This is not a parody post

Yesterday’s posting generated the most hits so far of any posting on our blog to date. It was, as most of you discovered, an exploration of how tobacco is reported in the news in the form of a parody. I strove to create something as perfectly camouflaged as possible so as to pass for the real thing but I also made sure to leave many clues indicating that this was in fact a false report. The last thing I wanted to do was to have someone look at it and immediately identify it as false. I wanted to draw you in and then have you laugh when you realized the absurdity within and with that laughter illustrate the idiocy that all too often passes for respectable journalism in this area. (The kind of effect I was going for was either the LOLs which appeared initially (Treece –thanks), the second response from Anon1 which ended up with a thoughtful comment re this issue –thank you. or a combination of the two (Janet –thanks, as well.)

(Now I have to admit that on further musing I realized that doing this on the web was a bit of a sucker punch. After all, this is the home of Wikipedia that often passes as authority even though some of their “facts” are determined by their popularity or by how senior the editor happens to be. People don’t so much read as skim on the web, and like one of our friends did with this, I too, have forwarded some web article with my endorsement before I realized it was not what I thought it was (I have never done the same with any print version of anything). )

A few readers commented that I was in error to mislead with the “I received this in my inbox…” but that was deliberate and served the express purpose of setting up the readers for the longer payoff. Creative writing 101. I was not trying to fool anyone by accident.

No one reading this critically could mistake it for the real thing. Not only is there no United Press Association (and I did my research to make sure of that), no such organization would or could demand the inclusion of specific passages of the sort I mentioned. It is not impossible that some specific anti-tobacco organization might ask all their publications to include similar passages but no news organization no matter how compromised would do so.

While it is true that these phrases repeat in a way and so often that it would seem to indicate some sort of agency at work, like most trends or commonalities, they build up as a result of many independent (even if influenced) actions rather than a result of any controlling agency.

But the biggest clue of all is the ludicrous article attached as an example. Even a bad editor would have rejected the first sentence as ridiculous. And while it might take a 15 second search to find out that those names and the University do not exist, and another rather ordinary article of this type does, the bit about children being scared of tobacco plants is perhaps the most obvious HELLO that this is a send up. I will concede though that the Banzhaf inanity sounds like something he would do.

This was an exercise in bringing some light and fun into the often dry world of tobacco harm reduction. It was meant to be the pastry with the surprising but tasty filling. And for most it seemed to be. But it was also dead serious.

How anyone can interpret this as counter to the aims of THR is unfathomable (and implies that I strayed from some party line). Some have even worried that were this to go viral it would cause harm. I believe the exact opposite is true. One of the main tenets of THR is paying attention to the details and to be critical of the evidence. We like to think that we push our agenda on the basis of responding to the evidence rather than avoiding it as seems to be the case with many of the anti-tobacco groups. THR is all about reading between the lines. And when we research or write about these things, we expect our audience to hold us to the same standards that they would the people they disagree with.

When I read anything by Carl Phillips or Brad Rodu (who I consider colleagues and friends and both of whom have probably forgotten more about THR than I may ever know) I still read with a critical eye (as they do me). Though we agree on many things, at times we disagree as well. I am certainly predisposed toward their interpretations but unlike the opinions expressed in a few comments on the parody, I do not feel that because I know them I should just turn off my filters.

Just to the left of this post you will see our disclaimer. This blog exists in order for us to discuss various aspects regarding tobacco harm reduction but with a kind of freedom and playfulness that is not possible on our website. In academic terms, the website is more like the lecture hall and the blog is the beer seminar. If nothing else, a lot more people than usual got involved here, and part of that discussion involved whether this kind of a posting is at all appropriate or whether I succeeded or failed at what I attempted. And that is good.

Finally, this and the parody post was my creation alone so if you dislike it the blame is mine alone. This blog represents individual opinions and not any group consensus so it is not inconceivable that Carl might disagree with not only my posting but my follow up and may post his own take on this. We’ll see.

Apart from trying to break up the usual straight talk, this was an attempt to apply a few lessons learned from a group that I think does some of the most effective political criticism on the planet; comedians. One good South Park episode or one Louis CK or Bill Hicks can turn on more light bulbs than a hundred academic papers. There is nothing I enjoy more than have my head just about snap off doing that 180 degree turn from acceptance to criticism thanks to the skills of these artists. This was my attempt at the same.

-Paul L. Bergen

19 thoughts on “This is not a parody post

  1. Just a few comments, Paul, if I may, from someone that uses considerable amounts of humor in posts on other blogs. When I first quickly read your post, the preponderance of information fitted the “formula” that has been fed by TC advocates to an unquestioning media for decades. I viewed it as legitimate. It did not require any great stretch for “believability” as far as antismoking is concerned. Ultimately, it wouldn’t have made all too much difference if your post was true in that what the public has been, and will be, fed through the media would be exactly the same.

