Obama on Univisión: Lost in Translation

Obama UnivisionSo what did President Obama say to Univisión? It was hard to tell.

As I began to watch the interview he gave to Jorge Ramos, I found myself moving closer and closer to the TV, as if I were deciphering a strange language. The premier Spanish network had made the awful choice of dubbing instead of subtitling the interview.

It took me back to my childhood, watching Hollywood films on Chilean TV on endless school afternoons—suffering because cowboys, pirates, lawyers and superheroes shared the same toothpaste-commercial voices. Later on, my brother and I turned this nonsense into a game: who could name more films or series in which this same overdubbing artist had taken over a famous actor.

But the miseries of being born on the wrong side of English stop being funny when you are trying to understand what the President is saying on relevant matters, and another voice paired with a lousy sound mix make it impossible. (The internet version sounds much better.)

Yet, the problem is not only that sound mixing may be tricky and the dubbing artist may remind you of the Latin American translation of Homer Simpson (which it did). Univisión’s choice was regrettable because what makes dubbing movies simply wrong (beautifully explained by Dolores Prida in the Daily News) applies to politics, too: much of what is being said resides in accents, pauses and inflections.

So yesterday I didn’t really watch President Obama talk to the millions of Hispanics who regularly tune into Univisión—a historic occasion, indeed.

It was something else. And I hated it.

And this is not to say that the interview wasn’t good. Jorge Ramos is a solid interviewer and displayed his skills by asking Obama three times if he had the votes to approve health care reform, pressing him to clarify his stance on health benefits for illegal immigrants; reminding him of the economic cost of forcing immigrants to use emergency rooms; questioning his switch from talking about “undocumented immigrants” to “illegal immigrants;” and reminding him of his promise of immigration reform during his first year in government.

Particularly on the last two topics, Ramos dealt significant blows to Obama: his change of words to refer to illegal immigrants is a sensitive topic among many Hispanics, and his answer (that he was merely replying to the attacks from the right in their own terms) was not convincing; on the latter, it is by now obvious that his promise of immigration reform in 2009 will not be fulfilled.

In other words, Ramos made the President tumble in the eyes of Hispanics.

But it was all lost in translation, and by that point, most of Univisión’s audience (who can most likely read subtitles and understand English at the same time) may have switched to another outlet—one in which they could hear their President with their own ears.

Borat vs. Murat

BoratThere is a scene in the movie “Borat” when the hapless crew is running out of money. His producer tells them they will need to get more money from Kazakhstan. Now this was a scene that I found unintentionally hilarious. I found it hilarious because there should only be such a thing as a government willing to pay a journalist to make a documentary on America.

I work with real-life documentarians who visit the United States, but they come here at the expense of the American taxpayer through the U.S. Department of State. Only journalists from such wealthy countries as Japan usually make it here otherwise. However, as with so many government programs these days, the program has struggled with shrinking budgets and rising costs. At the same time, foreign journalists seem more eager than ever to come to America to film stories that can help their countries find solutions to their problems as well as to help their audiences learn more about America. That brings me to Murat Umarov.

Murat is a television journalist from the Central Asian country of Tajikistan. He is in America and works now for a small poorly funded private press agency called “Asia Plus.” He has also worked for the Tajik state TV channel, “Khovar“. Murat has spoken to me with great eagerness about how he wants to travel around America and film stories about it for his predominantly Muslim country of seven million people. Indeed, Tajikistan is growing in importance to the United States; per the U.S. State Deparment: “The two countries now have a broad-based relationship, cooperating in such areas as counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, non-proliferation, and regional growth and stability.” This summer, the State Department reaffirmed its commitment to providing aid to Tajikstan. It makes sense for the two countries to understand each other.

