Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Context, color, and the fat little smokin' brown baby....

On April 19, 2010, Second Amendment enthusiasts rallied in Washington, D.C., carrying assorted pistols and rifles, all in line of sight of the White House.  On April 22, Time Wise wrote a post to his blog, "Imagine if the Tea Party was Black?"  We are asked to imagine that a large group of heavily armed black people rallied in a field in Washington, D.C., which is kind of like asking us to imagine the Tea Party in 1968.

But it isn't just race that makes a difference in how we perceive things, geography also matters.  Recently there has been a media storm generated by video of Indonesian two-year-old Ardi Rizal who is shown happily puffing away on two packs of cigarettes a day.

Here is a clip from the CBS news program, The Early Show, as they report on the fat smokin' brown baby.

Watch CBS News Videos Online

As you watch, look at the expressions and body language of the hosts. There are around 100 muscles in the human face and the ability of these to express 10,000 shades of emotion are what separate professional television "news" performers from all comers.  I taught in university Radio/TV departments for many years and I remember one moment in particular, a student who was the anchor of the college station's evening news program came to me before a taping. The student was by far the best we'd seen in terms of affecting the characteristics of a TV news professional. He was better at... I can't remember if it has a name... that thing TV news anchors do at the end of broadcast where they shuffle papers and appear to be speaking to each other but, because the audio engineer might be late in turning off their microphones, they are simply moving their mouths, making no actual sound... he was better at saying nothing than anybody we'd ever seen.

He came to me because the top story was the death of Leonid Brezhnev, the head of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union from 1964 until his death in 1982.  The student news anchor had never heard of Leonid Brezhnev and was unsure where to, in effect, dial his face.  At one end of the facial emotion spectrum is the look a news anchor has when he reports that the child who fell into the well has died; at the other end is the look he has when he reports that Charles Manson has died in a prison riot.

That student later became a network weekend news anchor in a mid-sized market and eventually moved to California where, when I lost track, he had gotten an acting job.  He -- I swear I'm not making this up -- got a job on the TV series "LA Law."  In scenes in which characters were in a room and suddenly some important bit of exposition was delivered by turning on the TV and listening to the TV news anchor report a story, the TV news anchor inside the TV on the set in the TV series on my TV was that student.  I believe he eventually ceased to exist materially.  He may well be the Greatest Communications Major of All Time.

But I digress.

What do you see in the faces of the CBS news people?  In their eyes? In the tone of voice, word choice, pauses, inflections, as they react to the video of the fat little smokin' brown baby?

More than anything else their joy at having the video is palpable. They bubble effervescently, their happiness infectious.

Their dismay over the smokin' baby is tempered. Nothing at all like their outrage would be if it was a white American smokin' baby.

Now every trace of "cuteness" is gone.  Now we want to put the parents in jail.  Hey! This is serious.

But the fat smokin' brown baby clearly isn't from around here.  Wherever he's from it's some backwards place without child labor laws, and where this two-year-old will be making our sneakers and computer parts for $4 a week in unsafe working conditions a couple years from now.  Gosh.  It would be downright hypocritical of us to get all self-righteous and preachy about the baby's 2 pack a day habit.

Wouldn't it?

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