Encounters with the new media, or something
Yesterday, a little after four o’clock, working my way home from the recycling center, I stopped by the Fuzzy Duck to pick up a couple iced coffees so my wife would have something to brighten her afternoon after two hours of wrangling Daisy Scouts at the pool. And to check on the family business, as we all do whilst driving about. One of the kids working looked up from her phone, said somebody they knew had fallen off a rock in the national forest out by the lake.
It had happened maybe five minutes before she received the text.
It was somebody they all knew, something that had happened at a place they’d all been to. They were able to make some instant guesses — wrong, as it turned out — about what had happened. And they were shook.
One of the first responders was due for dinner that night. His wife was stunned that we knew what had happened (as was he when he finally got there, tired), and the name of the victim. (I’m trying both to be precise here, and oblique; I don’t think I know the kid, and I don’t know his status as I type this.) I hadn’t understood (to borrow from the late Vic Chesnutt) the gravity of the situation until I learned that it was an 80-foot unroped fall. I came off the ladder last summer, fell maybe five feet, and walked around bruised and grumbling for most of a month.
I spent some time last night and this morning looking online for news, and found very little. This in part reflects the need to notify family, the gravity of the injuries, and the fact that this happened out in the woods some miles from the middle of nowhere. It also reflects the fact that there isn’t a lot of local media here, though a couple radio stations do keep news rooms. Our local paper isn’t much, and publishes only twice a week, worried mostly about felony busts and obituaries, best I can tell. (We quit subscribing so as not to have to explain to our precious daughter what a sex offender was.) I was looking because this is a small town, and the kids I work with know the victim, and I would like to be able to be able to respond appropriately.
* * *
The University of Kentucky lost a basketball game last night. Five NBA first-rounders, and they lost to West Virginia. So it goes. It’s a game. I read coverage quickly on the Lexington Herald-Leader‘s website, but it didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t seen with my own eyes. Except that newspapers (like blog sites) allow comments now. And, as when John Calipari was hired away from Memphis, I found that a certain constituency of fans take great pleasure in going to the hometown papers of their opponents and picking fights. Ugly, mean stuff that I think we would not say in front of real live human beings.
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A day or so ago I found myself in a Facebook harangue, joining Peter to defend the ethical and editorial integrity of the magazine we co-edited for 13 years. Finally, the friend whose thread was thus hijacked deleted the whole discussion, all for the better. Thing was, the guy attacking us didn’t know anything, but he thought he did. He had formed the opinion — based on what, I cannot guess — that our writers were not professional, that we didn’t pay, and that if one bought advertising that somehow guaranteed coverage. None of those things were remotely true.
I was struck by how immediate and visceral my emotional response to the charges was. And by how frustrating it was to interact with this person, a man who was convinced despite any attempt at reason or evidence that he was right. And the louder he shouted (metaphorically, of course), the less sense he made. He was not, incidentally, a raving lunatic. He was just wrong, and forceful about it.
(I do not make a habit of judging people to be wrong. It is my long-standing belief that most folks operate the best they can on what they understand and how they’ve been shaped. If one can understand why they feel and act and think in certain ways, one can hope to communicate accurately with them. I am occasionally reminded of my foolishness.)
* * *
I am about one-third through reading an advanced copy of Nathaniel Philbrick’s new book, The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which comes out in May. Because I read nonfiction, my wife sometimes hands me these things so I can talk about them at the bookstore; I have no particular interest in Custer, in the Indian Wars, in how the West was settled. To borrow from Kenny Roby, I’d rather not know. It was, it seems in hindsight, a shameful time, during which shameful things were done, and my largely uninformed sense (save for reading Sherman Alexie when possible) is that we continue doing shameful things to the indigenous people of this continent. Out of shame, I suppose.
Not my point.
My father was a serious historian. Is a serious historian, though retired. I was raised to demand a certain kind of rigor in nonfiction, which sometimes turns my own writing and speaking into extended attempts to footnote stories so as to smear the goodness of the telling with the authenticity of fact.
Philbrick has chosen not to footnote this book, which seeks to tell the story from both sides of the battle. It is extensively researched, and he provides a detailed bibliography. But no footnotes. No endnotes. No notes. It is often possible to tell from context what his sources are (who wrote the letter he cites, that kind of stuff), but I find myself regularly looking for a footnote so I can figure out how to evaluate a particular fact or opinion that Philbrick has woven through his narrative.
I mean not to pick on the author. This is a popular history, not a text book, not an application for tenure. I understand that the rules are different, that marketing is involved, that page counts and the complexity of assembling footnotes/endnotes are costs that publishers may not wish to bear these days.
* * *
These five sections all line up into something I can’t quite see this morning. If this were an essay for print, I’d put it in a drawer and come back to it, but it’s not. It’s just one opinion among many, and it will disappear into terminal anonymity soon enough. If I put it in a drawer, I would never find it again, never have reason to revisit it. Not have time to think in any greater detail.
So here are two guesses.
First, I think that I remain struck and concerned by the growing absence of filters. You will, perhaps, remember the one-day madness surrounding a tweet that John Roberts was resigning from the Supreme Court. (He wasn’t, if you missed it. It was, in fact, a professor’s attempt to discuss the error-prone nature of the new media.) It has been fashionable to slag the mainstream media, to write that copy-editing and fact-checking are such twentieth century anachronisms as to be unnecessary in our new modern age.
This seems, and not simply because it is my caste which has been rendered unnecessary by this paradigm, a mistake. A dangerous mistake. Facts matter. Spelling matters, simply because language is a slippery enough thing to wield at best without adding layers of misunderstanding.
I am trying to decide, just now, if the instant knowledge that a kid fell in the woods validates the technology which made it possible, which has so unalterably changed our media landscape. Did I need to know, did I need to know his name? Did I need to know RIGHT THEN?
On the other hand, it’s probably not going to be reported in any great detail, with any great fanfare. It was an accident that happened to somebody of no celebrity in a place of no particular importance to the rest of the world.
Second thing. If you read anything about the founders of this country, as I do periodically and utterly without discipline, you run onto their fear of the mob. This is easy enough to understand. With occasional exception (Thomas Paine, say), the founders were affluent white men of substantial education, and they had every reason to fear the stinky, ill-educated mobs who fueled the whiskey rebellion (or Hooverville, for that matter). As pragmatic utopianists, they wished for a democracy in which only people of a certain caliber were able to vote.
Though I have these many years been a critic, though I believe in the elitism of excellence, I do not wish to succumb to the temptation of citizenship tests to vote, of property requirements, of any sort of standards.
We aren’t going to play that.
But we shouldn’t play mob rule, either. There is an ugliness afoot. It’s been afoot a long time, probably forever. And it is doubtless a sign of my age that I point to the growing coarseness of communication throughout our society, as older men have done since words were first carved into stone and scrawled on papyrus.
I guess that brings me to the Tea Party movement. (I know, politics. We live in this world together.)
Believe what you want to believe. But comport yourself with respect. Do not seek power through mob rule. Place your ideas on the table with all the rest of the ideas, and accept that some of them will come to something and many of them won’t.
That’s how the world works, best I can tell.
But quit yelling and throwing things. Don’t let’s construct a new media paradigm built on anonymity and anger.
Oh, it’s too late?