Thursday, December 19, 2013

Buzzfeed, the Media Apocalypse and Devouring the Young

When I was a senior undergraduate, I participated in an oratorical contest in Pennsylvania between Christmas and New Year.  We were asked to address challenges associated with the coming year.  Since I was a hot-shot, full of myself, and admiringly sardonic, I introduced my speech with a poem that began: “The New Year engulfs us with startling ease, so down with man and down with the trees.”  I got second place because I used poetic sleight of hand rather than cool, hard logic to make my case.  One judge suggested that I might have been more sensitive to the season, including the Incarnation and Winter Solstice; after all, I was young and there would always be plenty of time for the Apocalypse.

The Apocalypse has finally arrived, courtesy of Buzzfeed, which just published a piece about “How the Media Will Report the Apocalypse: It’s the End of the World as We Know It.”  Now with its WTF, LOL, and OMG prompts and snarky, hyperbolic edge, Buzzfeed is not exactly The Onion or even Jonathan Swift, but it nails the tone and voice of major media reporting on the mutant zombie invasion and parsing out blame.  For the NYT, the end is “a regrettable and premature finale,” though an Op-Ed piece agonizes over a ruined wedding.”  Britain’s The Guardian reports that Islington in North London, my birth town, is up in flames and the BBC, true to its mission until the very end, is giving the zombies equal media time.  A piece on a fashion guide for surviving the toxic wasteland might not be over the top.  Of course, with electronic communications unplugged, it is perfectly reasonable for the NSA to be shooting down carrier pigeons.

Britain’s Daily Mail reminds us that they “Bloody Well Told You” that the welfare state, immigration, single mothers, trade unions, gay marriage, the war on Christmas, and Bulgarians would bring about the end of civilization.  For Fox News, there is only one word for it:  Obamegeddon.  MSNBC, trying hard to be relevant, blames the right wing zealots for cutting funding for anti-zombie programs.  Reddit wants our help in finding these creatures but only if one has a degree in forensics or owns at least one box set of The Walking Dead.

“Modern Farmer” reminds us that our money is worthless; only goats matter.  True to form, NPR goes on a pledge drive, pleading: “For the love of God, send us Guns.”  And TMZ shows us Ryan Gosling’s disembodied skull.  Though I gave this effort a “W,” or Winner, the satire grows stale towards the end, perhaps because much of what is parodied is already considered a bit of a joke by many Americans.   A reasonable response to the Fox blather about the War on Christmas or the fact that Santa Claus is white might be to watch the Daily Show.  The very unfunny Karl Marx is quoted as saying: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, than as farce.  Perhaps the same can be said of our political discourse.

After 9/11, Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter said on September 18, 2001, “I think it’s the end of the age of irony.”  In 2011, Michael Hirschorn in New York magazine wrote that Carter was trashed for his remarks.  The Onion and Saturday Night Live were back at the humor and irony game by October.   At that time, Hirschorn raised the question of what irony really means and suggested that perhaps we were too used to the reflexive, postmodern irony found in Seinfeld and the Simpsons to assign 9/11 to our collective psyches the way we have done with Pearl Harbor and other events.   Or maybe we were too caught up in our webby world of self-indulgence.

Hirschorn writes that, after John Stewart, “It is hard to cite an influential author, essayist, blogger, artist, or musician who has brought the full range of ironic whizbangery … against the very-more-powerful political-financial complex that is dragging this country to Depression-era levels of inequality.”  This was written more than two years ago and retains more than a ring of truth.
Hirschorn seems prescient about our Brave New Alice-in-Wonderland World.  “It may be the confluence of 9/11 and the dominant culture of webby self-expression that may have dealt irony a double death blow.  The habit of retailing one’s innermost thoughts and feelings, now abetted by Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, was born in the ashes of 9/11.  They are mediums that repel the ironists and embrace the earnest-ists in a warm, gooey, communal hug (insert emoticon here).”

The Buzzfeed piece suggests that anything can be parodied because we live in a viral, 24/7 world where up is down and fictions are treated as fact.  This is our existential plight.  We see this in our politics, where there exist few mediated, agreed on truths.  Or worse, truth become personalized, solipsistic and narrow, an invitation for us to act like one of Sherwood Anderson’s grotesques; I believe in one and only one truth and that truth is me.  Hit the Like button if you agree.

Irony is still very much with us, but it’s the situational ironies found in the old Seinfeld episodes that survive in many incarnations.  It’s been almost three hundred years since Jonathan Swift published his A Modest Proposal, suggesting that one way to solve Ireland’s problems of famine, poverty, and finances was to eat its young, with a one-year-old considered to be the most nourishing, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled.  Published under the name Dr. Swift and presented as a very sober, logical, philosophical treatise aimed at preventing children of the poor from becoming a burden on parents and nation, this broad satire was a nicely cloaked criticism of the Catholic Church, wealthy landowners, the ruling class and a nation that in a sense was already eating its young.  Swift took full aim at the powers that condemned the young to a life of poverty and a Church that enshrined this condition in its theology.

The good news is that this book is no longer on the list of banned books, having been replaced by books about sex.  Sadly, few people seem to read this slim volume except English professors who still squeeze meaning from this modest tome, enduring any hardship to grab that last shot at tenure.  Even better news is that A Modest Proposal has entered the English language as a metaphor and a conceit, spawning thousands of examples of modest proposals dealing with everything from racism on campus, to reducing Mexican illegals and mother-in-law visits.  Not surprisingly, this metaphor has also entered the gun control debate with one blogger, sounding very much like an NRA meme, suggesting after the Newtown murders that children should carry guns to school and also be taught to gang-tackle armed gunmen.  We learn through some interlocutor that this advice, in the spirit of Swift’s pamphlet, was meant to be ironic.  I missed it entirely.

