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Delayed Deliveries Are Not a Crisis

9:26 am in Uncategorized by brasch

by Walter Brasch

 

It’s been about two weeks since the news media began smothering the nation with stories about UPS and FedEx delivering packages late during the holiday season.

A short shopping season of less than 30 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, combined with extraordinary numbers of deliveries and extreme weather problems caused thousands of packages not to be delivered by Christmas. For some media, this was the top story.

FedEx says it delivered more than 275 million packages in that one month period. UPS doesn’t say how many it delivered or how many were late. But it does say that if customers sent their packages by ground and hoped they would arrive by Christmas, the cut-off date was December 11. For air service, UPS temporarily added 29 planes to its fleet.

Understandably, there are several hundred thousand senders and receivers who are unhappy their packages were not delivered by Christmas. However, people got their gifts, even if a day or two late.

It doesn’t require myriad news stories, many of which led the nation’s TV news. It doesn’t require a U.S. senator to be indignant and demand that UPS and FedEx refund all costs for all packages.

A crisis is that more than 125,000 people in Michigan, New England, and parts of Canada suffered more than a week without electricity after a major storm took down power lines. Electric company employees, emergency management staffs, the Red Cross and other social service agencies worked with little sleep to help the people. A second storm this past weekend added to the myriad problems.

A crisis is that 25 have already died from effects of the storm.

A crisis is that more than a million are homeless, many of whom are still on the streets in bitter cold.

A crisis is that almost 50 million Americans, almost 17 million of them children, live in poverty.

A crisis is that Congress increased the federal minimum wage by only $2.10 an hour in the past 15 years, but in the past decade found enough tax funds to increase its own salaries $20,000 a year to its current $174,000 minimum plus expenses.

A crisis is that Congress abandoned its job and went home early without passing legislation to continue unemployment benefits for more than a million Americans who, even in an economy that is in recovery, still haven’t been able to find work.

A crisis is that this may be the least productive Congress in history—and that includes the “Do-Nothing Congress” that had infuriated Harry Truman in the late 1940s. By comparison, that Congress passed more than twice the number of bills than the current Congress, including legislation to create the Department of Defense and initiate the Marshall Plan to stimulate economic recovery to Europe after World War II.

A crisis is that this Congress, led by a minority of the minority party, succeeded in shutting down government, blocked critical judicial appointments, spent much of its time whining about the Affordable Care Act and brought up more than 40 votes, all of which failed, to repeal the Act. This is the same Act that had been passed by a previous Congress and ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court.

A crisis is that more than a year after the murders in Newtown, Conn., there have been more than 12,000 deaths by guns—and politicians are still swayed more by an affluent special interest lobby than by the people who elected them.

A crisis is that the nation’s infrastructure has deteriorated to a point that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave it a D+. More specifically, the ASCE gave grades of D-, D, or D+ to the nation’s dams and levees, inland waterways, drinking water quality, hazardous waste systems, roads, transit systems, airports, school facilities, electrical grid and pipeline distribution systems. Only bridges, ports, and railroads received C ratings.

The only bright spot is solid waste recycling improved to a B-. If anyone is to blame for the nation’s below-average performance it’s the elected politicians who decided they didn’t want to raise taxes to take care of the nation in order to appear to be fiscal conservatives, but spend lavishly on junkets and pet projects that only special interests that dribble campaign funds care about.

These are crises.

A late Christmas gift, while annoying, isn’t. Read the rest of this entry →

by brasch

Depth Takes a Holiday in Mass Media

2:35 pm in Uncategorized by brasch

by Walter Brasch

 

The mass media have a fixation upon throwing up lists.

Sports editors run innumerable lists of the “Top 10” high school and college teams.

Arts and entertainment editors run lists of the top books, movies, songs, and even video games.

Financial and business editors tell us who they believe are the “most important” moguls, and rank each on a scale that has no meaning to anyone, especially the moguls themselves.

Fashion editors love making lists of “best dressed” and “worst dressed” celebrities.

News editors love making end-of-the-year lists of the “Top 10 Headlines.” Like the other editors, they don’t tell us why their pick of the top news story was more important than the No. 2 story—or why the No. 10 story was any more important than the thousands that did not make the list.

TV Guide also loves lists. This month, it threw out a list of what some of their editors irrationally believe are the “60 Greatest Shows on Earth,” complete with a sentence describing each show. And, like most lists, it’s little more than annoying static.

