I produced about 75 pieces in my first six months as a reporter for Greater Boston – that’s about 12 pieces a month, three pieces a week for those of you keeping score at home. After two decades of freelancing, it was a dream come true: My only job was to go out in the field, conduct interviews and shoot video, then go back to the station to record the voiceover and edit the piece.
Then I’d go on the show and flap my gums for eight or ten minutes.
More than a handful of those early pieces chronicled the misadventures of Boston Globe serial plagiarist/fabricator Mike Barnicle, culminating in this one.
Boston Magazine’s 12,000-word piece on Mike Barnicle is as thorough as an IRS audit. It details 25 years of Barniculture at the Boston Globe, where apparently standards were more flexible than Gumby, and editorial control was decidedly pokey. By now, the rise and fall of Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle are well-known tales, but the Boston magazine story does add some fun facts to know and tell.
There is, for instance, the folklore about Barnicle’s being a full-time speechwriter for Robert Kennedy during his 1968 presidential campaign. One small problem: RFK’s head speechwriter Adam Walinsky told the magazine he hadn’t even met Barnicle during the ’68 campaign, never mind seen anything Barnicle had written.
Then there’s Barnicle’s alleged connection to Robert Redford’s 1972 film, The Candidate. Screenwriter Jeremy Larner vigorously disputes that, and Barnicle conceded to Boston magazine that his connection to both the Kennedy campaign and the movie has been overstated.
Barnicle is, however, actually acquainted with Redford and was actually seen lunching with the movie star this past week. In its quest to explore all things Barnicle, Boston magazine’s big takeout also includes a sidebar by celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz, whose ax to grind has reached Bunyonesque proportions.
The whirling Dersh is still seeking vindication for a racist quote Barnicle falsely attributed to him in 1990, but at this point, he ought to take a number.
From the evidence presented in the Boston magazine piece, Barnicle’s collected works feature more fabrications than a drapery showroom. But it’s probably too much to hope that this 12,000-word undressing will finally draw the curtain on the biggest Boston swindle since the Brinks heist.
• • • • • • •
Around that same time the ‘GBH brass, understandably, put the kibosh on my freelancing at WBUR – an early salvo in what would become a sort of trench warfare between Boston’s two public-broadcast radio stations.
Then again, since Living on Earth was a national program on NPR, it was not on the bosses’ radio silence list. So in May of 2007 I produced a commentary on the return, in a public service announcement, of Iron Eyes Cody, who had years earlier memorably shed a tear over the pollution of America.
In 1971, Native Americans were still Indians and PSAs were still taken seriously as a public responsibility by the major TV networks. Now, of course, Indians are strictly those living in the triangle south of the Himalayas, and television networks have replaced traditional PSAs with politically correct bromides delivered by sitcom stars. But none of them will ever have the impact of Iron Eyes Cody, who gave pollution a bad name without saying a word.
The classic PSA showed Cody canoeing down a river which becomes increasingly choked with trash as he approaches a smog-covered industrial area. After beaching the canoe, he walks up to a highway where a passing motorist tosses a bag of trash at his feet.
(Male voice-over: “Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don’t. People start pollution. People can stop it.”)
The PSA caught the first wave of the environmental movement, making an impression that’s lasted almost as long as a plastic trash bag in a landfill. But the same probably won’t be said for the new version of the anti-litter PSA . . .
A couple of months later this LOE piece chewed over Monsanto’s campaign to plant its genetic-engineered crops in a resistant Europe.
To the average American, Europeans seem a bit, well, eccentric about what they eat. The British, for example, don’t freshness-date their food, they carbon-date it. The French, on the other hand, refuse to eat anything that hasn’t been harvested or eviscerated within the past 24 hours. As for the rest of the European Community, they can’t even agree on the definition of cheese. So it’s really no surprise that Monsanto has had trouble promoting genetic food products in the European market. Monsanto wants to sell biotechnology-enhanced seeds to farmers and get European consumers to eat their genetically engineered soybeans and such. But the general populace, mindful of the British beef scare of several years ago, apparently fears an outbreak of mad corn disease.
That’s driven Monsanto to adopt the weapon of last resort with an uncooperative public: advertising. Monsanto’s European newspaper ads are decidedly more low-key than what Americans are accustomed to seeing. One French ad takes the form of a quiz, offering multiple-choice answers to the question: What is genetic engineering of crops? The answers, loosely translated, are: the production of blue oranges, the study of plants that dance to techno-music, or – and this is the correct one – the science that improves vegetables by giving them new properties. Not exactly Final Jeopardy, but certainly tougher than asking the French why they prefer gum surgery to American tourists . . .
• • • • • • •
I continued producing commentaries for APM’s Marketplace as well. One of them detailed the collision of controversial advertising with controversial programming. During shock jock Howard Stern’s broadcast television debut on the CBS affiliates in New York and Los Angeles, New Jersey-based Ansell Products took the high-profile opportunity to launch a new campaign for Lifestyles condoms.
To some critics, Howard Stern’s entire program is an advertisement for birth control, given the freak-show characters and sideshow atmosphere it features. Regardless, an actual condom ad did appear during the broadcast in New York and Los Angeles, two of the least shockable cities in America. But the real shock is that the new Lifestyles commercial ran at all, given network television’s traditional policy of refusing condom ads except in the form of public service announcements addressing disease prevention.
That changed a bit two years ago when several network affiliates accepted a Lifestyles commercial that contained an animated skeleton dutifully talking about disease prevention . . .
Lifestyles has come back with a new approach featuring a bouncy jingle and a variety of boy-meets-girl settings, from dating bars to the ever-popular horse stable.
While the birth control message may be subtle, the traditional warnings about responsibility and sexually transmitted diseases are entirely absent. Instead, the new Lifestyles campaign concentrates on playing around, with one print ad showing an amorous couple along with the headline “How 2 Have More Fun in Bed.”
Equally bold is the choice of the Stern show as an advertising vehicle for Lifestyles’ new TV spots, which also run on more-receptive cable networks. But the big marketing opportunities are still on the broadcast networks, so the connection with Howard Stern seems to be a gamble worth taking . . .
Around that same time, I added a new freelance radio outlet – On the Media, a weekly NPR program that features reporting and analysis of the media world . One piece addressed the corporate-image polishers on the Sunday morning TV talk shows.
The Sunday morning squawk shows are to corporate advertisers what “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” is to actors: a chance to plug your work without fear of contradiction. For years the master of corporate image-polishing was the Caterpillar equipment company, which ran feel-good TV spots while earning more federal labor complaints than the average chicken processing plant. It takes a tough company to make a tender union.
Nowadays, commercial breaks on the squawk shows are filled with the likes of Merrill Lynch, which needs to instill confidence after cutting 3400 jobs, and the pharmaceutical industry, working to create a more pills-buried society. But the King of the Sunday morning set remains agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, a company so influential, it practically doubles as a Congressional district.
Last year ADM hired former Sunday morning host David Brinkley as a spokesman to add prestige to its corporate-image campaign. That raised eyebrows in editorial circles, so ADM’s commercials now start with a disclaimer, lest anyone think Brinkley is still a journalist . . .
Shaping public opinion, of course, is a major objective of these corporate-image efforts. They’re also useful for, say, calming a jittery stock market that threatens to bungee 200 points up and down indefinitely. And the high-profile campaigns can boost company morale during difficult times. But perhaps most significant, generous corporate-ad budgets can produce stingy news coverage of company problems.
Just ask Caterpillar and ADM. After they started appearing in commercial breaks on Sunday mornings, they stopped appearing in the programs themselves. On the squawk shows, you pay the price one way or another.
My final piece for On the Media in ’98 addressed the number of marketing campaigns that featured literary figures as pitchmen in ads on the Internet and in magazines.
