Brian Williams saga shows false face of journalism

FEBRUARY 26, 2015    LAST UPDATED: THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 26, 2015, 12:31 AM
Media Fall Guy Brian Williams
Media Fall Guy Brian Williams

I learned journalism basics at college in the late 80s.

1) Ask the five “W” questions. Who, what, when, where, and why. Sometimes “how.”

2) Report the facts. Stories have many sides, and the people involved all have a personal agenda. Cut the fluff from the facts and deliver the closest version of “the truth” as possible.

3) Get quotes from involved parties. Quotes may or may not be factual. Quotes are simply one person’s side of the story.

4) Don’t put yourself in the story. A true journalist is invisible, a fly on the wall.

That last rule has become increasingly blurred over the last 30 years, and the latest to forget is “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams.

I feel bad for Williams. For the last decade he delivered the news on NBC in admirable fashion. He read the words on the teleprompter and occasionally colored those words with appropriate emotional flavor. But when Brian Williams goes off-script, troubles begin.

Williams was recently suspended without pay for six months after it was revealed he lied about a war story during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Further digging showed Williams embellished stories on several occasions, including his coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

Like a geeky high school kid, Brian Williams lied so he could look cool. But in a world where privacy is a farce and fact checking is easy, it’s hard to get away with monkey business or tall tales.

You can’t completely blame Williams for gilding the lily. Coolness was one of the traits imbued upon him by his handlers at NBC, along with sharp suits and white teeth. They encouraged Williams to yuk it up with late night hosts, from Jimmy Fallon to David Letterman.

What’s Brian Williams supposed to talk about on Letterman? He’s got to be as interesting as Anderson Cooper and Matt Lauer! The NBC brass seemed to support Williams’ appearances. Perhaps Williams was being groomed to take over a late-night job himself one day.

But that seems unlikely now. Williams is being called a raconteur, a spinner of yarns, a teller of tales. Being a raconteur is great if you’re putting on a one-man theatre show (or if you’re a newspaper columnist), but if you’re being paid to be a truth-teller, there’s a problem.

At the time of this writing, there’s talk Williams might be fired from NBC. The New York Post claims to have found an important “morals clause” in Williams contract which reads:

“If artist commits any act or becomes involved in any situation, or occurrence, which brings artist into public disrepute, contempt, scandal or ridicule, or which justifiably shocks, insults or offends a significant portion of the community, or if publicity is given to any such conduct, company shall have the right to terminate.”

But the language used points out exactly why Williams shouldn’t be fired. He’s an “artist,” not a reporter or a “journalist.”

The immediacy and intimacy of social media has changed the boundaries of modern journalism. The public-at-large, equipped with trusty smartphones, is an army of “imbedded reporters” (see the rise of CNN’s iReports and the ever-expanding blogosphere) and “real journalists” have become news-readers, color commentators, and “television personalities.”

Journalists — from Katie Couric to Perez Hilton — are a new kind of modern celebrity. (So are rich housewives and duck hunters. What happened to our standards? Didn’t celebrities used to have to be good at something exceptional or impressive?)

The problem really isn’t Brian Williams’ attention-seeking fables, but a media machine and news-consuming public that demands our anchors be dashing adventure–seekers, physically beautiful, intelligent, funny, opinionated, witty, relentless investigators, and good on camera. It’s a lot to ask. Brian Williams did his best to stay afloat in the brackish waters where journalism and entertainment meet, but was sunk by one-to-many big fish stories.

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Digitize Salinger and Other Literary Pursuits

JD Salinger
The elusive J.D. Salinger

I was going through a “Why Didn’t I Read This in High School?” phase, and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was up next on my reading list.

I was eager to download a copy of Salinger’s classic novel onto my Kindle. I’m a firm backer of the digital publishing revolution, since ebooks let you:

  1. Change the size and style of the text.
  2. Look up word definitions and background info on the spot.
  3. Highlight, makes notes, and export chunks of text.

These features are incredibly helpful when I’m writing book reviews (bobsbookblog.com), and must be a major timesaver for students working on school essays. (Back in my day we had to write out notes and quotes by hand on index cards, whippersnappers!)

But The Catcher in the Rye isn’t available on Kindle. You can’t get it on your Nook or iPad either. J.D. Salinger never allowed any other editions of his novel other than the one published by Little, Brown and Company in 1951. The breakout success of The Catcher in the Rye spooked Salinger, and he retreated to his rural Vermont home after the book’s publication. Salinger produced three additional books, but didn’t publish again after 1961.

Salinger died in 2010, but his estate still closely guards the copyright on his work, and had never allowed any adaptions. Film directors from Elia Kazan to Steven Spielberg have been turned away, and the Salinger Estate still hasn’t sanctioned audiobooks or digital editions.

