George Martin, the dapper, classically-trained music producer who helped to guide the Beatles from obscurity to being the most influential rock band of all time, died recently in his sleep at the age of 90; Martin also collaborated with performers as diverse as Jeff Beck and Cheap Trick. Read the full article about George Martin here.
Thursday Review’s Alan Clanton looks at the Steven Spielberg film, Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance. It tells the remarkable true story of attorney James B. Donovan, who represents a Russian spy, and later negotiates a complex trade between the Superpowers, bringing home an American pilot. Read the movie review on our Film & TV Page.
Thursday Review‘s Kevin Robbie tells the story of how The Beatles played at New York’s Shea Stadium in 1965, overnight changing the way rock and roll fans would see live music, and in the process putting on the most famous outdoor concert ever held. Read the full Music Page article by clicking here.
Thursday Review offers up a subjective list of the six funniest, laugh-out-loud movies, and why these films are classics in their own ways. Follow the link to our Film & Television Page for more, and let us know if your own list differs from ours!
Thursday Review’s Kevin Robbie looks at the 1980 U.S. hockey team and its stunning, longshot wins in the Winter Olympics that year–especially its incredible win over the vaunted, much feared team from the Soviet Union; Features Page article: Miracle 1980: Cold War on Ice; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review.
Thursday Review examines the long life of actor Leonard Nimoy; his portrayal of Spock in the Star Trek series made his face an icon of television and one of the biggest names in science-fiction. How Star Trek became a sensation; Article here: Leonard Nimoy, Rest in Peace; February 28, 2015; Thursday Review.
Thursday Review’s Stuart Boggess examines the pop performance stylings of Bruno Mars; music that is both classic and timeless, as well as appealing to new audiences; Music Page article: If You Don’t Believe Me, Just Watch; Thursday Review; February 23, 2015.
Thursday Review examines Brian Williams’ recent troubles, and his resignation from the board of directors of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. Media Page article here: Williams Resigns From Congressional Medal Board; February 20, 2015.
NBC News anchor Brian Williams has taken a leave of absence from his desk for at least two weeks; his departure comes as a result of questions about his retelling of a wartime incident in Iraq, now discredited; will the popular and well-liked anchor return? Or is his career now finished at NBC News? Media Page article: Brian Williams: A Brief Hiatus From NBC News.
Thursday Review’s Alan Clanton looks at an epic tug-of-war between the competing egos of Bill Clinton and Oscar-winning director Martin Scorcese, and the struggle for control over a major documentary project chronicling the political life of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Article here: Clinton Versus Scorcese: Clash of the Titans; Thursday Review.
Thursday Review features editor Earl Perkins looks at the 2015 Winter Dance Party, an annual music fest held each year to honor the legacies of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper, who died on February 3, 1959, when their Beechcraft Bonanza crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa on its way to Fargo, North Dakota. Read the Music Page article: Buddy Holly & the Winter Dance.
Thursday Review’s Earl Perkins and Alan Clanton offer their own retrospectives for the life and times of Stuart Scott, the game-changing sportscaster who became the face of ESPN and brought millions of younger, hipper viewers to sports talk. See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/StuartScottPasses.html Also at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/StuartScottRetrospective.html
It may be the worst movie to have ever received this much advance attention or publicity. And in the end, it may have been at the center of the costliest corporate data breach since the great Target retail hack of 2013. Was all the fuss over The Interview worth it? And where does Sony Pictures go from here? One in a series of articles about cyber-security and freedom of the press: http://www.thursdayreview.com/TheInterviewSonyHack.html
Thursday Review‘s Alan Clanton examines Pulp Fiction as it reaches its 20th anniversary, a transformative and game-changing film which fractured the ossified rules of Hollywood at the time. The movie also gave actor Bruce Willis redirection, made a star out of Samuel L. Jackson, and harkened the return of John Travolta in what became the most famous comeback in Tinseltown history. Read the full article at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/PulpFiction20.html
By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
The production, marketing and release of major motion pictures are monumentally costly undertakings. Many millions are spent—sometimes $25, $30, $40 million or more—just on filming, editing and talent. The studios have an expectation that these movies, once projected onto big screens across the world, will rake in at least a modest profit.
