Tony Snow Expires

One week after the death of Jesse Helms (and, alas, Thomas M. Disch), the universe illustrated once again that, despite its many abominations, it still maintains a self-correcting impulse. Tony Snow, the smug apologist for President Bush’s disgraces, finally expired after a bout with colon cancer. He was 53.

It was a particularly fitting way to go. For Tony Snow was far from a sweet man, and certainly neither a nice nor a reasonable one. On February 13, 2007, when CNN’s Ed Henry calmly asked the perfectly legitimate question about Iran’s purported influence in Iraq — a claim unfurled by Snow and company without a single shred of evidence — Henry was told by Snow to “calm down.” Snow, of course, could not provide a reasonable answer. It was a typical instance of Snow’s regular insults to reporters, something that also came to light when reporters asked Snow about Scooter Libby’s commuted sentence. (During this conference, one reporter declared, “You are insulting our intelligence.”)

Granted, one does not look to any White House Press Secretary as any particular upholder of the truth. But then Tony Snow was an innate liar even before he had taken the position. He claimed that evolutionary theory was comparable to intelligent design, that it “isn’t verifiable or testable. It’s pure hypothesis.” He defended the Swift Boat Veterans charges, despite tenuous evidence. And, of course, there were numerous other falsehoods. Snow’s inability to grasp the truth also made him perfectly qualified to serve as Bill O’Reilly’s permanent fill-in host. Swindling the public came natural to this confidence man, who took on the job of spinning implausible yarns to the public despite previous sullies against the Bush administration.

Snow demonstrated that if you served up enough hypocrisy and possessed nothing in the way of ethics, you too could live the spin doctor’s dream. You could even nestle your way into the baby arms of government itself. But even this utopia wasn’t good enough for Snow. He needed more than $168,000 a year to get by and was prepared to tell any lie to get more money.

But Snow’s lies weren’t those of the amicable “dog ate my homework” variety. They were deeply unsettling efforts to occlude a truth that has killed 4,000 American soldiers and untold thousands of Iraqi civilians.

Snow was the last somewhat savvy guy who could take on the job of White House Press Secretary and live with his daily hypocrisies. And it’s a telling indicator that Snow’s porous replacement, Dana Perino, didn’t even know about the Cuban Missile Crisis when she signed on.

Los Angeles Times To Lay Off 150 Editorial Staffers

Radar is reporting that 150 staffers in the newsroom are to be laid off and that the number of pages published each week will be reduced by 15%. I have emails into the good people over at the Book Review to see what, if any, impact this has had upon them. If I learn anything that I can report on the record, I will. This is terrible. More at the LA Times. Nothing yet from LA Observed.

[UPDATE: My sources inside the L.A. Times indicate that there hasn’t yet been a list of names released. Only the number. Layoffs to come later. If I am able to determine any additional information that I can share, then I will keep folks posted.]

The Bat Segundo Show: Errol Morris

Errol Morris appeared on The Bat Segundo Show (#205). Morris is most recently the director of Standard Operating Procedure. (There is also an accompanying book written by Philip Gourevitch.)

Guest: Errol Morris

Subjects Discussed: Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Torture of Others,” the American cycle of photographing physical abuse, finding out what we’re looking at before drawing conclusions, the differences between a still image and a moving image, reenactments, guiding the viewer’s ability to map reality, Comte de Lautréamont, misinterpreting Crimean War photographs, the milkshake toss in The Thin Blue Line, basing an illustrated montage on a line from an interview, Sabrina Harman’s thumbs-up gesture, Harman and the Cheshire cat, Paul Ekman, perceiving the bad apples, what makes Morris angry, little guys taking the blame, Morris’s fondness for pariahs, extending understanding, whether flying subjects into Cambridge creates truth, Shoah, and Werner Herzog.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I actually want to bring up your most recent article for the New York Times, in which you delineated the difference between a single image and a moving image, in the sense that a moving image involves trying to create a map of reality. Because you’re not paying consistent attention to the actual moving image. But here you are with a film that has reenactments as well as interviews. And so I’m wondering: to what degree do you guide the viewer’s sense of mapping reality? Or is this a kind of cinematic device that is similar to, say, for example, the writings of Lautréamont in which he has this narrator who guides the reader and this is your effort to help out the viewer through the reenactments and through the juxtaposition and through the editing?

Morris: I think it’s both. I’ve never been compared to Lautréamont before. Here’s what I would say. There’s a movie. A movie is a movie. But you can also ask what is behind the movie. Was my intention to investigate the story? Was it my intention to find out new things? It’s self-serving of me to say so, but I would say yes! I mean, what’s the idea here? The idea is there is this set of photographs. They’ve been shown all around the world. Hundreds of millions of people have seen these photographs. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. But do we really know what we’re looking at? Has anyone talked to the people who took the photographs? What actually was going on in the photographs? I’ll give you an example. One picture that Susan Sontag remarks on is the picture of Sabrina Harman with her thumbs up. Smiling. The body of an Iraqi prisoner. Al-Jamadi. A lynching? I would say yes. But who is responsible? You look at the picture and you think, Ugh! It’s the woman in the picture. The smile! The thumbs up! She’s the culprit. She’s implicated. We come to find out. Wrong! Wrong! So this is an ongoing problem that I have with how photographs are interpreted in general.

Mark Ames Shuts Down eXile

Russia has become a deadly place for journalists of all stripes. In 2006, journalist Anna Politkovskaya was mysteriously killed after criticizing the war in Chechnya. Thankfully, Mark Ames remains alive. But his fortunes have taken a turn for the worse because of these conditions. After writing about Russian government officials conducting an unplanned audit of his iconoclastic expatriate newspaper, Mark Ames has been forced to shut down The eXile.

Edward Douglas, Hopeless Hack and Amental Film “Journalist” — Part One

New York hack “journalist” Edward Douglas, a creative typist employed by ComingSoon.net and an intellectual coprophiliac quite happy to scarf down the moist cloacal deposits offered by film publicists, recently left a comment. Mr. Douglas writes that telling the truth about Hollywood and the junket system is “the reason why blogs like [sic] shouldn’t be considered viable outlets to do these interviews.” Is that so?

In a moment, I’ll address the question of whether Mr. Douglas is a writer with enough credibility to make such a claim. But for now, there is a more pertinent question: What makes Mr. Douglas’s idiot tinkerings at ComingSoon.net any different from a blog? It appears that Mr. Douglas doesn’t write for newspapers. In fact, he writes exclusively online. Could it be that Mr. Douglas is merely a piss-poor journalist? Could it be that Mr. Douglas’s isn’t that good of a writer? Could it be that he is a small insect creeping his way up the dunghill of film journalism? A mere mite to be smashed with a robust and responsible Doc Marten?

In an effort to determine precisely why and how Mr. Douglas is a lazy and inept journalist, I’m initiating a weekly series that will examine Mr. Douglas’s work (if his scrabbling can be called that) as it appears on his site, ComingSoon.net. This is the first installment.

MR. DOUGLAS’S OFFENSES AGAINST JOURNALISM AND THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE — THE WEEK OF JUNE 1, 2008

On June 5th, Mr. Douglas interviewed Jon Favreau. Instead of using this time to investigate Iron Man 2 at length or ask Favreau about some of the interesting connections between his earlier and more “real” films (Swingers and Made) and these newer fantasy blockbusters, Mr. Douglas preferred to state the obvious to Mr. Favreau, asking him the vapid question, “So now you are back to being in front of the camera and goofing off?” Clearly, it is Mr. Douglas who is the one goofing off here with this slipshod inquiry. But, of course, since Mr. Douglas (and the other junketeers who were present for this interview) is a consummate ass-kisser, this early question was merely a setup to stroke Mr. Favreau’s ego with this scintillating observation concerning all potential superhero epics now in the planning stages: “I guess you will have to direct all of them.” Again, we see that Mr. Douglas and his unsearing peers prefer constant assuaging over journalism.

Also on that day, Mr. Douglas wrote this amazingly idiotic piece of hackery in relation to Anand Tucker. Marvel at this atrocious sentence!

It must have been a bittersweet departure, because it would have been a fantastic film under Tucker’s guidance and he was a big fan of the books, but leaving the film allowed the director to successfully dodge the bullet and the backlash when the movie bombed horribly, something that many felt greatly accelerated the decline and death of New Line in its previous guise.

