Category Archives: Media


I recorded a bloggingheads segment Monday with Conor Friedersdorf for his channel on I guess you call this “vlogging.” I have been vehemently opposed to vlogging (ask Rachel Steinberg) since 2006, because no one looks good in web-cam close-up. Also because a lot of bloggers are better writers than talkers, including me. But I talked to Conor for nearly an hour, about: men’s role in feminism, Hugo Schwyzer, James Poulos, women’s ‘privileged relationship’ to the natural world, subsidizing birth control, vasectomies, my partisan political apathy, Gary Johnson, what’s new in eating disorders, David Brooks, Phoebe Maltz-Bovy, ‘elites’ behaving like traditionalists, goat cheese and arugula, old-fashioned cocktails, Portland bartenders migrating to Los Angeles, the farmer’s markets of Indiana, D.C. media culture and the things you’re supposed to say on the Internet. Anyway, here’s the test clip I sent Conor & my very first test vlogging attempt:
I swear I get a little better. You can check out the whole thing here.

‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do

I have probably written about Rihanna more than any other celebrity. Mostly because I don’t generally write about celebrities (though I also seem to write about Leann Rimes quite often …). But also because Rihanna’s whole weird S&M-princess-meets-Tammy-Wynette-thing fascinates me.

Last week on Blisstree I wrote about how Rihanna and ex-boyfriend, abuser and musical collaborator Chris Brown both grew up witnessing domestic violence. Rihanna’s dad abused her mother, and Brown’s stepdad abused his mother. I think that’s important to any musings on what’s up there. Also:

I think Amanda Dobbins at Vulture nails it here, with “The Argument You’re Having With Yourself About Rihanna and Chris Brown;” it’s also a nice summary of the argument the Internet is having about Rihanna and Chris Brown. Clearly, the publicity is good for both their albums (Perez Hilton’s post about it was pretty accurately titled “Rihanna & Chris Brown mind-fuck the world”). And who are we to say … yada yada yada. But in the end, what it keeps coming back to is: Maybe Rihanna is in an abusive relationship. Maybe Rihanna is ‘a very famous, very rich, very talented 24-year-old in an abusive relationship.’
So, that. Or maybe she’s not, you know? This is a woman who’s recorded songs about abusive relationships and whips and chains and talked about being sexually submissive in Rolling Stone magazine. In short: She’s no shrining violet.

Which is what makes this whole Rihanna and Chris Brown narrative so puzzling. When we saw pop divas of previous generations stay with men who abused them, the women were usually somehow dependent on their abusers. Think Tina Turner. Or even Whitney Houston. (Yes, she was already famous by the time she married Bobby Brown, but drugs are another kind of dependency—or, enabling someone can make them dependent on you). Rihanna, however … She’s the bigger celebrity. She’s in no way dependent on Chris Brown. And she seems to have her shit together. She seems to have her shit together and she chooses to work or be with a man who nearly killed her. And she’s kind of defiantly proud about that.

A few days ago, I read about how she tweeted a line from her 2009 song “Hard” in the midst of all the ‘open letter to Rihannaetc. etc. etc. hoopla and the rumors about her and Brown’s upcoming collaboration.

They can say whatever, Ima do whatever…No pain is forever<—–YUP! YOU KNOW THIS
The first thing I thought of was “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do,” the early female blues standard written by  Porter Grainger and most associated with Bessie Smith, who recorded the song in 1923 (it was also recorded by Billie Holiday and bunches of others). Here are a few lines:

Well, I’d rather my man would hit me / Than follow him to jump up and quit me / Ain’t nobody’s business if I do

I swear, I won’t call no copper / If I’m beat up by my papa / Ain’t nobody’s business if I do

A long time ago I wrote a paper I’ve long-since lost about early female blues singers. It turned me on to folks like Bessie Smith, Trixie Smith, Lucille Bogan and Ma Rainy. Pandora has since turned me on to many others. If you haven’t heard much classic female blues, you will probably be surprised by how dirty! it can get. Bogan in particular—whew. There’s also a wonderful playfulness, though, and an awesomely feminist bent. They challenged prevailing gender roles and ideas about sexuality and femininity. Rainy—billed ‘the Mother of the Blues’—was married to a man but slept with women. Here’s Rainy’s “Prove It On Me”:

