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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Trigger Warnings for Jazz Fans?

Less McCann and Eddie Harris

I understand the reasons why some people in universities are requesting that professors "warn" students that some ideas may be uncomfortable. And there are issues of culture and values that may be upsetting to some students. But that is what education is for - not to shock, but to provoke thinking that may be at variance with accepted norms.

I also agree that there are limits beyond which a respectful teacher may not go. In effect, the teacher has to "read" the classroom and figure out a way to broach certain ideas that may be new and even shocking. My wonderful students are a VERY diverse bunch and that makes teaching more interesting than if I were faced with a more culturally homogenous room.

Journalism is about treating subjects with a certain amount of skepticism, including those ideas that cause us to squirm with embarrassment. And of course, not every idea deserves equal of fair treatment. Some ideas are just too poisonous to be treated with equanimity.

At CBC and NPR, we would frequently warn the listeners that what they were about to hear involved some difficult and even dangerous ideas and powerful language. I thought then, and still do, that journalists owe it to their audiences to help them stay with the reporting and not be so shocked and appalled that they would turn off the radio.

That also meant that we needed to understand who might be listening, and when.

In the late 1990s, a 13 minute and 50 second report on NPR's Morning Edition on child sexual abuse was too graphic. It would have been better to have aired it in the afternoon run of All Things Considered. That's when there are more adults listening, as opposed to the morning when the radio is often on the kitchen as kids are getting ready to go to school. Also 13:50 was awfully long for that time of day...the story needed to be done, but not as it was broadcast.

So imagine my surprise when I was told that a jazz station in Long Beach, California KJAZZ played a standard from the 60s with some of the lyrics actually BEEPED OUT!

The song by Les McCann and Eddie Harris is a classic - "Compared to What?" Here's the video and
the lyrics from the album "Swiss Movement" from 1969.

I love the lie and lie the love
A-Hangin' on, with push and shove
Possession is the motivation
that is hangin' up the God-damn nation
Looks like we always end up in a rut (everybody now!)
Tryin' to make it real — compared to what? C'mon baby!

Slaughterhouse is killin' hogs
Twisted children killin' frogs
Poor dumb rednecks rollin' logs
Tired old lady kissin' dogs
I hate the human love of that stinking mutt (I can't use it!)
Try to make it real — compared to what? C'mon baby now!

The President, he's got his war
Folks don't know just what it's for
Nobody gives us rhyme or reason
Have one doubt, they call it treason
We're chicken-feathers, all without one nut. God damn it!
Tryin' to make it real — compared to what? (Sock it to me)

Church on Sunday, sleep and nod
Tryin' to duck the wrath of God
Preacher's fillin' us with fright
They all tryin' to teach us what they think is right
They really got to be some kind of nut (I can't use it!)
Tryin' to make it real — compared to what?

Where's that bee and where's that honey?
Where's my God and where's my money?
Unreal values, crass distortion
Unwed mothers need abortion
Kind of brings to mind ol' young King Tut (He did it now)
Tried to make it real — compared to what?!

Which specific lyrics were censored, one can only guess. (I've high-lighted beep-potential lyrics in yellow).

I asked the station manager if indeed, they had beeped out specific lyrics. He told me that the song came from a syndicated feed and they played it as they received it - beeps and all. He apologized and said they would be more selective with their choices in futures.

But the idea that listeners to a jazz station need to be protected somehow, from ideas that might upset them, is absurd.

I understand that some undergraduates might not yet be resilient enough to handle the realities of life. But jazz fans? Were they worried about law suits? A decline in listener support? We have become much too fearful.

In the meantime, enjoy this classic American creation before we lose it completely.

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