Friday, February 29, 2008
Probably the most interesting description I've ever read of the arterial splash of über-pretentious gauche that is Palm Beach:
"Palm Beach is where LA Neely O'Haras and their Leons go to die. It's where glamor goes when it spoils like milk. Palm Beach was never fashionable or, god forbid, rich enough to retain all the yuppies and hipsters, so instead it did what it was best at. It burned that proverbial (and literal, if you look back on Florida's racially charged history) bridge to the ground and left the rubble for everyone to see. And, strangely enough, some found comfort in that mess. After willingly chasing all of the real glamor away, Palm Beach pretty much said fuck you, rest of the world, we're making our own goddamned rules, and became dreamily content with its sour grapes. Like a cat so very proud of catching a poisonous snake, Palm Beach decided it was best to broadcast this accomplishment to the rest of the world as though it were, in fact, a very good thing that it was full of unfashionably haughty old people."
-- from "Curbed" (the best blog you're likely to ever come across that's written by a 15-year-old)
Apparently, I died in my sleep at some point last night.
This is my hell.
(CNN.com: Janet Jackson Teaches Larry King How to Dance)
In a related item:
Robert Smigel is one of the funniest and cleverest guys around. Not only is he the voice of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and most of the various TV characters that turn up on Conan O'Brien, he's the creative force behind the "TV Funhouse" segments on SNL.
TV Funhouse has managed to mock everyone from Walt Disney to the Reverend Robert Schuller to Michael Jackson -- and his affinity for young boys -- to SNL creator Lorne Michaels himself; it's also given us the screw-the-censors genius that is "Ace & Gary: The Ambiguously Gay Duo."
Yet despite all this envelope-pushing, only one episode of TV Funhouse has ever been banned.
This video aired only once; for pretty obvious reasons, NBC standards and practices has declared that it will never air again.
Of all the things I've written for this site, one stands out as being the most personal to me.
I've chronicled a lot of my own minor catastrophes and dramas, as well as those of a few others, but a piece from January of last year which dealt with a girl I knew in high school who endured an unimaginable tragedy -- that was the hardest one to get through.
At the center of it was the torturous question of where she might be and what might have happened to her.
Two nights ago, I got an answer.
She contacted me -- after someone sent her what I'd written.
I can't even begin to express how great she's doing -- despite all she's been through -- or how happy it makes me to be able to say that.
(The Part That Never Comes Home/1.21.07)
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Well, no one can argue that he isn't consistent.
This morning during a White House news conference, President Bush once again unleashed a hefty load of his special brand of deluded gibberish -- the kind of charmingly pathetic saber-rattling which would seem to indicate that he truly believes anyone still gives a shit what he has to say about anything.
I'll avoid getting into the pro-war, congress-hectoring, anti-Constitutional, spying-on-everyone-to-protect-America, September-the-11th-changed-things rhetoric because, really, why bother at this point? What I will mention though is that he managed find an excuse to throw out one of his favorite adjectives; it's a word he's slipped into conversation so many times over the past few years that, well, read the quote below from this morning, and then read the full post I wrote back in August of last year.
February 28th, 2008
From the AP: "President Bush said Thursday that the country is not headed into a recession and, despite expressing concern about slowing economic growth, rejected for now any additional stimulus efforts. 'We've acted robustly,' he said."
August 3rd, 2007
"As a nation, we've become so used to the dangerous, blithering idiocy of George W. Bush that his monumental offenses barely even faze us anymore. Lies, corruption, fear-mongering, war-mongering, general sociopathy, blatant disregard for the Constitution and the rule of law -- we're inundated with these crimes so regularly that they no longer hold any power to provoke outrage.
I imagine it's because of this that the tiniest, seemingly most innocuous of Bush's offenses -- like, say, his butchery of the English language -- now ironically manage to work their way deep under the skin of the otherwise anesthetized.
Originally, his insistence on mispronouncing "nuclear" was little more than a decent punchline, but these days -- after all the havoc he's wreaked around the world -- the knowledge that he's not even bright enough to get a simple word right is the equivalent of a pebble in a one-legged man's shoe. It's just fucking infuriating.
Or how about this one: his almost autistically-induced repetition of the word "robust."
If you're lucky enough to have not been paying attention, that particular adjective is one of our president's favorite words; over the past few years, he's used it to describe everything from his tax relief proposal and the economy in general (5/03), to his administration's brand of worldwide diplomacy (5/06) -- and in much the same way that the emperor's lackeys once stripped off all vocabulist clothing to hide their leader's nudity by purposely saying "NOO-KYU-LAR" as often as possible in mixed company, those close to the president have recently adopted the rather unusual word (I mean seriously, how often do you use "robust" in everyday conversation?) as part of their lexicon (10/06) just to make it seem, well, normal.
Now though, one of the most noticeable "Bushisms" has reared its head yet again.
This time, the president is using "robust" to describe the kind of federal response that Minneapolis can expect in the wake of Wednesday's catastrophic bridge collapse.
For the record, Webster's Dictionary defines "robust" as "having or showing strength or vigor."
In other words, it technically isn't being used incorrectly by Bush, which is in no way meant to imply that it's being used correctly. In fact, you have to wonder if the president has any idea what the word actually means or if he just ripped it off a Word-a-Day calendar four years ago and has since forced us all to suffer through his various -- dare I say liberal -- uses of it.
The point is, there are words that would fit infinitely better in any of the contexts in which our Commander-in-Chimp insists on using "robust" -- a word that's likely only popular with Bush because he enjoys the way it sounds when it aptly describes the flavor of his favorite steak sauce.
Regardless, the good people of Minneapolis had now better prepare themselves -- something robust this way comes."
Now before the bullshit flamewar even begins to light up my e-mail inbox, let me get something off my chest. I realize that more than a few people read my castigation of George Bush as proof that I'm some whiny liberal who's been driven mad by Bush's seemingly supernatural political survival skills. That's crap -- although you're certainly welcome to believe it if it somehow makes it easier to dismiss a contradictory opinion and hang on to whatever lie you're telling yourself about the Bush Administration's tenure in office. I'm not a liberal, just like I'm not a conservative. These days especially, doing anything other than evaluating each issue on its own merits isn't just intellectually dishonest, it's dangerous. You can't approach an argument with the end result already in mind -- put there by whichever side of the aisle you happen to align yourself with -- then work your way back to make the facts fit that intransigent belief. That's the kind of non-thinking that got us into this mess to begin with.
Over the course of the past year-and-a-half, this site has taken aim at both Republicans and Democrats -- from Bush to Ted Kennedy -- and has done so with equal fury and disregard of status or sanctimony. I've bashed the 109th GOP-led Congress -- the filthiest in American history -- while also tearing apart spineless bullshit-artists like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. I've advocated environmental issues while also advocating ethnic profiling at airports. I think Al Sharpton is a worthless attention-whore who needs to lighten the hell up. A friend of mine recently said about this site: "Your best quality and your worst is that nobody's safe with you."
Oddly, that's kind of a compliment.
As far as George Bush goes, I don't believe that disliking or distrusting him and his ilk has anything to do with being a liberal or conservative anymore -- it just has to do with having a pair of working eyes, a brain, and a healthy amount of common sense.
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
I don't usually do this; I typically write what I write and let that speak for itself. Unfortunately, I feel like I need to clarify a few things with regard to my column from Monday (How to Lose a Job in 13 Days?/2.25.08) -- specifically, my feelings about my former boss Ed Litvak's "resignation" from CNN.
I do this for the usual reasons -- because at least two media outlets ran stories about my reaction which twisted my opinion all to hell until it sounded like I was literally pissing on the man's grave.
So, let me make it unequivocally clear: I harbor no ill-will at all toward Ed.