If you want to read The Catcher in the Rye (or Salinger’s other work) you have to order the same Little, Brown and Company mass market paperback (now in its 98th printing) that’s been kicking around classrooms since forever. It’s got the original 1951 orangey cover art by E. Michael Mitchell — an ink sketch of a carousel horse and the NYC skyline — on both the front and back. Besides the title and “a novel by J.D. Salinger,” there is no other cover text, no sales copy, no About the Author copy, no blurbs from other authors or academics, and no “New York Times bestselling author.” Nothing.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

The interior of the book is equally sparse. There is no forward or afterword. No advertisements for other books, no offers to join Little, Brown and Company’s Readers Club. There is no About the Author page here either. The Catcher in the Rye is 214 pages of Holden Caulfield’s inimitably cranky narrative, presented exactly how the author intended, and it’s been this way, unchanged, for nearly fifty years.

Salinger’s over-protectiveness guarantees his work is uniformly consumed. I experienced The Catcher in the Rye the same way, in the same font and format, as nearly everyone else who ever read the book. I dog-eared pages, underlined in pencil, and scribbled notes in the margins, the same way lit students have for decades. Salinger’s format constraints demand it.

According to a new documentary on J.D. Salinger, the late author left specific instructions for five books to be published between 2015 and 2020. I don’t know the Salinger Estate or Little, Brown and Company’s publishing plans, but launching new Salinger titles is an ideal time to bring all the author’s work into the digital realm. Contemporary literature should embrace contemporary formats, and ebooks are here to stay. Salinger’s work needs to be readily available, brought into the digital realm, and forever preserved in binary code.

Digitize Salinger! And Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, too!

Check out my review of The Catcher in the Rye here.

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Facing 2014 with resolution, resolve

New Year Fresh Start
New Year Fresh Start!

I‘m heading into the New Year with a new attitude, because, in all honesty, I need to get a grip on myself.

In many ways 2013 was the best year of my life. Unemployment was a godsend. I love being home, spending time with my wife and kids. Grocery shopping? Laundry? Picking the kids up from school, and helping with homework? Count me in!

My wife and I had time to return to animal rescue this year. We fostered a pregnant stray, and helped find excellent homes for her and all her puppies. Our current foster, a sweet Cairn terrier named Enzo, is still looking for his forever home.

I spent the year rebranding myself as an author. I promoted my books, built a few web sites, and dipped my toe in the blogging sea. I’m not earning enough (yet) to make it a full-time profession, but I’ve had a lot of fun trying.

A lot of fun … that was 2013. A little too much fun.

I let myself go in 2013. I ate like an animal, and packed on pounds. I fell off the no smoking wagon months ago, and can’t seem to find my way back on. I’m indulgent, gluttonous, living too high on the hog.

Mick Jagger once said, “It’s all right to let yourself go, as long as you can get yourself back.” But it’s more difficult to get back on track when you’re older, (Mick also noted, “What a drag it is getting old.”) It’s fun and scary living a decadent lifestyle, like riding a roller coaster. But it gets old and pathetic.

If the body is a temple, then mine is a battered old shack, a handyman’s special in need of TLC. I’ve had a lot of fun in this house — it was a 24/7 party palace in 2013! — but I’ve neglected the maintenance. I need to turn it around. I need to dig deep. I need to refurbish myself. I need to get control of myself and get healthy.

Most important, I need to set a good example for my children.

All success in life stems from self-control. When you’re out of control, your world spirals out of control, too. Control your inner self, and you control the world around you. As Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho writes in Aleph: “If you conquer yourself, then you conquer the world.”

It takes discipline, but as a wise man once said, “Discipline weighs ounces, regret weighs tons.” Unhealthy lifestyle choices lead to a world of regret.

But it’s never too late to change. As author C.S. Lewis noted, “You are never too old to set another goal, or dream a new dream.”

May all your dreams come true in 2014!

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How To Stop Adult Bullies? Man Up! Ladies, Too!

jonathan-martin-richie-incognito
DUMB DOLPHINS — Meatball bully, Richie Incognito, and tormented Momma’s boy, Jonathan Martin.

Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito is a meathead jock. He can’t distinguish between bullying and camaraderie— an unfortunate situation that has existed in team locker rooms for ages.

But Incognito’s teammate/victim on the Miami Dolphins, Jonathan Martin, is acting like a ninny. Sure, being a professional football player is a high-pressure job, both on and off the field. But you can’t run home to Mommy when your feelings get hurt (and show her the text messages that made you sad.) As Marlon Brando says in The Godfather, “Act like a man!”

Adults can’t play the bully card. That’s for kids (and Bloomingdale Council Members), which I discuss in this column from November 2012.

+++

There isn’t a hotter hot button topic today than bullying.

