Thursday, June 18, 2009

Culture Shock 06.18.09: The 'revolution' was Twittered, and I was there

"The revolution will not be televised. It will, apparently, be Twitterized."

With that tweet this past weekend, I achieved my 15 minutes of Twitter fame. I'll be available for autographs.

As protesters demonstrated in the streets of Tehran during the hours following Iran's still-contested national election, the best source of information from the Iranian capital was Twitter. The Iranian government quickly blocked the country's access to some Web sites and social networks like Facebook, but it couldn't completely block Twitter, which allows users to send brief messages to the Internet via the Web and mobile phones.

Lesson learned: If people have access to the right technology, then no government, no matter how authoritarian, can completely cut them off from the rest of the world. If you want to run a totalitarian state, you have to keep your people in the Stone Age, like North Korea does.

Twitter users use hash tags, a # followed by a keyword, to designate tweets on specific topics so that anyone can follow the online conversation. The "#iranelection" tag rose quickly Saturday to be the top "trending topic" on Twitter. As of Tuesday night, it was still No. 1, despite challenges from "Real Housewives," "Taylor Swift" and "WeirdAl" (short for parody musician "Weird Al" Yankovic, who stormed the Web with a Doors-themed music video about Craigslist).

For the first time, the world experienced a social uprising taking place in real time, 140 characters per tweet. That's a definite step up from Twitter's previous claim to fame — Ashton "Mr. Demi Moore" Kutcher's successful bid to become the first person on Twitter with 1 million followers.

In addition to people tweeting from Iran, people from around the world chimed in on Twitter to express their support for the protesters. Twitter users in the United States also tweeted their dismay about the lack of news coverage on the American cable news channels. The general sentiment was, how could CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC stick to their canned weekend programming when there was a "revolution" going on in Iran?

That was when I made my slightly tongue-in-cheek tweet about the revolution being "Twitterized" instead of televised.

As someone in the news business, I recognize as well as anyone the difficulties involved in switching gears to cover a breaking story, especially one on the other side of the globe, in a country that isn't exactly friendly to foreign reporters. But anything is better than the prerecorded fluff that the 24-hour news channels use to fill their weekend schedules. At least give me some think-tank nerds discussing what they think might be going on in Iran. Even if I think they're clueless hacks, I can at least shout at the TV, which is what I do most of the time I watch CNN and FNC, anyway.

Before I knew it, my tweet had been re-tweeted, including by an actual ABC News reporter working in the Middle East. Mine was the tweet re-tweeted around the world. Yay, me!

Inadvertently, I had been swept up in the #iranelection furor, but I have mixed feelings about that. It's not as if the pro-reform side in Iran doesn't have an agenda, too, and who really knows who is on the other side of a tweet? Some early Twitter reports were wrong, and some, probably, were propaganda.

Also, some Twitterers in America are now demanding that the U.S. support the pro-reform backers of Mir Hossein Mousavi against Iran's reactionary President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I suspect, however, that explicit American support would undermine the pro-reformers with the broader Iranian population. Memories of the United States' support of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi run deep.

That's one problem with Twitter. Getting caught up in the moment can get the better of your judgment.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Culture Shock 06.11.09: The anti-Oprah backlash goes mainstream

After years of expanding its influence into every aspect of our lives, the most powerful force in modern America finally is facing organized resistance.

I'm speaking, of course, of Oprah Winfrey.

Like Cher and Madonna, Oprah has long since grown beyond needing a last name, despite lacking any apparent musical talent. So, a backlash was inevitable. What's surprising is that it took so long to take shape.

Newsweek magazine kicked off the rebellion in earnest with a June 8 cover story featuring a photo of a deranged-looking Oprah below the big, bold words "Crazy Talk." It's the first time I can recall that any major news outlet has portrayed Oprah in such an unflattering light.

The article inside was an exhaustive expose of the dubious health advice Oprah and her guests regularly peddle to her millions of viewers — advice that could actually make you sick. Or worse.

Oprah responded with a mealy-mouthed press release that said, "I trust the viewers, and I know that they are smart and discerning enough to seek out medical opinions to determine what may be best for them."

As if that's a good excuse for dispensing questionable medical advice in the first place. Never mind that Oprah is downplaying her own influence.

Since launching her nationally syndicated talk show in 1986, Oprah has expanded her media empire into all corners. She dethroned Phil Donahue to become the undisputed ruler of daytime talk. But that wasn't enough. Soon, she moved on to producing movies — and even sometimes acting in them.

Anyone else would have been satisfied. But not Oprah. She had greater ambitions. She launched a magazine called — what else? — O, The Oprah Magazine, which has featured Oprah on every cover since its inception. She also co-founded the Oxygen TV channel, which she then sold to NBC Universal. And she recently entered into an agreement with Discovery Communications to take over the Discovery Health Channel, which will become OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.

Oprah has become an all-encompassing brand, and what she's selling is Oprah. Donald Trump has nothing on her.

