journalism, ridiculousness, television

Produced by Sonia Narang

Television news tends to hide the credits for stories. Take this little report from Coney Island:

Although the story is dominated by the so-called “talent,” the story was pitched, shot, and structured by Sonia Narang, who has a year-long fellowship at NBC. She produced it. (If you want to hear funny stories about your favorite television news personalities, by the way, talk to a producer.) Or as they say at NBC, Sonia DJ’ed the piece. “DJ” standing for “digital journalist,” which is what we all are turning into, I hear.

If they include a credit for caption writer, maybe I can get a little nod. I took a stab at the early version of the script and, this being national television news, tried to write something appropriately clichéd and bombastic. A few relics of that since-buried text were used in the online story caption, which can be rather hard to find, actually.

Update: Aired on Today show last Saturday, December 27th.

China, international, journalism, really?, television

Young, Restless, China

The always worthy Frontline is airing a documentary tonight following young Chinese adapting to a changing urban environment:

No shortage of stories coming from the city in China. (No shortage of cities in China; something like 100–or more–cities with populations that exceed one million.) I chalk this up, in part, to a fascination with people who are becoming more like us Americans.

There is a nod to rural China, something like 800 million out of the 1.2 billion Chinese, in this documentary by looking at migrant workers. The migrant’s story is about the only vehicle through which the media looks at rural China, though rural China is where most of China remains. Probably the best comment I’ve encountered on how we see rural China comes from an expatriate American credit card marketer in this spring’s China issue of Good magazine (a magazine I like, and to which I subscribe):

What should people in America know about China?
Whenever people hype China, remember that China is still two-thirds farmers. That means there are roughly 800 million farmers here. That is the real China. Even I don’t go to those places.

Neither did Good–or most anybody else.

–Update: The Frontline doc did quite a good job with the rural angle. —

competition, journalism, television


When I heard of the death of Tim Russert yesterday, the grand inquisitor (in a good way) of Washington, I repeatedly thought of Mark Leibovich’s Chris Matthews profile from the NYT Mag in April:

On the morning of the Cleveland debate, Matthews was standing in the lobby of the Ritz when Russert walked through, straight from a workout, wearing a sweat-drenched Buffalo Bills sweatshirt, long shorts and black rubber-soled shoes with tube socks. “Here he is; here he is, the man,” Matthews said to Russert, who smiled and chatted for a few minutes before returning to his room. (An MSNBC spokesman, Jeremy Gaines, tried, after the fact, to declare Russert’s outfit “off the record.”)

I watched Chris Matthews on the MSNBC online stream last night, he was in Paris (as was Bob Schieffer). Matthews demonstrated the remarkable candor that sometimes gets him in trouble; but it was just right here. He came on after Brokaw, and said, you know, I wasn’t as close to Tim as those guys. But he kept talking, and it was clear that Matthews admired him. Leibovich wrote that Matthews seems to crave Russert’s approval. I don’t know if he ever got it or not, but that makes for a particular sense of loss when this happens.

Brokaw repeatedly mentioned Russert’s working class credentials (as well as his own and Mike Barnicle’s). It is a badge of honor, of sorts; one I sometimes try to wear. A quick look around my cohort at the journalism school ought to be enough to settle the question of whether the chattering classes tend to be seeded by the upper (or upper middle) classes. Few of my colleagues had a parent in the military, or one who worked in a factory. See? Hard to resist.

Today Leibovich has an article in the Times about Russert and his place in the Washington firmament. He does a good job of balancing Russert’s working class image with the attractions and convenience he found in his position at the top of the D.C. heap.

Another local cliché: Washington is Hollywood for ugly people. So in a town that’s in fact entirely over-populated with blow-dried preeners, it seemed entirely appropriate that the signature TV star be, if not ugly, aggressively “not pretty.” Indeed, Mr. Russert seemed to intentionally hold his face at crooked angles, like he was sidling up to a Rust Belt dive bar (as opposed to, say, his favorite lunch joint in Washington, the Palm).

