24 December 2006

Solstice or, The Night Before Christmas

I have to take it as a left-handed compliment that TIME magazine named me "Person of the Year." I will display the honor on the same shelf as my "Resident of the United States" status -- the latter being, in all matters, a more signal honor to my way of thinking.

As of this writing, in fact, if you are reading this, then YOU are TIME magazine's Person of the Year, too. It's a pretty nebulous concept to try and get your head around, unless your head is nebulous to begin with, in which case you may well be on the editorial board of TIME.

How, you might ask, did I obtain this highly prized no-prize? In my case, I wrote a blog. Many others wrote blogs, too, and, in large part, t'were the blogs that cracked the Iron Curtain of the controlled media, matey.

TIME gets it eventually, but by the time they're through with it, things often look like you would see 'em in a funhouse mirror:

In May, 1980, my report on the Herpes (Simplex, Type II) epidemic was a cover story in HUSTLER magazine. I talked to CDC in Atlanta;, I talked to Harvard Medical School experts. Many times, it was the first time they'd been asked certain questions, and so the answers weren't cut and dried. In 1990, in New Mexico, a friend of mine who was getting her Masters Degree in public health nursing at the University of New Mexico asked to read my piece. She said that, with a couple of minor changes, it would still be completely timely.

I was always proud of that piece as public health writing: minimize panic, maximize understanding. A disease is a disease. Moral issues are another department.

More than two years later, on August 2, 1982, TIME ran this (immensely responsible) cover "HERPES - TODAY'S SCARLET LETTER"


You can find comments everywhere, like, say SALON:
The campaign of fear of genital herpes began with a lurid cover story in Time magazine on August 2, 1982, "Today's Scarlet Letter", which sensationalized the issue, stigmatized everyone with herpes and scared the bejesus out of everyone else. Even though shortly afterward the news media were reporting on AIDS, the scarifying stigma of herpes remained.

But it's still just cold sores, folks. And not many of them.
And here is TIME itself's (itselves'?)comment:
On U.S. newsstands, the bestselling cover of the year was about herpes, "Today's Scarlet Letter," and drew 480 letters. A majority accused the magazine of fanning the flames of Victorian fears. Said one victim of the disease: "All I saw was example after example reinforcing the so-called leper mentality toward herpes." From the minority, however, there was little sympathy for the afflicted. Many quoted the Bible, particularly Galatians 6: 7: "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."
So, you can see what a fine thing having TIME magazine writing a story about you can be. But, as I said, it is a left-handed compliment of a sort.

The United States of America was spawned as much by the printing press as by the gun, you see. It was Lucas Cranach the Elder's political cartoons printed on the newfangled presses that did as much as anything to spread the Reformation to the masses -- and the USA is a child of the Reformation and the Printing Press.

The printing press was the first internet. Prior to that, only the very rich, the very clever or the very lucky had any access to books. As late as the Southern Rebellion, er, the "Civil War" the old "Nat Turner" laws made it illegal for any slave to learn to read or write.
(see question 1)

Scary things, them books.

(It is an irony of history that the slaveholders, who forbade literacy on the part of their slaves would, through their children, attempt to deny the freed slaves their right to vote by enacting laws demanding 'literacy' tests, to prove that the voter could read and write. This continued as late as 1964.)

The endless censorship of the press was very much in the minds of the Founding Fathers. A teenage Benjamin Franklin had been required to run his older brother's newspaper after the elder went to jail for going just a little too far against the Puritans who held Boston in a sort of religious Tammany Hall.

The Federalist congress passed the infamous "Alien and Sedition Act" during the second president's term.

The newspapers were the internet of their time, and in 1776, literacy rates were above 90% as a whole, and over that for women in Massachusetts.

But presses remained expensive presses, and expensive presses formed the giant newspaper chains of today. There have always been little presses, but usually little noticed, as well. Think of "Citizen Kane."

In the early years of the Twentieth Century, radio came into play. Motion pictures came into being.

And again, the most expensive radio stations and the most expensive movies held a virtual monopoly.

Running through this all is this: whoever's hand controls the press controls the news. Whether it be nobly or ignobly, the zeitgeist is driven by the hand that controls the "press" -- that, which we now call 'media.'

The internet has become the printing press of its time. I think that's what TIME meant to say, but, locked inside their bubble, they don't see that we all compete on an even footing, for a change.

It is the old phenomenon I noticed when I was freelancing in Los Angeles in the 1980's. I would frequently be at events that showed up in the press the next day. And I noticed that, while every person that I asked "what do you think happened?" had a widely different view of what had gone on, the thing I always found to be odd was that every REPORTER there wrote the same damned story. Weird, I used think. Why would this happen?

A conspiracy?

Not possible (get a grip).

But, if not that, then what?

No: a "consensus." The reportorial "consensus" on what IS and what ISN'T news is very conformist, believe it or not. Years ago, the late Gary Webb uncovered a little story on how CIA cocaine was turning up as this new drug "crack" in South Central Los Angeles, Florida, etc.

The NEW YORK TIMES, the WASHINGTON POST and the LOS ANGELES TIMES jumped all over the lowly SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS, and Gary Webb was quietly executed as a mainstream news reporter (his Pulitzer prize notwithstanding -- they aren't any more valuable in writing than Oscars are in movies. Just because you got one don't mean that anybody will hire you ... if you catch my drift.) And the mainstream press went on its merry way.

That's the danger of a media that's controlled by those that have the priciest "presses."

Webb committed suicide two years ago, February. The LOS ANGELES TIMES has been bought out by a Chicago Media company and gutted. The New York TIMES and the Washington POST continue to serve the interests of the hand that controls the press, and we can all see the result, perhaps.


Oh, and all of the allegations in Webb's original story were confirmed a few years later. But the damage had been done. Reality had been "fixed."

But that ironclad monopoly over the news -- that every report would be like every other report -- isn't possible when EVERYBODY has a press (a blog), a radio station (a podcast), and a movie studio/television station (the YouTube phenomenon). That stranglehold on "consensus reality" that the media have had for centuries is coming to a close.

There will still be big media. There will still be big presses. But that power is leeching away like the power of the Big Three TV networks and the old Radio Networks before them.

That's TOO mindblowing for a mainstream and very EXPENSIVE press (TIME/Warner Brothers pictures, music, etc./CNN/HBO/et al, ad infinitum).

The medium has arrived. What you do with it is your business, and, soon, your BUSINESS.

So what did we expect? TIME to "get" it?

Part of it is an acknowledgement that much of the news in this election was driven by the new printing press, the "blogosphere."

No: they're smearing the "blogosphere" by expanding the franchise so far out that it's meaningless. But ...
something is happening here
and you don't know what it is,
do you,
Mr. Hearst?
They've had it their way since the printing press. Fine. The internet ... blogosphere, et al ... is just a medium, like watercolors or pen and ink. You make the optimum use of the media you're working in.

And that's why we're "Person of the Year" -- cheesy mirror cover and all. Okay.

Now, the Giant Red Patriarchal Dude is arriving in his sleigh pulled by magical flying reindeer (this is a definite Rudolph year) ... and it's time to grab wrapping paper, scissors and tape. He knows when you are sleeping. He knows when you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good. He's a lot like the N.S.A.

I miss my sister-in-law's "Coors Lite" silver foil wrapping paper (the company printed it on paper too thick for the label machine, and had to trash-can a bunch. She got rolls, it seemed, and every year, we got these amazing Christmas presents that Lissa had wrapped in Coors gift-wrapping paper).

Merry Christmas, Lissa. And Merry Christmas to all you TIME Magazine Persons of the Year out there, too.

Ho ho ho.


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