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American democracy: Not dead yet

June 12, 2010 | By | Reply More
American democracy: Not dead yet

Much has been written, here on Dangerous Intersection and elsewhere, about the corrupting effect that massive amounts of corporate spending and lobbying has on our democracy. And I don’t disagree with any of that – I think public financing of elections, or at the least more stringent disclosure laws, would be hugely beneficial in creating […]

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News report features what is wrong with news reports

April 27, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More
News report features what is wrong with news reports

I just watched a Fresno local news report regarding a Tea Party protest of William Ayers. Watching this TV report reminded me of the adage about a tree falling in a forest: If Bill Ayers simply came to California to give a talk, but there were no Tea Party demonstrators in sight, you wouldn’t hear anything about it on the news. But when a smattering of Tea Party folks comes out to protest Ayers’ right to say anything, it becomes news. Once again, we can see that raw, visceral, uninformed conflict is driving our news–not ideas and certainly nothing productive.

The bottom line take-away from this report appears to be a reinforcement of the Manichean world view. This TV display of lots of heat and not much light is standard fare for television news. Hence, my term, “conflict pornography.” This type of consciously-injected agon is furthered by flashy banners and the sound effects, as well as terms like “Action News!” All of these media tricks smoothly tap into that inextricably deep human misconception that “Movement is Progress,” combined with our deeply rooted xenophobic impulses: Keep moving! Outsiders are threatening you! Keep fighting! Pay attention! Buy this! Buy that!

But back to this TV news report. Consider the opening line of the news anchor in the video: “One of the leaders of a radical movement of the 60’s and 70’s . . .” Note the sarcasm dripping from her voice when she reports that Ayers is claiming that “he has something in common” with the protesters.

I think that it’s time for these reporters to take a deep breath and focus on the bigger picture: what was the context of the “radical” actions of Ayers? I would suggest that many (maybe most) modern Americans would agree with most of the principles of his “radical movement” (that “Terrorism was what was being practiced in the countryside of Vietnam by the United States.” And see here). On the other hand, I would agree that most Americans would disapprove of the use of any sort of bombs, even where the bombs were carefully planned to explode in empty offices, so as not to cause any injuries. And further consider the failure of this report (and most others about Ayers, especially during the Obama campaign) that Ayers has repeatedly questioned his own tactics.

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We need a monarch.

April 4, 2010 | By | 2 Replies More
We need a monarch.

I hate to sound like a Tea-Party nutbag, but I really love the United States’ Constitution. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a free-speech fanatic. I love the Constitution’s sharp focus on individual liberties, its emphasis on the rights of the accused, and that grade-school-civics favorite, the checks and balances of power. I despair when these ideals meet real-life sacrifices, especially glaring ones like, oh, the utter lack of Congressional declarations of war since WWII. I also don’t like to sully the document’s purity with excessive amendments, interpretations and adaptations. No Defense of Marriage Amendment, please, but while you’re at it, no marriage at all (it violates the establishment clause, you see).

But don’t call me a Scalia-esque strict constructionist. If I could, I would copy-edit the otherwise brilliant Constitution and correct a centuries-old omission with no qualms: I would give the United States a monarch.

It probably seems unamerican, undemocratic and all-around anti-freedom-y to propose that we foist an unquestioned figure to the crown of government. It probably sounds old-fashioned, all uppity and needlessly symbolic and European. I know it does. It’s exactly my point.

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Hypocrisy award goes to “children advocacy” center

March 11, 2010 | By | 3 Replies More
Hypocrisy award goes to “children advocacy” center

If you want to know about an organization’s character, watch what it does; don’t listen to what it says.

Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood is a gutsy little organization. How little? Two employees. How gutsy? They make a lot of noise and they get a lot done. CCFC is the hero in the story I’m about to tell. Here’s a post featuring one of those two employees, Josh Golin, speaking intelligently and from the heart about the disturbing trend of increased commercialization of childhood. And consider this bold stand that CCFC took when President Bush praised a fraudulent corporate scheme to make children “smarter” during his 2007 State of the Union address.

Not content to simply make a lot of noise, CCFC threatened litigation against Baby Einstein (which had become part of the Disney empire). This approach resulted in Disney offering refunds for its Baby Einstein products which, alas, weren’t actually able to make children smarter–in fact, there is good evidence that they hinder the development of children’s brains because many of the products require plopping babies in front of televisions for extended periods.

Happy ending, right? Nope. Now I’m going to tell you about children advocacy organization that refused to do the right thing.

It appears that Disney wanted some revenge against CCFC, and that Disney pressured “Judge Baker Children’s Center,” (CCFC’s landlord) to suddenly evict CCFC from it’s headquarters. It also appears that Disney attempted to gag CCFC at about the time when Disney agreed to offer those refunds (under threat of litigation by CCFC). Therefore, it appears that Disney used its power to turn a large prestigious children’s center against a tiny children’s advocacy group. And the more you know about JBCC, the more it is clear that this move is about far more than choice of office space–CCFC was kicked in the teeth thanks to this eviction. For the record, Disney’s actions were reprehensible, but that’s what I’ve come to expect from all big for-profit corporations (note this for the record). Maybe I’m naive, but I still assume that non-profits such as JBCC will generally do the right thing.