Oprah's Book Club has choked the best-seller lists with mountains of middlebrow novels and tell-all confessionals. Even a scandal involving James Frey's alleged memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," couldn't stop her.

And finally, to the consternation of Hillary Clinton's supporters, Oprah arguably swayed the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries to Clinton's main rival, Barack Obama. And you know how that story ended.

That's real power. For all his reputation as a diabolical media mogul, News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch, whose holdings include the Fox News Channel, only wishes he had Oprah's ability to sway viewers.

But the anti-Oprah revolt didn't really start until Oprah announced plans to launch a talk show hosted by former Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy, who has gone from centerfold to anti-vaccination activist. McCarthy has already appeared numerous times on Oprah's TV show to promote her claim that preservatives in the MMR vaccine, which protects children against measles, mumps and rubella, cause autism.

Having already inflicted Dr. Phil McGraw on an unsuspecting public, Oprah now stands ready to give McCarthy a platform to promote her dangerous claims, which have absolutely no scientific backing but, if taken seriously, could leave children vulnerable to potentially deadly but easily preventable illnesses.

Bloggers and a few outspoken scientists have been taking Oprah to task for a while, but the Newsweek article has moved the fight against Oprah's destructive influence into the mainstream. All I can say is, it's about time.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Culture Shock 06.04.09: 'Evil Dead' director Sam Raimi returns to 'Drag Me to Hell'

After seven years of guiding Spider-Man's big-screen adventures, Sam Raimi has returned to the type of filmmaking that made him a hero to legions of film geeks.

"Drag Me to Hell" is a welcome change from the overly serious, poorly lit and increasingly tiresome "torture porn" horror movies that have flooded theaters ever since "Saw" became a surprise hit. Filled with as many laughs as scares, "Drag Me to Hell" sees Raimi going back to the combination of gruesome horror, slapstick comedy and just plain questionable taste that made "The Evil Dead," "Evil Dead 2" and "Army of Darkness" cult favorites.

Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is a bank loan officer with her eye on a vacant assistant manager position. Unfortunately, to get the job, she has to prove to her boss that she can make the hard decisions. Even more unfortunately, the hard decision she makes is to deny an elderly woman a third extension on her overdue mortgage.

Bad move. The elderly woman in question is a grotesque gypsy named Mrs. Ganush, brilliantly played by Lorna Raver. And as we all know from the movies, gypsies are either kindly, wise women who tell you how to kill werewolves or evil, spell-casting crones. Guess which one Mrs. Ganush is.

In this age of record foreclosures, this is one little old lady most of us probably wouldn't mind seeing tossed out of her home of 30 years.

Enraged at having been shamed in public, Mrs. Ganush targets Christine for a grizzly revenge. An evil goat spirit — don't ask — will harass Christine for three days. Then, on the fourth day, it will drag her spirit to hell to be tormented for all eternity.

Hey! That's just like the movie's title!

So, with the help of her sympathetic boyfriend (Justin Long, the Mac guy in the "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" commercials) and a fortune teller (Dileep Rao), Christine tries to undo the curse before it's too late. In the meantime, however, she has to deal with threats that range from embarrassing to life-threatening, as the evil goat spirit — seriously, how often does anyone get to type that? — makes her life miserable. You just know that dinner party at her boyfriend's parents' house isn't going to end well.

If you've seen Raimi's "Evil Dead" movies, you know pretty much what to expect. "Drag Me to Hell" is full of hideous corpses vomiting embalming fluid, invisible monsters slapping people around and, of course, projectile eyeballs. It's not a Sam Raimi horror movie without someone's eyeball getting knocked out of its socket and flying across the room.

Amazingly, Raimi makes all of his old tricks work while staying within the confines of a PG-13 rating. It helps that the violence in his movies, however bloody, has always had more in common with the Three Stooges than with "Saw III."

Two scenes in particular, one in a parking garage and the other in a graveyard, show that Raimi hasn't lost his flair for over-the-top violence that can make you jump out of your seat one moment and leave you holding your sides the next.

Lohman takes it all in stride, whether she is getting thrown across a room, attacked by an animatronic goat, nearly drowned in an open grave or assaulted by a possessed handkerchief — again, don't ask.

If "Drag Me to Hell" has a flaw, it's that the twist ending comes as no surprise. It's obvious from the start of the final act. But given Raimi's irreverent approach to the material, maybe that is intentional. Why bother trying to hide an obvious plot twist? You might as well let everyone in on the joke as soon as possible.

And in case you're wondering, yes, Raimi's 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88, which has appeared in all of his other movies, shows up here, too. In fact, the only thing missing is Bruce Campbell ("Burn Notice"), who stars in Raimi's "Evil Dead" trilogy and has cameos in the "Spider-Man" movies.

But even without Campbell, "Drag Me to Hell" is lots of fun. If any summer movie tops it for pure entertainment value, that will be a surprise.