Category: the Media


Here’s some of what I’ve been up to lately (look how I just skipped straight past the apology):

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The elephant is that a lot of newsrooms are full of, or run by, anti-intellectual bullies who think they’re the smartest people on the planet. People who don’t know what they don’t know don’t respect the intelligence of their sources or their audience, and stuff like this happens:

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Oy gevalt. Via Twitter user @ablaze.

Of course, I don’t actually believe traditional media deserves everything it’s getting. This isn’t just the newsroom nerd rubbing her hands together at the fate everyone who ever said, “Those protesters have no idea what they’re talking about” (which always meant “I have no idea what those protesters are talking about, and I’m not going to bother to look into it”) or attached a deceptive, moronic headline to a complicated story. Downsizing — which had been going on, steadily, in newsrooms for decades before Craigslist purportedly ruined everything — doesn’t create a culture where journalists have the time and the support to get really good at their jobs. I’m not sure what will, though there are some awesome organizations out there doing really cool projects and earnest efforts to change media business models so they work — spaces that deserve more attention than they are getting. (Yes, you may have noticed that I am here bitching about a dumb headline, and not posting about cool, in-depth reporting projects. Hello everybody! My name is Christen, and I am part of the problem.)

I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot this past week, because of the Supreme Court decision regarding the Affordable Care Act. (Speaking of, here is the obligatory: SERIOUSLY, CNN. AND FOX.) I write about various implications of the ACA all the time, but I realized — looking around at Facebook and Twitter — that I have no idea what people don’t know about health care reform in this country.

I’m not talking about aggressively uninformed folks who showed up to Town Halls with misspelled signs, or people who operate with their own facts, or at least pretend to. I’m pretty well resigned to never being able to reach certain people; for instance, 2012 me just gives rude teenagers the Mom look and goes back to reading, rather than fret about a missed teachable moment. I’m talking about people I know who are fairly intelligent, well-informed and reasonable (regardless of political affiliation), who didn’t know about subsidies for low-income folks, or about the end of discrimination for pre-existing conditions. I write for a nichier, wonkier audience than most of my friends belong to; still, the non-nichey, non-wonky, but still educable people out there have got the short shrift of a fractured, superficial media landscape and a wonkier one they aren’t trying to find (sometimes also using cynicism as a justification for ignorance) and that isn’t really trying to find them.

Every year on the Fourth I re-read the Declaration of Independence — aloud, if I have an audience. To me, it’s a sobering reminder that democracy isn’t inevitable, isn’t static and wasn’t ever perfect. It’s something we have to keep doing and getting better at.

There’s a new episode of Think Again, My Friend up today whose theme, Family Restaurants, prompted more anecdotes than we could squeeze into the unusually long recording. The “Who said it: Herman Cain or Homer Simpson?” quiz did make the cut; on not one quote was there consensus on the source. I’m pretty happy about that.

Here’s an anecdote I saved up just for the Message: I Cariots (as my grandmother always said, just because almost nobody reads your blog doesn’t mean you can’t invent a stupid, cutesy name for those who do). It’s neither about me, nor especially family friendly, so be advised.

This story might make you never want fettucine alfredo again. That would be stupid, though. Unless you’re vegan.

A few months ago I was on my lunch break, in the middle of a volunteer shift at a clinic that mostly provides reproductive health services, and a staff member I’d never met before told us this story, which she said had been told to her on a camping trip that weekend.

The friend from the camping trip had eaten at [family restaurant] at least a few months previous, and eaten fettuccine alfredo. Restaurant portions being what they are, she took leftovers home. and shortly after gone to the doctor with a sore throat. The doc diagnosed her with gonorrhea.Which came as a sufficient enough surprise that the doc had the alfredo sauce tested. Its true contents? The semen of three different young men.

My colleague reported that her friend was receiving a monthly check to keep her mouth shut about the whole ordeal; it’s enough that she never has to work again.

I’d like to skip ahead in time a bit to the part where I think, Wait a minute, what? and wander over to Snopes, where several variations on this story appear in contaminated, semen-y glory. The most recent and prominent of these involved the very chain named in my colleague’s story: the Olive Garden.

