Category Archives: Media

Trailer Parks and Parking Lots

Last night was a double feature: 3 episodes of Trailer Park Boys then taking in the documentary The Parking Lot Movie. There’s a symmetry there: testosterone and pavement.

A documentary can’t answer every question about its subject in 90 minutes, but sometimes there are omissions so gaping your mind wanders during the film. Parking Lot Movie, I’m talking to you.

For example:

  • How come no women work at the Corner Parking Lot? You’ve really got to answer why there aren’t any women parking lot attendants in the movie.
  • Increasingly parking lots are fully automated; take a ticket, put your money in a machine, and leave. Does the Corner Parking Lot have any plans to automate? Automation must have crossed the lot owner’s mind. Why hasn’t he done it?

You don’t know the Trailer Park Boys? Think live action Beavis & Butt-Head in a trailer park, Canadian style. Watch it and mainline pure stupid/funny.

Local television news will show a lot, but tell you little about a tornado

Do ever feel like you know less about what’s happening in your community after watching television for a few minutes. That happened to me when I was watching the local news stations, WWLP, WGGB, and CBS3, about the tornado that ripped through Western Massachusetts.

It’s often true, we do know less, or at least no more, after watching much of television news. The exceptions are rare, when television news reporters give relevant, useful information to the local community in the aftermath of natural disaster. After the tornado in Springfield and surrounding towns, 90% of the television news was pure bullshit.

This happens because images — photos or video — often can’t tell us what we need to know (I didn’t say what we want to know), like: how my neighbors and neighborhood is, who’s hurt, where are people gathering in the aftermath, or who do I contact if I’m hurt. An image can’t give you any of that information. A person does. Of course a person can talk over images (called a “voice-over”), and the Springfield news stations did a lot of that, to useless effect. Mostly. There’s a problem with voice-overs: if you don’t have information to tell your viewers, the segment turns into “oh, look at that roof! Look at that tree! Oh, that car was flipped over!” It’s kind of like watching auto racing for the car crashes.

The difference maker

There was one exception to the typical television news coverage in Springfield, a report done by Bill Shields on WSBK TV-38 during their 9pm news. It was an exceptional report for a number of reasons. He was on the phone without video speaking to the news anchor back in the Boston studio. Shields was reporting, using only his voice, on things he experienced. The segment lasted about 5 minutes, which is long. Most local news segments don’t stretch longer than 90 seconds. His reporting was gripping: he described both details and the big picture, he was personal, and he put his witness into a context of 30 years of news reporting in New England. Thirty years?! How come Bill Shields hasn’t been laid off yet?

What’s to be done about our crappy news?

Not to be a pessimist, but not much can be done. There are too many obstacles to making change, most of them economic. For local television stations the number one profit center is their news broadcast. They’ll never take a chance on improving the news product if it means possibly disturbing the bottom line. In fact, despite the well meaning and sometimes dedicated news folks, the television news has turned into entertainment. Mostly, it’s the amusement hour.

If you’re interested in a aftermath video, here’s a good 3 minutes a guy shot on the way to work.

Photo by Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Banal Failures of The Springfield Republican’s Phoebe Prince Coverage

Among media observers in Western Massachusetts, The Springfield Republican has a well earned reputation for protecting select powerful and corrupt people. That’s what I assumed was happening with the Phoebe Prince story, because much of the Republican coverage has been lacking. However, based on my investigation, the explanation is more banal: I’ve discovered an incompetent reporter with little courthouse experience and a newspaper trying cobble together a daily publication after cuts to newsroom staff by more than 60% in 2009.

You’ve probably heard the story out of South Hadley, Massachusetts, concerning the bullying and suicide of freshman high school student Phoebe Prince. According to a statement made by the District Attorney on 29 March 2010, there was a bullying campaign that lasted at least 3 months towards Phoebe. Thus far, Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel (a native of South Hadley) has charged 6 teens in the case; more teens may be charged. It’s a sad case, coming 11 months after the bullying related suicide of 11 year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, just down the road in Springfield.