Mix your metaphors much, Mr. Douglas? Split your infinitives much, Mr. Douglas? Separate your clauses at all, Mr. Douglas? Are you even aware of Strunk & White, Mr. Douglas? Does anybody edit your pieces, Mr. Douglas? Unable to deploy a figurative metaphor (“the bullet”) for his object, Mr. Douglas feels a strange need to introduce a literal one (“the backlash”). And who are the “many” who felt that The Golden Compass was responsible for New Line’s decline? Is this like the tribunal scene at the end of M? Mr. Douglas suggests by this cavalier item that he is an insider. But he is a dilettante. A proper journalist would offer a link or a specific authority for others to follow.

Let us also ponder the modifier “exclusive” — a word that Mr. Douglas seems peculiarly fixated upon. An exclusive interview suggests that Mr. Douglas is nabbing these interviews on his own, that he is obtaining bits of information that nobody else has. Mr. Douglas is not in the habit of confessing when he’s at a press conference or a sharing a roundtable interview with other journalists. So perhaps he has deluded himself into thinking that he’s getting an “exclusive.” Or this is what he tells the people who pay his checks. Either way, he is a liar. And further examinations into the “exclusive” nature of Mr. Douglas’s material are forthcoming.

But for now, I note that Mr. Douglas reported that he had “an exclusive” item involving Werner Herzog’s upcoming movie, Bad Lieutenant, with Herzog claiming that his film was not a remake of the Abel Ferrara film. But if Douglas had such an “exclusive,” why then did the same news (with a strikingly similar quote) crop up on Defamer one day before Douglas’s report? Could it be that Defamer’s S.T. VanAirsdale (who also blogs at The Reeler) was at the same junket/press conference? (VanAirsadle, to his credit, had the humility and the decency to avoid the word “exclusive,” pointing to “some minor miracle/apparent PR botch” that permitted this interview to happen.)

On June 3, the hopeless Mr. Douglas posted his conversation with documentary filmmaker Nina Davenport, where one can see Mr. Douglas’s considerable deficiencies as an interlocutor. Davenport was commissioned to film an Iraqi film student. The resulting film became an altogether different documentary named Operation Filmmaker. Sounds like an intriguing exposé into cultural transition, yes? Well, not for Mr. Douglas. He was not so tickled at putting forth remotely challenging questions on, say, how much Davenport and her camera might have been inadvertently responsible for the film student’s erratic behavior. In fact, since Mr. Douglas is apparently incapable of using his noggin (or unwilling to) for his questions, we get three questions from Mr. Douglas that rely upon the “It must have been hard”/”Was it difficult?” interviewing cliche.

Let us consider this hackeneyed phrase. In what world do you utter such a conversational banality and not get your ass kicked? You don’t ask a dentist if it’s “difficult” for him to fill in a cavity. You don’t tell a barista that “it must have been hard” to make that latte for the last customer. Why are amental hacks like Mr. Douglas so content to treat their interview subjects like children? (Answer: Because today’s junketeers aren’t interested in adult conversations. They remain inveterate assuagers.)

Douglas really thinks his readers are idiots. Why else would he write, in relation to a junket with Kung Fu Panda co-director John Stevenson, “A lot of what he had to say will certainly be of interest to anyone hoping to one day break into the animation or computer effects field.” Even discounting the fact that Douglas (or one of his fellow roundtable junketeers) foolishly compares the Head of Story position with ADing, is Douglas arrogant enough to believe that aspiring animation students will be going to ComingSoon.net to get technical information? Compare Mr. Douglas’s condescending flummery with Steve Fritz’s more comprehensive and informed interview of both Kung Fu Panda directors, where Fritz not only gets answers on how fight moves were animated and carried out, but even obtains a concise paragraph on key frame animation.

It will, of course, take some time to examine the spineless atavist known as Edward Douglas. I should observe that Mr. Douglas’s affronts to journalism are, as I have intimated with the comparisons above, by no means endemic to film journalism as a whole. I have my problems with David Poland, but at least Poland is attempting some basic ratiocination. One cannot say this of Mr. Douglas, whose execrable word spewing makes Poland look like F. Scott Fitzgerald. It is not just the ineluctable conclusion that Mr. Douglas writes with all the dependability and precocity of a malfunctioning dot matrix printer that should trouble us. He actually gets paid for this.

It is now my goal to inform those who pay Mr. Douglas for his services that they are getting a terrible deal. It is he who is the one not deserving of any credibility. It is he who is the one who should be confined to a go-nowhere office job without the benefit of air conditioning. Future dispatches will follow.

Junkets

It’s a drizzly Tuesday afternoon in the Meatpacking District. I’m waiting outside a hotel suite. It’s just before a junket interview that will be my last. A film publicist wanders in the hallway, jitters in her stride. She’s gabbing into her cell, calmly trying to placate a difficult client who doesn’t realize how difficult he’s being.

Being a journalist, I’m invisible. I’m the barista or bartender of the media system. I’m considered too dimwitted to pay attention to the dismal and terrible things that actors and filmmakers sometimes say. The expectation is that I won’t write about it. The idea here is that I can’t inquire, lest this prevent future interview opportunities from surfacing upon my shoals. I truly don’t care who I talk with, so long as there’s a fun and somewhat enlightening conversation. But this modest goal is incompatible with what is expected. I’m expected to offer softball questions along the lines of “Where do you get your ideas?” or “What’s next?” But I can’t. Just can’t. Don’t have it in me to dumb things down. This simply isn’t what journalists do. I feel compelled to present a film person with a goofy or thoughtful inquiry into his craft. Perhaps it’s naivete. But it worked back in the day for Mike Wallace. But if I do inquire, and I’m just about to, it’s considered “inappropriate.” No explanation or specific solecism given.

I’m expected to be dazzled by the limitless canapes, the endless stream of sandwiches, the food and drink that publicists are expected to provide, the tab paid by a studio with money to burn. But I don’t care about any of this. Because I’m a journalist. Not a freeloader. And I want to do my job.

I don’t know who the client on the phone is, but this publicist has a difficult task on her hands. I learn that the client has had press. Regis, a profile in the Los Angeles Times, and numerous other places. Not bad. But it’s simply not enough. This client wants more.

“I understand,” says the publicist, “but it’s been difficult to get in touch with you. You don’t return my calls. And it would help…”

The publicist is interrupted.

I learn that the publicist has been leaving several voicemails a day. The publicist has been trying to book this client — who could be an egotistical filmmaker or a self-important actor — on several shows. But without that pivotal communication on the client’s end, the all-encompassing media tsunami he demands can’t happen. And even if it can happen, it simply isn’t enough. The publicist is expected to make this happen regardless of the client’s recalcitrance. And in this way, the publicist isn’t all that different from the junket journalist. If an actor detects even the faintest slight, then it’s the journalist who takes the fall and the publicist is chewed out by another publicist just higher up the ladder, but all publicists are equal and just as expendable. The assumption is that the journalist will continue to dun his nose because he needs the high-profile interviews. I, however, don’t need or care to dun my nose. Thanks to a spectacularly bitchy publicist named Betsy Rudnick, a senior account executive at Falco Ink who I haven’t yet met, but who I learn later doesn’t like me but can’t tell me why, I’m about to commit unanticipated hari-kari and I don’t know it.

A film person wants to be on every radio and television show, wants to grace every newspaper. But the film person abdicates all control to the publicist. The film person is expected to be placated, taken care of, have his ego massaged, and who knows what else.

Some New York junket veterans — like a man named Brad Balfour who I have run into at press screenings and interviews and who has eyed my audio equipment not so out of bonhomie or curiosity, but with the hope of discerning some way that he can use me* — boast about having ten minutes with Samuel L. Jackson. I heard Balfour shrieking at the top of his lungs about a Jackson chat at a screening a few months ago. He had bagged Jackson. But what kind of sustained inquiry can you have in ten minutes? In the case of Balfour, the inquiry involves such insipid questions like “What inspired you to do In Country?” and “How did you prepare for this role?” Questions that nearly any junket journalist is going to ask.

This take-no-chances approach goes much further. There’s something called a roundtable interview, in which multiple junket journalists band together to offer the same questions with the same answers for the same outlets, where they can then take the same credit for being the “exclusive” interlocutor.

