Chad Comello

Librarian, cinephile, et al

Category: Television (page 1 of 4)

Just don’t look, just don’t look

In the “Attack of the 50-Foot Eyesores” story from The Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror VI”, giant advertisement characters come to life and terrorize Springfield:

Lisa goes to the ad agency that created those advertising characters, and an executive suggests the citizens stop paying attention to the monsters as they are advertising gimmicks, and attention is what keeps them motivated. He suggests a jingle will help distract people from watching the monsters. Lisa and Paul Anka later perform a catchy song and the citizens of Springfield stop looking at the monsters, who lose their powers and become lifeless.

Their jingle? “Just don’t look”:

Some things can’t be defeated by looking away, but many things can.

You don’t have to look. You don’t have to click. You don’t have to pay your attention to things or organizations or public officials who don’t deserve it. Don’t pay the toll on a road you don’t want to go down.

Almost Famous tells us “the only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” True enough, but I think the only true currency in this bankrupt world is your attention.

Which is pretty much the same thing.

A Librarian’s Guide to The Simpsons

In what’s quickly becoming a regular hobby, I went screengrab-hunting on Frinkiac, this time for anything library- or book-related. The result:

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Typewriters in The Simpsons

Frinkiac, a searchable archive of seventeen seasons worth of Simpsons screengrabs, ought to be in the Internet Hall of Fame. After using it to look up some old favorites, I searched for anything typewriter-related, and here’s what came up:

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And of course Wiggam with his invisible typewriter:

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The Man In The High Castle

Not long after we subscribed to Amazon Prime did I check out the pilot of The Man in the High Castle. I’d heard some good regard for the show, but didn’t think to seek it out until it was suddenly available to me. Boy am I glad I did.

Set in 1962, the show exists in a world where fifteen years previous the Allies lost World War II, the U.S. was atom-bombed, occupied, and divided between Germany and Japan into the Greater German Reich (east of the Rockies) and Japanese Pacific States (west of the Rockies). Times Square is blanketed with swastikas (but no ads), Judaism has been outlawed, and with Hitler close to death the Japanese and German empires are bracing for war. Amidst the political and societal intrigue, the stories of the characters we follow orbit around the pursuit of mysterious film newsreels that show alternate histories of the war and its aftermath. The source of the reels, the unseen Man in the High Castle, seems to be head of a guerrilla resistance force trying to undermine the authoritarian states — for all we know.

In addition to having one of the more haunting title sequences I’ve ever seen (above), the show blends three of my interests—historical counterfactuals, dystopia, and World War II—seamlessly into the background of a narrative arc that lets us see the inner workings of a tenuous alliance between the two Axis powers. The show is ingenious at working in small world-building details, either through dialogue or in the background—like when a Nazi police officer mentions offhand how the elderly are regularly euthanized and exterminated so as not to be a “burden on the State.”

To me, the most interesting character of season one—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—is the Nazi. Rufus Sewell plays Obergruppenführer John Smith, a high-ranking SS officer charged with tracking down the remaining film reels and quelling the Resistance. Sewell’s icy, devilish demeanor, mixed with his character’s white-picket-fence, all-American (or rather all-German) lifestyle, provides ample ground for a fascinating character study. Frank (Rupert Evans) is another intriguing character: a downtrodden laborer concealing his Jewish identity who gets tangled up with the newsreels and has to make some brutal decisions after being imprisoned by the Japanese military police.

What I love about counterfactuals is pondering the questions they conjure. Is there anything better about this show’s reality than ours? What does ours share in common with it, and how it is vastly different? It also made me better sympathize with societies that have been occupied, subjugated, and made to accept a new culture. Americans have never experienced that; in fact, throughout history we’ve always been the occupiers and the subjugators, imposing our values and military might in other lands under the banner of liberty. Optimists will say our actions were justified for the sake of spreading democracy, but realists know otherwise. Of course, I’m not equating U.S. foreign policy to the Nazi and Japanese empires in The Man in the High Castle. But I am inspired to decide how and why America is different.

It’s a dark show, no doubt about it. But after some key points in the first few episodes, the gears propel toward a climax and the next season’s continuation that I’m really looking forward to.

(Also, I had no idea how much of the show was CGI-generated, which this video illustrates; I really couldn’t tell while watching it, and even wondered how they got away with displaying so much Nazi paraphernalia.)

Parks and Re-Recreation

My wife and I just finished bingeing Parks & Recreation. It was her first time seeing the show and my second, but the first since watching it live. We started with season 2 as, like The Office, it’s where it finally gets going and I didn’t want her to lose interest in the sluggish first block of episodes.

