Category Archives: Media

It’s the Apocalyse, Stupid!

Funnyman composer nerdy mathematician Tom Lehrer had it about right — when it came to things going south.
“Hello Mom

I’m off to drop the bomb

So send me a salami

And try to smile somehow

I’ll see you soon when the war is over

About an hour and a half from nowwwwww.!”

(OK. That’s from memory, quotes used as a “more or less” accurate. But that’s the gist.)
We love to ‘imagine distaster,’ as Susan Sontag  observed in a famous essay written in the good old days of US-Soviet Mutually Assured Destruction. We in the multipolar, asymmetric, post-9-11, jihadi war on terror world are rather nostalgic for the era of bomb shelters and civil defense siren warnings and hiding under our school desks during A-bomb drills (and making sure to face away from the windows, lest the nukes send shards of glass to slice up our homework assignments).

We love to get off on getting off. In the first couple of centuries after Jesus, literalists headed into the desert, ready for the end of days. The gospel of John is quite colorful about all the bad stuff that will go down  — you know, sooner or later.

Marxist history has its own end-of-days (for capitalism).  Freud theorized that we’ve got a death wish, before he trashed that theory. Ernest Becker, dying of cancer, talked about the “denial of death.” More recently, Sam Huntington coined the “clash of civilizations,” which is no day in the park.

(There will be a test on all this name dropping. Please read Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body and Life Against Death for next week.)

In these battles — us versus cancer, Christians versus Muslims, the Pleasure Principle versus the Reality Principles, the fat cats versus the proletariat — there are winners and losers. For the winners, the prize is life everlasting, God in the clouds, a World Series ring, utopian socialism, cancer-free remission. For the losers, it’s the booby prize. Upside down in a bucket of shit (where Dante dumps the corrupt popes), or a one-way ticket to palookaville.

Back in the Sixties, when culture went on an extended acid trip, Bob Dylan sang about folks wanting to get you down in the hole where they are. There’s nothing so tonic for the blues than learning that an giant asteroid is cruising Earthward at the speed of extinction.

Hollywood loves that plotline, and has given us “The Day the Earth Caught Fire,” and a long stream of end-of-the-world flicks. Opening soon, it’ll be “2012” and “The Road.”  A few years ago I took my son to “The Day After Tomorrow,”  a climate-change spectacular, with hurricanes the size of Jupiter that scoop up waves that wash over New York City, followed by the dawn on an Ice Age.

It’s the kind of story Bill McKibben and Elizabeth Kolbert cook up when they’re in the apocalyptic zone.

So we’ve got competing cultural-political narratives: The  Jesus Is Coming With a Sword millennarianism of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, and The Polar Bears are Drowning With You and Me meteorological fantasies of McKibben & Co.

Neither story — from the firebrand right or the rogue-wave left — has a happy ending, as they frame the old war between religion and science.

For Carville-Clinton in the Nineties, it was The Economy, Stupid.

These days: It’s the Apocalypse, Stupid!







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Is Email Really Dying?

The Wall Street Journal’s Technology Report (Monday, October 12, 2009), opines that “…Email no longer rules.”

No, it doesn’t. The dominant infocom paradigm — with the most rapid growth — is social media, as the Wall Street Journal piece explains. But what the article doesn’t go on to explain is that these trends come and go like lightning bugs. The “era” of Wikipedia may well be over. (Was it real or Memorex?). The “era” of Facebook may be over soon enough. The point is that while pronouncements of new eras and newly minted kings and queens of infocom are coming at us quickly — but the shelf lives of these new trends and paradigms may be rather short-lived.

Something is happening, sang Bob Dylan in the Sixties, but you don’t know what it is — Do you, Mr. Jones?

I’m not Mr. Jones,  but I am Mr. Brown, and I agree that something’s happening. What I’m not so sure about is that the Wall Street Journal, or anyone else, really knows what it is.