We all support the “Stop Bullying” campaign in grade schools. Young children come in all shapes, sizes, and maturity levels, and schools need a no tolerance policy on bullying. Children of all ages (adults, too) need to be taught (and frequently reminded) to treat people with respect, courtesy, and dignity. All people. That’s one of the basic tenets of our society.

Too Old To Bully

But I question the need for a “Stop Bullying” campaign for adults. Mature adults can stop bullying by:

  1. avoiding jerks
  2. defending their actions and opinions
  3. calling the cops

This idea seems to be forgotten, especially by certain members of the Bloomingdale Borough Council.

Things got contentious at an October 2012 council meeting, with Democratic Councilman Ray Yazdi demanding that Republican Councilwoman Linda Shortman explain her vote on an issue.

stop_adult_bullying
“Oh, grow up!”

Instead of answering, fellow Republican council members Jo-Ann Pituch and Mark Conklin announced they were leaving, and encouraged Shortman to do the same. The three council members left, and, lacking a quorum, the meeting was adjourned.

Shortman said she left the meeting because she felt “badgered and bullied” by Yazdi. But using the “mature adult” points outlined earlier, you can see how Shortman’s argument wears thin.

Schoolyard Politics

First, if you’re an elected official, you’re going to meet jerks. Politics is full of them, and the public isn’t much better. Shaking hands with jerks, defusing them, and getting them to compromise is a huge part of the job. You should know that before you decide to run for office.

Second, you’ve got to be able to defend yourself and your opinions, especially if you’re a voting member of a governing body. It’s not bullying if people ask you questions. They expect an answer. That’s called accountability. And if people ask questions in a rude way, well…read the paragraph before this one again.

Finally, I’m not sure how Shortman, Pituch, and Conklin could have felt physically threatened since the police department is right across the hall from the council chambers. Granted, we live in strange, violent times, and you have to be careful. (Learning to differentiate between a bully and psychopath would be a useful skill.) But Yazdi posed no physical threat to his fellow council members. He was just being annoying, and they wanted to get away from him.

Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way, and Bloomingdale Mayor Jonathan Dunleavy agreed.

“It was an absolute disgrace that the majority chose to leave the room. They have been elected to govern the borough,” Dunleavy said. “If issues become difficult, they can’t just pick up their toys and go home.”

Bullied bus monitor Karen Klein
GANGING UP ON GRANDMA—Bullied bus monitor Karen Klein.

“Pick On Someone Your Own Size!”

The members of the Bloomingdale council aren’t the only adults to stretch the “bully defense” too far. Remember Karen Klein, the kindly grandmother who was bullied by brats on a school bus? We all felt for Ms. Klein, but couldn’t she have defended herself against a bunch of children? Again, you’d think dealing with brats and bullies would be part of the job if you’re a school bus aide. Couldn’t she at least move to another seat?

Recently Wisconsin newscaster Jennifer Livingston made headlines with her on-air response to a viewer’s email. The viewer called Livingston fat, and accused her of setting a bad example for young viewers. Livingston fired back, saying the viewer (a knucklehead named Kenneth Krause, for those keeping score) set a worse example by judging her based on her appearance rather than by her character. Livingston also accused Krause of teaching kids to be bullies.

jennifer-livingston
LIVINGSTON LASHES OUT—”I tried to laugh off this very hurtful attack on my appearance.”

Knucklehead Krause is undoubtedly a rude jerk. But he’s not a bully. He’s expressing his opinion. (Hey, childhood obesity is a serious issue!) Agree, disagree, or blow him off, but don’t use him to teach a lesson on bullying.

What The Bully Teaches Us

The current anti-bullying campaign in schools seems to be a reaction to Colombine/Virginia Tech-type shootings. The idea is force children to be nice to each other, and if no one gets their feelings hurt, then no one will bring a gun to school and start shooting. It’s a dubious strategy, at best.

But the school bully serves an important function, a different kind of teaching moment that I fear is being lost on the youth of today.

We all remember the school bully of our youth, usually a big, oafish kid who picked on smaller children (which was practically everyone).

We all had to figure out a way to deal with that guy: avoid him, make him laugh, buy him lunch, stare him down, do his homework, tell him to stop, etc. If you felt brave you could fight him. The even more adventurous might befriend him. Get to know a bully, and you’ll usually find someone who’s scared and insecure, and/or lacking social graces and manners.

childhood bully
BULLY FOR YOU — We all remember this guy from the school yard. How did you deal with him?

Either way, dealing with a bully (or anyone who is confrontational, cruel, rude, incorrigible, hotheaded, etc.) is an important life lesson, one that should be learned in grade school. You’re going to encounter people like that throughout life. The big oaf from the playground will grow up to become your lab partner, co-worker, boss, or spouse.

Or maybe the person sitting next to you on the borough council.

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, November 2012. 

