Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Carrie Underwood

I met Carrie Underwood at Fox News yesterday. I found her to be a most delightful person with a warm and friendly demeanor.

It turns out she was traveling with a "decoy," a body double, who apparently goes on public events with her. Not that Fox News isn't a safe place for a beautiful blond superstar. She also had a small security contingent and a PR team along for the visit, they were constantly coordinating logistics. Carrie is so well-known I doubt if she can ever walk on the streets of New York alone.

We spoke about my daughter, the superstar of my life: Zoe. Small talk, yes. But she seemed engaged. And as she parted she said, "Give Zoe my best wishes." Zoe loved hearing that! Now we are buying every song Carrie Underwood has ever recorded!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Church

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week in the Catholic Church. Yet this week the dark cloud of scandal once again hangs over the church as millions of Catholics gathered for services throughout the world.

Pope Benedict XVI did not address the growing scandal surrounding pedophile priests in his Palm Sunday mass at St. Peter's Cathedral, other than an indirect reference. The pope prayed in Portuguese, "For the young and for those charged with educating them and protecting them." Yet in his homily the pope said that Jesus Christ guides his faithful, "toward the courage that doesn't let us be intimidated by the chatting of dominant opinions, towards patience that supports others."

No doubt many of the parishioners who crowded into St. Peter's were disappointed that the Pope didn't address the issue head on. But this has often been the failing of the church since this crisis first broke eight years ago. Then it was an "American problem" that church officials at first tried to minimize. The result has been damaging to the church and undermines the institution's "moral credibility," in the words of one Vatican official. Perhaps it is Christ's words, from St. Luke's "Passion," that ring true for many Catholics: "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."

It has been reported about 4% of American Catholic priests were accused of abuse between 1950 and 2000. In 2003, a group of lay people reported to the U.S. Conference of Bishops a number of possible reasons for the scandal. These included improper screening of candidates for the priesthood, poor training and a pervasive attitude among some bishops that the needs of the Church come ahead of the needs of individuals.

Yet while some measures were put in place to address the underlying problems in the American church, recently more incidents of priestly pedophilia have become public, including in Europe. A priest in Wisconsin abused 200 deaf students and the church hierarchy quashed efforts to give him a trial. Now the Vatican finds itself defending the pope's handling of sex abuse cases both when he was archbishop of Munich, Germany, and when he headed the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Catholic faithful are being truly tested this week, but so too is the church leadership. New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan spoke about the accusations on Palm Sunday, "Sunday mass is hardly the place to document the inaccuracy, bias and hyperbole of such aspersions." Archbishop Dolan noted that Pope Benedict had done more than most to address the problem, "Palm Sunday Mass is surely a fitting place for us to express our love for and solidarity for our earthly shepherd now suffering from the same unjust accusation and shouts of the mob as Jesus did."

In many local parishes priests addressed the scandal. One courageous priest, speaking in a voice filled with sadness and frustration, warned that there are no "short cuts to resurrection." He observed that the scandals were "poorly handled by church management," and called for truthfulness and a "searing admission of past wrongs." Innocent lives have been damaged, and in some cases destroyed, by the appalling sex abuse scandals involving Catholic priests. While such repulsive behavior has been reported in other religions and cultures, it must not be minimized by this church.

The church's scandals are a difficult and complicated challenge for the world's most populous religion, but there is no more urgent issue facing Catholicism. Perhaps its leaders should reflect in deep prayer on Christ's journey; from his conviction, to his crucifixion, burial and then his resurrection.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Health Care Reform

Dateline: Santa Monica, California

History was made yesterday as a piece of legislation was passed that will affect the entire nation. Yet hundreds of thousands Californians enjoyed the sunny cool weather and the Los Angeles Marathon oblivious to the battle that was being waged for a highly contested issue. I remained in my hotel room transfixed to the television watching C-Span. History was being made in the United States House of Representatives as Health Care Reform was being debated for several hours with great passion by both sides. At last a vote, a victory for Democrats and the fulfillment of a dream for the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy and his accolytes.

No matter its imperfections, this bill extends health care to 32 million more Americans. This was a great day for the United States.

Friday, March 19, 2010

American Originals

Fess Parker will always be Davy Crockett to me. The American pioneer, trailblazer and hero-of the Alamo as played by one of early televisions stars.

Fess Parker's death stirs memories of "Ozzie and Harriet", "I Love Lucy", "Father Knows Best", "Kukla, Fran and Ollie", and "The GE Theater" with Ronald Reagan. In the early fifties television was not in every home, especially those in rural communities. The average television set was large, half the size of a refrigerator, the screen was small, the picture was black and white and the reception was spotty in some areas. Yet television soon became the centerpiece of every American living room.

