Thursday, January 22, 2004

Another One Joins The Fray

Woohoo! Another person opens yet another weblog. And there was much rejoicing!

Seriously, this one has potential. Commercial Appeal writer and editor Jon W. Sparks has opened Memphis Cool. Nice name, but no real content yet, just the usual round of test posts, Blogger frustration and first-post angst.

Read around on his site and you'll see he's a good writer. Plus, he's a nice guy and a Star Trek fan. Can't beat that! I'm eager to see where he goes and what he chooses to say.

Welcome to the blogosphere, Jon!
Controversy Reporting And The Passion of the Christ

Seems like I'm making daily updates on this picture. Get used to it, as this look at how the media covers stories has me fascinated. I'm also waiting for the movie with bated breath. I think it will be a true stunner.

Anyway, Peggy Noonan has a great column at Opinion Journal about a controversy related to Mel Gibson's movie. There apparently was a mini-scandal over whether or not the Pope had said, after seeing The Passion of the Christ, "It is as it was." Read the column for the details. My take is that he did say it and got worried over controversy resulting from his words, so he retracted it.

The money quote, as always, is well padded by the "controversy" stuff. Here it is:
Let me tell you of my experience in the drama. This summer I was invited to a Washington screening of the film. I went with some trepidation: Could the charges of anti-Semitism be true? I didn't think that Mel Gibson would set out to create a deliberately anti-Semitic piece of work; that kind of movie would have been rejected by audiences and lambasted by critics. But people can do ignorant things and thoughtless things, and their work can be destructive. I didn't know what Mr. Gibson's film would be. So I watched, and found myself moved and inspired by the film, which isn't about hatred but love, and love's continuing war with evil. It is a film that engenders awe, gratitude, and no small amount of self-examination. What role do I play in the crucifixion of Christ, and what role would I have played if I had been there?

I was relieved. It is a story about Jews and Romans, about Jewish saints and sinners and Roman brutes and cynics, but it isn't really about Jews and Romans; it's about humanity. It's about us.
She really was moved by the film. But see how she has to cover it? The rest of the column is a whole lot of nothing, a bit of sugar whipped furiously into a cotton-candy mountain.

And that's how the press has to work, it seems. She couldn't have written a straight-up piece extolling the movie, but had to frame it in the usual "this person's work has gotten criticism from these people" template. A sham controversy continues to get traction, it grows in the retelling and gains value. Small details that don't fit the narrative now established -- like the false ADL charges that launched the controversy -- are dropped by successive carriers. The story shifts from Mel's awesome achievement to the petty charges against it. An uncomfortable thing for the major media (religion) is rendered safe to touch now, as it is neutered in the process.

Next month, as the movie nears, you'll see Gibson and the stars being forced to divert from talking about the movie to talking about the controversy. And, in the usual handling of these things, the ADL will be given equal forum to Gibson (split screen debate) and will use the chance to push whatever agenda it really is they are pursuing. Talk about the substance and message of the movie will give way to blather about nothing. An important eruption of genuine religiousity into the public culture will become yet another media story in the daily train of such things.

"...And enterprise of great pith and moment / with this regard their currents turn awry."

Just a quick post to point you to this story about the huge changes in the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, before and since the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997. Immigrants from HK flooded into Vancouver before the handover, fearing a crackdown by the Communist Chinese government that would destroy the high-flying, wide-open pinnacle of capitalism. So many Chinese came that the city developed a new nickname: Hongcouver.

I'm a huge fan of Hong Kong cinema, so this caught my attention. That is all.
Bad Theatrics

While I was gone, the Americans for Gun Safety group released a report that showed that "gun dealers located in 22 states supplied nearly 15% of guns recovered in crime between 1996 and 2000." Three dealers are here in Memphis.

There have already been a lot of analyses of the methodology and logic of the study. You can go to Say Uncle and he has lots of links there. What struck me immediately was the report's admission that the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) and the Justice Department have been completely lax in enforcement of already-existing laws. That seems to be the place to start, in the vein of Project Exile.

