Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Sins of the Media: JKR vs. Vander Ark, San Francisco vs. Marin, and Flag Pins

I apologize for the hiatus in my blogging but I have been diligently editing my manuscript, expanding scenes, adding nuances, tweaking, all based on recent feedback.

I have been itching to put down my thoughts about media coverage that has made my blood boil. There has been a lot of criticism written about the three subjects I am going to address, but I have not seen my particular angles reflected anywhere and so I shall share them with you.

Here are three recent controversies covered in the media:

  1. The lawsuit between J.K. Rowling and RDR Books over the possible publication of The Harry Potter Lexicon.
  2. The brouhaha about Senator Barack Obama’s comments made at a fundraiser in Northern California which included the word “bitter.”
  3. ABC News recent televised debate between Senator Obama and Senator Clinton and calls to boycott ABC News.

First off comes the lawsuit by J.K. Rowling, the author of the wildly popular Harry Potter series, against RDR Books who had signed Steve Vander Ark, one of the most prominent members of the Harry Potter fandom, to publish in book form basically what was available online on Vander Ark's wildly popular website. The Harry Potter Lexicon would in essence be an encyclopedia of the Harry Potter series and because Rowling had announced she planned on writing her own encyclopedia of her series, she saw RDR’s plans as potentially threatening the success of her future book.

I mentioned in a previous blog entry my initial thoughts on the JKR/Steve Vander Ark brouhaha and classified my relationship with Steve as being an acquaintance but not a friend.

I have been paying close attention to the lawsuit because it deals with intellectual property rights, what constitutes fair use, etc. I am not an expert by any means on intellectual property law. My knowledge on the subject is based reading The Copyright Permission and Libel Handbook and Kirsch’s Handbook of Publishing Law as well as hearing a few attorneys speak on the subject a few times at various writers conferences and writers club meetings.

I care about intellectual property rights because I want to know what are my rights and responsibilities as a writer.

That means that I know enough to realize that this subject to know this case is very complex and it is not a “slam dunk” or “open and shut case.” Nope. It represents a murky area of property law and is therefore being watched carefully because it will likely be precedent setting, unless the parties take the judge’s advice and settle their disagreements out of court.

The aspect of the media coverage that irked me was how some reporters deliberately inserted their opinion about Steve Vander Ark’s looks. It was uncalled for and also WRONG.

One article by the wire service Reuters said:

“An emotional Vander Ark, 50, wearing spectacles similar to those worn by Harry Potter…”

That actually made me pause in my reading because I have met Steve and I definitely would have noticed if he had worn glasses with round lenses.

For the record, Harry Potter’s iconic glasses look like this:



If Steve Vander Ark wore glasses like that it would have struck me as a bit odd, as if he were taking this fantasy thing a bit too far. I think that was the subtle (or not so subtle) intent of the reporter who filed the story.

However, it had been a year since I saw him last and people can change their eyewear. I asked a friend of mine about that and he gratefully helped scour the web to determine that Steve’s glasses were more elliptical shaped than round. They look more like this:



Another reporter, this time from the New York Times, felt it necessary to describe Vander Ark in distinctly Potterverse terms:

“The librarian, Steven Jan Vander Ark, had the mild-mannered demeanor of Ron Weasley, and the intelligence, charm — and haircut — of Harry Potter. Even his name sounds like that of a character in one of the books, if preceded by “Lord” or “Master.” Although, at 50, he is older than Ms. Rowling, 42, he looked like a schoolboy, with an unlined face and caramel-colored hair parted down the middle.”

Ahem. Anyone who is familiar with the series would know that Ron Weasley is anything but mild-mannered, and well, Harry Potter’s hair is notorious for being black and having messy cowlicks.

Steve may have a boyish face, but his hairstyle is not like Harry Potter’s. He would have had to dye it black and come to court with a bed-head.