The top three shows, according to TV Guide, are “The Sopranos,” “Seinfeld,” and “I Love Lucy.” Squeezing into the list at the bottom are “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “The Good Wife,” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.” In between—and completely without any logic, except for the editors’ over-ripe egos that they actually know something—are numerous shows, some great, some better than mediocre. For instance, “Saturday Night Live,” which believes stretching out a good one minute comedy sketch to five minutes makes it five times better, is the 18th best “greatest show on earth.” The editors, who seem to be in a time warp that left them in junior high, placed “SNL” above “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (no. 20), “The Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson” (no. 22), “Friends” (no. 28), “Taxi” (no. 35), “Barney Miller” (no. 46), “The Bob Newhart Show” (no. 49), and “The Daily Show, with Jon Stewart” (no. 53.) No one at TV Guide can explain how “The Daily Show” was 35 places below “SNL” or why “The Colbert Report” never made the list. The editors also didn’t explain how “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” by all accounts one of the best comedies on TV, was rated no. 7, while Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” a 90-minute live comedy show in the early 1950s that exposed America to the acting and writing talents of Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Howard Morris and dozens of others, was 37th on the list, 19 below “SNL,” which should have used the Sid Caesar show—or even its own first half-dozen years—as models of comedic genius. Missing from the list of the “60 Greatest” is “The Tonight Show, with Steve Allen,” which established the standard by which all other late night show operate.

“60 Minutes,” which has often been the top-rated show, made the list at no. 24. But, “See It Now,” with Edward R. Murrow, one of the nation’s most important and influential journalists, did not make the list, an oversight that could be attributed to the fact that TV Guide editors probably slept through most of their college journalism lectures, days after their after drug-induced high while watching “SNL.”

“Sesame Street” made the list, but “The Muppet Show” did not, nor did “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” “Captain Kangaroo,” “Howdy Doody Time,” “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle,” and the pioneering, “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie” from the 1940s.

Soupy Sales, who showed how to reach two different audiences—youth and adults with the same gags—isn’t on the list, possibly because his humor was more sophisticated than some of the mindless prattle of “SNL.”

Also missing from the “60 greatest” list—and indicative of TV Guide’s lack of understanding that America extends beyond the polluted Hudson River— is “NCIS.” TV Guide editors freely mark the best prime time shows to watch each day; they usually don’t give “NCIS” that distinction. Only in the past couple of years, exhausted by seeing “NCIS” at the top of the ratings week after week, have they published major features about “NCIS,” while constantly gushing over shows and stars that have no chance of lasting a decade in prime time.

For 10 years, the actors and crew of TV’s most-watched show have just done their jobs, and they have done it well.  Every actor is someone who could be on Broadway or handle a major film role.

The writing on “NCIS” is fast-paced and thought-provoking, wringing emotion from its 20 million viewers each week. Unlike many procedural dramas, this CBS show’s writers layer a fine coat of humor that is far better than what passes as half-hour sitcoms these days.

The production values exceed most other shows—from lighting to camera movement to even prop placement. The behind-the-scenes crew may be among the best professionals in the industry.

Behind the scenes, the cast and crew are family. They work together. They care about each other. Numerous shows claim this is true with them. But, the reality is their claims are little more than PR sludge. With “NCIS,” the claims are true.

There are no scandals and there doesn’t seem to be much ego among the actors.

In 11 seasons, Mark Harmon, who can evoke an emotion in the audience merely by a slight look and no words, has never been nominated for an Emmy. As every good actor knows, true acting is when people don’t know you’re acting.

Portraying the fine nuances of a character is a quality that sustained James Garner’s career for five decades. Like Mark Harmon, Garner never won an Emmy, and his popular show, “The Rockford Files” never made it to TV Guide’s “60 Greatest” splash of nonsense.

Mark Harmon and James Garner, both masters of their craft, may not even care they’ve never won an Emmy. They, like millions of us already know, a spot on TV Guide’s “60 greatest shows on earth” is not the recognition they crave – but probably deserve.

[Dr. Brasch, a journalist four decades, is also a media analyst and critic. He is also the author of 18 books, most fusing history with contemporary social issues. His latest in Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation not only of the economics, environmental, and health impact of fracking in the country, but also the Collusion between the oil/gas lobby and the nation’s politicians.]

by brasch

Government Should Not Define What a Reporter Is – or Isn’t

6:13 pm in Uncategorized by brasch

Sen. Diane Feinstein and a horde of members of Congress of both parties want to decide who is and who isn’t a reporter. Sen. Feinstein says a “real” reporter is a “salaried agent of a media company.”

aka Silence Do-Good

She mentions the usual suspects—New York Times, ABC News. She dismisses part-time staff. She dismisses freelancers. She dismisses those who write, often without pay, for the hundreds of alternative publications, and often break news and investigative stories well ahead of the mainstream media. She dismisses anyone who, she says, “have no professional qualifications.”

The reason she wants to define what a reporter is or isn’t is because there’s a federal Media Shield Law that protects reporters from revealing their sources. She wants to amend that to take away existing First Amendment protections from anyone not involved in—apparently—salaried establishment media.

There are people who have minimal qualifications to be a reporter. Many write nothing but screeds. Many have problems with basic language skills. Many have little familiarity with the AP Style Book. Many have an inability to ask probing questions of government officials; many merely transcribe what they’re told, whether from the president, a council member, or a local reader who is the focus of a feature. Some of them are paid salaries and are agents of media companies, which Sen. Feinstein believes are acceptable requirements.