    “the bit about children being scared of tobacco plants is perhaps the most obvious HELLO that this is a send up”
    Interestingly, I did not find this statement a stretch at all. Children are exposed to antismoking propaganda from an early age and in formal schooling. There are children that believe that their smoking parent(s), regardless of age, are on the verge of death at any moment, that believe that their smoking parent(s) are near-criminals in the view of officialdom, and that believe their smoking parent(s) will possibly kill them (the child) with secondhand smoke at any moment. (See the book Rampant Antismoking Signifies Grave Danger for some insights ) Also, with a bandwagon effect, there are those, including children, that will say and do anything consistent with the bandwagon to advance the agenda and their “superiority”, and for those children with smoking parent(s) possibly “save” the folks from the “terrible” habit.

    “I will concede though that the Banzhaf inanity sounds like something he would do”.
    Indeed, this is an actual person with an actual history that perfectly aligned with your depiction.

    “But it was also dead serious”.
    Paul, I don’t think that you would get anyone more serious about antismoking activity than those that were not too impressed by the “parody”. I would guess that the majority, if not all, are persons that smoke. I would venture to suggest that those that smoke, and that are therefore constantly on the receiving end of antismoking policy, would view the post quite differently to non-smoking “tobacco harm reducers”. Unfounded antismoking policies now include blocks to those that smoke in employment and housing. Smoking is being banned in the outdoors – parks, beaches, streets. Those that smoke are being denied medical treatment. Consider the very recent (last week) school antismoking exercise in the UK that depicts schoolchildren accosting “smokers” in the street, stealing their cigarette out of hand/mouth, and “informing” them of the “health consequences” of smoking. What could the message be of such an exercise other than bigotry, the promotion of the stereotype of smokers as essentially stupid people that need constant badgering by “superior” non-smokers that they might repent of the “filthy” habit and rejoin “normal” society.

    Denormalization is a most ugly phenomenon. It promotes irrational belief, fear, bigotry, and social division. It can even get highly destructive as was seen in the most familiar denormaliztion of the last century – Jews at the hands of the racist Nazis. Yet the antismokers speak of denormalization in glowing and cavalier terms. Check Siegel’s current thread. A poster has provided a selection of antismoking comments in response to an article. The comments, which have long been typical, are virulent, uninformed, and seethe with bigotry. This is the result of smoking/smoker denormalization by officialdom. And it is this constantly fueled fear/bigotry that runs adopted, outrageous antismoking policy (i.e., a bandwagon effect).

    So, Paul, with all due respect, those that smoke that ventured onto your site are very well acquainted with the seriousness of the circumstance and did not need your “parody” to understand so. Not expecting parody, your parody would have just seemed like another piece of antismoking insanity that unfortunately has become all too actual and frequent.

    “There is nothing I enjoy more than have my head just about snap off doing that 180 degree turn from acceptance to criticism thanks to the skills of these artists. This was my attempt at the same.”
    Paul, may I make a suggestion? Good parody will seem very realistic right until the end where it is revealed unambiguously that it is parody. For example, if Banzhaf’s name was seriously and humorously misspelled (but still recognizable), this alone would have been a definite giveaway of parody to all. It would have been well-timed coming at the very end, and everyone would have had a good laugh. Just a thought.

  2. Paul, could I just add to the last point that you may have a wider audience than you might be aware. In future parodies [ 🙂 ], should there be any, consider an unambiguous ending catering to that wider audience. Ensure that no one, from whatever background, can misinterpret the offering.

  3. Thanks for that Anon1,

    I will not continue my defense here except to say that perhaps one of my failings was that I think of visitors to this site as being typically regular, and that I had a sense of writing to those who were already familiar with my diatribes on the very topics you bring up (absurd encroachments on rights, children in tobacco news, various propaganda, John Banzhaf, etc..). You get kind of tired of writing the same way about these issues no matter how worthwhile the struggle is.

    For future constructions, I will be taking your notes to heart and the responses from those people who had a negative reaction to this. But quite honestly, and I have blogged and written here and there about the idiocy of how children are used in this debate, and read hundreds of instances of it, I have never run across anything as exaggerated as what I describe.

  4. “”I wanted to draw you in and then have you laugh when you realized the absurdity within and with that laughter illustrate the idiocy that all too often passes for respectable journalism in this area.“”

    And there you have it – that’s the danger.

    Journalism is JUNK at this moment(been that way for a while), more credence is given to Facebook and Blogs for truth than the NYTimes. Journalist DO their research using Wikipedia nowadays, haven’t you seen the memo – have you read a newspaper lately? It’s everywhere.

    You may think you exist in this little cocoon universe on this blog where honing your parody craft can be personally fulfilling, but it can be accessed by anyone and lifted by anyone. A ‘lesson in parody’ to your readers will not be seen as a lesson in parody to some nubile journalist in the near or distant future scratching their head trying to write their first tobacco hit piece. They are going to do some googling – god forbid they bump into your ‘SCOOP’ on how to write tobacco articles. Some 21 year old college grad isn’t going to google UPA -and their parents probably didn’t even know each other when UPI was a big outfit.

    When Jay Leno does his skit “Fake or Real” it’s amusing, your attempt at ‘fake or real’ could be real damaging down the road. I’ve seen articles written in your cadence already as you know you have, you used it to parrot them.