As a result, quotes from the same conversation have a magical way of popping up everywhere. You may think that Balfour got the scoop on Javier Bardem. But wouldn’t you know it? The same quotes — in particular, observe the “How am I with women?” answer and the specific references to Woody Allen and Milos Forman — show up in interviews with Coming Soon’s Edward Douglas, the Boston Globe‘s Michelle Kung, Collider’s Frosty (a nom de plume for a double-dipping journalist?), and the Sunday Mirror. (And if you want to have some real fun, Google a quote. You may be surprised by how frequently a specific phrase appears in interviews. If it doesn’t come from the same conversation, then it’s likely to be a phrase that a film person latches onto. An actor, after all, must know his lines. Boilerplate is an amazing thing.)

This fiction of a perceived exclusive allows readers to think that they’re getting something unique. But when an actor hits New York, “friendly” interviewers are selected to obtain quotes, and the results are nothing less than a mass dissemination of the same material. Junket journalists often team up to collect their work. One group interviews the actor, another a director. The film person maintains the practice of repeating the same quotes, ad nauseum, to these “journalists.” It all becomes a journalistic circlejerk.

The junket has been around longer than you might expect. One of Hollywood’s earliest moments of junket excess came in 1963, when a then whopping $250,000 was spent promoting Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Kramer was summoned to defend the crazed financial excess. It set a precedent. Now nearly every film released by a studio spends a remarkable sum of money on junkets.

And if you think junket journalists are bad, there are other hacks who go much further. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association‘s ignoble relationship with Hollywood has the studios picking up the airfare and hotel bill for journalists. There are sometimes gift bags. Bribery. (For what it’s worth, the HFPA also oversees the Golden Globes, in the event you actually believed that there was some integrity.) And then there’s Ain’t It Cool News’s Harry Knowles, an online “journalist” regularly flown out by studios to premieres. In 2006, Eric D. Snider revealed more, writing a candid column entitled “I Was a Junket Whore,” in which he chronicled further indiscretions. Snider remains banned from Paramount screenings for telling the truth.

* * *

I was at Soho House to talk with film people behind Santosh Sivan’s film, Before the Rains. I set up the interview because I had admired Sivan’s 1999 film, The Terrorist, championing it when it had played during the San Francisco Film Festival that year. I had intended to talk with Sivan about his stunning visuals. But the deal was this. I could talk with Sivan, but only if I likewise talked with actors Linus Roache, Jennifer Ehle, Nandita Das, and Rahul Bose. No problem. I set up a roundtable conversation. I figured that questions could be bounced off Sivan and the actors. And all of us would have a fun time. I had set up the interview with an amicable and adept publicist named Caitlin Speed, a lively woman whom I had booked previous interviews with, and who simply got the inquisitive intent and nature of The Bat Segundo Show. But when I showed up, another publicist asked me who I was and who I had set up the interview with. I told her. And eventually, Caitlin and I found each other.

The atmosphere was chaotic. Das was on her way out. Sivan hadn’t arrived. No reason was given. No problem. I’d carry forth an impromptu discussion with the remaining actors. And if Sivan showed up later, he could nudge his way in. This was, after all, the natural flow of conversation.

Actors are, on the whole, very friendly. They are, after all, people. But there are some who have chips on their shoulders the size of Montana. And it is these prima donnas who tarnish the profession. I began my conversation with Bose — easily the best actor in Before the Rains and, as it turned out, the smartest guy at the table — and Ehle, given a relatively thankless role as the wife to Roache’s adulterer. Things started off okay, with Bose claiming to be Ehle and “very sexy.” But when Roache, the film’s leading man, arrived, flashing his pearly whites, I was expected to break off my conversation with Bose to acknowledge his presence. (You can hear this awkward pause in the podcast. I’m presenting the audio file below unedited. I leave others to make up their minds over whether I went over the line with my questions or whether the actors I talked with were incapable of working without a script.) The problem was that I was in the middle of a query with Bose on how Sivan had placed his character at the top of a cliff, and I was curious to know how landscape and position affected his performance. And I thought it very rude to break off this conversation in media res. When Bose was finished with his answer, I then introduced Roache. Roache was getting fidgety, presumably because he was not the center of attention.

Me: I should point out that Linus Roache has just joined us. How are you doing?

Roache: I’m very good. How are you?

Me: Doing fantastic. I alluded to — I was talking with Jennifer about the scene with you and Jennifer in the bedroom, where both of you are positioned in a manner in which — you’re both diagonal to the bed frame. We were talking about this notion of performance in relation to landscape. And I was wondering if you had any particular thoughts on how landscape or the environment in this film — because this is a very environment-specific film — pertains to your performance. Or working within these limitations.

Roache: Wow! What a question.

Ehle: I didn’t talk about that at all. Ed was talking about that. I said I had no idea about the landscape or anything.

Roache: I don’t know how to answer that. Uh….

Bose: I did the mountains. Landscape and the mountains were mine. She said she did the tea gardens.

Ehle: Yeah.

There was nervous laughter. And at this point, Roache then shifted into boilerplate.

Roache: I don’t know. I just loved being there. I was just out of my mind being there. It was just such an incredible environment to make a movie in. I literally like — I had tears in my eyes when I left. Because I had never been in such beauty for so long. So I understand why my character didn’t want to leave there. The way he fell in love with it. So.

Okay. So he wasn’t getting it. So I thought I’d try a goofier approach to loosen Roache up. Something predicated upon an observation I had of the film, something I was curious about, and something he might have some fun with.

Me: There was one aspect to your character that actually disturbed me. And that was the fact that your hair does not move — with an exception near the end. There’s a stray follicle that actually sticks out. But for the most part, your hair is completely slicked back.

There was a confused look on Roache’s face. Bose tried to bail him out.

Bose: He was very particular about it. Linus, you know, I won’t say he’s vain. But there’s definitely a hair thing going on there. And he just — if his hair would move, he would call for a cut and take the shot again. He said, “Let me know if my hair ever moves.”

Me: No, but I mean was this an actual plan on your part? Because not even the wind can knock your hair out of place.

Ehle: Did you enjoy the movie?

Me: No, serious! It was like a Steven Seagal motif or something.

Roache: I never noticed that. I’ve got scenes where I’m covered in water. And I’ve got scenes where my hair’s all over the place.

Me: Even…really? Because every single time, your hair is like completely pomaded.

Roache: Well, they did use pomade in 1939. But yeah.

Me: Well was there any particular Brylcreem thing?

Roache: Yeah, we used hair pomade that they used in 1937.

Me: What research did you do to get the exact nature of Brylcreem right?

Roache remained baffled. He glared at Bose, annoyed that Bose, a mere supporting actor, was the better wit.

The hair angle seemed right at the time. Knowing of the mothballs that Marlon Brando had placed into his mouth for Don Corleone, I was genuinely curious about the question of how slicking back one’s hair affected an actor’s performance. But I also wanted to have fun with this. And I can now see how an oversensitive “Serious Actor” might take the Steven Seagal comparison the wrong way. It is worth observing that Roache’s Gaia Community profile page has “to help define human relationship beyond ego” listed as his singular Goal.

I then asked a question to the group about how Sivan’s color schemes — green devoted to the colonialists, brown devoted to the tribes, and red foreshadowing a tragic event — might have affected performance. I wanted these three actors to understand that this was an inquiry. Roache then burst in with an answer.

Roache: This movie was more about a kind of creative, you know, rock and roll, jazz fusion situation. Because you had a creative genius like Santosh Sivan. I mean, there weren’t a lot of huge decisions being made in this kind of arty level like that. It was more like a creative process that was unfolding. And some of it was crazy and chaotic. And some of it was just like following what was there and making the most of it. And that’s what a genius like Santosh does. So…

Me: Yeah, but I…

Ehle: If there was anything intellectual about the film, it was streaming out of Santosh. I don’t think anybody ever sat down. It was a very unconstipated process.

In other words, any interview was a matter of parroting the press notes. Any remotely intellectual query was “constipated” and verboten.

Roache: Yeah, yeah. The script though was well thought through and multi-layered. In terms of taking a domestic story, extrapolating that out into something epic. So that’s why you had structure. That’s where you had structure. But within that, you had this guy who was like, “No no no, that shot isn’t about you. It’s about an insect.”

Me: Yeah. Well, landscape is very important. In your house, in your character’s house, there is this particular color scheme going on. So as a result, this has to affect your performance on some level. There’s the red carpet. The red that’s kind of a foreshadowing of what’s going to happen later on in the particular film. And so when you are dealing with colors that are this dominant on the set, and in your particular environment, this has to have some effect upon your performance.

