Sunday, December 4, 2016

Good journalism requires audience participation.

Opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline received good news today. The U.S. Department of the Army announced it was denying the permit to build the section of pipeline that would have crossed the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota. The fight isn't over, but still, this is a huge win for the thousands of Native people, and their allies, who have opposed the project.

This story has been covered much more thoroughly on social media than by mainstream media, for a number of reasons. For starters, news organizations have been doing more with less for at least twenty years. One of the reasons I got out of the news business in 1998 was that I was tired of getting laid off every couple of years. News organizations kept consolidating, cutting personnel and even whole bureaus, in an effort to make more money for shareholders. And so here we are today: There aren't enough bodies left to cover everything that deserves to be covered. If you've wondered why Donald Trump's Twitter rants get more attention than the Dakota Access Pipeline, that's the reason. It's much cheaper to have an intern sit in an office and monitor Twitter than it is to send a microwave truck, an engineer, a producer, a camera operator and a reporter to the back end of nowhere to take pictures of Indians dancing in front of cops in riot gear.

I'm not denigrating the water protectors; I'm on their side. What I'm trying to do is explain what goes through news executives' minds when they decide what to spend their scarce resources on. Trump's Twitter feed = guaranteed story. Sending a crew to North Dakota for weeks in hopes of "war" footage, not so much.

So it didn't surprise me that CNN, et al., didn't start sending crews to the Oceti Sakowin camp until last week. It was clear things were coming to a head: The Army Corps of Engineers had announced the "protesters" needed to move, the governor of North Dakota was threatening to send in troops to clear the area (although he said later that was just a misunderstanding), and a cadre of volunteer veterans was due to arrive.

As soon as pictures began showing up on the networks, people could see that something was off. The sheriff of Morton County, ND, kept saying that his officers felt threatened by the Sioux, but the photos and videos from the site showed armor-plated police vehicles looming over unarmed people praying. 

More than one person has criticized those media reports, saying the journalists weren't doing their jobs.

Well, actually, they were.

Bear with me while I digress. In 1954, a U.S. senator named Joseph McCarthy made a name for himself by accusing anyone he didn't like of being a Communist. First, he claimed more than 200 Communists had infiltrated the State Department -- a claim he couldn't substantiate. Nevertheless, he was awarded the chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Government Operations in 1952, and used it as a bully pulpit to ruin hundreds of people, including many working in the film industry.

Edward R. Murrow | Wikipedia (Public Domain)
Television was his downfall. In March 1954, Edward R. Murrow devoted an entire episode of "See It Now" to McCarthy, eviscerating the senator by showing his methods in detail. Predictably, McCarthy attacked Murrow, accusing him of being a Communist -- a charge Murrow easily refuted. (George Clooney directed a terrific movie about Murrow's battle with McCarthy called "Good Night and Good Luck".) Shortly thereafter, an attorney named Joe Welch took on McCarthy in his own committee chamber, asking him on live television, "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" At that point, McCarthy's name was mud. 

What the big-name news organizations at the Oceti Sakowin camp have been doing for the past few days is exactly the same thing Murrow did to McCarthy: they've given the cops just enough rope to hang themselves with. 

Journalists are supposed to report on all sides of an issue. The sheriff's statements were news; so were the protests. But it was no accident that reporters were reading the sheriff's inflammatory words over video of what was actually happening at the camp. As news consumers, we're supposed to make the connection ourselves.

These moments of newsy blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The 2016 dumpster fire.

It all started a few days ago, when I saw a photo on Facebook of a festive felt dumpster, with felt flames filling the interior of the dumpster, and "2016" embroidered in gold on the front.

I laughed in empathy, because this year really has been a dumpster fire. From the multitude of musicians and actors we've lost (Florence Henderson of "The Brady Bunch" and Ron Glass of "Firefly" being the most recent), to this month's election results (I mentioned I'm a progressive, right?), to the standoff over the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota (#waterislife), this year has been miserable and disheartening in ways too numerous to count.

It might not be the sort of year you want to commemorate on a Christmas tree. But if you were going to do it, this is the ornament that would sum things up.

I showed the photo to my daughter Amy and said, "Do you have any felt?" Not only did she have felt, but she had more fabric paint than any normal person should own. And a hot glue gun. And a red jingle bell. And my daughter Kat came up with sparkly ribbon.

In short: It was on.

