Culture Notes


Issue: "Bailing Out," June 14, 1997

Going postal

Purists are upset about the newest 32-cent stamp from the U.S. Postal Service, which features none other than that wascally wabbit, Bugs Bunny. Traditionally, stamps have depicted patriotic symbols or people, events, and sites from American history. The latest vogue in the post office is to portray icons of the pop culture, from Elvis to AIDS ribbons. Putting a cartoon character where George Washington used to be is the last straw for many stamp collectors, who are becoming increasingly vocal over what they see as the trivialization of America's national emblems. Originally, the postal service approached the Walt Disney corporation in the hopes of printing Mickey Mouse stamps, but Disney demanded a royalty. Warner Brothers, keepers of the Looney Tunes franchise, allowed Bugs Bunny to appear for free (except for license fees for the sale of the inevitable T-shirts, coffee-mugs, and related merchandise). Barry Zeihl, spokesman for the Postal Service, defends this embrace of pop culture. "The nature of America today," he maintains, "is commercial." c

Is anybody out there?

The cable TV industry has been in an uproar over the startup of two all-news channels. First, Microsoft teamed up with NBC to form MSNBC, which was to be a hybrid of the TV newsroom and the on-line chat room. Then media mogul Rupert Murdoch weighed in with his Fox News Channel, which, despite the track record of his Fox network, would supposedly give a more conservative slant to the news. Both billionaires would do battle with Ted Turner's CNN. Then followed a cutthroat war among cable companies over which new news channel they would carry, with threats and reprisals that shook the industry. Today, both channels have become widely available on the nation's cable systems. But practically no one is watching. MSNBC is available to around 35 million viewers, while the Fox News channel can be seen by 20 million. But according to ratings figures, their average daily audience is only 22,000 for MSNBC and 21,000 for Fox. This means that the number of people from across the nation tuned in to either of these news stations at a particular time could all be seated in a single basketball arena, with plenty of room to spare. They would amount to a mediocre crowd at a single baseball game. The pioneering all-news station CNN, also facing declining ratings since the end of the O. J. Simpson trial, attracts 15 times the number of viewers. Officials of the new networks are unfazed. "Cable news is not about the size of your audience," claims Andrew Lack, the president of NBC News. Though Mr. Murdoch, Mr. Gates, and NBC can afford the financial losses for the prestige of owning an opinion-shaping news organization, advertisers are balking. One advertising executive said that it would be more cost-effective for advertisers, instead of paying for commercials, to call all of the viewers long-distance and ask them to try their products.

Heroin chic, RIP

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Photographer Davide Sorrenti was the pioneer of a new "look" in the world of fashion known as "heroin chic." As reported in WORLD (November 9, 1996)heroinchic, stylish runways and photo spreads in glamorous magazines featured gaunt, glassy-eyed models, sometimes sprawling on bathroom floors, affecting the strung-out image of the heroin addict. In February, Mr. Sorrenti died-of a heroin overdose. Shaken, the fashion mavens are pulling back from the glamorization of drug use. Even President Clinton has condemned the fad. In a speech to the Conference of Mayors, the president scolded the fashion industry for "increasing the allure of heroin among young people." Fashion writer Patrick McCarthy of Women's Wear Daily said it best: "People got carried away by the glamour of decadence." But the problem of heroin use is growing. Where once heroin was the plague of the urban poor, today it is becoming the drug of choice among affluent, well-educated professionals. "We're seeing a new generation of users," says Herbert Kleber of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, "and they're yuppie, suburban addicts." "We've got many more executives, lawyers, just very well off people coming into treatment," agrees Laurence Westreich of the New York University School of Medicine. As reported by Marilyn Elias in USA Today, the heroin supply has become cheaper and of higher quality, so that it can be sniffed or smoked, instead of injected. This diminishes the risk of AIDS from dirty needles and makes this most dangerous of hard narcotics more appealing to those in the middle class who are willing to worship drugs. A decade ago, there were approximately 550,000 addicts. Today there are around 700,000.


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