Roache was having none of this. And so I brought up the way in which his eyebrows had moved up and down as the events unfolded in the film. Roache mentioned something about training at the “eyebrow school” and was then ushered away from the table.

The conversation continued with Bose and Ehle, and there were a few interesting thoughts exchanged about acting with gesture limitations. But the mood had permanently altered. I had committed the unpardonable crime of “going after” the leading man. When the actors left the table, they used a common status exercise to turn their backs to me and not offer me any kind of eye contact. Ironically enough, I had brought up the question of eye contact during the course of the interview.

My friend, serving as a technical assistant, and I left the room to ponder what had just happened. She had helped me out with a few other multiple person interviews. And she had observed another actor run away after I had asked a question about the relationship between backstory and performance. This interview, she told me, had outdone that.

We then returned to the white room for my turn to talk with Sivan. I had been told by Caitlin that I would get five minutes. Another woman — the aforementioned bitchy publicist, Betsy Rudnick, as it turned out — then told me that there was “no time in his schedule.” I told her that I only needed five minutes and that I had prepared specific questions, that one of the reasons I had come was to talk with Sivan. But talking with Sivan was impossible. A phoner was offered. My friend, who was utterly appalled by the way I was being treated, then said, “We don’t do phoners….ever.” I then tried to smooth things over by asking how long Sivan was in town for, suggesting that I could come back the next day to conduct the interview. Perhaps we could make more of this and have a serious conversation about the film. Rudnick retreated away.

We waited some more. I observed Rudnick laying into Caitlin, who stood shell-shocked by the window. I approached Caitlin and asked what the problem was. She said, “I don’t understand. The guys from The Signal loved you. So did the Hennegan brothers.”

I then approached Rudnick and asked again what the deal was with Sivan.

Rudnick snapped at me, telling me that there would now be no interview with Sivan. The reasons and conditions were changing by the minute. She told me that I had made the actors uncomfortable. That my questions were “inappropriate.”

“What specific questions?” I asked.

She would not say. So we left without causing a stink.

Out in the streets, I was overcome with rage. Not for the unprofessional manner in which Rudnick had handled the Sivan interview, but because I then fully understood how the junket system was a sham. I was upset by the manner in which Rudnick had said something terrible to Caitlin, who is a good person, and how all this had presumably originated from a minor affront to Linus Roache’s ego. He seriously believed that he could coast by on his generic answers. He seriously expected to be the center of attention.

I felt compelled to smoke a rare cigarette.

I resolved then and there never to do a junket interview again. And, at least for the time being, I do not want to talk with actors. I will have nothing to do with Falco Ink or any agency that Betsy Rudnick is a part of. I am not interested in being a marketing tool. I’m interested in inquiry. I’m interested in maintaining the mix of goofy and intellectual questions that have long been at the center of The Bat Segundo Show.

Again, I leave the listeners to judge whether my questions were “inappropriate.” The audio can be listened to at the end of this post. Yes, there were some tangents involving Roache’s hair and the way that he used his eyebrows. I suppose that what makes my conversation different from, say, David Letterman interviewing Gwyneth Paltrow about her knee is that I opted not to stare in awe at Roache’s middle-aged mien or worship his almighty presence, whereas Letterman’s intent involved soothing Paltrow. And it says something that James Lipton, the man considered by many to be the finest actor-oriented interviewer, often has actors spill their guts out to him on personal matters — most notably, Jack Lemmon confessing his alcoholism. Curtis White has identified this tendency to prioritize the personal over the intellectual as symptomatic of the Middle Mind, represented by interviewers like Terry Gross. Citing an author whose real-life husband had dropped dead shortly before this author’s book was published, White observed that “[t]his was the point at which the book became interesting for Terry. If her poor husband hadn’t dropped dead, Terry would never have been interested in her or her book for this ‘show of shows.’ ‘What did it feel like to suspect you’d killed your own husband with your art?’ Fresh Air? How about Lurid Speculations? It’s like Dr. Laura for people with bachelor’s degrees. Car Talk has more intellectual content.”

The “inappropriateness” was the idea that aspects of an actor’s performance were open to playful or even quasi-intellectual questioning, and that this served in sharp contrast to the lurid soothing and constant ego-stroking that today’s celebrity interviews require. It wasn’t as if I had asked Roache what his favorite sexual position was. Although I suppose that this question would have been more “appropriate” than trying to query Roache about his acting process.

But if a film journalist does not play the fool, if he asks an actor to use his brain, or if does not spend his time assuaging the actor in some way, it is a contumely to the control that the film industry wishes to maintain. Any trade secrets or insights for the public are reserved for the DVD commentaries, which generate more money for both the studios and the paid participants. And the Betsy Rudnicks of our world demand a climate in which journalists are supplicant sycophants, but the perception of inquiry is sustained because the interview is framed in a Q&A format predetermined by unreasonable conditions and unvoiced demands. The film journalism world is as phony and fabricated as the film world. And from these execrable conditions, self-serving hacks like Brad Balfour boast and profit.

These people believe that you are stupid. They believe that you will buy anything they tell you to. And as the film industry has extended its control over the types of questions and the types of journalists that actors and directors will talk with, the only spirit of resistance comes from celebrity gossip reporters determined to dig up any bit of nastiness. And the public, hoping for one small shred of the truth, laps this up. But despite this, the pursuit for intellectual truth is abandoned.

Because of this, I have decided to abandon my brief flirtation with film journalism. I’m sticking with books, comics, and a few other things. When I wrote about movies in the late ’90’s, there was still the possibility of conducting interviews with inquiry in mind. But that time has now passed. Conversation has been replaced by kissing an actor’s ass. Current film coverage, given what I have described above, is not in any true sense journalistic. It also isn’t much fun. The true sign that it’s over is that opportunist typists like Brad Balfour seriously believe that they are journalists, and they do not recognize the sad solipsistic leeches staring back in the mirror.

* — Balfour does indeed use people, such as this poor guy who was “[e]ager enough to get sucked into becoming a transcriber for Mr. Balfour: transcribing many of his interviews for eventual publication on the website.”

On Cruelty and Journalism

A kid eagerly opens his Xmas present. His eyes light up with happiness and great shock. How did his parents manage to pull it off? It’s an Xbox! Something that the kids down the street have and that mock him for not having. But his parents somehow pulled all their pennies together and came through.

“Open it!” screech his parents, knowing that the kid’s about to get a surprise.

press.jpgAnd the kid rips open the cardboard, only to find that within the box are a handful of shirts.

But that’s not all. The parents then begin laughing at the poor kid, who is heartbroken at being duped and heartbroken at being poor. The parents continue to chant how they can’t afford an Xbox. And they’re recording this moment for posterity. Just so they can see how their son is hurt, horrified, and dejected in the course of three minutes.

You can find the video here. And I find it appalling that these parents would not only commit such a despicable act of cruelty, but that they would record this on camera for posterity. (If they couldn’t afford the Xbox, how then could they afford the camera?) There is simply no morally justifiable reason for this behavior. Class doesn’t excuse it. And with the parents constantly referencing their social station, we truly see just how trapped this kid is. Not by class, but by neglect, an inability to emphasize with one’s fellow humans, and a wholesale justification of psychological torture. The disturbing question I’m dwelling upon after watching this video is just what the kid will learn from being photographed like this. Will he emerge psychologically troubled? Will he then in turn capture his misdeeds with a video camera?

I can’t help consider this cruel act of domestic terror in relation to additional cruel photos that were unleashed the other day ago at Wired. The photos — new ones from Abu Ghraib — were presented because psychologist Philip Zimbardo planned a talk around them. Zimbardo was the man who administered over a famous Stanford experiment in 1971, in which students acted as prisoners and guards and the “guards” began abusing the prisoners, demanding that they strip and perform sex acts. He’s come out with a new book on the subject, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. But aside from pondering why a person would turn to outright cruelty, I want to know why these people also feel the need to record these acts for posterity.

In one of her last essays before her death, Susan Sontag had a few ideas on this subject. She suggested that the Abu Ghraib photos reflected something particularly troubling in American culture — that “the horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken — with the perpetrators posing, gloating, over their helpless captives.”