In the moment, though, my reaction — largely shared by the others in the room — was more along the lines of:

1) Ew ew ew ew ew I’ll never eat at the Olive Garden again. (I don’t go there often these days anyway, but that’s not really the point.)

2) Oh, but gonorrhea? That’s totally treatable. A sore throat and a course of antibiotics is a small price to pay for never having to work again. (One of the providers pointed out that researchers have found antibiotic-resistant strains of STDs that used to be really treatable, including gonorrhea, bringing all my eat-contaminated-food-and-retire-young fantasies to a hasty, unpleasant end.)

3) Have you read/heard about The Help? (The movie was just a few weeks from release.) Because, apparently, POOP PIE.

It was the story’s tidy, conspiratorial ending (THAT’S WHY YOU’VE NEVER HEARD ABOUT THIS) that made me curious enough to look it up.

What I didn’t even consider was how implausible the story was from a medical perspective. (Yes, I’m even overlooking the fact that semen and alfredo sauce really have distinct tastes, unless you’re my grandmother and you’re reading this, in which case I have no idea what I’m talking about.)I have chronic sinus issues with post-nasal drip, which means at least once every couple of years I get one really horrid, lingering sore throat that lasts long enough to warrant a strep test. Throat swabs for chlamydia and gonorrhea are available, but as far as I can tell, rarely offered unless there’s reason for the provider or patient to believe an STD would be the cause of the patient’s irritation (i.e. she also has symptoms of gonorrhea in the genitals, tells the provider she’s performed oral sex recently on an infected partner).

Absent that, additional testing would happen after strep had been ruled out. It takes a few days for gonorrhea symptoms to appear in the throat — so it could be up to a couple of weeks before the proper diagnosis was handed down. At which point, it’s not impossible the patient would still have had leftovers in her fridge to sample for DNA testing, but it’s pushing the edge of plausibility. Besides, it would take a serious leap for the provider to say, “Oh, well now. Maybe it was just something you ate! We’ll get it tested and everything will be copacetic as heck, lady!”

There’s also the part where I have no idea if the bacteria would live in refrigeration. There’s also the slut-shamey and highly suspect how-could-I-possibly-have-an-STD? mechanism, but I think you get the point, which is that it’s a whack as hell story.

For at least those few minutes of conversation, though, we all bought it, or were polite enough to accept it on its own terms. Even though I suspect we all — even those with minimal training on the subject, like me — know enough about how STDs are actually diagnosed and treated to know better. This isn’t a story about how stupid people are, that they believe stupid things. It’s how a compelling narrative can knock down all you know, if for minute.

On the podcast I asked a question about a toddler at Applebee’s who was served a Long Island iced tea in a sippy cup. That’s not only true, but apparently a Thing there, which I find perversely reassuring. Whether or not bored, disgruntled Olive Garden employees are by turns jerking off into vats of pasta sauce, you can all rest assured the world is still a terrifying place, one hell-bound on poisoning and corrupting the innocent, one sippy cup Margarita at a time.

All too many discussions about developmental disabilities focus on parents and children, as if developmentally disabled adults didn’t exist, hence: Helen Lovejoy, Alpha Concern Troll.

I have a couple of longer posts spinning out in draft form right now, but right now, there is this post on Slate:

In the piece, Kahn compares psychopathy to autism, not because the two disorders are similar in their manifestation, but because psychologists believe they’re both neurological disorders, i.e. based in the brain and really something that the sufferer can’t help. This caused me to note on Twitter that even though the conditions are similar in this way, autism garners sympathy and psychopathy doesn’t.

That could be an excellent point. I just don’t think it’s true to the lived experience of autistic people or their caregivers.

I like a lot of Marcotte’s writing, and just this morning I developed a fawning crush on Is This Feminist, which came out of a Twitter conversation between Marcotte and Sady Doyle. but she sometimes paints with too broad a brush, and (on an embarrassingly regular basis) responds to critics by claiming that the fact that they’re mad must mean she’s right. In fact, she does it in this piece, writing, about the people who criticized her on Twitter, “The size of a logic hole is directly proportional to the amount of umbrage you’ll get for pointing it out, as I quickly discovered.”

