In this issue of Banter M:
The Rise and Fall of Al Jazeera – Chez Pazienza reports on the Arab news network’s noble but ultimately ill conceived and executed attempt to bring straight reporting and in-depth journalism to America.
The Necessity of Meditation – Ben Cohen explains why meditation is not just a tool for personal growth and serenity, but a vital tool to bring back our anxiety ridden culture from the brink of ecological catastrophe.
Foodie For Thought – Tommy Christopher decries “Foodie” culture, but admits his hatred of them is every bit as elitist as their own contempt for non-Foodies. Oh, and he’s got some ace tips on how to make food the right way.
The "Rise and Fall of AL Jazeera
by Chez Pazienza
Al-Jazeera America was never going to be successful. Let’s make that clear right off the bat. An American wing of the controversial Qatari government-owned news network, while ambitious, was always going to fight an uphill battle against prejudice, the particular tastes of the U.S. market, and a cable landscape cluttered with news and information. “AJAM” came in like a lion, promising with the backing of Qatar’s vast wealth to bring something to our mix that had been sorely lacking: straight news and truly in-depth reporting on a variety of subjects often neglected by the other networks, devoid of any sort of partisan spin. That was the plan and it sounded great on paper. In practice, though, Al-Jazeera completely underestimated its own ability to cut through the American cable news noise in the same way it underestimated American cable news viewers. The audience, as it turns out, wasn’t anywhere near as discriminating as was necessary to keep AJAM on the air and it could never get past Al-Jazeera’s reputation as a news outlet that had at its core a strong anti-U.S. bias. And so, well, now we’re here.
It’s worth remembering that Al-Jazeera America didn’t exactly make any friends in how it burst onto the scene in January of 2013. In order to secure space in the U.S. cable market, it bought out Al Gore’s small but fiercely independent Current TV network for the tidy sum of around $500-million. At the time it was an ugly scene, as Gore suddenly seemed to sell-out his ideals to the government of a regressive foreign power for a massive payday. Almost all of Current’s staff were pushed out, with many having to interview for the kinds of jobs they’d been holding down for years, and all of Current’s programming vanished to make way for AJAM’s new vision of the channel. But that channel, as it turns out, wasn’t even really all that secure given that Time WarnerCable immediately made it clear that it would block AJAM by eliminating the place Current TV had held in its lineup. Many saw this as TWC being anti-Islamic and it probably was, but TWC tried to argue that it was simply a matter of finances since nobody would be watching AJAM. They would eventually be proven right, of course, but it looked bad at the time.
I have friends who worked for Current during the hand-off and they’re not shy about sharing their horrible experiences in dealing with Al-Jazeera. Jacki Schechner, who I worked closely with during our stint together at CNN, posted a lengthy reaction to AJAM’s demise yesterday on her public Facebook page. She tells the story of how many of Current’s employees were laid off with no warning and no severance — this from a company funded by Qatar’s near-limitless wealth, a company that said at the outset that money would be no object in how it handled every facet of the takeover of Current and the creation and management of AJAM. Jacki explains how “executives weren’t interested in hearing about how Americans like to get their news. They didn’t want to consider adjusting their logo or branding simply to help them ease into the U.S. market. They didn’t want to tap into advice from people who had been in the business for decades and seen the way U.S. news had been evolving. They thought they knew better and were more than happyto tell us that over and over again.” That’s exactly the kind of arrogance that leads to failure — and of course it did.
From an outsider’s perspective, it was obvious that while Al-Jazeera America was undertaking a noble endeavor, at least as it was proposed, from the very start the network seemed to have no idea what to give American audiences to generate interest. Certainly, AJAM set out to be different from all those other cable networks and Lord knows we could use something like that, but it could’ve embraced people and programming that brought a kind of excitement to its product without letting that to degenerate into flashy nonsense. Out of the gate, AJAM cherry picked on-air people and managers who wouldn’t generate excitement or interest if you hooked them up to a car battery. As time went by — well, as much time as two years on the air would afford — they did bring in some really talented people behind the scenes and within their correspondent ranks and I genuinely feel terrible for friends of mine, talented people, who will soon be out of a job. But those initial hires created a template for a network that just didn’t know what the hell it was doing. People like ex-CNNers Ali Velshi and Soledad O’Brien were terrific gets, but a handful of other B-list network cast-offs — to say nothing of a couple of really questionable ex-network managers — didn’t inspire confidence from day one.