America enjoys a long tradition of prominent literary figures apprenticing in the advertising world. Dashiell Hammett spent some of his early years writing ad copy, as did F. Scott Fitzgerald. Wallace Stevens was also an adman, although there’s no truth to the theory that his poem “The Emperor of Ice Cream” was based on the Good Humor man.
Regardless, that tradition has been turned upside down lately in a new ad campaign for Absolut vodka, which transforms best-selling authors into copywriters, presumably making them the “litter-ad-i.” The magazine ads are designed to attract an upscale, educated audience by associating the product with the book-jacket set, a variation on the Absolut campaign with brand-name bottles by contemporary artists.
For this campaign, Absolut has trotted out five “literary stars,” as the distiller calls them, who write short fictional pieces jury-rigged to include Absolut vodka as an essential plot device.
Take the contribution from Dominic Dunne, the Sir Walter Scott of celebrity scandal. Dunne’s piece has a stage-door Johnny visiting a theater queen who dumped him years earlier. The good-looking wren in a strapless gown is colder than the White House bedroom – until Boyfriend Johnny plunks a bottle of Absolut on the dressing-room table. Overall, it’s the hardest-boiled copy this side of an Easter ad . . .
• • • • • • •
I also wrote a couple of Globe Focus pieces in ’98. The first one dealt with what seemed at the time as the eternal sameness of political advertising.
Every election year, people complain about the numbing effect of political ads, as if Tom Menino is any worse on-screen than Frank Perdue’s kid. The reality is, campaign commercials in general are not especially lurid, deceptive or manipulative. What they are, mostly, is derivative – following in the footsteps of past commercials like bright-eyed tourists on the Freedom Trail. That’s what tends to wear people out . . .
Retraction #1: Campaign commercials, with very few exceptions, turned out to be totally lurid, deceptive or manipulative.
Retraction #2: What wears people out is not that campaign ads are derivative, but that they’re assaultive. Just ask any resident of Georgia during the 2020 election cycle.
Other than that, swell piece.
My second Focus article focused on the 1998 fall TV season.
As any veteran TV watcher knows, most new television shows wear thin faster than hotel soap. That’s hardly surprising, given the steady stream of copycat sitcoms and hand-me-down dramas that constitute the fall season. The question is not why the new shows have a praying-mantis mortality rate. The question all right-thinking Americans want answered is: Who’s to blame? Who should take the fall for the fall TV season?
We’re only a couple of weeks into this year’s slate and already the Class of ’98 has joined sausage- and law-making as things not to watch. Luckily, video Darwinism is even now winnowing the herd through channel selection. “Costello” – the Fox network’s comedy about a wisecracking Boston barmaid – got last call only two weeks into its run, a quicker exit than the Red Sox in post-season . . .
• • • • • • •
In the fall of ’98, two things happened that dramatically changed my writing regimen.
Nine months into my gig as a reporter for Greater Boston, the powers-that-were made me – despite my vigorous protestations – managing editor of the show.
As the Missus has pointed out, my tenure as a full-time reporter at WGBH was kind of like the stick-counting bit from Anne of the Thousand Days: “I can count the days I was his in hundreds, in all, one thousand days, just a thousand.”
Except I was John of the Two Hundred Ninety Days.
That was the trifecta for me, marking the third time I’d started as a writer – along with Filene’s and KK&M Advertising – and wound up as management.
As it happened in all three instances, I also retained my previous position – as a copywriter at the first two jobs, and a reporter at the third.
So I was a kind of a labor/management Minotaur at ‘GBH, although what was slain in that instance was my freelance career, thanks in no small part to the December 1998 debut of Beat the Press, the station’s weekly media review program. Once you start passing judgment on other media outlets, you can’t very well contribute to them at the same time.
(There were, as it turned out, exceptions to that rule, but fewer than I would have liked.)
Meanwhile, in October we produced the Greater Boston Brave News World Forum featuring a panel that included Ken Bode, dean of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism; Kurt Andersen, who had just co-founded a media news website called Inside; Michel McQueen, reporter for ABC’s Nightline; and Deborah Potter, founder of NewsLab.
I wrote the set-up piece for the forum.
Over the past decade, the traditional “Information Please” has given way to “Information – and step on it.” Multiplying cell phones, greased-lightning palm pilots and laptops of luxury have hot-wired our info-culture and our expectations . . .
Headline it “bytes dog man,” where information seeks us rather than vice versa. The problem for journalism arises when the Internet model of unfiltered content seeps into traditional news formats, like Matt Drudge going from cybergossip to squawk-show guest to TV host in a double-click.
News is supposed to be information in context, but nowadays it’s more often in chaos. Good video trumps good issues almost every time. Talk shows across the broadcast spectrum seem to favor argument over discussion.
At the same time, political analysis has taken a back seat to political prediction, while TV news magazines clearly prefer melodrama to reporting.
World news, on the other hand, is driven almost exclusively by famine, pestilence, death and destruction – the Four Geography Teachers of the Apocalypse.
Overall, though, the focus of news keeps feeling smaller – celebrity, scandal, mayhem. Those yearning for the Edward R. Murrow days would probably settle right now for a commercial-free David Brinkley.
I also produced for the forum a piece on the media merger mania at the time.
Last month’s $37 billion marriage of CBS and Viacom leaves the media industry only slightly less concentrated than frozen orange juice. The current urge to merge is driven in part by a desire to achieve synergy, an elaborate version of old- fashioned cross promotion. For example, when Disney opened its Wild Kingdom theme park last year, CEO Michael Eisner got a free ride on Disney subsidiary ABC. Here’s the end of Lisa McRee’s interview with Eisner on Good Morning America.
“Should I call you my liege?”
Since then Disney has become even more synergy-efficient – for instance, hooking up ABC’s World News Sunday with Disney cable subsidiary ESPN.
A certified big deal is ABC’s “Century” project, a multimedia push that ties together a book by Peter Jennings, a web site and regular news segments.
The segment steers viewers toward the web site, where they can buy the book and complete the marketing circle . . .
Across the spectrum, networks have created the most extensive buddy system this side of summer camp – from hitchhiking on other brands to picking up Internet partners.
The question is, in their rush to synergy, do networks run the risk of producing packages that are all wrapping and no gift.
Nowadays, we pretty much know the answer to that.
• • • • • • •
Around the same time, advertisers – alway on the lookout for new places to plaster their commercial messages, the more uncluttered the venue, the better – started testing a new technique of digitally adding products to scenes already shot for TV shows, as I noted in a piece for On the Media.
In the spirit of the long-running Visa campaign, advertisers are everywhere they want to be these days. Go to the beach this summer and you may well see the design of a Skippy Peanut Butter jar stamped in the sand. There are ad stickers on fruit and video monitors on gas-station pumps. And ads will soon begin appearing on Major League baseball uniforms, which will eventually make ballplayers look like the average NASCAR entry.
As if that weren’t enough, ads are also wriggling into previously uncharted territory on TV. Not content with occupying a mere 20% of every primetime hour, advertisers are on the verge of placing ads inside the programs. That would make the line between ads and entertainment blurry enough to require a VP/Optometry at every network . . .
Once that happens, why should advertisers stop at worming their way into the program’s action? Why not insert products into the titles as well. For instance, “Ally McBLT” would be great for tips on nutritional habits. “Lenscrafter’s 20/20” would certainly bring current events into focus, and “NYPD Blue Cheer” could be the cleaned-up version of the steamy police drama. As the ads say, the possibilities are endless. Advertisers are betting that viewer complacency will likely be the same.
Also trying to break through the clutter were automakers like Chevrolet, which hoped to ride celebrity endorsers to increased sales, as I noted on Marketplace.
Celebrity endorsers are the throw pillows of advertising – ideal for brightening up drab campaigns or covering up threadbare ideas. Of course it’s always nice if the celebrity has at least some connection to the product, which is why Michael Jordan will likely never endorse Head & Shoulders shampoo.
