29 June 2009

Michael Jackson Coverage Pictorial...courtesy Ken Koller

Here are a few pictures of the two days I spent working with ABC News to cover the death of Michael Jackson. First, a scene-setter at the late singer's star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood:

Trust me, you'd be wearing low-heeled, padded insole sandals, too. The pavement was hot and hard and the workday was 12 hours long.

All of these pictures were taken by the photographer friend I mentioned in the previous post. Ken Koller was dispatched to position a local news live truck at the scene. He didn't have anything to do but take the truck to find a parking spot and then keep it from getting towed. So instead of being bored, he walked around and chatted with friends and played with his new Sony digital camera. (I was so jealous. That camera was so tiny, yet took amazingly good pictures. Or rather HE took amazingly good pictures with it.)

The BBC was the second crew to show up at the star that day. (We were there first.) They were quite nice, neighborly and very fun. Although, I will say the "presenter" who was there earlier, Emily Maitlis, was a firecracker. This guy seemed a touch bland after her. But I rather think chili peppers might seem a touch bland after her.

Too many pictures spoil the reporter.

Day Two, Hour 11. Just a little exhaustion setting in.

This was my favorite fan who showed up.

He placed a plasma TV on Michael Jackson's star. Nothing on the screen. No hookup to a video. Just a screen. Right.

Oh, and check on the spelling on his dead idol's last name.

"J-A-C-H-S-O-N." Now THAT is love. Sure it is.

Next to me in this next photo is the lovely and talented Jen Weiss-Watts, just completing her first day ever as a field producer. She was everything needed, plus professionalism and kindness.

This was only Day Two. Doubtless there will be many more days to come in this story, but I'm off to new sights. Ta!

PS: I do feel bad that I only got photos with one producer, but during the first day, we changed locations three times and at the end of it, everyone scattered so fast there was no time for pictures.

27 June 2009

Good-bye Michael Jackson, Hello Media Mob!

So there I was, sitting at home, quietly writing *yet another* essay on why Republican politicians need to learn to keep it zipped, when I got distracted by some real work. Suddenly, I was whisked away from the tedium to a house in Holmby Hills, followed by a trip to Grauman's Chinese Theater, before finishing up at the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office. All in pursuit of covering Michael Jackson's demise and the resulting investigation for ABC News. A rather densely packed 12 hours, huh?
It was so much fun that I did it twice. Well, okay, the second day was spent all in one location: the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Yikes! What a pretentious name.
Lots of live shots. Lots of crazy folks. Lots of fun. And lots of pictures snapped. Here's the one I have to show you:

Yes, that is my extremely white arm, frame left, two-thirds of the way up. Pathetic, huh?
I'm having a touch of computer trouble (Laptop with dvd but no internet. PC with internet but no dvd. Why me?) and at this time can provide only one photo, swiped from LATimes.com.
I had a seriously great time. The best thing about such national news events is that in between the demanding clients, the completely fascinating weirdness of a life lived "Jackson," and all the nutty fans, such events are wonderful places to see professional friends, console each other about the state of the business and hear the latest goings-on at various news groups around town.
In this particular case, it was hard to hear that KTTV (Fox 11 in Los Angeles) laid off over 100 people on Friday. You can't see him, but a favorite investigative reporter friend from that station was standing to my left (which is his favorite position on any given subject) and I am hopeful for his future even though I've heard KTTV is offering contract renewals with 30-40 percent pay cuts.

We all know it's a tough time among journalists. Heck, it's tough for almost everyone. And it can seem strange to people outside our ranks when major news events, often tragic in nature, bring us together to support each other about things entirely unrelated to the events at hand. We tend to focus on the event as news, and in between chasing the story, talk over what's bothering us.
But it is part of what makes us objective. It can also sometimes make people think we're a little jaded and at times, downright calloused. Yet I hope that it's a tradition that never has a chance to disappear.

22 June 2009

Recession Luxury: Friendship

I reached into my knapsack and pulled out a brand-new cosmetic item, still in the box. I pulled out the old one, and noticed there was still some product in there. I thought, "No, no. You are going to use up every drop of that cosmetic. Use it until it is completely gone before you get out the new one and start on it."
That's right. I'm cheap. In the past, I've bought dresses for special occasions that never came up. I bought a red silk dress that I bought on sale 15 years ago in Knoxville, TN for a "special occasion" that never happened. The dress still had its tags on it when I donated it to a mission store a year ago. The style is outdated and I no longer cared for the color. Such wastefulness, but that's who I was right at that time.
But aren't most of us becoming a lot more cognizant of using things completely up? We want to get full value for the amount that we paid. The environmentalists among us must be thrilled that Americans, long known as the most wasteful consumers in the world, are now suddenly interested in using and reusing items until they are finally and at last worn out.
A friend was talking over the weekend about how she and her husband have gotten a new stove.