In fact, the business model has evolved so completely over the last two decades that few films reach the shooting stage without first being subjected to a long, grueling process of approval by the powers-that-be. In the corporate model which now dominates the movie industry, few films reach the theaters without first being carefully measured for their capacity to make money for the studio, the parent company, and the stockholders.
So when word of the massive theft at Sony Pictures—a hack job which resulted in a dozen movies being digitally offloaded in their entirety—hit the streets of Hollywood and New York, it sent a shudder through the spines of anyone and everyone who has ever worked in the film business. The data breach at Sony Pictures resulted in, among other things, a premature online release of the new movie Annie. Annie was not scheduled for theatrical release until close to Christmas. Now, by conservative estimates, the movie has already been downloaded half a million times since the security breach was discovered less than one week ago. In fact, Annie is being downloaded at the rate of 500 units per minute worldwide even as you read this article. By tomorrow, industry analysts suggest, Annie will be available—for free—to more than 2 million viewers.
Sony has enlisted the FBI, as well as the services of several expensive private security teams to analyze the breach and halt the digital hemorrhage. But for Annie, the damage may already be financially catastrophic.
But Annie was not exactly the true target, at least according to some theories. In one of those strange cases of life imitating art—or vice-versa (sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference which comes first)—and politics imitating comedy (think of Saturday Night Live’s uncanny parody of the failure of the health care website rollout)—North Korean hackers may, and we stress may, have been directly responsible for the security breach at Sony. The reason? Sony was weeks away from the release of a fictional comedic take on the political thriller called The Interview, a story in which two American guys—posing as amateur web journalists—are sent by the CIA across the DMZ into North Korea with the task of assassinating the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. The movie stars Seth Rogen and James Franco.
Sony Pictures has multiple teams of security clean-up crews fixing the damage caused by the breach. In addition to the theft of digital copies of entire motion pictures—at least five of which have already been downloaded millions of times within the last few days—the hackers also crashed most of Sony’s computer system, disrupting databases and making email delivery and receipt impossible. Sony has hired contractor Fire Eye’s “Mandiant” crew to repair the damage and get all systems back online, but it may take a few more days before all loopholes are closed and all network operations are back to normal. Sources inside Sony have revealed to some in the media that the security breach, in terms of cost and scale, may be bigger than last year’s Target hack, or this year’s massive Home Depot data breach.
Though law enforcement has not made any comment publicly on where it is looking, dozens of sources—both those with knowledge of the FBI and those with direct connections inside Sony—have indicated that the cyber-attack may have been retribution by North Korean techies in the service of Kim Jong-un, who has called the farcical movie “an act of war” and an “aggressive form of cultural attack.”
When the computer system crashed last week, employees at Sony say that most screens displayed a dark red skull with the words “hacked by #GOP.” And no, that’s not the Grand Old Party we think of generally as Republicans, but a group allegedly calling itself the “Guardians of Peace.” In the meantime, as thousands of people in the business world and the Hollywood movie industry have noted, emails sent to Sony Pictures employees are immediately bounced back. In the meantime, all Sony business is being conducted old school: by phone, by fax, or by Xerox machine.
Can North Korea claim victory on this attack? Neither the FBI nor other law enforcement agencies are commenting—at least in specific ways—but there have plenty of indications that U.S. agencies ae looking directly at North Korea as the perpetrator of the attack. According to several major news sources, law enforcement officials who are speaking off-the-record say that the Sony cyber-heist has Pyongyang’s thumbprints all over it. One can only assume that the damage is real and measurable, especially when calibrated by the revenue apparently lost because of films prematurely released online. Besides the new Annie, the other films apparently stolen in the breach include Mrs. Turner and Fury. Fury, a war movie, directed by David Ayer and starring Brad Pitt and Shia LeBeouf, opened in theaters last month, but the illegal downloads of it also reached the thousands per hour as of this past weekend. According to the film website IMDb, Fury has already grossed about $82 million. But the illegal downloads may quickly suppress future profits.
