Tuesday, May 03, 2005

THE "M" WORD. The Chicago Sun-Times has posted an extraordinary exchange of e-mails between film critic Roger Ebert and actor Daniel Woodburn. Woodburn, who is a dwarf, wrote to Ebert to object to the critic's use of the term midget, which is about as popular within the dwarf community as the N-word is among African-Americans.

What's fascinating about this is not just watching Ebert as he (metaphorically) listens and learns, but also seeing how technology can be used to expand everyone's understanding. Fifteen years ago, Woodburn and Ebert might have exchanged letters privately, and that would have been that. By publishing the e-mails on its website, the Sun-Times has offered an example of how the Internet can make the media transparent in a way that just wasn't possible before.

Ebert also quotes from an essay by Len Sawisch that attributes the coining of the M-word to P.T. Barnum in the mid-1800s. Sawisch was a valuable source for my book on dwarfism, Little People. But as best as I was able to tell in conducting my research, he's wrong about Barnum. In fact Barnum, in his autobiography, referred to his most famous employee, Charles "Tom Thumb" Stratton, as a dwarf, not a midget, even though the M-word describes Stratton perfectly: a short-statured person with proportionate limbs who was put on public display.

As best as I could tell, the first person to use midget to describe an unusually short person may have been Barnum's Connecticut neighbor, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Barnum started using the word toward the end of his career, but by then Stratton had retired. Stratton died in 1883, eight years before Barnum.

LYDON ONLINE. Christopher Lydon's new radio program, Open Source, won't debut until May 30. But he and his chief collaborator, Mary McGrath, and others involved in the effort are already blogging like crazy here. I haven't had time to read all of it, but there are some MP3s of an interview Lydon did with Camille Paglia, as well as some MP3s explaining what Open Source will be all about.

Lydon and McGrath are promising something revolutionary in terms of tying together radio and the Internet. I'm skeptical but intrigued. Frankly, if it just turns out to be a good radio show with a website (and a podcast!), that's enough.


Anonymous said...

Ok, little people don't like being called midgets. That's cool. But "the M-word"? Please.

Anonymous said...

What's your point? Please elaborate.

Tony said...

Here is another version of an open exchange between a watchdog group and "broadcaster":

Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting
Media analysis, critiques and activism


Scarborough Responds to FAIR

May 2, 2005

On April 29, FAIR issued an action alert pointing out that G. Gordon Liddy, who appeared on a Scarborough Country segment on violent talk radio rhetoric (MSNBC, 4/27/05), had on his own radio show advocated shooting federal agents. FAIR received this response from the show's host, Joe Scarborough:

Just saw your site's write up on my show with G. Gordon Liddy.

I admit that I am shocked that I did not have personal knowledge of Liddy's statement. I remembered Bill Clinton blaming Liddy for Oklahoma City but obviously did not know the back story. As one who has stayed on top of pop culture and media since my teenage years, I am embarrassed I did not recall that shocking statement.

Secondly, I am surprised our team did not have this information at hand when we did the segment. It was an embarrassing oversight and one that I will mention on an upcoming show.

Ironically, the point of the segment was to focus on how inflammatory talk radio has become and what is required to get good ratings. Having the Liddy comments on air was a great opportunity that we lost.

Thanks for your work to hold reporters and journalists accountable. Such a service is invaluable for those of us who want to be fair.

All the best,

Joe Scarborough

FAIR thanks Scarborough for his refreshing openness to criticism. Thanks as well to all the activists who wrote in response to our alert.

Anonymous said...

Anon. 4:43
I suspect what he was saying was that we all bring our individual baggage to issues. Like all people, DK is sensitive to issues that affect him directly, (presume you know the background). He's a good guy and I presume the person who commented is as well. We just have to understand that reasonable people can disagree reasonably. I'm WAY to the right of DK but I can see myself agreeing with them both. Gratuitous disrespect is never OK.

Anonymous said...

Who the hell is...
Joe Scarborough?

Without a doubt, the circle jerk of cable babble and blogosphere keystrokes expands with rapidity.

It seems everybody desires to prove Warhol correct.

Anonymous said...

When I attended a little symposium by Lydon a month or two back, the impression I got was that he wants the typical "Open Source" show to actually be a two-week (or so) process with the radio show itself about halfway through or a little later than that. There would be an idea or a newsworthy item, they'd blog about it. There would be response to the blog. Maybe there'd be some minor podcasts prior to the show about it, partially interactive but more "voicemail" like I suspect.

Then the show itself would occur, and would draw as much from the live callers as from the "voicemail" podcasts and pre-show blogs.

Then there'd be a few days (or more) of additional discussion on the message boards.

I think the biggest hurdle to overcome is that the nature of blogging is extremely fluid and allows for really bad ideas to happen as well as really good ones. Live radio is fluid, yes, but there's actually a very rigid structure behind it to keep the boring stuff to a minimum. Get to the point and shut up. Put it on a bumper sticker, as Chris is fond of saying.

Those two concepts are diametrically opposed, mostly because of time constraints. If Open Source were a three hour show, you could afford to have a lot of mediocre conversation if it meant really good stuff in there, too. But with only an hour (less time for breaks and newscasts) it's gotta be tight-tight-tight. I fear that just when the discussion is getting good, the show ended 10 minutes ago. If they can carry on the dynamic of the live radio show before and after the actual show, it might just work.

Certainly it's an ambitious undertaking, and if they pull it off it'll be an amazing evolution in public radio.

Although, like DK, I'd be happy with just a new version of The Connection with Chris at the helm. :-)

- Aaron

Anonymous said...

Last evening House made an ethnic joke directed to a female Jewish applicant. If it had happend for real the EEOC would be breaking that cane over his head.

Ken D. said...

If the people most affected want the word "midget" declared verboten, they will likely prevail. I for one won't fight it. But as a user and student of American English for many decades, I firmly believe that the word had no pejorative connotation whatever for most people, until little people unilaterally declared themselves pejorated. I find this an puzzling and unsatisfying process.

Dan Kennedy said...

Ken D. -

Surely you recognize that the meaning of words can evolve and change over time. It's true that midget was not considered a pejorative 40 years ago. But the meaning of the word has always been inextricably tied up with the notion of a very short person who is put on public display. That, I think, is the key to understanding why the word gradually came to be seen as an insult.

Midget is also a made-up word that dates only back to the 1860s, whereas dwarf has a centuries-old etymology.

I discuss this at some length in my book, Little People. Ken, you could buy it - or buy a whole box of them as gifts! ;-)

Ken D. said...

I will check out your book. But the vast majority even of educated people did not, in my opinion, know of or intend any "on display" or other pejorative connotation in the last couple of generations.

Anonymous said...

and they say the BBC is politically correct!