But lately some automakers have shifted to using celebrities not as traditional endorsers, but as symbols that are slapped on cars like decals. For example, a new campaign for Chevrolet revives its decades-old “See the USA” jingle and features a century’s-worth of American images – from Iwo Jima and hula hoops to Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix and Muhammed Ali.
It’s certainly takes ingenuity to associate some of these famous figures with a car manufacturer. How many automakers, after all, want to be hooked up with someone who died in a car crash, as James Dean did, not to mention two people who died of drug overdoses – Monroe and Hendrix – and a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War in the person of Ali. The answer, of course, is that Chevy is using these figures not for what they’ve been, but for what they’ve become – two-dimensional American icons . . .
Another piece for Marketplace detailed what might have been the first-ever lawsuit of its kind: an ad agency being sued by its client for committing advertising malpractice. The retail shoe chain Just For Feet said it was bullied by Saatchi & Saatchi Business Communications into running a Super Bowl ad that tarnished the chain’s image and damaged its business.
Retailers are the hypochondriacs of the business world – endlessly taking their temperature at the cash register, constantly checking for downdrafts in the market, and looking over their shoulder at last year’s sales figures so often, it’s a wonder they don’t have chiropractors on staff. As for adventurous advertising, retailers may not be allergic to it, but excess creativity does tend to give them the sniffles.
All the more remarkable, then, that Just For Feet’s Super Bowl ad ever saw the blue light of day. The spot shows a barefoot Kenyan runner being tracked by white paramilitaries in a Humvee. They pull up alongside him, slip a Mickey into a cup of water that he inexplicably accepts, and next thing you know the runner wakes up to find a pair of Nikes on his feet.
(RUNNER) Nooooooooooooo (ANCR) Just for Feet. To protect and serve feet.
Apparently, protecting and serving clients was not a priority for the retailer’s ad agency, Saatchi and Saatchi Business Communications. The press alternately labeled the spot reprehensible and racist, and Just for Feet kept seeing itself in the same sentence as Texaco and Denny’s. So the retailer sued the agency for marketing malpractice, which immediately raises the question, CAN someone violate the standards of an industry that clearly has none?
At least that’s the response Saatchi & Saatchi has filed in court papers according to a story in the Internet magazine Salon. That should put the agency in solid with its other clients . . .
Meanwhile, Just For Feet’s stock is down 75% since last year. Thanks to Saatchi & Saatchi, the stock of the ad industry could be even lower.
Just For Feet eventually dropped its $10 million lawsuit against Saatchi & Saatchi, shortly before the chain filed for bankruptcy.
• • • • • • •
On the print side, I managed to publish this Boston Phoenix piece about the otherworldly hype for Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.
First, disclosure: I have never seen “Star Wars.” Or “The Empire Strikes Back.” Or “Return of the Jedi.” But that doesn’t disqualify me from assessing the wall-to-wall hype for “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.” Unfettered by knowledge, I’m in fact uniquely qualified for the task. After all, the legions of Star Wars-heads will by definition go to “The Phantom Menace” without the massive publicity buildup. It’s the George Lucas-deprived – call us Dearth Vaders – who need to be brought up to intergalactic speed.
That’s the real value in the publicity blitz, which has been better orchestrated than a John Williams score. For months now, Lucas has Force-fed the news media what he wants, when he wants. His ability to dribble out his story a little at a time is downright Clintonesque, and journalists have been willing stenographers every step of the way . . .
This example, taken from a 60 Minutes interview with George Lucas, should have been subtitled, “Leslie in Wonderland.”
“60 Minutes,” 3/28/99. Actual transcript from Leslie Stahl and George Lucas in his workshop:
GEORGE LUCAS: It starts down in the library . . .
LESLIE STAHL: Ohhhh
GL: in research . . .
LS: look at this
GL: and then it comes up here to . . .
LS: Ohhhh, gahhh
GL: conceptualize, and the art department designs the stuff while I’m writing the screenplay.
Later, at the Lucas manse, Stahl goes from gadgets to Gidget: “You remind me of my girlfriends who work and have children!”
As for Time magazine’s “A conversation between Bill Moyers and George Lucas on the meaning of the Force and the true theology of ‘Star Wars,'” my only reaction was Everything . . . getting . . . dark . . . must . . . not . . . fall . . . asleep . . . DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!
• • • • • • •
I also got a few last gasps at the Globe, including this Focus piece about Bill Clinton’s fundraising pitch to pay off the legal bills that resulted from his congenital lying and chronic corruption.
Some months later I took Focus readers to the movies, decrying the nascent movement to pump out commercials to a captive audience.
Finally, on September 1st, my Boston Globe swan song ran on the op-ed page.
At that point, I had no idea how truly head-spinning the coming year of 2000 would turn out to be. But I found out pretty soon.
• • • • • • •
Y2K started out normal enough, considering that the Fallout Shelter thing never really happened. But the Republican presidential primary did happen, so I wrote a piece for On the Media about the new trend of placing political ads inside television newscasts.
Newscasts used to be the DMZ of political ads. The Whatever O’Clock News was the place where, in theory anyway, the candidates’ messages appeared in some larger context. Newscasts were supposed to deliver the whole story about half-truths, and round partial facts up to the nearest reality.
Not any more. During the presidential primary, political ads have run during the newscasts on at least two out of three network affiliates in Detroit, Columbia, SC, Manchester, NH and Boston – which reaches southern New Hampshire. Some stations restrict the ads to the weather, sports and healthbeat segments, but others run them right up there with the day’s top news, from police chases to pandas.
So, for instance, right after some feature story on a water-skiing squirrel, [an] ad for George W. Bush could come on. . . .
The standard argument against allowing political ads during newscasts is that the spots somehow gain more authority in a traditional journalistic setting. And it’s true that compared to the average meteorologist, George W. Bush actually does seem like someone who knows NATO from natchos. But beyond that, there’s the style political ads have adopted. In a year that values authenticity over mastery of the issues, cinéma vérité spots are all the rage. The problem is, they tend to look more like news footage than some of the real thing . . .
Over at Marketplace I started off a sports-media trifecta with a piece about the ad campaign – themed “Celebrate Humanity” – that the International Olympic Committee launched to pump up interest in the 2000 Summer Games.
For the past year the Olympic Games have been something of a five-ring circus. There were revelations of lavish gifts to International Olympic Committee officials and a million dollars in outright vote buying, leading to a selection process more elaborately rigged than a high-priced yacht. Regardless, the Summer Games will still be held in Sydney, and the 2002 Winter Games will remain in Salt Lake City. Apparently you can pay someone to throw a party in Utah.
With that kind of backdrop, a splashy image campaign is pretty much standard practice – and not surprisingly, the new Olympic ads avoid all mention of the scandals. Instead, the ads feature memorable footage of individual achievement, teamwork, and genuine sportsmanship. But the effect is largely undercut by scripts so ponderous, even Robin Williams can’t carry them off.
Representative sample: “You are my adversary, but you are not my enemy . . . your spirit ennobles me.”
Yes but your prose depresses me.
Even so, some of the spots do work – like the one showing a Bulgarian weightlifter getting giddy over his silver medal, while the copy takes a shot at a Nike billboard from the ’96 Olympics: “Someone once said you don’t win the silver, you lose the gold. Obviously they never won the silver.”
Of course, the Olympic Committee is hoping to get the gold with these ads. Thanks to the scandal-ridden past year, the Sydney games face a reported $300 million shortfall, and Salt Lake City is in similar straits. So Olympic sponsors – at up to $50 million a pop – are as much a target of these ads as the viewing public is. Both groups may wind up buying the campaign’s “Celebrate Humanity” theme, but you can’t help thinking “Demonstrate Humility” would have been a better approach.