    I know people in the newspaper biz, I could drop this ‘parody’ into their laps and it would hit every blackberry of every AP reporter out there…ask yourself a question – would they all recognize it as a parody or use it as a template?

    There are not enough ‘tells’ in this fiction to tip off a satire is afoot. At least change the darn title…..
    (Also known as Colonist)

  5. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Well said Glister On.

    I just did a simple google search using “tobacco reporting” About 9,230,000 results and my first page shows this

    SCOOP! Leaked UPA Guidelines for Tobacco Reporting « Tobacco Harm …
    – 27 Aug
    26 Aug 2010 … Follow these basic guidelines and you will find tobacco reporting easy and quite remunerative. With every state and municipality wanting to ……/scoop-leaked-upa-guidelines-for-tobacco-reporting/ – Cached

  6. OMG Ann, I just checked myself – very first hit on google…

    Great Job there fella’….
    In the words of the great blue collar comedian Bill Engvall…
    ‘Here’s your sign – Paul’

    Change the damn title – pretty please with sugar on top – aargh

  7. I am open (only partially, not quite to the point of the complimentary “generous spirit”) to criticism re this exercise which though humorous in intent was as I said “dead serious” as well and not simply playing around. Kind of the opposite of the Blair piece which gives itself away within the first sentence which effectively reduces its audience to those who already share the same position.

    What I would like to hear more from other readers is how journalists mistaking this for the real thing could do anything but damage their credibility and undermine bad tobacco news reporting. The weakness in tobacco reporting is the recurrence of this pattern, and anyone who keeps following it, increases that vulnerability. So the more real this is taken by journalists the more it exposes that vulnerability. (If that starting out journalist were to be embarrassed by this it could lead to a little more wariness in the future when reading press releases from authoritative sources pushing their politics over health. Even, as I have written about in the past, some NYT reporters uncritically accepted the third hand smoke nonsense. As comments show (esp when it comes to ecigs) the people get it when the journalists don’t and every time they just repeat the same old same old, more citizens are giving them grief.

    And though I am still mulling about whether to change the title (since the point has now been made) the comments and the follow up have effectively “outed” this parody.

    I think for this to end up on those blackberries would be a good thing.I think there are some very good reporters out there and they would figure it out in a flash.

    I know for some I will remain in the doghouse (part of me thinks the suggested alternative is the leash??)

  8. ”The weakness in tobacco reporting is the recurrence of this pattern, and anyone who keeps following it, increases that vulnerability.”

    In the real world, it’s more like the smokers’ vulnerability that increases. People don’t necessarily buy it, but people gladly borrow it to harass, insult and demonize anyone who rapes their virgin nostrils and virgin eyes with the smell or site of tobacco smoke or anything that may ressemble it such as e-cigarettes.

    I disagree however that leaving this on the net would hurt our cause. As long as it stays up with all the comments but perhaps remove all other tags but parody, fun and Banzass, it serves its purpose of laughing at the anti-tobacco hysterical cartel and putting biased and lazy journalists in front of the mirror.

  9. Paul, I had a similar problem about 12 years ago when I wrote a piece about an organization called: S.A.F.E. 4 Our Kids.

    SAFE stood for “Substance Abuse Free Environments” and I decorated the web page with two or three cute little innocent generic tyke photos from the web. I started off with some over-the-top but conceivable shots at tobacco and smoking and then dove into “the somewhat touchier subjects of alcohol and caffeine.”

    Basically I urged a “War On Alcohol” quite similar to the “War On Smokers” with the background idea that folks reading it might really get a wake up call about what was happening with smoking and what it would be like if the same beahvior mod stuff was applied to alcohol. A lot of this middle material sounded VERY serious although I tried to keep to a general tone of sounding a bit like a very serious ranting nutcase. I used images like children in a restaurant wandering from their parents’ table and starting a life of addiction by grabbing a sip from someone’s rum and coke placed on a table edge: “After all, innocent young lips won’t know the difference.”

    Then, just to make sure that folks had a real shot at seeing it as a satire I moved into caffeine as a gateway drug that the pushers inserted into so-called “soft” drinks and even into candy-flavored candies like chocolate!!!

    Finally I ended it with a call for all concerned citizens to join our “young but steadily growing organization” and gave an email contact “Safer4OurKids” to see if anyone would send me comments. I expected maybe 9+ out of 10 to see the satire.

    It turned out to be split evenly in three. One third realized it was satire. One third thought it was serious and attacked me as a control freak. And most amazingly, one-third wanted to join the darn group!

    Yep, ya gotta be careful doing satire, ESPECIALLY in this area! “Secondhand Smoke Threatens Millions In Public Housing!” Actual headline from this past summer courtesy of Wacky Winnickoff. “Half of all youth smoking caused by movies” courtesy of Glantz just a few weeks ago. And I’m not even TOUCHING thirdhand smoke, despite the fact that I believe there have now been FIVE serious scientific studies published on it! (My personal favorite was where they used a giant vibrator to get the smoke excited! And no, it wasn’t a parody.)

    Michael J. McFadden
    Author of “Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains” <= Parody: no real brains were harmed in the process.

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