the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Tag: media

HBO’s Girls: Black and White in the Media

There are quite a few articles today about a controversy revolving around the new Lena Dunham- created HBO show, Girls, and the lack of diversity in the cast, particular with African-American characters.  One of the reasons for the outcry over this show rather than the countless other all-white shows is that critics have been wetting their pants over the show, calling it the VOICE of the twenty-something generation of women.

Whenever something is crowned “the voice of a generation,” those who don’t fit into the demographic always feel left out.  We should retire that expression.

From Kendra James at Racialicious:

“If Lena Dunham and I come from similar educational backgrounds, honed our writing and narrative skills at the same school (and likely with some of the same professors), and grew up spending time in the same city (she’s from Tribeca, and I was a bridge-and-tunnel kid from a nice New Jersey suburb about 30 minutes away), then how could we conceive such radically different images of New York City? Why would I feel so ill-at-ease with her critics essentially declaring her as my voice?”

Ta-Nehisi Coates from the Atlantic, focuses less on the individual artist than those who run the media.

“There has been a lot of talk, this week about Lena Dunham’s responsibility, but significantly less about the the people who sign her checks. My question is not “Why are there no black women on Girls,” but “How many black show-runners are employed by HBO?” This is about systemic change, not individual attacks.

It is not so wrong to craft an exclusively white world–certainly a significant portion of America lives in one. What is wrong is for power-brokers to pretend that no other worlds exists. Across the country there are black writers and black directors toiling to bring those worlds to the screen. If HBO does not see fit to have a relationship with those writers, then those of us concerned should assess our relationship with HBO.”

I don’t write much about my own experiences in “Hollywood,” but I have pitched shows to executives at NBC, and worked at HBO at one time. I’m also originally from Queens, New York, which for my money has the largest percentage of citizens of different races, languages, and eccentric human beings in the country, and many of my idea stem from my childhood there.

It wasn’t until I visited my uncle in New Jersey when I was ten years old that realized that the majority of the world — and the power structure — was filled with white people. Remember the book, “The Preppy Handbook?” It was like reading a book about Chinese pottery; the concepts were totally foreign to me.   My move to Manhattan from Queens was more of a culture shock than when I moved from New York to Los Angeles.   On Easter weekend during my Freshman year, I went home with my roommate Tom to his family estate in Massachusetts, where he OWNED HORSES!

“What do you do with them?” I asked.

“We ride them!”

You can take the boy out of Queens, but you can’t…   I never got half of the jokes in “Stuff White People Like.”

Years later, I found myself pitching a sitcom idea to a Disney executive, an arrogant young guy who got the job because his father was a producer. He was playing mini-golf on his carpet as I nervously told him my brilliant story that I wrote in the shower that morning.

One of the plot points revolved around a son’s relationship with his father. The son’s mother had died and his father quickly remarried — one of his mother’s friends! The son was mad at the father for doing this, and didn’t get along with the step-mother until the final act.

At the end of pitch, the executive hit one more putt.

“The biggest problem with the story… is the new wife,” he said.

I was surprised to hear this. I had expected him to criticize the son or the father.

“The new wife is a black woman, right?” he asked.

It was a detail I hardly noticed when I pitched it. I was basing the story on a real-life situation of someone I knew from Queens. The father remarried a nurse who lived in the same apartment building.   She was a black woman.

“What’s the problem with her being black?” I asked.

“The audience will think that the son hates the new wife because she is black, and no one will like the main character.”

“Oh, no no no. He doesn’t hate her because she is black.  It is because his father is getting remarried so soon after his mother’s death!  The new wife’s color is irrelevant to the story.”

“Yes, but the audience will read it that way. So, let’s just make her white.”

“I see.  OK, let’s make her white.”

Was I acting racist by changing my black character to a white character?  Probably not. Just wimpy. Nothing ever happened with the script anyway.

Was the executive racist for asking me to change the race of the character?