The bulllying issue and these two cases coming up so close on each other would seem like a great opportunity for the local daily newspaper, The Springfield Republican, to make itself indispensable in the community. But the Springfield newspaper has failed the community on some basic levels, in particular holding the adults in this case — the school teachers and administrators — accountable for their inaction.

How The Republican got scooped in its own backyard

When compared to The Boston Globe, The New York Times, and to a lesser extent the Boston Herald, the Springfield Republican has been getting beat on stories. You would think for a local newspaper they’d have the sources to get deep on this story, but thus far they don’t.

Sandra Constantine is the Republican reporter covering the South Hadley and Granby beat, who for the most part has been the primary reporter on the Phoebe Prince story. Other Republican reporters have been stepping up to help, but the majority of stories have been written by Constantine. This is a problem because Constantine has very little experience with the courthouse beat. A review of her work since 2007 reveals that Constantine has attended maybe three criminal arraignments; of those, her published work suggests that in only one case did she do research of court documents (“Suspect facing weapons counts,” 10 May 2007, Springfield Republican). Despite reporting for the Republican since the early 1980s, her court reporting experience is reed-thin.

On the morning of April 8th, three teens were arraigned on charges related to the bullying of Phoebe Prince. Sandra Constantine wrote a story that was posted at 9:30am, then updated on the Web at 8:30pm; the 8:30pm version of the story appeared in print on April 9. The thrust of the her story was a retelling of the charges and a census of the people attending the hearing. In addition, posted with the Web versions of the story was a PDF document of the indictments filed.

By itself the indictments are more or less useless when trying to write a story about the evidence the district attorney is presenting in support of her charges against the teens. If you want to know the facts and argument the D.A. is presenting to the court, you need the memorandum of law for each of the defendants; that memorandum includes the issue presented, statement of the case, statement of the facts (the important part), and argument (legal mumbo jumbo).  This is a public legal document available to anyone from the clerk of courts.

Without the statement of facts, which is a brief narrative of some of the evidence gathered (much more evidence will be presented at trial), Constantine couldn’t write a story worth your time reading. Why didn’t she get this document when both the Boston Globe and New York Times did?

Based on my investigation, it’s clear she attended the hearing and wrote a story that was posted to the Web at 9:30am; that story and the 8:30pm update included the (useless) indictments of the three defendants. In the morning the clerk only had the indictments on file, which were given to Constantine. She probably left the courthouse soon after to begin writing her first story, but never followed-up with the clerk for more documents.

What Constantine didn’t know was that the memorandum of law wasn’t filed with the clerk until later in the day. According to an email conversation I had with Boston Globe reporter, Peter Schworm, he wasn’t sure what time he received the documents, but “it was late in the day though – I remember b/c I was here until quite late.”

As I’ve detailed above, Constantine doesn’t have a lot of courthouse reporting experience, and in this case she was incompetent in preparing her story, which leaves the question, where the hell were her editors? After reading the story, didn’t they notice there wasn’t any useful content? The first story was filed at 9:30am, which would leave a lot of time to double back and get it right for the 8:30pm update. That is if someone knew the story was crap as filed. I guess we should heap a load of criticism on the story editors too.

How The Republican Can Improve Coverage

In addition to replacing Sandra Constantine with a seasoned court reporter, the Republican needs to develop better sources. Reading through the coverage thus far, it’s clear they haven’t developed sources that could shed light on adult behavior in the school. Why aren’t the reporters using Twitter to shake sources and information loose? That’s what I did to help write the article you’re reading. If a blogger can do it, why not a credentialed reporter?

There’s another problem at the Republican — not exactly related to the story — that nonetheless has affected the coverage of the Phoebe Prince story. In 2009 the Republican had two rounds of layoffs, in January and July, that decimated the newsroom. Right now they have about 22 full-time reporters, of which 20 or so cover more than 60 communities in the Republican circulation area.