Sony Pictures’ data breach would be the largest such single cyber-attack to hit a major motion picture studio.
North Korea has made no official comment on the brouhaha. But many in both the foreign policy arena, as well as the movie business, recall that the isolated country—which sits north of the demilitarized zone established by the United Nations at the end of military hostilities more than 50 years ago—was not amused by the thought of an American-made movie about the assassination of its dear leader, parody or otherwise. In June 2014, a spokesperson for the North Korean government declared that all North Koreans were being challenged to “mercilessly destroy anyone who dares hurt or harm the supreme leadership of the country…even one bit.” Serious words. Except that those who follow the daily narrative from Pyongyang know that such harsh language is par for the course, as it were.
Like its larger neighbor to its north and west (China), and like the rogue Iran, North Korea has established a specialized military unit whose sole purpose is cyber-warfare. This brigade of 1500 techies—dressed in army uniforms (unlike their counterparts in California in blue jeans and black t-shirts)—is tasked with engaging in digital battle, and it is empowered to ignore web etiquette and international law. In North Korea, this cyber-warrior battalion is called Unit 121. Some U.S. security experts have suggested that the Sony Pictures data breach has all the markings of an attack by the loyal shock troops of Unit 121.
Ironically, North Korea has one of the tiniest internet footprints in the world. By some estimates, less than one percent of its population has any internet access at all. Those with web access are either top military, high government officials, or those members of Unit 121—and even then web access is greatly limited and activities closely monitored. North Korea’s small internet footprint means that proof of its authorship or sponsorship of the attack will be difficult, and retaliation may be close to impossible.
North Korea has a tradition of being easily riled, and many experts say that if the data breach at Sony turns out to have its roots in Pyongyang, it may be an indication of more trouble for American companies in the future. North Korea has been the chief suspect in several cyber-attacks against banks and financial companies in South Korea in recent years, as well as in a major cyber-attack on South Korean television and radio broadcasters in 2013.
Security experts and law enforcement say that cyber-attacks and data heists are what crime will look like for the foreseeable future. Gone are the days of guys with guns hijacking trucks carrying reels of film, boxes of videotapes or stacks of CDs. In the place of this kind of strong arm crime is a new kind of criminal who uses the computer to steal digital data. Since much of the motion picture industry is moving toward fully digital production and editing processes, this means that the heist at Sony Pictures may be the first of many to come.
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By Kathryn Mineer, Thursday Review contributor
More often than not, the concept art for a movie is far more grandiose than the actual finished product. Character designs are simplified, color palettes are toned down, and all the more intricate minutiae seems to get lost altogether in the translation from artist’s vision to silver screen.
Jorge Gutierrez decided his animated film—The Book of Life—would not suffer a similar fate. Decreeing that his film would include all the “glorious art” that usually only sees the light of day in the “The Art of” type-books, or in those magazine articles featuring “what could have been” glimpses of storyboards, Gutierrez avoids compromise and surpasses expectations. The Book of Life is a feast for the eyes, filled to the brim with vibrant color, charming characters, and loving attention to every detail. It’s hard not to be captivated by this fast-paced tale set in the heart of Mexico.
The story starts out with two boys—Manola and Joaquin—who are both vying for the heart of their female friend, Maria. Two deities of the afterlife—La Muerte and her husband Xibalba—notice this and use their young love as the basis for a wager. Xibalba rules over the Land of the Forgotten, where departed souls with no one to honor them after their deaths waste away in misery. La Muerte reigns over the Land of the Remembered, a land of eternal celebration where those whose families honor the memories go to spend the afterlife in style. Tired of spending eons in such a depressing place, Xibalba bets that if Joaquin wins Maria’s heart, he will switch domains with La Muerte. Likewise, La Muerte bets that if Maria falls in love with Manolo, Xibalba will cease meddling in human affairs forever.