I went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
It must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men.
Wear my clothes just like a fan
Talk to the gals just like any old man

Cause they say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me.
Lesbians were fairly common on the classic blues circuit. Mike Rugan’s ‘Uncensored History of the Blues’ blog introduced me to Bogan’s B.D. Woman’s Blues (She recorded it under the name Bessie Jackson). B.D. stood for bull dyke (or bull dagger).

Comin’ a time, B.D. women they ain’t going to need no men
Comin’ a time, B.D. women they ain’t going to need no men
Cause they way treat us is a lowdown dirty sin

B.D. women, you sure can’t understand
B.D. women, you sure can’t understand
They got a head like a sweet angel and they walk just like a natural man
And, just for fun, here’s “Shave ‘Em Dry,” a song recorded in 1935 by Bogan:

I got nipples on my titties
Big as the end of my thumb
I got somethin between my legs
That’ll make a dead-man come
So—lots of sex. Lots of lesbians. Also lots of honesty about what it was like to be a black woman at the beginning of last century. Some of the songs are camp. Some of the songs are heartbreaking. And “Tain’t Nobody’s Business” wasn’t the only song defending or celebrating an abusive lover. Not only was early female blues full of lesbians, it was full of women “repeatedly left, beaten, cheated on, and ignored, only to forgive their lover because of his sexual prowess. Here’s Trixie Smith’s “You’ve Got to Beat Me to Keep Me” (also written by Porter Grainger; clearly dude has some issues):

You’ve got to beat me to keep me, cause mama loves a hard boiled man
So don’t you let no man cheat me, if he’s got a good right hand.
Beat me up for breakfast, knock me down for tea,
Black my eye for supper, then you’re pleasing me.
You’ve got to beat me to keep me, cause mama loves a hard boiled man.
Here’s Ma Rainey’s “Sweet Rough Man:”

I woke up this mornin’, my head as sore as a boil
My man beat me last night with five feet of copper coil
… But the way he loves me, makes me soon forget
There are tons of fascinating things about early blues ladies I want to ramble on about, but! that is not the point here. The point is about Rihanna: She’s certainly not the first female singer to defend being with someone who beats her. She’s just the first in a while.

The point is also agency: They were reclaiming it.

So is Rihanna making a feminist statement in flaunting her friendliness with Chris Brown? I certainly wouldn’t be the first to point out that by being so publicly congenial to Brown, by defining the terms of their relationship, she could be trying to reclaim agency, to set herself up as not-a-victim, to show she was not afraid of him.

I also wouldn’t be the first to point out that no one’s sure whether they are friends, lovers or trying to stir up a lot of publicity for their new songs.

But Rihanna isn’t just friendly to Chris Brown. She doesn’t just project forgiveness. After (reluctantly) leaving Brown, she puts out a hot violent sex song with Eminem. She puts out her own song called “S&M.” She says things like:

“Sometimes whips and chains can be overly planned – you gotta stop, get the whip from the drawer downstairs. . . . I’d rather have him use his hands.”
Clearly she gets some level of enjoyment from being roughed up and being submissive.
… And she’s, like, not afraid to talk about it? Which is … cool. But also not cool because rough sex shouldn’t really have anything to do with actual violence, and people get easily confused.

But it doesn’t really matter. She’s not asking us to like her decisions—she’s just kind of making us acknowledge that she is making decisions. For personal or professional or whatever reasons, she is choosing what she’s choosing, and she believes in these choices. She believes that making them doesn’t disempower her.