Honestly, the reporters were stretching to make a visual comparison between a fan of the Harry Potter series and one of the characters. It annoys me because not only are these comparisons untrue, but this done deliberately. I wonder what literary character they would have chosen as a comparison if he was balding and had a comb over. Would they then just throw their hands in the air and call him Ebenezer Scrooge?

For those interested in seeing what Steve Vander Ark really looks like, here’s a decent photo.

My assumption is that the reporters who attacked his looks thought that this fifty year old guy should “get a life” and not obsess over a children’s series, so they made fun of him in the hopes of making the public dislike him for taking on a popular author. That is my reaction and admittedly, I have no real idea what the reporters were thinking when they described Steve Vander Ark in the manner they did, but it feeds my suspicions about the veracity of today’s journalists. It also makes me think that they did not know to report about the intricacies of the legal arguments and found it easier to try and entertain their readers rather than to inform.

Now onto my second subject: the media’s inability to tell the difference between San Francisco and Marin Counties.

This is another minor point, but it goes to show that the media is sloppy when it comes to fact-checking. The recent dustup about a comment made by Senator Obama regarding some people in Pennsylvania as being “bitter” was made in a private fundraiser in the town of Kentfield in Marin County. It was not in San Francisco.

In my first attempt at writing this blog entry I inserted a map from Google maps to help illustrate my point. Unfortunately, I believe that is what made Blogger eat my post. So rather than suffer a fourth blog related melt down, here is a link to a map if you would like to see where Kentfield is located in proximity to San Francisco.


I actually know two people who attended that now infamous fundraiser and so I know it was not in San Francisco. It was in Marin County.

Now, admittedly San Francisco is far more famous than Marin County, so the first accounts of this tempest in a teapot used San Francisco as a landmark for people to understand where this took place. I remember hearing reporters saying that the fundraiser was in Marin County which is north of San Francisco. Then as the talking heads furor grew, the later accounts truncated the description to being in “San Francisco.”

Why does this matter to me? Well, I know that it is wrong, and I hate mistakes being perpetuated.

This error has been repeated enough that has become The Truth and the original facts are rendered incidental. I hate that.

It is one thing for us to not understand the true origins of legends from our past, but it is another thing to willfully disregard simple facts such as location as being too troublesome to a narrative.

Another reason that this error grates on my nerves is this type of mistake is a longstanding pet peeve of a local columnist. She hates it when the geography in our community is mangled by lazy out-of-town reporters. As if consulting a map was too onerous a task for reporters to do before filing a story.

After reading several columns of her poking fun at magazines which surreptitiously move our county seat of Santa Rosa from Sonoma County to that of Napa County, I started getting a wee bit sensitive on the issue.

Why does that bother us so much? One it is sloppy and lazy, then there is also an intense rivalry with our neighboring county to the east. The mountain range that divides us is affectionately known as The Continental Divide.

Don’t be confusing Napa and Sonoma on us. As one of our local celebrities Tommy Smothers is fond of saying:

Sonoma makes wine.

Napa makes…auto parts.”

So getting back to the media: every time they get sloppy with the facts someone notices. Now the large general audience may not recognize every error, but each time a reporter or commentator gets lazy and reports inaccuracies some people will be the wiser and they will think of it as a strike against the profession. It feeds the feeling of ill will which leads me to my third point.

The most recent televised debate between the Democratic candidates for president hosted by ABC News has been widely panned.

Charlie Gibson, George Stephanopoulous and ABC News earned every negative comment that has been hurled in their general direction. The American people deserved better than a waste of national airtime talking about flag pins and trying to assign guilt by association from the acts and words of others.

This debate was going to generate huge ratings for whatever network carried it because of the stakes involved in the presidential race, but not due to the hosts or their questions. If ABC News thought that this debate was going to showcase two of their most prominent anchors and hoped that might translate into new viewers for their nightly news broadcasts as well as their Sunday morning chat show, they were wrong.