"My sister-in-law wanted a different color, so they were getting rid of it. It's in perfect condition except that the oven display up on top doesn't work, so you have to keep track of where you set the temperature to start and then it's 5 clicks more to 350 degrees. But it works just fine."
And she's thrilled to have it. She now has her heart set on a new sink, but she wants it to fit in the unusually-sized spot left open for it without making further adjustments, so she's not sure how soon they'll find the perfect sink. Another friend who was also listening to this suggested, "Oh, you should check the Re-Store Shop over on Main Street."
I have other friends who spend more on their homes. They aren't in the middle of raising two small children on one small-ish paycheck and struggling to make ends meet. But I don't have any friends that I like more or who make me feel more at ease.
They remind me of another conversation I had with a friend who brings in over $100K per year herself, while her husband's salary (I guesstimate on both salaries) runs well over $200k. The friend needed a new dress for a special evening out, and she said,
"I just hate to shop. And I hate the idea of spending a lot on a new dress that I'll only wear once or twice."
I said I completely understood and was a bit tight on spending on myself as a rule. I said "In fact, I'm kinda cheap."
She said "I know. It's one of the things I find endearing about you."
I think I got a little head-rush at that moment. I still am quite taken with thinking about it. I guess I always felt uncomfortable that I was careful about my spending. But suddenly, here was one of my more cherished friends saying she knew who I was and liked me not in spite of it, but actually a teensy bit more because of it.
It's unlikely my two sets of friends will ever meet. They are from very different worlds and I'm quite certain they wouldn't immediately see how much they have in common. But I guess family budgets everywhere are "same circus, different tent."
Anyway, I think we all need such friends right now. We have probably had them all along, but maybe this recession allows us the luxury of admitting to ourselves and our friends that we see who they are and accept them in full glory for it. And relish the same from them.

19 June 2009

When Is a Pimp NOT a Pimp?

When is a pimp not a pimp? Perhaps it's when he is trying to get money from the man his wife has been having an affair with. In that case, the law has a much uglier word for it.

Consider the case of Senator John Ensign (R-NV) who just announced that he had an affair with a campaign staffer and apparently, we are now told, the wife of a man who he says tried to make some money on it. The picture at right is of Sen. and Mrs. (Darlene) Ensign.

Prostitution is legal in Nevada, but not in Clark County, which is where all of the parties involved make their homes.

According to Sen. Ensign, he had an eight month long affair with Cynthia Hampton, who was working as treasurer for his political committees. He came forward with this public admission several days ago, and since then, there's been a lot of talk about why he did that? Why the public mea culpa when he said he'd apologized to his wife, spoken to his church leaders and was privately trying to put this behind him?

Well, it now appears he came forward to stop his mistress' husband from outing the liaison. According to the Ensign camp, an attorney for wronged husband, Doug Hampton approached an attorney for the Junior Senator from Nevada last month about a financial settlement.

Oh, okay. A financial settlement? Is that what they're calling it now? I find myself wondering if the price isn't supposed to be negotiated before the deal is uhhhh, consummated?

The Ensigns and the Hamptons were lifelong friends, according to reports. But perhaps the "friends and neighbors discount" wasn't offered?

If it's true, extortion isn't funny. And neither is a man who belatedly pimps out his wife.

I don't ever have sympathy for someone who commits adultery within their marriage or another person's marriage. But now that the Senator presumably is focused on working things out with (the only apparent innocent in this fiasco) his wife, and her own husband has shown that his greater concern for the financial aspect of things, I can't help but wonder at the rude awakening Cynthia Hampton has had.

Note to RNC: cancel all political retreats and junkets effective immediately. Give campaign staffers extra leave. Immediately schedule MARITAL RETREATS, no staffers allowed. Kick anyone who tries to skip them out of party.

18 June 2009

100th Blog Post Anniversary

This is my 100th post. I started at a time when journalism was changing, politics were in transition, and watching pop culture to be honest, was making me a little ill. The pendulum seems to be swinging more than anyone could have predicted.

I am certain journalism will never be what it was, nor should it be. But it will evolve into something useful. And those whose voices are strong will still be heard.

But as I looked around the online universe today and saw one more "long-time TV personality leaving his position to reinvent himself," it seems obvious things are changing. That statement no longer is cover for firing someone. It's more like the sad excuse of offering someone so little money that they can only hope they'll find something better by leaving.

I guess that's what all of us hope for: something better. Starting a little roadtrip this morning. Catch you on the other end.

17 June 2009

President Swats Fly. Dog bites Man. Bus Hits Car. Fire Burns House... (blah blah blah...)

I'm not sure what to make of today's news out of CNN. Well, that's not true. I know exactly what to make of it.

The headline tells it all: (President) Obama Kills a Fly. The video is posted here on Youtube.com. Go watch and then come back. (I'm not going to explain it, because you can watch it more effectively than I can dissect it.)

You're back? Okay, so what's next? How about...

President Opens Door for Wife, perhaps?
President Eats Dinner with Napkin, maybe?
Barack Obama Smiles at Senate Leaders. Or my favorite:
President Obama Interrupts Interview to Wash Hands.

The President is an intelligent, well-educated, well-spoken man. But I assume even he is laughing at the fawning of the media at this moment. He swats a fly and kills it in one swipe and THAT makes national news?

I bet he's dying to get that reporter on the basketball court right now. Imagine the news that would make.

16 June 2009

Prescription for the Media

ABC News announced today that on June 24, the network will turn its programming over to President Obama and White House officials to push government run health care. As capstone to the move, ABC News anchor, Charlie Gibson will deliver World News Tonight from the Blue Room of the White House. The network will also air a prime time special, "Prescription for America," originating from the East Room of the White House. Good Morning America will originate from inside 1600 Pennsylvania that day, as well.
Checking around the Internet, the words "whore" and "prostitute" are coming up in the google searches on the subject.

