HOLT UNCENSORED #55
by Pat Holt
Friday, April 23, 1999:
JOURNALISM GETS AN(OTHER) 'F'
ANTIDOTE OF THE DAY
PANIC BECOMES A MARKETING TOOL
JOURNALISM GETS AN(OTHER) 'F'
Did it seem to you that after the high-school tragedy at Littleton, Colorado, journalism once again just didn't seem to "get it"?
With headlines screaming 'Who's ready to die?' " and TV anchors drooling over the "trenchcoat mafia," it appeared the lessons of Monica/OJ still hadn't sunk in. Grossed out and angry, the audience continues to flee to the Internet, where it creates its own news by chaos and consensus, crazier but more credible somehow.
Interestingly, one of the few sane voices to cut through the confusion was Rosie O'Donnell. "What happened in the newspapers?" she asked on her show. "We read [that] these boys were monsters. They're not . . . They did not walk around as villainous, hateful creatures. They are our kids, just like the kids who are sitting in this audience today.
"[The media] say they were part of the 'trenchcoat mafia,' well, you know what? That's sensationalizing. In my high school, I was in a clique . . . We wore the same shirt on Tuesdays. That didn't mean we were violent offenders . . . To demonize them into something more than just our children negates the whole problem."
The "whole problem" is that the press makes the Littleton massacre sound like an aberration, when in fact it's part of what O'Donnell calls an "epidemic" of gun violence in the United States today. "There are 250 million firearms in the United States, enough to arm every adult and half the children in the country. If you are a mother, take the gun in your house and bring it to the police station and drop it off. Because if you have a gun in your house, you are 43 times more likely to be the victim of gun violence."
One statistic she could not tolerate: "Sixteen kids a day are killed in the United States from gun violence. Sixteen kids a day. That's unbelievable."
It's intriguing to watch one of the few truly rigorous attempts to get at the truth on an afternoon talk show. O'Donnell lambasted the National Rifle Association for using "all their money and power" to fight handgun control, assault weapons and safety locks on guns to keep children from killing themselves.
She weighed in on Charlton Heston for using his celebrity to spread the use of guns; the TV and movie industries for their penchant for violent movies and TV shows; legislators who oppose the Children's Gun Violence Protection Act of 1999; and talk shows that make violence look like fun.
"Kids coming home from school turn on Jerry Springer and see adults punching each other in the face, sometimes getting blood. They see the audience cheering. This is the message we send out to our kids. It's wrong. I'm not blaming Jerry Springer for the death of these kids in Colorado, but as a society we are responsible for the images we put out, and we are responsible for the effect they have."
ANTIDOTE OF THE DAY
Independent booksellers say you only need flip open "Our Dumb Century" (Crown; 164 pages; $15), and customers start a'hootin' and a'hollerin with each page.
Compiled by Scott Dikkers and the editors of that wonderfully satiric mock-newspaper, The Onion, this 8x10" paperback takes us through 100 years of almost-true front pages.
Here's a Great Depression headline: "FDR CREATES 300,000 JOBS WITH 'TUNNEL TO NEW ZEALAND' PROJECT." Under a photograph showing the first singer in a talking movie singing in blackface: "AL JOLSON MISTAKENLY LYNCHED BY KKK."
Remember how we used to measure winning and losing early on in the Vietnam war? The headline for a 1968 story reads: "JOHNSON DEPLOYS 20,000 BODY BAGS TO VIETNAM - Bag Escalation Part of U.S. Policy of 'Corpse Containment.' "
Then there was the 1985 news that "NANCY REAGAN, IMELDA MARCOS MEET FOR HISTORIC FOOTWEAR SUMMIT." Okay, cheap shot, but not as low as this one from November 22, 1963: KENNEDY SLAIN BY CIA, MAFIA, CASTRO, LBJ, TEAMSTERS, FREEMASONS - President Shot 129 Times from 43 Different Angles."
And it gets better/worse. "COMEDIANS STRUGGLING TO FIND ANGLE IN BOBBITT CASE" is a ho-hummer maybe. But how about this one from Cape Canaveral on January 27, 1986: "SCHOOLTEACHER, KITTEN, THREE DOZEN ORPHANS TO FLY ON CHALLENGER TOMORROW" Now that is terrible. Then there's "GOD KILLS ORAL ROBERTS FOR FUNDRAISING SHORTFALL."
One of the worst and definitely not funny stories begins with a picture of stern, white-coated male scientists from Johns Hopkins University under the headline, "FEMALE ORGASM DISCOVERED." In the text we learn "the discovery was made when a Baltimore-area woman, 'Jane,' was admitted to the hospital after reporting feelings of intense pleasure during sex with her husband."
Of course, peel the layers of an onion . . . and you getta lotta onion peels, which is to say this is not the most searing parody ever created. But for the way it reflects a once-earnest attempt to report "real" news (1926: "MAN VENTURES OUTSIDE HATLESS"), and the way it eveals a greater honesty than the news we usually get ("GAY SERVICEMEN MARCH FOR RIGHT TO LOVE MEN, KILL MEN") , this is a book to be remembered, finally, for the stuff that doesn't sound like a parody at all. From 1993: "NEW PRESIDENT FEELS NATION'S PAIN, BREASTS."