The creator of the original dumpster fire ornament, Jennifer Brooks, published her step-by-step directions in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune today. Hers are way funnier than ours, so please go and read them. (Besides, I'm indebted to her for checking the AP style manual to see whether "dumpster" still needs to be capitalized. It doesn't.) But I think ours is prettier, if you can say a dumpster fire is pretty. Here's how we made it.

1 Sheet of copy paper or notebook paper
5 sheets of felt -- 1 each of red, orange, yellow, and white (ours is white with sparkles), plus 1 color of your choice for the dumpster
Needle and thread
Fabric paint (we used red, gold, and blue, but whatever strikes your fancy) or embroidery floss
Hot glue gun
Jingle bell (optional)
Something to hang it on the tree with (we used 1/8-inch-wide metallic gold ribbon)

1. Draw pattern pieces for the dumpster, the snow, and the flames on the copy paper and cut them out. I made the front of the dumpster 3" x 2" -- the size of a standard business card -- and attached a parallelogram to the left side. Amy drew patterns for the snow, and cut out the flames freehand (which is why I got her involved -- I knew I would be topping out my drawing skills with the parallelogram). She cut enough for 7 flames total, but feel free to go crazy and stuff in as much fire as you think the year deserves.
2. Cut 2 pieces of felt using the dumpster pattern piece. Pick 1 to be the front of the dumpster. Use fabric paint, or backstitch with embroidery floss, to outline the dumpster panels. Draw 2016 on the right-hand panel with a pen or pencil, and go over the numbers with fabric paint or backstitch. If you used fabric paint, let it dry for several hours or overnight.
3. Sew the front dumpster piece to the back dumpster piece. I used buttonhole stitch, but use whatever you can do that will hold the thing together. Don't sew the top shut -- that's where the flames go.
4. Sew or hot glue the snow to the top and bottom edges of the dumpster.
5. Stack your flame pieces (never mind what Jennifer did -- yellow is the hottest part of the flame, so it goes closest to the wick) and tack or glue them together.
6. Glue a row of flames to the back side of the front dumpster piece. Then glue the next row of flames to the back of the first row, and so on, 'til you run out of fire.
7. Affix your hanging loop. I cut a length of ribbon that was about 13" long, doubled it, and tied the cut ends together to make the loop. Then I cut a tiny slit near the top of the back dumpster piece and threaded the loop through, so the knot was hidden inside the dumpster. Amy then glued the dumpster back to the last row of flames, and also glued the loop to the middle flame in the back row.
8. Thread your jingle bell, if you're using one, onto the hanging loop. Then hang the whole shebang on your tree.

The other thing I've been doing, when I'm not helping to create dumpster fires, is working on the NaNo novel -- and I'm pleased to report that I finished it tonight. Maggie in the Dark, the first book in the Transcendence trilogy, is 50,670 words (according to NaNo's official validator). It's another urban fantasy, and it's kind of a dumpster fire right now (for one thing, I'm pretty sure I've named two characters Aaron). Editing will commence in January. But the first draft is in the can, and normal life can now resume.

Rest assured that I'll have more to say about this novel later. For now, happy writing, happy crafting, and come on, 2017.

These moments of crafty blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The clickbait election.

Remember last week, when I said I was going to skip that post about politics? Well, it's been another week, and things haven't gotten any better. And it's not really about politics, anyway, but about politics on social media, and how we've come to be where we are right now.

A whole bunch of Obama-Biden memes like this one have been popping up lately. I trust there have been just as many in favor of President-elect Trump, although I haven't seen many because I'm a progressive (sorry if that's a spoiler) and so Facebook doesn't show me too many things I don't already agree with.

That's part of the problem. Facebook makes money by drawing eyeballs to flashy content, figuring out who's attracted to each type of flashy content, and then marketing products to users based on that information. Not too long ago, I filled out a form for a Facebook ad for my books (sorry in advance...). You know all that identifying information that privacy advocates are always haranguing us to limit Facebook's access to? Those are the parameters, pretty much exactly, that Facebook presented to me so I could tailor my ad to people who would be most likely to buy my books.

In addition, once Facebook figures out what you like, its algorithms will dump more of the same into your newsfeed. So a liberal won't see much in the way of opposing viewpoints unless, say, a conservative friend or relative posts in response to a liberal post. Because we tend to live in an echo chamber on social media, these posts from the other side can seem to come out of left field. "Do people really believe that stuff?" we wonder. Well, yeah, they do. We just never see it, because Facebook algorithms.

