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March 25, 2009

Signs of Good Health and Why We Should Report Them

Variety has an intriguing story about the Motion Picture Association of America's curious response to its box-office fortune: the desire to sweep it under the rug. The association's annual report recapping the previous year is due right about now, its release timed to coincide with the lead-up to the industry's ShoWest convention, which begins Monday. Pamela McClintock writes:

So far, the 2008 report is missing in action despite the fact that it was a record-breaking year at both the domestic and international box office.

Turns out that's the problem --insiders say MPAA topper Dan Glickman doesn't want to publicly tout the health of the box office during the economic crisis. Nor does he want to give Washington politicos ammunition.

That is, he doesn't want to talk up the good news because the MPAA is still hoping for tax breaks from the federal government. So this year, instead of holding the usual conference call with journalists to review the report before ShoWest, the MPAA will quietly place the document online next week.

All of which raises an interesting issue: Who else is doing well, and are they keeping their heads down, too? It's bad out there, but life is going on, and the pain isn't universal. We look at our own industry and see the sky falling, but it isn't falling everywhere -- not even in journalism -- and the news shouldn't suggest that it is.

This isn't just about telling people things that don't make them want to hide under the bed until the economy recovers, though that's a consideration, too. As James Rainey writes today in the Los Angeles Times, "Let's start with one of the most basic tenets of journalism -- that 'news' is what we don't expect. We pull out our notepads for the unexpected: Man bites dog. Plane cartwheels off runway. Jon Stewart goes Mike Wallace on interview subject."

Right now, what we don't expect is that anyone is doing well. And that can mean individuals or institutions taking advantage of that assumption -- to get funding they don't need or deserve, for example, or to blame their woes on the economic crisis when the economic crisis is not at fault. 

Journalists have been too quick lately to accept the economy as a one-size-fits-all explanation for changes in programming, personnel, budgets, fund-raising, and myriad other areas. But we've also been too eager to believe that everyone is suffering, even if the extent of their suffering is a "What if?" internal monologue of anxiety, which we then ask them to verbalize on the record, ensuring that the panic spreads still further.

Those who are doing well might be worried, perhaps for good reason, but they also might have some pointers for the rest of us: "a few lessons about surviving hard times," as Rainey puts it.

We need to look deeper. When so many aren't doing well, the largely untold story is about who is thriving -- and why.
March 25, 2009 7:47 AM | | Comments (0)

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