Murat could not be more unlike Borat. He is an urbane and formal man who lived in Turkey and enjoys learning languages. He is already learning English very quickly. We met one evening in a bar with many beer taps and I watched as he put his reading glasses on and examined the heads of the beer taps to admire the artwork. Murat is like many foreign journalists I meet in terms of what he wants to see in America — New York, American Indians, etc. I’ve tried telling him that he really needs to move beyond such clichés. I tell him about places in America like Vermont, Austin, New Mexico, Philadelphia, and others that he knows little about. He is a little overwhelmed by how much there is to know, but he is eager to know it all.

While I have this discussion with Murat I can’t help but grow a little depressed. Murat expects to finance his travels across America with grant money. I know all too well how difficult it is to find funds for such a venture. The simple truth is there is no foundation that funds documentaries to help people overseas better understand and appreciate America. There are numerous funding sources for American producers who want to film a project about a foreign society for an American audience, but not the other way around. I know because I have been down this road many times. The same week I spoke with Murat I received a call from a Russian documentary film maker and bicycle adventurer who is eager to cycle in Alaska and on the west coast and film it for a Russian audience. He’s still looking for financial help. I tried getting funding for Murat through the State Department, but there was none available and nobody that I spoke with had any idea as to where he could get any.

Sasha Baron Cohen had a budget of $18,000,000 to spoof a Central Asian journalist’s travails in America and grossed $130,000,000. When I produce a 22 minute long program for the State Department I am lucky if I can get $30,000 and it will gross nothing. The results, however, are a priceless opportunity to show people sides of American life that get lost in the pop culture version of America that people overseas are exposed to. It’s time for those who care about America, especially those who produce documentaries, to turn their talents to making it possible for private sector initiatives to educate and inform overseas audiences about who we really are as a people. We speak a great deal in this country about the need for people to not always rely on our government. We should not be relying on the American government to do the job of telling our country’s story.

Mitchell Polman has worked as a producer on State Department sponsored media projects. He frequently writes about public diplomacy issues. Mitchell has studied international affairs and specialized in Russian and East European relations. Additional articles by Mitchell may be found here.

Wait, Aren’t The Emmys Supposed To Be For TV Shows?

Dr-Horrible-from-LATimesThe “Horrible Emmys” puns will be beaten to death before the night is through, but even before the broadcast begins tonight on CBS it’s a pretty good bet what the high point of this weekend’s obligatory awards show will be.  Yesterday, Entertainment Weekly’s Michael Ausiello breathlessly reported on EW.com that “Sources confirm to me exclusively that host Neil Patrick Harris will headline a Dr. Horrible-themed production number about midway through Sunday’s ceremony.”

Well, duh.  Dr. Horrible’s eponymous NPH is hosting the show.  Plus, his singing was pretty much the most bearable part of this year’s Tony Awards (which he also hosted). But wait, there’s more! The internet sensation won a Creative Arts Emmy in the Outstanding Special Class – Short-Form Live-Action Entertainment Programs category (a category that seems purpose built for its winner).  And NPH’s internet alter ego has been tweeting threats and promises (”I’ve got it! I’ll use my interceptorizor to highjack the Emmy broadcast!”) about tonight’s performance for the last 24 hours.

So the Doctor Horrible number tonight promises to be big.  But what is probably bigger is what this foreshadows.  During a TV broadcast the primary purpose of which is to laud and promote other TV broadcasts, a huge TV audience (a large portion of which is likely to be wondering what Doogie Howser is doing on stage) is going to meet the good (ok, bad, but I’m rooting for him) Doctor for the first time.

But here’s the thing: Dr. Horrible is all about the death of TV as a medium.  An indie labor-of-love project created as a side project during the writer’s strike, launched on the web, it became a critical and financial success — entirely outside the traditional network distribution model.

In its initial limited run online, Dr. Horrible was steamed over 2 million times in just five days (and that number would be higher have had more had demand not crashed the servers); today, its Amazon sales rank is #66 for Bestsellers, Movies & TV; with top ten rankings across all its sub-categories.   And a sequel (maybe even a feature?) is in the works.