We flew through the final batch of episodes last night. Just like the first time around I felt some light dread about finishing the show, knowing the journey with these characters would end. This is the problem with rewatching great TV: during the long journey through it, you dredge up all the love you had for the show, and when you’re back at peak love it just straight-up ends. Again. In the same place it ended last time.

There were little recurrent bits I appreciated even more this heartbreaking/-warming time around. Andy’s elaborate non-sequitur digressions, usually involving Burt Macklin’s misadventures. Leslie’s penchant for dictating long, punny headlines to Shauna the reporter. Ron’s unexpected, giggling delight for intricate scavenger hunts. The guy at the public forums (whose name apparently is Chance Frenlm) always starting nonsensical chants.

Knowing a show’s full scope and context after the first run, during the rewatch you can see how it evolves from its nascent, awkward beginnings to the well-run machine it would become. The turning point for Parks & Rec, I think, is “Greg Pikitis”, the seventh episode of season two. It’s the first appearance of Burt Macklin, which helped usher Andy away from being Ann’s lazy, kinda-creep ex and toward the hapless goofball he’d become. It’s also when Tom-as-wannabe-playboy emerges. Leslie hasn’t quite turned into the ubercompetent lovable maniac she would be later on, but the blend of her tenderness toward Dave and her animus toward Pikitis was an early sign of future Leslie — especially the one who’d end up with Ben.

In a show that’s ridiculously funny throughout, I cherished seeing a few key moments the second time through not for their humor necessarily, but for their unexpected and soulful sentiment:

  • Leslie decides to run for city council and the Parks & Rec gang surprise her with a gingerbread city hall and an offer to be her campaign staff. “Guys, it’s so much work. I can’t ask you to put your lives on hold,” she says, to which Ron replies: “Find one person here who you haven’t helped by putting your life on hold.”
  • Leslie fulfills a lifelong dream of voting for herself in an election. The brief, teary moment to herself in the booth, though quickly interrupted by Andy, grounded the show’s antics in something real and slaying.
  • Ben drops a surprise proposal after a spell of long-distance dating. I guess I should have seen it coming as it happened in an episode called “Halloween Surprise”, but I didn’t, and it was great.
  • Ben and Leslie’s actual, non-crashed wedding. I’m a sucker for retrospective montages playing beneath heartfelt dialogue.
  • Ann leaves. (Reaction to which pictured above.) It felt like the finale of another TV show, but instead it was just another pause, a breath in the middle of the action to take stock of the humanity that seeps through the show’s humor.
  • The whole of season 7’s fourth episode (“Leslie and Ron”), when Leslie and Ron are forced to hash it out over Morningstar. The entire last season is built using the flash-forward conceit, and it pays off here when we can contrast Ron and Leslie’s 2017, post-Morningstar acrimony with their tender reconciliation. They both needed humbling, but Leslie’s a-ha moment, triggered by Ron’s telling of his side of the story, was beautifully rendered.
  • Series finale moment #1: April doesn’t want to have kids but Andy does, so she asks Leslie for advice. It’s not really a sentimental moment, but I like her perspective on how having kids isn’t about perfecting your life but about adding new members to your team.
  • Series finale moment #2: Ben and Leslie can’t decide which of them should run for governor of Indiana and are going to flip a coin for it; instead, with the Parks & Rec gang gathered one last time, Ben decides for them: “Leslie’s running for governor of Indiana.” Similar to when Leslie decided to run for city council, Leslie’s face does the talking for her. The entire “Pie-mary” episode focused on the gender dynamics of political candidates and Ben & Leslie’s dedication to upending them, so this governor moment was the perfect vessel for acting it out in their typically loving way.

The through-line for all of these is Amy Poehler. Every moment I’ve highlighted here involves her and the wide range of talent she deploys. Whether in comedy or drama, accuracy is key. Making just the right choice for any given line or scene is hard enough once, but in Parks and Rec she does it accurately and beautifully to a stunning degree.

Even though we can rewatch it whenever we want, I’m really gonna miss this show (again). Having a show end is like an emotional death in the family, and having it happen repeatedly and inevitably is a definite downside of great TV. But like playing “5000 Candles In The Wind” one more time for Lil Sebastian, being able to resurrect it on-demand and laugh with its stories and people again is a modern privilege I’m grateful to have.

Bye bye, Parks & Recreation. Miss you in the saddest fashion.