Not satisfied with just sitting back and watching, however, Xibalba tips the scales in his favor, gifting Joaquin with a medal that grants him near invincibility. When Maria returns from boarding school in Spain as an adult she finds that Joaquin has become a famous hero admired by everyone in town due to the medal’s influence. Manolo has also grown up, becoming a bullfighter as per his father’s wishes despite his own desire to be a musician. Both do their best to impress her and when it becomes evident that Manolo’s sincerity has charmed Maria over Joaquin’s ostentatious showboating, Xibalba intervenes, forcing Manolo to undergo various trials in the afterlife in order to return to the mortal world and be reunited with Maria.
The entire narrative is framed under the pretext of a museum guide using wooden figures to illustrate the tale to a group of children on a field trip and the movie definitely feels like it was made to appeal to children first and foremost. The characters are all heavily stylized and the plot moves at a fast—at times bordering on hyperactive—pace. The entire movie clocks in at 95 minutes, and while the filmmakers do pack in a lot of heart into those 95 minutes, at times the film felt more like a long episode of a television cartoon than a feature film, especially in regards to the comedy.
Many of the jokes relied on funny voices and slapstick to land the laughs, and many—in this reviewer’s opinion—missed the mark. Even though I wasn’t particularly wowed by the comedy, however, the visuals and the movie’s overall message certainly make it worth seeing. The story behind The Book of Life is a story about following your heart despite what others might expect of you and many of the characters defy the stereotypes of what they’re supposed to be. Manolo is a thoughtful, gentle hero who isn’t afraid to show his emotions, Maria is a fearless, strong-willed leader who never becomes a damsel in distress, and Joaquin – who easily could have become a typical jilted lover who turns on his friends – overcomes his jealousy to fight alongside them for what is right. Aside from its character depth, the film’s music also triumphs, featuring everything from traditional up-tempo Mexican dance to mainstream hits—at one point Manolo strums out a heartfelt cover of Radiohead’s song “Creep” on his guitar—all culminating in an absolutely breathtaking ending musical number.
The Book of Life’s true strength lies in its visuals above all else—it is a loving, immaculately detailed tribute to the rich color and culture of Mexico. In this way it is unlike many of the other animated CGI films that hit the market these days. Whereas many films are made with big budgets to make even bigger profits, The Book of Life is the result of an artistic vision and a dream made reality. It has a heart to it that makes it worth watching and definitely makes it worth the ticket price.
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By Thursday Review staff
Though the ruling was sealed and there has been little conversation—before, during, or after—a copyright and trademark case is making its way through the courts in California, a case with big implications for anyone thinking of imitating the famous fictional agent James Bond.
MGM and Danjaq LLC have sued NBC Universal (owned by Comcast) to force Universal to cease its development and production of a motion picture which will feature a high-ranking spy working for British intelligence. The fictional spy being developed by NBC Universal wears tuxedos, drinks dry martinis, drives snazzy sports cars, receives a “license to kill” from his handlers in London, and—in general—has all the other habits and attributes of the famous spy developed decades ago by novelist Ian Fleming, and parlayed over the years into perhaps the most famous film franchise in movie history.
The case now being heard in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles is called Danjaq LLC vs. Universal City Studios. MGM and Danjaq, it seems, do not want to see other film and TV studios cash in on a very profitable, but closely held, creation.
The Bond series—which numbers either 24 or 25, depending on how one counts them—has grossed close to $2 billion just in American theaters over the years. Coupled with other rights—foreign distribution, television replays, likenesses, gadgets, toys, you name it—the overall impact runs closer to $3 billion.