I'm betting that those words were also in play during the days and weeks leading up to NBC's two-part special, "Inside the White House." The specials, which aired in early June, were part of a long tradition at NBC, but this time, the network's main anchor, Brian Williams said they would,
"show aspects of life in the White House — the Obama White House — that no one on the outside has ever seen before."
In other words, they followed President Barack Obama around like a puppy until shooed away by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

While I do think the prostitution references are a bit harsh and overdone, the whole thing feels wrong. We should we keep ourselves a respectable, professional distance. And when will the pandering and sucking up will end? By now, shouldn't the whole "honeymoon with the media" thing be over? This is the national media we are talking about. These are people paid to critically examine and present both sides of issues. They're expected to be the barking dogs of our government and people. They need to start sniffing around again.

The Republican National Committee thinks it's unseemly. (That's a literary tool called understatement.) They wrote to David Westin, President of the network to protest the airing of what they called an "infomercial" on the administration's health care reform proposal.

Mr. Westin didn't answer back, but a Senior Vice President at the network did, offering:

"I hope we can all agree that a robust debate of health care issues and potential policies is in order. ABC News prides itself on covering all sides of important issues and asking direct questions of all news makers -- of all political persuasions -- even when others have taken a more partisan approach and even in the face of criticism from extremes on both ends of the political spectrum. In the end, no one watching, listening to, or reading ABC News will lack for an understanding of all sides of these important questions."
A robust debate? I may be wrong, but I don't go into someone's own house to criticize them. I just don't. In this case, I might do it out on the lawn, from the same neighborhood, in a room in a hotel across from Lafayette Park or other nearby location. And I have. But I don't do that in their living room. Or their East Room.
I like my politics with two parties. I do. I like to listen to both sides. I also shut both out equally. The funny thing is that the people "back home" conclude that I'm very liberal while the people I work with seem to think I'm kinda (to put it mildly) conservative. The fact that I'm offensive to both sensibilities implies to my mind that I might be doing something right. They did tell us in journalism 101 to expect to be disliked. By that standard, I've succeeded.
So here I am, watching first NBC News and now ABC News go before the current administration, hat in hand, asking to be allowed up close to cover a President whose approval ratings are through the roof. As if they want a little of his lustrous popularity to rub off on them.
A Senator from my home state in the West once hugged me on the White House lawn. It was a sickly squeamish woman that faced the cameras soon after.
Someone needs to remind them that we aren't in it to buddy up with someone so that the other kids like us, too. This isn't kindergarten. It's not even high school. But if we were to use that metaphor, we cheered when he entered the field, but now it's time for us to go sit in the stands and leave the quarterback alone so he can do his job.
We're not players. Not really. We're not cheerleaders. Although looking around Los Angeles television sometimes, I can see where some might get that idea. But no, the cheerleaders are on the front row in their short skirts.
Our profession doesn't get sunshine blown up its skirts. We aren't on the field to play, and we do not take orders from the quarterback. This is what we're supposed to do: go sit in the stands and call the game. We're onlookers by nature, with a lofty perch. We need to go sit in our cheap seats and our ivory towers and remember that the reason we are (occasionally) looked up to is because we set ourselves apart.
Someone also ought to point out to the brain trusts that are making these decisions that Mr. Obama's numbers are showing weakness. And that when the scandals come, which they inevitably will (I'm not saying his people are corrupt, but when was the last scandal-free administration? Was there ever one?) do you really want to have your people so close to the line of the fire? The potential for disaster is huge there.
So I say, "Out! Out! Out of that White House." We need to quit acting like lapdogs and go back to barking.

14 June 2009

Twitter, Tweet, Twit and...

I've been spending a lot of time online lately. A. Lot. As part of my interest in the simultaneously expanding and contracting world of media, I am online a lot and recently took advice from a friend and "unlocked" my account on twitter.com.
You know about twitter, right? The Internet site where you post a profile and then update your status as often as you wish, but with only 140 characters per update? Your updates are seen by those who sign up to follow what you say.
Followers? The term seems a bit too biblical to me. It really bothers me that it is used on this blog, but then again, I always appreciate the fact that someone is reading it. And occasionally commenting.
Anyway, there are people using twitter to market themselves and their websites. There is a woman in the United Kingdom twittering complete recipes in 140 characters. And there are celebrities using twitter to promote everything from their new movies to books they've written, to their relationships and conversations with other celebrities.
For instance, Ashton Kutcher famously had a contest with a news organization over who could be the first to run up their followers list to 1 million people. Guess who won? The actor and his wife, Demi Moore, both signed up and soon were twittering things both personal and pseudo-profound. And the Internet roared its approval, with folks all over the globe a-titter about the twittering of Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore.
When I initially joined awhile back, I wasn't keen on having just any old reader, so I locked the membership. Only those who I approved could read my twittering.
Two days ago that changed. And so did my opinion of twitter.com. And not entirely for the better.
I was immediately added or followed by people whose apparent reason for being on twitter is just to post links to their porn-ish pictures. I unknowingly clicked on the first one or two, and immediately got an eyeful of someone's thong-clad derriere boosted right into the lens of a very murky PC camera. In the animal kingdom, this would be what they call "presenting." It left me with the feeling of falling victim to a drive-by flasher.
I read an article on "How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live," in Time two weeks ago. But this was hardly what the authors or I had in mind. They discussed twitter's part in our ever-shrinking world and how it is bringing people together and allowing them to be part of the societal conversation at every level.
They didn't mention that Twitter.com is rapidly taking the place of craigslist.com for sex services.
I mean, they're using it to market weight loss and home business plans, fitness videos and books, and celebrity. (I can't explain how I ended up on Paris Hilton's page the other day, but it was oddly hypnotic looking at all the pictures she's posted in her effort to get attention. Then I realized I was fulfilling her desire and shut the window. Ew.)
From the pictures posted, I would say now that after craigslist.com recently cracked down on sex providers on their website, the girls have moved their business to twitter.com. It will be interesting to see how or if twitter.com will take action to stop their website from being used in this way.