The Leftovers

As we approach Sunday’s season finale of The Leftovers, HBO’s new series about a Rapture-like occurrence and its aftermath in a small New York town, let’s consider a Gospel story:

Jesus said to his disciples, “Compare me to something and tell me what I am like.” Thomas said to him, “Teacher, my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like.” And Jesus took him, and withdrew, and spoke three sayings to him. When Thomas came back to his friends they asked him, “What did Jesus say to you?” Thomas said to them, “If I tell you one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and devour you.”

Reverend Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) recites this passage to Kevin (Justin Theroux), the town’s troubled police chief, to illustrate how it’s easier to stay silent than to speak hard truths. If this passage is unfamiliar, there’s a likely reason: it’s from the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of “secret sayings” attributed to Jesus but not one of the four canonical Gospels.

In the wake of The Leftovers’ “Sudden Departure,” during which two percent of the world’s population vanished instantly, Jamison’s invocation of this unorthodox source seems entirely fitting. The world of this new hard reality, seen through the eyes of the grieving citizens of Mapleton, N.Y., no longer seems canonical, accepted. The rules seemed to have changed, and what once was considered out of bounds is suddenly in play. Thus, what better place for a pastor, who’s struggling along with his parishioners to make sense of the insensible, to seek wisdom?

Indeed, every character we’ve come to know in The Leftovers is seeking something—anything—that offers meaning for what appears to be a meaningless tragedy. This meaning comes in many ways, and sometimes not at all. Some in Mapleton proclaim a radical certainty by joining the “Guilty Remnant,” an eerie organization of religious activists formed in response to the Departure. They dress in white and silently haunt the town to proclaim their faith in God and deny the “Old World Order” that ended with the Departure. The leader of Mapleton’s chapter fervently proselytizes their vision to a new member, echoing the Gospel of Thomas: “There can’t be doubt, because doubt is fire. And fire’s gonna burn you up until you are but ash.”

This zealous certitude contrasts greatly with the experience of other townspeople, who fluctuate between abject grief and resigned agnosticism. People still mourning their losses order life-like replicas of vanished loved ones (at $40,000 a piece) to be used in traditional burials. Others seek out the mysterious power of Wayne (Paterson Joseph), a messianic drifter who has attracted a cult-like following for his ability to remove people’s grief simply by hugging them (after collecting a hefty fee). But mostly what these seekers find are facsimiles, imitations of authenticity that may offer solace but rarely provide true relief from the underpinning dissonance pervading humanity since the Departure.

The series, based on Tom Perrotta’s novel, is produced by Damon Lindelof, best known for his equally enigmatic show Lost. Both series share a comfort with mystery, with asking big questions and sitting in the empty space after the asking, even if answers don’t come or don’t feel good. But I wonder if The Leftovers was misnamed. More than a show about being left behind, The Leftovers is about people who are lost, who wander through the fog of fear and anguish toward whatever can restore normalcy—however incomplete it might be—and relieve their burden of despair.

For this, Paul’s encouragement to the Corinthians is apt: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” He doesn’t offer a cure-all for suffering, nor a reason for it—only the motivation to persevere. When the sorrow is strongest, perhaps that’s all anyone can do.

Originally published at Think Christian.

Girl Meets Rainbow

I was heartened by the exceedingly successful Kickstarter campaign to resurrect Reading Rainbow, which will help bring a new version of the early-literacy television program back to solvency and into classrooms to foster a love of reading in today’s children.

But this article from Caitlin Dewey at the Washington Post gave me pause:

“Crowdfunding is theoretically supposed to bolster charities, start-ups, independent artists, small-business owners and other projects that actually need the financial support of the masses to succeed. It’s not supposed to be co-opted by companies with profit motives and private investors of their own … which, despite Burton’s charisma, is exactly what the Rainbow reboot is.

“But if you’re donating to Reading Rainbow because of the grandiose charity rhetoric Burton’s employing on Kickstarter, you might want to look elsewhere — maybe the nonprofit Children’s Literacy Initiative or the Washington, D.C.-based First Book, both of which get high grades from Charity Navigator. They might not have LeVar [Burton]’s nostalgia appeal, but there’s no doubt who those charities serve.”

Rainbow was cancelled in 2009 and had been existing as an app since then, so though its name already has a pedigree I think it still deserved a chance to ask its fans for money like any other cause, charitable or otherwise.