Next up was March Madness and Nike’s ad campaign during the NCAA’s annual basketball bakeoff. The commercials featured the town of Bracketville, whose slogan is “Stay as long as you can.”
The NCAA basketball tournament is a month-long disappearing act. March Madness started with 64 teams and 128 brackets or matchups, and has whittled itself down through the tournament to four teams and two brackets. Trust me on the math. Since college basketball occupies a world of its own every March, Nike’s new ad campaign has created the town of Bracketville, where referees direct traffic and team mascots nonchalantly stroll the streets . . .
Bracketville has a hardware store that sells “Beware of the Underdog” signs, along with the Netmaster 2000 – a pair of scissors for cutting down the nets after a big win. Then there’s the Bracketville Drive-In, currently showing the 1992 regional final in which Duke beat Kentucky at the buzzer. Watching from separate cars – although never identified – are losing coach Rick Pitino and winning coach Mike Krzyzewski.
[Krzyzewski]: I love this part. [Pitino]: I hate this movie.
The campaign also includes occasional Community Billboards during game broadcasts, such as the one announcing that top seeds have vanished from the Bracketville Seed & Feed. Don’t worry if you’re scratching your head – the entire campaign is so inside, it’s downright claustrophobic. Just like the sales clerk who says “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it,” Nike is saying “If you need an explanation, we’re not talking to you.” It’s a brave advertiser who’s willing to address only hoop fanatics and ignore everyone else – including the casual fan.
Consequently, this may be the smartest campaign almost no one ever got. Instead of being all things to all people, it’s the whole thing to a few people. But that’s the smartest part of all, since those who get it feel like, well, natives of Bracketville. Population 4 – and shrinking.
My final piece for Marketplace started with the digital ads that broadcasters were superimposing on different areas of ballparks during baseball games, and wound up with those same broadcasters testing virtual ads in entertainment programs.
When old-time ballplayer Wee Willie Keeler was asked how he batted .345 lifetime, he said “I hit ’em where they ain’t.” That’s the theory behind virtual ads – put ’em where they ain’t, something that’s now possible with the help of digital technology. For starters, where they ain’t is behind home plate in baseball broadcasts, which have featured virtual ads for several seasons.
Since advertising abhors a vacuum, the savvy marketer’s next logical step is to insert virtual ads into entertainment programs – something that’s already happening in Canada, Mexico and Spain. Apparently, in those countries the separation of programs and advertising is as devalued as the currency.
Then again, the line is is fading in America as well. And with non-virtual commercials and promotions now eating up about 25% of every primetime television hour, sitcoms, dramas and other entertainment programs are the final frontier.
That makes the UPN network the Captain Kirk of virtual ads. Last year UPN placed digital advertising for products from Evian to Coca-Cola in its time-travel drama “Seven Days” . . .
Meanwhile, look for virtuals ads in a sitcom or miniseries near you – not Jerry Seinfeld offering bottles of Snapple, but product images becoming part of the scenery. For anyone who values the separation of entertainment and advertising, that won’t be just a virtual problem, but a literal one.
And that, thanks to a whole lot of nudging from the ‘GBH brass, ended my freelance radio work for the next seven years.
• • • • • • •
Of course, I also had a day (into evening) job at Greater Boston, much of which involved covering the 2000 presidential race. In the run-up to the New Hampshire primary, Sen. John McCain (R-Straight Talk Express) was on a serious roll.
You knew John McCain was New Hampshire’s hot date Tuesday night when documentary filmmocker Michael Moore showed up with his camera crew. That led to a sort of M.C. Escher home movie: A foreign documentary crew shooting Michael Moore’s crew shooting Greater Boston’s crew shooting an interview . . .
As I noted at the time, McCain’s Straight Talk Express was more like the Air Kiss Nonstop, given that the press corps wound up pitching more softballs than the Boston Beer League.
On the flip side, Sen. Bill Bradley (D-New York Knicks) was the polar opposite of McCain.
Bill Bradley is feeling neglected – not just by voters, but by the news media as well. In both cases he has mostly himself to blame – for keeping the press at arm’s length, and for generally making the least of his opportunities in the media spotlight. He spent Wednesday’s debate, for instance, playing pattycake with Al Gore and acting more like a sidekick than Gore’s opponent . . .
In other words, Bradley sounded more like a vice presidential candidate, although that didn’t work out either.
The GOP presidential primary hopefuls (that would be Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Arizona Sen. John McCain, and former Reagan administration Ambassador Alan Keyes) held a debate on – you’re gonna love this – CNN’s Larry King Live.
As Larry King introduced the Republican presidential candidates Tuesday night, you almost expected him to say, “And in the second half of our debate, Steve and Edye will join us.”
[KING: We are live, as you can tell. There is an audience here of people enjoying it. We have asked them to remain attentive so that you can listen to everything our guests say. A couple of other notes — this is going to be a free-wheeling debate.]
A rare bit of understatement from King, who strove mightily to keep the GOP trio on track and in check.
[KEYES: We have got a country that has abandoned it’s most profound and fundamental principle. Killing babies in the womb every day is a contradiction… KING: I’m going to get to that.]
Although this was less of a debate than a roundtable roughhouse, it wasn’t really King’s fault that upper-echelon candidates acted low class.
[KING: Are you… BUSH: Let me finish. KING: … convinced that everybody on death-row now is guilty? BUSH: That we’ll adjudicate those cases when they come up for… KING: But what if someone isn’t? BUSH: Let me finish. If someone isn’t, they should be put to death. KING: Well, but… BUSH: Let me finish. Let me finish.]
Tell you one thing: Lola Falana would never talk to Larry that way . . .
• • • • • • •
Lacking my usual freelance work and missing my late-night writing routine, I started Campaign Journal, a website where I posted weekly political analysis. For instance, here’s the hardworking staff at Campaign Journal offering advice to a struggling political candidate.
Those Lying I’s
TO: Vice President Al Gore
FROM: Damage Control Unit #3
RE: Uh, damage control
We’re sorry to raise this issue again, Mr. Vice President, but we thought it might be useful at this point to recap our memos of 9/17/98, 2/4/99, 5/21/99, 7/20/99, 12/8/99, 1/15/2000, 1/16/2000, 1/28/2000, 1/31/2000, and 2/1/2000.
All those memos, in case you don’t have them handy, address what we’ve agreed to call the “mark-up factor” – your tendency, with all due respect, to inflate your resume like Dizzy Gillespie’s cheeks.
Not to belabor the point, sir, but your “love” trilogy – Love Story (you and Tipper inspired it), Love Canal (you “found” it) and Love.com (you invented the Internet) – have become as ingrained in the public mind as urban myths about albino alligators in the sewers or Kelsey Grammer’s stage presence.
(For a good defense of the Internet and Love Story mark-ups, check out kausfiles.com on – well, you know – the Internet. Unfortunately, the Love Canal gambit doesn’t fare as well there: Kaus labeled it “not a lie, exactly, but creepy.”)
In the interest of brevity, we’ll pass over in silence your claim of getting a bunch of people indicted and jailed when you were a newspaper reporter (one indictment, one suspended sentence); your claim to be a co-sponsor of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill (you were out of the Senate and in the White House by then); the enemy fire you didn’t face in Vietnam, the Hubert Humphrey speech you didn’t work on, and etc.
Forget those – it’s the current situation we’re worried about. You’re faced with a threefer in the press right now: the doggy arthritis drug stumble, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve stretch, and the union jingle you learned at Mama’s knee.
The dog tale is really the worst of them, especially since you did the math wrong and it turns out the dog’s arthritis drug doesn’t really cost less than Mom-in-law’s. On the bright side, we can say with certainty that you do have a mother-in-law and you do have a dog. Overall, though, this flap isn’t exactly helping us take the high ground on the prescription drug issue. No offense, sir, but have you ever considered getting a cat?