I just sent an email to JBCC to voice my intense displeasure at its actions. In the subject field, I entered “Shame on you.” Here’s my email:

To: John R. Weisz – President, Judge Baker Children’s Center
Stephen Schaffer – Chief Operating Officer
Michele D. Urbancic – Vice President of Advancement
And to everyone else it should concern at the Judge Baker Children’s Center:

I have just read in the New York Times that your prestigious Center suddenly evicted a tiny do-gooder organization that had recently exposed consumer fraud committed by the Walt Disney Company.

In case you folks haven’t done it recently, I’d recommend that you each spend about a minute to read your own mission statement.

The Judge Baker Children’s Center promotes the best possible mental health of children through the integration of research, intervention, training and advocacy . . . Through advocacy we use scientific knowledge to expand public awareness and inform public policy.

[Emphasis added]. Truly, your Center has just demonstrated a lack of class so momentous that it deserves some sort of special public recognition above and beyond the recent NYT article. At least now we know that your mission statement is for sale. And PLEASE don’t blame it on your board. No one forced any of you to sit there in silence while your Center betrayed Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. You were free to call the NYT and criticize your own Center; of course, that would have taken courage and scruples. And no one forced any of you individuals to acquiesce when your Center tried to gag a bona fide children’s advocacy organization.

The rank hypocrisy of what you did (and tried to do) to CCFC reeks all the way to my hometown of St. Louis. Here’s a suggestion to avoid this kind of scolding in the future: try to remember that your mission is “improving the lives of children.” Your mission (and your “shifting focus”) should not be to serve as the enforcement arm for corporate wrong-doing.

For your punishment, you should each go look in a mirror and contemplate who it is that you are seeing.

I’ll leave you with a quote:

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Erich Vieth
St. Louis, Missouri
http://dangerousintersection.org/

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On the Value of Information Technology

March 8, 2010 | By | 5 Replies More
On the Value of Information Technology

I’m not writing about gadgets here, but about the information that makes the gadgets useful: Software. This video is nominally about web design consulting. But I’ve lived these situations back before the web, as well as with web clients.

One problem is that the buyer of information has no idea what it’s worth until he has it. And once he has it, why should he pay someone for it? Therefore, it isn’t valuable. This dovetails neatly into other copyright issues, but I’m not going there.

I have a few websites, most of which are loaded with free information that I painstakingly collected and developed. The sites are also built from scratch, mostly with a simple text editor. Some people see value in this; I receive donations. Some years as much as the low three figures.

People used to ask me if HTML was easy. I’d say, “Yes, you just need to remember how a few hundred easy commands interact.” Most developers don’t bother to make sure their site even meets official web standards (as published and tested for free by W3C.org). Even WordPress, the engine on which this site is built, shows errors in the validator. Google? Thousands of errors on every page.

I’ve had clients who understand what I do, and were happy to pay. Unfortunately, usually their superiors had to be cajoled. Eventually, these situations melt down and leave me out of work.

The “Just a small change” problem comes up often. After I’ve been reporting and demonstrating every step of the way, and finally a web site is finished, then do they bother to look and notice that it isn’t what they need. They make “little” requests comparable to having a builder simply move a bathroom from the first floor to the second as the keys to a house are handed over.

This video made me cringe.

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Andy Goodman’s story: The importance of communicating through storytelling

February 17, 2010 | By | 4 Replies More
Andy Goodman’s story: The importance of communicating through storytelling

A few weeks ago, I attended the True Spin Conference in Denver. There were plenty of thoughtful presenters, but my favorite was Andy Goodman, author of a blog called Free Range Journal. Andy has latched onto an extraordinarily powerful theme: Telling stories is the most powerful communication tool there is. Andy earns his living by teaching people how to convey the purposes and functions of their organizations by telling stories. Over the years, he has assembled an impressive repertoire of ideas all based on the power of story telling.

To be sure, the importance of telling stories has been recognized by numerous other people, including several other speakers at True Spin. It is often claimed that through story-telling, one frames one’s message in a way that makes it memorable. It is also widely recognized that communicating through story-telling allows one to package arguments in such a way that they look like mere information rather than lecturing. How powerful is story telling? Consider this quote:

“If you can control a nation’s stories, you need not worry about who writes the nation’s laws.”

The author of this intriguing idea was Adolf Hitler.

Building upon an entertaining blend of common sense and cognitive science, Andy Goodman takes story-telling to new heights. He has worked hard to become quite a storyteller about storytelling. In this post, I will recap some of the ideas he presented during his keynote talk.

According to Andy, we all want to tell the truth, but in order to do this, we first need an operative definition for “truth” in order to give ourselves focus. “The truth isn’t just what happened, but how we felt about it when it happened and how we feel about it now.” As you might imagine, Andy has little patience for the dry presentations of facts that we often find on the websites of do-gooder organizations. For an example, take a look at this jargon-laden blurb offered by the American Cancer Society:

The American Cancer Society’s international mission concentrates on capacity building in developing cancer societies and on collaboration with other cancer-related organizations throughout the world in carrying out shared strategic directions.