In fact, I actually think he's a pretty decent guy, regardless of his decision to fire me two weeks ago. There are things that I believe Ed did wrong during his tenure as executive producer and ostensible leader of American Morning, but I see no need to pettily point them out. Anyone in a position of authority will find him or herself the target of criticism and obviously Ed has now received the worst kind of professional criticism there is. In his defense, he was charged with a gargantuan task: helming an unwieldly monster of a show, with staff working in separate shifts 24-hours a day, during a time of major upheaval. He was forced to constantly juggle duties while making sure to placate the various egos, each of whom believed that his or her wants and needs should be top priority. I have no doubt that he was micro-managed to death by Jon Klein, a situation made worse, in all likelihood, by the ironic and ever-present feeling that he would be the one getting fired if Klein's own directives failed. The true advocates on his behalf would say he was set up to fail.
I may not have agreed with Ed Litvak, but I damn sure didn't envy him either.
Whether or not the fallout from my termination played a role in Ed's own, I'll never know. I do believe though that if American Morning had been a consistent ratings bonanza under his watch, no controversy in the world would've ended with Ed packing up his office.
And that's really the saddest part.
Let me clue you in on something the type-A personalities in upper-level news management always refuse to accept, making life hell for all those beneath them: Sometimes, the audience just doesn't come.
The fight to get people to watch a particular station or network is always a brutal and unforgiving one, but in the end you simply cannot control what a person will do (let alone thousands of them) -- whether a potential viewer will watch you, someone else, or shut the damn TV off altogether. It's frustrating as hell until you abandon the control-freak mentality that's de rigeur among the producer set and admit -- maybe submit -- to the reality that ratings are often completely arbitrary. You can put together the show of your career and no one will watch; you can be at the reins of an on-air trainwreck that makes you wish someone had thought to install a full bar in the control room and the numbers will be huge. You may as well be playing the lotto.
Management can convene all the "average viewer" focus-groups it wants, then accept as gospel the opinions of a bunch of people who probably just showed up for the free food; it can do a minute-by-minute ratings breakdown, which as far as the executives can tell would seem to indicate that the anchor's half-second hiccup just before tossing to weather is the reason 30-thousand people suddenly made the collective decision to change the channel. (Believe me, Kafka couldn't have invented a more surreal and ritualistic ordeal than being forced to sit in an office with a group of seemingly intelligent higher-ups while they over-analyze and knee-jerk react to this kind of worthless crap.) Management can take all the institutional psychology and "Intro to Chaos Theory" classes it wants; it can commission AR&D, Magid, Broadcast Image and Rick James TV Consultants, Bitch, of Studio 54 and the China Club to take the entire staff on a retreat to a nudist camp in the Poconos; management can do all of these things and more -- none of it will ensure that anyone will be sitting in front of that TV watching a given channel at a given time.
I'm not suggesting that TV news departments simply give up and not arm themselves with as much knowledge and research as possible.
I'm saying that, cases of herculean incompetence notwithstanding, it seems patently unfair not only to fire someone over something he or she has no control of -- but to meddle in that person's day-to-day decisions while making sure that he or she knows at all times that a steady paycheck hangs in the balance.
I realize this is just the nature of the beast, as it is with most businesses.
My point is this though: As far as I know, Ed Litvak gave Jon Klein exactly what he wanted; during my tenure as a producer on AM I never saw anything that would make me believe otherwise.
Once again, I may not have agreed with Ed on many things, but I never doubted that it was always Klein running the show.
And yet when all Klein's big ideas failed, guess who wound up taking the blame and losing his job?
It should surprise no one to learn that Sydney Lumet's pitch-black masterpiece Network is one of my all-time favorite movies.
It's a film that's almost impossible to wrap your head around as you watch it now, in 2008, because everything you see and hear seems unacceptably incongruous with the notion that the film was released in 1976.
To call Network "prescient" would be the ultimate understatement
The truth is that almost every grotesque, rotten and unethical thing that screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky predicted about the future of television news has come to fruition in the thirty-two years since Network debuted in theaters.
There's never been a better movie made about the TV news business, and I'm not sure there ever will be.
Network will of course be forever remembered for Peter Finch's brilliant, Oscar-winning portrayal of doomed anchorman Howard Beale, whose furious on-air tirade produced one of the most legendary lines in film history, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"
But for some reason, in a movie filled with astonishingly good dialogue (Ned Beatty's verbal scolding of Finch alone is priceless; as is the painfully heartfelt monologue which won Beatrice Straight an Oscar, despite only five minutes of screen time) there are two sets of lines which stand out for me -- for no other reason than the fact that they are so sadly prophetic.
The first is the exchange between Robert Duvall, as network hatchet-man Frank Hackett, and Wesley Addy -- who plays senior executive Nelson Chaney. It takes place when Hackett suggests that Howard Beale be allowed back on the air after ranting uncontrollably during the previous evening's newscast. The reason: It'll almost certainly get ratings.
Chaney says, "All I know is that this violates every canon of respectable broadcasting."
To which Hackett responds, "We're not a respectable network; we're a whorehouse network and we have to take what we can get."
Chaney shoots back, "Well, I don't want any part of it. I don't fancy myself the president of a whorehouse."
"That's very commendable of you Nelson, now sit down. Your indignation is duly noted; you can always resign tomorrow."
And the conversation is over. End of story. Sit down and shut up.
My second favorite line comes as William Holden's character, Max Schumacher, is preparing to finally walk out on the ice-cold network entertainment president Diana Christensen, played by a never-sexier Faye Dunaway.
What he says to her sums up perfectly -- pitifully -- everything about TV.
"There's nothing left in you that I can live with. If I stay with you I'll be destroyed. Like Howard Beale was destroyed. Like everything you and the institution of television touch is destroyed. You're television incarnate: indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer; and the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split-seconds and instant-replays. You're madness Diana -- virulent madness -- and everything you touch dies with you."
Why do I bring this up?
Because my name has now been officially attached, in print ironically, to the legacy of Network and what the film had to say about television news. Today's New York Observer features a profile of yours truly, insinuating that I'm the new Howard Beale. And while I'm not sure I want to draw too many parallels between myself and a guy who goes insane and is ultimately assassinated by a TV network in the name of ratings, I can't help but appreciate the association.
It's an honor -- in an admittedly weird sort of way.
(The New York Observer: "The Howard Beale Show, 2008" by Felix Gillette/2.27.08)
(Incidentally, looks like we have a winner for the "pick my media title" competition, despite doing my best not to refer to myself, first and foremost, as an addict.)
The brilliant H.L. Mencken once said, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public."
If you need proof of this, all you have to do is turn on your TV.
Or you can look at the Billboard Top 200 and see that Daughtry and Soulja Boy are there, but this band isn't.
TheStart -- LIke Days.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
I suppose it's a statistical certainty that as an audience broadens, the likelihood increases that it will become contaminated by disciples of Oprah. This only makes sense given that, according to the latest figures, Oprah can claim outright ownership of the souls of one in every three women.
Until recently, I didn't face much bitter outrage when I chose to take a few light-hearted shots at Miss O; most readers of this site, understanding what they were getting themselves into by being here, either played along with my vilification, waited it out until I had something slightly less juvenile to say, or just went away.
But with new visitors come new points-of-view, and while I'm certainly grateful for (and to) every single reader, there's no getting around the fact that, more and more, I find myself in the crosshairs of those for whom a slight against Oprah is nothing less than blasphemy. The arguments are always the same: she's done so much for the world; she's a force for good; the ever-popular "you're just jealous"; and of course the gauntlet-throwdown that demands to know what I've done in my life that's worthwhile. (This is invariably followed with "besides insult people on a blog" -- the exclamatory "blog" oozing the kind of contempt and condescension usually reserved for words like "queer" or "NASCAR," depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon line you happen to live.) Believe it or not, even the most invective-laced pro-Oprah diatribe will usually get the appropriate level of consideration on this end; if you take the time to write, whether I happen to agree with you or not, I'll at least take the time to hear what you have to say.