This post, however, is to document a television news reporter's incredible report on the day the story broke. Wednesday, January 14th, FOX13 reporter Allyson Finch did a "stand up" for the morning news show, "Good Morning Memphis." She was in front of the Guns'n'Ammo store, which was closed at that hour, which had been identified in the AGS report as one of three Memphis-area stores to be associated with a lot of crime guns.

Finch started her 6:30AM report by saying "This is a fake gun" and holding up a HUGE pistol, in her free hand. It seemed to me, who isn't knowledgable about guns, to be a .45. It was a monster. She had her finger on the trigger as she waved it about! Not only that, but she pointed it at her chest. I was floored. She quickly went on to say that she hadn't bought the "gun" at Guns'n'Ammo, but if she had it might have been used in a crime mentioned in the report. It was a bad, lame effort to grab viewer attention at the expense of accuracy and clarity. It was sloppy reporting of the laziest, most tawdry sort.

I was startled to see Finch's behavior. If you hadn't caught that quick mention of it being a fake gun, you would have seen Finch violating all sorts of fundamentals of gun safety. Even I, who has only gone shooting once, immediately recognised her violations. It was stunning.

So I watched the 7AM part of the show to see what happened next, even though it made me late for work. In this report, she started the story differently. It wasn't until a few seconds later that she then held up the gun, finger still on trigger. She clearly called it a fake, saying it was from the FOX13 prop department (!). But she again repeated the whole, "I didn't buy it here, but if I did..." bit before concluding the report. She wasn't as wild in her waving this time and she did clearly explain the fake gun, but she was still violating basic gun safety.

I called the station later that morning from work. I got to talk to the morning news director, who was solicitous and interested. I explained that I wasn't even a gun owner, nor did I belong to either pro- or anti-gun groups, but that even I knew enough about guns to be stunned by what Finch had done. I told him how irresponsible it was. He agreed to talk to Finch and thanked me for calling. I got the sense that even though he was polite, he wasn't too worried by the whole thing.

I'm still amazed by the whole thing. It was yet another example of reporters covering stories over which they have little or no knowledge or expertise. She was blithely irresponsible and utterly ignorant of it. It was scary to think of kids seeing her behave this way all for the sake of theatrics. (Which I told the news director. That seemed to get his attention.)

You know, at the least she could have had a trigger-lock on the thing. No one seemed to have even thought of that.
Stranger In A Strange Land

I am so far behind on my Commercial Appeal and Memphis Flyer commentary, it's embarrassing. But, I couldn't let this notice pass.

Seems James W. "Woody" Brosnan is being laterally promoted from being the CA's Washington bureau reporter to doing so for other Scripps-Howard papers, but not the CA. There's something going on here, of course, but the CA won't report that. Nearly every major bureau chief is gone now; only Nashville's Richard Locker remains from a tri-state bench. All the old columnists are gone, too. Thomas is still new and finding her wings; Waters is thankfully still confined to the religion desk. The change-over has been spectacular. Yes, new editor Chris Peck is trying to create a "community-based" paper, but he's stripped all the in-house voices seemingly in favor of "voice of the day/topic." It's good to see new names in the paper, but the paper loses its public face with the loss of all these constant writers. We no longer have the view into the paper's thinking that they provided, even if we sometimes had to decode what was being said.

Brosnan will be replaced by Bartholomew "Bart" Sullivan. Ye Gods! Bart is an old-style, unreconstructed, bleeding-heart Socialist. I mean that word choice -- not Liberal or liberal or left, but Socialist. Regular CA readers know what I mean; I'm sorry I don't have time to show newer readers. He longs for the days of New Deals and Great Societies, believes that people will only thrive if they have the steadying hand of government at their back, and sees government as a force of benevolent good. He's an anachronism and, in this city, an anomaly. Even in the orthodox black leadership, you won't find folks as far to the left Bart.

He's being sent to Washington, a city that is trending more and more Republican as time progresses. I can hardly wait to see him "report" on doings up there. Woody was bad about his own Democratic leftism, but could rein it in sometimes. Still, his Ford- and Gore-worship was hard to take. I can't imagine how much worse it'll be with Bart. I can't see him getting along but with a small handful of the folks he's being sent to cover, which probably won't bother him -- he just won't report on them! [Insert snooty "sniff" here.] Remember: he's now the only explicitly political reporter/columnist to get a regular, high-profile soapbox; all the others are gone or diminished.