I don’t think he was racist either.   In fact, there was a big plaque on the wall announcing that he was a big shot in the “Young Hollwyood Democratic Club for Change.”

The big issue was FEAR.  No one wants to touch issues of race because no one wants to be called a racist.

I’m not suggesting that it is good to be politically incorrect, but fear is never a healthy motivation.  And fear runs Hollywood, especially this unwritten law that blacks should only write about black people and whites about white people. It’s as if the media images are more segregated than America in 2012!   Sure, we need diversity in the boardrooms and our writing staffs, but we also need more diversity in our brains.

As a blogger, I sometimes feel that the political correctness of my friends is punishing me for growing up in Queens.  My world is diverse.  If I ever write a memoir, my childhood will all be about blacks and whites and Latinos and Asians learning to live together, not always perfectly.  About public school.   If I don’t write about this diversity, I would not be authentic. But I have also been criticized in the past, as if my white male “privilege” prohibits me from writing about anything other than white maleness.

One of my best — and funniest blog posts — was one that I only showed to a few of you, and was told not to publish it.

The tale found me taking the wrong bus home in Queens, the only white guy en route to Jamaica, Queens, a heavily African-American section of the borough.  During the ride, a bunch of rowdy kids in the back of the bus started an obnoxious game called “Tag the N****r,” where one kid tagged another by touching his shoulder, and he was forced to box the other until he cried uncle. There was real punching in these fights, and bloody noses. As the combatants scufffled violently, “Tag the N****r!” was shouted by the other kids.

The older passengers were disgusted, particularly at the use of language.  There was chaos, and the bus driver eventually kicked all the kids off the bus.  But according to some obscure MTA rule, the bus driver had to wait for a dispatcher to sign a document before the bus could continue on.   As we waited in the hot bus with no air-condition, another bus showed up, a fancy new one.  All of the teenagers climbed aboard the new bus, flashing their school passes, and took off to cause trouble elsewhere.   We were stuck there — all of the law-abiding citizens — for another forty minutes.

“You can’t post this,” said one blogger via email. “It’s not YOUR story to tell. It is one about the African-American experience.”

“But I was there!”

“Yes, but you were only a visitor.”

“Huh?  But I was there!  Why is this about the African-American experience?  And why am I visitor?  I live here too.”

“You don’t see your own privilege,” she said.

Good people could not see beyond the black-white schism, when in my view, the opposing forces in the story were old vs. young.  I had more in common with the older African-Americans sitting in the bus, minding their own business, remembering the civil rights movement than the teenagers.   I did not feel as if anyone singled me out as “the white guy.”  Most of the passengers were angry at the obnoxious teens.

“I have an idea,” said another friend. “Don’t mention ANYONE’S color in the story at all, so then there isn’t an issue of you seeming racist.”

I found her color-blind story suggestion interesting, but bizarre.  Race was not essential to the sitcom story about the father marrying his mother’s black friend, but in this case, the racial content MADE the story a story.  This would be a very different scenario if it were white teenagers playing “Tag the N****r.”

I’m fascinated by the current discussion over this HBO show.   I’m all for diversity — including in the blogosphere!  But I think the biggest obstacle is not the media, but our own discomfort talking about our similarities and differences in non-controversial, but real ways.

My Media Diet: What I Read

One of my guilty pleasures on the web is The Atlantic Magazine’s online “Media Diet.” This is not the typical online venue where someone goes to”goof off.”  There are no songs about “Friday” here.   The column views itself as a respectable destination to help others overcome the information overload of modern times., with responses from such media heavy-hitters ranging such as Joseph Epstein and Peggy Noonan.

How do other people deal with the torrent of information that pours down on us all? Do they have some secret? Perhaps. We are asking various people who seem well-informed to describe their media diets.

This is the stated mission of the column, but I’m sure most readers come to see what media bigwigs do online, so they can flagellate themselves for being losers laughing at LOL Cats rather than reading the latest update from the New York Review of Books.