Scary Music: Tales From The Palomino, Vol. 1

Errera/Zampella Tales From The Palomino, Vol 1
Errera/Zampella, Tales From The Palomino, Vol 1. Only $3. Cheap!

I have a new project with ambient music artist and longtime friend Mark Zampella. Basically, I read four stories from my collection, Sensual Nightmares: Tales From The Palomino, Vol. 1 over Mark’s weird music beds. The words and music work together to create a listening experience like no other — beyond conventional spoken word albums or ambient jams.

This is something truly different.

Here’s what you’ll find on Tales from The Palomino, Vol. 1

  • The Glue Trap — (RT 35mins)   “No one knows how deep the well is, or what lives at the bottom …”   Some creatures will chew off a limb to escape from a trap. What will Lloyd do to escape his gambling debts and tyrannical father-in-law?
  • The Hole — (RT 10mins)  “There is a hole at the bottom of the Earth, in the deepest part of the world…”   Suspense, strangeness, and ancient legends meet in the darkest depths of The Hole.
  • Black Fire — (RT 15mins)  “There’s a robbery in progress at the QuikMart…”   This is Mark’s chance to be a hero, and stop a crime. But today just isn’t his day …
  • Park, Bench, River, Gun — (RT 10mins)  “It was a beautiful day. Tom sat on a park bench by the river. A gun sat next to him.”   A bittersweet plan to end suffering unravels in a sad folly of forgetfulness and sorrow.
Check it out! Only $3!
Perfect for the Halloween holidays, or anytime you want to get creeped out!
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True Tales of Road Rage: Here’s Egg On Your Windshield!

RoadRage
I was attacked by an Evil Lumberjack in 1993 … but frankly, I had it coming.

Road rage.

It’s the hip, politically-correct buzzword of the 90s. The media trumpets it. Congress is studying it. President Clinton is soon to speak out on it.

But what is it?

Simply put, it’s getting ticked off at other drivers. When was the last time you blurted out the phrase; “Hey, you $#!@!. Why don’t you watch where you’re going, you dumb $@#!

Powder Keg On Board

If you’re like me, it was probably the last time you drove your car. I suffer from road-rage. Driving brings out the worst in me. Whether I’m cruising a highway, looking for a parking spot, or driving the local streets, I’m bound to encounter a person who annoys me. I will mentally curse this other driver. If provoked, I will spew profanities. WHY ARE THESE HORRIBLE DRIVERS CLOGGING UP MY ROADWAYS!

Admittedly, this is a terrible personality trait, and one I’m working hard to correct. Road-rage leads to big trouble. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration believes that two-thirds of the 41,000 annual road fatalities are linked to road-rage. (That’s 27,333 Angry Motorists Found Dead for you non-mathematicians). Here in North Jersey, where there are more cars than anywhere else in the country, the roadways are a powder-keg of road-rage.

True Road Rage Confessions

I  experienced the wickedness of  road-rage first-hand.

In 1993, I was driving along Route 23 when a guy driving an “evil lumber truck” accused me of cutting him off. He announced his accusations through obnoxious honking and obscene hand gestures, including use of the Magic Finger.

I returned his gestures, and added a few clever variations of my own. After cutting me off, the Evil Lumber Truck sped off down the highway.

Magic finger
The Magic Finger — Official Salutation of Road Ragers Everywhere!

I proceeded to the drive-in window of my bank, not noticing the Evil Lumber Truck had pulled into the lot behind me.

As I stuffed my paycheck into a plastic tube, the Evil Lumberjack crept up beside my car, reached in the driver’s side window, and punched me twice in the head. Meanwhile, an Evil Passenger appeared, and smeared an egg sandwich on my windshield.

I wanted to be big and brave. Replaying the event, I wish I had grabbed the Evil Lumberjack’s arm and floored the accelerator, dragging his carcass through the parking lot before fishtailing around to catch the Evil Passenger beneath the grill of my mighty Geo Prism. Crunch!

But at the time of the attack I merely fumbled for my glasses on the bucket-seat next to me, and shouted something tough and witty, like, “Hey, okay!

The smack in the head was a wake-up call. As a longtime road-rager, I got a taste of my own medicine. The Magic Finger used to play a major role in my driving routine. Now, I rarely employ it. Sure, all other drivers are inferior to me, but I try not to let it get under my skin.

I follow and endorse these three simple steps to curb road rage:

  1. Mellow Out. If another driver cuts you off, or otherwise annoys you, remain calm. When in traffic, have some of your favorite music handy. Do deep breathing exercises.
  2. Keep Your Eyes On The Road, Your Hands Upon The Wheel. Besides being a cool Doors’ lyric, this old adage is a basic tenet of safe driving. Eyes on the road will prevent making eye contact, and hence conflict, with the subhumans driving next to you. Hands on the wheel will prevent you from delivering vulgar gestures.
  3. Stay Home.

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, July 1997