But I don’t think this impulse is limited to war. I think the impulse to photograph or videotape a cruel misdeed is now indelibly interwoven into the American psyche. The camera is now a device that offers anyone total justification for being entirely removed from human emotion. We’re not allowed to get involved. We’re supposed to be objective reporters, even if it involves removing ourselves from our own abject acts. And if you express anything remotely subjective or if you actually give a damn in any way, you’re considered to be a stain upon the great American journalistic quilt.

I conducted an interview not too long ago in which I had to stop tape. The things we were talking about made the interview subject cry. And I couldn’t in good conscience continue the interview and remain “objective” about it. The man was in pain. And I cared too much. Off tape, I asked the man if he was okay. He insisted that he was. But we had clearly gone down a dark road. When the interview was over, I spent a good hour considering the ways in which I had brought out this man’s emotions, damning my apparent gift for gab. My girlfriend listened as I condemned myself for getting these answers. As I blamed myself for his pain. Is this what it means to be a journalist?

I’ve yet to master the podcast. I know that when I listen to this audio, I’ll have to experience his pain again. But I also know that I have a journalistic obligation to portray this pain for my listeners. Because it’s a story that everybody needs to hear. But I also wonder if I’ll reveal myself — even in a small way — to be just as terribly removed as these parents and these soldiers are.

Gawker

I haven’t said much about the Gawker developments, because even thinking about Gawker for more than three seconds a week makes me want to take a cold shower. Gawker has taken potshots at people who truly don’t deserve it: some of them very good people who have done a lot for literature (often very quietly) and some of them friends of mine. But I think Maud’s run-in with Nick Denton pretty much says it all. And I suspect that n+1 is right to announce that it’s truly the end.

Sun-Times Books Section Latest Casualty

As John Freeman observes this morning, the Chicago Sun-Times books section is being cut in half, with the Controversy Section disappearing altogether this month. The five pages currently devoted to books on Sunday at the back of the Controversy section are being whittled down to two pages at the back of the Sunday Show section. And to add insult to injury, the reviews are also being chopped down to 250 to 300 words.

Tony Pierce Moves to the LA Times

Now this is a very interesting move, and I hope that Mr. Pierce will be granted some major technical flexibility to dramatically reconfiguring all of the blogs. The main problem with the Los Angeles Times‘s web design is that is very counter-intuitive to the reader. Furthermore, content has a tendency to disappear. (The situation is so bad that Ed Park and Sarah Weinman’s excellent columns for the LATBR aren’t even archived.) I hope Pierce will be able to communicate these evident problems to top brass and finally get the damn situation rectified. He certainly has some solid ideas about current media culture. (via Callie)

The Beginning of the End at Time Out?

joelreese.jpgI had my own run-in with Time Out New York editor-in-chief Brian Farnham. But it appears that there may be additional problems within the Time Out empire. The Chicago Sun-Times reports that Time Out Chicago Editor-in-Chief Joel Reese has been fired for “violating a company policy.” There’s no word yet on what specific company policy provision was violated. And not even TOC Marketing Director Tony Barnett knows, or, at least, he’s not willing to reveal what happened to the press.

This abrupt sacking — Reese was only on the job five months — comes hot on the heels of TOC losing art director Bryan Erickson to his original employer, Blackbook. The official spin, according to Barnett in another piece, is that Bryan “misses New York and wishes to return there.” Although there were possibly other motivations at work here. The Sun-Times reports that Reese and Erickson clashed and that the latter left because he “could not execute his vision for the magazine’s art direction.”

It is also worth noting that former TOC publisher Steve Timble was ousted in September 2006 based on a “mutual understanding.”

Marvin Zindler, Eyewitness News!

New York Times: “Mr. Zindler, with his cheerfully admitted plastic surgery, closet of peacock fashions, blatant hairpieces and blue-tinted glasses, was best known for his first foray into investigative journalism, in 1973. He exposed a widely tolerated bawdyhouse known as the Chicken Ranch in La Grange. The case was the basis for the musical and movie ‘Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.’ Mr. Zindler was an early consumer advocate and action reporter, campaigning against scams, medical abuses and unsanitary food conditions. His regular Friday ‘rat and roach reports’ had the KTRK coffee shop closed for violations at least three times. Friends said he was quiet spoken and never shouted — until he was on the air. He was known for cheerfully stumbling over words, rendering ‘Voilà!’ as ‘Viola!'”

A lengthy documentary on Marvin Zindler, with clips of Zindler in action over the past several decades: [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7] [Part 8] [Part 9] [Part 10] [Part 11]

Tough Questions, Journalistic Truth, and Danica McKellar

“You are representing a media and you’re a reporter. The American nation is made up of 300 million people. There are different points of view over there.” — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

“You know, you need to talk to economists. I think I got a B in Econ 101. I got an A, however, in keeping taxes low and being fiscally responsible with the people’s money.” — President Bush

From a September 20, 2007 post-interview discussion with Danica McKellar:

McKellar: That should have been my first warning. When you first said, I’ll give you a softball question, like, there’s going to be a hardball? But what?

Me: You’re saying that you don’t answer hardball questions?

There is something very disturbing going on in American journalism right now. Perhaps this has always been the case to some extent, but it appears that one may only ask certain questions. An interview subject, in turn, is not responsible for talking about certain topics, even those in which she has a decided hand in. Never mind that these topics may contain important details about our ever-changing world. It doesn’t matter if the topic is politics, sports, entertainment, or social issues. This self-imposed censorship, understood by savvy marketing forces and no different from pre-glasnost Pravda house style, has pervaded the American consciousness with a fervor that is truly disheartening for anyone cares about one of America’s greatest precepts — the freedom of the press.

mck.jpgThe unspoken rules of celebrity junket interviews, which are designed to cover all flaws and prevent any and all character deficiencies from being made public, dictate that the celebrity is perfect and can do no wrong. Ask questions that are soft. Ask questions that wouldn’t harm a gnat. Constantly flatter the celebrity. This is the way things work. And if you don’t play by these rules, if you actually attempt anything approaching journalism, you are a scoundrel of the first order.

I do not subscribe to these rules. I believe in a press in which important questions can and should be asked of anyone. Because people and the books that they create should be taken seriously. Particularly when they are misunderstood.

* * *

It was a Thursday afternoon. I was walking along Canal Street and observed a truck towing an enormous bus, causing the traffic to spiral into a slipknot incompatible with two-way flow. A couple looked on at this and were laughing incessantly. And even I had to crack a grimace. Was it a harbinger of some sort?

I arrived in a cafe to interview Danica McKellar about her book, Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail. It was my second interview of the day. My first interview had gone very well, extending unexpectedly into 75 minutes. McKellar’s book was a guide for girls, containing helpful hints on how to compute the Greatest Common Factor, transform percentages into decimal values, and the like. I am very much interested in gender roles and, in particular, the great gender gap in math and science. I also feel that any book which offers girls positive role models for entering into mathematics is worth investigating. Nevertheless, as the book’s subtitle indicates, there was something within the book’s pages which suggested that girls, even those who are pursuing math, should fall within a feminine stereotype.

“I’m here to tell you from personal experience that you can be a glamour girl and a smart young woman — who can certainly do math,” wrote McKellar.

Why the glamour girl/smart young woman dichotomy? Isn’t this perpetuating a stereotype?

There was McKellar’s bold claim on page 279 in which she made a comparison between getting a bikini wax and preparing for a math test:

But after a few more sessions and a lot more pain, I found that I could calm myself down. The mind’s power over the body is incredible. All I had to do was think about roses or rainbows or fluffy clouds, and it didn’t hurt as much! Sounds wacky, I know, but I’m telling you — it actually works!”

The mind’s power over the body is indeed incredible, and I couldn’t help but wonder about some poor girl with a body image issue reading this passage. Junior high school is hard enough for girls. Why perpetuate the pain further?

I mention all this, because this is the thinking I apply for every interview. My girlfriend has joked that I would have made a particularly pernicious litigator. But I choose to use my powers for good, if you can call “good” asking serious and off-kilter questions of various authors, intellectuals, and celebrities. I may be a tough interviewer, even with authors I dearly admire, but I have tried to offset this by being as kind and polite as possible. There is a very specific science to what I do, but I do not profess that it is perfect.

Nevertheless, it is my impression that when one writes a book, one should be able to stand by its principles. One should be sufficiently confident to respond to any points in a civil manner.