If a tech-savvy statistician created a graph analyzing the data from this site, he would conclude that what separates a media industry success story from the common man is his better daily reading list.

Is it my imagination, but does everyone who contributes to this “Media Diet” column only read the other contributors?  I’m sad to announce this, but I did not see one mention from any of these columnists about them reading a personal blogger!  Although it makes me sad that the editors of Mother Jones and Vanity Fair are not regular readers of Citizen of the Month, I understand that these are busy people.  They look for information that matters to them, which doesn’t include caring about my mother returning from Boca Raton.

But don’t any of these media bigwigs HAVE a mother, or at least family members or online friends who don’t work in the media?  Doesn’t the editor of Harper’s Magazine ever receive corny email jokes from his Aunt Mildred about “this rabbi from Cleveland who was having an affair with his secretary?”  These are part of my media diet.  Unfortunately.   And as much as I find these emails annoying, I might even respond to one.  “That cracked me up, Aunt Mildred!  I love being on your “joke list” so much, please unsubscribe me from this email account and send it to my main, more important “hotmail account” instead,!  Love you.”

Does David Brooks of the New York Times consume anything other than “the Weekly Standard, The New Republic, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Claremont Review, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and National Affairs?”

For another example, here is a section of Media Diet:  What I Read by Emily Yoffe, a Slate contributor who writes their “Human Guinea Pig” and “Dear Prudence” features.  She is a writer I really like.

I look at Real Clear Politics, Politico, The Atlantic (Goldblog first), Politics Daily, Romenesko. I mostly see stuff on The Daily Beast or Huffington Post because someone sent it to me. The columnists I always read are Ruth Marcus, Bret Stephens, David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer, Mark Steyn, Michael Kinsley. (I owe my career to Mike – although please don’t pin the blame on him.) I appreciate the reporting and analysis of Claudia Rosett at Pajamas Media, and Anne Bayefsky at National Review Online.

Should I feel ashamed of my own media diet — which consists of mommybloggers, Facebook updates from overly depressed writers, vicious Twitter fights over whether or not “raisins are disgusting,” and blogs about women accidentally coloring their pubic hair to the color blue?

Are we what we eat, both in what we put into our mouths AND into our minds?

Have you seen the commercial for Pediasure “Sidekicks” for children?  Two soccer moms are watching their daughters playing in a soccer game.  One of the daughters drinks Pediasure before the game.  You know this because she is the superstar scoring goal after goal.  The other girls, who don’t drink Pediasure, are sluggish and poor athletes.  They are “what they eat.”  You know this because the advertisers portray these girls as mutant children shaped like French Fries and frosted donuts.

You ARE what you eat.  At least in our consumer society where the aim is to make you insecure about who you are, and what you read (or the music you listen to).

The Atlantic Magazine Media Diet column has made me think about my own daily online diet.  I’m not being judgmental about myself (OK, I am a little), but analyzing myself, and maybe prompting myself to adjust how I spend my time online.   Currently, I am trying to write more AND read more books, giving me less time to read YOU.  And I like YOU.  I really do.   But you don’t pay the bills.

So, how do I juggle all of this?  Does it really matter who I read?   During my years online, my struggles with knowing what to do with YOU has bothered me more than how you felt about ME.  Am I talking about “branding” again?  Perhaps the editors of The Economist also read the personal blogs of their friends, but just don’t say so publicly, wanting to keep a professional image?  Perhaps they are on LOL Cats every day and then fake a list for the Atlantic?!  Does anyone judge me on what I read, or am I judging myself?

The following is my current “media diet.”  It is a typical online day in April 2011.  I tried to be honest about my day.   Believe me, I am the first to notice that I spend too time online, and not always in the most productive way.

Feel free to write about your “media diet” on your own blog.  I bet it will be eye-opening.

Media Diet
by Neil Kramer
writer of the blog Citizen of the Month

Once upon a time, the first thing I did upon waking up, was to drag myself to the bathroom, eyes still half sleepily shut, and pee, frequently missing the bowl itself.