Something I've never done on this site -- or anywhere else for that matter -- is explain my sense of humor. I realize that understated irony and inside jokes were once considered a staple of my generation, but even among those who were raised at the same time and were subjected to essentially the same cultural stimuli as me, there are a hell of a lot of people who stare in confusion at things I find hilarious, and vice-versa.
In other words, I'm not going to even attempt to analyze why I think making fun of Oprah, or mistranslating "The Knut Song" so that it becomes a pro-Nazi anthem in honor of an aryan polar bear, or Mormonism in general is utterly hysterical. Most of the nonsense on this site can be classified under "jokes you either get or you don't." That said, there actually are a few very genuine reasons why I'm inclined to beat-up on Oprah on occasion; some of them have been detailed in past columns, so I'm not going to bother getting into them again. (At the core, I'll admit, is my belief that it's healthy to poke fun at sacred cows and authority figures because fearing them is oppressive -- and Oprah has somehow been anointed the ultimate authority figure in our culture).
One thing, recently, has caught my attention though.
A few days ago, my wife and I were watching TV when a commercial flashed across the screen promoting Oprah's latest philanthrotainment extravaganza, Oprah's Big Give. The premise of the show apparently involves Oprah handing out a crap-load of money to those less-fortunate (anyone on Earth is eligible), but with a catch: they have to then turn around and spend the cash on those less-fortunate than them. At one point in the ad, Oprah leans into the camera as if sharing a delicious secret with the seven-million people ostensibly watching; she whispers the show's real twist -- that the team deemed to have done the "most good" with the money will win a million dollars. (I presume they get to keep that money.)
Needless to say, this mammoth monetary prize will come as a huge shock to the winning contestants provided they've never seen one of these shows before and have no idea who Oprah is.
While I won't argue with the good that Oprah's Big Give will probably do -- helping people who need it is inarguably laudable and maybe the end will always justify the means in a case like this -- it's the messianic bombast with which Oprah goes about every one of these altruistic endeavors that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I get that I'm considered more cynical than most, but I can't be the only one who notices that Oprah's good deeds, as with all her other deeds, never seem to be done outside the presence of a phalanx of cameras. A tendency toward philanthropy-as-photo-op alone should be enough to raise questions as to who benefits most each and every time Oprah decides to play Santa Claus. Likewise, there's the Oprah "brand" -- the one that ensures you never have to wonder, even for a second, who to thank for all the glorious largess. When Oprah inexorably attaches her name to books, magazines, self-help gurus, chefs, presidential candidates and so on, it's irritating but somewhat understandable -- it's just business; when she slaps that giant "O" on an act that, in theory, is supposed to be selfless -- in the case of the new show, making her name the very first thing in the title -- it automatically ceases to be completely free of self-interest. Quite the opposite.
By broadcasting every benevolent impulse to the world with all the subtlety of a WWE cage match, she ensures more great PR which strengthens her empire which brings in more money for her, the TV networks lucky enough to be associated with her -- basically everyone involved.
There's of course an argument to be made that Oprah's over-the-top brand of philanthropy inspires the masses and encourages them to go and do likewise. Once again, perhaps the end justify the means -- but it doesn't change the means. Oprah's still getting rich every time she pulls one of these stunts.
After the commercial was over the other night, I turned to my wife and asked her, "Do you like Oprah? I mean, am I the only jerk in the world who has a problem with her?"
Her response: "I look at Oprah the way I look at Christianity or the Grateful Dead. I don't necessarily have a problem with her, it's her idiot fans -- the ones who do whatever she says."
She's absolutely right. It's the Oprah Nation that elevates everything tagged with Oprah's name to zeitgeist levels, treats any silly whim of hers as gospel, and makes her millions in the process.
Oprah's multi-media hegemony is based on ensuring that the fans get what they want -- Oprah.
She's just making the best of the situation, which is all well and good -- until she starts making the best of someone else's bad situation.
(Update: Okay, I just caught the promo for Oprah's show on Friday which will itself be an hour-long promo for the Big Give thing. At one point, Oprah looks into the camera, points her finger and says, "You WILL be inspired." Then she shouts about how she'll be joined by her hand-picked Stepford Designer -- that former-nobody Nate Berkus -- while her audience full of crazed 28 Days Later-style suburban zombies screams in delight. You know something? I take back all the flowery language and thoughtful analysis -- she just fucking sucks.)
So, apparently a massive blackout has left a substantial portion of Florida without electricity, operational technology or the comforts of modern civilization.
Governor Charlie Crist credits FPL officials with "finally ending the era of sorcery" and returning things to normal.
Monday, February 25, 2008
It was the last thing I expected to wake up to, and I'm still not entirely sure how to react.
This morning, CNN U.S. President Jon Klein announced that Ed Litvak -- Executive Producer of American Morning, my former supervisor, the man who fired me two weeks ago -- is resigning. He's leaving both the show and the network under circumstances which, even to the least cynical, would seem slightly suspect. The early inside line is that he's ready to do something that doesn't involve waking up at two in the morning, and Klein's official eulogy does little more than pump the requisite amount of platitudinal sunshine up the ass of the dearly departing without really shedding any light on why Ed is out.
You'd be a fool though not to take the timing, given recent events, into account.
Last week, I wrote a column that not only described in detail my final conversations with Ed Litvak as a CNN employee -- his decision to summarily terminate my employment as a producer, supposedly for maintaining a blog on my own time -- but also excoriated the management of American Morning and CNN in general. I did this because I believed at the time, and still do, that the once-venerated reputation of CNN -- to say nothing of its counterparts in TV news -- has been insouciantly stripped away through one dubious decision after another. I came to CNN four years ago because it was, in my mind, the gold standard of television news; I left believing something else entirely, and how I left has no bearing whatsoever on the issues confronting the network at the moment.
In the week since first publishing my article online, it's made the rounds to dozens of news outlets: I've been interviewed by NPR, Sirius Radio, The New York Times, The New York Observer and The Miami Herald; the story itself has appeared in The Huffington Post, The New York Daily News and on various websites around the world. A lot of people suddenly know Ed Litvak's name, and among those who have an opinion one way or the other, its connotation may not be a positive one.
I wasn't sure how I felt about such a possibility to begin with; now that Ed is being forced out of CNN, it really leaves a lot for me to ponder. And make no mistake, Ed is being forced out. He was appointed EP of American Morning in August of 2006, which means that he likely signed a two year contract at the very least. It's only February of 2008 -- that's damn early to tell someone under contract that he or she won't be renewed.
Although Ed's no doubt walking away with the severance that I was flatly denied -- he'll get what was left on his initial deal if nothing else -- I can certainly empathize: he got screwed by CNN. The irony would be delicious if the whole situation weren't so unfortunate for all involved. The last thing I'm going to do right now is gloat or gravedance, regardless of whether Ed Litvak was wholly to blame for the decision to fire me.
The question is simple though: Was this a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc? Did what happened to me two weeks ago -- the firing itself or the publicity that followed -- have anything at all to do with Ed's own "resignation?"
There are a few possibilities:
The most vocal of my supporters throughout this miasma would probably like to believe that the CNN big shots never authorized firing me and are now making Ed pay dearly for getting rid of an irreplacable doll like myself; needless to say, this is wrong on all counts (although that kind of thinking is certainly appreciated). Ed may have been the one to swing the axe but the execution order was likely a committee ruling that involved at least a manager or two somewhere above his pay grade. Is it possible that a decision was made to fire me and Ed made the "mistake" of not handling it better -- in other words, not offering me something that might presumably encourage me to keep my big mouth shut? Could be. An offer of money in return for the signing of a non-disclosure agreement -- considering that I was a blogger with a relatively large audience, even at the time -- would've been a wise move (though one I honestly can't say I'd have agreed to). It's a fact that my dismissal and subsequent decision to speak my mind about it and what I believe are the problems with American Morning brought scandal to the show and the network, whether you agree with my assessment or not. It cast Ed Litvak and the rest of the show's management team in a bad light and drew negative publicity to a show that's fighting for every rating point it can get. In other words, my comments -- however ineffectual in the big picture -- came at a time when AM really didn't need them. If that's the case, was Ed nothing more than a scapegoat? Did upper-management punish him for not knowing that I'd spent the past year-and-a-half writing outside of CNN in the first place -- for being ignorant of what the people right under his nose were up to?
