I’m getting verklempt

Can you just imagine: Being deep inside the earth and learning that your way out had failed, thinking you were going to die down there in the darkness while the usable air just disappeared all around you, and then, to the amazement and delight of the entire world, one day being brought to the surface to see your friends and family again? To get that kind of second chance?

I will never be able to understand this depth of hatred

On the drive in to work today I had my dial tuned to American Family Radio. It’s an addiction, don’t judge me. “Focal Point with Bryan Fischer” is the show that’s usually on when I head to work (except for on Saturdays, when it’s “Down Gilead Lane,” which I LOVE SO FUCKING MUCH IT’S GROSS), and today they were apparently discussing the recent spate of young gay people killing themselves. A caller said of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi: “He killed himself because deep down he knew what he did was wrong.” Fischer thanked him for his excellent point and said that it wasn’t possible that his kid offed himself because of gay-bullying, because the kid Clementi had sex with on camera didn’t off himself.

Jeeeeesus.

And then the next caller, presumably taking the gay-suicide discussion further, asked Fischer — with the slightest tremble of giddiness in his voice — when a person knew it was time to pray imprecatory prayers. Fischer said the time, friends, is whenever your heart feels like pouring out its need for righteous vengeance to the Lord. One imagines that the caller spends his evenings rocking in the corner, muttering to God to smite the sodomites.

What has gone so rotten in your chest and your head that you cannot even fathom allowing your fellow men and women the basic dignities of existence, that you must plead with your sky friend to constantly bring pain and suffering to people so that you can feel better about the world you live in? What is wrong with you people?

The exposure of Ernest Withers

The CA broke a pretty fascinating story on Sunday: Ernest Withers, the iconic civil rights photographer, was a paid FBI informant. It’s almost too crazy to contemplate, but most history is, if you think about it.

I was lucky enough to get to do the print layout, although that meant that I had to sit on such a crazy story for a few weeks. That’s nothing compared to Marc Perrusquia’s having to keep mum about it for the months — hell, years — leading up to publication.

I’ve got the pages, arranged by spread, after the jump:

Continue reading

Hey, a rant! About social media marketers! And newspapers!

So we’re having a little fun over on Twitter parodying Chris Brogan’s Memphis visit with the #fakebrogan hashtag. It came about because my friend Leslie mentioned being annoyed by all the Brogan tweets and retweets that were flooding her timeline thanks to this Brogan dude being in town and presenting to a bunch of marketing/PR people who were listening to him and tweeting (and retweeting and reretweeting) his soundbytes.

I’m not trying to be a jerk or anything, but so many of the soundbytes I read ranged from the silly and obvious (“First thing to do in social media : do something you like”) to the completely insane (“Instead of collecting recipes, try opening a restaurant… just do it”). Obviously a lot of people got something out of the seminar because there are hundreds of tweets about it, so hooray for that and hooray for them.

But when I see things like “Social media humanizes the web. People do business with people!” and then I watch the echo chamber that is these marketers who are clogging up the tubes with this worthless pablum talking at other marketers who also are clogging up the tubes with the same pablum, I want to punch Social Media in the mouth and tell it to come correct or I am going to quit it. Can we give marketers their own private internet so they can talk to one another about marketing and how awesome it is to talk about marketing away from the rest of us?!

Here is what terrifies me: These people, these SELF-MADE SOCIAL MEDIA GURUS, are being looked to in some circles as tastemakers, as the people who have Something Important to Say about the future of publishing. And that is absolute and complete insanity. I’m sure Chris Brogan is a nice dude, and I bet he’s sharp as a tack (he’s made a career out of telling people things about the internet they likely already know), but for him to utter ANYTHING about the direction print media need to go in order to “make it” makes my blood absolutely boil.

Someone tweeted that Brogan said, “For paper media: Circulation is out. New model is content integration.” I’m sure that’s paraphrased.

But what the crap does it mean? No, really. What does that mean? Why would content integration need to exist independently of circulation? Is he using “circulation” to mean what it means in the news business?

Here’s a fun fact for those of you who don’t generally give two shits about newspapers but who like to pontificate about what newspapers need to do to “survive”:

People are content-hungry these days. People are consuming more information than they ever have before. People are reading the news that papers put out, and newspapers are struggling to keep up with the demand for relevant information while having their staffs gutted by short-sighted corporate overlords who refuse to look at anything other than the bottom line.

