Tina Fey's Bossypants and its relationship to James Fallows' Breaking the News

This passage appears in Tina Fey’s memoir / how-to guide Bossypants:

And Oh, the Cable News Reportage! The great thing about cable news is that they have to have something to talk about twenty-four hours a day. Sometimes it’s Anderson Cooper giggling with one of the Real Housewives of Atlanta. Sometimes it’s Rick Sanchez screaming about corn syrup. They have endless time to filler, but viewers get kind of ‘bummed out’ if they supply actual information about wars and stuff, so ‘Media Portrayal of Sarah Palin’ and SNL and I became the carrageenan in America’s news nuggets for several weeks. I was a cable news star, like a shark or a missing white child!

The downside of being a cable news star is that nay ass-hair with a clip-on tie can come on an as ‘expert’ to talk about you. One day, by accident, I caught this tool Tom something on MSNBC saying that he thought I had not ‘conducted myself well’ during all this. In his opinion, Mrs. Palin had conducted herself with dignity and I had not. (I’m pretty sure Tom’s only claim to expertise is that he oversees a website where people guess incorrectly about who might win show biz awards.) There was a patronizing attitude behind Tom’s comments that I certainly don’t think he would have applied to a male comedian. Chris Rock was touring at the time and he was literally calling George W. Bush ‘retarded’ in his act. I don’t think Tom something would have expressed disappointment that Chris was not conducting himself sweetly. I learned how incredibly frustrating it is to watch someone talk smack about you and not be able to respond.

I love the word “reportage,” which sounds like “personage,” and bears the same relationships to real news or reports that McDonald’s does to real food with real nutritional value. And the phrase “wars and stuff” lets Fey drop into the mindset of a network executive, perhaps just a few years out from his or her MBA, who is trying to decide what might maximize revenue this quarter. Answer: sharks, missing white girls, and fake controversy. We don’t need any stuff about wars, tough compromises, or deep trends! Let’s dazzle them with superficial bullshit, which a subset of them really like, and hope no one notices what we’re not covering!

(Unfortunately, this works because we, collectively, don’t demand better. But that’s a subject for another time.)

Fey’s critique is close to James Fallows’ in Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy. Fey is being funny and Fallows serious, and Fey is dealing with a media environment a decade and change later than the one Fallows describes, but on a basic level the environment has barely changed. If anything, the explosion in cable news has made it worse in many ways, with only a handful of exceptions (The Daily Show, which fights against the dumbest parts of the contemporary media, or coverage of Trayvon Martin’s murder). The net result of this is Americans losing confidence in the institutions that are supposed to serve us. The responsibility is partially ours, but it’s also partially that of the people who nominally serve us.

Everyone who pays attention to the media knows it’s broken, and that the brokenness seems to have seeped into the larger culture as a form of blanket cynicism and condemnation. I don’t have a strong sense of how to reverse this dynamic, save perhaps on an individual level.

See also David Brin on how an idea has, over the last twenty years, become “fundamental dogma to millions of Americans:” “The notion that assertions can trump facts.” I wonder if the Western world’s enormous wealth insulates people from the potential consequences of their beliefs; very people die or are seriously injured as a result of dumb beliefs based on erroneous or completely absent information. In other words, it’s now much cheaper to believe nonsense.

On a separate, and more pleasant note, Fallows’ new book, China Airborne, will be published on May 15. In addition, Bossypants itself is funny throughout. Samples:

* “Politics and prostitution have to be the only jobs where inexperience is considered a virtue. In what other profession would you brag about not knowing stuff? ‘I’m not one of those fancy Harvard heart surgeons. I’m just an unlicensed plumber with a dream and I’d like to cut your chest open.’ The crowd cheers.”

* “In 1997 I flew to New York from Chicago to interview for a writing position at Saturday Night Live. It seemed promising because I’d heard the show was looking to diversify. Only in comedy, by the way, does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity.”

* “I feel about Photoshop the way some people feel about abortion. It is appalling and a tragic reflection on the moral decay of our society . . . unless I need it, in which case, everybody be cool.”

* “If you are a woman and you bought this book for practical tips on how to make it in a male-dominated workplace, here they are. No pigtails, no tube tops. Cry sparingly. (Some people say ‘Never let them see you cry.’ I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.) When choosing sexual partners, remember: Talent is not sexually transmittable. Also, don’t eat diet foods in meetings.”

Links: Chairs, publishing, Game of Thrones, midlists, and vocational education

* Against chairs. Yes! Way against! I might buy a Geekdesk soon, in part because I can’t get this Herman Miller Embody adjusted right. See also my thoughts on the movie Objectified and designers’ obsession with chairs. EDIT: I bought a Geekdesk.