Back to those ratings though, because they could be the key -- since they typically are. It's true that AM's numbers are less-than-stellar, despite the hard work of a lot of talented rank-and-file people behind the scenes. Maybe Ed's time was simply up; he'd given it his best shot and hadn't fully delivered, so Klein wrote up some glowing prose about all his efforts and sent him on his way. If that's true, then the timing of this morning's announcement is nothing more than a hell of a coincidence, albeit one that once again proves CNN management apparently has its head firmly in its ass, since people now can't help but ask if Ed Litvak's ouster has any connection to mine. If this is indeed a Klein mandate, you'd think he would've at least waited a few more weeks; doing this now looks bad for Ed and for CNN. Then again, Klein is the same guy who canceled Crossfire because Jon Stewart said it was a ridiculous show. (He was right by the way.) Did my calling attention to the problems on the show force Klein to take a closer look at what was going on there? If so, that would seem to vindicate me, as Ed's firing proves my claim that the show is a mess.
Many of the American Morning staff believed for some time that Ed was on his way out; maybe the fallout from my dismissal was the final nail in his coffin -- what drove him into "early retirement."
Or maybe not.
Like I said, we'll probably never know.
My only hope is that Ed Litvak's departure from American Morning will somehow be good for the show, although I'm inclined to think that until someone puts an arm around Jon Klein, writes something nice about him, then pushes him out the door, nothing's going to change. It'll just be more of the same nonsense.
Whoever replaces Ed Litvak though, I wish him or her the best.
You've got a great staff and a great pedigree -- now go make us all proud.
This morning, my former boss at CNN, the man who officially fired me two weeks ago tomorrow -- Ed Litvak -- resigned.
"CNN/U.S. president Jon Klein announced today that Ed Litvak is leaving American Morning as the executive producer. He's also parting company with CNN.
Insiders tell us Litvak was interested in moving on from the 2 a.m. wake-up calls. But American Morning has struggled to find an audience. So far this month, the show is averaging 469,000 Total Viewers and 172,000 A25-54 viewers (Live only data). By comparison Fox & Friends has drawn about 945,000 Total Viewers and 302,000 in the demo.
Litvak was named EP of AM in August, 2006. Eight months later CNN replaced Soledad O'Brien and Miles O'Brien as anchors, a transition Litvak oversaw. A CNN spokesperson tells TVNewser, 'Ed did a terrific job transitioning the new anchor team into place, and he has worked tirelessly to build a format for American Morning which we think is the right niche for CNN in the morning.'
Just two weeks ago Litvak announced that an American Morning producer had been dismissed for his outside blogging."
I don't even know where to begin with this.
On more than one occasion, I've mentioned my love for the Sneaker Pimps.
Despite the level of success they achieved in the mid-90s with uber-pixie Kelli Ali on vocals, they've actually cranked out better material in the post-Kelli era, with Chris Corner playing frontman. Either way though, they're a great band.
First up, from 1996, Post Modern Sleaze.
And, from 1999, Low Five.
Sunday, February 24, 2008
I can't remember the last time I was able to say this, but I'm actually excited about tonight's Oscars.
Long before I took the plunge into the drug-fueled, morally ambiguous world of television news, I planned on getting into the drug-fueled, morally ambiguous world of filmmaking. I was a motion picture major at the University of Miami's film school, under the tutelage of department head Paul Lazarus, a supposedly legendary Hollywood producer and insider whose list of film achievements included Academy Award-winning masterworks Capricorn One, starring O.J. Simpson, and Barbarosa, which featured Gary Busey at his most dangerously unhinged and Willie Nelson, who appeared to be high throughout most of the movie. Early into my UM film curriculum, I realized that if I wanted to learn anything truly worthwhile, I might have to get creative and take things into my own hands -- so I started regularly attending not just the classes in which I was actually enrolled, but a few others that had either filled up before I could get to them or were unavailable to me, at least officially.
At the very top of the latter category sat a course in film criticism that was being taught by the Miami Herald's movie critic at the time, Bill Cosford. I had grown up reading the Herald and its writers and columnists were, to me, worthy of idolatry; I still consider guys like Gene Weingarten, Joel Achenbach, Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry to be godlike and a good part of the initial inspiration that led me to first put pen to paper. Cosford, needless to say, was right at home among such talents; his love of great movies and pop culture in general was always evident and his scalpel-sharp wit, which he wielded unapologetically, made him seem like a slightly more misanthropic version of Hawkeye Pierce.
In one of my columns from July of last year, I relayed my favorite story involving Cosford:
"Never was his brand of merry troublemaking better on display than when, in a column decrying the loss of criticism as an artform, he figuratively bitch-slapped ready-and-eager-for-prime-timers Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert for putting themselves above the films they were charged with reviewing. (If I remember correctly, he essentially told them where they should shove those "thumbs.") This brought a quick, angry and entirely condescending response from Ebert who, in predictable fashion, ran down his almighty resume, which includes an oft-touted 1975 Pulitzer.
The Herald printed Ebert's letter, along with Cosford's rebuttal which read simply: 'Are you the bald one or the fat one?'"
Needless to say, this guy was my hero growing up.
Cosford's reign at the Herald lasted from 1973 until 1994, when, following a ski vacation in Colorado, he contracted a severe case of pneumonia which killed him in a matter of days. The University of Miami's campus theater was officially dedicated in his name in 1995, a fitting tribute to a man who, through his role as an adjunct professor, perpetuated a deep respect for the art of filmmaking, a serious loathe for bad filmmaking, and a lot of good-natured smart-alecness among the students of my generation.
I think it's safe to say that Cosford would've been thrilled with this year's crop of Oscar nominees. A lot's been made of the surprising level of quality that Hollywood managed to reach again and again during 2007. In addition to the films that picked up nominations, there are at least a dozen or so other movies that could've easily merited recognition tonight: The Lookout (and Joseph Gordon Levitt in particular), Zodiac, A Mighty Heart and even The Bourne Ultimatum were all criminally overlooked, and the academy got off easy by being able to nominate Ratatouille for Best Animated Feature rather than Best Picture, which is the category in which it belongs. (Joel Siegel, in a final act of Dr. Seussian defiance against decent writing, said, "It's RATa-tastic!")
It's in the spirit of Bill Cosford, and because I not only love movies but happen to have seen all of this year's nominees, that I bring you the first ever Somewhat Pointless DXM Oscar Preview.
It's just like most of the other pre-Academy Awards columns that you've already read, just without a paycheck and with absolutely no attention paid to what anyone's going to be wearing or how many Vicodin Jack Nicholson will be on.
Best Supporting Actress
Cate Blanchett -- I'm Not There
Ruby Dee -- American Gangster
Saoirse Ronan -- Atonement
Amy Ryan -- Gone Baby Gone
Tilda Swinton -- Michael Clayton
Who Will Win: This is the one truly unpredictable category, but the only one to put your money on is Blanchett; her surreal, over-the-top impression of Bob Dylan has, for reasons I'll never quite understand, been critically lauded rather than laughed at.
Who Should Win: A victory by Ruby Dee could conceivably rob Beatrice Straight of her place in Oscar history, namely as the actor who won an Academy Award with the least amount of actual screen time. (She got the Best Supporting Actress trophy for Network back in 1976.) Amy Ryan manages to play the Southie skank to perfection; the fact that it's so easy to despise her character speaks volumes about Ryan's ability to bring her to life. In the end though, the nuanced, and sometimes abject terror conveyed by Tilda Swinton in her portrayal of a suddenly filthy corporate flack who's in way over her head is just mesmerizing.
Who I'd Like to See Win: Swinton.