This is not an unusual example. As part of his presentation, Goodman displayed the websites of several of the organizations in attendance at True Spin, pointing out the bureaucratese. This tactic drew a mixture of embarrassed groans (by those belonging to the organizations responsible for the websites) and nervous chuckles (by those who worried that their own websites would be featured next). He warned that those who run organizations must be careful to not allow “mission-speak get in the way of your mission.”

What is the alternative to presenting dry “factual” information? As you might expect, the solution involves a conscious and careful use of narrative–storytelling. Narrative is so incredibly powerful because it sets forth our history, our identity, how are remember, why we give, and to whom we give. These emotionally charged ideas don’t readily sink in without the use of stories. In fact, without the power to tell its own stories, a culture has no opportunity to “grow up.” Goodman made reference to the children’s classic, Peter Pan, asking the audience why Peter didn’t grow up. According to the story, Peter’s answer was, “I don’t know any stories.”

As we grow up to become adults, most of us stop telling stories. Becoming a grown-up in modern culture too often means that we are taught to communicate with technical jargon in order to be “serious.” It is a travesty that so many of us get caught up like this. We are told to be more like “adults” and this is a shame because our stories effectively tell others (and ourselves) who we actually are.

Stories allow us to remember who we are.

[more . . . ]

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Reminder to wear your seatbelt

February 4, 2010 | By | 2 Replies More
Reminder to wear your seatbelt

Check out this powerful video reminding you to use your seatbelt. Amazingly, 25% of people from Missouri (my home state) don’t use a seatbelt while driving. Nationwide, 17% of people don’t use their seatbelts.

Via The Daily Dish.

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Pro-choice by pro-athletes

February 4, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More
Pro-choice by pro-athletes

Planned Parenthood plans to run this pro-choice ad on Superbowl Sunday to counter an anti-abortion ad featuring Tim Tebow. This is a sophisticated spot that gets its point across without being confrontational. I do admire the work done to put it together. Then again, I suspect that tens of millions of people will see these two ads and not a single person will change his/her opinion on the issue of abortion.

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Using Media-Friendly Images to Get Your Message Out

February 3, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More
Using Media-Friendly Images to Get Your Message Out

At the recent True Spin Conference in Denver, I attended a session titled “How to Create Media-Friendly Imagery,” presented by Jason Salzman, who is the co-founder of Effect Communications, and the author of Making The News: a Guide for Activists and Nonprofits (1998). Salzman was also instrumental in putting together the True Spin Conference.

Salzman began his session with the idea that television is still the dominant news source for national and international news, according to a 2008 Pew survey. It is an undeniable fact that you need visual imagery to get your story onto the TV news. Visual imagery is also important for getting your story into local newspapers, another news source for many people.

Maybe you’re thinking that newspapers and television stations should simply be reporting on important stories, whether or not there is an accompanying clever visual image. That’s a nice idea that doesn’t happen in the real world. You absolutely need to decorate your stories with creative visuals, or else your stories will be invisible to local media. As Salzman says, “This is often ridiculous stuff, but it works.” He presented the conference gathering with a long list of types of visual imagery. He added, “When you see some of these things, you might think they are juvenile or stupid, but they really work. As long as your imagery is on message, it’s good.”

Now I know that some of you probably are still thinking that you’re not going to sell out– you would rather be dignified than be accused of being silly or desperate to get coverage for your important issue. Salzman encouraged the audience members to get over their inhibitions, however. “Stunts can be worthwhile. People forget the source, but they remember the message.”

What kinds of visual imagery seem to catch the attention of the local news media so that you can get your story some real attention? I will walk through Jason’s list of seventeen media-imagery techniques, one-by-one. He has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his slides to illustrate these ideas (using these images makes sense, of course, given the topic).

1. Costumes. Salzman stated that costumes are the “oldest and best” use of imagery available. By dressing up as a giant pea pod, he was successful in gaining considerable media attention while making the point that George W. Bush and John McCain were “two peas in a pod.” As you can see, he wore his pea pod costume at his session.

As another of many examples, Salzman described how mobs of cameras once gathered around real pigs that were part of a protest of pork barrel projects. A member of the audience asked whether it would be better to surprise the media by suddenly pulling out the costume, but Salzman strenuously disagreed. “Don’t surprise the media. Tell the media you’ll be there [dressed up in your costume].” Members of the media love stories with images. “Tell them you’ll be there and tell them how you’ll be dressed. This will dramatically increase your odds of showing up on the news.”

2. Dramatize a Phrase. Salzman pointed to an example of a huge “budget pie,” to illustrate a story that one-half of discretionary spending went to the military.

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3. Banners. If the timing is right, banners can work beautifully. Let the cameras pan those big banners! He gave the example of the New York garbage barge (at left).

[More . . . ]

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