PANIC BECOMES A MARKETING TOOL
Speaking of cultural forces buffeting all of us to and fro, a funny thing happened to the Hesperian Foundation (http://www.hesperian.org, 888 729-1796) a tiny press in Berkeley, Calif., as it quietly brought its community health book, "Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook" (446 pages; $17 paperback) into a fifth printing.
Though it's sold over two million copies (in about 80 translations) internationally, the book has been a slow seller in the United States, perhaps because healthcare is more available in remote areas here than in other countries.
Used by everyone from Peace Corps volunteers to farmworkers and village leaders in faraway places, the book shows by simple instructions and wonderfully explicit drawings how to treat everything from simple problems (diarrhea, hookworm, chickenpox, earaches, psoriasis, rash) to the really scary "obstructed gut," urine poisoning, gonorrhea, enlarged prostate, broken limbs, malnutrition and stroke.
Independent bookstores have ordered the book in small quantities, but chain stores never ordered the book in any volume . . . until now. "For years we were getting single-copy orders from Barnes & Noble, sometimes from the same store," says Hesperian's Todd Jailer (firstname.lastname@example.org). "But the chain refused to order in advance whenever we tried to sell them this or other titles."
You can imagine, then, how flabbergasted the 15 staff workers at Hesperian were when Barnes & Noble unexpectedly ordered a whopping 6,000 copies. Why the sudden increase? After questioning customers and buyers on the phone, Todd says, "we think it's the build-up of fear over Y2K." Apparently, concern over massive breakdown of systems on January 1, 2000, is motivating increasing numbers of Americans to stock up on toilet paper, Coleman burners, 5-pound bottles of artichoke hearts (okay, just kidding) and copies of "Where There Is No Doctor."
Wisely, Hesperian hopes to use this simmering panic to raise consciousness about the book as a terrific home resource for people in not-so-remote spots. "I came back to the United States after six years in El Salvador and enrolled in Kaiser [HMO]," Todd says. "But I still feel as far from health care as I've ever been. It takes two weeks to get an appointment and you feel like an idiot to go to the emergency room, so this book is a good resource."
Hesperian books use illustrations by village residents from many countries and take a "bottom-up" rather than "top-down" approach that encourages individual initiative and is critical of social and environmental problems often denied by the Western medical hierarchy.
For example, "Disabled Village Children" (666 pages; $22) offers extraordinary ideas for building physical therapy tools at home and creating self-strengthening programs in which other children can act as helpers.
The latest book, "Where Women Have No Doctor" (583 pages; $20), offers superb advice for women with disabilities (including self-defense measures with crutches); a section on abuse called "Why Does a Man Hurt a Woman"; a page on "Harmful Ideas about Eating" ("It is not true that a woman should feed her family first"); how-to instructions for building a latrine; matter-of-fact information on female circumcision (followed by a section on "Working for Change"); and a guide on politics and healthcare for refugee families (80 percent of all refugees are women and children, the book tells us).
Although Hesperian has no trade distributor, it's savvy about the ways of sudden large orders. Todd says, "We tried to tone Barnes & Noble's order down a bit because it meant moving the reprint date up and getting another 25,000 in a week or two. If the chain's order comes back and income doesn't come in, this could be the kind of ugly scenario that breaks us or makes us."
That would be too bad if it's the latter: Hesperian has been a nonprofit organization "committed to improving the health of people in poor communities" since 1977.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Ron Sukenick, in response to independent bookstores not stocking large quantities of non-mainstream authors' books, states, "Maybe the answer to this situation is an online store representing the independents, a development which PW says is coming this summer." I'm not aware of this development as of yet, but I do know that many independent online "bookstores" are popping up, perhaps in numbers that match the unfortunate collapse of many independent bookstores.
One online source I would recommend is Frontlist books (www.frontlist.com), which specializes in independent and academic books (mostly published by university presses and not found in independent bookstores) and offers discounts just as Amazon.com does. I can order books from here "guilt-free," knowing it is a small, independent online bookstore that supports "unknown" writers as well as important books published by smaller presses.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Did the ABA actually start the petition that continues to circulate regarding Barnes & Noble's intention to buy Ingram? How could it possibly be effective? One person's name would be on hundreds of different versions of the petition as it made the rounds. Does someone collate the names at the end and DO anything with all the collected names?
I can see the petition as a kind of sales tool -- "read this message and take action by passing it on to everyone you know" -- but as you may have seen from the petition in support of Afghanistanian women, the woman who started the petition got her account closed after the flood of incoming messages disrupted her Internet provider.
I personally find email chain letters an embarrassment to the causes they are supposed to represent, as if either the originators or the potential signers don't understand the annoyance of chain letters, the power of multiplication, or the potential to disrupt an Internet server through thousands, if not millions, of responses. At best these petitions are ineffective, momentary feel-good fixes, at worst they are ubiquitous junk mail, sucking up the bandwidth.
There are actions people can take that really are effective; even forwarding information is very valuable in its own right, but adding the petition angle -- I guess I've seen too much spam, received too many forwarded jokes, and received dozens of hysterical action alerts that did turn out to be frauds.