In this light, let’s also consider the impending arrival of Girl Meets World, the sort-of sequel to that ’90s TGIF mainstay (and personal TV favorite) Boy Meets World. The title character is the daughter of Cory and Topanga, adorkable teen sweethearts and stars of BMW. When word of the show’s development hit the internet in late 2012, I’ll admit I got excited. Boy Meets World was a seminal show in my adolescence. I saw in Cory and Topanga’s relationship a healthy model for friendship and romance: Cory was silly and Topanga was rational, but both were strong, self-sufficient people who loved the other despite their foibles and occasional conflicts. And the people around them were just as well-rounded: Shawn broody yet loyal, Feeny upright yet playful, Eric clownish yet sincere.

Like Reading Rainbow, the BMW brand—much-loved yet dated—has received new life thanks to the groundswell support of its fans. Though this new show will be its own story with a new protagonist and surrounding cast, but with Cory and Topanga back in the mix, and the original BMW producer at the helm, it might as well be considered a continuation of the story. But for whom?

It’s common, I know, for entertainment meant for kids to have something their parents can enjoy too. Whether it’s Sesame Street or the latest Pixar movie, the best filmmakers and producers find a way to appeal to many age groups. And perhaps that is why Girl Meets World is being made: to give Millennials with young kids something they already have an attachment to that they will (theoretically) be able to enjoy watching with their kids. But the Disney Channel audience of Girl Meets World either hasn’t seen the original series or hasn’t even heard of it. They will have as much emotional investment in the characters as they would for any new show they encounter. So why do we need Girl Meets World?

It’s not as if kids today lack any source of entertainment whatsoever; what BMW was to me and my Millennial ilk, they have today (I’m guessing here) in the variety of television shows, movies, apps, and YA novels being made specifically for them right now. Don’t they deserve to have their own Boy Meets World, a show or thing they discovered in their youth and will feel special kinship toward into adulthood? Boy Meets World was my generation’s thing; shouldn’t they have their own that didn’t descend from their parents’ cultural experience and sensibility?

Perhaps I’m just being possessive. Who am I to cling to a TV show that many, many others cherish as much as I do. I suppose this gets at another question relating to pop culture and our interaction with it: Do we own the culture we embrace or are we mere stewards of it? In our produce/reuse/recycle media culture, do we lose the right to claim something as our own? I don’t think so. Once a work of art is created and sent out into the world, it is the artist’s no longer. It becomes a public entity of which we can all buy shares and claim partial if ardent ownership, but we can never own it outright. My Green Bay Packers stock is tangible evidence of my intangible ownership and love of the team, but it’s not real stock. There will always be more Packers fans, and Boy Meets World fans, and Reading Rainbow students, no matter the form those things take.

So here’s to hoping that everybody wins: that Girl Meets World and the new iteration of Reading Rainbow will enchant young viewers and delight older ones, and that we’ll finally find out what happened to Mr. Turner.

House Of Cards

As the second season of House of Cards begins Friday, it’s worth remembering that the Netflix political drama last left us with a prayer.

In last season’s finale, Frank Underwood, the politician who has schemed his way through a twisted plan of revenge, enters a church, gets on his knees and looks skyward. “Every time I’ve spoken to you, you’ve never spoken back,” he says. “Although, given our mutual disdain, I can’t blame you for the silent treatment. Perhaps I’m speaking to the wrong audience.” He then looks to the ground. “Can you hear me?” he implores. “Are you even capable of language or do you only understand depravity?”

Finally, Underwood concludes to the camera: “There is no solace above or below. Only us. Small. Solitary. Striving. Battling one another. I pray to myself, for myself.” As he exits the church he lights a votive candle in an array of lights. Then he blows them all out.

Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, doesn’t just inhabit the darkness; he creates it. And it’s darkness, along with the dirty deeds done in it, that haunts House of Cards. Set in Washington, D.C., the show follows the devious dealings of this veteran Democratic congressman, who feels betrayed by the newly elected president’s failure to appoint him Secretary of State. Embittered by the rejection, Underwood and his wife (Robin Wright) set the course for a new destination: the president’s cabinet.

“Through sardonic fourth wall-breaking asides to the audience, Underwood gives a play-by-play of his master plan as it takes shape, turning viewers into co-conspirators of his Machiavellian machinations. His ambitious plot soon ensnares Zoe (Kate Mara), a young and roguish reporter, and Peter (Corey Stoll), a freshman congressman with a sordid past.

The show’s pilot established D.C. as a place where the high-minded ideals of politicians and journalists belie a shadowy, noir-like underworld. Compromise — both political and moral — will come, like it or not. Underwood is a key player in this world, using his persuasive prowess to bend people his way in his insatiable quest for power.