There are also those who frequently allow “deep background” and “off-the-record” comments. Many news media won’t allow sources to go “off-the-record.” If the information isn’t available to the general public, it shouldn’t be available only to reporters. Access to news sources is something reporters enjoy that the average reader doesn’t; but there is a responsibility to the reader and viewer and listener not to hide information.

There are those who overuse the “veiled news source,” which is a part of the Shield Law. A veiled news source could be someone whom the reporter identifies as, “Sources close to the Governor state . . .” Often, the reporter doesn’t question a source’s motives for why she or he wants to give anonymous information, or if it is merely a “trial balloon” to use the media to put out information; if the people agree, sources become identified; if the public disagrees with a proposal, no one traces the “leak” to politicians or their staffs.

On more than a few occasions, reporters—whether “salaried agents” of a media company, part-timers for that company or for any of thousands of alternative publications or electronic media, or freelancers—have filled in holes in their stories with false identities—“A 55-year-old housewife in Podunka, who asked not to be identified, says . . . ” Good reporters seldom  use a veiled news source and then have to protect them should there be a court order to divulge the source of information.

On rare occasions, however, a reporter, in consultation with an editor, will allow a news source to be anonymous. Granting veiled news source status should not be given unless a source’s information and identity puts her or him into significant personal jeopardy—and the information can be verified.

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by brasch

America’s Culture Is Signing on the Dotted Line

6:04 am in Uncategorized by brasch

by Walter Brasch

The signing season has begun.

Look through your local newspaper for the next few weeks, and you’ll see a lot of posed pictures of high school athletes.

Everyone will be at a desk or table.

Around each one will be their parents and their coach. In some cases, add in an athletic director, a principal, and someone representing a college the young athlete is planning to attend.

It makes no difference if it’s a Division I or Division II school; sometimes it’s even a Division III school. Star athletes at the end of their high school careers get photos and applause. They can even get special financial aid and scholarships just for being able to play a sport well. At Division I universities, they also receive special academic tutoring to make sure they stay eligible.

Excel on an athletic field, and the local media will take your picture and write stories about you. If you’re good enough, the sportswriters might name you “Athlete of the Week” and present you with a certificate or small plaque.

At the end of the season—it makes little difference what season or what sport—you might be named to an all-district or all-regional or all-state team. You might even be voted by the sports writers in your area “Player of the Year” for your sport.

If you do extremely well in college sports, at the age of 22 you might be able to command a six- or seven-figure salary in a professional sport. Become a coach of a major sport at a Division I school, and even if your team is only mildly successful you’ll earn several times what professors earn.

Now, let’s pretend you’re a scholar. Even in the world of rampant grade inflation, you’re running an “A” average and are in the top 5 percent of your class. You just aced the SATs and are heading to a Division I university.

You probably won’t get your picture in the paper, surrounded by parents, counselor, mentor, or anyone from that Division I university. It just isn’t done. Newspapers have Sports sections, sometimes 8–12 pages; they don’t have Education sections.

Although some editors may claim that “education” is spread throughout the newspaper, the reality is that column inches devoted to sports coverage is significantly greater than column inches devoted to education news.

The American educational system rated just 17th among 50 industrialized countries, according to an analysis by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The countries with the leading educational systems, according to the EIU, were Scandinavian and Asian. The EIU analysis looked at both quantitative data (including class size, facilities, and government spending per pupil) and qualitative data (including development of cognitive skills.)

In another major study, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) revealed that U.S. students were average in reading and science skills, and below average in math skills. Fifteen-year-old students, according to the report, ranked 14th of 34 countries in reading abilities, 17th in science, and 25th in math. As for writing and cognitive skills abilities—just look at any letter to the editor to find out how well students command those subjects. The PISA testing requires students to take knowledge of a subject and apply it to solving real-world problems.

“This is an absolute wake-up call for America,” Dr. Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education, told the AP. He said the study was “extraordinarily challenging to us and we have to deal with the brutal truth [and] get much more serious about investing in education.”

There are innumerable problems in America’s educational systems. One is that the gap between the higher performing students and the lower performing students in all areas (including humanities, arts, and sciences) is increasing. Another is that educational systems, spurred by taxpayers who don’t want higher taxes, have learned not how to effectively cut expenses but have sacrificed education by packing more students into a classroom; almost every study (including the PISA testing) shows a link between class size and educational achievement.

Another link is the workload of the average teacher. Many taxpayers and some in the media believe teachers are overpaid and work “only” six or seven hours a day for only 180 days a year. However, the evidence doesn’t support the public perception. Teacher pay averages about 12 percent less than for professionals in comparable jobs, according to a recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute; in some states, the pay is 25 percent less than for comparable jobs. The average teacher workload is significantly greater than the number of hours in the classroom. According to a recent study by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation, teachers average about 53 hours a week, including time spent on class preparation, student evaluation, and discussions with students and their parents. Even during breaks, teachers are usually developing classroom materials or attending conferences and in-service training. The PISA report links general public respect for teachers with greater educational success.

