Life Imitates Art: “New Yorkers (May) Believe That Southerners Are Toothless, Psychopathic Hillybillies”

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In Parker’s view, Rohter’s writings suggested that Haitians were a backward people with primitive beliefs. Furthermore, Parker found that Rohter’s pieces were in concert with U.S. policy in the region. Haitian men and women appear only irregularly in Rohter’s work. When they do, the Haitians make token appearances for anonymous quotes, such as “a toothless vendor” and “a middle-aged lawyer in a rumpled blue seersucker suit” (1994, August 2, 3A). In these ways, Rohter’s correspondence offered a strategy designed to degrade and demean Haiti (PARKER, 1996). –See Brazil: Recent Notes of a Rohter Decoder

On the other hand, the line between reporting and commentary is sometimes unclear. W. Lance Bennett (2001:7) points out that there is a tendency “to report shallow, dramatized news that often put the focus on the most personal and sensational aspects of politics and social life.” Bennett contends that such a tendency is not due to journalists’desires, and he attributes it to pressures beyond their control. —ibid.

HIX NIX STIX PIX [“Rural audiences are not paying to go see Hollywood movies that depict rural life”] —Daily Variety, July 17, 1935

Southern man
better keep your head
Don’t forget
what your good book said
Southern change
gonna come at last
Now your crosses
are burning fast
–Neil Young

Andy Warhol, silver screen:
Can’t tell them apart at all

–David Bowie, “Andy Warhol”

Bloomberg Went Too Far in Gun Sting, Dealers Say (New York Times): Diane Cardwell of the Grey Lady believes, like Larry Rohter, that “life imitates art.”

And, like William Bonner of the Globo network here in Brazil, that its readers are Homer Simpson. The venerable New York Times is too high-toned to run a comics page, but comic-book storytelling seems to have infected the news hole, nevertheless.

See

It seems that Larry Rohter may merely be the compliant creature of a certain style of “narrative journalism” that is actually practiced more widely at the Times — and continues to be practiced.

A “narrative journalism” characterized by puerile emotionalism, glittering generalities, clichés and gratuitious references to celebrity — although I will bet you there is some newspaper innovation consultant out there who refers to these as “archetypes of the collective unconscious.”

I bet you I can even rustle you up some consultant PowerPoint that makes this point.

Rohter wrote back in 2001, for example:

The 10 million residents of Brazil’s biggest, richest city were convinced that the days of political soap operas here had finally ended when Marta Suplicy became mayor at the start of the year. Little did they suspect that they were about to plunge into a new, even more complicated drama mixing political and sexual intrigue.

In 2007, Rohter on the death of Antônio Carlos Magalhães:

To both his admirers and his many enemies Mr. Magalhaes seemed a larger-than-life figure, like a character out of one of the novels of his friend Jorge Amado. On the campaign trail, he seemed equally at ease with the black voodoo priests who repeatedly delivered their congregations’ votes to him as with the white businessmen he made prosperous by steering lucrative contracts their way.

“Life imitates art.”

The best journalists are masters at their craft. With a comma and a colon, a vivid verb and a colorful adjective, they not only convey important information but also create a sense of place and evoke powerful emotions. … (The Ethics of the Story: Using Narrative Journalism Techniques Responsibly)

So do the worst. Especially when the colorful adjective is used for its own sake, and to water down and pad out what little information is provided.

Is there some story specification in a file somewhere in the Times marketing department that instructs editors to deploy this cliché early and often? If copy comes out lacking this element, do Times editors add it in?

Somebody leak me that memo.

Here, for example, Cardwell makes the astonishing statement that when New Yorkers think about the deep South, they may be likely to think about the film Deliverance.

The infamous, “squeal like a pig” Deliverance. [Cue dueling banjos.]

With its 1990s-era brick-paved village green and tidy new subdivisions, this Atlanta suburb is more “Truman Show” than “Deliverance,” hardly fitting the backwater image many New Yorkers might hold of the South.

“Might hold”?

Personally — and by all means, let us do a formal survey on this question — I am a New Yorker, and I can honestly tell you that I tend to think first of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Which also has to do with homosexuality and criminality, but does not show any soft city boys being, ahem, ridden like a pig.

