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Bad Journalism

As I write this article, there are two “news” pieces irking me, but there will always be similar ones for years to come. First of all, there are numerous reports about the seemingly unprecedented success of Shrek 2. Secondly, among liberals and radical leftists, there is a small panic about the supposed denial of voting rights to college students.

Certainly, bad journalism has been around since journalism’s very inception, but what bothers me most about these two bits of “news” is they’re things I care about. I love Shrek 2, and, being a liberal/radical leftist myself, I am always concerned about the denial of rights.

I searched Google several times, looking for statistics about the number of box office ticket sales, but I found none. I’m not saying the statistics don’t exist on the internet—they’re just hard to find. I easily found a slew of sites with meaningless box office numbers (gross profits in dollars). One site compares box office takes for “all time.” So, S2 is supposedly breaking a bunch of records, second to only Spider-Man for opening weekend takes. Who cares, though? If you look at these “all time” lists, you’ll quickly notice almost every movie on the list came out in the last ten years. There is no adjustment for inflation. How can you compare a movie’s gross earnings in 2004, with cineplexes abounding and average ticket prices around $10, with gross earnings in 1950 (I don’t know how many cineplexes were around or what the ticket prices were then)? It’s all about hype. It’s all about saying, “This new movie is making records.” The implied message is, “Go see it. See what the fuss is about.”

It should be obvious that the only meaningful comparison is in the number of ticket sales. If one ticket costs $6 (I seem to remember this being a reasonable price in the 1980s) and another future ticket costs $20 (this will happen sooner than we think), the movie with the future ticket cost needs to have only 1/3 of the turnout that the 1980s movie has in order to have a higher gross in dollars. Records in dollar amounts will continue to be broken as inflation goes up. That goes without saying, even if fewer and fewer people are going to the movies these days. Don’t see Shrek 2 because it’s making money. See it because it’s funny and entertaining.

Even sadder than “hype” journalism is “panic” journalism. I love Alternet. It is my number one alternative news source. Sometimes the articles have no real point to them, though. For example, this article had the introductory blurb: “All across the country, college students are being denied the right to vote in their adopted hometowns—effectively banning them from local politics.” Honestly, who cares? I was not a resident of my college’s town the four years I was there, and I didn’t feel disenfranchised. In fact, I knew few students who wanted to vote in local politics. Most of the article deals with trite issues (e.g., people not being able to vote on the placement of crosswalks), but the crux of the message lies in this sentence: “It isn’t just local elections that are a concern. The 2004 presidential elections loom large in people’s minds.” I’m sorry, but I have two words for you: “absentee ballot.” The supposed counter-argument is that absentee ballots “require[] a lot of forethought, which many Americans, not just students, don’t contemplate.” So does general voting. Voting isn’t logistically easy in this country, whether it’s with an absentee ballot or in a voting booth. People who care about the 2004 presidential election will vote. The fact that they can’t vote in a town where they’ll spend four years of their life isn’t tragic. Get the absentee ballot. Vote by mail. Your vote will count just as little as it usually does.

Now, that said, I do think students should be able to vote in the town they live in. It’s just a technicality, though. It will not affect the presidential election, and it’s not “news.” This “denial” of voting rights has been going on forever. Town-gown relations have always run the risk of being strained. It’s not some mass conspiracy to prevent people from voting Bush out of office or to prevent young people from voting in general.

Bottom line: keep things in perspective.

As a postscript, I was disappointed by the fact that an assertion in Super-Size Me remained unchallenged (and presumably endorsed) by Morgan Spurlock during an interview with some forgettable expert, who claims that the “hectoring” (what common folk call “heckling”) of smokers and the non-hectoring of fat people is a double standard. His simplistic thinking goes as follows: You smoke. Smoking is unhealthy and may kill you. People around you should work to prevent your death by telling you not to smoke. You eat too much. Eating too much is unhealthy and may kill you. People around you should work to prevent your death by telling you not to eat. At first glance, the two situations might seem parallel, but as Morgan Spurlock says at another time in the film, heroin is not ham (I’m paraphrasing). Likewise, cigarettes are not food.

There are two major problems with this comparison between smoking and eating too much. First of all, smoking is smoking. Eating too much is eating too much; it’s not just eating. The difference between eating and eating too much is quantitative (a little versus a lot). The difference, however, between smoking and not smoking is qualitative (not at all versus at all). If I tell someone, “Don’t smoke,” I don’t need to know how much she’s smoked before or what her body type is. Smoking is unhealthy for everyone in every degree. If I tell someone, “Don’t eat,” I need to know that the person is eating too much. You can’t look at a fat person and decide she’s been eating too much. There’s a big debate about how much of being fat is a lack of discipline and how much of it is “genetic” or one’s body type. Wherever your values fall in that debate, you have to acknowledge that if you meet a stranger who appears to you to be “overweight” (whatever that means), you don’t have that right to tell that person, “Don’t eat that,” even if that is an ice cream cone or a piece of cheesecake. Everyone has unhealthy food indulgences every now and then. Not everyone takes a puff of tobacco every now and then. Food is necessary to the body. We need to regulate how much we put in. It is dangerous only in the quality and quantity we take in. Tobacco is not necessary to the body. No amount of tobacco helps the body.

Saying smoking and eating too much are alike is like saying driving fast and shooting small children are alike. Yes, it can be dangerous to drive fast, depending on the situation. It’s almost always safer to drive more slowly. It’s never a good idea to shoot a small child, no matter how annoying she may be.

Both eating too much and driving too fast require context for justified condemnation. Smoking and shooting small children do not. If someone tells me, “My friend Janice drove 90 MPH,” I don’t know right away that she’s endangering lives. Maybe she was on the autobahn in Germany. Maybe she’s a race car driver. Maybe she was driving through the desert on a straight highway with no other cars around. If someone tells me, “My friend Janice shot her first-born child,” I’m not going to be in a rush to meet her. Yes, maybe it could in some way be justified, but it takes a huge stretch of the imagination (“My first-born child was coming at me with a huge cleaver. She had it at my throat, and the only defense I had was the gun lying next to me”), as does smoking (“Oh, I was smoking because I’m an actor, and my character smokes”).

The original scenario from Super-Size Me was in the context of a comfortable social situation, like a dinner with friends. If I’m eating dinner with my friends, I may actually say, “I don’t know if you should be eating that much,” but there is no fixed amount of what’s okay to eat and what’s not okay to eat. The fixed amount of smoking around me, though, is zero. If my friend eats too much, gains too much weight, vomits, or has a stomach ache, that’s her problem. If my friend smokes around me, that’s my problem. It’s called second-hand smoke, people, not second-hand binge.

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