Then there’s your statement that you’ve been involved with the Strategic Petroleum Reserve “since the days it was first established.” Of course, the reserve was established in 1975 and you didn’t enter Congress until 1977, but you were involved in the funding of it, so technically you’re not wrong. (On the other hand, we’re getting arthritis ourselves, grasping at all these straws.)
As for the union label song that you said you heard as a lullaby but wasn’t written until you were 27, well, almost everyone – Republicans included – recognizes you were making a joke. Even so, we need those Woody Guthrie tapes back ASAP.
Big picture? You’re taking a beating on this stuff. Syndicated columnist Robert Novak wrote last week, “Al Gore’s irresistible impulse to expand his own past role gives Republicans the opportunity to take a harsher view, suggesting that it underlies misrepresentation on substantive issues.”
(Translation for the pundit-impaired: If people can’t trust you when you talk about your dog, the rest of what you say is – well, you know.)
It’s true that Al Hunt came to your defense in the Wall Street Journal. “To be sure,” he wrote, “Al Gore has sometimes blatantly misrepresented his opponent’s positions . . . He has also exaggerated some of his own accomplishments to an embarrassing degree.” (Frankly, sir, with friends like that, who needs Bill Clinton?)
Hunt also added a helpful note from Steven Hess of the Brookings Institute: “Many politicians get carried away and exaggerate. It really doesn’t reflect on their integrity.” Somehow, we can’t see that working as a bumper sticker.
But here’s something that could: The New York Times ran a piece last week on Joe Lieberman’s civil-rights work in Mississippi during the ‘60s. Asked by the Times about that historic period, Lieberman said right off, “I don’t want to overstate what I did.”
Now that – Mr. Vice President – is a slogan we could work with.
I wrote a dozen Campaign Journal posts in 2000, and a dozen more in 2002 (a gubernatorial election year in Massachusetts). In 2004 – another presidential election year – I posted 67.
I just loved a blank page. Always have.
• • • • • • •
In 2000 Greater Boston applied for – and received – a grant from the group Best Practices in Journalism to produce a series of data-driven Ad Watches about presidential campaign commercials, such as this one examining claims about prescription drug policies.
Both Vice president Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush believe that prescription drug plans are beneficial to the health of their campaigns. While the candidates push their pill proposals on the stump, their respective parties have been touting them on the airwaves . . .
The top ten pharmaceutical companies spent $40 million on lobbying in 1998. In this election cycle, the industry has made $8.7 million in campaign contributions – including $392,000 to George W. Bush, $87,000 to Al Gore, and $70,000 to Gore’s running mate Joe Lieberman.
According to one estimate, the cost of prescription drugs has risen almost 80% over the past five years. Gore’s $253 billion plan would give free prescription drug coverage to seniors with annual incomes between $12–14,000. Those with higher incomes would pay a premium, with the government paying half their drug costs up to $5000, and all costs after the Medicare beneficiary has paid $4000 out-of-pocket . . .
It was all pretty wonky, but pretty well intentioned.
As was the Best Practices 2000 Campaign Hangover Workshop that the group scheduled for the beginning of December, where all the grant recipients would gather to showcase the work they’d done.
And so the Missus and I dutifully trundled down to New Orleans – me to do the workshop by day, the two of us to do The Big Easy by night.
Except it all went totally sideways for both of us: The Missus got food poisoning on the way down, and I got Bush v. Gore on the way back.
As for the Hangover Workshop, the Best Practices folks spent as much of their time watching coverage of the legal bakeoff over the Florida recount as they did viewing each other’s work.
And when on Friday, December 8th, the Florida Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision to reject Gore’s request for a recount of the undervote in a few Florida counties and ordered the recount to begin immediately, the ‘GBH brass told me to go to Tallahassee and cover the hanging chad rumpus.
So the Missus and I headed to the New Orleans airport where I put her on a flight back to Boston (God bless you, the check-in agent who took pity on her still sickly self and bumped her up to first class) and then boarded a 10-seat puddle-jumper that made three heart-stopping stops before landing in the Florida capital.
Upon arrival, however, I had several problems: 1) I’d failed to bring my press credentials to the Best Practices workshop (something I never did again traveling anywhere, even to Europe); 2) I didn’t even have any business cards, my supply having been exhausted at the workshop; and 3) I didn’t have any clean underwear.
Luckily, the Missus solved #3 by sending fresh clothes to Tallahassee. Numbers 1 and 2 were solved by Florida’s Sunshine Laws, which gave anyone access to government proceedings at both the state and local levels.
So there I was, all happy to be in on the action, while the reporters and producers in the TV Satellite Farm outside the Florida statehouse – most of whom had been wearing the same three shirts for the entire four weeks of the judicial standoff – thought, what a jerk this newbie is.
Couldn’t argue with that.
Four days later, the U.S. Supreme Court stomped all over the Florida Supreme Court and ended the recounts.
It was crazy watching the reporters on TV (who were a few blocks from my hotel room) trying to figure out, in real time, what SCOTUS had actually decided. Many of them just looked at the dissents for clues, but eventually everyone came to the same conclusion.
George W. Bush would be the 43rd president of the United States.
And then we all went home.
• • • • • • •
During my 11 years at Greater Boston in a variety of capacities (freelancer, reporter, managing editor, executive producer, freelancer), I wrote and produced somewhere north of 1500 pieces.
(Full disclosure: I had a producer for my first piece. After that, I produced myself. Couldn’t see wasting resources, even as a freelancer.)
There’s no way I’m going to slog through all of those scripts. I’ll let this reel from 2004 stand as a representative sample of my work on the show.
Along the way I also [checks notes] won some industry awards.
It was a great gig, a show that gave its staff the freedom to do their best work. But it couldn’t last forever.
• • • • • • •
Boston radio icon David Brudnoy, who died in December of 2004, was also a fabled Boston University professor, so it was no surprise that BU looked to replace him in the months following his death. I got a phone call asking if I’d teach one of his courses in the upcoming semester. The conversation went something like this.
Would you be interested in teaching Prof. Brudnoy’s Persuasion and Public Opinion course in the fall?
Uh, I already work 50 hours a week. Don’t think taking on a course would really be fair to the students.
But . . . if you’d like to talk to me about his job, I’d be happy to have that conversation.
And so, in September of 2005, I exited Greater Boston to become an assistant professor of mass communication at Boston University. But I remained at WGBH as a correspondent for Beat the Press. The gig involved writing two pieces a week (one Thursday night, one Friday morning) and flapping my gums on the set during the taping of the show.
Oh yeah – and I unilaterally decided that I could once again freelance freely.
• • • • • • •
Via the Association of Alternative Weeklies.
John Carroll to Contribute to Boston Phoenix’s Campaign Coverage
AUGUST 3, 2006 11:50 AM
John Carroll, a professor of Mass Communication at Boston University and a correspondent for WGBH-TV’s award winning media show, “Beat the Press” debuted a new column in the August 4th issue of the Boston Phoenix.
Carroll is himself a prize winner. He’s won five New England Emmys, a national and a regional Edward R. Murrow award, and three National Press Club awards for press criticism.
Titled “Spin Cycle,” Carroll’s column will assess and analysize political advertising and media coverage during the Massachusetts political season. It will run weekly until the November 7th election.
“Contested party-primaries and open-seat generational races produce some of the best — and worst — campaign advertising and media coverage,” said Carroll. “It promises to be lively between now and election day.” Carroll’s column is at http://www.thephoenix.com/article_ektid19244.aspx
My Spin Cycle debut:
That debut column unveiled two of the many special features Spin Cycle would foist upon an unsuspecting public over the next three months: 1) the Decision ’06 Dartboard©, which determined which candidates we would call for comment, and 2) the soon-to-be-popular Ads ‘n’ Ends.
