Homeless on bench by Tomas Castelazo (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Two families, $200,000, and any number of difficult decisions. It is a well-worn recipe for game shows and reality television alike. In this regard, it appears that CBS’ new show, “The Briefcase,” is no different from its predecessors. However, the context this formula inhabits has sparked a growing controversy around the show. For, in this case, the families are grappling with poverty, and they must ultimately decide whether to keep their share of the money or give it to the other, equally struggling family.

Old TV 2 by Wayne Stadler CC BY 2.0

This Guest Author post by Dr. Jeff McCall was originally published in The Indy Star on April 24, 2015.

NBC’s high-profile anchor, Brian Williams, has been suspended for telling tall tales. ABC’s highest-profile news personality, Diane Sawyer, has gone super-hype with her two-hour, prime-time interview of Bruce Jenner. CNN has redefined news to include travel and cooking shows, and multi-hour reports on marijuana. Reporters sprint like groupies to catch up with Hillary Clinton’s van in a remote part of Iowa, even though the presidential election is still 18 months away.

Somewhere, Edward R. Murrow is saying, “I warned you this would happen.”

This month (April 27) marks 50 years since the godfather of broadcast news died. Murrow is often considered the standard setter for professionalism in electronic news. Murrow’s influence is remarkable, given that he spent little time in administration at CBS, and he was never a lead anchor for radio or television. Still, he established himself as the model for how to use audio and video to report real news. His reports from London in World War II riveted the nation. His prime-time television documentaries in the 1950s took on the tough issues of the day, including McCarthyism.

He identified and hired dedicated reporters who reflected his passion and dedication to serving the public interest. He hired intellects who could think critically and fearlessly. His World War II hires for CBS – Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Howard K. Smith, Richard C. Hottelet and others – became known as the Murrow Boys. Collingwood and Smith were Rhodes Scholars. All were seasoned reporters hired away from major wire services or newspapers.

He told CBS executives he was hiring reporters, not merely announcers. After the war, Murrow was put in charge of CBS News, and he hired Walter Cronkite, Daniel Schorr and Robert Pierpoint. One must wonder if any of the Murrow Boys could get hired in the glamorama that is television news today.

Murrow’s visionary speech in 1958 to the Radio Television News Directors Association warned of the growing influence of corporate power in news reporting. He said the public interest could not be served when news was only “a commodity” to be sold for advertisers. He said electronic news was “an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news.” Journalism has been the loser in this combination ever since.

Broadcast news in the Murrow era was not a profit center for the networks, nor was it intended to be. His prime-time documentaries were produced at a financial deficit for CBS, but Murrow’s clout got them produced anyway. That would be unthinkable today. Imagine how the quality of television news could be improved if Disney, the parent company of ABC, steered the profits of ABC News back into the news division to underwrite real journalism. The mega media giant Comcast can surely afford to use some of NBC’s news profits to better serve the information needs of the nation.

What exists now in television news is a lowest-common-denominator approach in which serious journalism is too often absent. Morning news shows produced by network news divisions are journalistically vacuous. At ABC’s “Good Morning America,” the anchor lineup includes a former sportscaster, retired football player, partisan political operative, weather ornament and super-excited pop culture observer who can’t stop laughing. Murrow hires these are not.

Murrow was not perfect. He caved for a time and did prime-time personality interviews. He was an inefficient administrator in the CBS corporate office and got out of those duties quickly. After leaving CBS in the early 1960s, he abandoned objective journalism, going to work for the Kennedy administration as head of the U.S. Information Agency, the organization charged with getting America’s spin on the news distributed around the world. He was a chain smoker and died from cancer at age 57.

Beyond his war reporting, hiring practices or documentaries, Murrow’s greatest contribution to the electronic news industry was a moral compass. His grounded view of the world was gained through blue-collar work as a youth in logging camps in the American northwest. He insisted that journalism be based on facts and that those facts be analyzed with fairness. He knew then that the speed of communication often led to the distribution of false information.

Fifty years after his death, the electronic news industry has no person or organization that can provide a professional conscience as Murrow once did. The nation suffers for this lack.