In this regard, because poetry is what Ezra Pound said it is — news that stays news — I am content to cite a famous passage from W.B. Yeats:

“Surely some revelation is at hand;


And what best, its hour come around at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

(“The Second Coming”)

Not that the wonky techno predictions of falling and rising empires is overtly religious or mystically Yeatsean. But scratch beeath the surface and what you’ll often find a mixture of religiosity, utopianism and secular millennarianism: The old and decrepit body (“a tattered coat upon a stick” wrote Yeats) shall be overthrown by the new and sexy beast.

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Beer Diplomacy

One of my earliest posts to this blog about something I called ‘twitter diplomacy’. Last winter, amid the Israeli-Hamas skirmish over Israel’s retalliation over captured soldiers, an item appeared in the New York Times about social media. It seems that Israel’s communication managers were engaging the criticism of the nation’s allegedly “disproportionate” reaction (bombs away; civilians killed) to what Israel saw as Hamas’ aggression.

The very look of tweets — “Is” for Israel and far more bizarre and unintentionally ironic or absurdist verbal truncations to describe the fog of war –struck me as a blend of Orwell and Beckett. It looked like the language of diplomacy had been taken over by adolescents engaged in a game of “Doom” on X-box.

But at the same time I could see the sense of it. After all, it wasn’t what it resembled — tweens texting. The conversation — stacatto ping-pong — may have looked lightweight, but it certainly wasn’t. The back-and-forth was about life and death issues — ancient, modern, complex and profound. But on reflection, there was nothing inherently wrong or wrong-headed about conducting a conversation about those issues in tweets than in paragraphed op eds and communiques.

The issue of the moment happens to be the dueling accusations over the brief but well publicized arrest of Henry Gates by a Cambridge, Mass. police officer.  The prominence of the Professor Gates — a Harvard professor, acclaimed scholar, media personality and influential friend of the most powerful public officials in the U.S. including the president– led rapidly to the issue’s escalation to the top of the issues food chain: a presidential press conference intended to lobby the nation on universal, public health care.

Every plot element in this story has seemed unlikely. A famous African-American Harvard professor’s arrest in his own home. The arresting officer accused of racial profiling, but revealed to be nothing less than a sensitivity trainer, himself. The president of the United States characterizing the Cambridge police’s arrest of Gates as ‘stupid’ — but within 24 hours marching into the White House press secretary’s press briefing to offer a quasi apology for having used language that had made a bad situation worse.

Then it was time to pop open a cold one — or, that is, surface the trial balloon of a beer diplomacy moment (as opposed to a teachable moment).  Rather than unsheath their swords in rhetorical and legal combat, the principal Montague and Capulet would quaff a hearty brew in the neutral corner office of Mr. Obama. There, more manageable issues could be discussed, including the matter of the beer, itself (domestic, in this case, because the White House doesn’t stock the police officer’s favorite because it’s foreign-made).
That’s a issue that even a hot-head can wrap his fingers around.  That’s a controversy that doesn’t require a Nobel Peace Prize winner for the engineering of a compromise.

What if, on closer inspection, and with the aid of a cold one and a bowl of peanuts, race relations were found to be no harder to resolve than multi-lateral agreement on the brand of a beer? Didn’t Forest Gump make it abundantly clear that life is just a box of chocolates?

Maybe we’ve all been over-thinking this whole thing.

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Filed under Crisis Communication, Ethics, Media, Politics, Public Relations, Sociology

Kill the Messenger

One of my outstanding Harvard Extension School students sent me the video that’s linked above. It’s a tale of skulduggery — how a powerful company can pressure, bully and threaten a news organization when the company’s neck is on the line. Monsanto Chemical Company vs. Fox News.

Lots of undergraduates want to study public relations. Armed with my unlikely set of credentials and skills — a Ph.D. in English lit with dissertation on American poetry,  followed by freelance writing, magazine editing and then speech writing for corporations the size of Monsanto — I launched a career teaching PR. I’ve been at it for nearly 25 years.