Ads ‘n’ ends
Has there ever been a better time for local and statewide candidates to invest in Boston taxi-top ads? The way Big Dig traffic is these days, drivers could probably read War and Peace on their morning commute … Best line of the political-ad season so far: the Kerry Healey supporter who says in one spot, “She’s consistent, she’s articulate, and she tells it like it is.” This, about a candidate who has yet to say a word in her commercials.
Other Spin Cycle innovations included The Spotty Awards™, which we introduced thusly.
Say, those Emmy Awards last week were something else, eh? Nothing we like better than a television industry kissathon where “Will and Grace” steals yet another statuette from four more-deserving nominees. Unless it’s an awards show of our own, that is. So Spin Cycle proudly introduces the First Annual Spotty Awards™, which recognize the height of something or other in local campaign spots.
Of course, given these parlous economic times and the escalating production costs involved in staging the Spottys, we’ve had to solicit sponsorships for each of the categories. Hey, that’s the way the world works these days.
Now, without further ado, we present the Down-Ballot Division of the Spotty Awards. (The Gubernatorial Division awards will be announced as soon as we can find more suckers – er, sponsors.) . . .
Spin Cycle also offered advice for the vote-lorn, which happened to include gubernatorial candidates ranging from Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey to convenience-store magnate Christy Mihos to soon-to-be Gov. Deval Patrick – all of whom should’ve sent these letters, but didn’t.
Here at the Global Worldwide Headquarters of Spin Cycle, up to several letters have poured in during the past few days seeking our sage advice on all things electoral. Since we’re nothing if not helpful, we’ve decided to dip into the mailbag this week and, in the best tradition of Big-J journalism, do our best to comfort the afflicted . . .
And, we filed the requisite 2006 post mortem.
So let’s see if we have this straight.
Some Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed cause rioting in the Muslim world, but the Vice-President of the United States shoots someone in the face and it’s no big deal?
The New York Times gets lacerated for exposing the National Security Agency’s domestic spying, but Reuters essentially gets a pass for doctoring photos to exaggerate Israeli airstrikes in Beirut, and quite possibly manufacturing sources to accuse the US military of misconduct in Iraq?
OJ Simpson gets $3 million for a book that never gets published, while its would-be publisher Judith Regan gets dumped like a Taco Bell burrito?
Steroid slugger Barry Bonds gets outed in the press via leaked grand jury testimony, then gets a $16 million one-year contract from the San Francisco Giants – the very team he disgraced?
Yeah, 2006 officially qualifies as a long strange trip.
Among the other high-lowlights . . .
And with that, my Phoenix fling turned to ashes.
• • • • • • •
Shortly thereafter, some WBUR execs approached me about providing media analysis for their programs, and initially the ‘GBH brass okayed the arrangement. But then they pulled the plug, saying I wasn’t a freelancer, I was actually management. In compensation for the double-cross, I got a weekly WGBH radio slot called John Carroll’s Take.
It was great – I got to write about all kinds of non-political, non-media topics, starting with the Gloucester Stage Company’s 2007 production of Israel Horovitz’s play, The Secret of Mme. Bonnard’s Bath.
When painters produce self portraits, they give us a window into not just how they look, but how they feel about themselves. When writers paint the lives of artists, though, they create a mirror of how they – and often as a result we – feel about the artists.
Case in point: Israel Horovitz’s wonderfully evocative and thoroughly inconvenient new play, The Secret of Mme. Bonnard’s Bath.
Evocative, because it brings to life Pierre Bonnard, the late 19th century French impressionist who continued to be an impressionist well into the 20th century, while his cohorts turned modern in an endless variety of ways.
Inconvenient, because Horovitz’s portrait makes it almost impossible ever to see Bonnard’s lyric depictions of color and light in the same way as before.
The play revolves around Bonnard’s relationship with his longtime lover Marthe, who eventually became Bonnard’s wife as well as the almost fetishistic subject of nearly 400 paintings he produced in a two-decade spree.
The secret in Horovitz’s play is how Marthe became Bonnard’s wife. After living with her for 30 years, Bonnard decided to leave Marthe for another lover, Renee Monchaty, only in the end to – go figure – marry Marthe. Monchaty subsequently committed suicide, drowning in her bathtub, according to one version. Bonnard spent much of the rest of his artistic life painting Marthe in her bathtub, paintings that New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman has called “mysterious elegies of love.”
To be sure, anyone who admires Bonnard’s artistry would likely know the rough outlines of that story. But knowing it is one thing; experiencing it in dramatic form is something else entirely. There you see Bonnard by turns entranced, tortured, cowardly, and in the end pathetically resigned. To all appearances Bonnard traded independence for codependence.
Well, you might say, all the better for appreciating Bonnard’s work. But what if the three-dimensional experience of the theater actually interferes with the two-dimensional experience of the paintings? What if Bonnard no longer seems, as Kimmelman wrote, “an artist of ecstatic and inward-looking vision”? What if Bonnard only seems a cad?
And, especially, what if his dappled domestic scenes and luminous interiors become clouded by the gray wash of his character?
What then? Well, maybe – just maybe – you start to wish, at least for you, that the Secret of Mme. Bonnard’s Bath had remained a secret.
(Sadly, a decade later nine women accused Horowitz of sexual assault, including in one case, rape. He resigned from the Gloucester Stage Company in disgrace.)
I got to talk about Paul Rudolph’s brutalist building at 133 Federal Street in Boston, which was in danger of being razed for a 1000-foot behemoth dubbed “Tommy’s Tower” in light of mayor Tom Menino’s gang-ho support for it.
It has all the makings of a classic real estate rumpus: A landmark building. A legacy-driven mayor. An aggressive developer. And a largely apathetic public. In short, a recipe for skyline roulette.
The landmark building in question is 133 Federal Street in Boston – the first Modernist building in the city’s downtown district, whose “ornately intricate concrete exterior,” the New York Times reports, “was viewed as a controversial rejoinder to the prevailing International Style of the 1950s, in which high-rises were typically wrapped in glass.”
Designed by noted architect Paul Rudolph, 133 Federal Street is, in the words of one local preservationist, “not beautiful, but significant and important.”
The compact 13-story building features a faceted exterior that alternates between recessed glass windows and glitter-specked concrete piers – all sitting atop a series of Y-shaped columns at the base.
With its understated appearance, 133 Federal provides a welcome contrast to the tricked-up towers around it, from the pot-bellied façade of the First National Bank Building, to the jaunty balancing act of the Fiduciary Trust high-rise . . .
I got to write about boxing when the talented and troubled (and eventually tormented) former prizefighter Emile Griffith returned to the public square.
It was one of the few things my old man and I agreed about when I was a kid: Emile Griffith was one sweet fighter. During the 1960s, the stylish Virgin Islands immigrant – who had shoulders, one boxing writer said, that you could serve dinner for six on – captured the welterweight championship of the world three times, and the middleweight championship twice.
But Griffith – if he’s remembered at all – is remembered for just one thing: his trio of fights against fellow welterweight Benny “Kid” Paret, a busy brawler who, it was said, would take ten punches to get in one, fifty to get in two. True to his aggressive nature, Paret twice called Griffith a “maricon” at their pre-fight weigh-ins – a homosexual slur inspired, no doubt, by Griffith’s known frequenting of New York’s gay bars.
But Griffith was in the closet, the way any boxer would have to be, and he was not amused, as he recounted in the 2005 documentary Ring of Fire.
“He didn’t’t know that I understood a little Spanish but at the time I knew maricon meant faggot and I wasn’t nobody’s faggot.”
Almost as if to prove it, in the rubber match – Griffith had won the first fight, Paret won the second – Griffith essentially beat Paret to death in the 12th round, when the ref didn’t stop the fight and Griffith didn’t stop punching. Here’s how Norman Mailer described it, as documented by Ring of Fire.