Those days are long gone, almost quaint in my mind.

Today, the first action of the day is to grab my iphone, which is usually sitting on the pillow next to me, like a loyal lover, or a eager pet puppy, and going online.

The mornings before breakfast, are all about ME.  I check my email.  I go to my blog to see if I received any more comments, and delete the spam uncaught by Akismet.  I go on Facebook to see if there were any responses to my updates or comments. And lastly, I go on Twitter, to see if I got any mentions or DMs.

My only focus on the outside world is that I wish happy birthday to my friends on Facebook!  It is almost a habit.

I don’t check the news before breakfast, so if World War III had started, I would be unaware of it.  I might make a joke on Facebook to a blogger in St. Louis while I was still in bed, not even realizing that St. Louis had been destroyed the evening before.

It is not until breakfast that I focus on the “real world.”  I juice up my laptop and turn to Google News.  I find this site ugly in design, but it is still the best place to get a quick glance of what is going on in the world.

I used to be a news junkie, but blogging has changed me.  I now feel — and I say this in all seriousness — that I learn more about the human condition and life from reading personal blogs.  This might change soon, as my life — and the blogging world — changes.

Breakfast is over.  It is now the “work day.”  I struggle with an internet habit.  I have not been shy about mentioning this on my blog.  I am tempted to stay online, particularly on Twitter, and I succumb often.  I have tried many different methods to battle this, from using alarms to pulling the plug out of the router.  The best thing for my work is to avoid Twitter during the day.  Or set an alarm which promptly sends electrical jolts to my testicles if I don’t get offline immediately.

I follow over 3000 people on Twitter.  One solution that works well for me in cutting out some of the chaos is the use of Twitter lists.  I have two lists, ALWAYS READ and SOMETIMES READ.  I try to keep the ALWAYS READ column very short, 150 people, the number associated with Dunbar’s Number.

If I do go on Twitter during the morning, it is usually to scan the ALWAYS READ column, those who I consider closest in friendship.  I also respond to those who send messages to me.  Sometimes.

The morning is all Twitter, which is dangerous to my work.  At some point, I finally get offline to do something constructive.  Like I said, I am working on this.

It is not until lunchtime that I read any blog posts.  My days of reading hundreds of blogs a day are long gone.  I can’t handle it.   I usually go onto my Google Reader (or Feedly, which I love), where I have another ALWAYS READ column.  As a creature of habit, this column also contains Dunbar’s number of 150.  I rarely get through more than five blog posts during lunch, particularly if they are emotional or well-written. After you read something that touches you or makes you laugh, who wants to skip to another piece?  I like to let the writing sit with me as I eat my turkey sandwich.

Who do I read every day?  It’s not a big secret, although I feel uncomfortable posting it on a blogroll.  It is mostly a collection of people I have connected with throughout the years for one reason or another.  Danny and Schmutzie and V-grrrl and Tanis and Jane, and others who you see me talking about more than others.  Relationships change and sometimes I stop reading one of these people for a month or so.   You can grow apart.  You can get too close.  It’s all rather personal to me.

I catch up on most of my blog reading at night or on weekends.  In complete honesty, there are about ten of you who I read every single post you write, fifty of you who I read once a week, and others who I catch when I can, usually following a link from Twitter or Facebook.

During the afternoons, I find it much easier to concentrate on my work.  Although there are countless examples of me doing the opposite, I try not to go on Twitter.  If I do take a break during the afternoon, I tend to reach for Facebook.  I am not a Facebook addict, so I find it safer.  Some of my closest online friends are on Facebook rather than Twitter.  Twitter attracts the loud mouths and those who like to be the center of attention.  Twitter is like the cafeteria at NBC in Rockefeller Center, where clever people like to show off to each other.  Facebook is taking a trip to small-town USA, where people know everything about you.  I find Twitter relaxing.  I know that this isn’t the typical view, but this is how I perceive things, based on who I follow.  I look at your funny photos and learn about your new jobs and child’s birthday party.  I’ve accepted commerce and pimping as an essential part of Twitter.  I do not ALLOW it on my Facebook stream.