So many Memphians have wanted change at the Commercial Appeal and now we're getting it. But who knew it would look like this? I almost -- almost -- wish for the return of Susan Adler Thorpe. This new, mushy, "people-centered," self-effacing Commercial Appeal is like oatmeal after the wrongly-seasoned gumbo of old.
Enterprise Cancellation?

Rumors have been flying lately (check here and here) that Star Trek: Enterprise is going to be cancelled at the end of this season. It's the lack of clear support from both the CBS and UPN presidents that's telling.

It wouldn't bother me to see ST go. I've blogged on this before. I think Paramount has this enormous cash cow going and can't afford to stop it, no matter how weak the foundation. Better, from their point of view, to have something on, and generating income, than to have nothing at all. I love Star Trek, but sometimes you just have to let go.

Of course, from a fan point of view it's better to have nothing than to have substandard or bad ST. Opinions vary on the five ST series, but there seems a clear concensus that Enterprise is the weakest series of all, though the new Xindi arc has breathed some life into it. Ratings for ENT are the lowest of any series; fan buzz is also low. Many fans, in fact, are angry with the producers of ENT for violating the already-established history of ST many, many times in their stories. Sure, earlier Trek series took time to find their compass, but they overhauled their show after only two seasons. (TNG took four seasons; DS9, three; VOY, never quite did but the addition of Seven of Nine in season four helped.) You get the sense that the producers are floundering and flailing, trying anything that they think will work, changing ideas monthly. ENT just doesn't feel as grounded as previous series.

One common request I see is for a new series that goes farther into the future of Deep Space Nine and Voyager. I think that's a bad idea. ST is already at the point of "super-science" -- that is, technology that can solve any problem you can think up. It's already hard for them to write stories that don't conflict with the technology they already have! (It's one reason I've suggested letting in modern SF writers, especially hard-SF writers, who can present some pretty fascinating premises and problems that evade the solutions ST tech has.) Going forward only presents bad, serious problems for the kind of series writers television gets these days. The producers tried to get around that by "going back" with Enterprise, but clearly hat hasn't worked.

Something I also see a lot of, though not usually as a formal series idea, is for a "total war" Star Trek. Lots of fan sites and fan-written stories and series posit huge warships and large armies fighting the gone-bad Klingons, the Romulans, a revived Dominion, etc. There are just a whole lot of people who like war and war stories, it seems, and they want to turn Star Trek down that path. It would make for a killer movie (Star Trek: Galactic War!), but it's also a rebuke to the entire premise of Star Trek.

I still think the "movie of the month" idea -- a new movie every month with different stories, characters, writers, directors, actors, etc., free to explore any time, place or person in Trek history -- is the way to go. I've also heard of the "mini-series" idea, to approach ST the way the British do by making a self-contained, short series of episodes that are a comprehensive whole. (Think "Touching Evil" or "Prime Suspect" or many of the other Mystery! programs on PBS.) Both ideas raise the "event" level of Star Trek and free the producers from being locked down to any one concept.

I doubt that'll happen. CBS/UPN may well cancel Enterprise, and Star Trek may go away for a while, but it'll return in some form. There's too much money involved. There are also a few careers (Berman, Piller, Braga, et al) that depend, vampire-like, on the carcass of Star Trek. These guys don't see themselves as evil, but their actions tend to wreak evil nonetheless. Get rid of those folks, let ST lie fallow for a while, wait to see who can present a new, fresh idea, then restart Star Trek. That's the best way, I think.