Best Supporting Actor
Casey Affleck -- The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Javier Bardem -- No Country for Old Men
Philip Seymour Hoffman -- Charlie Wilson's War
Hal Holbrook -- Into the Wild
Tom Wilkinson -- Michael Clayton
Who Will Win: Bardem. That simple. Ruthless killer Anton Chigurh is quite simply one of the most frightening and memorable villains in film history. He's that silent, inescapable force that pursued you in your childhood nightmares. When it comes to soulless killing machines, Chigurh makes the Terminator look like Otto from A Fish Called Wanda.
Who Should Win: This is such a fantastic category this year; every one of the nominees could rightfully walk away with the Oscar -- although for the record, Hoffman should've gotten a nod for The Savages rather than Charlie Wilson. Holbrook was the only saving grace of Into the Wild; he brought some much needed humanity and a sense of healthy regret to what was otherwise a silly-as-hell endeavor. In the end though, it all comes back to Bardem.
Who I'd Like to See Win: I can't argue with Bardem; my wife and I have had drinks with the man and he's just so damn nice. Believe it or not though, Casey Affleck's surprising, simmering and beautifully layered turn as a misunderstood sycophant in Jesse James just blew me away.
Cate Blanchett -- Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Julie Christie -- Away from Her
Marion Cotillard -- La Vie en Rose
Laura Linney -- The Savages
Ellen Page -- Juno
Who Will Win: I'm going to go out on a limb: Ellen Page. Despite stellar performances from everyone in this category, Page created a character for the ages. Sometimes that's all that matters. Kevin Spacey didn't turn in a better performance in American Beauty than Russell Crowe did in The Insider back in 1999 -- Lester Burnham was just a scene-chewing character, and Spacey played him to perfection. Page did the same.
Who Should Win: Page. See Above.
Who I'd Like to See Win: Yup, I loved Juno -- and I love Ellen.
George Clooney -- Michael Clayton
Daniel Day-Lewis -- There Will Be Blood
Johnny Depp -- Sweeney Todd
Tommy Lee Jones -- In the Valley of Elah
Viggo Mortensen -- Eastern Promises
Who Will Win: The smart money's on Daniel Day-Lewis, who, as with Ellen Page, created a character that just might turn out to be immortal in the realm of cinema. I'll be one of the few however who give Clooney a chance of pulling the biggest upset of the night; Hollywood loves him and this is the character he's been working toward his entire career.
Who Should Win: Day-Lewis, for not only buying into P.T. Anderson's unnerving vision so wholeheartedly but for actually elevating it to the level of untouchable transcendence. Come on, "I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE! I DRINK IT UP!" Anyone who can deliver a line like that and have it approach Biblical ferocity deserves the Oscar and more.
Who I'd Like to See Win: Once again, Day-Lewis is the best actor working today -- but crazy is often easier to play than subtle. Clooney's sad, quiet turn as a pathetic and regretful legal cleaner is simply brilliant. His expression as he approaches the horses in the field, with every mistake he's ever made showing in his eyes, is the single best moment for any actor this year.
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood
What Will Win: I used to be pretty sure about these things until Crash pulled the most upsetting upset in Oscar history by beating Brokeback Mountain a couple of years ago and immediately becoming the worst movie ever to win Best Picture. Still, No Country is a pretty sure bet here (and it's an astonishingly good movie), but I kid you not when I say look out for the little movie that could, Juno.
What Should Win: There Will Be Blood was the best movie of the year. Period. It's madman moviemaking -- pure visionary viruosity on an absolutely epic scale. The thing's a fucking masterpiece from start to finish. (And yes, Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood was unforgivably snubbed in the musical score category.) It should be a lock.
What I'd LIke to See Win: One word: Juno. Oscar history could really use a new Annie Hall.
One other point worth mentioning by the way -- if The Assassination of Jesse James doesn't earn Roger Deakins the cinematography Oscar, Hollywood should be burned to the ground. It's a living painting that's gorgeous beyond compare this year or any other.
See you tonight in front of the TV.
I'll be the one having a drink to Bill Cosford.
Friday, February 22, 2008
I figured I'd take a minute to thank everyone who stuck their heads into this little experiment of mine over the last five days; needless to say, this has been the biggest week ever around these parts when it comes to traffic.
I'll be putting up a new column at some point in the next 48 hours, but given that New York is buried under a foot of snow and the little man who runs the video store downstairs was kind enough to loan me Into the Wild and 30 Days of Night a couple of days before they officially hit the street, the wife and I will be hibernating this evening. (The latter movie -- should she choose to watch it without covering her eyes -- will allow Jayne the opportunity to finally see the inspiration for my Halloween costume from a few months back.)
Really, thanks for all the support.
Have a great Friday folks.
Because it's Friday -- and because I need to fill a little space while I work on something new -- I'm resurrecting an excerpt from the finished manuscript I'm currently shopping to publishers. With all the surreal hoopla over my recent firing from CNN, I wanted to give everyone a look back at what was truly the worst work experience of my career. (Believe me, despite the abrupt exit, CNN doesn't even come close.) The following is written in the present tense and takes place during my time at MSNBC immediately following 9/11. It relays the story of the single dumbest thing I've witnessed in my 16 years in TV news. Consider it a cautionary tale; keep it in the back of your mind each time you turn on your TV and turn your trust over to whoever happens to be bringing you the news in your city or town. There are some brilliant and exceptional people working in local television; there are also people like this. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
It feels like a lifetime ago, but I was once a mere viewer of television news and as such I had "The Dream."
I assumed as many in the audience do -- that those coming into my living room each day and night and relaying to me the important events of the day were, at least to some extent, larger than life. Although never deluded enough to believe that all news anchors and reporters -- or the producers and managers working behind them -- were two or three IQ points away from Mensa, I figured that they had to at least be somewhat smarter than the average bear. I mean, their job was to deliver the news. Spend every day of your life standing next to the ceaseless river of information and you had to get a little wet, right? A contact high maybe? Hell, even Alex Trebek is considered a pseudo-intellectual and he's got the goddamned answers written down in front of him.
This was "The Dream."
"The Dream" was shattered in the time it took for a pretty female anchor at a highly-rated local news station to pick up a book from someone's desk, examine it, and utter these words with a completely straight face: "Penguin puts out an atlas? That's so cool. I had no idea there were penguins all over the world."
So much for believing that even the emptiest of vessels gets a few drops here and there just by being at the well; like the Nexus 6 replicants in Blade Runner developing their own human emotions for no other reason than the simple fact that they had existed long enough. That anchor by the way can now be seen by every person -- and penguin -- in the world. She's the host of a popular entertainment show.
MSNBC -- in spite of some occasional silliness -- is not by any stretch of the imagination the dumbest place in television news. Far from it in fact. As far as my work experience is concerned, that title goes hands-down to KCBS. It's no contest. I used to joke that the station's tagline should be "Channel 2 News: Watch Us Suck!" -- so precisely had the CBS flagship station in Los Angeles honed stupid to a fine edge.
Case in point:
About a year or so before Titanic came out and for some thoroughly baffling reason went on to become the biggest movie of all-time, CBS -- either through dumb luck or a misguided attempt to capitalize on the gathering buzz for the film -- aired a made-for-TV movie called The Titanic. The four-hour monstrosity starred George C. Scott as the doomed ship's captain and was scheduled to run in two parts. As is standard practice, the newshounds at KCBS sought out a plausible tie-in story to run during the two 11pm newscasts which would immediately follow the movie. Now no one really believed that the audience for The Titanic would be massive -- these were the days before CSI and Survivor miraculously woke CBS from its ratings coma -- but the hope was that the tie-in would be enough to keep the network's aging demographic from switching channels, going to bed, or making the decision once and for all to go into the light.
We figured the assignment desk had struck gold when it discovered that an actual survivor of the Titanic disaster was living in Long Beach, if you can legitimately call that living. She was a child at the time of the tragedy, was now in her 90s, and was more than willing to talk to us. A friend of mine -- a producer named Tyler Wilcox -- took a crew to Long Beach, did the interview, then set about putting together a two-part story that would coincide with the two-parts of the movie. He had just finished writing the first installment when he took it to the executive producer to get the script approved for air.