And, yes, in the educational system are weak and ineffective teachers, school administrators, and school board members who are part of a system that may have become more lethargic than revolutionary.

But, a look at American society, as seen in the pages of the local newspaper, is a reflection of what Americans think is important. When you’re looking at a four-column picture of a smiling athlete at a signing ceremony, ask yourself why do we wring our hands, furrow our brows, and complain about low educational scores.

The answer might be that while athletes are photographed signing on the dotted line, highly-talented  student musicians, artists, writers, and future scientists, among several hundred thousand others, are also signing on dotted lines—but, these are dotted lines on financial loan statements.

[Dr. Brasch, who has mixed teaching and journalism for more than three decades, is an award-winning journalist and the author of 17 books. His latest is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation of the effects of fracking upon public health, safety, and the environment. The book is available from amazon.com or www.greeleyandstone.com. Assisting on this column was Rosemary R. Brasch.] Read the rest of this entry →

by brasch

America’s Uncivil Phone Manners

5:53 am in Uncategorized by brasch

 

by WALTER BRASCH

 

Wednesday, I called the newsrooms of Pennsylvania’s two largest newspapers.

All I got were disembodied voices telling me no one was available and to leave a message.

It was 11 a.m., and I thought someone—anyone!—should have answered their phones. But, with publishers doing their best to “maximize profits” by cutting news coverage and reporters, I figured they either didn’t have anyone capable of answering a phone or figured no one would be calling with any news that day.

So I left a message. It was a routine question, specific for each newspaper and related to verifying information from their papers for a book I was completing.

I left another message the next day. I would have called individual assignment reporters, but unlike the websites of many smaller newspapers, the metros’ websites didn’t have that information. Apparently, they don’t want readers to know who does what at their newspapers.

Nevertheless, no one called back. I wasn’t important enough.

Calls and emails to an agent for an actor, who I was trying to get for a public service announcement for a national organization, a few weeks earlier weren’t returned. Nor were calls and emails to a national talk show host I was trying to secure for a paid speech to a different national non-profit organization.

Nor were several calls and emails to the producers of pretend-folksy “Ellen” ever returned. In that case, I had a “straight-A” student, who was a mass communications major with minors in marketing and dance. She was one of the best students I had ever taught. She wanted to be an intern. You know, the kind who don’t get pay or benefits but get experience. There were jobs available. It took several calls to others who were affiliated with the show just to find out the names of producers or contacts. But no one from the show returned any of my communications, whether by email, letter, or phone calls. Not even to say my advisee wouldn’t be considered.

Celebrities and their companies get thousands of emails and phone calls. To the average citizen that would be overwhelming. But, to corporations, especially those who deal with the public, there should be sufficient funds in an operation that makes millions a year to hire staff to respond to viewer communications.

Most of the smaller media take pride in returning phone calls or responding to letters from readers and viewers. But something must happen when reporters and producers move into the rarified atmosphere of large media.

It’s too bad. Big Media show arrogance to the people, and then spend countless hours wondering why the people don’t trust them.

Unfortunately, the loss of civility isn’t confined to those who are celebrities or part of the Big Media Morass.

A call to a company that installs home generators went to voice mail, and then wasn’t returned. A call to an individual who advertises that he cleans out gutters and water spouts also wasn’t returned. A call to a university department was answered. The receptionist said the lady “isn’t around.”

“When will she be around?” I asked.

“Don’t know,” came the response.

“Do you think she’ll be available later today?”

“Maybe. You could call back.”

In many cases, the people are left with the belief that others just don’t care. Or, maybe they’re too busy. Or maybe they just forget. Or maybe they’re too busy texting and tweeting to have time to deal with people. Unless, of course, they think we’re at least as important as they are. Then, they fall all over themselves to talk with us.

Even with these annoyances, most calls are answered; most times, I (and I would hope others) are treated with respect. Most times, receptionists and staff take extra time to try to solve problems.

Nevertheless, more and more we see a loss of civility by people and organizations that may think they’re just too important to deal with the people. For the large corporations and the celebrities that have multi-million dollar budgets, perhaps their PR and marketing efforts should first be focused on dealing with the people rather than splashing us with large-scale media campaigns to convince us that they matter. Failure to do so will leave us believing that they, not us, are the ones who don’t matter.

[Walter Brasch is an award-winning syndicated columnist, author, and former multimedia writer-producer and university professor. His latest book is Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution.]

 

 

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The Fluff Factor: Today’s Journalism

7:13 am in Uncategorized by brasch

by WALTER BRASCH

Marshmallow Fluff

(Photo: Mr T in DC/flickr)

Will someone please buy gags for Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford?

It makes no difference what the color is.

Plain or polka-dotted.

Painted or sequined.

Scented silk, Egyptian cotton, or an auto mechanic’s oil-soaked rag. Just as long as it can be stuffed into their mouths.

When their mouths are open, the personality-drenched hosts of NBC’s fourth hour of “Today” are swilling cocktails, blathering about themselves, or interrupting their guests.