So now the network goes away, which means that — much like the Current TV debacle — a bunch of the rank-and-file behind the scenes gets pink slipped while Al-Jazeera walks away taking a minor hit but otherwise still being rich as all hell. Again, with only two years under its belt this isn’t exactly a rise-and-fall story given that AJAM never rose anywhere — it was in terrible shape all along. Most of the time the ratings for the network were so bad that they registered only asterisks on the Nielsen sheet and it’s spent part of its short existence trying to ride out a lawsuit that alleged “discrimination against women, favoritism andmanagement by retaliation.”
As NPR reported in the spring 2015, a former AJAM staffer named Matthew Luke claimed that AJAM manager Osman Mahmud, who had reportedly risen at lightning speed through the ranks, “made anti-Semitic remarks, interfered in news and programming decisions outside his areas of responsibility, cut women out of projects and routinely denigrated women in the newsroom, even those who outranked him.” Luke was reportedly canned just days after he lodged an internal complaint about the situation and the heads of HR and PR left the network the day he filed his lawsuit. Al-Jazeera shrugged off the suit and announced programming changes and exciting new things ahead in an effort to change the subject, but the reality was that almost nobody at the time was paying attention anyway. You can’t make a dent in people’s perceptions of you when people aren’t watching you and you’re not bothering to advertise, choosing instead to get by on name recognition — which in Al-Jazeera’s case wasn’t a benefit anyway — and word of mouth.
Make no mistake: We could still use another cable TV network, something independent that has the money to make itself heard, the integrity to cover important news well, and the savvy to make it all something enticing to American audiences. We still need that. But “that” isn’t Al-Jazeera America. It never was.
The Necessity of Meditation
by Ben Cohen
In Western society, there isn’t much time to do anything. We get up, we go to work, we go home, eat dinner while watching Netflix, and then go to sleep. This is repeated until the weekend when the majority of working people hit bars or restaurants and drink the stress of their week away. Saturday and Sunday mornings are for alcohol recovery, leaving precious few hours to do something our ancestors would regard as a human activity — like walking in the woods, playing games, reading or simply sitting still.
The net effect of this is awful — our society is experiencing a crisis of mental health, with anxiety reaching an epidemic level. According to the New York Times, “Nearly one in five of us — 18 percent — has an anxiety disorder. We spend over $2 billion a year on anti-anxiety medications. College students are often described as more stressed than ever before.”
It is impossible not to notice how stressed we are, and I’d wager everyone reading this deals with this on some level, and almost certainly knows someone who suffering from it badly.
These anxiety disorders are also affecting children, with more than a quarter of teenagers saying they experience “extreme stress” during the school year. With the relentless pressure to achieve, this should not come as a surprise — we are literally training our children to have anxiety disorders by hammering them with arbitrary tests that prove nothing other than an ability to pass arbitrary tests. Having gone through both the British and American education systems, I can safely say that virtually none of the administered tests prepared me for my working life in any measurable way. The SATs were particularly stupid and anxiety inducing in my opinion, and a great example of how to destroy imagination, creativity and useful criticalthinking. This bizarre method of assessing a student’s inherent worth does little more than create immense amounts of misery as he or she slaves away in order to do well on what is essentially a complicated multiple choice survey. The British education system is not much better, with brutal end of year examinations from the age of 11 onwards that serve to turn otherwise happy children into nervous wrecks.