The EP was Stu Charles, a generally harmless doofus whose main claim to fame around the newsroom was his seemingly endless childlike awe at the very existence of nature. If it involved a campfire or a single stormcloud, Stu would first watch the remote feed as it came in -- his eyes wide with disbelief; his mouth hanging open -- then demand that we run with it as if we'd just uncovered the identity of Deep Throat. The first primitive humans that crawled out of the caves didn't react to fire and rain with the kind of unbridled astonishment that Stu did. I assumed by the way that this was a trait specific to him; I later found out that most local TV managers think this way, which is why wherever you live, the slightest hint of rain is often blown out of proportion until every station on the dial is warning you of the impending threat of "Hurricane Genghis." In contrast, my thought has always been that unless there's actual danger involved, any event that's been occurring consistently since the dawn of time kind of forfeits its right to legitimately be called Breaking News.
I sat directly across from Stu and watched him as he read Tyler's script for the Titanic tie-in. He spent most of the time mumbling incoherently and rocking back and forth in his seat like an autistic kid, but overall he seemed to approve of what he was seeing. Until --
"Uh, wait a minute here," Stu said, looking up at Tyler like a disappointed parent.
"Well, yeah." -- as if the error should be obvious.
Tyler expressed appropriate concern, apparently willing to give Stu the benefit of the doubt -- or at the very least humor him.
"Okay, what's the problem?"
"Well, this is part one of the story, right?"
"It runs after part one of the movie," Stu said. It was no longer a question at this point but a statement -- a lecture.
"Yes, and?" Tyler shot back. The cracks were already beginning to show in his patience; he knew full well that something completely ridiculous had already been formulated inside Stu's head and was well on its way to spilling out of his mouth.
"Well, you mention here about the ship sinking."
Tyler just stared at him, saying nothing. You could practically see what he was thinking:
Here it comes.
"By the end of part one, the ship won't have sunk yet," Stu continued.
Tyler's focus didn't move; he simply stood frozen, waiting for the inevitable.
A little closer. Almost there.
Stu kept his eyes locked on Tyler's as if willing him to understand the logic.
"You're gonna give away the ending."
We have lift off.
Tyler just looked down at his slack-jawed EP, his face a mask of incredulous confusion. Stu meanwhile let his words of insight hang in the air with all the understatement of a Catskills comedian, curious as to why something so simple could be overlooked by one of our producers.
The pause seemed endless -- the perfect punctuation to a conversation of such absurd proportions.
Tyler finally gave his head a quick shake, snapping himself out of his bewildered reverie, and asked the obvious.
"Are you saying that you don't want me to tell people that the Titanic sank?"
"Right! Don't give away the ending," Stu responded with a satisfied look, one frighteningly devoid of even the slightest hint of irony.
His dignity and spirit in almost visible tatters, Tyler reacted the only way he could given the situation.
He gently took the script out of Stu's hands, turned, and walked away calmly.
After that incident, "Don't Give Away the Ending" became the catch-phrase of choice between the four walls of KCBS, and the story behind it became the cautionary tale I told to my civilian friends, typically right after they informed me that they assumed -- as I once did -- that TV news people just couldn't be that fucking stupid, could they?
A couple of weeks ago, I made what I think is a pretty damn good case for why 1992 was the single best year for music in at least the past three decades or so. (Listening Post: Last Decade, Dead Century Edition/2.1.08)
A couple of readers, however, were quick to point out a huge oversight on my part; I negected to mention an album that not only goes a long way in proving my theory, it stands as the best rock record of the 90s.
Faith No More's Angel Dust.
Here now, two reasons why it's become a modern classic -- starting with Midlife Crisis.
And, A Small Victory.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
(Portfolio.com: CNN Cameras Mooned During Live Coverage of Riot in Belgrade/2.21.08)
For the record, I've been here in New York all day.
Now that I've become the Paris Hilton of the blogging world -- flavor-of-the-week famous for essentially dubious reasons -- I'm going to need an official title. You know what I'm talking about because you've heard some variation on the central theme for years: a couple of descriptive words which, once decided upon, will spread like wildfire and eventually be applied by every single media outlet, every time the subject in question is referenced.
Think about how many times you've heard the following: "Deposed Panamanian Strongman Manuel Noriega," "Radical Anti-American Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr," "Troubled British Rocker Pete Doherty," "America's Mayor Rudy Giuliani" (on Fox only) -- hell, back in the 80s, Dave Barry joked that financially troubled Eastern Airlines would at some point change its name, officially, to "Financially Troubled Eastern Airlines," so often and invariably was that particular descriptor used in news reports.
So, understanding the basics of how this works -- it's generally, though not always, an adjective-adjective-noun combination -- I invite you to be the first to create a title that'll be used in press reports about yours truly from this point forward.
Feel free to be as cute, creative, ridiculous, or outright mean as you'd like.
A few ideas to get you started, beginning with the most obvious and working our way down into oblivion:
1. Disgraced Former CNN Producer Chez Pazienza
2. Recently Fired Media Darling Chez Pazienza
3. Bad Boy Blogger Chez Pazienza
4. Ex-CNN Nobody and Recovering Alcoholic Chez Pazienza
5. Disgruntled Pathetic So-and-So Chez Pazienza
6. Writer, TV Insider and Former NAMBLA President Chez Pazienza
7. Misanthropic Cyber-Celebutard Chez Pazienza
8. The Arist Formerly Known as Chez Pazienza
9. Former Playboy Playmate of the Year Chez Pazienza
10. American Idol Reject Chez Pazienza
11. O.J.'s Houseguest Chez Pazienza
12. Big Purple Dinosaur Chez Pazienza
13. OTVIII Scientologist Chez Pazienza
14. Slain Tejano Singing Sensation Chez Pazienza
15. William Murderface, Murderface, Murderface Chez Pazienza
16. Scandal-Plagued Former Televangelist Chez Pazienza
17. Sa Da Tay Sayin' Baddy Daddy Lamatai Tabby Chai Chez Pazienza
18. Recently Released South African Anti-Apartheid Civil Rights Activist Chez Pazienza
19. Moustachioed 70s Porn Legend Chez Pazienza
20. Chip Pazoanus
Good luck kids!
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Apparently the Chinese place up the street spiked my General Tso's tofu with an eyedropper full of Felix the Cat acid this evening.
I can't think of anything else that would justify the unfettered lunacy I'm seeing on my television at the moment, specifically on MSNBC.
The typically respectable Keith Olbermann is leaning forward in his chair, shoulders hunched as if possessed by the ghost of Larry King (who has in fact been dead for the past three decades), relaying what he seems to believe is an Earth-shattering revelation about John McCain.
Namely, that the Arizona senator may have had a romantic relationship with a lobbyist.
Eight years ago.
The report comes courtesy of tomorrow's New York Times; not only is the allegation almost as old as McCain himself, it's meaningless nonsense either way -- which of course isn't stopping MS from doing wall-to-wall breaking news coverage on it. If the words "John McCain" and "sex" in the same sentence aren't already enough to make you choke back a tiny bubble of throw-up, Newsweek talking forehead Jonathan Alter alluding to the potential "drip, drip, drip" of such a scandal is sure to do the trick nicely. Factor in the obligatory two-cents from NBC's seemingly lifelike political director Chuck Todd -- a guy who leaves me constantly trying to figure out why the hell I should be listening to him -- and you've got that special brand of political-coverage-as-theater-of-the-absurd that MSNBC's become legendary for this campaign.
I keep telling myself it's only the drugs, but I know full-well that this bad trip won't end until November.
In a piece cleverly called "Womb for Rent," the Today Show this morning ran a story about infertile American couples who are hiring Indian women to act as surrogate mothers.
Lovely -- we're now outsourcing pregnancy to India.
That sound you hear is Lou Dobbs's head exploding.