NBC Universal argued in court that the case was a waste of time and money: not one frame of the proposed film has even been shot, the script is still under development and therefore subject to extensive changes, and NBC Universal would likely rewrite/revise the draft screenplay (written originally by Aaron Berg) to insure that neither MGM nor Danjaq LLC would be infringed upon by the movie. Further, Universal says it has not even concluded whether the film should be produced. NBC had made a motion recently for the case to be dismissed, but U.S. District Judge James Otero denied that motion.
Nevertheless, talk is fast and loose in Hollywood. Rumors of the Bond-like motion picture have been circulating for many months, and it has been readily apparent that MGM and Danjaq plan to protect the reputation of their favorite secret agent.
The bond franchise has not only been highly profitable, but it has also made stars of its dapper leading men. Among those who have portrayed the handsome, well-tailored agent: Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig. There have been other James Bonds in films, but it get complicated (for example, most people do not know that Bond was first portrayed as an American, by actor Barry Nelson; and many more would be surprised to learn that David Niven also played Bond).
Comic knockoffs of Bond have proliferated over the years as well. Mike Myers’ classic send-up of British spies—Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery—spawned an entire subculture of London-based agent laughs and gags. Johnny English, portrayed with the sort of deadpan aplomb only possible by the British comedian Rowan Atkinson, wears nifty black tuxedos, drives expensive sports cars, and seems to know which end of the gun is which. But English also causes almost as much mayhem and disruption as one would think possible in the intelligence services. Atkinson’s role also spawned numerous sequels.
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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
The new moderator of Meet the Press, Chuck Todd, introduced his stewardship of the show last weekend with two key things: an exclusive one-on-one with the President of the United States (thumbs-up), and a debut show complete with a few rough edges and a few glitches (also, thumbs-up). Yes, thumbs-up.
It’s an age-old tension in electronic media: looks, charisma and starpower versus gumshoe journalism and fearless questioning of authority.
Meet the Press, a show so old that it is the longest running television show in the history—on any network, in any country where there are TVs—has itself ebbed and flowed under the tidal weight of this dynamic. The show was invented for radio in 1945, and its co-creator, Martha Rountree, ushered it effectively into TV only two years later. Rountree was a reporter, producer, and writer, and—by most accounts—an innovator in television in a day when it was not clear that TV would have much of a future. Even in the late 1940s she recognized the tension between the reporting process familiar in print, and the new template developing around a technology which could easily punish or reward looks and delivery.
Even in the earliest days of radio, old school print reporters groused bitterly that their rivals with the microphones were little more than actors with scripts and cue cards. Television changed the dynamic more, but reached a kind of stasis by the middle 1960s. By then, TV viewers in the U.S. liked the comforting visages of Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Chet Huntley, Frank Reynolds, Harry Reasoner, and others. But looks would prevail, and the rise of the slick, handsome anchor (Peter Jennings, Brian Williams, Katie Couric, David Muir) would become common to our understanding of networks and their fierce battles over ratings (and revenue).
But Meet the Press was never about all of that—or at least it wasn’t supposed to be. Meet the Press was never designed to be “news” in the traditional sense. It’s goal—and that of its competitor’s similar programs—was to break free of the newsbite-soundbite formula prevalent in the typical evening newscast (include something about dogs or cats or kids, talk about the “wild weather,” and always end on something upbeat). Meet the Press was meant to be the show that required a cup of coffee by the participants, and it was also crafted to break free of either template.
If viewers really wanted Brian Williams to host Meet the Press, NBC would have moved him to that position years ago.
But when the beloved Tim Russert died of a heart attack suddenly in 2008, NBC needed to make a quick decision. After a few months of letting Tom Brokaw fill in as temporary host, the network settled on David Gregory—a capable reporter and gifted TV journalist. Gregory has everything that the suits at NBC figured would be ideal: urbane looks, a natty sense of grooming and dress, a slick delivery, and what amounted to an anchor-desk-style approach to the show. He was seen as the logical, upward arc of a show which had been the home to the likes of Bill Monroe, Roger Mudd, Marvin Kalb, Garrick Utley, and of course Brokaw and Russert.