It makes no difference who the guest is. Cookbook or romance author. Relationships or nutrition expert. A-list actors. No one gets more than a couple of seconds without cross-talk with one or both of the hosts. They may think it’s funny. Or, maybe, like authors who are sometimes paid by word, or doctors who are given bonuses for scheduling myriad lab tests, these babblers have to justify their seven-figure annual incomes by the jabber rate of words per minute. It may be time for NBC to move all four hours of the “Today” show from the news division into the entertainment division.

Almost as bad as the GabFest at 10 a.m. is what has happened to news shows. At one time, news anchors, assisted by newswriters and producers, went into the field, got the news, wrote it, edited it, and then broadcast it. They sat in anchor chairs because they were excellent journalists. But broadcast journalism—and those two words should seldom be put next to each other in the same sentence—with a few network and regional exemptions devolved into yet another mess of Reality TV.

The co-hosts, known as anchors, are usually a tandem of a wise middle-aged older man and his pretend trophy wife, both of whom spend more time in Make-up and Hair Dressing than they ever spent in journalism classes. Their reporters and correspondents may have studied journalism in college, but their interests were undoubtedly more focused upon voice quality, delivery, and personality than source building, probing, and fact checking.

On air, the anchors open with something serious. A fire. A mugging. A supermarket opening, reported by freshly-scrubbed 20-ish field reporters and recorded by videographers with digital cameras and almost no knowledge of what video is. In all fairness, it’s hard to know what videotape is when your best friend is an iPad.

If a story doesn’t have a “visual,” it probably won’t air. That’s one of the reasons why stories about the foolishness of state legislatures aren’t broadcast. The other reason may be that Public Affairs Journalism isn’t usually a required course for college students majoring in Broadcast Journalism. By the end of the first news block, the co-hosts lighten up. Coming back from commercials—there are eight minutes of them in a 30-minute news cast—the co-hosts may have more news or a script that directs them to “throw it to Weather.”
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by brasch

Star Gazing: Comets, Actors, and Angelina’s Right Leg

7:17 am in Uncategorized by brasch

 

                                                     by WALTER BRASCH

In 1973, some friends and I went to the rooftop of our apartment building to watch Comet Kahoutek, touted by astronomers and the media as the comet of all comets. We were sure we’d see it since we had the requisite equipment—binoculars and beer.

But we didn’t see the comet. Not that night nor the next night. What we did see was a lot of universe. And while we talked about the ungrateful comet that barely shone against a perfect sky, we explored a lot of questions about life, relationships, and our place in the universe. And we realized that no matter how egocentric we were, or how many kudos we earned from our peers, the universe must have a greater mission or reason for being than just to provide support for a few college students.

Growing up and working in Southern California, stars have been a part of my life. I could go to the Griffith Park and Mt. Palomar observatories; I could also hang around places where stars, near-stars, and pretend-stars walked, shopped, and ate.

Probably, that’s why I have a number of concerns about stars that are light years away and stars that are as far away as a TV or movie screen.

I’m concerned about our planet’s own star. Astrophysicists—the kind who actually know what warp speed means and why Scotty can’t give Capt. Kirk any more power—have determined that the sun is five billion years old, and will burn out in another five billion years. I’m concerned that no one knows how to treat a star for mid-life crises.

And speaking of stars with mid-life crises, I wish the media would stop wasting ink and airtime about every 50s- or 60s-year-old male actor who dates a 20-something female? If they want to date someone who scratches her head when the name Paul McCartney comes up, and then, as if two brain cells connected, suddenly asks if McCartney wasn’t that old guy in some band named Wings—well, that’s their own business.

I’m concerned that weeks before the Academy Awards, entertainment media know-it-alls tell us their predictions, encapsulated by a “who should win/who will win” story of erudite nonsense. Minutes after the ceremony, they trumpet their few correct predictions and mute their pomposity by telling us that such-and-such Oscar was a major upset, as if some magical fairy changed the votes without telling them.

I’m concerned that TV reporters parade their “intimacy” with the stars by calling them by their “close-friend-only” names. We all know about “Sly” Stallone, “Bob” Redford, and “Bobby” Duvall. The media called Elizabeth Taylor “Liz,” possibly because they had trouble pronouncing a four-syllable word; Taylor hated to be called Liz, but that made little difference. Maybe some of the stars should call reporters by their nicknames. Maybe we’ll learn about “Speed Bump,” “Jerkface,” and “Cuddles.”

The pre-Oscar runway special focuses not upon the art and craft of acting or movie making, but upon fashion. This year, ABC-TV sent five co-anchors (three of them fashion experts) onto the red carpet to interview the A-list. There was so much they could ask, and so much that the stars would have preferred to have been asked, but most of the questions revolved around, “Who are you wearing?” Clad in $10,000 one-of-a-kind dresses donated by designers in exchange for the free publicity, the stars gave names and tried to look excited rather than incredulous when asked, “So are you excited?” When not asking about the who, the co-anchors asked questions that focused upon looks. Frankly, it was nauseating to hear Tim Gunn twice tell Melissa Rivers that she had buns of steel, and Rivers saying that women who don’t squeeze their own buns won’t attract men who will squeeze them.