I read through some of the comments directed at her, though, and a lot of the people she told to “calm down” didn’t seem outraged. Some people were offended at the comparison made between autistic people and psychopaths, which Marcotte brushed off as the indignant reaction of one group (autism advocates) that sees another group as inherently “less than.” I think I have seen horizontal hostility in disability communities — with people with a particular diagnosis or physical disability looking down on members of a different disabled group — and there are interesting conversations to be had about it, for which I will happily show up and shut up.

But Marcotte doesn’t acknowledge that autistic people are not only still subject to myriad negative stereotypes. In fact, they are often stereotyped in precisely the same way psychopaths are — and brushed off or ignored the people who pointed that out. And then patronizingly told them to calm down.

I also disagree with Marcotte’s statement that “for parents of psychopaths, there isn’t much hope at all” — at least, based on what was presented in the NYT Magazine piece she referenced. The story focused not just on the research, but on the available treatment options — which sound, to me, a lot like the positive behavior support techniques taught to many people who care for folks with developmental disabilities including, but not limited to, autism. I’ve seen firsthand the effect appropriate supports can have on reducing violent and inappropriate behavior in people who appeared, for their whole childhoods and a good portion of their adult lives, to be unwilling or unable to control themselves, either because they couldn’t comprehend the rules of social engagement or because they just got too mad sometimes to care about them. I think it could work for psychopathic kids, too.

Which might lead me to my final point: if you’re going to compare one neurological disorder to another, research them both well. Then still be willing to listen when people tell you where you’re wrong, acknowledge and move on.

In the interest of shutting the hell up myself, here’s part of a post from Katherine Bjornstad-Kelly on the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network blog. The post was about Autism “awareness” and Autism Speaks, but I think it also works as an illustration for why any argument premised on the notion that autistic people get all the breaks is just busted all to hell. Unless you do your research, unless you qualify the hell out of every comparison you make, people will always take issue with it.

I was taught to pity myself, to detest my Autistic traits, and to be sorry that I was putting the world through such a horrible ordeal just for existing.  That’s what I had before I accepted myself.  Awareness had taught me that I was broken and needed to be fixed, that I was something to be mourned.  When I found acceptance, it taught me that my brain was beautiful and that I mattered.

In the mainstream autism community, the domain that is ruled by non-Autistic adults, autism acceptance is controversial.  That autism is bad is taken as a given, so much so that hearing someone thinks otherwise can enrage people.  But acceptance is about respect, loving people for who they are, and apologizing when something you’ve done or said inadvertently hurts people.  Until awareness is mainstream, the mainstream autism community is not a safe place for Autistic people to be.  If we do not feel safe in that community, no matter how good their intentions are, the members of that community are not truly helping us.  A society that sees Autistic people as burdens is not a society that can truly appreciate the needs of the Autistic community, because that characterization robs us of our humanity and leads to our voices being ignored.

Several years and a few blogs ago, I wrote a rambly ranty post about Lunch in Brooklyn, a book I’d been waiting to read since I was 12.

It was excerpted in Sassy over the course of three issues. It was episodic — with little chapterettes, usually just a couple of paragraphs long — and funny titles, like “Hail Mary, Full of Grace, Get This Kid a Newborn Face.” I was the same age as the characters and like the main character, Kate, I was drifting away from my friends and struggling in school (we got actual grades, unlike the kids in the Quaker school Kate attended) and nursed a series of private, tempestuous crushes, like Kate’s on Harry, except because it was a book, it was reciprocal and it was delicious.

Then Sassy died and I went to high school and figured eventually, Lunch in Brooklyn would turn up on the shelves. But it didn’t. I Googled it and its author, Rebecca Moore, periodically, to no effect. Then I wrote about it. The blog post attracted a few comments to the effect of, “Hey, I have been wanting to read that forever, too!” and Marjorie Ingall saying, “People write me asking about Rebecca Moore all the time, and I wish I knew.”

And then Rebecca Googled herself and found me, and the rest of the story is more or less here. I guess if there’s a moral in this, it’s that if someone has made something that meant something to you, for the love of God, say so. Also, that the Internet is awesome.

