Television & Another Summer of Discontent

Blitz Magazine, July 2003

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It’s a hot, humid night—too hot to read, and the dog won’t be walked. So, there’s TV.

The Miss Universe Pageant. This is so redundant and so insulting, it doesn’t bear discussion. But wait! Miss Canada is one of the finalists. Hoping for a Canadian victory, I keep watching. Donald Trump, owner of this ultra-passé travesty, is hunched in the front row, wearing his signature pout and cheap dye job. The co-host asks the Soap Star judge how he’s doing. The dough-head responds: “Well I’m sure glad they narrowed down the selection for us!” Oh? Who narrowed down the selection? Could it be that the judges have nothing to do with choosing the winner? That the whole thing is fixed in advance? Surely not!

My heart sinks as Miss Canada confesses to having a university degree (one of her co-finalists, Miss Montenegro, is a malnourished 18 year-old whose Interest is cats—she loves cats.) Then, Oh no! Miss Canada tells the interviewer that she’s “not into the hair-and-make-up thing”! Wrong thing to say in this crowd, baby! Bye bye!

CSI Miami. While it’s flattering to see a hit US show that’s a direct knock-off of a Canadian show (Da Vinci’s Inquest—inspired by the current Vancouver mayor’s career as a coroner and RCMP officer). Both CSI franchises are increasingly silly and far-fetched. But they’re educational. I’ve learned that, in this version of real life, er death, the police are secondary and don’t do any crime-solving. I’ve learned that, in Las Vegas and Miami, CSIs only work on high-glamour murders. I’ve learned that CSIs can have no personality whatsoever. And that, if you’re a woman who wants to be a CSI in Miami, you have to have implants, wear the tightest clothing you can find, be willing to spend hours on your hair, and wear more make-up than the local Mary Kay rep.

The unfortunate Miss Canada has, therefore, lost out on another career choice.

Click. Commercials. BC Gas has changed its name; the ad publicizing this has two grammatical errors. Tim Horton’s has the audacity to run, for a second season, what was already a seriously stupid commercial, wherein a young couple goes gaga over a strawberry tart that looks like a bloody botulism/polypropylene mutation. Then a ray of light: the VISA ‘Sing For Your Supper’ spot. Brilliant.

Next up, something called For Love or Money. There’s a group of women, all freshly botoxed and sun-bedded with bleached teeth and voices like chain-smoking Valley girls. (This awful voice seems to be the new American Girl sound—and it’s migrating north at a frightening pace.) And there’s a guy who thinks he’s supposed to fall in love with one of these creatures. He doesn’t now that they’re in it for a million dollars. At the end of the show, he has to dump some of the girls, keep others. No one on the show is in the least embarrassed by participating in this inanity. I sure am. Click.

Dog Eat Dog. Survivor.  American Junior. American Senior. American Lampshade. Surely I’m not the only one who sees the craze for tacky competition shows as degrading to participants and viewers. It’s human humiliation as entertainment. Intellectual battery as commerce. Click.

tv6Wonder of wonders, a bad Volkswagen commercial. A couple is worried about getting a goldfish home. The fish is in a large, water-filled tank. Don’t goldfish like large, water-filled tanks? And the driver needs directions to get to her own home. Then, Egads! The Dreaded Swiffer commercial. The voice they hired has managed to transmit her vocal sounds directly through her nose. Someone should ram the broom down her throat and give it a good swiff. Click.

Ah, another SARS press briefing. This is good—I’m not hearing enough about SARS. I’m wishing that someone would start a SARS Channel, so the whole world can get All SARS All The Time. A reporter from the Toronto Star asks a question. She uses the non-word ‘irregardless’. Ugh.

The Larry King Show. The usual suspects are busily trying Scott Peterson, discussing evidence, dissecting, speculating. I speculate that the only untainted jury candidates available will be those who find it intellectually taxing to watch CNN. I hear OJ chuckling.

Law & Order. Bravo! wants the hour to run to 50 minutes, and it wants to be able to pack in as many commercials as it possibly can. So it’s editing each show to fit its parameters. I know this because I’ve seen each episode so many times that I often know what characters are going to say before they say it. On Bravo!, what those characters once said is just plain missing—along with those pesky clues, confessions and revelations.

