Thursday, March 6, 2014

Doing the Right Thing

The discussion over the past 48 hours over the resignation of an RT anchor is misplaced. Sure, a face at the US based television network owned by the Russian government publicly resigned over Russian policy in the Ukraine. 

Good for Liz Wahl. And good for her fellow anchor Abby Martin to condemn Russian actions in Crimea.

They are certainly entitled to their opinion.

At long as it doesn’t affect their work. And in these instances, it has.

Simply put, opinion has no place in reporting.

If you have an opinion, share it.  Off air.

What is fascinating is the surprising support on ethical grounds shown towards the two American journalists who made what they say are individual decisions over what, ultimately, is a difference of opinion with corporate policy.

Anyone in American television working for a news organization works for a corporation. Whether that’s the Corporation for Public Broadcasting over at PBS, News Corp for FOX News Channel, or Disney for ABC News.

And it’s virtually impossible for anyone to agree completely with the decisions of a corporate overlord. You can pick your examples, but you know the result.

Should Disney bend to the interests of the Chinese government when seeking to sell and promote a film across that populous nation. Should NBC News self promote entertainment coverage of sporting events, or even late night talk shows, on their primary news programs.

The answer to each is pretty clear, even though we have seen each come to bear in recent years. Some repeatedly.

But no one resigned in protest, let alone resigned in protest on air, over these corporate decisions.

What’s different here is that RT is owned by a government, not a publicly traded US based corporation. And that distinction matters. And it also places RT, along with France24, Deutsche Welle, Al Jazeera America, CCTV, and the myriad of other foreign government owned channels, in their own category. They are arms of the governments that own them, no different than the US owned Al Hurra, or even the Voice of America.

Each is a visible manifestation of the soft diplomacy that each nation presses in our age of constant and dueling media.

Any journalist working for these networks, in any capacity, should recognize this going in. For someone to act as Ms. Wahl has trivializes her, the independence of journalists, and the trust, as limited as it may be, that the public has in all of those who deliver the news on air.

I don’t say this out of spite, or any animus. I don’t know Ms. Wahl. I had not heard of Abby Martin before this week. And, yes, some of my best friends in the business work for some of these organizations. 

Journalism jobs are hard to come by. Good people often leave the three alphabet networks, and the cable universe. But if you want to hitch your wagon to a government run train, you better be prepared for those wheels to come off at some point. Skidding along a railway sure leaves a nasty burn, not to mention the splinters.

Lauding someone for a self-inflicted wound sure seems to miss the point.

A personal note:  I was recruited by one of the foreign owned networks, CCTV, to talk with them about heading up one of their primary US programs. Let’s just say the conversation took a decidedly sharp turn after I questioned how a story on religion would be covered by CCTV, let alone whether they would consider a series on the role of religion in America. And I remain pleased with the fact that I raised this in an interview, which included the American emissary for CCTV, someone who has also not communicated with me in any form since that meeting.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Yerrr out. Just say no to a national holiday....for baseball

The very concept of a national holiday for Major League Baseball's Opening Day is a foolish idea wrapped in a PR exec's box of dreams.

While baseball has long enjoyed its perch as America's Pastime, and America's Game, that mantle has been passed over to football, which will probably hold onto this until it totally screws up the concussion issue more than it already has.

So baseball isn't even the national game any longer.  And the ongoing effort to create a false holiday for a Monday in April to memorialize the glory days of the game is an enterprise that should be ignored by Congress.

There are already 11 national holidays. 11. Does that make baseball more deserving of recognition than the causes and individuals around whom holidays have been sought, but not won, for years.

Should baseball come before Cesar Chavez Day? There is no national holiday honoring any Latino. Baseball before our largest minority, and soon to be plurality? Really? Advocates for Chavez Day have long sought March 31 in his honor. How would they react to a day for a game coming a few days after the birthdate for this American.

Should baseball come before a holiday honoring contributions of any number of others, whether that's a President still to be determined, or a hero still to be honored.  Hell, I’m sure there are nuevo-billionaires out in Silicon Valley who envision a holiday for Steve Jobs, or even Mark Zuckerberg. 