I come from a business family, not an academic one. My father, a Russian immigrant from the Polish pale, was one of the legion of children who spent their childhood on the Lower East Side in the first decades of the twentieth century. He was a tough guy. Got his nose broken in a fight. Moved pianos. Hung with a rough crowd. Even after he grew to maturity, and became a success in the rough and tumble wholesale fur business in NYC’s shmata district, this toughness remained. His suits were silk, his nails lacquered, his wheels an Olds and later a Caddy. But that toughness was learned in the streets and tenements and probably embedded in his DNA. He faced down his share of rough characters, and hung with a couple of mink stole, Caddy-driving gangsters –relationships which eventually soured. The mobsters pulled an armed robbery caper in Bobby Brown Furs on 28th Street, which as a 12-year old kid I was quite excited to read about in the New York Daily Mirror.  But that’s another story for another time.

Dad was what’s commonly called a self-made man, if that’s what we do — make ourselves. Whether we do or not, he was one of the few who gave that name to their generation — the ones who made it out of the streets and uptown. Literally. To where I was raised, on West 15th, East 89th, Central Park West and the Upper East Side. Up and up. His success indemnified me against having to survive as he had, in the streets. But to me growing up, Dad’s success was just the background to my own story. I had no idea of my good fortune. Just the opposite. I was full of self-pity and resentment. But that, too, is another story for another time. In a way, of course, it’s a rather common and tedious story.

What’s more interesting to me is what I see looking back on my childhood from the perspective of a 64-year old. There is really nothing that self-made about me, other than my educational and scholarly interests. What I teach isn’t English, much less poetry. It’s business — business communication. It’s rhetoric. Persuasion. Writing. That’s because in my youthful alienation, I found in the voices of great writers — Doestoevsky, Turgenev, Dickens, Thackeray, Twain, Salinger, Henry Miller, Keats, and curiously enough, in Freud –the clarity and courage that felt like truth. I never imagined I was one of them, or would ever be. But reading them was like listening to musical instruments. It was enough to listen and try out a few notes on my own.

My career as a teacher is a fortunate accident, something I fell into because I wanted to be in the company of authors and, to some extent, of readers and writers. I was and still am a plugger, grateful that I landed in a profession with the liberality to tolerate someone with my combination of focus and eccentricity, and my belief that much inchoate feeling can be translated into articulate communication — writing, speech, conversation.

Unlike English lit, public relations is not revered, nor does it need to be. What public relations may be about isn’t so much persuasion (the fancier term is ‘rhetoric’), but survival. When I’ve suffered a grievous loss — the sudden death of a wife, the loss of a career (so I thought) — in my anguish and my need to survive I’ve turned to writing and speaking and conversation. At least, those are the healthy turns. So in a way, when I teach whatever it is that I teach, I’m really teaching all I know about how to use language to survive. I’m told I can do that pretty well — well enough to have made a career of it. Well enough to have made a living doing it. Well enough to have survived my own callowness and cruelty and ignorance, and to have to learned a little about listening and compassion.

I’m a teacher because I was lucky enough to have so many good teachers. These things I’ve said before. But they’re worth repeating, in a diary, a blog, on a streetcorner. To everybody or anybody or nobody in particular. Just to keep talking, keep writing, keep surviving — and pass along what’s been learned from all that work.

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Filed under Crisis Communication, Ethics, Media, Politics, Public Relations

Twitter and the Age of Crisis

“I am Married to a Crowd”

Boston Globe, Friday, April 11,2009, A-15.

My wife (Twitter handle: @GirlsSentAway) was the muse for this article and its star.

According to Boston Globe statistics, of 5,200 Globe articles tracked, the humor piece about my wife’s tweeting was among the top 25 most frequently emailed. (Lots of twittering birds out on those limbs.)

Not that everyone approved — of Twitter, my article, the Globe’s decision to publish it,or what HBX, an anonymous commenter on the Globe site, said was a “puff piece”. Mr “X” also lambasted my twittering spouse and me for being a couple of shameless, fame-hunting “celebrities,” which got a giggle from the Twitter Queen and me. (Stand aside, Lindsay, Britney, Justin and A-Rod!)

At grad school in Eng Lit, we read Chaucer’s “House of Fame”.  The author of The Canterbury Tales had no more respect for fame than HBX. Whether Chaucer would have retweeted (RT) my article to excoriate it, however, is a matter I shall leave to literary historians.