In addition, the Bravo! folks feel the need to insert a viewer warning after every single commercial break: “This program contains scenes of violence and mature subject matter. Viewer discretion is advised.’ Although, I guess this is a good thing, given that there are 4 year-olds all across Canada fighting to stay awake at 8:30 p.m. to watch the hilarious antics of Jack McCoy and Lennie Briscoe. Click.

The Mercedes Ice Cream commercial. Genius. But wait! It’s the dreaded Herbal Essence Shampoo ad! I wonder if the people behind these ads realize what kind of reaction the profoundly idiotic ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! is met with. If they know how many women are thinking ‘No! No! No! I’ll never use that product because I don’t want to become a bimbo!’ The bit was funny in When Harry Met Sally; that’s where it should stay.

Back to the CBC. More on mad cow. One sick cow and it’s the Story of the Century. A farmer finally complains about the media saturation. He should. All the coverage of slaughter, the depictions of how these animals are treated, and the facts about testing, about what cattle eat, what we end up eating…it’s back to Vegetarianville for me.

NYPD Blue. Why is this stale old show still on the air? Still with the bad lighting, the cheesy set design and the jerky camera. Does anyone know anyone who actually speaks the way these characters do? Don’t homicide detectives ever laugh? Click.

In an interview, Katie Couric asks Laci Peterson’s mother if public support has ‘booeed’ her spirits. How much does Couric earn? Maybe they need to pay her more.

Commercial: Nike is telling inner-city kids that its shoes are cool—but that it’s also cool to own snarling Pit Bulls and Rottweilers, and keep them tied to fences. I’d like to have a word with the creative director.

tv1I’m sorry to keep going back to the 9/11 thing, but I always look for the possible benefits of bad situations. I remember, just after the awful event, seeing Dubya at a meeting with Hollywood bigwigs—Lansing, Spielberg et al. At first, I found this chilling, because I figured it meant lots of propaganda. I was right—we soon saw Band of Brothers, among many other shows with the theme of Military Hero! and American Values!

But then I thought that the disaster could produce another result—that it might force the entertainment industry to get its act together. That the networks would insist on it. That viewers, and advertisers, would insist on it. I thought that it would make producers realize that there’s a huge responsibility involved in communicating with millions of people. That their audience is filled with different types of people with myriad experiences and stories and goals and fabulously rich histories. I thought that producers might get creative, and make shows that would inform, entertain and educate—in an intelligent fashion. So people could learn, laugh, appreciate other people and maybe be forced to think.

You’re thinking: “You were wrong, Dorothy.”

I certainly was. What we got was John Ritter in a tizzy over the fact that his teen-age daughter is growing up (gasp here), a mini-series on Adolph Hitler, and a guy on Will & Grace telling someone not to put his penis up someone’s bum.

I’m not asking for a steady diet of BBC-quality historical drama all the time, but come on.

tv4Yes, the lazy hazy days of summer. But is everyone on vacation at the same time? No. Is everybody partying every night of week? No. So why, I wonder for the millionth time, do network executives schedule fill the summer season with nothing but fetid, putrid, drivel-dripping crap? If it’s because they assume that no one’s watching, then shouldn’t advertisers make the same assumption and pull their ads?

I tune out altogether. I go to the bookcase, close my eyes and extract the first book I touch. It’s Ulysses. Yikes. Well, why not. I certainly can’t watch television.

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Fed Up With Hypocrisy : Bad Journalism Sparks a Rant

Blitz Magazine, March 2003

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Winston Churchill, a man famous for his powers of recall, remarked that a good memory was often a sorrow and an inconvenience (to him and, I presume, many others). And the only thing, I’m sure, which I have in common with Winston Churchill is a mind like a steel trap.

This is relevant because I used to be a social columnist. For three years, I covered up to 20 events a week. And not just galas and luncheons, but political events, sports events, functions involving law enforcement and military types, small parties, large parties, parties in honour of people from all walks of life and celebrating, or raising money for, an endless array of things.

