A few words in defense of #CNN

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I worked for CNN for 16 years, and I don’t think a month went by when I didn’t bitch about the place.

Some of my complaints were simply attempts to blow off steam. Why is the CMS down again? Why do I have to change that headline? Do we have to do that bullshit story simply because it’s trending?

And then there were my deeper concerns, ones that have provoked debate in newsrooms since there have been newsrooms — questions about ratings/traffic vs. news value, questions about ethics, questions about quality.

But for all of my bitching, I was proud to work there. It was, and still is, full of intelligent, thoughtful people.

I could be cynical — most journalists are — but, as George Carlin was fond of saying, scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist. You don’t deal with so much human weakness without a little bit of hope that things will get better, and that you can make a difference.

Compared to many of my colleagues, I was in no way a capital-J Journalist — someone who, in my estimation, lived and breathed for scoops in pursuit of The Story (I would rather delete my overabundance of email and get a good night’s sleep) — but I cared deeply about the news, about covering it right, about fairness and accuracy and truth.

And if there’s one truth I know for certain, it’s that my colleagues cared just as deeply. And they still do.

So it makes me angry to see my old employer attacked as being “fake news,” and to see many of my old colleagues’ faces in an anti-Semitic meme. (By the way, despite my departure 15 months ago, you’ll find me in the bottom row.)

I know a lot of people hate journalists. Reporters, in their minds, are pesky busybodies who won’t leave well enough alone. They don’t pay attention to certain stories, and pay too much attention to others. (And you won’t get an argument from many reporters, who would just as soon be chasing something more meaningful than whatever the shiny object of the day is — and these days, when analytics can tell us exactly what people are looking at and for how long, there are a lot of shiny objects.)

Journalists keep asking why — and when, and where, and who and what.

But consider the recent stories that have prompted much of this backlash against the news media: the tangled relationships and communications of a certain high-ranking businessman/politician. Simply the fact that he’s important (the most important, in fact, the biggest, an incredibly important person) makes the stories newsworthy, and if you’re CNN — or any news organization, frankly — you have a responsibility to see where they lead.

As we saw from the story the network pulled a couple weeks ago, CNN is not infallible. You’re only as good as your sources, and in a volatile world where everybody has an agenda, it can be incredibly hard to nail things down. It’s happened to the best.

But CNN, like most other outlets in the so-called “MSM,” owns up to its mistakes when they happen. I have my issues with the network — I think the TV arm (like pretty much all profit-chasing TV news) has come to feel like an all-day edition of “Crossfire” with too much heat, too little light, a sad reflection of the old local news philosophy that sensation sells. But the organization is full of outstanding and humane people trying to make sense of real life that affects real people, and you can see its work on the website, CNN International and even on the main domestic network when Jeffrey Lord isn’t arguing with Van Jones.

Real life isn’t a wrestling match. And I know I’d prefer a sense of “presidential” that is less like Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (who, to give him credit, was possessed of some modesty).

On this Independence Day, the anniversary of when this representative democracy was founded, we should continue working towards “the more perfect union” the Constitution writes about. CNN and the news media, for all their faults, are central to that effort.

Frank Deford, 1938-2017

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Image from The New York Times.

Well, shit.

Frank Deford has died. He was 78. The cause of death hasn’t been revealed, but according to his wife, he’d been treated for pneumonia recently. I wonder if he’d been more ill than he’d let on; it was less than a month ago that he gave his last of 1,656 commentaries — 37 years’ worth — for NPR.

It’s a tremendous loss for anyone who cares about writing, particularly that form known as the long magazine article — the “bonus story,” as his longtime home Sports Illustrated called it — of depth and compassion.

I don’t know if I can describe him as an influence — though his erudite style couldn’t help but appeal to a much less polished writer like me — but he was certainly a guiding star.

I read my father’s subscription to SI as a child, but for years I seldom got deeper than Herman Weiskopf’s summary of the week in baseball. Sometime during my teenage years, that started changing, and I gained an appreciation for William Nack, Steve Wulf and — especially — Deford. I still remember his piece on Mississippi football coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan almost 35 years after it first appeared. It’s one of the great stories in journalism history, as far as I’m concerned.

It began:

Robert Victor Sullivan, whom you’ve surely never heard of, was the toughest coach of them all. He was so tough he had to have two tough nicknames, Bull and Cyclone, and his name was usually recorded this way: coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan or coach Bob (Bull) (Cyclone) Sullivan.

How could you not read that?

Deford also was the editor of The National, the legendary national sports paper that lasted just a couple years in the early ’90s. It deserved better, but its failure wasn’t for lack of trying. Grantland — another writers’ site that died before its time — had a great oral history of it a few years ago.

He was as charming in person as he was on the page. I had the good fortune to interview him for “The Old Ball Game,” a book he wrote about John McGraw and Christy Mathewson. (Of course, when I received the review copy, how could I not book an interview? I’m no hard-bitten journalist, and I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to talk to one of my heroes.)

Anyway, he lived a long, purposeful life, and you could do worse to pick up one of his books — or, better, immerse yourself in SI’s Vault. You’ll find plenty of Deford in there. His “bonus stories” were truly treasures.