Television producers and executives were finding their way with this new medium when, in 1954, Walt Disney launched the series "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier." Crockett was a daring frontiersman, marksman, a real American legend. Disney studios cast the 6' 6" Fess Parker to play Davy Crockett, and dressed him in a coonskin cap, leather pants and a coat with fringe on the sleeves. He wore leather moccasins and he was armed with a musket. By the end of 1955, Disney had successfully launched a whole product line of clothing and toys in the Davy Crockett theme. I owned a coonskin cap, as did many of my friends.

My sister and I watched Davy Crockett every week. My friends and I could sing the words to the theme song, "Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier." The words seemed silly but fun, "He was born on a mountain top in Tennessee" and "Kilt him a b'ar when he was only 3." The last episode of Davy Crockett was broadcast in early 1955, but the clothing style remained popular for some time afterward.

During Ronald Reagan's presidency in the early eighties I traveled to Santa Barbara, California, while working at CBS News as part of the White House press corps. President Reagan vacationed nearby on his ranch.

Each summer the Reagans had a party for the White House press corps. The first was in the summer of 1981 at the Biltmore Hotel along the Pacific Coast on the southern edge of Santa Barbara. I introduced myself to President Reagan as the CBS News producer who had installed a camera with a huge lens on a nearby hill overlooking his ranch. The media tried to photograph Reagan's every public movement and it had become a real network battle of the lenses. So practically every night, while Reagan was at the ranch, Americans would see blurry pictures of the president clearing brush and riding his horse on that night's evening newscasts.

"Well, you know Joe," President Reagan began with a devilish twinkle in his eye, "I once suggested to the secret service, well, that one morning I would walk out on the porch." The president then cocked his head and twisted his body slightly as he continued, "Then I would, well, do this." The president then slapped both his hands over his heart and feigned a stumble. President Reagan then tilted his head with a smile and said, "The secret service said, 'We don't think that would be a good idea Mr. President.'" Reagan then laughed and shook his head from side to side.

As I smiled I said "Mr. President, I don't think that would be a good idea either!" He laughed, gave me a wink, and then introduced me to First Lady Nancy Reagan.

One year the press party was held at Fess Parker's ranch, which is near the Reagan ranch. By then Parker was a successful businessman and rancher, and he later opened a winery. So I was thrilled to find myself in the company of two American legends and actors, President Ronald Reagan and Fess Parker. Two men who had played important starring roles in the early days of television and in my life. Even then, nearly thirty years later, they were tall and impressive looking men with an easy going demeanor, dressed in western jeans and a cowboy hat.

There will probably never again be anyone like these two American originals.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

She's Fourteen

It is so hard to believe that she has reached her fourteenth year.

This morning I went into Zoe's bedroom at 6:55am to give her a birthday kiss. I stood and looked down at her sleeping comfortably in her bed, surrounded by dolls and Cleo, our Maltese. I remembered doing much the same 13 years ago, on her first birthday. Of course, even then I would slip into her bedroom whenever I heard a suspicious sound, "Is she okay, is she breathing?"

I have made hundreds of early morning wake up visits to Zoe's bedside. But this time I wondered, "How many more?" She is growing up so fast. Soon she will be in high school. In two years she will be eligible to drive (are you kidding me, we don't even own a car!).

I guess the point is, I will enjoy every precious moment I have with her. Happy birthday sweetheart!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

That's Entertainment!

On his daily radio program Rush Limbaugh has warned that if health care reform passes, "I will leave the country." At last Americans have a real incentive to favor passage of this bill. Limbaugh's departure would make America a better place, and the country will have taken a positive step toward conquering obesity as well!

Meanwhile, in another sign it was a bad day for right-wing loons, Glenn Beck announced his program, entirely devoted to a live interview with former Congressman Eric Massa, was a "waste of time." From a sane person's perspective that is an improvement over the usual negative diatribes Beck subjects his listeners to.

Both of these occurrences show these men for what they are: "commercial" conservatives. In other words, they exploit conservatism, those who allow their conservative passions to overcome their comity and sanity, those who are susceptible to conspiracy theories and those who are on the lunar fringe of America. Regretfully there are a few million people who fall into this category, enough to attract some advertisers.

For these two purveyors of hate and distortion the motive is big bucks and egomania. To feed their voracious greed and need for attention they pour gasoline on flames, they shout "fire" in a crowded theater and they scare and fear-monger.