And which also has to do with credulous parachute journalists who are incapable of tumbling to the fact that the Lady is really a dude until well into the picture.

Not even after seeing The Crying Game.

This is something of a metaphor for the way that (post)modern journalists are often deceived by shallow appearances. (The central figure in the film is a reporter for a New York magazine.)

Or so “some critics say.” As Larry Rother might source that interpretation of the film.

(That film was set in Louisiana, by the way, not Georgia. The townspeople shown in the latter part of the film speak Cajun and dance to zydeco — the forró of Hurricane Katrina country. Are the the Gulf Coast and the Southern Atlantic Coast culturally homogeneous?)

Mississippi Marsala, maybe. (I did not like it that much, but was dating someone who did.)

All The King’s Men (the one with Broderick Crawford).

The Truman Show is a film about an absurd, media-driven dystopian future in which the distinction between between life and art, representation and reality, has collapsed.

Truman’s idyllic island is a Potemkin village.

He is the prisoner of an illusion, and the producers of the show that is his life do everything possible to prevent him from discovering this fact.

The notion that New Yorkers may be prejudiced against people from rural parts of America, from seeing movies, meanwhile, is a hoary, boneheaded, folkloric masterplot that may or may not have to do with actual contemporary attitudes.

Whether they do or not, the Times does not seem to find it worthwhile to find out. It does not reality-test the cliché. It simply evokes it, as a narrative framing device.

Remember the famous headline in Variety?

Wikipedia gives it variously, within the same article on the famous headline, as STICKS NIX HICK PIX and HICKS NIX PIX IN STICKS. That is, rural moviegoers were not buying tickets to go see Hollywood movies about rural life. (Remember the Ma and Pa Kettle series, which later morphed into The Beverly Hillbillies on TV?)

(I always understood the headline to have been HIX NIX STIX PIX. But I may have been misinformed. I think I even read a Cecil Adams column on this once, but have forgotten the upshot of it.)

Published in 1935.

Or the taco sauce ad, from the last decade, I think it was? In which Texas cowboys around a campfire — shades of the infamous bean-eating scene from Blazing Saddles — upon being informed that the taco sauce they are consuming was made in New York City, rise indignantly to their feet, reaching for their guns, growling, “New York City!?”

Cardwell proceeds to inform us that, while those stereotypes may not be entirely true, there may be a grain of truth to them:

Still, the devotion to firearms and the belief that Mr. Bloomberg should stay out of Georgia’s business runs deep.

A rally that attracts “hundreds” in a city of 48,000 is used to provide verisimilitude to this supposed “deep devotion.”

In short: She sets out to debunk a stereotype — begging the question of whether New Yorkers really have the attitudes attributed to them.

She then partially reaffirms it — begging the question, in the process, of whether New Southroners really do strongly tend to be religious fanatics and gun nuts, as (stereotypically) in the past.

The rhetorical gesture — “This article will test regional stereotypes against regional realities” — is devoid of any actual journalistic diligence. It makes a promise it does not keep.
In my life and times working around New York, I have met plenty of Georgia peaches living and working in the Big Apple.

New York is still where the ambitious flock, dreaming of careers in the big leagues of media, entertaining, advertising or finance.

Willing to do anything to get ahead.

“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.”

Stroll the park near our apartment in Brooklyn on a Saturday afternoon and ask people where they come from.

You will probably find that they come from all over the country, not to mention from all over the world — and various neighborhoods of Brooklyn that have pretty distinctive cultures themselves.

(I live about 20 yards from ground zero of the annual Caribbean carnival, which has some striking similarities to the trio elétrico in Salvador da Bahia. Ear-splitting volume, for example.)

Lubbavitchers politely watching a roda de capoeira, for example. Common sight, just a few blocks from our apartment.

I tend to find, from my day to day experience, that New Yorkers — arrivistas and nth-generation knickerbockers alike — are a pretty cosmopolitan bunch.

Has my life experience misinformed me?

The New York Times suggests it might have.

Hell, I actually even interviewed for a copy chief job once with a publishing firm that was moving its operation from New York to Birmingham, Alabama.

So I did quite a bit of research on the New South, trying to separate out the “happy talk”in the Chamber of Commerce promotional copy — Who can blame them for trying? — from the straight dope.