People are reading news on news websites. Yes. And people are discovering news via social media outlets. Yes. But newspapers aren’t making substantial operating money off of the web yet. They are making operational money — STILL — off of their print run. Specifically, the ads in the print run. Sure, it’s not boatloads of cash like those golden olden days, thanks in part to this tanked economy in which historically reliable major advertisers are being tight with the purse strings, but it’s enough to run an organization and put the paper out every day. Web ads do not bring in enough money to run an organization (unless you’re the L.A. Times, which is the only major newsroom I know of that claims its payroll is supported by the website). They just don’t. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the ad pricing model, maybe it’s the community being slow to want to advertise on the web, maybe Google really has fucked us, maybe we are not thinking outside the really annoying web ad box, maybe it’s a hex placed upon the future by the first person to ever witness a Blue Screen of Death. I don’t know.

But people want content. They are desperate for content. And we are fighting with all our might to give it to them, but the goal posts keep moving based on the whims of these random social media daydreamers.

If we keep monkeying with the way we treat content (blurring lines between advertising and news, cutting newshole way down, burying important yet unsexy stories, etc.) because we think the content is responsible for the lack of money made in our industry, we are dooming ourselves. I am not saying that the way we do content is perfect or doesn’t need work. I am saying that it’s possible — nay, likely — that in a better economy (that didn’t also hit at the same time as a total paradigm shift in information transmission), we would not appear to be in the throes of death. Because people would be advertising as robustly as ever, people would have extra cash to spend on internet experimentation, our space wouldn’t be shrinking and therefore making it look like we don’t have things to put into the paper, etc. etc. etc.

Looking to social media and its cheerleaders to make up for and fix what we have lost AND take us forward to a better place? Absolute madness. And, mind you, this is coming from a person who is all over the social web and has actively campaigned for greater newsroom attention to and interaction with the useful parts of social media. But let’s keep some perspective and not treat social media or its mavens as the publishing panacea, okay?

Oh, hell. Don’t listen to me (you weren’t anyway, I know). I am a dinosaur and I don’t know how to fix anything. If I did, I would have already fixed it and saved myself and my co-workers years of turmoil. And I’d finally have that goddamned intern I am always talking about.

What I DO know that it is absolutely criminal to be parroting some nonsensical wonkspeak about how the circulation model is out. That is not the reality of the situation in this moment and it smacks of intense ignorance to even float that idea. It’s not even radical; it’s just stupid.

Handling

Mom, dad, and the nephews came down Sunday and we went to a Redbirds game. We were among a dozen or so people in attendance on what turned out to be a lovely evening. I am exaggerating. There had to be thirty people there. It felt nice to show off the park and even nicer that the Redbirds won. Going to those games is bittersweet; it’s always fun but when I go, I see how many people aren’t there, and I get scared that they are going to take the team and the stadium from us because we don’t appreciate it enough.

Also, I paid $7 apiece for two cups of Ghost River beer. Don’t ever accuse me of not supporting the local economy.

Monday I woke up at 8 a.m. and we all went outside and gave the yard a little TLC. I swear, I think they like working in my yard more than they do their own. Mom showed me what she had done while I had slept in the wee hours: Meticulously hand-weeded the backyard path from the porch to the garage. (She admits she may have a bit of a weeding obsession.) Then she got busy planting the clippings she’d brought me — more hosta and cannas, plus a peony, another baby redbud, a flowering caramel plant, some yellow-flowered plant whose name I’ve forgotten, and some leafy shrub things (for the front bed) and leafy trailing vine things (for hanging pots) — and dad occupied himself by chainsawing the hefty roof-denting limb I, for the past week, had taken great joy in cussing every time I saw it.

Later, he and the youngest nephew got busy up on the roof of the shed, cutting back the invasive stuff from the neighbor’s yard that had no doubt been creeping and climbing for years. I thought that stuff, while it was flowering, was really pretty (there was ivy, carolina jasmine, and a beautiful light-pink rose bush) and I hated to see it go, but I understand that it was basically overtaking my shed and would eventually be a real hassle for me.