The fallout of that debate has included calls for a boycott of ABC News. I sympathize with that gesture, but I cannot join that cause because to boycott you have to give up something. I cannot be part of a boycott of ABC News because I stopped watching network news years ago. In fact, I was unsure whether Charles Gibson was host of “Good Morning America” or the evening news. That shows how little I paid attention or even cared.

I do not watch televised local news nor do I watch national network news and have not done so for many years.

I used to watch it though. I used to watch it all the time. It was part of my daily routine along with reading the newspaper. I still read the paper, but I no longer watch network news.

The feeling of discontent with the nightly dose of carnage leading the local news grew as well as disgust with the increasing infotainment styled stories to titillate the viewers. I used to live in the Midwest and my Midwestern sensibility was shocked when on a visit to Los Angeles, the local news led off their broadcast with the day’s events in the Zsa Zsa Gabor Cop Slapping Trial.

I could understand that being the top story for “Entertainment Tonight,” but the local ABC affiliate? I was aghast. And well, to me that was the beginning of the descent of integrity of news and sliding over into what should be the domain of celebrity/sleaze tabloid shows.

At some point I stopped watching the local news and found that my attitude improved. Somewhere along the line I also stopped watching the network news. That’s the thing about habits, once you break a habit you might not pick it up again.

Therein lies the rub with network news because their viewing audience is shrinking and it is aging. The demographics for network news are getting worse every year and they are failing to attract younger audiences to replace those who have died.

The televised news media has become largely scandal and celebrity driven. I remember being in an airport several years ago and catching CNN covering some aspect of news in our federal government I was interested in, but they interrupted that story to show a press conference about the “Runaway Bride.”

Disgusted, I left that television monitor and found a quiet place to read a book while waiting for my plane.

Time and again the American populace is treated with tabloid news stories rather than covering stories of substance. It makes me sick. If I want tabloid news, I’ll seek it out.

It may sound strange, but I now get my televised news from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, and also Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

Two are comedy shows and one is overtly biased news. I appreciate them because they cut through the spin and point out hypocrisy either through satire or by droll comments.

This habit started by my catching one episode of “The Daily Show” and enjoying the satirical take on the news. I tuned in again and again, soon it was became a habit and part of my routine. A similar thing happened with Olbermann’s show. I caught one night’s show, I liked it, later I saw another and another. Now I specifically schedule time to watch its initial broadcast or I try to catch a rebroadcast. Every day.

I need that filter for my news, because many times reporters act like dictation machines and do not take the time to do any fact checking. I want statements by public officials to be analyzed for veracity and rectified against the facts. If I did not have Olbermann and Stewart to filter my news I would probably sound like a crazy woman screaming at the television set "Do they think the American people are irretrievably stupid or that we simply have a memory of a gnat?"

It would not be pretty, so for the sake of my sanity and for my family I refrain from watching unfiltered news.

I realize that I am not the only one who turns to Stewart and Colbert for news. Frankly it is an indictment against the mainstream media that many people prefer to turn to comedy shows to get their news rather than ABC, NBC, or CBS.

The saddest thing is that we need a press corps that will ask tough questions and dig to find hidden truths. I believe that the people have a Right To Know. The press is the only profession that is specifically given Constitutional protections from interference by our government.

I wish that the news media would stop covering nonsense stories such as whatever Britney Spears or Paris Hilton are doing today and cover stories which actually impact the health and welfare of the American public.

I do not care that none of the three major presidential candidates choose to wear flag pins on their lapels. It is an insignificant fashion statement and irrelevant in determining who would best lead this country.

Instead I would prefer that the media asked questions like “how do you plan on forestalling possible bankruptcy of our federal government?”

Linda

Oh and in case anyone was wondering, I am not directly related to Nash McCabe. She is the woman asked that silly question about flag lapel pins. Although who knows? Maybe she or her husband are fifteenth cousins seven times removed or some such thing.

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