Mr. Russert liked to seem sheepishly above-it-all, but was also as acutely status-conscious, befitting the local water. He was always mindful of not appearing too often on MSNBC, NBC’s cable cousin, for fear of diluting his big-league brand. He was known primarily as a TV star to most people, but often identified himself by his more hierarchical title, “Washington bureau chief.” There is no shortage of politicians, beginning with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who believed Mr. Russert could be bullying and prone to grandstanding at times, making excessive show of his top-of-the-heap position.

Still, the story that Leibovich seemed to remember the most yesterday was the same one I did:

My last encounter with Mr. Russert was at a Democratic debate in Cleveland, which he was moderating. I was with his colleague Mr. Matthews — I was writing about Mr. Matthews for the New York Times Magazine — and we ran into Mr. Russert in the lobby of the Cleveland Ritz Carlton. He had just worked out and was wearing a sweaty Bills sweatshirt and long shorts and black loafers with tube socks. An MSNBC spokesman who was with us tried to declare Mr. Russert’s attire “off the record,” which I found hilarious, and which I was of course compelled to include in the story. When I called Mr. Russert to tell him this, and he laughed so hard, I had to move the phone away from my ear.

“Just do me one favor,” Mr. Russert said. “Say they were rubber-soled shoes, will you?” Done.

Black loafers?

Re-read that excerpt at the top.

influence, lost, television

Nickelodeon Encomium

What happens when people my age (28) or younger start to feel nostalgic? Some turn to the common cultural thread of television. I’ve found a handful of YouTube tributes to the cable channel Nickelodeon, which, according to a couple of these videos, enjoyed a golden era from about 1990 to 2004.

The kids born in 1990 will be starting college this year, so I’d guess some of these are a product of that cohort more than my own. Still, there are some good shows in there, and a few nods to the 1980s–which I still remember, anyway. After all, that was a decade that Nickelodeon carried shows like Mr. Wizard, Double Dare, Danger Mouse, Belle and Sebastian, The Little Prince, and You Can’t Do That on Television. (And at least one musician my age got a name out of this list.)

I think there’s one feature common to several shows that Nickelodeon broadcast that makes them worthwhile. Think of the earliest in that list: You Can’t Do That on Television. The element (and value) in subversion was a feature of these shows more than the average television fare available to young people. The existential frustration of Ren and Stimpy, the striving defiance and ingenuity in The Adventures of Pete and Pete, and the quotidian repression (and weird sexuality) of Rocko’s Modern Life–all these things were tossed into the cultural stew of the 80s and 90s and helped prepare those kids who listened for John Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Arrested Development, Napoleon Dynamite, and the sensibility referred to, sometimes derisively, and, I think, not always accurately, as “quirk.”

science, television

Back to Blogging (we hope), but first, Mr. Wizard

It is that rare thing to see a new post on this blog. But there’s all this blogging going on at Wired, where I’m hanging out for the summer, and that’s spurred me to get back into it. Keep an eye out, though; this blog might be moving.

But first, some news. Mr. Wizard died this afternoon. I thought he was great. Some have disagreed with me about him in the past, citing unhappy memories of being forced to sit through his show in class. But I didn’t see it in class, and only had cable for a couple of years as a kid when he was on Nickelodeon, all of which to say that I rarely saw the show, which made it all the more interesting.

Don Herbert, Mr. Wizard, in a file photo from the LA Times.

Mr. Wizard made science real. How else would I have learned that you can drink grape juice while standing on your head?

And he left his impression. I didn’t grow up in a place with big museums or, frankly, creative or curious people. This may be why I’m so ambivalent about criticizing television. It was shows like Mr. Wizard and 3-2-1 Contact and numerous public television programs that instilled in me a childhood sense of wonder in the wider world.

And that sense is what I’ve been chasing the last several years. It’s helped me get around on a couple of continents and into a couple of professions.

I suppose I’m sending a note of thanks, then, to Mr. Wizard and those people who produce shows like his. We’re watching.


Watch a little bit of This American Life

So part of the complication comes from the fact that while I like All Things Considered, I love This American Life, and where does a person like me fit into those kinds of sensibilities? Chew on that for a few minutes, or better: watch this short segment from the looming television version of This American Life. It’s on Showtime, so I won’t be watching, alas.

