Monday, June 13, 2011

No, You Can't Read That, You Might Enjoy It

This column popped up in the Free Press over the weekend, and promptly went ignored on the website because it offers no opportunities to blame visible minorities or levels of government for the problems discussed.

Professor Linda Trimble of the University of Alberta's Political Science Department argues for a broader acceptance of the combination of information and entertainment in political reporting, primarily opposing Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death" and its stance that modern forms of media are incapable of sustaining the level of discourse necessary to properly inform an audience. In short, where Postman believed that the common man's understanding of issues and information is lessened by the modern mainstream's slant towards entertainment, Trimble argues that the common man's best chance of understanding issues and information is through the modern mainstream's slant towards entertainment.

She writes:

"Communications experts have coined a bunch of terms to describe this phenomenon, including 'infotainment,' 'newzak,' 'tabloidization' and 'politainment.' Critics say information is obscured when news is fun. 'Infotainment' allegedly promotes style over substance.
(. . .)
"I want to challenge the myth that so-called 'real' news is democracy's oxygen while 'infotainment' has the deadly effect of carbon monoxide."

I'm curious about what may be a generational gap in these portmanteaus; in my experience the dominant term has always been "edutainment", which was huge from the mid-1980s onward as people realized there was a gigantic market for educational computer games like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and Oregon Trail. (Shoutouts to Crosscountry Canada!) The genre's main studios were eventually bought up by multinational conglomerates and mismanaged into ruin, which was really too bad, but the term endured. Neither here nor there, just a brief aside.

More germane a concern is that I'm not entirely sure what brought the column on; Postman is the only example she cites for the opposing viewpoints of "critics" and "communication experts", and the book she quotes was released in 1985. I mean, if tomorrow I just went frigging bonkers railing on Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History?", you would be well within your right to wonder what my deal was. Maybe I stubbed my toe on it when I got up that morning! You never know.

Perhaps I'd missed it, so feel free to fill me in: has there been a furtive but widespread rise in recent months of academics and experts bemoaning our national turn to the dreaded edutainm infotainment? Presumably such a wave would have originated as backlash against Sun TV ,but Sun TV's problem has been less its commitment to edutai dammit infotainment and more that its production values make everything look like a high school play touring a public access channel.

So I don't know why she wrote it, and I don't know what contemporaries she's debating against, and I don't know why she chose the vernacular she did -- but that's not to say that her central point is necessarily invalid. The matter may somewhat conflate the concepts of "entertaining" and "interesting", but it seems fair enough to agree that people are not going to read or watch something that does not capture or hold their interest.

Remember that I have degrees in Political Studies, History, and Library and Information Science, so you can trust me when I tell you that this is not a problem restricted to political reporting. I mentioned yesterday the (Canadian-literary-equivalent-of-)famous accusation that historian J.L. Granatstein leveled at Pierre Berton in the late 1970s: Granatstein indicted Berton for the sin of having "consciously made his work interesting", with Berton's equally famed response to the charge being "Well, Professor, I sure as hell don't consciously make it dull."

(Decades later, in 2004, Granatstein would go on to win the Pierre Berton Award -- an award given for "distinguished achievement in presenting Canadian history in an informative and engaging manner". I'm sure he appreciated it, but that still must have stung a little; imagine Nas winning an award named after Jay-Z.)

I believe I can vouch for the difference -- speaking as somebody who went a couple rounds through the Ivory Tower, and as somebody who's been alternating frequently as late between blog posts and cover letters -- I can vouch for the immeasurable, insurmountable difference that exists between writing intended to be read and writing intended to be approved. Granatstein happens to have a chapter about this very difference in his 1998 book "Who Killed Canadian History?", which I'd highly recommend reading if you haven't previously. (The Winnipeg Public Library system has three copies, all of them checked in. Summer reading! Get at me.) His viewpoint, coincidentally also my viewpoint, is that the biggest problem with history as a discipline -- and the reason that history goes almost completely unread nowadays -- is that the vast majority of modern historiography is written in the sole pursuit of promotion and tenure, for academics by academics and accepted or rejected by other academics.

This was one of the factors in my jumping of ships from historian to librarian: I find it intrinsically more rewarding to simplify complicated research for a broader audience than I do to further complicate it in the name of impressing a select few. (Another of the factors, as you probably already guessed, was the Sisyphean frustration of living in Manitoba and trying to get a job with an undergraduate degree in History and Political Studies. But let's not talk about that right now.) Pierre Berton is a gold standard of nonfiction, in any genre or medium; he was able to make people interested in, and entertained by, subjects that they would otherwise have found dull and ignored forever.

Berton stands out particularly because he dedicated decades of his life to a field -- Canadian history written for mass audiences -- that almost nobody even attempts any more, a field that might actually be rendered completely extinct once Peter Newman dies. It's a genre that desperately needs to be shored up, and the easiest way to shore it up is to write interestingly about current affairs and then wait. Politics plus time equals history. It isn't a complicated equation.

(Nerd alert: one of my favourite things to do in used bookstores is to rifle through the old annual compilations of editorial cartoons. It's surprisingly educational fun! Don't judge me!)

So I'm all for the integration of entertainment value into journalism and political writing (and I'd do it myself if I thought anyone would pay me for it), so long as the people attempting it at least make the attempt to apply it evenly. That's the exception that people take to edutainmen fffffff infotainment in political coverage -- not that it attempts to be entertaining, but that the attempt is only ever made in the name of transparently swinging an audience to its point of view. People complain about our modern mainstream media when they feel that the coverage is too biased; people never complain because they feel that the coverage is too purposefully engaging.

And the one observation I keep coming back to is that we've finally hit the point where political journalism, written history, and indie music all have the same problem: nothing you do is any good if too many people enjoy it.


One Man Committee said...

Very interesting post. My main beef with presenting journalism as entertainment, infotainment or whatever label other than journalism that one wants to use is that in many instances, it seems like nothing more than a device used to conveniently shirk the professional and ethical responsibilities of a journalist to suit one's purposes.

I am reminded of an instance years ago when Charles Adler took over the CJOB mid-morning slot from Peter Warren. Unlike Warren, who had some pretense of balance and generally being above the fray, Adler has consistently been a cheerleader for the Conservative party at all levels. When his show was locally focused, it often sounded like a three-hour infomercial for Stockwell Day, Stuart Murray or the like. There was no attempt at balance and impartiality, just a lot of cheap shots at political enemies. And when questioned about that, the "it's entertainment, not journalism" defense was trotted out. It was around that point that I tuned CJOB out for good (save for sports programming).

I'm all for accessibility and there is nothing wrong with making issues interesting to a general population. But my problem is with people on the right or left who embrace the trappings of journalism for no reason other than because it might lend credibility to their political sell jobs.

James Hope Howard said...

I had hinted at this in the post proper, although I didn't gleam the exact words to convey it until I saw your follow up.

But what I had wanted to note was this, and you're absolutely right about it: entertainment and showmanship have to be included to supplement journalistic integrity, not to replace it. Even if the main focus of a particular column or show is to be entertaining rather than to be accurate, it still has to be accurate.

You hit exactly on why nobody trusts the combination in its current form: it's only ever used to attack, never to explain. Which is really too bad.