But every one of Underworld’s power plays has a cost. Taking a step toward his sinister goals often means trampling whichever friend or foe is in his way. Peter was the most tragic victim of Underwood’s unchecked ambition in the first season. It was Zoe, Underwood’s former obsequious bedfellow, who by the end of the season broke free from his stranglehold and began, however unknowingly, to shine a light onto the darkness.

The teaser trailer for the second season shows Underwood taking the oath of office as the new Vice President, but he clearly learned nothing on his climb to the top. “One heartbeat away from the presidency and not a single vote cast in my name,” he says. “Democracy is so overrated.” Underwood mocked heaven and hell back in that season one finale. Yet if he had opened the book next to him then, he would have found a passage in Isaiah 14 that served as a word of warning to the king of Babylon, a ruler whose pride and arrogance would lead to his downfall:

How you have fallen from heaven,
morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
you who once laid low the nations!
You said in your heart,
“I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
above the stars of God;
I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.”
But you are brought down to the realm of the dead,
to the depths of the pit.

Frank Underwood is his own conquering hero, but he now has much more to lose. House of Cards looks to continue the ongoing story of darkness versus light. Will Zoe expose Underwood’s deceit? Or will he climb even higher up the ladder? If pride, as they say, comes before the fall, then we’re in for quite a ride.

Originally published at ThinkChristian, February 2014.

Dharma Island

If you click the link from John August’s above tweet, you’ll learn, as I did recently, that Disney World used to have a wildlife attraction on their massive property called Discovery Island, which was abandoned in 1999 and left to be overrun by wilderness. Shane Perez, a self-described “urban explorer” and photographer, apparently snuck onto the island in 2009 and took some photos of the deserted exhibits and infrastructure.

The place looks eerily beautiful and, as John August suggested, the absolutely perfect place for Disney to install a Lost-themed attraction in the style of the Dharma Initiative’s digs. They would have to do very little; just install a few hatches, ferry over a VW bus or two, and slap a Dharma logo on everything and it’s set. I’d make a trip to Disney just to see that.

Seeing In Black And White

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Rod Dreher recently wrote about Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson’s comments about, essentially, how happy he believed Black Southerners were in the 1950s before the civil rights movement. To Dreher, Robertson’s comments demonstrate the power of narrative, of the stories we tell ourselves and how they affect how we see the “truth” of our own situations, even when we don’t see the whole truth:

You can tell a lot about who has the power in a particular culture by what you are not allowed to talk about without drawing harsh censure. And in turn, the thoughts you are not allowed to have become internalized, such that you train yourself not to see things that violate those taboos. In the 1950s rural South, a white man was not allowed to speak out against the injustices inflicted on blacks; is it any wonder that he wouldn’t “see” them?

This is a very insightful way at contextualizing Robertson’s ignorant and hurtful comments. Dreher spotlights Alan Ehrenhalt’s (excellent) book The Lost City to add further context to Robertson’s remarks, but I’m finding just as much relevant background and insight in my current read: The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.

This amazing book takes an angle I’d never considered before when thinking about and studying the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s — that of the journalists, publishers, and other press figures who were instrumental in wrestling the civil rights struggle to the front page as the movement simmered after World War II to its boiling point in the ’60s. In newsreels and history books we’ve seen a great deal of the figures directly involved in the decades-long civil rights fight: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, the Little Rock Nine, Bull Connor, George Wallace, and many others. But what of the people behind the cameras, the ones braving the fire hoses of Birmingham and angry mobs in Greensboro right along with activists to capture the moment for print, radio, or the nascent television news?

For a thesis statement of sorts, Roberts and Klibanoff go back to what they view as the foundational work from which all academic and journalistic interpretations of the postwar civil rights movement emerged: An American Dilemma, a comprehensive study of race in America underwritten by the Carnegie Foundation and spearheaded by Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish economist and sociologist. The study found the central problem to be an overwhelming ignorance among Whites (in the North and South alike) about the lives and living conditions of Black Americans. It was easy for Whites to ignore the discrimination Blacks faced every day because they didn’t see it. White newspapers completely ignored the Black community and the Black press along with it. Myrdal believed that to overcome “the opportunistic desire of the whites for ignorance,” the Black community needed one thing: publicity. “There is no doubt,” he wrote, “that a great majority of white people in America would be prepared to give the Negro a substantially better deal if they knew the facts.”