Cause it ain’t nobody’s business if we do
And maybe that’s right. If we believe women are fully-autonomous people and all of that—well, we have to respect the choices they make, even when we don’t agree with them. Which doesn’t meant we can’t talk about them. If you collaborate with an ex who nearly killed you on two songs released the same day, you have made the discussion part of the pop culture public domain. And I do think issues like this are instructive. On the one hand, it’s pop gossip. On the other hand, the stories we tell about celebrities both reflect and resonate with the society who tells them. They become allegories. Rihanna and Chris Brown have no reasonable expectation of bloggers, entertainment TV hosts and kids on Twitter not talking about them. But!—

Maybe “not blaming the victim” isn’t the point. Maybe the best way to not take away a woman like Rihanna’s agency is to blame her fully—to acknowledge/accept that she has reasons for making the choices she’s making and doesn’t care if we approve or understand.

Just some thoughts …

Traveling Light

About two years ago, I took Amtrak from New York City to Pittsburgh (Cleveland was the ultimate destination, but we ran into a blizzard) with a dozen other Brooklyn kids to film a semi-improvised, open-ended ‘train film.’ A friend, Gina Telaroli, conceived of and directed the project, which came to be titled Traveling Light. Anyway, the finished product—Gina calls it “a video essay celebrating cinema on the railroad tracks”—got some nice words from folks writing year-end film reviews. On film site Notebook, David Phelps calls Traveling Light “a type of found object” and writes:
 … what starts off as plain-air documentary comes quietly to seem like a closed movie set in which the inhabitants are subjected to shifting red flares and matted Midwest, magic lantern backdrops. Instead of pinning down space, the long takes can defy it—the constants, determining the movie’s own space and screen, are unseen windows—in the train’s endless trackback.
And on Moving Image Source, critic B. Kite says:
I think they put cameras in everything now. And that gives a lot of the newer durational work a kind of floating anxiety, a need to justify its existence, which usually finds expression in either a sense of intense strain (grandiose images composed unto death) or, at the opposite extreme, those soggy, shapeless lumps of space-time I’ve come to call “video bloat.” So how unexpected and cool to come across Gina Telaroli’s Traveling Light, a feature that demonstrates neither the hyper-consciousness of the first camp nor the apparent unconsciousness of the latter but instead maintains a remarkably composed comfort in its rhythms and objects of attention. A train trip from New York to Pittsburgh under brown mid-winter skies, past tract houses, snow scabs, and those deeply unmysterious piles of concrete somethings that always seem to crop up in the blank, functional spaces of America. It’s hard to say whether the hanging melancholy is a state of mind or just an expression of the weather, but it rests at the center of the film and exerts a steady sweet-sad pull until the trip finally comes to terminus in one of the loveliest shots I’ve seen in digital.
So, yay. Gina shoots lovely things, and deserves the attention. Besides which, I have her to thank for finally getting to visit Pittsburgh. In 5 feet of snow. With no means of escape. For two days. Oh, and inspiring the amazing Whirlwind Cross-Country Amtrak Adventure! that consumed the first few months of my 2011 … Photo: Ian Westcott

Curio: 10/18/2012 (Rambling Media Criticism + Amateur Porn Edition)

Last week at Blisstree, I posted about how birth control is once again making headlines for making women choose the “wrong” men—which is one of those strange media narrative perversions that happens so often and goes so unremarked on in general that it makes me hate being a journalist [the number of things in the media climate that make me hate being a journalist grow and grow …]. Scientific American blogger Scicurious, a biomedical researcher, is also sketched out by the way media, in general, cover studies relating to birth control: “There seems almost to be glee in the way people spread it.” Though the post seems to mis-peg Jezebel blogger Margaret Hartmann as totally earnest), what Scicurious gets at (and I also find most unfortunate) is that this type of melodramatic coverage is either taken as right on face, or taken as so absurd that the research it’s based on is also taken as absurd. Any valid, potentially interesting parts of the research get obscured. While I’m more inclined to think of this as an institutionally-encouraged problem, rather than rampant stupidity or laziness on the part of individual journalists, I’m not sure—nor of the extent to which this kind of coverage is exasperated by the nature of web media. IN other words, I get terribly existentialist about blogging. (Also: How is there any meaningful difference between blogging and daily web news journalism?)