Each day, around 6PM – 7:30PM, a synapse clicks in my brain telling me that it is “serious news time.”  This probably has something to do with me being born before CNN, when the nightly news was an important TV event.  When I was a child, one of my daily joys was watching the local daily news with my father.  My family was a CBS news family, formed during the era of Walter Cronkite.  It is around this time that I indulge in my serious online time.  I have four major news/opinion sources in my Google Reader:  The New York Times, Slate, Salon, and the Atlantic.  If I am not in the mood to read at the moment, I use Read it Later to bookmark the article.

At night, if I am not going out, the internet has replaced television as my main source of “entertainment.”  If I am not writing my own blog post, I usually return to my blog reading.  I use Commentluv on my blogposts, so I can see the titles of the posts of those who recently commented.  I like to go through YOUR posts, one by one, curious what you are saying, or learning about the newcomers to my blog.  I don’t always comment back, but it is a ritual I enjoy.

After 8PM, I have no specific online routine.   I like to talk to people on IM, especially Juli, Jennifer, Marinka, or Schmutzie.   We sometimes gossip about some online drama of the day.  I then go back to Google Reader to continue with my ALWAYS READ group of 150.   I often return to Twitter until I get burned out or start ranting about some issue.   I’m sometimes online, reading Lifehacker, which gives me a geek thrill, or screenwriting blogs such as that of John August, until I fall asleep, which is why my phone is sitting on my pillow the next morning, where I start all over again.

I have no problem with my early morning Twitter/Facebook/blog rituals, my lunch-time blog reading, or my dinner-time news update.  It is the rest of the day that I would like to change.   I want to eliminate a good deal of my time wasting during the work day.  I would like to drastically reduce my nighttime online life so I can read more books, or socialize.  I’m sure these are issues that all of you deal with on a daily basis, including those media bigshots who write these “Media Diet” columns for the Atlantic.  People are people.

Would I be a better person if I consumed more of the quality media diet that these well-known media personalities do?  I doubt it.  It might help me career wise, but is knowing who got fired at Conde Nast today really more important than which personal blogger bought a new house?  The one big difference that is essential to remember is that those who contribute to the Atlantic “Media Diet” column never let their media consumption take over their lives.   They use it to enhance their own product.  They are producers before being consumers.  They do not read personal blogs or acknowledge Aunt Mildred’s joke emails because it is not related to their work.

Or else they just don’t talk about it online.

Expert’s Seal of Approval


Today I had lunch with Miriam, an old college friend from my undergrad days at Columbia. She now has a PhD in Art History and is a curator at a major New York museum. She’s a great person, but she can also be a little snooty. But that’s OK. I like snooty. We haven’t seen each other in a few years, so we spent the meal catching up with each other.

Towards the middle of the meal, I suddenly blurted out, “Oh, I almost forgot one of the most interesting things going on in my life. I started a blog last year! And now I have all these people who come and read it every day!”

Her response was, “Why in the world would anyone want to read YOU?”

Now I know this sounds insulting. But I didn’t take it like that at all.  I knew exactly where she was coming from — academia. She has been taught the importance of cultural standards — the “great books” and the “great works of art.” In her world, only someone canonized by an authority is worthy of someone’s time. That’s why the paintings of August Renoir are studied in art history classes. The paintings of Tony Curtis are not.

This is a pretty common way of seeing things. I know many people who will not read a book unless it was already well-reviewed in the New York Times. Otherwise, what’s the point of reading it?

“I don’t get blogging at all, Miriam said. “If I wanted to read something interesting, why not read “War and Peace” instead of your blog?”

For a second, I sat there and thought, “You know, that’s not a stupid question. Why should I read Retropolitan‘s latest blog post when I could be reading “War and Peace?”

