Bob Garfield's Boiled Soul

In the weeks following the broadcast of a superficial, self-satisfied, poorly researched and smugly dismissive program on the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) put together by Rick Karr and aired on the National Public Radio show Anthem in April 1999, a few sympathetic people said, "Too bad All Things Considered didn't do a show about you. They're a serious news show; they'd do a much better job." Would they really?

In late June 2001, the SCP were given a chance to find out. They were contacted by an assistant producer for Bob Garfield, who does a segment for All Things Considered called "On the Media." Garfield was interested in being given one of the walking tours that the SCP gives every week, but couldn't attend on a Sunday. A special tour of Times Square was arranged for Monday 9 July 2001. Over the course of two hours, the SCP's Bill Brown gave the crew (Bob Garfield, his assistant producer and a recording engineer) a fact-packed tour that drew attention to surveillance cameras operated by the NYPD, private security firms and webcam companies such as Earthcam. Bill also spoke at great length about the dangers of face recognition software, which had just rocketed into the news because of its use in Tampa Bay, Florida. Along the way, the crew interviewed several passers-by, including a very well-informed man who works in a local camera store and, like the SCP, opposes the installation of surveillance cameras in public places.

It was a very bad sign that, during the tour, Bob Garfield asked few questions and seemed rather uninterested in the whole subject. Over lunch, after the tour was over, he made an off-hand remark that clearly explained his lack of interest: "I'm only interested in what I think." Certainly no remark could better describe the show that he put on the air on 25 July 2001. It wasn't about surveillance cameras or "threats to privacy" or anything else worthy of being broadcast on a national news program shortly before 5 pm. It was about (you guessed it!) Bob Garfield, and how impressed Bob Garfield is with what Bob Garfield thinks. Over and over again, the same words got said: I, me, my, myself, mine.

Not surprisingly, this Bob Garfield is a very bad news reporter, even worse than Rick Karr, if you can believe that. In his "report," Garfield didn't mention the SCP's existence or web site, despite the fact that this was a show "on the media"; didn't give his listeners any way of finding out more about the SCP's walking tours; allowed Bill Brown only two or three short sound-bites and cut out everything else; and talked about Bill (and sometimes over him) instead of letting him speak for himself. Garfield gave this same shoddy treatment -- I'm-more-important-to-this-story-than-you-are -- to his other guests, who included Richard Smith of the Privacy Foundation, and Beth Givens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Though Garfield permitted these two guests to be properly identified by their respective institutional or group affiliations, he also made sure that each one was described in an unnecessarily snide or nasty way: Smith, according to Bob Garfield, "makes a living being an alarmist" and Givens can be "put down" as "guardedly apocalyptic." Significantly, Garfield was far more respectful in his treatment of Marty Abrams, a lawyer who helps private companies accumulate huge amounts of private information about American consumers.

Indeed, the only bit of real news that Bob Garfield managed to report was the obvious fact that he wasn't the right reporter for the story in the first place.

Man, at least in the fourth grade I knew exactly what I had to fear. Now it's hard to know if the accumulation of my personal data liberates, as Marty Abrams believes, or enslaves. Or we really being watched or just seen? Should I accept some level of risk of living in the information age, like I risk driving in my car, or should I become some sort of e-survivalist, hunkered down in unwired fortress, waiting for the final struggle? Well, you know what? I can answer those questions, too. The answer is 'I don't know.' If I did know, I'd write a book. I'd call it "Frog Soup for the Soul."

Well -- y'huk! y'huk! -- yuh know whut? This boring, self-indulgent hack can't even come up with an original title for his imaginary book! The phrase "frog soup" comes from one of Bill Brown's sound-bites, in which he likens the on-going destruction of privacy in American society with making frog soup (you turn up the temperature slowly and gradually, so the frog doesn't realize it's being boiled to death before it's too late). But Little Bobby Garfield -- who both formulates problems like and imagines himself to actually be a 10-year-old kid several times in this 10-minute-long segment -- has long since forgotten all about Bill, his walking tours of surveillance cameras, and the on-going destruction of privacy. Babbling, he's off in his own little world. . . .

Sure, some of this stuff is extremely spooky [!] and maybe even a very bad deal with the devil. [There's such a thing as a good deal with the devil?!] But if you were a tradesman [sic] 140 years ago, so was the Industrial Revolution. Privacy hawks, like Beth Givens and Richard Smith, say we must act now or dystopia is around the corner. Fair enough. Isn't that the way that society has always dealt with change: with laws, vigilance, and, by the way, information. Simply to adjust.

Why can't this guy get a handle on the issue of privacy? Why can't he make sense? Because Bob Garfield's not a specialist in news reporting or cultural criticism. He's a specialist in advertising, which is an industry that has come to the obviously false conclusion that its become socially acceptable to violate people's privacy because advertising can't do without a steady stream of exploitable (private) information about consumers and their spending habits. In other words, the soul of Bob Garfield -- former advertising critic for ABC's "Good Morning America" and Advertising Age -- has been boiled for a very long time now.

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