Facts, they say, are stubborn things. But so were the segregationists. And the thought of high-minded out-of-towners coming into the South to tell good Christian people what’s wrong with them and upend generations of tradition didn’t sit well with angry sheriffs and townspeople, who would have every judge and jury (all white, of course) on their side should they decide to teach someone a lesson, or worse. As a Mississippi attorney put it to Freedom Summer volunteers venturing into the South: “a dark highway at midnight was no place to lecture a Mississippi deputy sheriff with a second-grade education on the niceties of constitutional law.”

Still, the whole point of the civil rights movement, and one that Martin Luther King understood deeply, was to shine a light into the dark places. To walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and bring reporters along for the walk. King knew, as did the other movement leaders in SNCC, CORE, and NAACP, what Myrdal knew: publicity meant power. The more White America would be exposed to the everyday injustices Black Americans faced, the more likely they would be to sympathize and inspire positive action. The Emmett Till trial was the catalyst. That gruesome murder and clear miscarriage of justice coupled with the earth-shattering Brown v. Board of Education decision to start the movement snowballing toward bus boycotts and Little Rock, through the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins and Ole Miss, each encounter seeming to attract more attention than the last.

While the Freedom Riders and marchers were enduring fire hoses and batons and angry mobs, journalists were close by to report on it. They understood as much as their subjects the power of the pen and camera, and had to wield that power in unexpected ways. Peter Kihss, a New York Times reporter who was reporting the Autherine Lucy saga at the University of Alabama, decided to abandon traditional journalistic remove and intervene when an elderly Black man became surrounded by an unruly mob. “If anybody wants to start something, let’s go,” he told the crowd. “I’m a reporter for The New York Times and I have gotten a wonderful impression of the University of Alabama. Now I’ll be glad to take on the whole student body, two at a time.”

A similar situation involved John Chancellor, newspaperman turned NBC broadcaster, in the infancy of television news. Chancellor was gathering reactions in Mississippi after the Till trial when “a flying wedge of white toughs” descended on him and a Black woman he was interviewing:

Chancellor squared off against them and held up the only object he could find to defend himself, an object whose power he had not, until that moment, truly fathomed. Thrusting his tiny microphone toward the men, Chancellor blurted out, “I don’t care what you’re going to do to me, but the whole world is going to know it.”

He later called his microphone “the technological equivalent of a crucifix.” The microphone and the newspaper and the camera collectively became a tool and a weapon. They performed the basic service of documenting reality, ugly and unvarnished as it was, while also fighting back against the South’s deeply entrenched culture of silence and racial hegemony. Their power seemed to coalesce in the fall of 1963 when they broadcasted Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech and then the news of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four Black children. Having the nation witness events like those up close, according to Jack Gould of the New York Times, was a major hurdle overcome for the Negro race as a whole, because until then its biggest challenge had been “communicating and dramatizing” its struggle: “Not to the integrationists, not to the unyieldingly prejudiced, but to the indifferent white millions for whom integration or segregation was of scant personal concern.”

In other words, to the Phil Robertsons of the day. The story White Southerners like him had been telling themselves (and anyone else who had dared to disrupt the narrative) about race and their culture disagreed with the reality of being Black in America. It took over a decade of protests and violence and struggle and political hand-wringing, but finally, Myrdal’s prescription for publicity was working. It wasn’t a panacea, but it was progress. However, when hit with the reality of someone else’s story, some, like Gov. George Wallace, ignored the cognitive dissonance and dug in their heels. While Phil Robertson is no George Wallace, their shared inability to see beyond the stories they told themselves left them blind to what the cameras were showing in bright lights.

It’s easy to judge from afar in situations like this without thinking about the blind spots we’ve self-imposed today. Racism isn’t over, nor discrimination writ large. The press is different today, as is its power. We’re not so enthralled by television or newspaper editorials anymore. Publicity itself seems an inadequate solution for dealing with the problems we face today when all people do in our selfie-obsessed world is publicize. Simply getting a hashtag trending on Twitter won’t solve homelessness or end abortion. In that way, our problem is the same as that of generations before us: we need the courage to hear new stories, to not wait for tragedy to spur us to action, and to follow the Atticus Finch model of walking (or marching?) a mile in someone else’s shoes.

The Race Beat goes into great detail about the individuals and institutions involved in this decade-long story. Courage, cowardice, and great copy abound on every side of the tales told that, all together, paint a lush picture of how the movement and its press worked together to change the country forever.

(photo via NYT)

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