It was with these tenets in mind that I asked Ms. McKellar a series of serious questions:

McKellar: Playing with make-up, fashion, jewelry. These are pretty universal.

Me: No. But you’ve just admitted that they’re not universal. Because it’s not the…

McKellar: Oh no, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said universal. I should have meant, um….I should have said that they’re consistent throughout time. Women throughout the ages have loved these kind of things and they’re fun. And it’s part of. So I think that the girls have a much deeper interest in self-presentation than guys do. In general. And I’m making a total generality here. Um, girls are more interested in: Who am I and how I come off to the rest of the world? These are things. This is the way that girls seem to answer the question, “Who am I?,” at that age. And that’s when they answer that question. In middle school. Who am I? And how do I compare? That’s what all those teen magazines and quizzes are about, right? That’s why I have quizzes in my book.

Me: Yeah, yeah.

McKellar: Take this quiz and find out. All those quizzes in magazines, they all answer the question, “Who are you? Take this quiz and find out.” And it’s irresistible. I used to love that stuff. And most girls do.

Me: But maybe that’s actually perpetuating this idea of either trying to ask themselves who they are. See, instead of seeing the monkeys or the prime numbers, they see instead these kinds of horoscopes and these quizzes and the like, and then they say, “Oh, I fall within a particular taxonomy.” Is it not better to just take the really helpful suggestions that you give to girls and let those sort of stand alone? And let those actually be that thing that says, “Who am I? Well, you know what? I am a girl and I can do math. And therefore, there is nothing that can stop me.” It’s like the ultimate empowerment.

McKellar: That’s what I think I’m doing. I’m a girl and I can do math. And I can love lip gloss too and do math, and there’s no contradiction whatsoever.

Me: I’m curious, would you call yourself a feminist?

McKellar: Different people have different interpretations of that word. In terms of the interpretation that says, I believe in equality of men and women, of course, absolutely.

Me: What definitions would you quibble with?

McKellar: Well, there’s so-called Nazi feminists out there that give them that name. That try to say that, you know, women are better than men. And there’s just some of that out there. It’s the good old pendulum they’re trying to swing the other direction.

Me: Well…

McKellar: I really think that men and women are completely fabulous creatures in their own right and very different from each other.

Me: Who are these Nazi feminists? I mean, Rush Limbaugh, of course, coined the term “feminazi.” I’m curious as to who would fall into that particular camp.

McKellar: That’s not what we’re going to talk about.

Me: Well, I think it would be very important to talk about, given that you were saying this book actually empowers girls. Therefore, in a certain sense, it is calling for this equality of…

McKellar: I mean, you’re asking me to warn girls against listening to certain people?

And so on. I was not trying to pass judgment. I was only trying to understand. I mentioned that “Nazi” was a loaded word. Whether I was being too insistent on this topic is subject to your perception, but I have a feeling McKellar wasn’t asked about feminism before. McKellar, at any rate, clearly didn’t care for my line of questioning. Indeed, as she would later tell me, she had not experienced any interview like this. Whether this was a case of me somehow skating through red tape or a failure of the publicists to examine the interviews I do, I don’t know.

As I was preparing to shift the topic to something having nothing to do with Nazis or feminists, McKellar called for a break.

I did promise McKellar that I wouldn’t make a short segment that was accidentally recorded during this “break,” which did indeed live up to the word’s Middle English etymology, available in podcast form. Being a man of my word, I’ll honor that promise. But I’m not going to let this stop me from reporting on this story.

While McKellar took her break, I tried to explain to her that I was a journalist and that I was asking tough questions of her because I took her book seriously. I pointed out to McKellar that I had not asked her any questions about The Wonder Years and had no intention to, as I was a literary journalist.

She then grabbed my list of questions and held them away from me. After studying these questions, she then began setting conditions. I couldn’t talk about the Stuff Magazine shoot, in which she had posed in a bikini. I told her that I didn’t understand. She then turned to the publicist and asked her what her perspective was.

She then noticed that my recording unit was recording, the increasing digits likewise surprising me, and then hit the STOP button.

She and the publicist then demanded that I play back the most recent audio. I refused. It was bad enough that my questions had been taken from me and that I suddenly had to clear what I could ask — something I have never done with anyone, even when I was conducting interviews in the late ’90’s with film people of considerably greater stature than McKellar.

The publicist said, “Well, our audience isn’t compatible with your audience.”

I told the publicist that I disagreed. She then asked me how I had found out about the book. Perhaps this was naive of me, but I was stunned that I would be treated like some disposable component in the marketing machine and I simply said that a book about gender roles and math interested me.

McKellar again expressed her discomfort. She didn’t like my attitude.

The publicist said, “Well, I was a bit uncomfortable too.”

Maybe so. But shouldn’t the publicists have done their homework? I’m not hiding what I do here. Any person can listen to any of the podcasts and listen to how I conduct interviews.

I didn’t see any point to continue the interview. McKellar and the publicist left. And I packed up my gear.

It would also appear that McKellar has a history of being rather touchy about the idea that her book might be reinforcing gender roles. McKellar and her publicist kept insisting that I was attacking her character. I was not. I was asking her questions about her book and trying to understand how her own views about gender roles were reflected in a book instructing girls to excel in math. A book is, after all, a vessel of information transmitted from author to reader. And if the vessel involves an author telling girls what to do, then it seems entirely reasonable to ask questions about what steps are taken in transmitting this message.

* * *

I don’t believe my questions were unreasonable. But I am a rather persistent person who often ventures into unusual territory.

But I return to the original question. What is the role of the reporter?

Maybe a reporter is, as Amborse Bierce once described him, “a writer who guesses his way to the truth and dispels it with a tempest of words.”

I don’t deny that I’m often guessing at the truth with these conversations. I don’t pretend to speak on behalf of anybody but myself. So I inure myself from President Ahmadinejad’s charge. I’ve never claimed to know everything, and I am often quite wrong in my thinking. But I’d like to think that in pressing so vigorously upon a particular topic that there remains some possibility of getting at the truth from a subject. The idea of even President Bush, whose economic policies are responsible for current events, evading any question that doesn’t have anything to do with economics, represents a completely unreasonable limitation. And if reporters are still permitted in our culture, why then should anyone set limits upon what they ask of their subjects?

Do we now Taser anyone who asks a dissenting question? Do we throw journalists in jail when they won’t give up work product? These examples, representing Andrew Meyer and Josh Wolf, respectively, may be more extraordinary exemplars of a growing antipathy against those who ask who questions. But these questions must be asked.

We haven’t learned anything from the regrettable night of June 22, 1812, when Alexander Contee Hanson, the owner and publisher of the Baltimore newspaper, the Federal Republican, was attacked by a faceless mob and beaten, along with many of Hanson’s followers, by anti-Federalists. The mob also destroyed the Federal Republican‘s offices.

There was a time not long ago in which the terms “media training” and “media clearance” were not part of media vernacular. One wonders how a reporter writing for a 19th century newspaper would negotiate today’s intricate waters. If you think my questions are tough, consider this exchange with a Concord New Statesman reporter (available courtesy of the recent opening of the New York Times archive) from June 1, 1852 between a reporter and a mother on trial of murder:

Said I, “Do you think you had for your child the ordinary feelings and natural love of a mother?” She looked at me full in the face, with eyes gushing with tears at the question. “Sir, I would gladly have laid down my life for it! I could have given it away while in the full consciousness of my condition, but I resolved to work myself into the grave before my child should have separated from me. Do you think, Sir, I would part with that which life would have been an intolerable burden?”

Here is a regional reporter asking a tough question, more insensitive than any query I posed to Ms. McKellar, and getting an answer that is quite emotional but considerably revealing.

The restrictions of the celebrity interview and the immediate assumption that some questions should not be asked represent threats to the ability of reporters to chronicle the issues of our time. I’m wondering if some future scholar, looking at our time a century and a half from now, will get the kind of insight that we can get about this 19th century mother. If journalists pull their punches and willfully subscribe to conditional reporting, how can they be expected to offer something for posterity? How can they be expected to record history?

Chuck Nevius: The Cancer of the San Francisco Chronicle

Forget the horrors of The Family Circus. Do you really think your biggest concern when reading the daily paper is yawning over a comics section that takes no chances?