It has some fun animation in the Chris Ware style.

crime, journalism, television

Don’t Destroy Your TV: There’s Still PBS.

PBS broadcast two documentaries last night that demonstrated the value of good journalism, the importance of people as individuals, why television can be an effective tool for investing issues with a sense of immediacy and significance (without being sensationalistic)—and why PBS is important.

The first was an episode of Frontline, a consistently good documentary series produced in Boston and Berkeley/San Francisco (along with Frontline/World). The episode, entitled “Sex Slaves,” examined the trafficking of often unwitting, often very poor women from Ukraine and Moldova to Istanbul, detailing the methods that traffickers use to smuggle and enslave them. The filmmakers interviewed women who had managed to free themselves from this imprisonment, and followed an Odessa bartender as he posed as a trafficker in an attempt to free his wife from a violent Istanbul pimp—she had been sold into slavery for $1,000 by an acquaintance while in Istanbul to purchase merchandise for her mother’s shop. (Women are often put onto the path to slavery by someone they know, one of those dark rules of thumb like how murder victims tend to know their killers or car accidents usually occur near home). I recommend a viewing if you happen to catch a rerun; it isn’t available to watch online. However, Frontline currently has 52 other episodes available to watch online worth checking out.

The second documentary was “Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power.” It profiled Robert Williams, a civil rights activist and NAACP organizer from North Carolina who in 1959 began to encourage African Americans to consider using guns to protect themselves against racism since law enforcement and the judicial system would not: “I made a statement that if the law, if the United States Constitution cannot be enforced in this social jungle called Dixie, it is time that Negroes must defend themselves even if it is necessary to resort to violence.” Williams was disowned by the NAACP and Freedom Riders visited his town of Monroe, North Carolina, to demonstrate the power of passive (i.e., nonviolent resistance). Unfortunately, the Freedom Riders were attacked by the local Ku Klux Klan, local citizens, and local police, and had to retreat to the protection of Williams and his Black Guard. And then, as the Web site puts it, “Amid the chaos, Williams sheltered a white couple from an African American mob, only to be accused later of kidnapping them.” He and his family, pursued by the government and the Klan, gained asylum in Cuba, where he developed an uncomfortable relationship with Castro and broadcast “Radio Free Dixie;” then Communist China where he spent time with Mao and Chou En Lai. His philosophy helped inspire the Black Power Movement, but when Williams returned to America (charges dropped and a subject of great interest to the State Department for his insight into China) he focused almost exclusively on discussing China.

The thematic importance of each of these shows, besides their actual subjects, is the idea, always visible, that people matter. That one man, Williams, can make a difference, can jump into the debate on race and then as easily “retire” from it. Or that subjects still as abstract to so many as civil rights or the sex trade are made up of the experiences of millions of people. Sex trafficking and enslavement entails finding one woman or girl, kidnapping her, selling her, raping her (often infecting her with STDs), beating her, prostituting her, confining her, attacking her mental health. And then doing all that again and again to one woman after another (occasionally killing one to make an example of her) until there are a million or more around the world, including an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 women trafficked in the U.S. each year. And similar is probably happening in other forms of human trafficking and smuggling. Reminds one of Stalin’s assertion that “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

But why do these programs show PBS is important? Because by striving for a wide-ranging format, people might see programs like these that they might otherwise not see. There is still a place for the general interest media outlet, and PBS is one of the best, featuring “children’s, cultural, educational, history, nature, news, public affairs, science and skills programming,” according to its Web site. In an increasingly stratified media world, it’s hard to know where to look to find something new and worthwhile. And that’s the problem with the idea that everything—magazine, television channels, your entire online experience—should be completely, carefully tailored to your taste, that everything should be filtered down to only what you thought mattered to you. You lose that sense of surprise. You forget that browser’s satisfaction.

Granted, not everything on PBS is to my taste, and I find some content thoroughly numbing. But I’m willing to look past all that as a good partisan raised on PBS: from Sesame Street, the Electric Company, 3-2-1 Contact, and WonderWorks productions to Nature, Nova, the American Experience, and Frontline.