13 June 2009

Sarah Palin Takes On...

Sarah Palin is blasting away at the Universe these days. Or maybe she's just exploding at the Universe of TV folks who are bigger than her.
Remember when she was first announced as the chosen running mate of GOP Presidential Candidate John McCain? There was much excitement and hope. She came from obscurity and was initially believed to be The Answer to Barack Obama, whose historic set of "firsts" was steamrollering everything in its path.
Then she took a few interviews.
We saw Charlie Gibson talk down to her. We witnessed Katie Couric's mortifying little set down. If we missed it on the evening news, it was replayed on Saturday Night Live with one of the more wickedly funny playbacks in excruciatingly exact detail ever witnessed. The sadly funny part was that the playback was almost completely unaltered. It was both painful and hilarious. And very, very strange. And we watched as events unfolded from losing the race to her daughter's metamorphosis to unwed mother. It hasn't been good. There are worlds of "what might have beens" for the former beauty queen-cum-governor of Alaska.
Recently, Mr. and Mrs. Todd Palin took their little family to New York and directly to the center of a media storm. Or more accurately a tempest in a teacup, but a messy little tempest at that.
Sarah Palin still believes, somewhere in her heart of hearts, that she can be the President of the United States. I'm going to go out on a limb and say Las Vegas oddsmakers would put her at the very longest of long shots. But this belief has her still making public appearances, offering opinions and generally baring her neck before the blood-thirsty media.
David Letterman took the bait. With deadly, dark comic aplomb, he quipped,
"There was one awkward moment during the seventh inning stretch. Her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez."
Palin took immediate offense and assumed that the comment was aimed at her middle daughter, Willow. Whereupon Mr. Letterman clarified, stating that no, he was referring to the other, older daughter, Bristol. Here's his statement:

"I would never, never make jokes about raping or having sex of any description with a 14-year-old girl."
He also conceded that his was a joke of "desperation." But he didn't apologize. Why? Because he's a comedian. He's not a newsmaker. Not a public official. Not a news person. He is a comic who makes jokes for a living. And sometimes, they land a little off-base. Or in this case, a little off-color or in fact, a bit too dark for comfort. But you don't expect cats to come when called, drug addicts to eat healthy, or late night comics to say they're sorry when they are soaking up the media spotlight during a crucial moment when they need the attention to settle an old score with arch-nemesis Conan O'Brien.
Mrs. Palin shouldn't wait around for apologies. She probably shouldn't let herself get involved in mudslinging with people who have bigger, more established pulpits and are known for going for the laughs. She doesn't have a regular microphone to cry foul into and she won't get it by crying foul over some late night comic's lines.
Or a morning talk show host's questions. Gov. Palin was interviewed a few days later on NBC's Today Show and when Matt Lauer quite reasonably asked her about Letterman's explanation, she wasn't gracious. In fact, she then came at Matt,
"OK Matt I would say that you and anybody else are extremely naive to believe that very convenient excuse of David Letterman's. It took him a couple of days to think of that excuse and 'Uhhh... No, he wasn't talking about my daughter that was there with me at the game, the 14 year-old. He was talking about some other daughter.' Well I think it was a weak excuse and regardless it was a degrading comment about a young woman and I would hope that people would rise up and decide it's not acceptable."
Wow. She just called the host naive on his own show?
I can understand Mrs. Palin defending her child and family. I think we all understand that. But she just killed the messenger. And in doing so, she killed her own message.
You can't wonder why the Republican party doesn't always succeed when their most visible members attack those who they should make friends with. These are not examples of "media bias." They are examples of a comic doing what a comic does, and a member of the media doig what they do: asking Mrs. Palin for her reaction. It was her own reactions that did any damage.
Mrs. Palin needs to consider that maybe she's had her 15 minutes in the spotlight. It may well be that those few minutes are all she ever gets but that book isn't written yet. What would be wise is to let the bruises heal. Let the swelling go down. Go back to Alaska and attend to business. Raise your kids. Stop making these public appearances until you've had some serious media training and stopped being such an anger management hot spot for your handlers.
You don't need to be Madame President in your 40's. You can wait, calm down, learn to manage your media and learn to pick on people your own size. In your case, older may be wiser.
Of course, purely in the interest of being obtuse along with late night laughs and morning show guffaws, we can always hope not.

12 June 2009

Money Management 101, by U.S. Senate

Money. We're all worried about it. The economy, our livelihood, debt and investments are what we're thinking about right now in this country.