Iggy Azalea, ACL Music Festival Overview (Austin, Texas, 2014-10) by Ralph Arvesan CC BY 2.0

Cultural appropriation is when a dominant group adapts the customs of a minority group and tries to trademark them as their own in an effort to be edgy and/or to use them to propagate stereotypes about that minority group. A popular example of this is Miley Cyrus’s infamous use of the dance style “twerking”, which has origins in many traditional African dances but is now commercialized to be part of her image. Because of this, it is now popularly conceived to be sexual, “ghetto”, and trashy, when initially it was “a cultural expression of joy”.

Hunger Games’ star Amandla Steinberg recently released a video titled “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows” that tackled the issue of cultural appropriation and the line between this and cultural exchange. This video has been the topic of much debate, particularly concerning why cultural appropriation is offensive to those whose cultures are being adopted. Steinberg discusses many examples where white rappers and performers (here she references Iggy Azalea, Miley Cyrus, and Katy Perry) have adopted elements of black culture into their own image. She ties her argument together by asking “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?”

Steinberg’s frustration does not come from the fact that certain cultural customs are becoming more widespread and are being adopted into the mainstream media culture. Rather, it is due to the lack of knowledge and attention given to the origin of the trend and the importance it holds to the culture by which it was created. If everyone were to consider the cultural significance of certain styles of dance, dress, hair, language, etc. before incorporating them into one’s own image, cultural appropriation would be less unchecked. This respect for other cultures creates an atmosphere that encourages cultural exchange, where customs are shared with knowledge of the significance behind them. Hopefully this would create an awareness of how to appropriately adopt a style without mocking it, or demeaning it, especially at a time when everything published online is fair game to comedic interpretation.

This is such a difficult discussion because in a “melting pot” like the United States, it is nearly impossible to create an image that doesn’t draw on elements from the various cultures we were surrounded by growing up, and are now surrounded by online. And there is nothing inherently wrong with appreciating or identifying with another culture and wanting to emulate it in some way. However, exchange becomes appropriation when it is done in jest or for the sake of branding. It does not seem ethical to dismiss another culture’s custom until it is made mainstream, and then to only accept the new, twisted version of that cultural feature.

Fifty_Shades_of_Grey 2014 CC By Georgebarrios 2.0

50 Shades has swept audiences off their feet, selling 100 million copies worldwide, and making $237.7 million in its global opening in theaters. In many ways, this success could have been predicted by its eerie similarity to other phenomenally profitable franchises (ahem…Twilight), but in other ways, what 50 Shades presents is entirely new. The series follows the love story of an unassuming bookworm girl and an older millionaire businessman—nothing new there. But the catch? He’s into BDSM: he likes violent sex.

At a cultural moment where sex is a hot-button issue, the timing of the movie release couldn’t be more perfect (read: lucrative). But as Emma Green pointed out in her article for the Atlantic, on film, “the Fifty Shades version of hot, kinky sex will become explicit and precise, no longer dependent upon the imaginations of readers.” With the book, interested folks could discretely download the books on their e-readers and choose if they wanted to share their guilty fascinations. With the movie, it’s public.

So now that everyone knows you’re curious, let’s talk about some of the major debates surrounding the movie and the issues it brings to light.

One of the biggest arguments is the sheer volume of sex. With a full twenty-five minutes of pure sex scenes, one has to wonder what the motives are. Is it simply an empty shortcut to boost ticket sales? Or is the motive to open up the viewer to a more liberal approach to nudity and sex? One thing is clear: sex sells. But is there something inherently wrong with steamy sales tactics? Or, more specifically, is there something inherently wrong with using fetishized sex to sell?

This leads us to another point—one that was discussed in the Atlantic article: the movie’s representation of a particular community. The fact is that there really are people who are into BDSM. Some of these people have come forth, claiming that the movie misappropriates, among other things, the level of emotion and consent that’s actually involved. The movie didn’t show the couple talking, going on dates, falling in love… the focus is on the sex. And the moments not in the bedroom are uncomfortable: he sells her possessions, and pops up unannounced, and somehow maintains an constant aura of creepiness…uh, no thanks. As Green put it, “the most troubling thing about the sex… isn’t the BDSM itself: It’s the characters’ terrible communication.”