(I ultimately decided to pursue interests way further South than even that. So far South that their South resembles our North, and vice versa. And where enough Southroners migrated after our Civil War — they had slavery here until the 1890s — that it is known in history textbooks here as “The War of Secession.” )

The Times public editor, I recall, had to defend the paper against a charge of stereotyping not long ago, after the Grey Lady interviewed a small-town resident, representing a certain position on a given issue (I forget which) who was toothless.

Indignant letters said they thought the Times was trying to associate supporters of the issue with toothless Southern ignorance.

The Times public editor explained that the man suffered from medical condition that prevented him from wearing his dentures at the moment of the interview, arguing that if readers reached that conclusion, it was a function of their own prejudice.

What the public editor did not defend was the use of “poster child” journalism in the first place — what down here in Brazil is apparently referred to as personagem (“character”) journalism:

In reporting on social behavior, a good article should present data from reliable sources, specialists say, if one is to convincingly register a supposed change in behavior in a given sector of society. These changes should be tracked by reputable polling firms who have no material interest in the outcome of the studies they conduct. Based on this data, one goes out into the field to see whether the surveys can be borne out by observation or not. … In the “new journalism,” this information often comes from sources with a direct interest in seeing them published. An example is the pharmaceutical company that publishes a study according to which some disease or other is on the rise, even as it promotes a medicine for that disease. This type of material interest is generally kept from the reader. There are even cases in which news publications do not even bother to develop independent information that confirms what is being asserted about a general change in social behavior. They simply quote two or three “characters” who confirm the thesis.

Many, many cases. It seems to be the rule rather than exception. See

We now read, in the New York Times, that a small-town gun dealer who is suing our mayor lives in a city that gives birth to, and enjoys the support, of celebrities.

Similarly, a rally that attracts “hundreds” in a city of 48,000 represents “deep devotion.”

But here, in this town of 48,000 where Julia Roberts was born, the fight has become deeply personal. Jay Wallace, who owns Adventure Outdoors, one of the major gun distributors in the area and a defendant in one of the city’s lawsuits, is countersuing Mr. Bloomberg, alleging fraud, slander and libel. A well-known resident who has operated the business here for 31 years, Mr. Wallace has drummed up support with an online fund-raising campaign, a summertime rally that drew hundreds, and celebrity representation by a lawyer who is a former congressman, Bob Barr.

Bob Barr is a “celebrity” because he is a former Congressman?

He is well-known because of his media appearances as a House manager for the Clinton blow-job impeachment trial, but next to Julia Roberts, his charisma pales, to say the least.

He cannot, unlike Attorney General Ashcroft, sing worth a lick, as far as I know. Or at least has not unveiled that gift to the world yet.

(I used to see Julia Roberts walking down the street all the time near where I used to work, near Park Avenue South. Looking kind of frumpy, really. And so what? BFD. Only shutterbug tourists get all hysterical over celebrity sightings.)

Which is not a knock on the guy, mind you: He strikes you as something of a colorless suit, that is all I mean.

Which is actually what Mr. Barr does for a living: Puts on a suit and drones legalese.

Boring, but someone has got to do it.

“Fanfare and emotion”:

Mr. Bloomberg announced the first federal lawsuit, against 15 dealerships, with great fanfare and emotion at a City Hall news conference in May 2006, calling the gun shops “rogue dealers,” “the worst of the worst” and “a scourge on our society,” according to court filings. The second suit, against 12 dealerships, was announced last December. John Feinblatt, the city’s criminal justice coordinator — who is also named in Mr. Wallace’s libel suit — accused the dealerships of having “New Yorkers’ blood on their hands.”

All of which is mind-bendingly stupid.

The article does not reach the concrete legal issues in the case until it has jumped to a back page:

Mr. Barr called the approach a “rogue undercover operation,” and argued that the proper agency to address Mr. Bloomberg’s concerns about weapons was the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“New York City does not have the authority to take this kind of action in Georgia.”

This is a colorless point, from a colorless lawyer — the reporter emphasizes the colorful, dueling adjectives (“rogue”) rather than the dry point about jurisdiction — but that actually seems to be the crux of the issue.

And what about the ATF, anyway?

What have they done to reduce the flow of illegal weapons into my neighborhood lately?