Fortunately, our representatives in Washington know how to handle money. Or at least they know how to make money. The financial disclosure forms for both the House and Senate were released today and they show, in spite of the global recession and sharp drops in the value of both real estate and investments, top leaders in the United States Senate managed to make money. And now we can see how much.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who, not surprisingly, owns property in his home state, made some gains. In spite of some of the sharpest drop-offs in the real estate and mortgage industry being in centered in Southern Nevada, the senator's most valuable holding gained value.

The Senator owns a 55-acre lot formerly used for hard-rock mining just outside of Las Vegas, near Searchlight, which is his hometown. The property has now doubled in value.

A few years back, the property was valued at "just $250,000." Reid's aides say county officials reassessed its value at the close of 2008, and assessed its taxable value at between $500,000 and $1 million.

Meantime, the Republican leader is also doing well.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his wife, former labor secretary Elaine Chao, apparently have, or had anyway, a rich relative. A very rich relative. Don't envy them yet. Their relative died and left the McConnell-Chao's a family gift that was placed in a tax-exempt money market fund, worth between $5 million and $25 million. (Okay, now you can start the envy.)

That sounds weird, doesn't it? But the forms do not require lawmakers to reveal precise values of their assets, only broad ranges of their holdings. If it was me, I suppose I could submit a record that says "between $1 and $1 million." Of course, when you have fewer dollars to account for, it becomes easier to keep track.

By the way, Sen. McConnell and his wife also lost money in the downturn. Two years ago, their largest asset was a different fund estimated at "between $1 million and $5 million," but now it's worth "between $500,000 and $1 million." That's still more of a spread than I can understand.

Meantime, about 70 members of Congress have not turned in their financial records. They requested extensions on the May 15th deadline, and delayed the release of their financial records. No excuses asked for or offered.

Don't worry guys (and ladies). There's plenty of time for you to get those records turned in. We'll still be here. And we'll be interested.

10 June 2009

Prejean, Carradine, and Life in the Sunshine State

We're busy here in California. Very, very busy.
There's the investigation into how and why beloved star David Carradine died in a Bangkok hotel room. This happened last week. His family immediately asked for an FBI investigation.
When I read the initial news report of his death, it said that the death was a suicide. But the writing was a bit odd. It was a little too carefully worded. The star of 1970's TV martial arts show "Kung Fu" was found dead in his hotel room with a rope around his neck and body. The 72 year old actor was in Bangkok to film a movie.
I thought "That doesn't sound like an actor committing suicide. Actors live for attention. He was starting a movie. That sounds like auto-erotic asphyxiation." (In fact, I said that to a couple of people who teasingly asked "And how does the nice church-going girl know about that?" Answer: too much crime TV.) It all sort of fit the mental picture I had of Mr. Carradine's life and personal style. I was surprised when the Carradine family asked for an FBI investigation. I'm perplexed by this question: What is their best case scenario finding? A) suicide B) sexual self-asphyxiation or C) kinky sex gone terribly wrong with one of the locals?
Other things that keep us busy: watching for any slip-ups in the behavior of Miss California-USA, Carrie Prejean. Here's the thing that most people know about difficult employment situations. When you make a messy fuss, your boss is going to look for a quick exit door. When you embarrass someone with a history of allowing himself to be referred to publicly as "The Donald," he's not going to publicly admit there's a problem. But he will find a way to have you escorted from the building as soon as possible.
At the Miss USA pageant, when Ms. Prejean voiced her personal views which are apparently in line with the voting majority of the state she represents, she became a public relations problem. At that moment, she forgot the cardinal rule of being a problematic employee: show up, smile and do the job. Every time.
She came under fire from the judge who suckered, uhhhh, provoked her into voicing those opinions. Her statement seemed reasonable to some: she acknowledged that gay marriage is available some places, but for her, marriage was between a man and a woman. But the backlash was immense and immediate, and of course, some dirt was discovered. "Questionable" photos surfaced. Still Donald Trump who owns the Miss USA Pageant stuck by her.
But there was already talk that she wasn't fulfilling her duties as Miss California. Now she's been fired for failing to meet the obligations of the title.
I'm still pondering this. Did someone decide that beauty queens should face litmus tests? Is that in the contest bylaws? Was that a decision? I can understand that some people were offended by her answer, but I still scratch my head that the question was asked. What's next? Will the Miss USA panel next year include bloggers from the animal rights sector who will harass participants for wearing shoes? Lipstick? Using shampoo? When will the redneck-underage Goth-Vegetarians-of-the-Great-Pacific-Northwest get their day on the selection panel? Will supporters of the Unibomber also be represented? Will they all be allowed their special question, too?
Yes, we're very busy in California. Too busy to figure out our budget mess. And so busy that we've now accepted the fact that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (who left his wife of 20 years in 2007, for another local TV anchor. The wife shouldn't have been surprised. Afterall, Mayor V. played around during their marriage and in fact, married her after walking away from another woman who bore two children for him. ps: if you didn't follow that, email me.) is now dating another former Miss USA. The mayor says that his relationship won't effect his decision to run for governor of the state in the next election, either.

So why has no one asked Villaraigosa's squeeze, former Miss USA (1994) KTLA's Lu Parker what she thinks about the whole gay marriage/Prejean firing situation?
Maybe we already know.