Arguments remain heated to this day about what role the host (in Meet the Press parlance, “moderator”) should play, and how important looks, delivery and slickness should be to the overall format of the program, which had more of a kinship with newspaper reporting. Rountree was herself a creature of print. Born in Gainesville, Florida in 1911 and raised in Columbia, South Carolina, she would work first as a reporter for The Columbia Record, and later, The Tampa Tribune. She never completed college, and the newspaper jobs were meant to keep her finances afloat until she could one day return to school. But her love of journalism and her mostly self-taught, hard-fought skills became her life’s work. About as old school as it gets. But then, in 1938, she moved to New York City, where—improbably, perhaps, inevitably—she went to work writing advertising copy for magazines and radio, and where she would later develop and write “singing commercials” for radio broadcasts, an advertising specialty she excelled at. In that sense, she was perfectly prepared for the strange mix of style and substance required in those earliest days of television news.
But Meet the Press always pushed back from the desk of style and slickness. And that tendency to repudiate canned, pre-prepared, scripted news is what gave the show its voice. Meet the Press was not even a press conference, per se, but rather an opportunity for one or two or perhaps four reporters to dig in on an issue—or a set of issues—with their guest. And this meant not letting the guest off-the-hook, as it were.
This is why Tim Russert fit the show so well for so many years (Russert held the post of moderator longer than any other host, from 1991 until his death in 2008; Ned Brooks held the job the second-longest, from 1953 to 1965).
Russert didn’t look or act or feel like a television reporter. He was often rumpled and on the verge of being disheveled, hunkered down in a stance that leaned in toward his guests. His delivery was neither smooth, nor polished, nor alliteratively glossy (“a lot of light alliteration from anxious anchormen placed in powerful posts…”), nor did he ever seem overly impressed with his guests. He hovered at the very edge of irreverence, all the while being cordial, polite, and smiling. Some said he reminded them of an impish, irreverent college professor—the kind you might have a beer with after class. He was also unsparing and blunt, but never sarcastic, something his Irish Catholic upbringing (perhaps) had taught him was possible while still being impeccably well-mannered and jovial. Because he exuded a kind of comfortable everyman charm and a bit of street savvy, Russert’s guests understood ahead of time they were required to answer candidly, or face a second hit—this time harder.
Gregory, for all his likeability and skills, did not fit that particular suit. Where Russert was direct but engaging, at times even blunt, the strategically adept Gregory was perhaps, at times, conciliatory to the point of deference. But at other times, Gregory was caught-up in showmanship (as in the occasion he brought a gun magazine for an assault rifle onto the set with him as a show-and-tell piece for an interview with an NRA spokesman). And Gregory’s impeccable delivery and pacing and diction mean that he bore a closer resemblance to Brian Williams, or to David Muir—who was recently promoted to the job of anchor at ABC World News after the departure of the Dianne Sawyer.
Is this where Chuck Todd makes an ideal compromise? Todd, like Russert, disdains the showmanship aspect of the process (though he does make a halfhearted attempt to conceal an obviously receding hairline by combing his thin dark hair forward). But Todd, like Russert, is otherwise suspicious of the kind of slickness personified by Gregory. Todd is also a bit of an everyman—from that now ubiquitous goatee, which means he could easily be mistaken for your air conditioning repairman or the guy who drives the boat on your next fishing trip—to the language of a questioner devoid of sugar-coating and equivocation. When President Obama seemed to hint that the U.S. would have to forge some kind of partnership with Syrian ground forces in order to fight ISIS, Todd winced and interjected an incredulous “who?” Todd (like Russert) is not afraid of contesting the remarks of powerful people. And Todd (like Russert) is not concerned, at least at the moment, with pleasing powerful people, and this point is perhaps the most important; Gregory, for all his numerous skills and talents, often seemed to be trying to win approval of his guests.