But I doubt it will happen. Money changes everything, as someone once said. What I fear is that someone will revive Harve Bennet's Starfleet Academy, where we see young students at the Federation's school for Starfleet. The potential for a WB-style, Dawson's Creek-y, beautiful people in trouble every week show is too high. Someone could make the idea work, but not the present bunch. But I worry they'll try.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Size And Satisfaction

Hah! Made you read! I'm really referring to this essay from The Economist, about the relationship between nation size and success.
People have been debating the optimal size of a nation-state since the days of Aristotle. Understandably, given the diminutive size of Greek city-states, he thought that “experience has shown that it is difficult, if not impossible, for a populous state to be run by good laws.” The Founding Fathers of the United States fretted about the excessive size of their new nation; but James Madison argued that large size might be an advantage in a democracy, because it reduced the likelihood that special-interest groups would be able to act in unison to suppress the rights of other citizens.
But here's the money quote:
The main reason for the resulting rise in the number of mini-countries is the shift from empire or dictatorship to self-determination, especially in the past quarter-century.
People prefer to keep power close to the local level and prefer to associate with those most like themselves, as the Founding Fathers knew. A lesson we forget at peril to our own nation's cohesion.

It's not a long read, but a meaty one.
The Seven Best Sleeping Positions

Cute alert! As the title says, a photo essay on the seven best sleeping positions.

Link courtesy of Sugarmama.
Two Fun Pictures

It's crazy Uncle Saddam! This is one of the private pictures taken during Saddam's capture, but before he got transferred to Baghdad. I've seen guys on the streets of Memphis, the homeless variety, who look just like this.

A strange "hole-punch" cloud appeared over Alabama last month. The photo is accompanied by some possible explanations. Weird! By the way, the Astronomy Picture of the Day website is a great place to check out. A different pretty picture every day!
More On The Passion of the Christ

As the movie's premier day approaches, more reviews are popping up. That's not surprising, as director/producer Mel Gibson is now previewing it to folks around the country. Two reports are here and here. Both are very appreciative and glowing. Once this film hits, it's gonna be big. One theater even plans to devote every screen (all 20!) to the film on opening weekend, he expects that much business.

Of course, it's still being referred to in the press as "controversial," because of months-old complaints from the ADL that the film is anti-Semitic. Those complaints came from an early (not filmed) draft of the script. Almost every review I've seen so far that references those complaints says that the film isn't and makes the culpability plainly that of the Romans and the Sanhedrin. But, the ADL is a powerful lobby, and the press loves a good conflict, even a manufactured one, so that's the tag on the movie for the mainstream press and media.
The $25 million flick, which was financed, cowritten and directed by Gibson, has come under attack for allegedly reviving the controversial notion that Jews were responsible for Christ's death, as well as its graphic portrayal of the Crucifixion.

Gibson has repeatedly denied that the film is anti-Semitic and said that it's his intention "to inspire, not to offend." He's also attempted to stem such talk by holding sneak peeks for leaders of both Christian and Jewish faiths as well as religious scholars and fellow industry players, many of whom defended the film.
This way, the press can cover the film within its usual template of conflict, rather than face the central story, which is the subject of the film. It defangs the religious part, which makes it coverable for the agnostic press, and sidesteps it as well.

The movie opens February 25th, Ash Wednesday. I predict one of the largest opening weekends ever and possibly a $300 million box office before it's over.
Johnny Appleseed

Today's history lesson, courtesy of The Straight Dope, is a short but entertaining recapping of the tale of Johnny Appleseed.
Johnny Appleseed was, to put it kindly, eccentric. He was a vegetarian and traveled barefoot, and, equally out of character with his times, showed kindness to animals and befriended the Indians. He preached a Christianity that was close to nature-worship. He was known as "Johnny Appleseed" in his lifetime, a folk hero about whom legends and stories were told, then and since. He became a mythic figure, who helped to tame the wilderness by planting apple orchards. He embodied two extremes: the rugged individualist and the gentle humanitarian.
An American story, without doubt. Go ahead, it's a quick read and will make your day.
Oh, How They Fall

Remember American Idol finalist Trenyce? She's the Memphis girl who nearly made it last year. Come this year, though, and it's a different story. On the one hand, she's got a starring role in a musical at the Orpheum, "Not A Day Goes By", though it's one of those moralistic comedy roadshows that draws almost exclusively from black audiences.