This became relevant when BC Premier Gordon Campbell found himself living the nightmare of his life, after he was charged with impaired driving while on vacation in Hawaii. It was national news but, in BC, it was a feeding frenzy. The man’s mortification was gleefully compounded by everyone from journalists, to unionistas, to ‘pundits’, to people on the street. Local stations repeatedly devoted as much as 30 minutes to the story—some sent journalists to Hawaii, for Pete’s sake. I was as embarrassed by the coverage as I was for Campbell. The Hospital Employees Union is now using the incident in radio ads, and you can bet that the left is planning to dredge it all up in the next election.

So I’m watching, listening and reading the opinions of these people and the ol’ Winstonian memory is ticking like a stopwatch, and I’m thinking ‘Hey, but don’t you remember that night at the press club when you….?’ and ‘Wait a minute, what about the night you…?’ and ‘Surely you haven’t forgotten the incident at….!’ ‘And how did you get home?’

The only time I was tempted to actually speak up was when Opposition Leader Joy McPhail spoke up. Her party has (for good reason) only two seats and she is the most hypocritical, odious and opportunistic politician I’ve ever encountered. This is a woman not known for her, shall we say, demure social behaviour. ‘Lucky for her that my notebooks from those years are buried in a crammed crawl space, and that I’m too lazy to dig them out.

To those calling for Campbell’s head, and/or planning to use this incident it to fulfill their own agendas, I suggest that they search their memory banks to see if they’ve ever broken the law, whether the violation involved rolling through a stop sign, speeding through a school zone or neglecting to mention purchases at Canada Customs. They should be absolutely certain that they’ve never driven a vehicle after having too much wine, or after smoking a joint. Once they’re sure that they’re pure and innocent, they can squawk all they want. If they’re not blameless, they should shut up and let the man do his job.

sword1Journalistic free-for-alls are all-too-common these days. The rules seem to have been discarded. In the US, the FBI fabricated a story about five terrorists who had crossed the Canadian/US border to conduct a New Year’s Eve attack on New York. No journalist bothered to check the facts—one idiot working for a CBS affiliate claimed that he had shared a bus ride from BC with one of the ‘terrorists’—a man who was happily living in Lahore and had never been anywhere near Canada. The story was everywhere, Canada was blamed for everything. When it turned out that the story was false, there were no admissions of journalistic negligence.

‘Hard to believe that Pat Buchanan, one of the most dangerous men in America, has his own television show. Alas, he does and he spends a lot of time blaming Canada for America’s inability to guard its borders. He seems to forget that the US/Mexico border is one of the world’s most porous; indeed, I doubt that the US government could even hope to calculate the true populations of Florida, California and New York. (If he actually did the research, he’d know that 1% of people who illegally enter the US do so through Canada.)

And the National Review? Could there be a more precious organ for the paranoid and redneck? I can’t even stand to skim its website, never mind touch the physical product. This magazine is replete with inaccuracy and historical revisionism. To wit, a recent article which had the gall to suggest that Canada should be grateful to Americans for “all we’ve done for them”. Oh? Well, what would that be? Hmmm. I’m not really coming up with anything. Maybe the US lost a good chunk of its male population while staving off the enemy in WWI, while Canada took two years to show up? No, that’s not right—it was the other way around. And again in WWII? No, it was the Americans who were three years late…

I still feel for California politician Gary Condit who, by all accounts, was an honest and hard-working professional. Following the disappearance of one of his interns, he was quickly convicted, by the press, of murder. His career, finances and reputation were ruined. Trashed. The charge was led by Larry King and his posse of ‘crime experts’, and abetted by Vanity Fair, which allowed both Dominick Dunne and Judy Bachrach to absolutely skewer Condit. But the nail in his coffin was probably his decision to sit for what was an obscenely ridiculous interview with Connie Chung. Chung used the interview to revive a flat-lined career and was rewarded with her own show on CNN. We now know that Condit had nothing to do with the disappearance of the victim. Has anyone apologized to him?

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Closer to home, there have been alarming signs of journalistic decline. CTV Vancouver, for example, recently showed post-event ‘footage’ of the scene of an incident, without bothering to tell viewers that what they were seeing was shot after the incident took place. The same station reported the urban myth that a well-wisher snuck a puppy into Vancouver General Hospital to present to the victim of a dog attack. And the Seattle networks have taken to luring viewers to their newscasts by referring to Vancouver news stories as ‘Northwest Stories’.