Because general assignment reporters can’t be expected to be experts in every topic or issue that comes across their geographic beat, newspapers will often have reporters that cover specialized beats: business, food, medical, sports, and courts, for example. Right now the Republican has two of these specialized beats: the statehouse and the courts in Springfield (federal and state district). If a reporter (and editor) with courthouse experience were on the case, I’m sure the Republican would have better coverage.

The Republican should also closely look at the court documents for new story ideas. In the statement of the facts against defendant Ashley Longe,  there’s an interesting incident in the school library that took place on January 14, 2010 (the day Prince committed suicide). Here’s an excerpt explaining what happened:

According to witnesses, the defendant made reference to Ms.Prince on multiple oceassions while in the library. The first time, the defendant yelled something to the eFfect of “close your legs” and “I hate stupid sluts.” [...] The defendant walked by Ms. Prince’s table and said something to the effect that she (the defendant) hated sluts. According to witnesses the defendant said it loud enough so that Ms. Prince could hear it; and she did. According to one student, the defendant “was standing next to another table screaming at [Ms. Prince] from across the library.” [...] This student described the defendant as “taunting” Ms. Prince, or saying things to her from across the library, on and off for the five minutes that he and another male student were in the library. [...] The defendant’s comments to Ms. Prince were loud enough that they were overheard by other students in the library.

The narrative of the library incident is one and a half pages long; it’s very detailed. What I find astonishing is that not one person of authority is mentioned in the account. No librarian. No aid. No teacher. Not one person of authority makes an appearance in the narrative of the incident. Why?

Based on reporting, I’ve learned that the South Hadley High School library is sometimes “like the wild west.” Depending who the particular staff is in charge, discipline can be almost non-existent. Why is it like the “wild west” in the library? Are school staff themselves being intimidated by some students? I’ve heard one story about a past incident in the South Hadley High School that would confirm such behavior.

This could be a great news story that might address the issue of teachers trying (and sometimes failing) to stop bullies from running amok. What’s causing staff to fail to control behavior?

Another possible area of interest is a story dating back to 15 September 2007, written by Constantine, about two students that were suspended from South Hadley High School for 10 days because they had discharged Mace outside the library that put two students into the hospital. Was this a case of bullying? Here’s another published example of delinquent activity taking place in or around the library; what’s the problem there?

More in general, it would probably be helpful to actually dig into the archives and find other incidents that may or may not demonstrate a pattern of bullying or delinquent behavior in the high school.

Good Coverage About Important Stories Is Critical

Why should we be bothered by crappy news coverage about any story in our community? If you believe the function of our news media is to purely entertain the masses, then you might not see the importance of solid, enterprising reporting. However, if you understand that part of the function of the news media is to accurately inform legislators and citizens about the important issues of the day, which then in turn influences what laws get written and passed, you know the critical role the news media plays in our democracy. Situations like this don’t come along too often when a news story is bubbling up during the legislative process, like it is now with the currently pending bullying legislation in the statehouse.

UPDATE: I emailed Sandra Constantine on 4/15/2010 at 6:11 pm, asking for her response if she had one. Thus far she hasn’t responded. If she does, I will publish it in full. There’s also a conversation about this piece happening over at Media Nation.

Photo: public domain via Wikipedia.

Imagine a late night talk show with an audience of one [video]

The other day Craig Ferguson, who hosts the Late Late Show on CBS, did his show without an audience (video below). Interesting. As he pointed out, he wasn’t the first late night host to do a show without an audience. I was glad to hear his history of late night television pretty much end with David Letterman, who Ferguson said “deconstructed” the late night talk show.

But there’s one other person who nightly deconstructed the format, making people think about our relationship to communication, comedy, and audience. He wasn’t as talented as David Letterman, but Alan Havey was a pioneer in the infancy of original cable television shows. Night After Night with Alan Havey (fan site) aired from 1998-1992 on the Comedy Channel, which morphed into Comedy Central.

Havey had many great bits, but one thing that made the show so jarring was the “audience of one”. That’s right, there was only one audience member (they called the the person the “audient”). Here’s the story of one audient, Andrew DiMino. Check out the last video, because there you see that the show crew applauds the audience of one, while Havey points out that the audience is supposed to do the applauding.