Finally, a week after the ceremony there aren’t many who remember the dresses or the winners, especially who won the Oscars for writing the Best Original Screenplay and the Best Adapted Screenplay. But, probably everyone remembers Angelina Jolie’s right leg. Jolie, who announced the award, wore a split dress, and brazenly showed her right leg. By the end of the awards show, there was a Twitter account (@angiesrightleg). Within two days, the leg had more than 35,000 followers, and was the subject of thousands of stories, parodies, and comedy monologues. For awhile, the skinny knock-kneed leg on one of the most beautiful actors and humanitarians allowed people to temporarily forget rising gas prices, layoffs, and a vicious presidential political campaign. It did for the people what movies and the other mass media do—it provided an enjoyable and temporary escape from reality.

[For those who care, the winners of the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay was Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris. The winners of the Best Adapted Screenplay were Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash for The Descendants. In other news, Dr. Brasch was recently named a finalist in the USA Book News competition for Before the First Snow, and is a nominee for both the Eric Hoffer and Benjamin Franklin awards for literary excellence.]

by brasch

Fewer Words; Less Filling

9:31 am in Uncategorized by brasch

                        

                                                              by WALTER  BRASCH 

The Reduced Shakespeare Co. cleverly and humorously abridges all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays to 97 minutes. Short of having a set of Cliff’s Notes or a collection of Classic Comics, sources of innumerable student essays for more than a half-century, it may be the least painful way to “learn” Shakespeare. The critically-acclaimed show, in addition to being a delightful way to spend part of an evening, is a satiric slap upside the head of the mass media.

The condensation of the media may have begun in 1922 with the founding of Reader’s Digest, the pocket-sized magazine which keeps its 17 million world-wide subscribers happy by a combination of original reporting and mulching articles from other magazines. Books also aren’t safe.

For more than six decades, Digest editors have been grinding four books into the space of one, calling them “condensed” or “selected,” and selling them by subscription to people with limited attention spans. These are the people who actively participate in society’s more meaningful activities, such as watching Snooki and JWoww on “Jersey Shore” or swapping lies with the gentrified folk at the country club. However, most media condense life to save money and improve corporate profits.

Book publishers routinely order authors to reduce the number of manuscript pages, saving production and distribution costs. The printed book will always have a place, but publishers are now deleting print production and putting their books onto Kindle and Nook, reducing page size to a couple of sizes smaller than the first TV screens. Because reading takes time, and time needs to be abbreviated for the MTV Go-Go Generation, chapters are shorter, and book length has been further reduced to adapt to e-book format.

Movie industry executives, eyes focused upon their wall safes, dictate shorter films, with more “action-paced” scene changes, an acknowledgement that Americans need constant stimulation. It isn’t uncommon for writers, faced by corporate demands to reduce the length of a screenplay, to indiscriminately rip out three or four pages in protest, only to find that the corporate suits instead of being appalled are, in fact, pleased.

Scripted half-hour TV shows were once 26 minutes, with four minutes for promotions and commercials. Now, the average half-hour show is 22 minutes; the average hour show is about 45 minutes, with at least two sub-plots because producers believe viewers don’t have the attention spans to follow only one plot line.

In radio and television news, the seven-second sound bite is now standard, forcing news sources to become terse and witty, though superficial. News stories themselves usually top out at 90 seconds, about 100–150 words. An entire newscast usually has fewer words than the average newspaper front page.

An exception is the music industry. At one time, popular songs were two to three minutes, some of it because of the technological limits of recordings. During the past two decades, with the development of digital media, pop music has crept past four minutes average. The downside, however, is that writers are taking the same cutesy phrases and subjecting listeners to nauseous repetition.

Long-form journalism, which includes major features and in-depth investigations that can often run 3,000 or more words, has largely been replaced by short-form news snippets, best represented by Maxim and USA Today.

USA Today condenses the world into four sections. Publishers of community newspapers, citing both USA Today’s format and nebulous research about reader attention span, impose artificial limits on stories. Thirty column inches maximum per news story, with 12 to 15 inches preferred, is a common measure.

When the newspaper industry was routinely pulling in about 20–30 percent annual profits, the highest of any industry, publishers were routinely delusional, believing that was the way it was supposed to be and would always be. Instead of improving work conditions and content, they increased shareholder dividends and executive bonuses. When advertising and circulation began to drop, they made numerous changes to keep those inflated profits.

Publishers downsized the quality, weight, and size of paper. Page sizes of 8-1/2 by 11 inches are still the most common magazine size, but several hundred magazines are now 8- by 10-1/2 inches. Newspaper page width has dropped to 11–12 inches, from almost 15-1/2 inches during the 1950s.

Faced by advertising and circulation freefall the past decade, publishers cut back the number of pages. More significantly, they began a systematic decimation of the editorial staff, cutting reporters and editors.