And all over North America, in the US in particular, what one looks like is way more important than what one is saying. Anchor make-up is thicker, hair is more helmet-like, the clothing budgets higher but, increasingly, what we’re seeing and hearing on television news is sensationalistic, maudlin and biased. Reporting the actual facts, and providing the required background, is just so secondary. That sends credibility out the window. As I’ve said before, no credibility, no viewers/readers/listeners. No audience, no advertisers. Bad journalism is bad business.

The best journalists are always, and have always been, people who couldn’t wait to get out of high school before beginning to investigate the world—if they even bothered to finish high school. And there is no doubt that ‘journalism school’ is a colossal waste of time and money. People cannot be taught how to write well. People cannot be taught to be succinctly articulate, or to simultaneously think broadly and in terms of detail. People cannot be taught to develop instinct and curiosity. They cannot be taught to acquire integrity, discretion and love for the truth. People can only be taught the rules. And it’s increasingly obvious that people cannot be taught to remember, or care about, those rules.

On Unhelpful Journalism

Blitz Magazine, September 2004

As anyone who’s ever organized an event knows, there’s nothing more crushing than low turnout. You put your heart and all of your energy into organizing something, you do your best with limited marketing and promotion dollars, you keep your volunteers hyped and hope your committee members do their jobs. Then, on event day, only half of the expected numbers appear, and you feel absolutely sick.

unhelpfulThis is, I’m sure, how the organizers of the Athens Olympics feel right now. As I write this, the Olympics are half over and there have been very few events at which the seats were more than 50% filled. In fact, in most cases, it appears that no more than a relative smattering of people bought tickets for events. Watching the world’s finest athletes competing in echo chambers adds a sense of real Greek tragedy to the games.

Why has this happened? The media, of course. August in Athens can be pretty uncomfortable, but reportage focusing on the heat and the city’s problems with traffic congestion and pollution was unhelpful. It’s true that all businesspeople try to extract as much profit as they can from a world-class event, but the news of hoteliers and restaurateurs being slapped with huge fines for gouging tourists? Unhelpful. The Greeks are known for being a bit laid-back when it comes to scheduling, but having the ‘Unreadiness of Athens’ become a staple for late-night comedians? Unhelpful. News reports of the ease with which terrorists could infiltrate the games? Unhelpful. And wrong—none of the media’s almost gleefully-dire predictions have come true.

The same thing happened with the recent Canadian federal election. Every single poll proved to be completely inaccurate. Every analyst had to backtrack. Every pundit was dead wrong. The Liberals were not voted out, the Conservatives did not win, or even make their projected gains. Yet all of this advance speculation and ‘educated’ opinion clouded the decision-making process for millions of voters. Why do the networks commission polls? Polls are useless, because the samplings are so small. The only way to get an accurate measurement of public opinion is, hello, an election.

In the US, Scott Peterson is on trial for the murder of his wife. How an untainted jury pool was found for this trial is beyond me. Because, from the moment Laci Peterson disappeared, nearly two years ago, every detail that could be dug up was announced to the public. It appears that even law enforcement officials held nothing back; indeed, the Modesto Police Department has a website devoted to this case, including file details, timelines, news releases etc. And from the beginning, there was the media—the already smarmy, and the ‘legits’ on their road to smarminess, predicting, predicting. There was Larry King and his panel of experts telling the public what would happen to Scott, how long he’d get, what would happen at his trial—and this was long before the guy was arrested.

One has to wonder how the media became so thoroughly obsessed with reporting on events that have yet to transpire. Why do reporters persist in analyzing possible scenarios and then projecting them to the public as probable outcomes? Why are we subjected to facts not in evidence, groundless statistics, baseless innuendo—all negative, of course.

Because, I guess, the news had just become another sideshow. Another form of entertainment. Reporters no longer dig and dig to find their own stories; they use their imaginations. The networks and newspaper owners no longer what to find the news—why pay for staff to go out and do actual research, when they can get some polling firm to come up with something they can do a story on? Is it about economics? Lethargy? A loss of ethics? A combination, I suspect. And it’s all really unhelpful.