[Why are we such a mess, that’s what I’m trying to say here, folks. In so much of what I write about, I’m tempted to conclude: We are all Doomed. Other commentary often fails me, but We are all Doomed applies so nicely to so much of the health, food and political news I read.)

Well anyway: Here’s a really terribly funny and also ENTIRELY ABSURD television news segment and accompanying article about a couple who turn to amateur web porn to provide for their young daughter. This is what the cognitive dissonance required to cover this couple’s porn as somehow titillating and deviant while simultaneously trying to frame them as average, upright American parents ends up looking like, I guess: Hair pulling, biting and ordering each other around are just some of the strangest things the couple said people have asked them to do during their live sessions. It’s all filmed in their bedroom while their daughter sleeps in a different part of the house.

Scattered Thoughts on Occupy Wall Street’s ‘Media Problem’

Here is what I’ve been reading about Occupy Wall Street. Here are my few observations: 1. There is no meaningful sartorial difference these days between “hippies” and “hipsters.” Just so we’re all clear on that. 2. Most of the people quoted are ridiculous. It almost seems the media coverage is tailor-made to make us hate them, but unfortunately I think the most plausible answer—rather than widespread media conspiracy—is that this is how the majority of these people really are and sound. To speak like a cowboy or a politician for a moment: Let’s call a spade a spade, okay? 2.5 What is funny is that, were this a conservative protest, all parties involved—its participants, its mercenaries, its political cheerleaders—would have the Lamestream Liberal Media to blame, to explain away how uninformed its participants come across. Mainstream liberals can’t really avail themselves of that excuse. 2.51 They could, of course, make a point about how most media is owned by corporations who have a vested interest in preserving the status quo, or the natural biases of reporters and bloggers at traditional (and by that, I mean anything outside the super-lefty indie press) media outlets, even those like Mother Jones and NPR. I find these arguments unconvincing, but they could be made … 2.52 In fact, I feel like a lot of people in the press are going out of their way to *try* and find some coherence, some meaning in all of this. 2.54  It is of course impossible for me or you (providing you are not there) to know whether media outlets really are cherry-picking quotes and protestors to paint a certain narrative picture. If anything, I find it likely that reporters’ natural biases run more against anyone appearing to be a dreaded Hipster (hippie) than anyone appearing to have a legitimate complaint with United States power structures. If there’s one thing we all hate more than Wall Street bankers, or at least that The Media hates more, it’s hipsters. The second more likely bias would be the Bias of the Narrative (in general), I think. 2.55 Luckily, there is a lot of ‘citizen media’ available these days. A cursory glance of said citizen media does not reveal a significantly different narrative than that being reported by corporate reporters. 3. Panning the inane or misguided complaints of uninformed protestors is not the same as rejecting the very premise that there are legitimate complaints to be made about some of the issues they’re allegedly protesting. It is not to say there are no smart, informed people there. It is not to say that even the not-smart, not-informed people there don’t possibly have legitimate reasons for anger. For the record. 4. As much as my 12-year-old heart desired to go back in time and be an establishment-protesting hippie with flowers in my hair, I would have sucked at it. I could have worn those flowers damn well, though. 5. The Occupy Wall Street protestors do not sound any more misguided, insipid, etc., than your average Tea Partier. Their contempts and complaints and scapegoats are vastly different, sure, but no more or less reactionary or vacuous, and certainly no more or less coherent. But—and I am really taking a page from my boyfriend’s blog here on this one, but one of his favorite complaints rings quite true to me here—whereas many not-insipid liberals have criticized these Occupy Wall Street protestors, have in fact publicly cringed at their Greatest Hits of Liberal Demands, their incoherant babbling, their hypocrisy — whoa to the few not-insipid conservatives who did the same with tea partiers! No matter how vacous, rascist, whatever tea partiers sounded, a lot of mainstream conservatives lept to their defense. Maybe not to defend every indinvidual thing they said—some of it needed to be cleaned up a little bit for media consumption, some swept under the proverbial rug. But still, conservative leaders were enthusiastic about framing this as part of a larger story about citizens fed up, citizen uprising, etc. Liberals are not clamoring to do the same with the Occupy Wall Street kids. You can say one is the more desirable position for party mainstreams to take—I could make a case for either position, which means I will not make a case for either. But I think the difference is marked.