Ironically, they use the rights given them by the Founding Fathers to achieve personal gain while damaging the country. That's entertainment!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Best Picture

It was huge, man over Avatar! It is remarkable that the lowest grossing movie ever to receive an Oscar for "Best Picture" beat out the biggest grossing movie ever made.

The showdown between The Hurt Locker and Avatar, along with the stellar job done by co-hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, gave the 82nd annual Academy Awards a huge ratings boost. And the buzz leading up to the Oscar program about who the "Best Picture" winner would be also shifted back and forth.

Avatar, at $300 million in production costs alone, is largely a CGI (computer generated image) thriller. The movie gained enormous momentum with a record breaking opening weekend this past December. The world-wide gross box office receipts now exceed $2 billion. In Na'vi the right word would be "Irayo" or thank you.

This science fiction epic is set in the year 2154 on the moon Pandora, which is inhabited by the peace-loving Na'vi. Humans discover Pandora is filled with a precious metal called "unobtainium." They send a private force, armed with the latest weapons and accompanied by Na'vi avatars, to excavate the metal. Computer generated images and characters are ingeniously created in a breathtaking and overpowering display of technology.

Years in the making, charges of plagiarism against Cameron have cast a small shadow over the blockbuster. But, on the day after the Oscars, a court in Beijing, China, threw out a lawsuit brought by writer Zhou Shaomou, who said that “Avatar” closely resembled his novel “The Legend of the Blue Crow.” Cameron had said he began the Avatar project two years before Zhou's novel was released.

In sharp contrast, The Hurt Locker is an unrelentingly intense movie that follows a United States Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team during the Iraq War. The screenplay was written by Mark Boal, a writer who was embedded as a journalist with a bomb squad. The Hurt Locker has had a limited release in the United States since it first came out here last summer. It has so far earned about $15 million at the box office, which barely exceeds its production cost of about $12 million.

There are no avatars and no CGI in The Hurt Locker. It is a bone shatteringly real depiction of life for the Army's bomb squad in war-torn Iraq. For one man, Sergeant First Class William James, brilliantly played by Jeremy Renner, disarming Improvised Explosive Devices (IED's), car bombs and body bombs is addicting and far more thrilling than life with his family back home. It seems the war in Iraq blots out his insecurities and the mundane. It is a modified version of "Russian roulette" only played with explosive devices.

Oscar Award winning director Katherine Bigelow, James Cameron's ex-wife and the first woman to receive the award, wanted "something that was raw, immediate and visceral." And she was able to capture the feeling of total immersion using several Super 16 cameras to capture multiple perspectives. While the actors often didn't know which camera to play to, the approach heightens the viewer's sense of authenticity.

Good trumps evil in Avatar as nature overcomes man and machine. There will be no more plundering of resources, pollution and war on Pandora. The Na'vi are destined to live happily ever after and James Cameron is "the king of the world!"

In The Hurt Locker, senseless killing, brutality, inhumanity and inexplicable violence are seemingly without end. Goodness is snuffed out so it cannot propagate. Hatred, fear and hopelessness fill a vacuum. A bomb can be defused, but they are everywhere in this battle scarred region. So is Sergeant First Class James out of his mind or is he just a product of the world he lives in?

Avatar amazes us with innovation and imagination. On the other hand, The Hurt Locker leaves us shaken and searching for answers.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Video Journalism: Past and Future

Recent headlines about staff reductions at ABC News and CBS News are painful, especially for those who work in the profession, and discouraging for those who are currently studying to enter the field. While uncertainty abounds, video journalism is at the beginning of an exciting new era that will present great new opportunities.

The business of television news has been slowly evolving since its inception in the late 1940's. For its first forty years three broadcast news organizations provided Americans most of the news they needed to know. Journalistic icons including Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and Frank Reynolds led these organizations.

Television news organizations guided and informed the American public through crises such as President John Kennedy's assassination, the Viet Nam War, the Civil Rights movement and Watergate. The evening newscasts went from fifteen to thirty minutes and began attracting more advertising dollars. By the late seventies broadcast news had become big business and staff salaries were rising.

The broadcast news industry came to an important crossroads on June 1, 1980. Ted Turner launched CNN, the first 24-hour cable news channel. Cable was a totally new distribution platform that wasn't in many homes. At first broadcasters dismissed CNN and cable, but almost immediately its impact was felt. Over time CNN made video exchange deals with local television stations around the country that gave stations national and international video that they could air in advance of their own network's evening newscasts. Further, CNN spent less per story than the established networks, a fact that would be noticed by the new bottom-line focused network owners, General Electric, Capital Cities and Loews Corporation.