Why we do this to our children is completely baffling, and a clear sign of just how irrational our society has become. We don’t appear to understand why we do many of the things we do, and merely accept them as a given. School is horrible, college is expensive and stressful, then we get an anxiety-inducing job to pay off all the debt we’ve incurred to set us up for a life we generally get little to no pleasure out of. It is, for lack of a better word, insane. Yet we accept it as “part of life”, and resign ourselves to the drudge and misery we see all around us as if there were nothing we could do about it.
How do we stop this insane process? This is a difficult question with no easy answers, but the first step is to acknowledge that this is not normal. Personally, I have long suspected that something was very, very wrong with our society — and now we have the scientific data to back it up. We are on the brink of an ecological catastrophe and we know that theentire paradigm we’ve been operating within is essentially bankrupt and unusable for the future (if we want our ancestors to survive that is). This paradigm is one based on the relentless pursuit of material wealth and the adulation of power and greed — principles that are extractive and unsustainable in the long run. While obviously distressing, this has paradoxically been somewhat relieving to me in the knowledge that it is society that is verifiably crazy and not me.
But there are still personal challenges that lie ahead as like everyone else, I am susceptible to the whims of mass culture and suffer from anxiety if I let it take control of me. The relentless barrage of advertising, fame-obsessed media programming and success-orientated education culture means we get anxious about the things we want, and despite knowing they are bad for us, want them anyway.
The trick then, is to find a way to not want them.
Recently, I have been meditating every morning with the help of a pretty remarkable app called “Head Space”. It is a series of guided meditations that take you through the basics of how to calm your mind effectively, and use these technique to train your brain to do what you want it to do. I am well aware of how “New Agey” this sounds, but these days I’m pretty much past the point of caring. We are experiencing a serious crisis in our society, and it won’t get any better until each and every one of us does something to intervene — and that means starting with ourselves. Meditation is, in my opinion, one of the more powerful ways we can affect societal change, and at the same time derive massive personal benefit from its practice.
I have written about my experiences with psychedelic plant compounds on the Banter, and I attribute their profound effect on my new found appreciation for the human mind and all it is capable of. Psychedelics, in my opinion, create a window of opportunity for a person to make somefundamental changes in their lives. A guided experience in the right setting allows someone to essentially take a break from themselves and view their cognitive habits from a different perspective. It is not a complete cure for anxiety, depression or any other form of mental illness — but it does create an opportunity to start afresh, and to create new, more positive behavior patterns. I’m fairly sure that had I not partaken in several Ayahuasca sessions that meditation wouldn’t be of much interest to me. I tried meditating a couple of times before, but mostly felt sleepy or agitated — feelings I now understand must be appropriately processed in order to make progress and lasting change.
Of course psychedelics are not for everyone, but I do feel a responsibility to share information about their potential benefits, and perhaps more importantly share the knowledge that they have given me. My experiences imparted a profound realization that the machinations of our minds essentially dictate reality. If our minds are confused, anxiety ridden, and fearful, so too is the world we live in. Conversely, if our thinking is clear, calm and positive, so too is the world you see around you. Our reality thus becomes a choice — a choice psychedelics present to us in unimaginably powerful ways, and a choice meditation also presents in a more subtle, but equally effective manner.
On Ayahuasca, I could literally see the machinations of my own mind — how I formulated fears and anxieties and what they were doing to my physical health. While meditating, I have learned to ‘feel’ or ‘notice’ thoughts while taking a backseat and letting them float away. It is a tricky process sitting still while trying to figure out how to let thoughts go, but it can be learned with practice and the benefits are simply astonishing. This is not just spiritual mumbo jumbo, but a scientifically proven way to literally change the structure of your brain. Harvard neuroscientists have discovered that long-term meditators show “an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions,” of the brain, and in “the auditory and sensory cortex,” too. After introducing meditation to a new group with no previous experience, the scientist found that after 8 weeks of practice, their brains thickened in regions associated with positive behavioral traits (empathy, self-relevance, cognition and memory amongst others), and got smaller in the amygdala, which is the fight or flight part of the brain that creates anxiety, fear and stress.