Sunday read: The information-industrial Googleplex

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Image from Searchengineland.com.

It says pretty much everything you need to know about Google that its name became a verb for Internet search within a few years of its founding — even if the company itself would rather you save it for when you use its engine.

But the company’s friendly ubiquity sometimes hides its dominance. As The New York Times observes in an op-ed, Google has an 88 percent market share in search advertising. And to think that people used to complain about Ma Bell.

Maybe, in fact, Google is a little too dominant. It’s not just that SEO (search-engine optimization) has become an actual job, mainly spent tweaking pages so they can rank high in Google search; it’s that Google, which promised to democratize information, has bigfooted actual information gatherers.

That’s the subject of today’s Sunday read: “How Google eats a business whole,” by Adrianne Jeffries.

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Sunday read: A woman with a story to tell

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Image from ESPN

My friend Jessica Ravitz Cherof has a knack for telling richly human stories — the kind where uncertainty and shades of gray suggest the depth, and variety, of hard-earned experience.

Among her wonderful pieces are one on Aesha, an Afghan woman whose face was disfigured by violence; and a look at spiritual struggles, which found as many questions as answers when she went off to Rishikesh, India, to face some of her own.

Her most recent story, about a breast cancer survivor, is my Sunday read.

Paulette Leaphart gained a modicum of fame for announcing she was going to walk from her home in Mississippi to Washington, D.C., topless, to raise awareness for breast cancer. Leaphart had had a double mastectomy and was catnip to many journalists looking for a feel-good story. Who could argue with such heroics?

Jessica, too, thought Leaphart had a wonderful story and accompanied her in North Carolina for a day to gather background.

But Leaphart wasn’t quite what she seemed. As Jessica wrote:

Some stories land on a journalist’s plate like manna from heaven. They’re perfect morsels you can’t wait to share. Others arrive a mess of ingredients with no recipe to follow. This one started the first way and finished the other.

As Jessica dug into Leaphart’s personal history, the feel-good story turned into something more … well, let’s say awkward. Was Leaphart whom she said she was? Yes — and no.

I’m not going to spoil it for you. Just be prepared for surprises.

You can find “The Naked Truth” here.

Goodbye, Chuck Barris

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Image from NBC via Philly.com.

I knew who Chuck Barris was even before I saw him.

I was the kind of kid who watched shows right through to the end credits, and I noticed the Chuck Barris Productions logo was very similar to ABC’s and Dick Clark’s. That made sense, since both Clark (who employed Barris in the late ’50s) and Barris had relationships with ABC. (It’s hard to beat a Paul Rand logo.)

Game show geek that I was, I did watch “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game,” though I didn’t understand any of the snickering double-entendres both shows wallowed in. But somehow I knew they were related to Barris, and that his shows were low-brow fun. (He also did “The New Treasure Hunt.”)

Then came “The Gong Show” and Chuck the smarmy host.

Oh, man, did I watch “The Gong Show.” I loved how they gave out $516.32 for the big prize. I loved the Unknown Comic. I had no idea who Jaye P. Morgan was, but I knew Jamie Farr from “M*A*S*H” and Gary Owens had that wonderful voice.

And then there was Barris, clapping his hands, making crude jokes, taking off his bow tie within five minutes of the show’s opening. Stupid? Absolutely. Fun? Of course.

Of course, “The Gong Show” quickly got mannered — what started out as something between a real talent show and vaudeville became a planned freak parade — and “The Gong Show Movie” was even worse. (Yes, I paid to watch it in the theater.) And “The $1.98 Beauty Show” never did it for me.

But Barris was always a fascinating figure. He liked us to think so, anyway. Who else would claim he was both a TV producer and a CIA agent?

Chuck Barris shuffled off the stage Tuesday. Much to his credit, he wasn’t gonged.

We’ll leave you with Gene, Gene, the Dancing Machine.

Submitted for your approval: Rod Serling, human

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Screenshot of Rod Serling from TheInvisibleAgent.

The other day I stumbled on an old “American Masters” documentary about Rod Serling, the TV writer and “Twilight Zone” creator. I’d read a biography of Serling many years ago, and watched his drama “Patterns” on a boxed set of great Golden Age TV programs, but it had been some time since I thought about the man.

Which is saying something, because in high school I was a huge “Twilight Zone” fan. I remember New Orleans’ PBS station ran reruns, and (though I’m mildly embarrassed to admit it) I spent a good deal of a prom night party exchanging plots with a good friend while others indulged in alcohol and making out. (My own date had abandoned me to get late-night beignets at the Cafe du Monde.)

In those days, it was the darkly twisted or more horrific “Twilight Zones” that caught my attention: “Time Enough at Last,” in which Burgess Meredith, the last man on Earth, finally has time to read all the books he wants — he thinks; “The Howling Man,” a terrifying tale about a prisoner in a castle; “It’s a Good Life,” the classic story about a 6-year-old with nasty powers; and “And When the Sky Was Opened,” about three astronauts who suspect they shouldn’t have come back from their mission.