The second moral, obviously, is that you should buy the book, because you can now. The loopy, episodic rhythm doesn’t quite play out the same in long form — there’s less dramatic tension and more a series of funny, poignant vignettes. The characters fall in and out of step with each other over the course of a year; it’s maybe more like a deeply engrossing and well-written TV show than a movie with one clear dramatic arc.

Read it.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt:

Harry: he is like a chute I could suddenly fall down.Some days I think I might love him. His dark brown hair swings when he walks. Coming down the hall, his eyes go down, left or right. He moves like he’s playing basketball, looking for a space to break out.

“Lately, in Mr. Carmen’s class, I am scared to read Harry my assignments. What if I don’t meet some standard he’s got? Harry and I have always implied to each other that we are both outsiders, only all of a sudden I am feeling like I am the wrong

kind of outcast. With him, it’s like he made a choice to be excluded, but with me, I never know where to be. I could tell him my friends are not really my friends. My friends don’t even know me. But he might say, So why do you hang out with them?”

Today’s Post-Intelligencer features a short post about Cecil Andrus, who visited Washington state recently — and who governed my home state for most of my childhood. By the time I was old enough to vote — just four years after Andrus left office — the idea of Idaho electing a Democratic governor was absurd, almost surreal. As far as I can tell — from my elitist, bike-riding catbird seat — that is still largely the case.

The piece is largely complimentary, but also nostalgic for the party’s imagined heyday: “Andrus is what the ‘D Team’ used to look like in days when Democrats represented guys (and some girls) at the workplace and stood for education, family-supporting jobs and conservation,” the writer of the piece, Joel Connelly, gushes. The emphasis is mine, because isn’t that parenthetical a little odd? I mean, women, especially blue-collar women, have always worked; Idaho was the fourth state in the nation to grant women the right to vote; women voters favor Democrats by a much wider margin than men.

But, you know, whatever. Everybody slips up from time to time, including writers whose commentary skews progressive. Connelly continues in the “in the good old days, all Democrats cared about was fair wages and the environment” vein, a position I have taken myself. I’m glad union membership has increased — however slightly — in the last couple of years. I’m glad we’re talking about taxing the rich again. That birth control is even an issue this election cycle makes my stomach churn.

But then Connelly goes on to say:

“Our state’s Democrats seem preoccupied with social issues and talk ceaselessly about birth control, same-sex marriage, legalizing marijuana and the right of women to terminate their pregnancies.

“Andrus took an opposite tack, stressing Inslee’s independence and willingness to buck the majority in his House votes against bank deregulation and the resolution authorizing the Iraq War.

“Inslee, too, was sounding like a lunch bucket Democrat with talk of hooking up Washington to the new energy economy, and “chowder heads in the Legislature” who once tried to cut money to rural schools.”

“‘Didn’t last. Soon, Inslee was back referring to “access to contraceptives” and the right to choose.”

These gosh darned Washington Dems and their gosh darned fringe social issues, basically! Why can’t they just stick to fair wages and creating wilderness areas like we did in the ’70s? Could we stop pandering to the pot-smokers and the gay-marriers and the birth controllers ALREADY? Is it so hard?

(Never mind that environmental issues — and funding for education — have been considered fair game in the culture war for some time now, at least in the inland Northwest.)

The answer is, in part, that it’s not the ’70s. The world got more complicated, the big tent got bigger and let more people in, and some of the people who’d always been there started talking about stuff that wasn’t on the table before. Also, the Idaho Dems — and Andrus in particular — had a lot of support from loggers’ unions and unions in general. National policy killed the unions and a combination of dwindling resources and NAFTA killed the timber industry. The voting base left, or did other things, and turned on AM radio.

But also: anybody who thinks “access to contraceptives” and “the right to choose” are not economic justice issues is either trolling or willfully ignorant or both. A copper IUD installed using Title X funding costs about a grand, all told — a fraction of the cost of educating a kid in public school for just one year. People who care about family-wage jobs — including those who don’t happen to have ever held one, including many women — care about contraception and abortion, too.