If I’m going to stay up late to watch television, I want to be compelled to watch. I want to watch something I’ve never seen before; and if there’s a guest, I want them to say something I’ve never heard them say before. That’s why Leno is so lame — it’s all been said and done before. No surprise or spontaneity. Nothing original to keep you awake with Leno. Put your head on the pillow and sweat dreams.

So, watch a clip from Night After Night featuring the audience of one, then check out Craig Ferguson.

For more of a taste of Night After Night, check out a full introduction to the show:

Does the New York Times restaurant critic hate food?

I’ve tried to give him a chance to get his writing legs under him, but the New York Times new chief restaurant critic Sam Sifton has made a mess of his beat. His style of writing isn’t the main problem for me, though it is for others (here and here). Yeah, I don’t like his writing, but let’s chalk that up to my preference.

The problem is that Sifton doesn’t write about food very much, considering he’s supposed to be doing restaurant reviews. He thinks the whole experience of going to a restuarant as performance art, as best as I can tell, so the food is just one point to note. And the food might not be the most important point, judging by the ledes of his reviews. Rarely does a review mention food before you’ve read half the article. Talk of the service you’ll find at restaurants is almost nonexistent.

If food was important to Sam Sifton he’d write about it before 500 words fly by. I’m wondering if this guy has an editor, because an editor with good judgement wouldn’t let that happen. As they say in sports highlights shows, let’s go to the tape.

In his latest review published Feburary 17, 2010, Sifton wrote 1,096 words but doesn’t get to a full paragraph about the food until word 717. What did he write before getting to the food? Basically the history of pizza restaurants in New York City and the chefs who head them, including someone who has since moved to San Francisco.

Here are the first two paragraphs of the review (113 words):

THERE was a television crew in Motorino in Williamsburg a couple of weeks ago, Michelle Park from NY1 shooting a segment with the restaurant’s chef, the elegant young Mathieu Palombino. He smiled shyly in chef’s whites.

There have been others. Fame stalks the restaurant, which has locations in Brooklyn and the East Village. Vice magazine came to film an episode of its “Munchies” program, which streams on VBS.tv. Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli, who run the Frankies restaurants and Prime Meats out of a compound in Carroll Gardens, were the ostensible subjects, but they ventured to Motorino to eat pizza. They ended up spiriting Mr. Palombino back to their lair to make meatballs.

Blah, blah, blah, so it goes for 717 words. Summarized, the introduction to the restaurant Motorinio is letting the reader know that it’s famous.

Let’s look at one other example, a review published January 27, 2010. The review is 1,054 words long; his first paragraph about the food comes at word  582. What did he write for more than half the article? London, of course! (The restaurant has another operation there.) Here’s how Sifton began this review:

IN London, the restaurant called Le Caprice holds a place somewhere between our Michael’s, the news media hub on East 55th Street, and the Sardi’s of old in the theater district. It is not so much a restaurant as a club.

At its best, the British version of Le Caprice is filled with lords and skeevy barristers, hacks and publicists, actors on the make, drooping aristos, pop stars and spectacular women. There is a wonderful story about the punk-rock chieftain Ian Dury crashing through the place, drunk and outstanding on his cane. It ends with Omar Sharif punching him in the face.

You don’t hear so much about the food at Le Caprice. But a meal there might be a novel in three courses, or a short story told in gin and diet pills.

That’s right, Sifton’s first 135 words are about a restaurant in London where “you don’t hear so much about the food.” Perfect. And how does Sifton begin his first full paragraph about the food he’s reviewing?

There are a few good things to eat.

Sifton’s passion about the food jumps off the page (kidding). He doesn’t give the restaurant a very good review, which is fine, but write about the food with passion, damn it! I don’t think this guy loves food. Maybe he’s happy eating Top Ramen everyday?

Who loves food and is writing good restaurant reviews today?

Why haven’t you watched The Cove yet?

