new blog to my friend Jose, he laughed.

“Why don’t you  just name it ‘All the Things You’re Not Supposed to Talk About’?” he asked.

I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I see his point. Not the stuff of traditionally polite conversation. So thanks to Jose, I might adopt a lightning rod as the official RPM icon.

It’s no secret that religion, politics and media are magnets for controversy — especially when two or more of those topics intersect. And do they ever intersect, maybe more than ever. Other blogs, columns and sites deal with these topics, and I’m glad for them. (Well, most of them.) I hope RPM contributes high-quality information and insight as well, and provides a platform for good discussion and debate. With that goal in mind, RPM will include a variety of content, adding new material at least twice a week: Commentary. Reporting. Interviews. Long pieces and short ones. Video and audio. And, I hope, your comments, suggestions and critiques. Your views will add breadth and depth to the conversations here, so please feel free to join in (but on topic and with respect and good manners, of course).

In short, I hope RPM grows to be an enjoyable, helpful and regular part of your read-and-response diet. Let me know what you think. If this is a valuable site, please pass the word to friends. Best wishes.

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