Monday, February 18, 2008
Maybe this was always the way it had to be.
When I was 19, I broke into the offices of WVUM -- the radio station at the University of Miami -- live, during an installment of my weekly radio show. I raided a file cabinet and my crew and I proceeded to read the minutes of that week's executive board meeting on the air, paying special attention to a recurring topic of conversation among my apparently exasperated supervisors -- a series of incidents which, collectively, were referred to as "The Chez Situation."
The board as a whole was less-than-pleased with, for example, my insistence on jokingly pointing out to my audience the fact that WVUM's faculty adviser seemed to be waging and winning a valiant war against sobriety, and as such deserved congratulations all-around. There was also my insinuation that one of the station's sponsors, a club which had just opened on South Beach, would likely be closed in two weeks then renamed and reopened two weeks later. (In fact, it took about a month to close.)
I regularly ignored the program director's God-awful musical "suggestions," choosing instead to play whatever I felt like hearing.
I ridiculed the University's decision to replace the garbage cans on campus with new, attractive, and extraordinarily expensive stone receptacles immediately after making an announcement that tuition for the coming year would be skyrocketing.
I poked fun at the frat boys.
I advocated mischievous insurrection.
I occasionally threw out a few low-level swear words on-air.
I was kind of a punk kid, and I admit it.
Yet, despite the all of this, I remained on the air simply because even though my superiors may have been irritated by the fallout from my juvenile antics, they usually found the antics themselves eminently entertaining. I was good at what I did; I had a voice and I wasn't the least bit afraid to use it, consequences be damned -- or not considered at all. Being exactly who I was, for whatever reason, seemed to be more important to me than any other consideration.
When I got into television, I did my best to bury my inner-revolutionary. For 16 years I've been a successful producer and manager of TV news, cranking out creative, occasionally daring content on good days and solid, no-frills material on the days in between. I've won several awards and for the most part can say that I'm proud of what I've done in the business, particularly since I never intended to get into it in the first place; by the time college was over, I was playing steadily in a band and fully believed sleeping on floors and subsisting on beer and Taco Bell to be an entirely noble endeavor. I wound up working at WSVN in Miami only after the band imploded, taking my dreams of rock n' roll glory with it. Since those earliest days, I've come to understand that the libertine, pirate ship mentality I found so seductive during my time in a rock band is pretty much a staple of most newsrooms, particularly at the local level. What's more, it's accompanied by a slightly better paycheck (although often only slightly).
Over the past several years though, something has changed. Drastically. And I'm not sure whether it's me, or television news, or both.
With the exception of the period immediately following 9/11, which saw the best characteristics of television journalism shocked back into focus and the passion of even the most jaded and cynical of its practitioners return like a shot of adrenaline to the heart, the profession I once loved and felt honored to be a part of has lost its way.
I say this with the knowledge of implied complicity: I continued to draw a salary from stations at the local level and national networks long after I had noticed an unsettling trend in which real news was being regularly abandoned in favor of, well, crap. I may not have drank the Kool-aid, but I did take the money. I may have been uncomfortable with a lot of what I was putting on the air, but I was comfortable in the life that it provided me. I just figured, screw it, most people don't like their jobs; shut up and do what you're told, or at least try to. Besides, I told myself, what the hell else do you know how to do?
That attitude began to change in April of 2006 -- when I found out that I had a tumor the size of a pinball inside my head.
I was working for CNN at the time, a job I had been proud to accept three years earlier as CNN was in my mind the gold-standard of television journalism. I readily admit that it was Time-Warner's medical plan that provided me the best care possible for the removal of the tumor and during my subsequent recovery, but following my operation, what had been clawing at my insides for years finally began to come to the surface. TV news wasn't the least bit fulfilling anymore, and I either needed to get out of it once and for all or find an outlet for my nascent iconoclastic tendencies.
So I started a blog.
I did it mostly to pass the time, hone my writing skills, resurrect my voice a little, and keep my mind sharp following the surgery. As is the case with many online journals, not a soul other than myself and a few close friends and family were even aware of what I was doing, much less read my stuff regularly. I thought nothing of returning to work at the end of my medical leave while continuing to write online. Really, who the hell knew who I was? Who cared what I had to say?
As it would turn out, over time, more than a few people.
My admittedly worthless opinions on pop culture, politics, the media and my personal past were quickly linked by sites like Fark, Gawker and Pajiba and I found my readership growing exponentially. During this time, I still didn't consider telling my superiors at CNN what I was doing on the side, simply because, having never been provided with an employee handbook, I hadn't seen a pertinent rule and never signed any agreement stipulating that I wouldn't write on my own time. I hadn't divulged my place of work and wasn't writing about what went on at the office. The views expressed on my blog, Deus Ex Malcontent, were mine and mine alone. I represented no one but myself, and I didn't make a dime doing it.
For 20 months after starting DXM, I continued to work as a producer on American Morning, one of many charged with putting together the show. During that time, I received consistently favorable reviews (while in Atlanta I was told that I was well on my way to becoming an executive producer) and, more importantly, neither my credibility nor objectivity was ever called into question. Like anyone who considers him or herself a respectable news professional, whatever my personal opinions were, they were checked at the door when I walked into work. Having grown up in a household in which the highest ideals of journalism were never more than a conversation away -- my father was an old-school investigative reporter -- I knew full well that you couldn't avoid having opinions and viewpoints, but you never let them get in the way of your journalistic responsibility
As far as CNN knew, I was a valued employee, albeit one with almost no say in the day-to-day editorial decisions on American Morning. This held true even as I began contributing columns to the Huffington Post, giving my writing more exposure than ever before.
Then, last Monday afternoon, I got a call from my boss, Ed Litvak.
Ed, seeming to channel Bill Lumbergh from Office Space, informed me of that which I was already very well aware: that my name was "attached to some, uh, 'opinionated' blog posts" circulating around the internet. I casually admitted as much and was then informed of something I didn't know: that I could be fired outright for this offense. 24 hours later, I was. During my final conversation with Ed Litvak and a representative from HR, they hammered home a single line in the CNN employee handbook which states that any writing done for a "non-CNN outlet" must be run through the network's standards and practices department. They asked if I had seen this decree. As a matter of fact I had, but only about a month previously, when I stumbled across a copy of that handbook on someone's desk and thumbed through it. I let them know exactly what I had thought when I read the rule, namely that it was staggeringly vague and couldn't possibly apply to something as innocuous as a blog. (I didn't realize until later that CNN had canned a 29-year-old intern for having the temerity to write about her work experiences -- her positive work experiences -- in a password-protected online journal a year earlier.) I told both my boss and HR representative that a network which prides itself on being so internet savvy -- or promotes itself as such, ad nauseam -- should probably specify blogging and online networking restrictions in its handbook. I said that they can't possibly expect CNN employees, en masse, to not engage in something as popular and timely as blogging if they don't make themselves perfectly clear.
My HR rep's response: "Well, as far as we know, you're the only CNN employee who's blogging under his own name."
It took self-control I didn't know I had to keep from laughing, considering that I could've named five people off the top of my head who blog without hiding their identities.
Uh-huh, as far as you know.
When I asked, just out of curiosity, who came across my blog and/or the columns in the Huffington Post, the woman from HR answered, "We have people within the company whose job is specifically to research this kind of thing in regard to employees."
Jesus, we have a Gestapo?
A few minutes later, I was off the phone and out of a job. No severance. No warning (which would've been a much smarter proposition for CNN as it would've put the ball effectively in my court and forced me to decide between my job or the blog). No nothing. Just, go away.
Right before I hung up, I asked for the "official grounds" for my dismissal, figuring the information might be important later. At first they repeated the line about not writing anything outside of CNN without permission, but HR then made a surprising comment: "It's also, you know, the nature of what you've been writing."