Now, it could be that the film is riding the wave of sexual liberalism, giving the public insight into a taboo community and ultimately promoting openness. And some feminists will give it this. In her HuffPost article, feminist writer Soraya Chemalay says that, “this not secret, not silent, non-judgmental openness is a feminist success”.

Many have also brought up the issue of class. Yes, this type of rare sexual preference is glamorous in a marble-floored penthouse between two good-looking people. Basically, would it have been as appealing without the helicopter?

This conversation goes on and on, back and forth and then back again. If you’re interested in reading more about the discussions surrounding the movie, as well as my personal take, head over to the PrindlePost.org. Personally, I haven’t read the book, but I saw the movie. I said it was just because everyone else was, but the truth is that I was genuinely curious…which I was 50 shades of embarrassed to admit.

Achilles the Pug by Andrew Wales (CC BY 2.0)

Among my friends, I would be one of the first to readily admit one thing: I love dogs. Pugs, specifically. My personal allegiance to my family’s dog aside, pugs are one of my favorite animals. If I need to take a break from studying or writing a paper, chances are decent that I’ll log on to Tumblr or Youtube for my daily pug fix. When my friends see an article or video about pugs online, they know just who to send it to. And, once I graduate, one of my personal milestones of success won’t necessarily be having children, but rather becoming a proud father to one of the wrinkled, snuffling, bug-eyed beasts.

We have all heard it before: the kid out on the baseball field shouts, “you hit like a girl.” Adults do it too. In fact, just last fall my sister’s soccer coach yelled to his son, “you’re running like a girl,” upsetting many parents in the crowd. To many, to be “like a girl” means to be, somehow, less.

In one of their most recent ad campaigns Always, a feminine products company, is raising awareness about the connotations attached with the phrase, “like a girl.” We often subconsciously assume that to be “like a girl” is to be weak, victimized and, ultimately, incapable. These systems of belief are imbedded in a culture where young girls are taught to believe these things about themselves. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, often reinforced by peers, parents and mentors.

I want to tell you why I’m excited for the new film, Reparation. Before you hear my reasons, you might want to watch the trailer above. Okay. Here’s why I’m excited.

1. The movie looks like it’s going to be great.
I have a good feeling about this movie based on the trailer, and the conversations I’ve had with one of the screenwriters, Steve Timm. The plot is great. Here’s a plot summary from their very successful kickstarter campaign.

REPARATION is a powerful psychological thriller that swirls like a funnel cloud around Bob Stevens — a small-town farmer with a three-year hole in his memory.   When a mysterious stranger, Jerome, shows up claiming to have been his best friend in the Air Force Police, Bob’s peaceful existence begins to unravel from the outside in. Bob’s entire family is caught in the storm — but none more than Bob’s eight year-old daughter, Charlotte, who discovers that she might hold the key to conjuring Bob’s forgotten past.   As Charlotte comes to learn, “every time something happens that knocks us out of balance, we try doing something that will knock us back in…” That universal theme of balance is the soul of REPARATION.

2. The DePauw Connection: Steve Timm and Kyle Ham
The screenplay was adapted from a play written by Steve Timm, DePauw professor of communication and theatre. He is also the chair of the advisory board for the Prindle Institute. He co-wrote the screen play with DePauw alumn, Kyle Ham ’94. This was Ham’s directorial debut and they filmed it in Greencastle, IN and the surrounding area. It’s exciting to know that what promises to be an excellent indie film was created here.

3. The Prindle Connection: It raises a super-interesting puzzle about Moral Responsibility.
One of the reasons I’m so excited about this film is that it raises interesting questions about moral responsibility. The person has forgotten some of the actions in his past, and we are somewhat inclined to sympathize with this person because of that. Should someone be punished or be held responsible for actions that they can no longer remember? I can’t say much more without spoiling things. But I can promise you that the plot is great.

That last reason is why we’re talking about it so much at Prindle. Expect more Prindle programming around this when the movie is released in 2015.


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