While all this seem utterly unrelated, it has a more than a whiff of crisis communication, a specialty of general management and public relations, which I teach. What is fame, after, all, but a perception of reputation? In the era of constant communication, reputation — a public figure’s, a private person’s, a politician’s, an organization’s — is subject to the kinds of violent swings we associate with the stock market. Crisis has been described as a circumstance in which someone (or some organization) faces a significantly damaging blow to reputation, and has hardly any time to react. The usual examples: Monica’s impact on Bill Clinton’s presidency. The Valdez’s impact on Exxon. Abu Ghraib’s impact on foreign opinion of the U.S

It’s no secret that ours is an age of crisis. While poet W. H. Auden nailed the post-W.W.II era as the “age of anxiety,” the digital revolution has upped the ante considerably by speeding up, spreading out and constantly enabling  communication. For this reason, perhaps, even the most trivial matter can feel like a crisis and appear like one. As a result, persons and organizations may well be even more anxious than Auden thought they were in the early years of the A-bomb era.

Thus, to be a celebrity today is to be stalked by gawker, and one misstep away from a humiliating gotcha in The Smoking Gun. It’s enough to make even faux celebrities install alarms and surveillance cams in their underwater-mortgage homes.

But while I regard Auden’s anxiety-tagging of the nuclear era as insightful, I am unpersuaded by HBX’s of the world the sky is falling because of Twitter. Those sorts of perceptions are right out of the Chicken Little playbook — just plain silly.

What is not so silly or trivial is the way in which communications revolutions like the one we’re experiencing has a way of making us feel even more anxious and insecure and neurotic than ever.

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Filed under Literary Criticism, Personal Essays, Social Media, Technology

Why Newspaper Deaths Should Scare Talk Radio

Tuesday, March 17, 2009.  St Patrick’s Day. The Irish are drinking their beer and the newspaper folk are crying in it.

It’s grievous to read the news today, oh boy, that the Seattle P.I. published its final issue this morning. The PI’s owener, Hearst is ready to pull the plug on the Houston Chronicle and other bleeding newspapers they own. But look on the bright side. Without “drive-by media” (Limbaugh’s term) to kick when they’re down, parasitic Talk Radio bloviators — who make their living by ingesting and ridiculing what actual reporters write– will die, too. The loudmouth Limbaughs in radio market nationwide will simply starve because they’ll have no carcass to feast upon, vultures that they are.

The demagogues of the airwaves — unelected, self-appointed faux reporters and narcissistic vox populi — can’t be expected to transfer their contempt for the New York Times to some powerless little blogger, or even the biggest bloggers in the sphere, the Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, the Daily Kos and a few hundred million I can’t recall.

The moribund P.I. may bring momentary joy to Talk Radio. But beyond that little ecstasy is the void.  One less soft target. The radio demagogues are an envious bunch and they love those easy targets. Once the targets have gone the way of the Seattle P.I., the Limbaugh legions will be out of targets and sources. Yes, they’ll continue targeting liberal politicians and double their efforts to invent sources. But the flame is going to flicker without the NY Times to burn.

Don’t expect call-in-radio to cease and desist. But there’ll be less fuel for the usual incivility and piling on. Web sites and blogs don’t catch fire — or ire —  as easily as newspaper. What Karl Rove has called “anger points” are as strategically central to Talk Radio as cleavage is to Cable TV.

For Talk Radio, it’s time to get out the crying towels.  Hey — and that means you, too, on the left — Rachel and Keith. Fair’s fair. But, wait: Maddow and Olbermann do their opining (sans cleavage) on cable TV, where a steady stream of clever visuals and talking-heads will continue to drive positive ratings.  Radio talk  show hosts don’t enjoy that visual advantage. On the radio, it’s all about the vocal chatter.  For right wing talk shows, the medium is their mess.