Perhaps, instead, we should reduce our national holidays, in order to accommodate baseball. Remember, there are 11. So why not give up MLK Day. That would go over well, given the fights that arose over those intransigent states, particularly Arizona, unwilling to recognize the contributions and efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Or drop Columbus Day. There's already quite a bit of discussion in some communities over dropping a holiday recognizing the exploits of a man widely recognized not only for travelling westward, and proving that the earth was not in fact flat, but for spreading disease, illness, and a host of generational issues upon the indigenous peoples he and his men came across on their expedition. I'm sure the Italian-American community would gladly step aside and allow Columbus Day to be relegated to the dustbin of holiday history.

Or eliminate the day after Thanksgiving. That has become a business holiday, or a holiday intended to spur people on to business, or at least to holiday shopping. What with online shopping, and the move by many US retailers to open on Thanksgiving Day itself, perhaps this holiday no longer has relevance, and it too should be jettisoned, sent back to the Chamber of Commerce for some dusting and repurposing.

In 2007 baseball gave up its long privileged position as a tax-exempt entity.  Since then, revenues have risen to over $8 billion, and estimates point even higher for this coming year. 

Baseball doesn’t need a holiday.  For many fans, attending the game provides a holiday, provides a respite from the goings-on outside the game.  Instead, what baseball should do, is have teams pay for their own facilities, build their own stadiums, and avoid leaning on financially strapped municipalities for resources better placed in education and transportation, among other areas.

Now that would truly be a gift for the American people, and something for which we would all be thankful.

Monday, February 10, 2014

12 O’Clock Boys

There’s much to say about this broad piece on a slice of urban life.  There are elements in this film that speak volumes about just about any issue you want to raise.  There are characters who hold up well to the scrutiny of an omnipresent camera.  And there are scenes that go far to present the challenges that exist for those living on the margins.

But as a film, 12 O’Clock Boys falls far short.  This is a very uneven film, with scenes snipped together, segments that start abruptly, or end abruptly.  Individuals pop up, unannounced, or disappear, without further reference.  Central figures may reappear, but there’s little by way of introduction, or story development.  Other than the spindly central character, Pug, a precocious, undersized, and self-absorbed 13 year old consumed by the lure of becoming one of Baltimore’s infamous 12 O’Clock Boys, there’s no other central voice followed or tracked in the larger community of dirt bike and ATV riders who take over city streets on Sunday group rides.

Former art student Lotfy Nathan aims high, but delivers real low with this story.  He has regular access to Pug, Pug’s incendiary yet frustrated mother, Coco, along with the other members of Pug’s immediate and extended family.  But we come and go from his house, from his life, from his dreams, so many times, that critical elements of the story before us pop up only as vignettes, fading out after a few short seconds.

The death of his older brother from an asthma attack would have benefitted from more than just 30 seconds of open casket video.  The appearance of a former Baltimore City cop as part of an armed security detail needed more setup than the perspective of one street rider.  What happens following the court appearance Coco repeatedly references?  The ability of Pug to obtain bikes goes without mention, despite his frustration at being unable to get a job.  Independent voices from community leaders, school teachers, even other former riders, would have done more to document the role the Boys plays in communities across West and East Baltimore. 

Even the most powerful moment in the film, which is used as a spine, both starting and finishing the story, involves the filmmaker in a role no documentarian would accept as legitimate in the making of a film.  Nathan both drives the van that serves as the vehicle used to transport Pug and a friend to the back yard of a house where he successfully re-acquires his stolen motorcycle.  This isn’t documenting.  It’s contributing.  It’s a line that filmmakers, particularly documentarians, know not to cross.  Even with the hardship, and the challenges we see in Pug’s world, no excuse for this assist passes muster.

Still, 12 O’Clock Boys should be seen.  It’s a powerful lens into a world virtually no person knows exists in this country, yet it’s a world that exists in pockets within many urban communities.  Baltimore is far from alone with its challenges, its divides, and its Pugs.  And it’s a world that we should all see, not only to bear witness, but to better understand.  If only the film rose to the level of the story it attempted to tell. 

Note:  12 O’Clock Boys is short, at 76 minutes, and is playing a limited run at the West End Cinema in NW DC.  It is also available online.