I hauled the oldest nephew out to Lowe’s with me (where I — for the second motherfrickin’ time in a month — forgot to use the coupon I specifically went there to use) for some supplies. When I returned, my yard was full of sticks and vines and debris from the roof, and I had a neat little pile of insta-mulch, which I later distributed in the back bed where the bulk of my cannas are planted.

I busied myself with planting forget-me-not seeds around the backyard hosta, irises, Indian carpet dianthus dad picked up for me at a store, and still more Saltillo-grown cannas along the back fence. Then I got ultra cocky and cleaned out my front gutters.

Gag. Remind me next time to use rubber and not cloth gloves.

I can’t even explain how much I appreciate these little visits. My house, I realize, is probably not the most comfortable place in the world for five people to co-exist, but my nephews are so well-behaved (seriously, my sister did right by them) that it never really became an issue. Even when I knew they were bored. (I let them get on the computer and video snack a bit, until they started making me watch “comical” videos of birds getting hit by baseballs.) But the help around the place, at least until I get a handle on how and when to do the bulk of the maintenance stuff (forgive the noob learning curve), is invaluable to me. I am independent to a fault, I think, so having them drop by every now and again to check on how I’m holding the place up will benefit me in the long run.

Speaking of the long run, the roofer came out today to assess the damage. I am ecstatic to report that he doesn’t think the interior damage is major, and that the exterior damage will only cost me a few hundred bucks, mostly because my roof has old-school decking (not plywood, which has to be removed in larger chunks) and just one shingle layer (that’s less of a pain in the ass for roofers, I guess). This is the best-case scenario for me, and I am so grateful. I don’t want to celebrate too much, though, until the work is done and the check is written and has cleared the bank and there’s another hard rain that yields no leaks.

That whole spiel I had about feeling like I was being invaded? It’s still true. But I can’t even imagine what it must be like for people whose homes and neighborhoods and schools and workplaces and churches and stomping grounds were overrun with water. I just keep reading stories and looking at all these flood pictures and losing my shit. These are places and people I love and they are showing such unbelievable class in the face of the madness. I am fiercely proud of the people of my state, who were handling their shit even while the country twiddled its thumbs.

Old news

When my friends Brandon and Amanda moved into their new apartment, they came upon an April 4, 1950, issue of The Commercial Appeal, and they were kind enough to let me get my grubby paws on it. The thing is quite yellowed and brittle, and has a tendency to shed bits of itself as you flip carefully from page to page. It’s fascinating stuff; the pages are absolutely chock full of tiny briefs and stories mixed with ads and cartoons and testimonials and photos of beauty queens.

Check out this masthead (fun fact: “masthead” means the staff credits/info box and NOT the nameplate/flag on the front page and I will remove your kneecaps with my teeth if you argue with me about that):

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Look at those cheap mail subscription rates! A month for a dollar! Crazy!

Look at those phone numbers! So devoid of digits! Crazy!

Look at all those bureau offices! So numerous! Crazy!

Look at this crazy cigarette ad!

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Does your throat feel smooth as a baby’s ass? That’s because you’ve been sucking on a Camel!

Check out this crazy mix of news! A snuff factory! Chilly nights that require topcoats! Topcoats, can you believe it!?? (Also, was “cloudly” a word in 1950 or did I just copy edit this paper FROM THE FUTURE?!)

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Do you think Miss Sanidas was scandalized at being placed so near an ad for a cream that relieves pimple itching?

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It’s all a pretty odd mix, and certainly puts into perspective the idea of some golden bygone era of quality, untouchable, objective journalism.

I mean, try this little story on for size:

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First of all, mad props for a badass and ballsy headline.

But on to the meat of the story: Yes, folks, those poor white motorists who had every right to arrive at their destination unmolested were undone — UNDONE, I SAY! — by those pesky negroes. It is such a foreign thing to see that sort of language used, and so cavalierly because it was just how things were said and done. It just was. What a world. What an awful fucking world. This, more or less, is why I don’t believe in The Good Old Days. Next time some old timer tries to lament the past and how America has gotten away from its true and noble values, remind that old timer that The Good Old Days were shit for a lot of people.

I’m glad I have a little tangible piece as proof.

(More photos of the paper are here. I will probably add more down the line before the thing disintegrates.)