In short, regular meditation practice makes you a happier, less stressed, and less fearful human being.
Given much of our ecologically unsustainable activity stems from a fear based approach to life — fear of failure, fear of poverty, fear of not keeping up with the Joneses and so on, setting aside 10 minutes a day to try to understand your fears is a no-brainer. When I meditate, I try to recognize all the things I am feeling anxious about — and unsurprisingly, the majority of them are financial or career related. Recognizing them as mere manifestations of my mind, I am often able to send them away without succumbing to the negative spiral of doubt and fear that inevitably comes if I do not have the presence of mind to recognize what is happening.
This is what the Buddhists call “mindfulness,” or an awareness of consciousness thought. When you become aware that everything you think is just that — a thought — you can attain a state of mind where you cease judging them and prevent them from affecting your mood. This doesn’t come overnight, but the results are noticeable if you stick with it for more than a week.
Imagine for one moment that you don’t care what other people think about you, are not interested in material things that you know won’t make you happy, and don’t worry about your societal status. What kind of life decisions would you make then? Probably ones drastically different from thelifestyle choices sold to us on television and the ones our culture insist makes you a success.
So go and meditate. Our planet depends on it.
Foodie for Thought
by Tommy Christopher
The past several years have seen tremendous growth in the “foodie” movement, a trend which, like many trends, has its upsides and its downsides. The demand created by this phenomenon has made it easier to get a wide variety of ingredients that used to be scarce — where did you ever see quinoa before 2013? — and a marginal increase in overall food quality due to widespread attempts to market to foodies. Sure, when McDonald’s tries to sell you an “artisanal” anything, it’s bullshit, but it still ends up being better than a Filet-O-Fish. That train moves both ways, though, as anyone who’s ever been served bacon but been charged for “pork belly” can tell you.
If you’re anything like me, your face starts to twitch a little whenever you hear someone describe themselves as a “foodie.” While I can get down with certain aspects of the movement, the foodies themselves irritate the shiitake out of me. At a basic level, a foodie is a person who likes food, which is to say, a person. Liking food isn’t a special thing; not liking it is. You have to eat every day, so yeah, most people develop a fondness for it. You don’t hear people going around saying, “I’m a breathie. I’m really into fresh, locally-sourced air.” If I’m going to self-identify with a basic and necessary human function, I’ll pick “fuckie.”
What foodies are saying, in the most infantile way imaginable, is that they like food better than you do, and they like better food than you do. They’re proud to be sneered at by the gourmand, but happy enough to sneer at your plate of Chef Boy-ar-dee ravioli with a chiffonade of fresh basil. My main gripe with them is that they ruined Food Network by placing a higher premium on chefs who can describe food than on those who can actually cook it.This is also a two-way street, though, because it was Food Network that gave rise to this trend in the first place by trying to expand their audience beyond people who like to cook to people who like to eat, who like to impress their friends by saying “flavor profile” instead of “flavors,” but who think a Maillard reaction is what happens when you surprise a duck.
The term “foodie” has actually been around since the early 80s, and has steadily been gaining traction ever since, but it was Food Network that really exploded the concept so that now, every goober who doesn’t put ketchup on his steak thinks he’s a foodie.
Then again, my contempt for foodies is every bit as elitist as the foodie’s contempt for everyone else. My main problem with the foodie phenomenon is that it’s all consumption, and no contribution. Sure, the demand they create has some positive effects, but the foodies themselves don’t do anything. Instead of sneering at the guy who puts ketchup on his steak, why not teach him how to cook a steak that he wouldn’t dare put ketchup on?
Instead of cursing the darkness, I prefer to light a candle, so in order for foodies to stop irritating me, they either have to think of a less annoying name, or learn to cook a little. I’m sure they don’t want to hear any of the names I’ve thought up, so instead, here are the three most important things you need to know to instantly become a much better cook, and much less annoying to me.