But as huge as Dr. Horrible is (at least in certain circles), the real story here is that it has reached the critical mass that has made it the likely centerpiece of tonight’s Primetime Emmys perfomance without ever before being televised in any way.

Said Joss Whedon in his Emmy acceptance speech: “This is our small proof not only that things can be done differently in this business, but that the greatest expression of rebellion is joy.”

Makes you wonder how hard the audience of TV execs, stars, producers, writers and the like will really be clapping.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog:

Joss Whedon Emmy Acceptance Speech for Dr. Horrible:

Ash Kalb is the general counsel of a New York-based telecommunications and technology company and an instrument-rated pilot. He will be writing a weekly column on geek culture for Mediaite.

ACORN CEO Claims ‘Pimp’ Videographer Was Turned Away at Dozens of Offices

berthalewisOn C-Span’s Washington Journal this morning, ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis fielded a call from a viewer asking about the furor surrounding undercover videographer James Okeefe’s recent productions. While she reiterated that the actions of the fired ACORN employees were inexcusable, she went on to say that O’Keefe and his partner were thrown out of “dozens” of ACORN offices:

ACORN has maintained all along that O’Keefe has “doctored” the interviews, including one that contains a mock murder confession, and that the actions of the fired employees don’t represent the actions of 99% of their employees.

I contacted ACORN, O’Keefe, and Andrew Breitbart to try and get some more specific information about Lewis’ claim. Breitbart and O’Keefe are already on record saying that they weren’t turned away at any ACORN offices, a claim refuted by this police report.

Breitbart called me back, and we spoke for about 40 minutes. I asked him if James O’Keefe had been turned away at any ACORN offices, and if so, how many?

For the bulk of our call, he refused to answer the question, other than to say that Bertha Lewis is a liar. Finally, I got him to narrow the number of offices that turned James O’Keefe away to 23 or less by asking if he could confirm that her claim of multiple dozens of ACORN offices was false. “Laughably false,” he said, adding that she has “lied every step of the way.”

Why wouldn’t he specify whether, or how many, Acorn offices turned him away? “We’re not playing the mainstream media’s game here. They’ve already shown their true colors, that the goal was to try to destroy Hannah and James, and to take Bertha Lewis’ false statements at face value… Why is everybody playing the Howard Kurtz Sunday Reliable Sources game here, when the proof is in the effin’ pudding? The videos are the story, Hannah and James’ crediility isn’t at issue here, because they told you the truth every step of the way.”

Well, not exactly. The police complaint in Philadelphia appears to substantiate at least one ACORN office that turned O’Keefe away, and while not a lie, O’Keefe’s and Breitbart’s failure to check on Theresa Kaelke’s story certainly does have an impact on their credibility.

I haven’t seen evidence that the media has taken ACORN’s statements “at face value,” and it seems a curious bit of logic to refuse to refute a statement that he doesn’t want taken at face value.

While no-one disputes that the behavior in the videos is unacceptable, at issue here is the conclusion being drawn by the right that these actions are indicative of systemic corruption at ACORN. If O’Keefe went 5 for 6 at ACORN offices, that would at least support ACORN’s need to rethink it’s hiring and lower management. If, on the other hand, O’Keefe found 4 dupes out of 100 visits, this would support Bertha Lewis’ contention that these are the actions of outliers.

Unfortunately, ACORN wasn’t much more helpful than Breitbart. After several hours of follow-up, their spokesman dumped this email on me minutes before closing time:

From: Tommy Christopher:Bertha Lewis was on C-Span this morning and said that James O’Keefe was turned away from dozens of ACORN offices. Do you have a more exact estimate/any sort of documentation of this? Internal logs/reports?

From: Scott Levenson

I have attached the police report from Mr. O’Keefe’s visit to the Philadelphia ACORN office. This is one of the several offices that he was turned away from. Also, Mr. O’Keefe has said on many occasions that he spent a total of $1,300 on this project but has failed to produce or post any of the receipts confirming this number and we would like to contact his travel agent.

So, they narrowed it down from “dozens” to “several.”