Problems With Health Journalism

I’ve been accumulating personal and secondhand data for some sort of story on gendered mental disorder diagnoses, so it’s with particular annoyance that I come across this PsychCentral article, “Prevalence of Mental Disorders Vary by Gender.’ The authors note, in the second paragraph, that “researchers discovered women are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety or depression, while men tend toward substance abuse or antisocial disorders.” Yet if the authors realize that the prevalence of this disorder or another is not the same as those “diagnosed with” said disorder, they fail to make the distinction in the headline or the rest of the article. The ways adult hyperactive-type ADHD manifests itself are remarkably similar, at least by the diagnostic criteria and the way they are written about, to the symptoms of bipolar II (a less intense combination of highs and lows than bipolar I). Women are said to rarely possess hyperactive type ADHD (as opposed to the inattentive type), but they swell the ranks of bipolar II diagnoses—which is allegedly much, much less prevalent in men. And it’s sort of funny that Miami Dolphin’s Brandon Marshall wants to be the ‘face’ of borderline personality disorder, because for years it was said just to be a girl disease (symptoms include promiscuity and neediness). This sort of stuff both fascinates me and pisses me off; if anyone has any good research on these things to point me to, please do. The more I cover health and nutrition for Blisstree (where I post at least four times daily, these days), the more frustrated I get with some health research and a lot of health reporting. It’s remarkable how little is done, in a lot of cases, beyond looking at the press release. I’m guilty of this sometimes (though if at all possible, I skim the study itself), but I write for a rapid-fire blog; you would think folks at websites for major publications/TV stations/etc. would go beyond that. [I’m not necessarily faulting the writers; for all I know, they all have to write a whole bunch of articles per day, too, and are only being asked for brief, neutral coverage]. But what’s worse is a) the veneer of objectivity, and b) the packaging/marketing. Some studies are crap. Reporters or editors have to know these are crap, at least most of the time, but they need things to write about and maybe everybody else is reporting it or maybe their paycheck/job/whatever is dependent on pageviews and so even if they report the truth of the stories, the headlines and deks or the blurbs scream out the most sensational aspect of the story, even if it’s not necessarily correct. Sometimes the articles will mention some fact that completely changes the meaning of the content as they’ve packaged it, and then just go on with the chosen narrative, contradictory fact notwithstanding. The most egregious example of this in recent memory is this study reporting that it would cost a single American $380 more per year to eat healthy; for a family of four, this shot to $1,520. Headlines trumpeted things like “Is Eating Healthy a Luxury?” and “Most Americans Can’t Afford to Follow Dietary Guidelines.” What most glossed over was that the 1,000 adults surveyed were only from one affluent county in Washington, and researchers looked not at how families could add potassium, fiber, and other nutrients to their diets most cheaply, but based calculations on what these wealthy participants tended to already buy that contained those nutrients, or said they’d like to buy. Even when what’s left out isn’t so extreme, there’s very little questioning of a study’s methods or conclusions in health reporting, as if the fact that it’s academic research alone makes it sacrosanct. I wonder if it’s more market factors of sociology/conventions of journalism that’s most at work here? Or is it impossible to distinguish? It is things like these that make me wish I were in grad school again, and could devote time to wonky media things like this. And then everyone could report on my research findings unquestionably …