Though it is not clear what will happen to that glossy, colorful set—which is a far cry from the primitive-looking stage sets of the Meet the Press of past decades—Todd may also be in favor of downsizing the aught years set and its grand collection of books. (Disclosure: I happen to love that part of the current set, and some Sundays I expend measurable energy trying to read those numerous titles). Some parts of the set were apparently already in a state of transition this past Sunday, and Todd likened it to living in a house while it is being remodeled. The panel of journalists and commentators helps to return the show top its roots as a group process, and in that sense the glittering set and the impeccable lighting should be secondary anyway.
When the iconic show began to look like a long-form version of short form news, it began a slow process of decline. Meet the Press must again prove its relevance (and not just in the ratings battles) by inching away from the network news model.
Related Thursday Review articles: Debating America Each Week; book review, Eclipse of Equality: Arguing America on Meet the Press, Solon Simmons; review by R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review. http://www.thursdayreview.com/MeetThePress.html
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By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor
(March 15, 2014) The week of March 9-15 (Sunday through Saturday) was a very busy news week, by any standard or measure.
There was the Ukrainian crisis—still roiling—a tense, dangerous military standoff with the chilling possibility of a shooting war between Russian troops, and Ukrainian troops aligned with the pro-western forces in Kiev; not to mention serious economic implications for almost all of Europe if oil and gas supplies are disrupted as a result of war. Crimea may hold elections this weekend to decide on a proposal to break away from the Ukraine, and Russian troops may be even now only hours away from a full-scale invasion.
There was the horrifying case of that mid-rise apartment building in Harlem which collapsed in flames after a gas main exploded, an urban catastrophe which may be one of many recent indications of critical infrastructure problems for many American cities.
There was the growing and dismal specter of humanitarian crisis in Syria, where hundreds of thousands have already died—many of them children and young adults—and where many thousands more have fled, in some cases on foot, into neighboring countries in search of refuge from a brutal civil war now in its fourth year.
That would have kept the news departments of any news organization busy enough, but there was still more: issues surrounding Obamacare and more concerns that millions would miss the looming March 31 deadline for registration; monumental political struggles over deep cuts to the U.S. military at the very moment when several international crisis seem on the brink of conflagration; complex and tricky negotiations between the U.S. and Iran over nuclear weapons programs; a major lawsuit by the FDIC against a dozen U.S. banks; the murder trial of South African Olympic gold medalist Oscar Pistorius; and the widening scandal at General Motors—a case in which GM executives may have deliberately avoided making a simple correction to a design defect, with the result that scores died needlessly over the last ten years.
And, there was that U.S. Airways jetliner with the blown tire skidding off the runway at the airport in Philadelphia.
The major news networks and major news outlets—CBS, NBC, BBC, ABC, Fox News, MSNBC, Reuters, Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times—had a difficult time knowing which way to turn the attention of their best correspondents and reporters.
But for the team at CNN, there was little struggle at all. CNN rendered the decision-making simple: they turned almost all their attention to the missing Malaysian airliner—this, despite a profound lack of actual news regarding that airplane.
A week ago, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 took off from the airport at Kuala Lumpur. The flight proceeded as normal, with no surprises or glitches, until, at some point in the South China Sea as it approached the radar reach of Vietnam, it vanished. A massive hunt for the plane—or debris—now includes 20 nations, hundreds of aircraft, over a hundred ships, and even U.S. Navy destroyers and carriers. In the days that followed the aircraft’s disappearance, dozens of major clues (and hundreds of smaller leads) have largely proven to be blind alleys for those frantically searching for…anything…wreckage, floating debris, electronic equipment, the cockpit data recorder (the “black box”), patterns among scores of radar data, objects in satellite images, even—a few might hope—an intact airliner parked on some remote airfield.
The mystery has deepened as each day passes and as each new lead, promising over the few hours of its lifespan, eventually proves to be a false alarm. Such was the case of those grainy satellite photos of floating material made available by the Chinese. Such was the case of the oil rig worker who claimed to have seen an airliner breaking up and disintegrating off the coast of Indonesia. And so on.