Faced by heavier workloads and tight deadlines, many reporters merely dump their notebooks into type, rather than craft them and then submit the story to a copyeditor to fine tune it so it is tight, has no holes, and no conflicting data. In the downsized newspaper economy, stories often pass from reporter to a quick scan by an editor and then into a pre-determined layout, all of it designed to cause fewer problems for overworked editors.

The solution to the “newspaper-in-crisis” wailing, with innumerable predictions that print newspapers will soon be as dead as the trees that give them nourishment, may not be in cutting staff, and replacing the news product with fluff and syndicated stories that fill pages, but are available on hundreds of websites, but in giving readers more. More reporters. More stories. And, most of all, more in-depth coverage of local people and issues, with each article well-reported, well-written, and well-edited.

[In a 40-year career in journalism, Walter Brasch has been an award-winning  newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, syndicated columnist, multimedia and TV writer-producer, and tenured full professor of mass communications. He says he’ll keep doing journalism until he gets it right. His current book, BEFORE THE FIRST SNOW, is an autobiographical mystery novel that includes a number of media observations.]

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Miss America: Auditioning for Center Stage

7:24 am in Uncategorized by brasch

 

by Walter Brasch

Tucked between the New Hampshire primary and Ground Hog Day, and directly competing against an NFL playoff game, is Saturday night’s annual Miss America pageant.

Although the headquarters is still near Atlantic City, where it originated in 1921, the pageant—don’t call it a beauty contest—has been a part of the Las Vegas entertainment scene for eight years. Apparently, the Las Vegas motto of “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” wrapped itself around the pageant as well, with TV viewership dropping lower almost every year.

ABC-TV divorced Miss America in 2004, claiming irreconcilable differences. Viewership had fallen from a peak of 26.7 million in 1991 to an all-time low of 9.8 million, barely enough to keep a prime-time show on the air. The pageant’s CEO, trying to preserve what dignity was left, stated “We needed to find a better partner, one that better understands our values.”

Apparently better understanding Miss America’s values was Country Music Television (CMT). However, that marriage didn’t last, and Miss America then hooked up with the The Learning Channel (TLC). By 2007, only 2.4 million viewers tuned in to watch who would be the next beauty queen to want world peace, save the whales, and “do her country proud.”

Treating its demotion to the minor leagues as a chance for rehabilitation, the pageant made a few cosmetic changes, began playing with new ways of scoring, including viewer participation, and slowly brought its ratings back to about 4.5 million in 2010.

That’s when ABC-TV and Miss America, after a six-year divorce, fell in love again. Apparently, CMT and TLC “values” (and money) weren’t as good as a major network’s. Promising eternal faithfulness—as long as the ratings increased—the two lovebirds were seen by about 7.8 million.

Now, it may seem that only TV executives and advertisers should care about ratings, viewer demographics, and selling fluff. But the contestants are well-trained actors in the made-for-TV show, complete with celebrity judges, most of whom are there solely because they are—well—celebrities.

About one-third of all contestants say they want to go into communications. As in almost every pageant for the past four decades, several want to go into television. Miss Delaware and Miss Nevada both want to be talk show hosts. Miss Louisiana wants to anchor the “Today” show; to get to that lofty goal, she plans to first get a master’s in health communication. None of the contestants wanting to go into journalism have expressed any interest in first covering city council meetings, the courts, police, or Little League games. They plan to take their beauty and pageant poise, make up their hair and face, and stand in front of a camera to emphasize the reality that broadcast journalism has diminished to the point of style over substance.

Miss New York wants to be the editor of a fashion magazine. Miss Idaho wants to write for a health and fitness magazine. Miss Hawaii wants to be a film director; to do that, she plans to first get an MBA. There is no evidence she plans first to be an actor, set designer, writer, cinematographer, or in any of several dozen crafts.

Miss Utah says she wants to be an interpersonal communications presenter (whatever that is) and also a college dance team coach. Miss New Hampshire, who probably dressed Barbie dolls in corporate suits, says she wants to “own a large and prestigious advertising firm.” It’s doubtful she’ll want to modify the gibberish of the organization that, with all seriousness, says it “provides young women with a vehicle to further their personal and professional goals and instills a spirit of community service through a variety of unique nationwide community-based programs.”

A few contestants say they want to be “event planners,” as if there already aren’t enough people wasting their own lives by planning the lives of others.

Not planning to go into communications is Miss California who is earning a degree in something called “social enterprise.” That could be anything from learning how to use Facebook to mixing the drinks at upscale parties. Miss West Virginia says she wants to go into the military, and then become secretary of state. Perhaps one day she might work for the 2011 Miss America, whose goal is to become president.

Several contestants plan to get MBAs, but almost everyone wants to use that degree to go into—prepare yourself!—a non-profit social service agency.  It sounds good, and maybe they all mean it. But, dangle a six-figure salary, stock options, extensive perks, and a “golden parachute,” and most of them will run over the Red Cross so fast it’ll need blood transfusions.