Here's another wrinkle: there are people whose business model is solely to post links to attractive and/or outrageous stuff on social media, because they get paid every time someone clicks through. You've probably heard the term clickbait. That's the sort of stuff I'm talking about. How lucrative is it? The Washington Post published an interview this past week with a guy who runs a whole host of clickbait "news" sites. He makes $10,000 a month, just from Google ads. It's not exactly chump change. And he doesn't have anything complimentary to say about Trump's supporters. "I can write the craziest thing about Trump, and people will believe it," he said. "I wrote a lot of crazy anti-Muslim stuff -- like about Trump wanting to put badges on Muslims, or not allowing them in the airport, or making them stand in their own line -- and people went along with it!" He's actually worried that Trump won the election because of fake stories he wrote and disseminated on social media -- although he's not worried enough about America to stop doing it, because $$$$.

Facebook and Twitter have both announced crackdowns on these purveyors of fake news, although I haven't seen any evidence that they've begun. One thing they could do is label each post from a purported news site as either real or fake. That shouldn't be too difficult; a team of college kids figured out one method during a recent contest, and it only took them 36 hours.

In the meantime, it's up to each of us to evaluate the links we see before we share them. You can click through the following link to find an evolving list of fake or slanted news sites. You can also check to see whether something is true, and check the original publication date to make sure you're not recycling an old story. Here's a handy reminder for all of this advice -- and yes, I found the meme on Facebook.

Go forth and post responsibly, everyone.

A quick NaNoWriMo update: As of tonight, I'm at 33,500 words or so -- right where I need to be in order to finish NaNo on the 30th. I think I'm just about where I need to be in terms of the plot, too. Typically, I begin writing faster once I get between 35,000 and 40,000 words, which means I may get on a roll and finish over Thanksgiving weekend. I'll keep you posted.

Oh, and happy Thanksgiving to my American readers!

These moments of sensible, fact-checked blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The obligatory NaNoWriMo post.

I was all set to do a post about the election this week. I had a not-very-political topic picked out and everything. But then today rolled around and I decided most of us are sick of hearing about it, one way or another, by now. So I'm going to write about National Novel Writing Month instead.

You knew this was coming, right? I mean, we're nearly halfway through November (and how did that happen?) and I haven't done a single post about NaNoWriMo, even though I've alluded to the fact that I'm participating again this year.

And it's popular on writing blogs and writers' blogs at this time of year to break out all the hoary advice about winning NaNo. There's plenty of stuff on what to write about and how to structure your story -- or, heck, forget structure and write whatever pops into your head. (We don't need no stinkin' outline!) And there's even more advice about how to stay on task, why you shouldn't give up if you fall behind, and how to catch up. As you may know, I believe weekends are made for this: schedule a day with just you and your computer, shut the door, and bleed as many thousands of words onto the virtual page as you can manage. I've gotten so I do this even when I'm not doing a NaNo-type event, and sometimes I go a little overboard. This past June, I wrote 8,100 words in a day. I don't think I'll ever do that again; I spent a good twelve hours at my desk that day, and by the end of it, I was exhausted. So this time, I'm trying to pace myself.

Just like with any major project, there are two ways to tackle NaNo: you can do a lot of work in an intense burst; or you can work on it steadily, in bits and pieces. The dumbest way to do it, I've found, is to not write at all during the week, and then cram a week's worth of word count (11,669 words) into a two-day weekend. It can be done, but you lose your whole weekend for other things, like real life. Plus it takes more time to get your head back in the story if you haven't touched it for five days.

So this year, I'm trying to write at least a little each day -- maybe not the full 1,667 words you need in order to finish by November 30th, but a few words. My challenge to myself is to not fall behind by more than a single day's word count; that's a relatively easy amount to make up on a weekend day, assuming you can make a date with your computer and shut the door and all the rest.

We're nearly two weeks in, and so far it's working pretty well. I was behind when I started yesterday, but I caught up pretty easily. And today, I'm right where I need to be: just under 22,000 words.

I do love a day when I can set the world aside, immerse myself in the world I'm creating, and write. So I expect I will keep doing those days occasionally. But this slower pace, especially for this first book of the series, feels right to me.

These moments of NaNoWriMo blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.