Frankly, if you’re a newspaper devoting column inches to a far from magnificent man in his flying machine, a far greater danger is that you, your child, or your pets will somehow believe in the xenophobic and thoughtless doggerel that the op-ed columnist in question considers a well-informed take by a responsible citizen for responsible citizens. Step off the paths into ruminative territory, and you’ll have less knee-jerk views on a highly complex situation that won’t go away anytime soon.

I’m not suggesting that the homeless situation shouldn’t be looked at through a critical prism, with criticisms extending to the homeless and municipal failings alike.

But, on a recent Sunday afternoon, I examined the newspaper in my former hometown and found — without trying too hard — a heartless and complacent yuppie writing very much in the thoughtless and vacant manner I used to find in that reactionary cad of a columnist, Ken Garcia. I saw the smiling visage of a man cast lovingly in a blue-toned circle — a smug and self-satisfied man who probably wouldn’t last twenty seconds in a bar brawl, and who certainly wouldn’t attempt to understand those people who were “beneath” him, who were possibly “more common,” and who didn’t sign their columns or their checks with pretentious initials like “C.W.” (If Chuck Nevius thinks he’s some kind of bullshit aristocrat with this preposterous handle, then I’m a small rhesus with a commodious shard of banana up his sphincter.)

Here was a man who was entirely uninterested in coming to terms with the homeless in Golden Gate Park for his piece. (Note how Nevius, like a well-trained corporate bitch, weighs the quotes of city officials and residents over the people who camp in the park.) I saw a man who witnessed needles and ran away and didn’t stop to think that maybe one of the guys he talked to, Christopher Ash, was troubled and didn’t have another place to go. I saw a “journalist” who didn’t have the balls to ask hard questions about where the homeless in San Francisco will sleep or how they will be fed or how they will be cared for. These were questions I asked myself when I lived on the edge of the Park and when I tried to pass along food and a few bucks and when I went out of my way to talk with people and understand a horrible problem. In this wicked web, these were uncertain questions with no immediate answers that sometimes brought tears to my eyes. San Francisco was, in many ways, very cruel in the manner that they threw the homeless to the wolves — now, the coyotes apparently — and in the manner in which they denied organizations like Food Not Bombs the means to disseminate food or help those in need.

With this column, I saw a “journalist” who was more concerned with banging out a piece instead of examining these harder issues, who described “the jewel of a public park” but didn’t consider that the people who slept there simply had no other spot and were just as human as the upper middle-class people who this journalist likewise spoke to.

Inevitably when we write a story like this, there are complaints that we are unsympathetic to the homeless. But this isn’t a homeless issue.

Is Nevius really this fucking daft? Here is a story that involves people camping out in the park and shooting up. If that isn’t a homeless issue, then tell me what is. An unexpected conflagration taking out the many expensive homes above Lake Street and causing San Francisco’s precious aristocrats to check into a hotel? (“Oh dear! I’ve become homeless! Thank goodness I have my driver and valet!”)

In the Nevius world, bravery is attached not to the everyday people who are trying to find a new place to sleep every night and live with their drug addictions, but to those volunteers who work to clean up the neighborhood and who pay $8,500 a year in property taxes. And if Nevius is gullible enough to think that Central Park is devoid of the homeless, he might want to consider this Wall Street Journal item from last month that reported how New York City was undercounting the homeless. Just because Gavin Newsom didn’t see them doesn’t mean that they aren’t there.

Consider Nevius’s nonsense when compared against the Chron‘s detailed series of articles in February that examined the homeless problem in depth, hitting it from numerous angles. In writing this sham of a column, Chuck Nevius has demonstrated that he is a hack who defames journalism and who defames what is, for the most part, a pretty good paper.

I may have had my quibbles with William T. Vollmann’s Poor People, but if you want real journalism, you’ll find more honesty on this subject in one highly reflective chapter that begins with the line “I am sometimes afraid of poor people,” and that proceeds to explore the problem of maintaining a neighborhood while contending with the equally necessary quality of human compassion.

I Love the Smell of Right-Wing Media Consolidation in the Morning

The Business: “Rupert Murdoch has succeeded with his $5 billion bid for Dow Jones, owners of the Wall Street Journal, according to sources acting for the Dow Jones board. Negotiations have been completed and the board is confident the terms of the deal will be accepted by the Bancroft family, which controls a majority of voting shares in Dow Jones, over the next few days. A formal announcement is expected next week.”

Does this mean we’ll see Bill O’Reilly’s web column in the Wall Street Journal now?

A deal, incidentally, has not yet been reached.

Doug Frantz Resigns from the L.A. Times

Editor & Publisher: “Los Angeles Times Managing Editor Doug Frantz has quit the paper, the newspaper announced today. In a short Web story, the paper revealed that Frantz, a former New York Times staffer, would leave July 6 after 20 months on the job.”

L.A. Observed has the memo, which reveals that Frantz will be heading to Istanbul to do more reporting. Was this a case of Frantz trying to bring more hard journalism to the L.A. Times and being denied by top brass or Frantz simply wanting to get out of the boardroom and back into the trenches?

When In Doubt, Cast Generalizations in the Name of Journalism

Sometimes, in the course of feature journalism, it becomes necessary to write about a problem without pondering how truly disturbing it is or considering that there may indeed be another side to the coin. Nowhere in Wall Street Journal reporter Alexandra Alter’s article does she talk with parents who, damn the marketing trends and the groupthink, name their children “Zoe Rose,” despite a porn star sharing the name. (Notable names, as even the most indolent of cultural observers knows, can disappear swifter than a sitcom star’s cachet with the American public.) Nowhere does Alter get a quote from an authority (James Surowiecki? Cass Sunstein?) pondering how the fear of naming babies might, just might, be the result of a terrifying conformism currently afflicting American culture. Nowhere, at least from what I can aver from my reading, does Alter talk with anybody other than middle-class or upper-class people, or any one who could care less whether their child is named after yesterday’s nomen mirabilis.

So is the problem of distinction really a problem? What has permitted a venerable newspaper like The Wall Street Journal to run argumentum ad populum as journalism? Why is there no doubting Thomas for this fascinating issue? Why does Alter, the allegedly objective reporter, buy so readily into her subjects’ slapdash thinking? Why is the question “What’s so wrong with naming a baby after a celebrity?” not offered credence here? Because it doesn’t support the thesis or because Alter is more parochial-minded than she thinks she is?

Josh Wolf to Be Released

The San Francisco Chronicle‘s Bob Egelko reports that Josh Wolf has turned over the video footage to prosecutors. Because of this, he will be released from prison — after spending 7 1/2 months of his life in the hoosegow.

The deal struck by prosecutors involves Wolf not having to testify to the grand jury or identifying any of the protesters.

While I’m happy that Josh Wolf is out of prison, I’m not so happy that the California shield law designed to protect journalists was so flagrantly manipulated by moving the case to federal jurisdiction.

Josh Wolf has released the unedited video on his blog, noting, “During the course of this saga I have repeatedly offered to allow a judge to be the arbiter over whether or not my video material has any evidentiary value. Today, you the public have the opportunity to be the judge and I am confident you will see, as I do, that there is nothing of value in this unpublished footage.”

It’s also worth noting that Wolf has spent more time in prison for refusing a court order than any other journalist in United States history.

And Print People Think Bloggers Have Conflicts of Interest

martinez.gifIt’s a mess at the Los Angeles Times right now. A plan to have Hollywood producer Brian Grazer guest-edit the Sunday Current section has gone awry — in part because editor Andres Martinez was having an affair with Grazer’s publicist, Kelly Mullens. Martinez has since resigned in protest through a post on the LAT Opinion blog because the Grazer-edited section, an ill-conceived and desperate idea if ever there was one, had been canceled. Nikki Finke has more. That such a plan was seriously considered, with L.A. Times publisher David Hiller apparently in the know about the Martinez-Mullens affair, is an astonishing conflict of interest. Oh well, at least Martinez had bitter words to say about the planned merger of the Opinion section and the LATBR. Even so, whatever Martinez’s talents or convictions, this is embarrassing for all parties.

Newspapers Shifting to Paid Content Model?

From MarketWatch:

By putting a price on the Reader, The Times creates another stream of revenue, albeit a small one, to add to what it’s generating from subscriptions to its Times Select service, and sales of archived articles. Piece by piece, these services add up — but not to a lot. And they don’t answer the bigger question for the newspaper industry, how to survive the threat of the meme, “Information wants to be free on the Internet.”