Meanwhile, cable and satellite television distribution was rapidly expanding into homes across the country. As a consequence, broadcast television began losing audience share. In the eighties advertisers still favored broadcasters because they offered mass viewership. Nonetheless, the new owners were concerned about the viewer shift. They were also concerned about their own huge infrastructure costs, especially in news, and the escalating costs of programming and distribution. All three networks laid off hundreds of news employees, travel costs were slashed, bureaus were consolidated or closed, and even newspaper subscriptions were canceled. In the end the network news divisions operated as usual but with fewer resources.

Then in 1991 CNN made a huge leap in viewer awareness when it exclusively carried live coverage of the U.S. bombing of Baghdad. This would cause a small shift in viewer habits. So would the launch of MSNBC and the Fox News Channel, in the mid-nineties, then the Internet explosion over the past fifteen years. The result would be an accelerated shift in viewership away from broadcast television. So much so that last year 22 million viewers watched the three network evening newscasts, down from 50 million in 1980. Meanwhile, cable news and the Internet played a dominant role in the 2008 election coverage.

Given the decline in viewership and profits, especially during the recession, it is impossible for broadcast news organizations to support existing infrastructures and salaries. Economic pressure makes consolidation more likely; The New York Times suggests CBS News and CNN or ABC News and Bloomberg might form a partnership. But similar talks have taken place many times over the past two decades always ending over issues of control, rights and how costs savings are achieved.

Wholesale cost reductions are not going to fix the underlying problem with network news. Costly legacy systems and inefficient operations are a drag on progress. But changing the culture and day-to-day operations of any organization is difficult. This is especially true in journalism, where the preservation of editorial integrity and the ability to get the story first are fundamental goals.

What is required today is an agile organization and workforce that can quickly embrace technological advancements and efficiencies. Creating a more entrepreneurial culture internally that implements new processes and better tools is key to success. For instance, the organization can use an "open" operating and production system that enables remote and/or distributed production, speedier internal communications and information sharing. The use of a "metadata" driven workflow can simplify searches, penetrate silo walls, improve operational efficiency and capture important context for each project. Serious consideration should be given to "cloud computing" systems.

The news audience is deeply fractured among many choices and platforms. The best way to succeed in a highly competitive marketplace, where news content is commoditized, is to stand out, to be distinctive. It requires consistently producing outstanding journalism, whether it is during a "live" event or for a news magazine. Just cutting costs each year is a death by a thousand cuts.

Fifty years ago the railroad companies struggled until they recognized they were in the "transportation" business rather than the train business. Network news organizations are in the "video journalism" business. Reporters should think of themselves as "video storytellers," not just television reporters. While they should embrace new production tools, they should master three essentials: original reporting, great writing and quality storytelling.

Today's news organization must aggressively expand revenue opportunities beyond the core business, and fully monetize its content on multiple distribution platforms, i.e., television, cable, the web and mobile. A long range and unified strategy should be adopted, even if it means crossing long standing territorial and political boundaries. Each of these organizations is populated with very talented and creative producers and modern facilities.

News organizations must fully embrace social networks, but apply appropriate editorial filters. Social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and U-Tube, provided meaningful and important coverage of the Chilean and Haitian earthquakes, as well as the Iranian protests. News organizations should encourage their existing news gathering personnel to expand their news sources and learn how to use new technologies and production tools.

Journalism students at New York University, as well as other universities around the country, are learning how to be self-sufficient video journalists. They do all the research, reporting, shooting, writing and editing for each of their own pieces. They are passionate, bright and motivated by their love of video journalism. Many of them are certain to be among those who drive the future evolution of video journalism.

Cleo Stress Tests

It has been a rough weekend for Cleo. She has been emersed in her mid term exam studies, slogging through science, math, Latin and the American constitution, working like a dog!

There are four critical exams this week covering the entire year's studies. Does she know the difference between the sixth amendment and the tenth amendment? Does she understand the difference between a divergent and a convergent plate? Can she solve and plot a series of complicated percentages? Carpe Diem, as they say!

Amidst all the work and pressure, Cleo has had trouble sleeping and eating. Her school work is truly dogging her. She paced back and forth from one bedroom to another several times at night in search of peace and tranquility. While she was able to take a moment's comfort eating her dry meal and lapping up some water from her bowl, the anxiety weighed heavily on her. Most troubling were the whimpering and growling sounds emanating from deep inside her soul as she slept. She was living a nightmare. As a consequence she was dog tired most of the day.

But if you count Cleo out you'll be barking up the wrong tree! Down deep inside she knows she can do well. Yes, you may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks. But Cleo is still a young lady, and she has great pedigree!