Without access to all of the facts, it is difficult to measure the impact or the meaning of this story, which seems to suit both sides just fine.

Happy Rosh Obama!

Rosh Obama“L’shana tova, tikatevu!” That’s not your bubbe talking, that’s your President, wishing you a very happy Jew year. Today Barack Obama released a YouTube greeting for Rosh Hashanah, wishing his Jewish pals a Happy New Year and calling us “a light unto the nations.” Aw.

But what’s this, Bubbeleh? You’re looking so tired! Are you getting enough sleep? Are you eating enough? Here, put on a sweater. No disrespect to Michelle, but this Rosh Hashanah, it looks like Obama could use the ministrations of a Jewish mother – according to Twitteleh, that is.

Yes, I did just make that segue. Seamless, wasnt’ it? Twitteleh is the new hot viral video that ten zillion of my Jewish friends sent me yesterday, about the latest social networking craze: Twitteleh, Twitter for Jewish Mothers. It is “social” in that your Jewish mother will read it, and think what you write is brilliant, oy such a doctor you could have been and made your mother so proud. Blogger? What kind of job is that for someone who went to law school?

twitteleh iiEr, never mind. The point is, Twitteleh breaks 140 characters down to even simpler component parts: Where are you?, What have you eaten? and Are you wearing a sweater? Also, it’s a joke. But a damn good one (”Actually calling your Jewish mother takes hours, and drains you of energy. With Twitteleh, you can update your Jewish mother in an instant. Use all of your extra time for kvetching, kibbutzing, and schtupping.” A sweet New Year, indeed!)

So: Whose Rosh Hashanah message has been better received? One video is currently at 21,460 views, the other 14,546 views. Which is which? Well, one of them features a boychik who went to law school (so much nachas!) and the other features a delicious bagel. It’s a little meshuggeneh, but yes — Twitteleh is in the lead. Take from that what you will.

Here are the two videos for you to enjoy. Shanah Tovah!

Do You 10Q? Times Square Does, Too!

Do You 10Q

Happy New Year! Today is Erev Rosh Hashanah, which is the Jewish New Year. If you live in New York you probably know this because your co-workers have started leaving early — there is a lot of food to be eaten. But it also means a time for reflection for the New Year — and that’s where 10Q comes in.

10Q stands for 10 Questions — one for every day of the Jewish High Holidays beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur, which involves a lot of eating followed by a lot of not eating, followed by more eating. Frank Bruni isn’t the only one with food issues. This is where the Jew jokes end, because 10Q is a non-denominational initiative for anyone — anyone who wants to sign up online, or anyone who happens to be passing through Times Square.

Starting today and running for the next ten days, the Times Square Jumbotron will feature a question meant to provoke thought, introspection and forward-looking, big-picture thinking. High above the thronging crowds and people selling “I Love New York” baby onesies for $10 will be questions like “Is there something you wish you had done differently this past year?” and “Is there a part of yourself that you want to work on in 2010?” It’ll be like that “Everybody Hurts” video, but way less depressing. Unless you really screwed up last year. In which case, well, you can’t do any worse!

Online, participants respond personally to each of the questions at www.DoYou10Q.com, and at the end of the ten-day question period the answers are sent to a secure, confidential online vault for safekeeping. One year later, participants will receive their answers via email and can be reminded of all those resolutions that they completely forgot about. Organize my closet? Really? Oops.

What’s cool about this (and — disclaimer — I am peripherally involved) is how unusual a use of Times Square billboard space this is — rarely is such valuable advertising real estate commandeered for open-ended questions geared not for profit or consumption but introspection and self-actualization. It’s a far cry from the usual use of that space — and a far cry from the pace of Times Square, which is as frenetic as the average New Yorker’s life (or as frenetic as the average media person refreshing Twitter, Facebook, Drudge, HuffPo, the NYT, Romenesko, and of course, Mediaite).