Fringe

On my way to work today, I listened to a few minutes of Focal Point, one of the several highly entertaining but generally batshit insane programs that air on AFR every day, and I happened to catch host Bryan Fischer indulging some angry callers in their anti-gay rants regarding the Mississippi high-school student whose prom was canceled because she wanted to attend with her female partner and her school said NUH UH and took their marbles and went home. I mean, these people weren’t just homophobic, they were straight-up GAY PEOPLE ARE TAKING OVER THE COUNTRY AND THEY WANT TO RUIN EVERYTHING WE LOVE ABOUT LIFE AND WHY WON’T GOD SMITE THEM, BRYAN, WHY WON’T GOD SMITE THEM? WELL SINCE HE’S NOT SMITING THEM RIGHT NOW I’M PULLING MY KIDS OUT OF PUBLIC SCHOOL BECAUSE THERE IS NOTHING BUT SLOPPY WET GAY SEX HAPPENING ALL OVER THE PUBLIC SCHOOL DESKS RIGHT THIS VERY SECOND. Just genuine paranoia and insanity. This includes Jeremy from Tennessee, who called in and wanted Bryan Fischer to tell him why gay people thought they were entitled to special rights all the time? Back in the day, Jeremy from Tennessee said, you were gay and you were fine with never telling anyone about it, and you just lived with your shame privately and everything in the world was fine. And streets were paved in peppermint, remember? And sometimes the military did fly-bys and dropped cotton candy over playgrounds, and The Beatles led prayer services on Jumbotrons all around the world! But now, those fucking HOMOS and their need to be all not ashamed? They have put the entire world off its lunch. WHY, BRYAN? WHY? BRYAN, WILL YOU HOLD MY HAND? IN A TOTALLY STRAIGHT WAY, BRYAN.

Fischer, after a couple of other calls belching more or less the same hastily digested tripe, goes off on this rant about how the HOMOSEXUAL!!! community is trying to take its agenda and, I quote, “ram it down our throats.” The gays want special rights, Fischer argued, because they just can’t accept their equal right to marry someone of the opposite sex and their right to live their horrible sinful lives in agony and shame. Oh and also? The military will be brought to its knees if gay men and lesbians are allowed to serve in the military. Why? He doesn’t fucking know; they just will!

Ugh.

Why am I writing about this? This is pointless. These people are the fringe, right? Right? They will die out soon, right? My generation and beyond, we see past this unbelievable — and unbelievably mundane — horse shit, don’t we? I mean, I know lots of us are still locked into these idiotic ape thought patterns but most of us, we’re rational, yes? We don’t affix scarlet letters to various sweaters based on who those sweaters prefer to hug. Right? All the hope I’ve ever had is caught up in the notion that we will get past this ridiculousness some day before I eke out my last breath. That some day — some day soon — we will stop listening to these selfish, hateful fucks (YES I CALLED THEM FUCKS BECAUSE THEY ARE MEAN, AWFUL PEOPLE FULL OF HATRED IN THEIR HEARTS AND IT MAKES ME YELL) and go about the business of making sure, at the very least, that our laws are truly fair and not just blink yawn fair or *whatever* to people who deserve to be treated as fully human, fully citizens.

I have been guilty of knee-jerk homophobia. In high school and even a year into college, I was okay with using the word “lesbian” as a weapon. I am endlessly ashamed of my behavior in that regard. I’m sure I did my fair amount of sneering as, in 1997, a girl went to the senior prom in a tux. To my high school’s credit, such a thing didn’t throw the entire prom into chaos and then non-existence. There may have been judgmental grumblings from faculty, but it never got so bad as to halt things entirely. I really don’t remember because it didn’t seem like that big of a deal, even to someone who, at the time, thought it was kinda weird. (I wish I could go talk to my kid self, and maybe slap her around a little.) And that was in rural West Tennessee, in a county where the average income for women is around $16,000 a year. Progressive, Hardin County ain’t.

So to see — in flippin’ 2010 — Itawamba County, Miss., lose its shit over something so seemingly mundane, well, it steams me. And to hear caller after caller rant and rave on a CHRISTIAN radio station about how gay people are so hateful and just want to create a specially protected classification of rights for them and them alone? Well, that makes my generally nonviolent ass want to just fucking wail on people. I want to take these people by the shoulders and shake them: THIS IS NEITHER CONTROVERSIAL NOR COMPLICATED. LET PEOPLE LOVE WHO THEY WILL LOVE. And if that sentence immediately makes you think “Well then what’s to stop people from ‘loving’ horses and dogs and little innocent babies!?!?” then you, my friend, are damaged. In your grey matter. And you need to stop taking out your insanity on a group of people that is decidedly more normal than you.