“Griffith, making a pent-up whispering sound all the while he attacked, the right hand whipping like a piston rod which has broken through the crankcase or like a baseball bat demolishing a pumpkin . . .”
The tale got even more tangled from there.
I got to write about Black Mask, the early 20th century pulp magazine that published hard-boiled detective fiction from the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
Thanks to the Missus, I have a copy of the January 1937 edition of Black Mask, which at the time cost 15¢, although it cost her considerably more. The magazine features a typically eye-popping front cover along with an eye-wrenching array of ads including astrologers, taxidermy lessons, mail-order false teeth and – not surprisingly – detective kits.
It also features a Raymond Chandler story titled “Try the Girl,” which opens this way:
“The big guy wasn’t any of my business. He never was, then or later, least of all then . . .
“He wasn’t just big. He was a giant. He looked seven feet high, and he wore the loudest clothes I ever saw on a really big man . . . On Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as unobtrusive as a tarantula on a slice of angel-food.”
“Try the Girl,” as it turned out, was a dry run for Chandler’s finest novel – Farewell, My Lovely, published three years later. But “Try the Girl” has its own allure, such as this description of the desk clerk at the Hotel Sans Souci:
“He wore an ascot tie that had been tied about 1880, and the green stone in his stick pin was not quite as large as a trash barrel. His large loose chin folded down on it gently and his brown hands were soft, peaceful, and clean.”
After “Try the Girl” turned into Farewell, My Lovely, the novel turned into the film noir classic Murder, My Sweet – a title I doubt Chandler would have used at gunpoint . . .
I got to write about the painterly side of the poet e.e. cummings.
E.E. Cummings was more than just the lower-case king of American poetry (the upper-case king, of course, being Walt Whitman). As it turns out, Cummings was also a pretty good painter, producing thousands of works that ranged from American Cubism to representational painting, which he came to view as more challenging than abstraction.
According to one critic, “There’s a series of watercolors in the ’20s of a town in France . . . that are wonderful. They are very Cézanne.”
“[Cummings’] use of color, another critic said, “could only be considered wildly exuberant, even fantastical.”
But, as a recent Wall Street Journal piece noted, “by the 1930s Cummings knew that he was far more original as a poet than a painter.” So his artistic sensibility was relegated to his poetry, where he employed syntax, spacing, and spelling with painterly precision . . .
And I got to write about World War II correspondents.
The Greatest Generation produced the greatest generation of war correspondents as well. There was, of course, the Olympian Edward R. Murrow, whose radio dispatches from England are classics of war reporting.
“This is London, where the autumn twilight closes in much too early. Tonight’s raid started few minutes earlier than last night’s. There are no words to describe the thing that is happening. The courage of the people, the flash and roar of the guns rolling down the streets, the stench of the air raid shelter.”
Murrow was a master at writing for the ear, with an artistic feel for the rhythms of silence. A master of the written word was the legendary Ernie Pyle, whose newspaper reporting gave voice to the U.S. infantry, what he called the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys.
Here’s how Pyle described a scene from the Italian front as dead soldiers came down a mountain lashed onto the backs of mules:
“The first one came early in the morning. They slid him down from the mule and stood him on his feet for a moment, while they got a new grip. In the half light he might have been merely a sick man standing there, leaning on the others. Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the low stone wall alongside the road.
“I don’t know who the first one was. You feel small in the presence of dead men, and ashamed at being alive, and you don’t ask silly questions . . . “
• • • • • • •
Beyond ‘GBH, in 2007 I had some luck pitching commentaries to the NPR mothership.
There was this All Things Considered piece in June about the CNN/YouTube Democratic primary debate.
In partnering with YouTube last night, CNN hoped to invest its Democratic presidential primary debate with an aura of authenticity, which has never been the cable network’s strong suit. CNN’s last authentic moment came when anchor Kyra Philips wore a live microphone into the ladies room and started dishing about her brother-in-law for all the network to hear.
Unfortunately, last night’s foray wasn’t as interesting. But not for lack of participation: Almost 3000 YouTubers, or net potatoes, submitted video questions for the candidates. In the ramp-up to the debate, CNN’s Anderson Cooper had provided some handy hints for the quizzical.
“Be real, be yourselves . . . try to keep it under thirty seconds.’
Right – keep it real in under 30 seconds: the official slogan of cable network news. And from the very start of the debate – when Chris from Portland used air quotes four times in under 30 seconds – you got the sense it was going to be real, alright. Real annoying , , ,
I also produced this WESUN piece about campaign shape-shifting.
Media coverage of presidential campaigns always includes the politics of personal distraction – the touchy subjects that voters may or may not find significant. Touchy Subject #1 is religion. And Exhibit A is GOP presidential hopeful-and-Mormon Mitt Romney.
For the most part, Romney has been circumspect about his religion, as he noted in one of his ads.
“You take the oath of office and the rule of law as your primary promise to God. And that’s the way I feel. My church wouldn’t endeavor to tell me what to do, and I wouldn’t listen to them on it.”
No, Romney would listen to public opinion polls. In his 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign he vowed not to talk about his faith.
But recently he’s simultaneously bailed on some of Mormonism’s basic tenets, and stated that “there are some pundits out there who are hoping I’ll distance myself from my church . . . and that’s not going to happen.”
Now you know why Mitt Romney represents the weathervane wing of the Republican Party . . .
Back at Weekend ATC, it was All Nicknames Considered.
Presidential campaigns give us more than just drama, conflict, the agony of defeat and, finally, a president. They also provide a quadrennial refresher course in – well, for starters – the word quadrennial. Quadrennial is most often associated with the proverbial road to the White House, although it could just as easily be applied to the Olympic Games, leap years, and Chris Matthews taking a breath.
That road to the White House runs through the primary states, of course. And it invariably provides a primer on state nicknames. For instance, reporters always dust off the nickname the Palmetto State, so they don’t have to say “South Carolina” 17 times in a row.
The moniker march starts with the Hawkeye State caucus and the Granite State primary – the untouchables of the quadrennial presidential process.
This year, another early presidential contest took place in Nevada, known as either the Silver State or the Sagebrush State, depending on how you envision it. In the spirit of Las Vegas, eight-to-five says you envision it as the Silver State.
Virginia is another state with dueling nicknames:
#1) Old Dominion; #2) Mother of Presidents.
Problem is, the Buckeye State – Ohio – claims to be the Mother of Modern Presidents.
Now, maybe Heather has two Mommies, but are we sure an American president is ready for that? Maybe there should be a bakeoff between Ohio and Virginia for official Mother status. And, yes, I do give the edge to Virginia because of its name . . .
• • • • • • •
Two thousand eight was a presidential election year, so I revived Campaign Journal on the WGBH website with this announcement.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Global Worldwide Headquarters of Campaign Journal Reopens
BOSTON, MA – April 5, 2008 WGBH and Greater Boston are pleased to announce that the hard-working staff of Campaign Journal has been reunited and reinstalled in the Global Worldwide Headquarters of the weekly Web feature.
Campaign Journal has been an election-year fixture for almost the entire 21st century. The rich history of Campaign Journal – or CJ, as up to several readers like to call it – includes such memorable installments as:
* “Comme d’habitude, comme d’ordinaire“
How Paris newspapers assessed the 2000 Florida chadathon
* “Dear Diary, Love Mitt”
A 2002 Campaign Journal exclusive that proved to be poignant and swashbuckling at the same time
* Our 2004 “Gala Demi-Centennial Edition”
Campaign Journal featured a mind-altering 67 entries in 2004, which just goes to show what happens when you keep enough monkeys in front of enough typewriters long enough
Building upon that storied legacy, here are just a few of the controversial topics CJ will tackle in the upcoming weeks:
* Unsafe At Any Speech
Ralph Nader is – wait for it – running for president. Again. Nader calls Washington, D.C. “corporate occupied territory.” Others think Nader’s brain is “lunatic occupied territory.”