As for Villaraigosa, he better make sure he makes all of his public appearances.

09 June 2009

They Who Laugh Last...

Need a new iPod? Thinking about a Palm Pre? What about a new netbook? Think about it: when was the last time you bought yourself a little treat, electronic or otherwise?
What if... we all stopped buying ourselves those lovely little fun things that we so richly deserve? What would happen to the world's economy, so dependent on consumers and American consumers in particular, if we quit buying every. little. thing. we. want. We like stuff in this country and now that we're all out of cash to buy it, our credit is spread too thin.
A Washington Post article relates an incident in Beijing when Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner spoke, reassuring the Chinese that their investments in American dollars were safe. Their response? They chuckled. They actually broke their polite smiles and laughed in Geithner's face. But if we were the world's leading consumers and our economy is now broken, it's not a laughing matter.
When I was a kid, my dad used to call me the World's Greatest Consumer. He usually said that when I spent 45 minutes running a hot bath and only 15 minutes soaking in it. He didn't like how long I stood in front of an open refrigerator, the way I dragged my heels, wore out shoes and wanted new ones for every high school dance.
As an adult, I've always enjoyed paying my own bills and in review, I probably could have been more conservative in my spending at times. But some of my friends don't think so.

One of my favorite friends was talking about how she needed a new dress for the White House Corrospondents' Dinner. She said she didn't want to shop and she didn't want to spend the money on a "wear it once" outfit. I said "Yeah, I get that. I'm hate spending money on clothes like that. I'm sorta cheap, I guess."
Her response? "I know. It's one of the things I find most endearing about you."
You'd have to know how excited I was to hear that statement. One of my dearest friends was saying that she knew my secret, "got me" and still liked me. I felt weirdly accepted for myself. Go ahead and enjoy it with me.
Back to our spending habits as a culture. We all know we spend way too much. The average American household is carrying about $10K in credit card debt and we have come by it quite righteously. We have spent and spent and spent. There are American kids who heard the word "no" from their parents for the first time this past year. It's a good word to add to their vocabulary.
Our economy sucks. We're in trouble. And it's not just our struggle. The world's three largest exporters, Germany, China, and Japan are seeing their output down 33% already this year. Since we're the world's leading consumers, guess who they blame?
It's interesting that after years of economic envy, when we start to fall, our economic partners think it's funny. They won't be laughing long.
In the past, it was our own version of "if you build it, they will come." The motto seemed to be if you sell it, Americans will buy it. And if it's "tech," we'll line up to buy it at full price the moment it becomes available.

So imagine this brave new world that Chinese, German and Japanese exporters have inherited. If you can't sell it to those silly rich American over-consumers, you're going to have to find someone else to buy it.
Let's finish the proverb: He who laughs last, laughs longest... if there's anything left to laugh about.

TV News: Sharing Resources

One of the hottest topics in television news right now is the pooled sharing of video resources by stations in (mostly) major television markets. It's already going on in Chicago, Los Angeles, and several other cities. It's controversial with a lot of unhappy people on all sides.
So here's my vote. I'm for it. Before you throw a rock at the back of my head, let me explain.
It's a scary time right now for all of us, in and out of the journalism and television industries. I feel like whatever those stations have to do to actually stay in business while the business model is rejiggered so that it will actually work again is probably a reasonable thing.
It's tough personally because we've all been able to rely on our careers and the station taking care of us and our union protecting those jobs for us for a very long time. We're going to have to take care of ourselves now. It's time to grow up (admittedly, this is an industry where juvenile personalities and behavior were often what was needed to succeed) and be responsible for ourselves. For some of us, that change will be too great and it may be time to get out of the business.
But sharing video doesn't mean the demise of the business. It doesn't even mean the demise of quality journalism. It might mean the survival of some groups that are struggling with both the recession and the decline in viewership that is causing the television news industry to contract.
As I understand it, a lot of the video-sharing arrangements are for news conferences, which are scheduled events where everyone simultaneously gets the same information, interviews and elements. The quality of reports done on such stories isn't dependent on photographers (although if one of the stations decides that's where to stick the least qualified guy working that day, then it could really sink things fast) but on the reporting and the reporter.
Just imagine... it might actually free up crews to be out of those hideously boring news conferences to cover other issues. Who knows? They could conceivably be able to cover them with some depth.
Before you start to argue with me, consider that some of those considered to be the top journalists in the country are working with "pool video." Many of the events at the White House are covered by the "pool crew."
Among national news organizations, there is a fair amount of sharing already going on. On occasion, someone will get back to the office, have techical issues or have missed something and make a call to a friendly competitor who will occasionally share their pictures. Why? Because they know that they may be the beggar next time.
A reporter succeeds based on his or her own work. He or she succeeds on the strength of their sources, relationships, abilities and efforts in asking the right questions, focusing attention, offering insight and writing.
Photographers don't like it because, well, that's a no-brainer, isn't it? They don't like it because as the use of pooled video expands, the job pool for photographers shrinks. I had lunch with a beloved photographer friend this morning and we talked about his future.
He's a staff cameraman at a Los Angeles station, and is considering leaving his position sometime in the future. He and his significant other visited another city recently to "scout the lay of the land."
"I'm never going to get another staff job," he told me over my fish taco. "Those days are over and gone." I basically agreed with him and mentioned that network freelance photographers were among the happiest people I knew.
A freelance photographer makes his own hours, takes his own calls, accepts (or declines) assignments and has an incredible amount of personal and creative freedom. He works hard, but the bottomline is he works when he wants to.
It's an uneasy time. Anyone in freelance journalism, writing or photography has always needed nerves of steel. They've also needed skills to budget time, money, and resources to make occasional suppluses last through leaner times. It's not for the lazy, but it's do-able.
Someone said to me awhile back that my industry's "golden days" are over. That may be true for television, but it's not true for journalism and it's not true for photographers. We're still going to read and look at video, whatever the source. It is likely true that the laziest days are over. But those who truly succeeded were never lazy anyway.