Run. Do what ever you have to, but watch the documentary The Cove. After watching The Cove, if you haven’t been moved and exhilarated, drop an anvil on your foot to test your senses. In addition to being a compelling film about environmentalism being fought for by dedicated people, it’s a cool espionage story.

The Cove is the story about people trying to stop the slaughter of dolphins in a remote cove in Japan. How they’re trying to stop the slaughter is by making the movie, which is the espionage part of the film. Everybody in this little fishing village is trying to stop the filmmakers from capturing the hidden slaughter cove on film, but the filmmakers have a clever team, including people from Industrial Light and Magic (the folks that brought you Star Wars, among other special effects heavy movies) who helped create hidden “rock” cameras.

The photo above? That’s the bloody cove captured using the hidden cameras.

Bad news about U.S. labor? Just a matter of perspective!

If you’re a reporter and have a certain perspective on life, don’t let that get in your way of telling a good story. At least that’s my read on this post on the New York Times Economix blog, titled “Who Belongs to Unions?“.

First, you need to know that many people just read the titles of news stories. If you include a graphic with the story, like the Times does in this post (the same graphic I included above), it’s pretty much assured that not many people will read further. In this case the post title doesn’t really reflect the interesting story of these labor statistics, a story that’s outlined by the source of the graphic, The Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the BLS story, titled “Union membership declines in 2009“, the important information is that … drum roll, please … union membership declined by 3/4 of a million people in 2009. The NY Times took an important story and turned it into a trivia question by ignoring the job loses and looking at what sectors had union jobs.

Bah.

Jay Leno’s blind spot – the most surprising revelation of the Oprah interview [video]

Jay Leno has a large blind spot when it comes to dealing with humans, which Oprah revealed during her interview with the milquetoast comedian on Thursday. It even caused Oprah to catch her breath, making her circle back and confirm Leno’s answer.

What is that blind spot? He seems to have a hard time dealing with his peers, especially those who’ve touched “his show”.

First case in point, Johnny Carson. In the Oprah interview he doesn’t even mention him by name, only referencing him as “someone” he took the show over from. It was similar to his first show after Carson retired in 1992, and Leno failed to even mention his predecessor who hosted the Tonight Show for 30 years. Why is Leno always involved in “late night wars”?

Second example of Leno’s problem with his peers: Conan “Coco” O’Brien. In what I would call strange behavior, Leno said he didn’t consider calling O’Brien directly during this whole mess, despite what he says earlier in the interview about only a half dozen people really understanding what it means to do a late night show. Wow. Check out that bit, around 5:15 of the video.

Have you ever had a conflict with a friend and thought it better not to speak with them?

Using anonymous sources to rehabilitate a mobster’s image

This past weekend The Boston Globe published a story about Boston-based gangster James “Whitey” Bulger and his son (deceased) a girlfriend gave birth to in 1967. In terms of advancing the saga of Bulger’s life (reported to include 19 murders), it doesn’t do much. In fact, the story boils down to an attempt by the old girlfriend, Lindsey Cyr, to rehabilitate the Bulger image; apparently, until his son died at 6 years old, Bulger was a great dad. I was touched to find a mass murder was a caring dad.

On the scale of investigation journalism, the story was on par with an investigation of why the sun came up this morning. Given that, why does this story use anonymous sources throughout? Repeatedly the story cites a “former mob associate” of Bulger’s (not clear if it’s the same assocate referred to throughout the story). The story doesn’t give a reason why these sources need to be anonymous.

Also, in a weird turn of the story, when trying to cite an incident that included Bulger’s younger brother, former State Senate president William, a “friend of William M. Bulger” confirms the story, not William Bulger himself! Why?

Using anonymous sources can be an effective tool, but readers have to know why they’re being used if we’re expected to trust the reporting. Is it possible that The Boston Globe hasn’t learned the lessons of former New York Times reporter, Jayson Blair? The upshot of the Jayson Blair affair was for the Times to be more judicious in its use of anonymous sources; and when its done, to tell the reader why.

Read the Bulger story. Am I missing something? How confident are you in that story?