But the documentary reopened my eyes to the other Serling — the humane one, the one who cared about the little guy, the unsung, the alleged failure, the salaryman. This is the Serling who earned lasting fame for “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” his “Playhouse 90” about a washed-up fighter; who served in World War II and had nightmares about his experiences for the rest of his life; and who wrote some of the most affecting “Twilight Zone” episodes — not about monsters and meanness, but about human flaws and human decency.

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Another day, another dumb jingle going through my head

The writers of jingles sure know how to create earworms. Here’s today’s:

Until just now, when I started researching this blog entry, I hadn’t realized the music for this jingle was actually from an old minstrel song, “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers.” It was a parody of a popular spiritual.

From religious tribute to humorous jab to marketing tool. America is an amazing country.

If you’d had asked me when this commercial originally ran, I probably would have said late ’80s or early ’90s — but I should have known better. Because, as I’ve written before, the 1970s were definitely a golden age for advertising jingles. No pun intended.

That #Oscars thing

Of course I missed it.

For most of the last 16 years, I covered the Oscars — a few times from the ballroom of the Renaissance (now the Loews Hollywood) Hotel at Hollywood & Highland, more often from my desk at CNN Center. Inevitably, the show would end past midnight here on the East Coast — and then I’d be at work for another hour or two, putting the finishing touches on the wrap story and making sure all the galleries worked. Sleep came sometime between 2:30 and 3 a.m.

I’m no longer at CNN — some of my old tasks have long since fallen to the amazing Lisa Respers France, who has supervised Oscar Night for awhile and done an amazing job (especially with social media, which didn’t exist in the Old Days) — so last night I did something I haven’t done since 2000: I hosted my Team Trivia show at Manuel’s Tavern, came home, watched the Oscars for a bit … and went to sleep.

So I had no idea how things ended until this morning.

I thought I’d wake up to the news that “La La Land” had won handily, or that “Moonlight” had pulled off an upset. I didn’t think I’d see both.

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Belated Sunday read: What’s everyone clicking on?

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Image from istreetwire.com for the three people — including me — who a) actually read physical newspapers and b) own an elaborate pen.

Whoops! I didn’t have a Sunday read prepared this morning. So let’s just go to the vox populi and see what the Internets are yammering about. Here are the most-read stories on a variety of sites:

The Atlantic: I Was a Muslim in Trump’s White House. Rumana Ahmed talks about what it was like to be one of many enemies of the people — even as she tried to bring down those other enemies, the ones from other countries threatening America, as a National Security Council staffer. Chilling paragraph:

The climate in 2016 felt like it did just after 9/11. What made it worse was that this fear and hatred were being fueled by Americans in positions of power. Fifth-grade students at a local Sunday school where I volunteered shared stories of being bullied by classmates and teachers, feeling like they didn’t belong here anymore, and asked if they might get kicked out of this country if Trump won. I was almost hit by a car by a white man laughing as he drove by in a Costco parking lot, and on another occasion was followed out of the metro by a man screaming profanities: “Fuck you! Fuck Islam! Trump will send you back!”

The New York Times: Trump Intensifies His Attacks on Journalists and Condemns F.B.I. ‘Leakers.’ One wonders who’s calling all those journalists and saying outrageous things. Perhaps it’s John Barron?

Slate: Fox News Interviews Fake Expert on Sweden to Warn About Immigration Threat. Apparently a guest on Bill O’Reilly’s show wasn’t really a “Swedish Defense and National Security Adviser.”

Rolling Stone: Bill Paxton, Versatile ‘Big Love,’ ‘Twister’ Actor, Dead at 61. Paxton was great in pretty much anything he was in. Let’s also give shout-outs to “One False Move” and the underrated “Apollo 13,” the latter — in my view — Ron Howard’s best movie.

BBC: Warren Buffett upbeat on US business growth. The Oracle of Omaha praised “a tide of talented and ambitious immigrants” and said “babies born in America today are the luckiest crop in history” in his annual letter.

Also in the news: the death of Judge Joseph Wapner, the Mardi Gras parade accident in New Orleans (the driver of the runaway pickup truck had a blood-alcohol level of .232), and the Oscars.

Your regularly scheduled Sunday read will return next week.

A break from social media

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Image of Hendy Woods State Park from Wikimedia Commons.

I’m going to see if I can go the weekend without checking social media — or most any media.

I used to joke with my friend John Blake about how my media and political intake would increase during election years. I’d start out in January checking a handful of sites maybe once or twice a day, including social media sites like Facebook, to see what was going on. By October I was practically living in cyberspace.

Then the election would come, and regardless how I felt about the result, I would wean myself away, paying attention to major events but generally letting the country flow on the way it has for 200-plus years.

This election, of course, was different. The president loves his Twitter; his opponents and the news media do all they can to keep up. It’s wearying, and yet it seems like it’s all anyone can talk about. Or, more accurately, scream about. (A few days ago, I tweeted — sorry, even I can’t help myself sometimes — that we’re living in a “pro wrestling world.” I’d prefer a Dick Cavett world, but I’m very much in the minority.)

Yet instead of weaning myself, I’m probably clicking more than I did in October. So I’m going to try to go on a digital diet this weekend.

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