08 June 2009


I'm just going to say what we've all been thinking for a very long time. It sucks being a celebrity, doesn't it? There. I've said it.
There are rumors out of Hollywood that celebrity participants Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt were evacuated to a hospital after Heidi started throwing up during "punishment" on a reality show. She and her um, husband/fellow spotlight chaser, are currently "starring" in the NBC primetime reality show, "I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!"
Or as I think of it when I think of it, "How Low Will I Go to Get Attention?"
So what happened? The truth of that depends on who you believe. This weekend's grab for attention by the Montag-Pratt duo included multiple attempts to quit the show earlier in the week. To punish them for this, the newlyweds were put in a darkened isolation chamber. Beyond that, the show's producers say the couple had food and water and spent most of their time sleeping. The entire thing was filmed and the couple emerged after several days "in great spirits."
But the couple and their relatives (entourage?) say that bugs were lowered in on them in the dark, there was no food, and when Heidi began throwing up, "She thought she was dying," according to celebrity-sister-in-law, Stephanie Pratt. Heidi Montag-Pratt was later diagnosed with a gastric ulcer.
Ok, but the name of the show is "I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here," right? And the premise is that bad things happen to famous people who then throw temper tantrums, quit the show and stomp off in a somehow entertaining display of poor sportsmanship, right? So... if they tried to quit, then why the punishment? Wasn't that the show's intention all along? Wasn't that where it was headed from the start? Wasn't that not just part of the game, but The Game?
It sucks being a young couple whose relationship beyond its publicity value has been questioned from the start. (You think that picture is annoying? Google their names and click on images. These two never miss a chance to pose.) Being stuck in a darkened room for 3 days with someone you married within the past year sucks. In the face of all that, the bugs seem a little extraneous, don't they?
What I really want to know is why do we pander to people who are so starved for attention? At what point are we going to realize that this is a sickness and we're abusing these poor, emotionally-deprived-as-children people in their endless search for someone to watch them.
In a real life display of... well, absolutely nothing, Kal Penn, the successful, working actor who quit the show "House" in favor of taking a public servants' salary for working in the White House Office of Public Engagement as a liaison to Asian American and Pacific Islander communities has gone off the radar. He's not at the set of "House," nor is he at the White House.
(You remember this story, right? In a moment of overwhelming love for his country, Kal or Kumar, if you know the "Harold and Kumar" movie series, said he was so excited about the prospects for change with the Obama administration that he longed to leave acting and work for that change with President Obama. And President Obama's office took him up on it.)
The White House denies that he's AWOL; they say he simply hasn't started the job yet. And as celebrities do, he had a prior commitment to shoot a movie in India.
That's a place where bugs really can fall through the roof in the dark of night. It sucks being celebrity, doesn't it?