Well, make that four, because the first thing you should do is pick something that you’d like to become good at, and preferably something you really love to eat. I’m not the world’s greatest cook, but there are a few things that I’ve practiced and become really good at, and one of them is steak. For purposes of this discussion, I’ll apply these tips to preparing a nice ribeye steak, but they’re also broadly applicable.
Seasoning – This is the thing that sends more Chopped and Top Chef contestants home than anything else. You’ve got to properly season your food. These days, the tendency is to under-salt, but over-salting is not good, either. Hardly anybody uses table salt anymore, and neither should you, but for pre-cook seasoning, I recommend kosher salt over sea salt. You want to sprinkle it on your steak so that it looks like a very starry night.
Then, you can grind on some fresh pepper and call it a day, or you can use my super-secret rub recipe, or invent your own.
I’ve been making and modifying this rub recipe for about ten years now, and no two batches ever come out quite the same. the nice thing about it is that as you use it up, you can top it off with whichever ingredients you think will make it better, try new ones, and learn what you like best. Here’s my recipe, with the original ingredients in bold. Everything else is stuff I’ve added over the years:
3 parts coriander
3 parts black pepper or mix of black, white pepper
2 parts garlic powder
2 parts mustard seed ground
2 parts cumin
2 parts paprika, smoked if you can get it
2 parts dried cilantro or oregano
1 part cayenne or crushed red pepper
1 part chili powder
2 parts instant coffee, powdered in spice grinder
2 parts unsweetened cocoa powder
3 parts onion powder
This blend is great on steak, burgers, chicken, or pork. Add it to double the amount of brown sugar, and you’ve got a great dry rub for ribs. Add some Old Bay, and it’s great on fish. I even like to use a little on sautéed vegetables.
If you don’t have a spice grinder, do what I do: pick up a coffee grinder at a thrift store for two bucks. When you’re not using it, keep it filled with oatmeal or rice to absorb moisture and aroma.
Whether you’re using your own blend, someone else’s, or just adding individual herbs and spices, you can enhance the flavor by giving then a zip in your grinder, or just rubbing them in your hands as you apply them.
If you start properly seasoning your food, and you hadn’t been previously, your cooking will immediately become twice as good.
Mise en Place – It literally means “put in place,” and in cooking, it’s the difference between a chaotic, stressful mess and a zen masterpice that soothes the soul as it pleases the tongue. When you watch cooking shows on TV, the chefs always have all of their ingredients and tools laid out, measured, and ready to go. You don’t need to get a fancy set of ramekins and little ingredient containers, either. I use a stack of baby-food bowls that I have left over from my kids, which you can buy brand-new for cheap, and which take up no space at all.
When I’m cooking steaks, that means having my cutting board ready, my seasonings out, my side dishes prepped. I like to saute halved brussels sprouts while my steak is finishing in the oven, so before I even start, I’ve got the sprouts all cut up and seasoned, ready to go into the pan.
Before I became a stickler for mise en place,cooking was very stressful and intermittently successful. I had always loved cooking because it was something I did with my mom growing up, but I didn’t always enjoy it. Proper setup instantly cures that.
Let it Rest – This is especially important when it comes to cooking meat, and let’s be honest, what else is there? First, you want to let it rest before cooking. After you season your steak, let it rest at room temperature for at least 15 minutes, which is a great time to do your mise en place and prep your sides. Then, for a 1-1/2 inch thick ribeye, I sear it on high heat for two minutes on each side, then finish it for 2-3 minutes in a 400 degree oven. When it’s done, put it on your cutting board, cover it loosely with foil, and don’t touch it for at least five minutes!
If you cut into it or poke it with a fork, the heat inside the meat will push out all the juices, and you’ll end up with a dry steak, which is probably why you’ve been putting ketchup on them. Use that time to sauté your vegetables and/or fry up your potatoes.
There’s certainly a lot more to cooking than these three tips, but they are a great head start, and if you use them, you won’t be a foodie anymore. You’ll be a fooder, and will cease to annoy me. Isn’t that worth it?