Tuesday, May 15, 2007

They Said What? (May 2007 edition)

Some recent quotes that give one pause …….

1. Alberto Gonzales, our US Attorney General and the nation’s highest law enforcement official, giving testimony to the Senate and subsequently House congressional committees about his role in the US Attorneys firing: “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, …. [ad infinitum].” So much for being the example for the rules of law enforcement and responsibility for testifying.

2. Mike Pence, R-Indiana congressman: “I want to thank you, Mr. Gonzales, for your candor, honesty, and humility in your testimony today [to the House committee].” What?

3. Attorney General Gonzales commented on the resignation of his Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, reportedly due to his disagreements over the firings: “At the end of the day, the recommendations reflected the views of the Deputy Attorney General. He signed off on the names.” Seems like Mr. Gonzales at last found his memory, at least long enough to blame his principal subordinate.

4. Republican Senator Arlen Specter (Senate Judiciary Committee) responded, “It is embarrassing for a professional to work for the Department of Justice today.” And Democratic representative John Conyers (Chair, House Judiciary Committee) added, “With this Justice Department, the buck always stops somewhere else, and the fall guy is always the last guy out of the door.” This version of a Justice Department seems to be following in a continuing line of inept federal agencies, but with this agency the impact of incompetency is far higher.

5. The same Mike Pence quote in #2 above was also the one who said (following his trip to Baghdad with John McCain) that the Shorja marketplace in Baghdad --- where a suicide bomber killed 88 people in January --- “ is now like a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime.” What planet is this Congressman living on? And what does that say about life in Indiana?

6. Given both of the above Mike Pence statements, Jon Stewart (The Daily Show) said: “All in all, this man is an idiot.” Accurately said.

7. Speaking of John McCain (and skipping over his incomprehensible statements about his “safe walk in the Baghdad marketplace” while surrounded by a phalanx of armed troops and covering air gun ships), he made this statement regarding the death of Jerry Falwell: “Dr. Falwell was a man of distinguished accomplishment who devoted his life to serving his faith and country.” Funny, in 2000 he called managed to call both Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance.” How nice that running for President brings forth a heightened sense of new tolerance in a candidate.

8. The best quote of recent note: In response to the latest attack by Vice President Dick Cheney that as usual questioned the patriotism and judgment of those who would cut spending on Iraq, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid replied, “I'm not going to get into a name-calling match with the administration's chief attack dog ... I’m not going to get into a name-calling match with somebody who has a 9% approval rating.” Says it all.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Huntley, Brinkley and Cronkite

I miss Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, those two NBC newscasters from the 1950s-60s. I was a bit too young to know Edward R. Murrow, the lionized god of broadcast journalism, although it seems in his case that the man is in fact the myth. I also miss CBS's Walter Cronkite. These were all the people who created and defined television broadcast news. People who did their homework, asked right questions, distilled down what I really seemed to need to know and presented it to me concisely, cleanly and respectfully. Then they left it to me to interpret its meaning, both in absolute as well as personal terms. I sense that they would be appalled by what they see passing for news reporting today.

Today, television news is all about entertainment and it shows, whether network or cable. And this entertainment keeps coming at us nonstop, offering more time and words than we can possibly absorb or have need for. The commentator is concurrently surrounded by tickertape news blips and multiple viewing windows ---- who or what am I supposed to be reading or seeing at any given moment? News stories now come with catchy silly titles (“Iraq: Day of Decision”! “Election 2008: Road to Change?”) and their own theme music. It is a visual medium, yet clips are shown that have no visual interest whatsoever. People standing around at a crime scene, or looking at the house where it happened; committee members sitting at a desk talking inaudibly among themselves; reporters standing in front of a scenic backdrop (how many shots of a reporter standing in front of the White House does it take for us think “gee, this obviously important reporter must really know what’s happening inside!”?).

And now that we have too many cable news networks and we show them 24 hours a day / 7 days a week (because they are inexpensive to program), the challenge is how to fill all that air time. And the answer is usually either to make trivial stories into major news events, transform everyday people into major actors performing in Warhol’s 15-minutes of fame, or supply us with “news commentators and analysts” who believe that intelligent conversation is defined by who can be the rudest and out-shout the other conversational participants, or say the most outrageous unsupported things, or say anything to provoke controversy for its own sake and garner headlines.

All this ain’t news, folks. And it is not even very good entertainment. Anna’s death and the father of her baby is information that has no impact on my life’s actions. Virginia Tech was a significant event to give us pause ands reflection, but the intrusion into private grief and the decision to air a gunman’s recorded rantings descended into sensationalism and irresponsibility. It is journalism as an embarrassment.

The promise of television news is visual and depth. What radio and newspapers cannot do is show you people’s faces and character as they speak, and allow you to add the important body language and nuances into the words they speak. Whereas all that blank airtime could be used to show real in-depth conversations with people on significant subject matters, television news instead simply fills people’s time under the banner of “news,” making it all seem more substantive than it is. Guilty consciences are assuaged for both the watcher and the provider: “I am not wasting time or just idly watching entertainment, I am listening to the news.” No you are not.

For my part, I refuse to watch anyone whose idea of news-giving is to yell at me, as if his/her volume will overcome my stupidity. Or who conducts a television discussion any differently than if they were a guest at my dinner table conversation. Or watch the phony displays of indignation. Or listen to people whose claim to be an authoritative / specialist / expert is all self-designated, only to be betrayed by the hollowness of their words. When O.J. or Michael Jackson turns the law into farce comedy, I will pass that up also. And please let me never again hear the question “So what was going through your mind at that moment?” from some lightweight interviewer who obviously has no real question of substance to ask.

In a recent column defending the role of the film critic, Time reviewer Richard Corliss nicely said “”If our opinions on a movie don’t coincide, I don’t care, and neither should you. I’m not telling you what to think. I’m just asking that you do think.” Well put statement of the reporter’s/reviewer’s role.

By the way, I miss Peter Jennings, too. A lot.