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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

"The Newsroom:" Hollywood's Latest Foray into Journalism

Reporters have been the subject of something like 2,100 feature films since Hollywood discovered that, like cops, doctors and lawyers, they lead interesting lives.

Television also has tackled the news business. Since the 1950s there have been something like 40 programs devoted to newspaper and TV newsrooms. Those older than 40 may remember the Mary Tyler Moore Show in the early 1970s. Or they may recall its dramatic, Emmy-winning spin-off, Lou Grant that ran from 1977 to 1982. Or how about Murphy Brown, which ran from 1988 to 1998?

OK, let's be honest.

 Anybody who has ever worked in a real newsroom knows that Hollywood, bless its money-grubbing heart, just can't get it right when it comes to what goes on inside the newsrooms of a daily newspaper or a television station.

 But that doesn't keep it from trying.

 Take Hollywood's latest foray into the world of those who gather the news. It's an HBO vehicle called "The Newsroom." I watched the pilot this past week and while I was really trying to give the show a chance, there were several instances when I had to yell "No! No! No!" at my big screen TV.

Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy
Take, for example, the scene in which the boss of this fictional cable news outfit tells his #1 anchorman that he was "embedded" with an Army artillery unit in Vietnam. This character, played by Sam Waterston, should know better. After all, he played the lead character in 1984's "The Killing Fields," about the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia in 1975.

 Here's a news flash: Reporters in Vietnam were never embedded. That was the beauty of Vietnam (if indeed that phrase can ever be used to describe that war). Reporters were free to go where they wanted with whomever they wanted. Sorry Sam, no embedding! That began with the second Gulf war.

 Then there is the producer who gets upset because anchorman Will McAvoy, played pretty well by Jeff Daniels, yells at him in front of the staff. What? Heaven forbid!

 Listen, if I had a quarter for every time I was yelled at when I was a struggling general assignment reporter for the Chicago Tribune in the late 1960s and early 1970s, well I probably could fill up the gas tank in my gas-guzzling SUV. And that is saying something!

 Luckily for me, I managed to escape the Tribune's cavernous newsroom after about 5 five years and spend the rest of my career away from Chicago as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Latin America where crabby editors couldn't yell at me anymore.

 The other irritant in The Newsroom is the way people talk. There is a lot of pontificating about what journalism is or should be. Help! Reporters, editors and producers don't talk that way in newsrooms. They may do so in bars or when talking to journalism students on college campuses, but even then only rarely.

 Instead the conversations in newsrooms deal with stories that need to be covered; about how stories should be written or produced; what kinds of photos or graphics should go with a package; how a story is edited; what video should be used; and where a story will be played in the paper or during a 30-minute broadcast.

 Often there is a lot of arguing and yelling as editors, producers and reporters disagree over what the lead of a story is or how it should be played.

 Yet in The Newsroom, which takes place in 2010 and has, as its inaugural story the explosion of British Petroleum's oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, nobody seems to know what to do.

The Newsroom Staff
Incredibly, nobody picks up a phone to check out the bulletin that has come over the Associated Press wire. They just stand around waiting for more updates. Finally, a field producer who has arrived with McAvoy's new executive producer MacKenzie McHale (played by Emily Mortimer) manages to figure out what is going on.

 How? In cell phone calls he learns from his former college roommate (how astoundingly convenient!) who is an insider at BP that BP doesn't know how to fix the spill. Then he gets a call from his sister (how impressively auspicious!) who works at the EPA and she fills in all the relevant details.

 Voila! There you have it. The complete story of the worst oil spill in history, wrapped up in about 45 minutes.

 Sorry folks, it simply doesn't happen that way. Huge stories like that take weeks or maybe even months to fully report and understand.

 OK, I recognize that TV and movie scripts need to be tight and dramatic license dictates that all the boring stuff like actual reporting, exhaustive research, interviewing of sources face to face and writing or producing a compelling story is like dropping silly putty into the gas tank of a Ferrari when it comes to movies and TV shows.

 Yet, I wonder if some of the donkey work might not make for good drama also.

 That is, after all, what good journalism is all about. It's the tedious digging through records, reading old clips or viewing old stories, interviewing, observing, analyzing, discussing, agonizing over accuracy, writing and sometimes rewriting that real reporters worth their salt do.

 I have talked to lawyers about how they are portrayed by Hollywood. An attorney told me once: "If people really knew what lawyers do nobody would go to law school. Unlike TV shows that show lawyers waxing brilliant in courtrooms, most of our time is spent briefing old cases, seeking precedents, or involved in what can only be called old-fashioned drudgery."

 Of course, that wouldn't make for good drama or those much-needed "eureka" moments when the cop figures out who dun-it or when the virtuoso lawyer gets the "real" culprit to confess right there in court.

 Good journalism and discovering the truth is more of a slog through a muddy bog than an unimpeded supersonic flight. Another bothersome plot in The Newsroom is the Waterston character's altruistic confession to reluctant anchor McAvoy that he wants to return a perfectly profitable news operation with good ratings to an era when good old-fashioned journalism ruled the day and costs be damned.

 Who cares about ratings, about the expense of actually sending reporters out of The Newsroom to cover stories? Americans need quality journalism and news organizations should provide it, rather than indulge them with the insipid and gratuitous infotainment that they would rather have.