“Some girls” aren’t the only folks with a vested interest in improved access to contraceptives, either. Never mind, either, that Democrats are not the only ones who need or use birth control. Loretta Lynn’s only political contributions have been to Republican politicians and generally right-leaning groups; maybe because she had four kids before she became legal, she seems to get it just fine.

This piece in yesterday’s New York Times — about New York disabilities lawyers who find ADA violations, then find plaintiffs — is both fascinating and, to my view, completely backwards in its framing.

The writer notes that the plaintiffs, after responding to inquiries about suits, collect a small settlement, and then states the crux of the issue as he sees it:

“The practice has set off a debate about whether the lawsuits are a laudable effort, because they force businesses to make physical improvements to comply with the disabilities act, or simply a form of ambulance-chasing, with no one actually having been injured.” (emphasis mine)

The article includes one quote from a person with a disability, a plaintiff who admits she hasn’t actually patronized any of the businesses she sued since they modified their spaces to become ADA-compliant.

Now, the fact that the writer only includes one quote from a person with a disability isn’t necessarily the writer’s fault. People with disabilities make up the largest minority on earth, and as such are a pretty diverse bunch, with a wide array of attitudes and experiences. But like other marginalized groups, they tend to be tokenized and their voices drowned out by “experts.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Secret interviewed more than one disabled person for the story, and if the interview went a little deeper and broader. The quote he used is most relevant to this story, as it’s framed — but that, to me, is the problem.

It’s not just that Secret doesn’t explore very deeply the plaintiffs’ reasons for signing on to the lawsuit. He notes they make about $500 per lawsuit: note that the average person on SSDI collects $1,064 per month, so $500 is a lot of money to a disabled person who is not able to work. The median income of disabled workers is about half what it is for nondisabled workers. I don’t doubt that most of these plaintiffs were at least partially motivated by money; I have reason to believe most of them needed it. It’s not weird or inappropriate to suspect the motives of attorneys who seek them out, or to note (as Secret does) that the attorneys make several thousand dollars per case.

But then there is that business about nobody being hurt by a lack of accessible businesses. And then there is this:

“Suit by suit, the lawyers are forcing this tough and intensely pedestrian city, so resistant to change, to meet standards for accessibility that are more than 20 years old. In doing so, they are part of a nationwide trend: In the last year, 3,000 similar suits, including more than 300 in New York, were brought under the Americans With Disabilities Act, more than double the number five years ago. Most of the cases involve claims against businesses filed by nonemployees.”

Right now I’m on leave from a job caring for people with disabilities, almost all of them in wheelchairs (many requiring larger-than average chairs). It’s a job I can’t do right now because I hurt my left foot riding my bike, so my own mobility has been limited for the last two months, and as I’ve noted previously, my partner uses a prosthetic leg to walk, all of which add up to accessibility being something I think about more or less as a matter of course.

My caregiving job emphasized community integration, so I took people on lots of walks and transit outings in different neighborhoods in the Portland area. When that’s the crux of your work, you learn pretty quickly which sidewalks are passable and which are just slightly overgrown with hedges; you learn which sidewalks have appropriate curb cuts and which sections of the neighborhood are better traversed right on the street. You learn whose wheelchair will fit on the bus and whose won’t.

And you learn which businesses are accessible and which are not. Obviously, you avoid the latter. Planning dates — and these days, planning my own forays into the community — requires a similar, but different, set of calculations about what’s accessible and what isn’t.

What I’m getting at is that if you write that no one is being hurt by a lack of accessibility, you’re right, but only because the ambulance chaser analogy and framing is fundamentally flawed. That people with disabilities are in many cases more likely to accept segregation than to seek out — and attempt to access — businesses they know aren’t going to be accessible for them doesn’t surprise me. Nor does it surprise me that some plaintiffs have shown little interest in accessing businesses named in the claims their names were attached to. Most of us — able-bodied or not — only visit places we can get to, and where we’ll feel comfortable, and avoid places that don’t fit that category for so long they just drop off our internal map and out of our routine.