10Q was founded by New Yorker writer and Please Step Back author Ben Greenman and filmmaker Nicola Behrman through Reboot, a cultural/philanthropic network of young(ish) Jewish professionals exploring contemporary Jewish identity (I say young-ish because I’m involved with Reboot, and am assisting Ben and Nicola with this project, mostly to avoid thinking about what I wish I had done differently this past year. What Jewish media conspiracy?). Here’s how Ben explains it:

“For thousands of years, the Jewish High Holy Days, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, have been a time of introspection and reflection,” says 10Q co-creator Ben Greenman. “But why should the people observing those holidays have all the fun? The 10Q project is designed to be a modern take on this tradition, and the Times Square billboard provides an opportunity to slow down and take stock at one of the world’s busiest intersections.”

Upshot: Just as Jews have for years enjoyed fruitcake, days off and Miracle on 34th Street, so too can non-Jews enjoy 10Q along with Woody Allen, Neil Diamond, and all those Jews who wrote Christmas songs (”White Christmas,” anyone? Hi, Irving Berlin!)

p.s. I love that this post will now forever show up in Google searches for “Jewish Media Conspiracy.” L’Shana Tova!

Can Someone Please Introduce Clive Thompson To Frank Bruni?

carneyClive Thompson makes a rather strange critique of the idea of “social contagion” in a long article published in The New York Times Magazine last Sunday.  Is Happiness Catching?” is a look at the the work of Nicholas Christaki and James Fowler on social networks within the venerable Framingham Heart Study that has been running since 1948. They find (as Steve Sailer aptly sums up) that “happy people tend to have a lot of happy friends, unhappy people tend to have few and not very happy friends, fat people tend to have fat friends and get fat together at about the same time, smokers tend to hang out with other smokers, and so forth.”

Thompson is perplexed by the mechanism for social contagion. But the root of his perplexity seems to be an ignorance of the way people live.

Here’s the crux of his challenge:

“But how, exactly, could obesity or happiness spread through so many links? Between one immediate peer and another, some contagious behaviors — like smoking — seem pretty commonsensical. If lots of people around you are smoking, there’s going to be peer pressure for you to start, whereas if nobody’s smoking, you’ll be more likely to stop. But the simple peer-pressure explanation doesn’t work as well with happiness or obesity: we don’t often urge people around us to eat more or implore them to be happier.”

If Thompson really believes we don’t urge others to eat, he should go down the hall and chat with Frank Bruni, who has just written Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater,  that is partly about the social contagion of eating. Or, I guess, Thompson could just pick up the New York Times Book Review to get the quick version:

Bruni’s self-consciousness about his weight — and his fixation on food — began early, during a childhood in New York’s Westchester County. “I was a baby bulimic.” His mother’s WASP reserve crumbled “in the face of Grandma Bruni’s spicy, fatty, Italian sausages.” Cooking became the center of his mother’s life; “she cooked with a ferocity.” Bruni describes himself as a lazy boy who loved to read and avoided physical activity. His mother worried about his weight, but any diet she imposed was stymied not only by her need to feed everyone, but by Grandma.

The problem was simple: food was love. “You love Grandma’s frits? … Then you love your Grandma!” The chapter about Adelina Bruni, who came to New York as a 17-year-old in 1929, is pitch perfect; he captures the ethos expressed around countless dinner tables of a generation of Italian-American immigrants before World War II. Grandma Bruni is a force of nature, and you can’t help falling under her spell. She provides the title for the book with her favorite maxim: Born round, you don’t die square.

Part of the problem is that Thompson seems to expect social contagion to work along the lines of rational argument, as if we’d be persuaded to eat or be happy. But that’s the kind of theory of human behavior held by hermits and mad men. In reality, we tend to mimic peers and parents, pick up their signals, learn from them without explicit instruction.

If all this is foreign to you, you might want to reconsider whether you are the best person to judge sociological theories.

John Carney is Managing Editor of Clusterstock. This piece was originally published at Rise If You Must, his personal website.