Words matter

Today I waged a word battle at work and I lost. It was over this story on The CA‘s site. The headline: “Third ex-Memphis police officer pleads guilty to forced sex with prostitutes.”

“Forced sex,” huh? Like, sex you don’t want to have but that someone else makes you have? So … like … rape?

After seeing my pal Amanda’s complaint about the euphemism on Twitter, I read the story and agreed totally with her. I appealed to the web gurus and asked if there was a reason we were using other terms than “rape,” since the officer in question had openly admitted to forcing a woman to have sex with him. (Which is, say it with me, “rape.”) We kicked some e-mails back and forth and around the newsroom to other editors and the story’s reporter and eventually I guess I got outnumbered. It happens. These kinds of discussions happen (or should happen) in newsrooms all the livelong day and, sadly, because I have not yet been crowned Queen of the World, I don’t always get my way. (I successfully argued against the “big-bellied rapist” moniker several months back and got us to downplay a flippant and silly phrase in a very serious context.) That’s fine; part of working at a mainstream news organization is accepting that other people will have vastly different editing opinions and news judgment.

But this time I was outnumbered and eventually stopped bugging people about it (despite really, really, really wanting to push the issue), so I will make my appeal here in my little corner of the internet because 1) I’m really worried that people don’t quite get the point I’m trying to make when I say that I don’t give two shits in shiny shoes about the legalese mumbo jumbo that has resulted in this news report of “forced sex” 2) I want it known for the record that I disagree with the paper’s wording and 3) I would like people to know that there are always dissenting opinions behind any decision made at a news organization. Always.

Anyway, for this case, here’s mine.

The prevailing argument that defeated my own is that the aggravated rape charge was dropped, leaving the officer to plead guilty to some lesser charges (“official misconduct and official oppression”). Therefore if the officer is not going to be charged with or convicted of capital-R Rape, we aren’t going to call it “rape” in the story.

To which I call shenanigans. I can speculate all night long about why the rape charge was dropped (could it have anything to do with the difficulty of actually prosecuting a rape case?), but here’s what is real: The rape charge was dropped as part of the negotiated plea. And the officer admitted to, according to the story, “forcing prostitutes to have sex with him while on duty and in uniform.”

This man forced someone to have sex with him. That is rape.

We need to machete through all the bullshit and call it what it is — regardless of what the attorneys settled on calling it for the purposes of moving the trial along. Why? Because words matter. And not calling forced sex with a prostitute “rape” implies all sorts of things that maybe we didn’t intend (or, more terrifying, did intend), that we need to think carefully about.

Like the unspoken and somewhat common notion that it’s impossible to rape a prostitute, because a prostitute’s default state is consent. Despite how disgusting an opinion that is, a lot of people have it.

Like the idea that police who commit crimes in this city get treated differently than other citizens who commit those same crimes.

Like the notion that sex obtained through coercion is somehow not rape just because it doesn’t necessarily involve total jump-out-of-the-bushes physical violence and instead employs mental and emotional abuse and intimidation.

Like the notion that there is a kind of rape that is more acceptable than another, so much so that we can give it a different name and doubt its power to hurt (or else why would we shy away from the very serious R-word?).

These are just a fraction of the problematic things people can infer from the language used in that story. I’m not saying that stuff is purposely implied. I’m just saying: Words matter, and I think the paper chose the wrong words this time. Not everyone agrees with me. And while my life would be a lot easier if everyone did, I recognize that the difference in opinion is okay. (Even though I am undoubtedly completely right this time.)

An additional thought because I know someone is going to try and use the murder/kill analogy here: We’re not talking about the same semantic difference that exists between “murder” and “kill.” You can kill someone accidentally and it’s not murder. Murder is premeditated, or at least purposeful. You can’t accidentally rape someone. You can coerce someone to have sex, yes. It’s still rape. Because the definition of rape is sex forced upon someone who does not want it. I really can’t see how that could be any clearer.