* Bertrand Russell’s 10 Commandments for Teachers; I try to follow them, especially the one about arguing via authority.

* The Real E-Publishing Story: It’s Not the Millionaires, It’s the Midlist.

* Why publishers hate the midlist: taxes and depreciation.

* How Thor Power Hammered Publishing.

* J. A. Konrath: Harlequin Fail. Interestingly, I’ve begun contemplating whether it would be possible for me to sell 10,000 ebooks per book, and the answer might be “yes.”

* What’s HBO Go’s Problem? There is no word for “cord cutter” in Dothraki. The linked cartoon basically describes me; I’ve tried to buy HBO Go, only to find that I have to have a cable subscription, which I don’t have because I don’t have a TV. I’ve tried Amazon and iTunes. Nothing. However, although I’m an inveterate respecter of copyright, I have discovered certain alternate means that allow me (and sometimes friends in my position) to watch the show, and then allow me to write posts like this one.

* Learning that works: rethinking vocational education. This is positive step, and I’m noticing more and more people making these kinds of arguments. Worthless mentions this too.

How much of university life is about education? Gladwell, Bissinger, and the football-on-campus debate

In “College Football Should Be Banned: How Malcolm Gladwell and Buzz Bissinger won the Slate/Intelligence Squared live debate,” Katy Waldman writes that “Bissinger [who is most famous for writing Friday Night Lights . . .] reserved his ire for what he called ‘the distracted university’: the campus so awash in fun and fandom that it neglects learning. The United States faces the most competitive global economy in recent memory, he warned. An unhealthy obsession with sports handicaps our intellectual class.” This might be true, but most students don’t seem to care very much: In Beer and Circus: How Big-Time Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education, Murray Sperber says relatively few students attend college for primarily intellectual reasons. Most appear to view it as party time or a way to signal other characteristics.

Colleges have noticed this and responded, in the main, by inflating grades and reducing work. Campuses aren’t “awash in fun and fandom” because of some nefarious conspiracy: they’re awash in fun and fandom because most people appear to like those things more than they like discussing sonnets or the finer points of hash tables. There are obviously individual exceptions to this—like me, and most professors or would-be professors—but the overall trend is clear.

If students demand more serious classes, you’ll be able to tell by the number who stop taking weak business classes, comm, and sociology, and start taking hard core classes in the liberal arts and sciences. The overall trend, however, appears to be in the opposite direction in most disciplines and at most universities. This trend looks like it’s being driven more by students and their choices than by any other force. Until the chattering classes acknowledge that, we’re going to get hand-waving or evil-administrator explanations.

Still, I agree with Bissinger: college football should be ended or at least radically changed. But my reasons are different: it’s obvious that colleges should be paying the people who are professional athletes in all but name, and it’s unethical to pay coaches hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars while the effectively professional athletes receive only dubious “scholarships.” It’s also obvious by now that repeated sub-concussive blows to the head can cause CTE, and that football is inherently dangerous in the same way smoking is inherently dangerous. If adults want to take up inherently dangerous activities, they should be able to in most circumstances, and football is one of those circumstances. But they should at the very least be paid for the risks they choose to take.

That being said, if college sports are reduced to their proper scope, it’s not obvious what will replace them as a large-scale, collective ritual. Jonathan Haidt writes about the value of such rituals and the group experiences they inspire in The Righteous Mind, and American life has systematically removed such rituals from most people’s lives. Religion or military service once provided them, but now the former has waned for most people and the latter is a specialist occupation. Sports are one domain that expanded to fulfill the need many people have for arbitrary tribal affiliation and collective action. That might be one reason a lot of people react viscerally against the deserved criticism of college sports: such criticism feels like an attack on identity, not merely a discussion about economics and exploitation. I don’t really have a good method for negating or altering such feelings.

In the case of football, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if a scenario like the one Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier lay out in “What Would the End of Football Look Like? An economic perspective on CTE and the concussion crisis” occurs. Notice especially this line: “More and more modern parents will keep their kids out of playing football, and there tends to be a ‘contagion effect’ with such decisions; once some parents have second thoughts, many others follow suit.” Based on the CTE data I’ve seen, there’s absolutely no way I’d let one of my (currently hypothetical) children play football, and if my friends let their kids play, I’d be tempted to forward some of the CTE and football literature. Just as very few modern parents want their children to smoke, even if they do or did, I would not be surprised if, in a short period of time, very few modern parents want their children to play football.

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