Mixed into the career goals are some contestants who plan to be physicians, pharmacists, speech therapists, physical therapists, and others in the caring professions.  

Miss America doesn’t have to worry about a job or college for a year. Along with a paid chaperone, she will tour the country to sign autographs and give inspirational speeches about whatever her platform is—and, of course, to promote the Miss America Organization.

From the “toddlers and tiaras” stage to the stage at the Planet Hollywood Casino, beauty contestants are told how to look, act, and talk, even what to say or not say. The Miss America Organization—which makes the Mafia look like a second rate fraternity—doesn’t tell contestants they must attend college. But, every one of the state winners plans to be a college graduate.

There is a definite bias against those who don’t think attending college is important at this stage of their lives. And so, we don’t see talented actors, singers, dancers, and musicians who are bypassing college to attend specialized non-degree-granting schools and enter their professions. We don’t see contestants who, although beautiful and talented, are planning to be plumbers, electricians, or firefighter/paramedics. We don’t see contestants who want to be gardeners, floral arrangers, or chefs. And, we most assuredly don’t see women who are bypassing college to be part of major social movements.

[Walter Brasch, who attended several beauty pageants, although as a reporter and not as a contestant, is a social issues columnist and book author. His current book is Before the First Snow: Tales from the Revolution, available at www.amazon.com or www.greeleyandstone.com]

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Making Sport of Our Future

6:00 am in Uncategorized by brasch

 

by WALTER BRASCH

One of the fun things sports writers do is try to predict the winners and scores of upcoming games, from high school through the pros. For special “look-at-us-we’re important” bonus points, they create lists of “Top” teams and rank them, both pre-season and weekly.

Sports writers have some kind of genetic mutation that leads them to believe they know more about sports than the average schlump who spends almost $200 a year for a newspaper subscription and as much as $500 a year for all-access all-games everywhere cable coverage. However, the reality is that even the best prognosticators—sports writers love big words when they can pronounce them—have a record about as accurate as the horoscope on the comics page.

Nevertheless, the guesses and rankings by sportswriters are usually innocuous. Readers and viewers usually forget in a couple of days who says what, and go about their own lives trying to make a mediocre paycheck stretch until the end of the month.

Joining the “guess how bright I am” journalists are some reporters who cover national political races. Instead of researching and explaining candidate positions on numerous issues, and giving readers and viewers a greater understanding of how those positions could impact their own lives, these pompous scribblers have made politics another sports contest.

The national news media, secure in their perches in New York and Washington, D.C., several months ago began chirping about who will win the Iowa caucus. For the final few days, they parachuted into Iowa to let their readers and viewers think they were toughened field reporters with as difficult a job as combat correspondents in Iraq or Afghanistan. Like hungry puppies, they stayed close to the candidates, hoping for a morsel or two, digested it, passed it out of their system as wisdom, and haughtily predicted the winner would be Mitt Romney—no, wait—it’s Michele Bachman—no, we’re calling for a surprising victory by Herman Cain—stop-the-presses, Cain petered out—Newt Gingrich is definitely going to take Iowa—Rick Perry is our prediction— we predict Ron Paul might be ahead—the race is going to be tough, but based upon our superior knowledge because we’re the national news media and we’re infallible, and from projections we picked out of our butts we believe—.

The one candidate they discounted for almost all but the last week of the Iowa primary race was Rick Santorum. Not a chance, they declared. Weak campaign. Lack of funds. No charismatic razzle-dazzle. No vital signs. Dead as a 2-by-4 about to be sawed and covered by wallboard.

Santorum, of course, came within eight votes of taking the Iowa caucus. The news media then spent the next day telling us all about that campaign, much in the same way that a bubbly TV weather girl, who a week earlier predicted bright sunny skies for a week, tells us we had snow the past three days.

The national news media jetted out of Iowa faster than a gigolo leaving a plain rich girl for a plain richer one, and descended upon New Hampshire. In the granite state, they have been repeating their performance from Iowa. They have predicted who the “real” winners and losers are. They have tried to convince us they can actually talk to us common folk, so they are grabbing whoever they find to answer in less than ten seconds, “Who do you think will win?” After the New Hampshire primary concludes, Tuesday, the media will happily discard their snow coats for windbreakers and descend into South Carolina, where they will continue to treat a presidential race as little more than a sporting contest.

There’s a difference, however. Generally, whoever wins or loses a game doesn’t have much impact upon the rest of us, so we smile at the sportswriters’ attempts to predict outcomes and pretend they can analyze the impact of a reserve left tackle’s hangnail. Those who are elected to our city councils, state legislatures, Congress, and the Presidency do have an impact upon us. And we deserve a lot better than the arrogance of the news clan reporting the contests as if they were sporting events.

[Walter Brasch was a sportswriter and sports editor before becoming an award-winning public affairs/investigative reporter and columnist, who has covered several presidential campaigns. He was once a reporter for an Iowa newspaper. His current book is the critically-acclaimed social issues mystery-thriller, Before the First Snow.]