So what’s a better way to cover issues that affect people with disabilities, or other marginalized groups? Here are some things I think work. Do I do all of these things all of the time? No. There isn’t always time and there isn’t always room for the extra research in a final story, and these are guidelines, not firm rules. But here they are:

  • Ask the people affected, not just the experts. I want to know why the plaintiffs in these suits signed on to them (maybe it is about money and maybe it isn’t). I want to know how accessible they think their home cities are. I want to know what they think about the ADA. People who haven’t identified themselves as experts or leaders for a cause can be tougher to reach and some are reticent to talk, but many are not and everyone is an authority on his or her own life. I also notice the story quotes none of the business owners named in these claims or investigate how smaller businesses, on the whole, have been affected by ADA. (EDIT: rereading the story just now, I notice there is a quote from an attorney who’s defended several such businesses. Not really the same thing.)
  • Ask: what stereotypes am I reinforcing? What common narrative does this story fit? It’s not necessarily a bad thing if your story fits a common narrative. It’s important to know what it is, though. “Insurance companies usually cover x, but the research recommends y” is a story I write a lot. “Frivolous lawsuit” is a narrative that’s sometimes valid, but still deserves a side-eye, if you ask me. Also, the assumptions Secret and I have both made — that the lawyers in his story are exploiting disabled people — reinforce the stereotype that people with disabilities have no autonomy. That’s another reason it’s important to include their voices.
  • When you’re pointing out a problem, ask: what are the alternatives? How will this affect the big picture? One of the reasons I dislike the “frivolous lawsuit” narrative is that it doesn’t ask, Why lawsuits? Why not something else? Maybe there are ways to make small businesses accessible that function as more of a carrot (like grants or loans to improve their structures) than the stick of legal claims. If not, why not? What’s been tried? If ADA is fundamentally flawed (for instance, by emphasizing legal claims, or minimizing the reward a claimant can make while their representatives clean up), what else is there? If we want a more accessible world, how do we build it?

Last night Bryan and I watched The Cradle Will Rock. He had never seen it before and I hadn’t seen it in years. As far as I can tell I am the only person who knows that there is a movie wherein Bill Murray tries to teach Jack Black and Kyle Gass ventriloquism.

Let me SEO that for you ok

“BILL MURRAY JACK BLACK KYLE GASS VENTRILOQUISM”
“JACK BLACK KYLE GASS OPENLY GAY, also VENTRILOQUISM”
“1930S BILL MURRAY SAD AMAZING dummy funeral”
“WPA THEATER PROJECT ORSON WELLES’ ALL-BLACK CAST OF MACBETH”
“”double double toil and trouble” voo doo ladies orson welles”
“JOAN CUSACK AS A NON-STRAW MAN, PRINCIPLED CONSERVATIVE WHO UNWITTINGLY SETS OFF THE RED SCARE AND IS KIND OF RACIST. TOUGH. SUPER COMPASSIONATE, REALLY”
“movie where emily watson is a gray market prostitute”
“JOHN CUSACK AS NELSON ROCKEFELLER”
“Hank Azaria, borderline schizophrenic. Composes pro-union musical?”
“DID DIEGO RIVERA PAINT A MURAL FOR ROCKEFELLER CENTER WHICH GLORIFIED LENIN AND DEPICTED THE SYPHILIS CELL”
“movie where someone says christopher marlowe was a communist, they are being serious”
“John Turturro”
“JOHN TURTURRO KILLS FASCISTS”
“susan sarandon is a fascist, in a movie i saw late at night on starz once”
“How does Politics Affect Humor?”
“How does pOlitics affect Art?”
“PROBLEMATIC SEXUAL POLITICS IN THE 1930S RADICAL MOVEMENT.”
“relationship between funding and arts, in the 1930s USA, HUAC”
“Tim Robbins movies, communists homosexuals, Susan Sarandon fascist”
“YOU COULDN’T GET INTO THE COMMUNIST PARTY USA IN THE 30S IF YOU WERE GAY”
“HANK AZARIA GAY”
“Hank azaria pencil thin mustache”
“BILL MURRAY JACK BLACK KYLE GASS VENTRILOQUISM”

Really it has something for everyone.