* Leave No (Oliver) Stone Unturned
Mr. Grassy Knoll is producing a biopic of George W. Bush. James “Babe” Cromwell will play Poppy. ‘Nuf said.
* Hillary Clinton’s Perspiration Problem
In a fundraising e–mail, a Hillary Clinton supporter said, “Real achievement is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Problem is, Barack Obama has pretty much proved the opposite.
Here’s how Boston critics are reacting to the return of Campaign Journal:
* “I wasn’t contacted, so I have no comment.” Alex Beam, Boston Globe
* “There are no words to express my admiration for Campaign Journal, because I’ve never read it.” Jim Braude, NECN
Thanks to a generous corporate grant, look for the Gala Opening of Campaign Journal’s LensCrafter 20/20 Hindsight Bureau®.
Check our website at: http://www.wgbh.org/greaterboston/campaignjournal
# # #
I filed only 15 Campaign Journals in 2008 because it became clear in April – no point in getting into the particulars – that the ‘GBH brass was not conducting business with me in an entirely aboveboard manner. Right then I decided I would exit the station when my contract expired at the end of August.
In the meantime I kept filing pieces for Beat the Press and producing weekly radio commentaries, like this one about the museums of New York.
There are a lot of things to love about New York. Start with the city’s myriad coffee shops, which serve up the most reliably decent rye bread and cole slaw in the known universe.
Then there are the Manhattan traffic lights timed to let you drive 50 blocks at a clip up Madison Avenue – as opposed to the traffic lights in Boston, which were apparently timed by Joe Cocker.
Best of all, though, is the staggering array of art museums in the Big Town. Chief among them, of course, is the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a sprawling encyclopedia of world artwork that offers blockbuster exhibitions cheek-by-jowl with serious, substantive, less buzz-driven shows.
Exhibit A: The Met’s recent Age of Rembrandt exhibition, which included the museum’s entire collection of Dutch paintings. It dramatically illustrated the spirit of the 17th century Dutch Republic, described here in the exhibit’s audio guide.
“This was an urban culture that collected pictures and had a disposable income. They couldn’t spend it on land – they invested in ships, tulips, country houses, and great numbers of paintings.
“The average house in Amsterdam in 1650 had 10 paintings. I’m not sure you could say that about NY today.”
No, the average American house in 2008 more likely has 10 cellphone photos of paintings. Shutterbug Nation has gone arty, introducing a weird photographic pas de deux between stern-faced museum guards and snappy visitors . . .
Sadly, in 2008 I wrote an obit for the great W.C. Heinz – World War II correspondent, sportswriter, and novelist.
“When I am old,” W.C. Heinz wrote in his mid-forties, “I shall tell them about Ray Robinson . . . When the young assault me with their atomic miracles and reject my Crosby records and find comical the movies that once moved me, I shall entice them into talking about fighters. Robinson will be a form of social security for me, because they will have seen nothing like him, and I am convinced that they never will.”
They’ve also seen nothing like W.C. Heinz, and I am convinced that they never will.
Wilfred Charles Heinz – who preferred the name Bill – was the most gifted sportswriter America has ever known. Heinz first made his mark as a World War II correspondent, chronicling the U.S. infantry’s march through the European theater.
In a 2001 interview I conducted with Heinz, he spoke of the unpayable debt war correspondents owe to the troops. He also told this story.
“One day I flopped down on a hillside in Stolberg next to a GI and a tank got hit just ahead of us and the medics are trying to slide down the hill on their backside so they don’t get killed doing it and this GI looked at me and saw that patch on my shoulder and said, ‘What’s that?’
“I said, ‘War correspondent.’ He said, ‘What a helluva way to make a living.’
“God bless the American.”
As it turned out, Heinz made his living in a very similar way when he returned to the states.
“I gravitated to boxing because I found the comradeship between fighters in Stoney’s gym and elsewhere very similar to the comradeship I found among GIs in battle during the war. They were both experiencing things that were difficult to take.”
And Heinz was acutely aware of the writer’s role in the process. “Where do you get off,” he once said of the armchair critics, “telling another guy he has to take those Sunday shots in the belly and on the chin while you sit at ringside feeling a lot but taking nothing and just looking up?
“I’m a great admirer of team sports but there’s always someone you can lay it off on, and you can’t lay it off in a fight” . . .
Another fighter who couldn’t lay it off was Félix Fénéon, the turn-of-the-century French art critic, editor, publisher, art dealer, and art collector – not to mention anarchist while he was chief clerk at the French Ministry of War.
In a 2007 London Review of Books piece, Julian Barnes provided further details.
In 1894, he was arrested in a sweep of anarchists and charged under the kind of catch-all law which governments panicked by terror attacks stupidly tend to enact …
When the presiding judge put it to him that he had been spotted talking to a known anarchist behind a gas lamp, he replied coolly: ‘Can you tell me, Monsieur le Président, which side of a gas lamp is its behind?’ This being France, wit did him no disservice with the jury, and he was acquitted.
I tried to do Félix Fénéon justice in this piece.
At the dawn of the 20th century in France, Félix Fénéon was the ultimate behind-the-scenes guy. For starters, he was one of the most influential critics of art and literature in fin-de-siecle Paris – friend and promoter of artists from Georges Seurat to Paul Signac to Camille Pissaro.
In addition, as the New York Times has noted, Fénéon was “the indefatigable editor of major . . . avant-garde literary and artistic journals of the period,” which showcased the writings of Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé, among many others.
In his spare time Fénéon also managed to be a high-profile anarchist. Let the record show, however, that he was in fact acquitted in 1894 of conspiring to kill the president of France, who was actually assassinated by an Italian anarchist.
Oh, yes – and did we mention that Fénéon pretty much qualifies as the world’s first blogger?
Not exactly in the cyberspace sense, of course. For a time in 1906 Fénéon worked as a journalist for the liberal Paris broadsheet Le Matin, where he wrote almost 1400 faits-divers – or news briefs.
Twelve hundred of them are collected in the recently published book Novels in Three Lines. As writer and critic Luc Sante notes in the introduction to the book, Fénéon’s news briefs “cover the same subjects as the rest of the paper – crime, politics, ceremony, catastrophe – but their individual narratives are compressed into a single frame, like photographs.”
“An unidentified maker of paste jewels from the third arrondissement was fishing in a boat with his wife at Mézy. She fell. He dived. Both gone . . .”
Over all, I produced about 75 commentaries for ‘GBH radio, many of which are here.
• • • • • • •
Here’s how it all ended for me at WGBH.
As mentioned earlier, I had decided in April not to renew my contract when it expired at the end of August. Early that month the show went on hiatus for three weeks, so on the Friday we taped the season’s last Beat the Press episode, I went to Rooney and the Executive Producer and told them I was done, and why.
Rooney said something along the lines of “Hey, they mistreat everyone here, why should it be any different for you?” Unpersuaded, I gathered my strategically pre-boxed possessions and exited the station for the final time.
Or so I thought.
The last week of August I got a call from the EP who said she needed me to do Beat the Press on Friday the 29th. Rooney was in Denver that week covering the Democratic National Convention and wouldn’t get back to Boston until Friday afternoon. So, the EP told me, she needed me to produce all the pieces for the show and appear on the panel.
I told her it was a bad idea, but I was still under contract so I had to do it. Which meant the EP and Rooney had to decide what to say about my departure at the end of the show.
And what they said was nothing. Not a word. After 11 years I got . . . nothing.
Several years later, I ran into a viewer who said she assumed, when I never appeared on the show again, that I had died.
My demise, as it turned out, was greatly exaggerated.
– to be continued –