Curio: Back to Paying Attention to Things on the Internet Edition

A few things. And a few sentences about each. [And because I’ve been out of the loop for a few minutes, we can pardon my lack of timeliness, can’t we?] 1. Just got around to reading this awesome faux-profile by Ann Friedman about Washington’s “DC Lady Mafia”—a parody and a rebuttal, of sorts, to this unintentionally hilarious New York Times piece about DC’s young male journo scene. Hell yeah.
In only a few years, these young women and others like them have become part of the journalistic establishment in Washington — but you wouldn’t know it from reading The New York Times. Once they lived in modest studio apartments and stayed out late, talking about grammar, feminist theory, and ready-to-wear collections while their male counterparts appeared on cable television. Now the members of this “DC lady mafia,” as they began calling themselves because no newspaper style section deigned to give them a nickname, have become destination reading for — and respected by — the city’s power elite. Indeed, arguably they are themselves approaching power-elite status. [emphasis mine]
While we’re on the topic, I’m also kind of sick of this whole ‘brave new world’ of digital journalism narrative. Ezra Klein may have been delighted at discovering the act of reporting after he’d already been finding success as a blogger —
“I came here, and I had no professional affiliation,” Mr. Klein, 26, said over lunch at Potenza, a decidedly grown-up restaurant in downtown Washington. “I just had a blog that was mine, but I came out here and was trained as a magazine writer, and that was just a much more formalized way of journalism. You made calls. People answered calls. You took down what was said in a respectable account, and that began to influence my blogging. It became a lot less of an ‘Ezra affair.’
— but a lot of bloggers and web journalists I know (myself included) still started off at daily newspapers or student newspapers or some sort of outlet that required reportage first, opinion second (if at all). As Conor has eloquently laid out before, one of the problems with movement journalism is that it encourages blogging and opinion and analysis from young journos before they even learn how to tell a proper story. But that’s a rant for another day, or another blogger. Anyhow, we may be the last generation of journalists to come-of-age if not primarily in print than at least not exclusively web. Although another problem I have with this narrative is that it’s generally only concerned with young journalists following the DC-baby-pundit/Gawker-media-mouthpiece model. These are the writers that are most visible, the ones that have made Names for themselves, so it makes sense. But I’ve got a friend who went from beat reporting at the Boston Globe to beat reporting for AP to a newspaper fellowship in Abu Dhabi. Another who started at the same Columbus, Ohio business paper I did and now helps run an online business magazine. These kinds of writers go under the radar as far as the general media story about young journalists is concerned. Exhibit A:
[…] Douglas Brinkley, the Rice University professor and historian who is working on a biography of Walter Cronkite, expressed nostalgia for an earlier, more in-the-trenches generation of correspondents who didn’t rely on Twitter posts and linking to generate content. “I’m not making a judgment,” Professor Brinkley said [Ed. note: Really? Than what the heck do you call that statement?] . “What I don’t like is that before, people would start in foreign bureaus all over the world before making their way to Washington. You would be pushing into your deep 20s and have a really deep global background. What you’ve seen is a devaluation of serious journalism in favor of reporters who are able to create a brand identity.”
Besides negating the identity of tons of 20-something reporters out there, this idea (which one hears from older journalists all the time) is quite insulting, as if we’d all rather sit in an office all day than actually get to see the people and places we write about. Give us an environment where more than the most well-funded media outlets can afford to send their reporters out in the field to report—I’m not even talking the bureau in Dubai, dude; how about something happening down the street?—and, you know, I bet a lot of us degenerate young turks would be more than happy. But there’s not time, or money, for that at most places, and so reporting takes place through emails and phone calls. I get tired of being told to live up to a model of journalism that hardly anyone is willing to support anymore. Huh. That turned into more than ‘just a few sentences.’ Let’s keep the rest of this brief then, shall we? 2. Blisstree talks about “orthorexia.” Which was not a word I even knew existed, describing a concept I am very familiar with. 3. Megan Daum has an interesting take on folks’ ire towards Planned Parenthood:
Here’s my theory: When it comes to parenthood, the whole notion of planning can be so overwhelming that it feels better to leave it to fate. Sure, we know that the respectable, socially responsible thing to do is to think hard about when and how many children to have and to take the necessary steps – abstinence or birth control – to avoid producing a child that cannot be properly cared for. But as any parent will tell you, there is no “perfect” time to have a baby. It’s always going to be a showstopper. And I suspect that’s why a lot of people, pro-life and pro-choice alike, like to think of parenthood as something that was foisted upon them rather than actively pursued.