04 June 2009

Successful Credit Card Squabbling

I am going to divert from the usual "politics, media, pop culture" mix and talk about credit cards today. I want to help arm you with the information you need if you get into a squabble with your credit card issuer.
The current recession in our economy and resulting problems within the money and finance industries are causing credit card companies to act a bit desperate. They will smack you with fees when they can, unless you know the law and call them on it. You have to protect yourself in this area.
I hope you examine your credit card bill every month. But if you sometimes skip a month and then sit down to review a month or two in arrears, you are probably still going to come out okay. It's not a case of "once it's paid, it's gone." This is a credit card company, not a fly-by-night roof repair guy going door to door after a hurricane. (Although let me think about that metaphor. Recession? Hurricane? Hmmm.) If you have been using credit wisely, these companies will want a long term relationship with you. If you've used credit wisely, you are the Prom Queen.
In my particular case, I was reviewing a credit card bill today when I saw a late fee charge. That's what happens when you move around a bit as I have lately; occasionally, a helpful/unhelpful relative who is getting your bills decides that you don't need one of them immediately, and you get notified one day before the check is due. Ugh.
Here's my tip to avoiding such a charge: if you had returns on that same credit card during that month and the credit adjustments on your account are greater than the minimum payment, you should not face a late fee.
In my case, Discover Card socked me with a $39 late fee. (Which, by the way was nearly 20% of that month's entire amount charged.) I spotted it today, more than two months after the bill was paid.
Then I examined the rest of the bill. The minimum payment that month was $18. But I was looking for something else: a credit adjustment. I spotted a credit adjustment of $27.32 (larger than that month's minimum payment) and picked up the phone to call Discover. They immediately agreed to refund the late $39 fee.
You only get fee refunds on your credit card bill if you are watching it closely yourself. The credit card company will never call to say "Oh, I think this fee that we've charged you is sorta superfluous. Maybe we'll just give it back to you." It's simply not in their nature.
At the same time, I also saw some smaller charges: (2) for $2.77 and (1) $2.64 from GTC Telecommunications. GTC is a long distance company that provides service at .05 cents per minute, which used to be a great price for long distance phone services, but now is sort of "so-so." Since I disconnected the "land line" phone at my Los Angeles apartment in December, it seems inappropriate that I still pay charges beyond January.
I also asked Discover to dispute those charges. They said they would be happy to send me the forms.
I've "disputed" items before. If you haven't, please consider doing it. Credit card companies are required to allow you to dispute the services for things such as low quality, broken, or otherwise returned merchandise, things not ordered or received, and services not rendered. You contact the credit card company, request the dispute, and they will ask you "did you try to work this out with the merchant/vendor?" Ultimately, they will send you the dispute forms and they ask you to fill them out, sign the affidavit and return it within about a two week period.
I did have one credit card company several years back try to tell me that they couldn't refund the money because the merchant had already been paid. I contacted some friends in the public affairs office at the FTC for clarification, and then called the credit card company back. The money was refunded. Fortunately, most credit card companies don't try that bluff with consumers anymore. But if they do, federal law states you have 60 days from receipt of the credit card statement to file a dispute.
Some days, you may need more protection than that. I recently ordered a product. On arrival, the items were so poorly made that I felt cheated. I looked in the box, but there was no return form. I checked the website. No return form. I called the company and got a simple answer: they don't accept returns. I said "Some of your product is broken, but even so, none of it is acceptable. I am returning it."
They said they would send more product to replace the broken items, but they "do not ever accept returns and that they would not ever.... " (They were still yelling when I hung up.)
The fact is that they do accept returns, whether they want to admit it or not. You have the right to return merchandise that is not as shown or as ordered. You just put it in the mail and return it. You are well-advised to get both insurance and require a signature on the delivery, but that's easy enough.
Here's where the whole thing took a twist: when I contacted the credit card company to dispute this charge, they said "Ms. Johnson, you may want to close this account and re-open another one. Otherwise, this company will just re-bill you for the full amount next month. And the month after that. And the month after that." (The customer service person said the merchant had a history with them.) Result: that credit card number is gone.
The rule is: change the credit card account number when necessary to avoid being taken advantage of by unscrupulous merchants. And try not to deal with unscrupulous merchants ever again.
Credit card companies have a reputation for being difficult to deal with. But if you know what the laws state and take the time to review your statements carefully, you can have successful dealings with them.
Because as someone once told me, "Nobody takes care of baby like Mama herself." Go ahead and baby your credit. It may pay off for you, too.

02 June 2009

Public Enemy No.1

We are our own worst enemy. Doesn't it often seem that is true? We go around the world, trying to control nuclear proliferation, stop bootleg hiphop albums, end global warming and generally offending other smaller nations with our "let Big Brother help" attitude, when at the same time we often don't seem to help ourselves. In this case, all we had to do was keep a lid on it.
It turns out that we've released a list of sensitive details about U.S. civilian nuclear sites around the country. Yessiree Bob. We posted a nice, fat list of hundreds of those locations on the Internet and then left it there for all to see for a day.

The draft document was posted online by the U.S. Government Printing Office, which in its defense, had the document under review for submission to the U.N. Nuclear Regulatory Committee, itself is not exactly the Great Vault of All Secrets. The sites aren't classified, and it's widely believed their release won't be dangerous, but the release is, well, embarrassing. So it turns out we are not infallible.

The list was pulled down after about one day after members of the media asked questions about the list, which motivated its speedy removal. That's sort of reassuring, isn't it? Old school journalists, inquiring about something they saw and thereby protecting our country. The model still works. (By the way, Pasadena Star-News, that won't be happening with your new business model using off-shore reporters, will it?)

But it is conceivable that terrorists could have downloaded the list (or could download it from anyone out there who has now posted the 267 page document on their own site) and use it to formulate a plan of attack. Again, not considered likely but yes, possible.

The list describes civilian sites including many locations of the nation's stores of enriched uranium and other materials used in nuclear weapons manufacturing as well as restricted information like design features of nuclear facilities where fissile materials are stored.
How dangerous this information might be is up for debate. Quoted in the Washington Post, former U.N. nukes inspector David Albright says:

"It is probably not that dangerous, but it is a violation of the law. You don't want this information out there, any more than you would want a thief to know the location of a vault in your house."

In the past, I've attended news conferences where U.S. Presidents revealed things that seemed to designed to make people in other countries angry at us. I've watched crime shows on TV and wondered if they weren't a bit like a "how-to" class in criminal activity. I've seen politicians forced to turn over records that left me breathless but not surprised when they left public service to "spend more time with the family." I've seen these things done in the name of "Freedom of Information" and scratched my head, wondering occasionally how some these things added to our Great American Democracy.

But not that dangerous? Come on. In this case, we've told the thieves where the vault is located and what kind of safe waits to be cracked. We've told them what's behind the locked doors and invited them to bring the explosives to blast those doors down. Or more properly, to come and get our materials in order to make their own nuclear explosives.
It's disappointing to learn that your government can't keep terrorists out, but even more so to see that same government issue invitations with home addresses on them. Sadly, it won't be a party for us if they show up.