Swift might not be pleased that we are still consuming our young.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Time, and Time Inc., Marches On

As a child of war, a veteran, and a long-time foe of American military adventurism, I take special, private note when war anniversaries come around.  This year, I thought a lot about Pearl Harbor, perhaps because I am increasingly hammered on social media with commands that tie my support of veterans to the Like button.

I have been to and sailed past the Arizona Memorial many times, and I swear that there is no quieter or more prayerful place on earth as when a Navy ship passes and honors the men entombed in the Arizona’s hull.  I have rarely experienced such godly silence, except perhaps in the catacombs in Rome.

On Veterans Day, I will buy a poppy from the VFW guy outside of ShopRite and probably will keep it forever.  This is the shorthand shared by those who have served.  I recall meeting an in-law years ago and he asked me, what war?  I replied Vietnam.  When I asked him, what war?, he simply said: The Big One.

I’m currently reading The Guns of Last Light, the award-winning account by Rick Atkinson about the war in Western Europe, 1944-45.  We are coming up on the sixty-ninth anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, an event well documented in books and film.  Social media, not so much.  According to one account I read, most Americans consider the Battle of the Bulge a war with their girth and weight, suggesting the Atkinson book, even with its weight and textual girth, might be a useful stocking stuffer. To be on the safe side, we might also include Heller’s Catch-22, Mailer’s Naked and the Dead, and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five so we are reminded of the horrors, miscalculations, and utter randomness of war.

At this time sixty-nine years ago, all seemed quiet on the Western front.  Few in the Allied High Command thought that the Germans would make a major push west into Belgium and Luxembourg. Small tokens of Christmas were springing up.  In the last week of December, Time magazine chose Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme commander, as its “Man of the Year.”   The cover photos showed the commander with legions of soldiers stretching into the distance.  The facts on the ground were much more confused and bloody.

As I’m writing this, Time magazine announced Pope Francis as its 2013 Person of the Year on the Today Show with Edward Snowden the runner-up.  Pope Francis received the award due to his efforts to change the tone of the conversation inside and outside the Catholic Church, nudging the Vatican away from its role as a theological police force.   I have written a number of pieces about some of the theological, cultural, and psychological issues concerning Pope Francis.  They are posted at

Thank goodness for the sobriety of the Time magazine editors, who paid little or no attention to the Reader Poll that put Miley Cyrus in the running.  Next year they might want to consider a venue other than the Today Show, where there seemed more interest in the Digital Dance Off Awards, including the Harlem Shake that the Today staff has immortalized.

Or perhaps not.   It seems inevitable that social media will eventually play a much more vital role in the Person of the Year choices, likely hurried by the spin-off of Time Inc. from the parent in early 2014.  Just how much the world could change for the ninety-year-old Time Magazine can be found in a recent article by Allan Sloan, an editor-at-large at, a Time Inc. property.   Sloan looked closely at the Securities and Exchange Commission filing for Time Inc., his employer, before it is spun out of its parent company, Time Warner.  I followed his advice and conducted a deep dive into this weighty document.

 Documents for SEC are written in a kind of code by a cadre of lawyers who take all the fun out of a spin-off by rattling off an endless list of risks that might scare away even the boldest investor.  So, if I was looking for poetry, this was not the place to come.  But nonetheless, there is drama here.  Sloan, who is writing about his boss, reports that “three top Time Inc. executives (all of whom are now former Time Inc. executives) had made deals to get seven-digit bonuses if the spinoff took place.  Other Time Inc. executives may have similar deals.”

On its face, the document raises questions about the propriety of those negotiating a deal having a financial stake in the outcome.  Sloan calls this a “conflict” and he’s absolutely right.

Sloan also points out that Joe Ripp, “who is leading a company that says in the filing that ‘We are committed to pursuing operational efficiencies and cost leadership,’ got $7.5 million of stock and options (vested at $1.5 million a year for five years) as a ‘make whole’ deal for what he left behind at his previous employer.”  Time Inc. employees will not be pleased that Ripp just announced Time Inc.’s 401K company match is being reduced from 7% to 5% in 2014.  

Time Inc. has taken its share of whacks over the last decade or so for bad management and an anemic digital strategy.   Maybe so, but it’s been something of a cash cow for Time Warner.   Sloan’s brilliant analysis of the SEC documents shows “that for the past three years, virtually all the division’s operating cash—a $1.42 billion out of $1.456 billion—has gone to Time Warner.  That’s 97.5%.  I seriously doubt that the services Time Inc. has gotten from Time Warner for things like human resources begin to balance the scales.”

The industry chatter about the spinoff has largely been about how much debt Time Warner will saddle the new entity with.  That is not clear from the document.  Sloan wasn’t able to find out, but notes it could be as much as $500 million in deferred subscription liabilities alone (magazines people have paid for but not received).  As the writer notes, it is this kind of liability that can sink a business.  Other estimates put the number closer to $1 billion.

  Capital New York, quoting Time Inc. chief content officer Norm Pearlstine, reports that the company will continue staff cuts into next year.  The language of the SEC documents suggests that the next round of cuts could be greater than the 500 positions eliminated in early 2013.

The touching essay Managing Editor Nancy Gibbs wrote about Pope Francis should be required reading. In its breadth, analysis and humanity, it is in the best tradition of Time Magazine, an institution that is ninety years old this year.  

Those who want the inside story of what the new Time Inc. might look like, please see Allan Sloan’s piece ( The SEC filing can be found at

Time is indeed marching on.