Of course, in my case, blogging hasn’t replaced my time reading “War and Peace.” It has replaced my time watching “The Apprentice” and socializing with real live human beings. But, I could be reading me some Tolstoy! Maybe Sophia could even read it to me in the original Russian!

Yeah, but then I would have to take Sophia away from watching her “24.”

But I do get where Miriam is coming from. I studied “the liberal arts” in college and grad school. But despite the years you put in, you’re never treated with the same authority as a doctor or a lawyer. Miriam told me that being a museum curator can be frustrating, because everyone thinks her job is mostly about placing the frames on the wall. I’ve heard similar complaints from web designers, where clients think they can just have their daughter do the job for free because she knows a little HTML.”

So, unless you go to law or business school, the only real pleasure you can get out of your expensive liberal arts degree is lording it over everyone about how smart you are.

Now that I’ve finally read half of one book by David Sedaris, I bring him up all the time in conversation.

“You mean you haven’t read David Sedaris?” I say, snickering.

It feels good to be part of the cultured class. I remember coming home during my freshman year in college and scolding my mother, “How can you read these trashy novels when you should be reading Plato’s Symposium instead!”

Almost all my friends from college now work as members of this cultured class –publishing, media, television, etc… the arbiters and critics of what we should watch, see, buy, and read.

But the internet is screwing things up.

The academic world does not prepare you to think of a housewife in Ohio as a “writer” or a blogger/fireman as having anything interesting to say. No one expect two teenagers from Taiwan to make a compelling video and put it on YouTube. Hey, they didn’t even go to NYU Film School!

I actually love this democratization of the media.  And I get something from blogging that I can’t get from a novel.  I can’t interact with Tolstoy.  And as long as I wait, he’s never going to write a snarky comment back on my blog, acknowledging my existence  — although he will probably do it before Dooce does. 

But many find the growth of the individual blogger as scary, especially those who already work in the media. Is a newspaper columnist really that much more interesting than some political blogger — other than the fact that one gets paid and the other doesn’t?  Should we depend on cultural arbiters to decide what is considered “worthy” of our time, or should we let the “American Idol” spirit of “Hey, let’s vote on the next superstar!” be the new ideal? And if everyone considers themselves a creative writer, videographer, cultural critic, etc. – what happens to the experts? Does what they say still count?  Or could a housewife’s blog be as worthy reading material as something published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux?

So, the answer to Miriam’s question to me, “Why in the world would anyone want to read YOU?” is obvious.

It’s shorter than “War and Peace.”

P.S. —

Immediately after writing this, Sophia tore apart my entire argument. She said that it’s human nature for people to want an “expert” to show them what to read, watch, and “what NOT to wear.” Look at the home design “experts” on TV. Look at all the “expert” advice given in magazines.  Look at all the blogging sites telling you what blog to read. 

Sophia even told me about this new ABC show, How to Get the Guy, where “love coaches,” will help single women meet men.

Teresa Strasser is one of love coaches,” she said, knowing that she is on my short list of cute Jewish brunettes who appear on television.

“Oh, yeah?” I said, my eyes widening.  “Didn’t she used to be a home design expert on another show?  And a fashion expert on another show?”

“She must be very educated,” Sophia joked.  “But what makes this single woman a love coach? If anyone should be a love coach, it should be my mother. She’s been married for forty years!”

Sophia gave me one example after another of how Americans love to take advice from experts — even if these experts don’t know any more than anyone else.   Look how one word from Oprah can make a book an instant bestseller.  Or how people wait in line to hear advice from “experts” at seminars.

“Hmmm…..,” I thought to myself as Sophia spoke…

P.P.S. —

Announcing:  (from the producers of BlogHim)

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July 14-15-16

The Valley Inn
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Cost: $4000

Special for readers of “Citizen of the Month”: $4500

Single women and previous “blog crushes of the day”: Free!

A Year Ago on Citizen of the Month:  Online Dating Works for Some

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