Sunday, January 13, 2008

Hey, usually I'm the first to be enraged

But when I looked at the new National Geographic magazine article on my current home state, showing that small farming towns have turned into ghost towns, it didn't even occur to me to be outraged.

The headline of the local news article is "North Dakotans rage against the mag." Hey, I'm a North Dakotan! Nobody asked me. (See article at while it lasts).

"The reaction from North Dakotans and ex-North Dakotans has been furious. Dozens have written e-mails to the magazine – – prompted in part by the state Commerce Department’s appeal to its 2,000 “Ambassadors,” self-appointed, amateur image boosters and business recruiters."

Fortunately, I'm equal-opportunity cynical. Every criticism of the original article may have an element of truth. Sure, magazines may skew their coverage towards what makes a better story, and what might sell. Then, organized boosters respond by spearheading "grass roots" criticism, which may (or may not) reflect the opinion of the average Joan on the street. Outrage always spurs more response than appreciation...sad fact of life. So the critiques aren't from an impartial sample of representative North Dakotans, but people already identified as having an interest in promoting the state in a positive way.

Again, that doesn't invalidate their criticisms, but it is an important context if you're treating these people as a sample.

Then the local newspaper, which also has an interest in boosterism, gives a further, prominent forum for the same "Ambassadors," treating them as if they are representing North Dakotans and not a specific point of view.

My favorite comments are the ones about how "The article ... is old news. The population of rural areas throughout the upper Midwest region has been declining steadily for decades." That doesn't mean it isn't still true. There've been gang wars in L.A. for decades, but if they're still going on, it's fair to write articles about them. In North Dakota, certain areas are doing okay financially, but a lot of others aren't, and much of the loss is visible to the naked eye.

So let's just face facts: the media distorts everything. Everything. They can't help it; it's built in to the system. Media coverage is a faint echo of reality, an echo inside a structure that's specifically designed to make money for certain people. And to me, the media spin reaction just feeds the same system by adding a level of distortion to distortion, which is then treated as "news" by another branch of the media which is also, unavoidably, distorting things. PR efforts just cause the media to distort more.

I'm going to have to go read Babbitt again...

(Quick footnote: of the angry letter-writers who no longer live in the state, here are quotes from two. From Texas, "Would I live in North Dakota again???? You bet I would if my health would tolerate the cold weather." And from California, "If I could do there what I do here, I would go back in a heartbeat." Uh, kind of evidence for the other side here.

And by the way, yes, I'm a transplant. I moved to North Dakota of my own free will, and I'm pretty happy with the decision. But I don't pretend anything's perfect. Come to think of it, the media has almost never, ever reflected my experience accurately, so the distortion effect has always been obvious to me. Perhaps I'm zeroing in on in my critical purpose in life!)

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