On the other hand, she's also doing radio ads for a rapid tax refund business here in town. She endorses them. Not a good thing to do for an up-and-coming artitiste. Rapid refund is just so...low class.

Which, to believe the talk you hear around town, is Trenyce. I heard from several acquaintances and friends that she was too much the Memphis Skank in appearance and demeanor. That's a woman who is a hard-edged, mean-mouthed, gold-digging, flashy, trashy ho. Her past seems to support that. And if you read her American Idol interview web page, you'll see she twice mentions "doing hair" as an occupation or fallback career. How skank!

Later this year? Opening a hair salon near you.
I Want Me Some A' That!

Goodness me, but SouthKnox Bubba seems to be imbibing something strong these days. He actually wrote this:
This might give us a sense of just how worried they [Republicans] are about this powerful field of Democratic challengers.
Worried? Whatever it is he's drinking is some strong stuff, indeed. None of the eight seven candidates could be called powerful.

Only three have credibility: Kerry, Leiberman and Gephardt. The Gepper's just dropped out. Lieberman is watching his party drift more and more to the Angry Left of him and his DLC-lite politics, even as he sounds like an old man wandering through his dusty, empty home. Kerry was, until Monday night, seen widely as missing the mark badly, and fading fast. Kerry is the most presidential of the bunch, but I don't know many who would call him "powerful."

Dean? YEEEEEEEAAAAAARRRRRRGGGGGHHHHH, as he would say. He's about to cross his Rubicon when he goes below the Mason-Dixon line into his Waterloo, I suspect. (How's that for a mixed metaphor? But I like it anyway.)

Clark? Even though he is appearing on the big political talk shows, I'm still waiting for the next visit with Tim Russert, farther into the primary season when more folks have a bigger interest, where Clark gets the bulldog-Russert instead of the bug-eyed Russert. Tim will force him to confront every flip-flop without mercy; it'll be brutal and Clark will be badly shown up, much as Edwards was last year.

Edwards? Not his time yet. Yeah, suddenly he's the darling of the media, but he's not seasoned enough. Remember his Russert visit? It was a debacle for him, and doesn't seem to be remembered any more. He supposedly speaks well, and projects a sincerity and positivity that is resonating for a lot of folks, but he lacks depth. Age and more political years will bring that.

Clark? He's nothing but a straw man for the Clintons. I don't think he's Hillary's stalking horse anymore, but I do think he mostly exists to keep the troops trained and toned for Hillary in 2008. You just can't take this guy seriously as Presidential-candidate timber. Rather, only a media-driven, shallow, short-term memory only, politics-is-life kind of person could.

Ahhh, but what do I know? I thought Gephardt was going to take Iowa by a few points over Dean and I sure was wrong on that count. His loss showed that unions may not be a strength in the Democratic Party these days. Dean's big loss just showed that because you have Internet buzz and media flash doesn't mean you actually matter.

All New Hampshire will contribute is sustaining Dean's viability a bit longer. How well Kerry and Clark do will be most watched there. If Kerry is second, he's on a roll; if he's behind Clark, he's slumping again and risks losing momentum. If Clark polls second, he'll benefit when the primaries move to the South, where I think it'll be him and Kerry leading most polls.

I still think there's a battle coming up soon over control of the Democratic Party's direction and tone. The Clintons and the establishment that favors Kerry-types are still in control. Kerry is just the kind of old-school politico they like -- years in the trenches, a long Congressional record, obligations all over. He's just short on the kinds of favors he needs to start calling in. The Howard Dean Fun Machine is, as many have noted, really building a parallel movement within the party. If he wins the nomination, or comes close, then you'll see some real squirming and in-fighting up to the convention. Deanies want to pull the party still more to the left than Clintonites and DLCer believe is safe. If they lose, you'll see some bolting to the Greens, like in 2000, but maybe worse. The convention itself might actual generate some real news!
Gephardt Haiku

On the occasion of Richard Gephardt's dropping out of the 2004 Democratic Presidential primary after his surprising showing in Iowa's caucus, I have composed this haiku:

A flame extinguished
America's whitest man
Fades into the black