Did someone say, “Fairness Doctrine,” that bete noire of the talk show hosts? Despite the talk host paranoia that the post-Bushian/Obamian universe is gunning for them, the demise of right wing political talk radio won’t happen because Pelosi, Barney Frank and Obama with all their wussy pablum about “civility”. Not at all.  The radio talkers won’t lose their tongues  because the despised liberal-left rose up. They’ll go silent because the hated liberal media petered out.

Here’s what talk radio doesn’t want you to know: Next to the caricatures of Drunken Teddy and Commie Pelosi, the biased, liberal, “drive-by media” are a talk radio’s best friends.

But where’s the love? On a day when even your lifelong adversary bites the dust, I doubt talk radio hosts bothered to send an e-sympathy card to the Seattle P.I. staffers packing their belongings and slipping off into the increasingly crowded nationwide newspaper morgue.

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Filed under Media, Political Communication

Music in the Snow

OK. Here’s a bit of parallel thinking about a snowfall heading up the coast from Florida to Boston. See if you can navigate all this without losing your balance and falling into the slush.

Let’s begin with some music.

James Taylor’s “Frozen Man”: Overture for a snow storm heading up the coast

Regressive of me, sure. But when the weather service predicts “plowable” snow for a school day, I’m already imagining the joys of forced malingering.

And as we all have a musical score for our lives, I YouTubed James Taylor’s “Frozen Man.”

I know. “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” would be more appropriate. He sang a duet with Nathalie Cole. Very sweet. But the frozen man story always gets me — along with that signature acoustic guitar style and one of the great voices of the past quarter century:

Last thing I remember is the freezing cold
Water reaching up just to swallow me whole
Ice in the rigging and howling wind
Shock to my body as we tumbled in
Then my brothers and the others are lost at sea
I alone am returned to tell thee
Hidden in ice for a century
To walk the world again
Lord have mercy on the frozen man

Next words that were spoken to me
Nurse asked me what my name might be
She was all in white at the foot of my bed
I said angel of mercy Im alive or am I dead
My name is william james mcphee
I was born in 1843
Raised in liverpool by the sea
But that aint who I am
Lord have mercy on the frozen man

It took a lot of money to start my heart
To peg my leg and to buy my eye
The newspapers call me the state of the art
And the children, when they see me, cry
I thought it would be nice just to visit my grave
See what kind of tombstone I might have
I saw my wife and my daughter and it seemed so strange
Both of them dead and gone from extreme old age
See here, when I die make sure Im gone
Dont leave em nothing to work on
You can raise your arm, you can wiggle your hand
And you can wave goodbye to the frozen man

I know what it means to freeze to death
To lose a little life with every breath
To say goodbye to life on earth
To come around again
Lord have mercy on the frozen man
Lord have mercy on the frozen man


Can’t resist those tales of redemption. Dante himself might have admired it, except his frozen Judas and other nasty boys. But America’s the land of second chances, isn’t it? Of underdogs like Stallone’s Rocky getting up off their ass and taking their punishment as a triumph?

But there’s a counterpoint to this: There are no second acts in American lives, said Scott Fitzgerald. (Of course, he never saw all the “Rocky” sequels or “Godfather II”.)

Then there’s Robert Bly’s “Silence in the Snowy Fields” poem:

Poet Robert Bly

Poet Robert Bly

(Are you still with me? Lost you yet?)

Something about snowfalls stops us in our tracks. Poems — with their inner-silence capabilities — can capture that. Robert Frost could, of course. Even a lesser light like Bly.  (No sin to be a “minor poet”. Get a couple of good shots off. Heck, even one beauty’s enough for a whole career.).

Then there’s Emily Dickinson (#341) to give us the dark side of the snow, so to speak:

“After great pain, a formal feeling comes —

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs

. . .

As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow —

First — Chill — then Stupor — then the letting go –”

True enough. Naturally, death becomes poets, and they do it well (didn’t Sylvia Plath write that she did dying well?).

Look: Find me a poet who hasn’t written about snow and I’ll find you the coordinates of an humid, equatorial country.

I met my wife on a snow day, when my classes were cancelled, 10 years ago this week.

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Filed under Literary Criticism, Media, Music, On Writing