Just today, the San Francisco Chronicle’s David Lazarus opined that, “It’s time for newspapers to stop giving away the store. We as an industry need to start charging for … use of our products online.” He said such a move needs to be industry-wide, and that, “This is approaching a life-or-death struggle for newspapers, and an antitrust exemption may be the only way that the industry can make the transition to a digital future.”

I think Lazarus is wrong (and I’m also very troubled by his call for an antitrust exemption). I can’t think of a way for newspapers to become more irrelevant and blogs to make more of an impact than the newspapers removing free access articles from their websites. Blogs have often been described as parasitic in the way that many of them rely upon newspapers for links and commentary. Fair enough. But here’s the flip side: blogs also draw more attention to an article and, thus, a newspaper’s reputation for quality journalism.

But let’s say newspapers abandon their free content. Well, online audiences, looking for free content, go elsewhere: to blogs that are conducting in-depth interviews, essays and ancillary journalism. (Without that newspaper content to draw from, blogs may resort to conducting journalism of their own. In fact, many already are.) The advertisers, seeing this bandwidth shift, turn to the blogs for their revenue. (In fact, as reported this morning, we’re beginning to see early signs of this.) The blogs, all competing for this revenue, then proceed to up their game. And it’s just like the early days of newspapers, with multiple newspapers were competing for a city’s reading attention. Except the competitive model has now shifted to a micro-level, with individuals or collectives conducting this new journalism. Perhaps former journalists, many of them downsized because of recent newspaper firings, will initiate blogs of their own and, like the two Glenns (Reynolds and Greenwald), attract mass audiences.

And let’s say these new journo-bloggers team up and generate enough revenue to hire copy editors and fact checkers. Well, then, you’ve got a virtual newsroom on your hands. And it’s all free. And with email and comments enabled, you’re talking about an instantaneous model with 24/7 reporting that newspapers can’t compete with. Why can’t they compete? Well, it’s all about access. Sure, readers can and will contact newspapers to tip reporters. But if they can’t access all the content and follow the stories, they’ll go to another free conduit in which a story is easily trackable — a particularly easy thing to do with blog categories enabled. They’ll do this because they’ll know that their voices will be heard and responded to and possibly included within the course of a story. They’ll do this because the journo-bloggers won’t view themselves as gatekeepers. The journo-bloggers will see their readers as peers with which to exchange and verify information.

Sure, there will be a period in which the experts and the cranks will have to be sorted out. And it’s very possible that cranks might prove popular. Hell, one can easily argue that they already are.

Of course, the easier thing for newspapers to do is to hire bloggers and start thinking about fusion of print and online journalism, adopting these virtual newsrooms themselves. (Even mid-sized newspapers like the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News are thinking along these lines.) But I don’t think this will be easy. Because there’s a vast difference between $745.5 million in online advertising and $13.2 billion in print advertising (both figures from Q4 2006, cited in Editor & Publisher). That’s a stunning shortfall that a collection of newspapers, each with a staff of 200 or so, can’t support.

But a collection of blogs, each with a staff of 3 or 4? I’m thinking they might get by on that amount.

Whatever happens, I don’t think either newspapers and bloggers are going away. I think we’re going to see a lot of newspapers go extinct in the next five years (with some major surprises), particularly the ones which insist upon paid content only. I also don’t think journalism is going away either. It’s just going to change. A lot.

Lev Grossman Muzzled for Conducting Journalism?

New York Magazine: “In January, Time published an exclusive story on the new iPhone, in which writer Lev Grossman tweaked Apple CEO Steve Jobs about his secretive access to the product (‘I don’t call Steve, Steve calls me’) and suggested that Apple had ‘some explaining’ to do about backdated stock options. When the story hit the Web, Jobs called Stengel to complain (as it happens, Apple is a major advertiser in Time, and Jobs is a good friend of Huey’s). Stengel reacted by immediately excising the offending paragraphs from the Web (they have since been restored). Then he had Grossman come into the office to rewrite part of the piece for the print edition. Grossman was infuriated.” (via CJR Daily)

Kurt Eichenwald: $2,000 for “Editorial Integrity”

Remember that Kurt Eichenwald essay from December? Eichenwald wrote a New York Times Magazine story investigating a 13-year-old boy who was sexually exploited through the Internet. But today’s New York Times Corrections page revealed a very interesting development:

The essay was intended to describe how Mr. Eichenwald persuaded Justin Berry, then 18, to talk about his situation. But Mr. Eichenwald did not disclose to his editors or readers that he had sent Mr. Berry a $2,000 check. Mr. Eichenwald said he was trying to maintain contact out of concern for a young man in danger, and did not consider himself to be acting as a journalist when he sent the check.

The Associated Press’s David Caruso reports that Eichenwald sent Berry the check in an effort to learn the boy’s true name and address. I think it’s important to note that Eichenwald’s piece yielded him the 2006 Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism, awarded for “preserving the editorial integrity of an important story while reaching out to assist his source.”

eichenwald.jpgBut if this story was an exercise in total candor and perspicacious judgment, why didn’t Eichenwald inform his editors at the Times? Were the judges at the University of Oregon aware of this check before they relayed the Payne? If the Payne Award is indeed one of the highest honors a journalist can receive, will the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication rescind the award in light of Eichenwald failing to report the $2,000 check?

The correction observed that “Times policy forbids paying the subjects of articles for information or interviews.” So aside from the Times policy, let’s examine why this issue is troubling. Here is a reporter investigating a boy who had amassed hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct lewd acts in front of strangers. If Eichenwald himself is paying money to Berry, does not this behavioral association (Berry accepting check from a stranger) color Berry’s answers? Can we count on total candor when an interview subject receives money? Eichenwald noted, “We were gambling $2,000 on the possibility of saving a kid’s life.” If “saving a kid’s life” was Eichenwald’s motivation, then does not a four-figure check color even this subjectivity?

In my review of William T. Vollmann’s Poor People, I criticized Vollmann for paying his interview subjects, contemplating whether Vollmann’s guilt had clouded his judgment. Whether this was a wrong move or not, one can at least commend Vollmann for revealing this practice to his readers. Even Nick Broomfield was candid enough to include former LAPD chief Daryl Gates accepting a cash payment on camera in his documentary, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam. Good subjective journalism, perhaps because it deals in partiality, demands complete transparency if one is expected to believe in the truth it presents.

Eichenwald may view his failure to disclose the check as innocent. But his lack of candor calls his “editorial integrity” of his story into question. Since the story was very much about Eichenwald’s efforts to save Berry, and since Eichenwald led us to believe that he was following New York Times standards, it would be lacking great integrity indeed if Eichenwald did not return his award to the University of Oregon.

Eichenwald has since moved on to a position as investigative reporter at Portfolio, Condé Nast’s forthcoming business magazine. If Eichenwald plans to investigate corporations, I’m thinking that Condé Nast Legal might want to be careful with Eichenwald still assigned to a beat. While Berry’s family may have had to return a mere $2,000, the Fortune 500 has whole armies of lawyers ready to descend upon 4 Times Square. And if Eichenwald manages to “forget” another detail, it may prove a costly resolution.

This Week in Media Convergence

Editor & Publisher: “Speaking to hundreds of Los Angeles Times journalists in the newspaper’s Harry Chandler auditorium this morning, editor James O’Shea outlined a bold plan to increase traffic and revenue from LATimes.com in the face of an increasingly difficult economic climate for newspaper publishers, and urged journalists to think of the Web site as the newspaper’s primary vehicle for news.”

One Thing’s For Sure: Cronkite, She Ain’t

James Wolcott: “No one over the age of 30 should be resorting to all those exclamation marks and capital letters like some juiced-up Crackberry addict. Couric officially bottomed out with a post entitled ‘Katie’s Apple Pie: The Recipe!’ in which she revealed, ‘Mushy apples are the most disappointing, ‘un-a-peeling’ (HA HA) culinary experience there is,’ and described Mutsu apples she picked from the tree as ‘GINORMOUS!’ Perhaps Couric is trying to relate to younger viewers and readers at their own dippy level—never a good idea. Or perhaps she’s trying to prove that despite the dizzy heights she’s reached in the news business, the fame and money that have been slung her way, she’s still the same unspoiled, unpretentious batch of homemade fudge she was before she clawed her way to the top. Katie Couric is caught in a tug-of-war between her serious journalistic side and the girlie side that wants to be everybody’s darling. It’s the girlie side that needs to go.”