The Best Media Writing of the Week

Glenn Beck on Jon Stewart, a Baby Photo Becomes a Meme and Slow-Motion News Sagas in the Twitter Age

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Glenn Beck commenting on Jon Stewart in New York magazine should probably yield some sort of supernova. If it's not quite an astronomical event, it's still one of the highlights of a long profile of "The Daily Show" and its impact on American journalism and culture.

In a New york magazine piece on Jon Stewart, both Glenn Beck and Brian Williams offer praise.
In a New york magazine piece on Jon Stewart, both Glenn Beck and Brian Williams offer praise.
Here's Mr. Beck, in the piece by Chris Smith, presumably opining without his famous tears:

"Jon Stewart is very funny, and if I were in his position, I'd be doing a lot of the same things. In fact, a lot of the jokes I've heard before, either from my staff or myself," Beck says by e-mail. "He takes things out of context (no worse than most of the other mainstream media) and is more interested in being funny than trying to actually understand the key messages in [my] show. But I don't think he's looking for a Pulitzer. People like Jon, his ratings are good. Good for him, keep doing what he's doing. People seem to like watching my show as well, and hopefully that continues for both of us for a very long time."

The piece also features an interesting quote from a fawning Brian Williams, who says of Mr. Stewart, "I envy his platform to shout from the mountaintops." Yes, Brian, it's sad that you only have NBC Nightly News at your disposal. You'll make it someday.

Reuters' Felix Salmon does a manful close reading of an article in the latest issue of The Wall Street Journal's glossy magazine -- called WSJ. -- and decides The Journal has no business "covering the fashion industry from within the covers of a fashion of a glossy fashion-focused magazine."

His evidence is a favorable piece on the American trademark troll that, in owning the Uggs brand, has "helped to decimate a small but longstanding Australian industry." In addition to referring to the brand using all uppercase letters -- which really is a capital offense (sorry!!), akin to including the exclamation point in Yahoo's name -- the writer is way too soft on the company, imbuing it with a "genuineness" it doesn't have. Here's Mr. Salmon:

The point is that there are lots of Ugg boots. The most popular Uggs are made by a U.S. company in China. That company owns a bunch of trademarks, which somehow means that the WSJ can talk with a straight face about "genuine UGG boots," while saying that all other Ugg boots are fakes. But the fact is that an Australian Ugg boot, made by a company which long predates the Ugg trademark, is by any sensible definition just as genuine, if not more so, than the boots that the WSJ is falling over itself teaching us to recognize and distinguish.

Yet somehow [the Journal writer] feels impelled to inform us that if a boot is made in Australia -- the home of the Ugg boot -- then "it is not an UGG."

Ugh.

Those of you who have put in the hours studying David Beckham's heavily-inked torso have surely noticed an image of a baby's face that seems out of place amid all the visual bric-a-brac.

Now thanks to a bit of meme forensics by Matt Gross of The New York Times, the identity of the little guy can be revealed: He's a 10-year-old Floridian named Stephen Rout whose father slapped a baby picture up on personal website when the kid was just six months old, a baby picture which then proceeded to somehow became a mainstay of Japanese visual culture.

So the bland baby snap -- is there any other kind? -- has been featured on all kinds of Japanese game shows and Photoshopped to within an inch of its little life, getting, among other things, the now famous caption "Don't call me baby! Call me Mr. Baby!"

Who first found Stephen's picture is not known, nor how it was found. What's known is that a 2chan user superimposed Stephen's face over an illustration from a manga comic book, and turned it into an image macro -- a simple Web form that allowed users to put words into a cartoon-like thought bubble. The meme-ification of Stephen began.

As Mr. Rout uncovered new permutations of the meme, he was anything but freaked out. An internet dweller since the days of Usenet, he wasn't afraid for Stephen's safety. Plus, he knew that there was nothing he, or any parent, could do to prevent the use (or misuse) of an image of his child, once it was uploaded to the Web.

Furthermore, Mr. Rout, now an information technology expert at the University of Florida, understood that the meme really had nothing to do with Stephen qua Stephen -- the photo was being treated as a kind of open-source stock image, stripped of any identifier or context.

Over at Nieman Journalism Labs, which has planted itself in my mind as the best one-stop shop for smart, geeky parsings of the news business, there's this post arguing that all the recent shrieking over newsrooms using audience metrics to guide their content is wrongheaded. The post's author, C.W Anderson, agrees with critics to the degree that using, say, search analytics as your assignment desk might result in a "communicative world that is a little flatter, a little more squeezed, a little more quantitative, more disciplinary, more predictive, and less interesting." But the post, at its base, is an argument for bringing a bit of humanism into the process, never straying into Luddite territory. My favorite part of the post takes the sentence "We know what the audience wants" and takes it apart bit by bit:

"The Audience": What's this thing we insist we know so much about? We call it the audience, but sometimes we slip and call it "the public." But audiences are not publics, and it's dangerous to claim that they are. Groups of people connected by the media can be connected in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of reasons, and can be called all sorts of things; they can be citizens united by common purpose, or by public deliberation. They can be activists, united around a shared political goal. They can be a community, or a society. Or they can be called an audience.

I don't have anything at all against the notion of the audience, per se -- but I am concerned that journalists are increasingly equating the measurable audience (a statistical aggregate connected by technology, though consumption) with something bigger and more important. The fact that we know the desires and preferences and this formerly shadowy and hidden group of strangers is seductive, and it's often wrong.

We end on a nice little essay from Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams about how the BP spill and the Chilean mine collapse, both slow-to-unfold epic news sagas, challenge our instant-gratification news culture:

There will, and we ardently hope it's soon, come a day when 33 men emerge into the sunlight. But we won't have one perfect, magical moment when New York's ground zero stops being a place of painful memories, when New Orleans will look like it did before Katrina, when Haiti unveils itself in some new dramatic incarnation or the Gulf of Mexico is suddenly all better. Help and healing don't work that way. They demand the utmost of our endurance and test the limits of our patience. They make us hold our breaths and they break our hearts. Because most us would gladly stomp out a fire to save a life, but to hang on to hope, day after exhausting day? That takes everything we've got.

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