If I were out to give space to the other side of the issue, I would have interviewed them as well, and put that point in the lede.

We had a drive-by shooting on our corner just three years ago.

My wife eyewitnessed it.

“This,” I told her, “is why I decided to buy a fourth-floor apartment in a walk-up building.” You have to think about probable lines of fire. Just in case.

But things seem to have improved since.

So what do these hoary, hoary stereotypes about regional rivalries have to do with real life in the big city, anyway?

How is the reader served by deploying this regionalist “wedge” strategy, apparently designed to inflame passions on both sides of the issue, and only secondarily to inform on the details of the dispute?

Sufficient unto the legal battle are the legal and political dimensions thereof.

If the New York Times must resort to this kind of emotionalist, sensationalist nonsense because it no longer knows how to make that sort of dry story interesting to the ordinary reader — which is where the real challenge of journalistic writing comes in — Stick a fork in it. It’s done.

As we say in Brooklyn.

That is to say: just because the city administration may have used emotionalism (but not, to my knowledge, regionalist stereotyping) to promote this campaign — which I tend to support, by the way, but now need to study more carefully (I bet the Gotham Gazette does a decent write-up) — does not mean that the New York Times has to promote an equally puerile treatment of the issue.

If California gun stores make it easier for Mexican mobsters to arm themselves to the teeth with big freaking guns, will the lead in the New York Times be, “although most Americans may know Tijuana best for its donkey shows, killer dope and pornographic ‘Tijuana bibles’ …”?

See

This blog may have been unfair to Larry Rohter.

It may well be that Larry Rohter, rather than a rogue reporter, was, after all, just a good — and not especially bright or talented — German.

Merely following orders.

Who went along in order to get along, and was promoted well beyond the level of his incompetence.

You see a lot of that these days.

The New York Times is apparently now a cliché-driven tabloid in a broadsheet (“quality”) format. Like a lot of papers these days. The Times of London, for example. See

Much as a lot of business publications now deal heavily in the “Harlequin Romance” style of breathless, “executive as celebrity” hagiography.

See

I, by the way, know what I am talking about. From experience.

I confess that I , too, have used a touch of “narrative journalism” here and there myself, when called for by the people who were paying my salary.

My bosses liked that sort of thing. I had rent to pay.

But sparingly.

I wrote this once, for example — fighting a murderous deadline, one tends to reach for the clichés, it is true. The term means something like “readymade” or “boilerplate,”after all.

[Executive X] has accumulated a lot of frequent flier miles in a career that began at the [Corporation A] in 1976, took him to Zurich as chief financial officer of [Corporation B] from 1999 to 2001, and finally flew him home to serve as CFO and vice chairman of the global banking and financial services powerhouse that emerged from the [Corporation A] merger, where he coordinates the activities of 11,000 professionals around the world.More than anything else, [Executive X] jokes, it was his ability to sleep on airplanes and arrive ready to do business that led his colleagues at the [Trade Association X] to name him to head [Trade Association X]‘s new international advisory council, which will advise [Trade Association X]‘s board and international committee on the World Trade Organization Financial Services Negotiations, the U.S.-EU Financial Markets Dialogue and other issues affecting the international capital markets.

He was just being modest, of course. And I needed to fatten up the interview — some freelancer spaced out on me at the last minute, so I had an entire page to fill — so I gave more play to his modesty topos.

The guy was a good interview subject, herded by a competent, very diplomatic but very careful flack. He gave good quote and had answers ready for the hard questions.

The ones that I had time to think of, at any rate, off the top of my head. I did practically zero preparation for the interview. But I had to fill that page. By deadline. Had to or the production department was going to have me whacked.

After that narrative lede, recording the standard idle chit-chat around an executive interview, I go on to explain the actual context of his appointment — changes at regulators, pending legislation and trade talks, apparent trouble getting the message across — and ask The Guy, basically, the following: “Our readers pay tons of dues to [Trade Association X]. What are they getting for their money?”

The general-interest news ought to minimize the breeziness and focus on similar nitty-gritty questions: What, for example, are New York Times readers getting for their state and federal taxes?

Either that, or change the name of the newspaper to The Deterritorialized Postmodern Infotainment Metrosexual.

“All the infotainment that fits on our teraflop servers.”

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