And right there I knew that CNN's concern wasn't so much that I had been writing as what I'd been writing. Whether a respected and loyal CNN producer of four years, like myself, could've gotten off with a warning had I chosen to write about, say, my favorite pasta sauce recipes, who knows. I'm dead sure though that my superiors never concerned themselves with my ability or inability to remain objective at work, given my strong opinions; they worried only about an appearance of bias (specifically, a liberal bias), and apparently they worried about it more than any potential fallout from firing a popular blogger with an audience that was already large and was sure to grow much larger when news of his firing put him in the national spotlight.
It's probably right about now that I should make something perfectly clear: I'm not naive -- I always understood that CNN, like any big company, might be apt to fire whoever it damn well pleases so long as the law remains intact at the end of the day.
Should they have fired me though?
Probably not, and only arrogant myopia would make them think otherwise.
As soon as the official word came down, I picked up the phone and called a friend of mine named Jacki Schechner. CNN junkies will recognize her as a former internet reporter for the network, one who pulled double-duty on American Morning and The Situation Room -- that is until the day she was taken out into the figurative woods without any warning and given the Old Yeller treatment. CNN's willingness to fire someone like Jacki tells you everything you need to know about how backward the network's thinking is when it comes to new media. It pays more lip-service to bloggers and their internet realm than any other mainstream media outlet, but in the end that's really all it is -- lip-service. Jacki was not only popular in internet circles, she had forged personal relationships with most of the big names in the blogosphere and knew her stuff inside and out. Inevitably though, CNN -- particularly American Morning -- chose to wear down and ultimately piss away this asset in favor of an on-air acquisition that fell right in line with the tried-and-true "TV" sententia: Veronica De La Cruz. The network never considered for a minute that new media might behave differently than television -- that the regular rules might not apply.
And that's the problem.
As far as CNN (and to be fair, the mainstream TV press in general) believes, it still sits comfortably at the top of the food chain, unthreatened by any possibility of a major paradigm shift being brought to bear by a horde of little people with laptops and opinions. Although the big networks recognize the need to appeal to bloggers, they don't fear them -- and that means they don't respect them. Corporate-think dictates that the mainstream television press as a monstrous multi-headed hydra is the ultimate news authority and therefore is in possession of the one and only hotline to the ghosts of Murrow and Sevareid. Sure those bloggers are entertaining, but in the end they're really just insects who either feed off the carcasses of news items vetted through various networks or, when they do break stories, want nothing more than to see themselves granted an audience by the kingmakers on television.
This, of course, is horseshit.
During my last couple of years as a television news producer, I watched the networks try to recover from a six year failure to bring truth to power (the political party in power being irrelevant incidentally; the job of the press is to maintain an adversarial relationship with the government at all times) and what's worse, to pretend that they had a backbone all along. I watched my bosses literally stand in the middle of the newsroom and ask, "What can we do to not lead with Iraq?" -- the reason being that Iraq, although an important story, wasn't always a surefire ratings draw. I was asked to complete self-evaluations which pressed me to describe the ways in which I'd "increased shareholder value." (For the record, if you're a rank-and-file member of a newsroom, you should never under any circumstances even hear the word "shareholders," let alone be reminded that you're beholden to them.) I watched the media in general do anything within reason to scare the hell out of the American public -- to convince people that they were about to be infected by the bird flu, poisoned by the food supply, or eaten by sharks. I marveled at our elevation of the death of Anna Nicole Smith to near-mythic status and our willingness to let the airwaves be taken hostage by every permutation of opportunistic degenerate from a crying judge to a Hollywood hanger-on with an emo haircut. I watched qualified, passionate people worked nearly to death while mindless talking heads were coddled. I listened to Lou Dobbs play the loud-mouthed fascist demagogue, Nancy Grace fake ratings-baiting indignation, and Glenn Beck essentially do nightly stand-up -- and that's not even taking into account the 24/7 Vaudeville act over at Fox News. I watched The Daily Show laugh not at our mistakes but at our intentional absurdity.
I mentioned calling Jacki Schechner -- so what did she tell me?
"Think about how frustrated and disillusioned most of the American Morning staff is."
Not simply frustrated and disillusioned, but outright miserable.
And then she reminded me that in the past year-and-a-half, nearly 20 mid to high-level people have left American Morning; many of them quit with no other job to go to -- they just wanted out of the business. That speaks goddamned volumes, not simply about the show but about the state of the entire profession.
CNN fired me, and did it without even a thought to the power that I might wield as an average person with a brain, a computer, and an audience. The mainstream media doesn't believe that new media can embarrass them, hurt them or generally hold them accountable in any way, and they've never been more wrong.
I'm suddenly in a position to do all three, and I know now that this is what I've been working toward the last few years of my career.
Awhile back I was watching a great documentary on the birth of the punk scene, it closed with former Black Flag frontman and current TV host Henry Rollins saying these words: "All it takes is one person to stand up and say 'fuck this.'"
I truly hope so, because I'm finally doing just that.
And I should've done it a long time ago.
A look into the archives at a few of the more entertaining columns from the last several months.
I go looking for Maxine Turner, and end up utterly heartbroken. (And All That Could Have Been/4.19.07)
I will never forgive NBC News for its shameful exploitation of the Virginia Tech massacre in the name of ratings, and neither should you. (The Tapes of Wrath/4.20.07)
I have a good idea for Hillary Clinton's next campaign commercial. (Is Barack Obama Gonna Have to Choke a Bitch?/1.7.08)
As it turns out, I was one of the lucky ones. (Death Be Not Proud... But It Is Cost-Effective/12.30.07)
I let you in on a little secret about Mitt Romney. (The Sectarian Candidate/12.6.07)
I contemplate a young boy's uncertain future, while remembering a young girl's tragic past -- the first girl I ever loved. (The Part that Never Comes Home/1.21.07)
I pick on Hannah Montana and likely earn Zach Braff some hate mail. (Montana Uber Alles/11.20.07)
I have a tumor the size of a pinball removed from my brain. (Where Is My Mind?: Part 1/10.12.06) (Where Is My Mind?: Part 2/12.26.06)
I am one very pissed off Disney character. (Tigger with Attitude/1.8.07)
I defend a gay, drug-using preacher. (Sympathy for the Reverend/11.5.06)
I get a rather nasty e-mail from a group of gun enthusiasts in Virginia, and respond in kind. (Blow Back/6.21.07)
I give you a glimpse inside New York's hippest hotel -- and at the spoiled celebrities who make life a living hell for its staff. (Veruca Assault/10.26.06)
I am Oprah's secret plan to own Rachael Ray and Barack Obama. (There's No "I" in Oprah/10.25.06)
I examine the curious case of Michael Richards and wonder if it's possible to spout racist language without actually being a racist. (The Nth Degree/11.21.06)
I hang out with 15-year-olds at a My Chemical Romance concert, and ask if you've got a problem with that. (The Kids are Alright/4.2.07)
I go to rehab (yeah, yeah, yeah). (Welcome to the Monkey House/6.4.07)
I truly am sorry for all that Anna Nicole Smith crap on your television. (And Now, an Apology in the Form of an Open Letter to America/2.15.07)
I decipher the secret meaning of "The Knut Song." (Fight Cub/4.10.07)
I cover the verdict in the O.J. Simpson civil trial. (If You Want Blood, You've Got It/11.16.06)
I have a plan to bring down American Idol. (One Little Indian/4.5.07)
I meet a man who's going to be executed in 24 hours. (Things to Do in Texas When You're Dead/8.25.06)
I present an infuriating personal example of how religion is child abuse. (Jesus Loves Me, This I Know, for My Parents Tell Me So/10.8.06)
I sympathize with child molesters and play To Catch a Hack Journalist with NBC's Chris Hansen. (Idiot vs. Predator/3.1.07)
I come face-to-face with the woman I've fantasized about since she stepped out of a pool and unhooked her red bikini top on film back in 1981. (Girls, Girls, Girls: Part 1: Heaven's Cates/5.4.07)
I become an overnight sensation, thanks to a bunch of douchebags. (2006: Year of the Douchebag/1.5.07)