 Ahem. One suspects that as soon as the suits in the upper echelons of this fictional cable news network discovered this plot they would purge the place of such crass idealism. In fact, that battle is looming in the series and guess who plays the CEO of the parent company? You guessed it: It's (Hanoi) Jane Fonda. Now there is a bit of brilliant casting.

 Here's an idea. Why not have Jane send Waterston to a Vietnamese re-education camp until he learns that today's news business is interested more in maximizing profits than in spending the millions of dollars it takes to effectively cover the world we live in?

 While I may seem overly critical of The Newsroom I am actually withholding my final judgment for another few episodes. Perhaps Aaron Sorkin, the executive producer of this peek into the world of journalism, will be the one Hollywood mogul who gets it right.

 Stay tuned....

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Bullied Bus Monitor: A Sign of Our Narcissistic Society

We have all heard and probably seen the viral video of Greece, N.Y. school bus monitor Karen Klein's vicious verbal bullying at the hands of several 7th grade boys.

We now know that outraged folks who watched the pitiless taunting of the 68-year-old grandmother have donated almost $600,000 to her on the crowd-funding site

And we also know that at least two of the boys and their parents sent her written apologies for the episode aboard the middle school bus.

Karen Klein
My question, after watching the video and seeing the many stories about this unconscionable incident, is why it happened in the first place?

In case you haven't seen it, here is the youtube version of the taunting video: 

How could 7th graders behave in such a merciless and heartless way? What kind of parents are putting kids like this on our streets?

It doesn't take an expert in child rearing to understand what is going on in our country. Listen to the violent music (if you can call it that) being produced by "gansta rappers" and other no-talent thugs who call themselves musicians. Look at the vicious and sadistic video games and movies that venerate carnage and bloodshed.

Is it any wonder when children are exposed incessantly to this kind of violent behavior that a few might become inured to the very violence they see on TV and in movie theaters or listen to on their I-pods?

Yes, I know. There are always those who point to studies that say watching violent or aggressive behavior doesn't mean a child will imitate the conduct they see.

I don't buy it. I never have.

Think about the themes that are contained in the products created by the multi-billion dollar gaming, movie, and music industry:

·        the killing of people or animals
·        the use and abuse of drugs and alcohol
·        criminal behavior, disrespect for authority and the law
·        sexual exploitation and violence toward women
·        racial, sexual, and gender stereotypes
·        foul language, obscenities, and obscene gestures

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry:   "studies of children exposed to violence have shown that they can become: immune or numb to the horror of violence, imitate the violence they see, and show more aggressive behavior with greater exposure to violence. Some children accept violence as a way to handle problems. Studies have also shown that the more realistic and repeated the exposure to violence, the greater the impact on children. In addition, children with emotional, behavioral and learning problems may be more influenced by violent images."

Are we to ignore such evidence simply because the entertainment industry is earning billions of dollars by producing blood-soaked video games and films and the dissonant vicious racket called rap?
The academy also points out that "a concern to many interested in the development and growth of teenagers is the negative and destructive themes of some kinds of music (rock, heavy metal, hip-hop, etc.), including best-selling albums promoted by major recording companies." 

The following themes, which are featured prominently in some lyrics, can be particularly troublesome, the Academy points out:

·        Drugs and alcohol abuse that is glamorized
·        Suicide as an "alternative" or "solution"
·        Graphic violence
·        Sex which focuses on control, sadism, masochism, incest, children devaluing women, and violence toward women

I grew up in the 1950s when Rock 'n Roll was pretty tame by current standards. The themes of that music, for the most part, had to do with teenage relationships, dating and going steady, etc.

Overt sexual activity was not something we saw on American Bandstand or anywhere else for that matter--certainly not on TV or movie theaters. The most shocking sexual conduct in high schools and junior highs was a forbidden dance called the "dirty bop" or perhaps Elvis Presley's pelvic gyrations. (That's why he was called "Elvis the Pelvis.")

"Making out" in the hallways got you in deep doo-doo with the principal and smoking anywhere near the campus could get you suspended. Today, both of these activities appear to be commonplace in American high schools where the concept of discipline has gone the way of buggy whips.

Today high school students shout down teachers and in some cases even attack them physically. And middle school students humiliate and bully bus monitors and other forms of authority.

Is this simply because kids watch too much violence on TV and in video games or listen to venomous music?

Only blaming the entertainment industry is wrong. While it is indeed culpable for some of the behavior of out of control middle-schoolers and teenagers, I think a larger part of the blame needs to be laid at the feet of parents.

Ultimately parents are responsible for the behavior of their children. But too many seem to have abrogated their responsibility to schools and teachers. Then, when there is a problem, too many parents side with their children and contest whatever punishment is handed down by the school.

Teachers seem unable to establish any form of classroom discipline without incurring the wrath of parents blind to the bad behavior of their offspring.

"You can't discipline my kid," parents will shout, "that's my job." If that's the case, then why are so many kids undisciplined today?

In a society that glorifies celebrity and fame beyond any normal parameter and elevates aberrant behavior because it is "cool," why are we surprised when kids emulate famous, but dubious idols?

In a society where civility and plain old-fashioned good manners are almost totally extinct and aggressive behavior is the new norm, is it any wonder that 7th graders can bully a 68-year-old woman on a school bus?

I wonder what kind of punishment these boys will receive from the school they attend or, for that matter, from their parents?

I know what would have happened to me if I had behaved toward an adult the way these brutish brats behaved toward Karen Klein--and believe me, it would have been a hell of a lot more than a severe tongue lashing or a (heaven forbid) grounding.