Terrorism was counted as a possible explanation. Then, well, no: we were told that terror was not a factor. Then, a day later: terror could not be ruled out.
But then neither could equipment failure, hijacking, human trafficking, kidnapping and ransom, piracy, sabotage, explosive cargo, bird strike or collision with small plane, accidental shooting, psychological episode by pilot or flight crew, electrical short-circuit and fire, even—we have now been told—the completely surreal possibility that the plane may have landed somewhere, engines still purring while the electronic systems ping their routine messages now collated by satellites and data systems. The search area now may include vast tracts of central Asia, and thousands of miles of Indian Ocean as far south as Antarctica.
In other words: the talking heads on most of the major news services have no idea. The tabloids and (…how to put this delicately…) fringe news websites and non-traditional news services have already begun the slow, inevitable descent into the realm of crop circles and sea serpents under Scottish lochs: alien abduction theories have made the rounds, as have a variety of religious scenarios that seem like chapters from the novels of Tim Lahaye. Conspiracy theories now abound: one is that the jetliner was shot down by the Chinese military; or downed by wealthy Chinese businessmen as retribution against certain Chinese executives aboard that flight. Other theories are so absurd they cross into sci-fi, such as the one that says the passengers were kidnapped to be used in biological/virus experiments at a secret facility deep under the ice of Antarctica. Think X- Files, the movie.
The complete lack of information necessarily fuels such wild speculation.
But CNN was undaunted, and apparently unfazed. By mid–week, complaints began to circulate widely in the mainstream press and those who analyze journalism: CNN was getting obsessed. Huffington Post reported that analysis of CNN’s news coverage of the missing jetliner was crowding out other stories. Some industrious folks had measured content, and their data indicated that CNN was placing 95% of its news airtime—minus commercials and “bumpers”—into the Malaysia Flight 370 story.
Intrigued, we decided to do a little gumshoe work ourselves—not into trying to find that missing Boeing 777 (which we believe will be found somewhere west of Honolulu, USA, but east of Bombay, India)—but into CNN’s newfound love affair with the case of the vanishing airplane.
We expected it to be obsessive. We were wrong. CNN’s enthusiasm is single-minded, insipid, and even, some could argue, journalistically irresponsible. CNN is enamored with that missing plane.
Our analysis: it was much worse than we expected.
Starting at 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time Friday (that would be 8:00 a.m. in the time zone where I live), we monitored CNN’s content off and on all day. In that first sixty minutes, here’s what we found.
At nine, viewers watched as CNN rolled into the top of the news hour. Carol Costello wasted no time, and she quickly summed up what we know: nothing. She transitioned us to Richard Quest, poised in New York City (nowhere near the Pacific, we point out), and for the next several minutes we listened intently as he bellowed through histrionic non-details about things we don’t yet know and facts not available to anyone. His conclusion: we just don’t know. Costello then brought in the traditional multi-screen talking head format. Tom Fuentes, a law enforcement analyst, loomed in one window, while Bob Francis, an entirely likeable fellow (who happens to be the former vice chairman of the NTSB) bobbled about in the right-hand screen.
Costello lobbed more questions that began with phrases like “how is it possible?” and “tell us what we know.” Fuentes and Francis did an admirable job of explaining that since we don’t know anything, they too, can only speculate. For the next few minutes all three engaged in speculation, based on nothing new—not even tasty rumors. “Let’s talk about what we know, and then, what we don’t know.” The conversation went in one, long circle.
Then, to add color and context, we went over to Tom Foreman. He, too, is a likeable and agreeable sort of reporter. Except when there is nothing to report. Foreman stood in a green screen space with giant maps underfoot—strangely illegible in spite of their vast size—and proceeded to show us a flight path on the floor which managed to crash the plane into the studio wall, twice. Now, he said, we learn it is possible that the plane flew west into the Indian Ocean for hours (at which point the studio camera widens and we see what appears to be a small hallway exit to the bathrooms).
The studio floor space is either not wide enough for his theatrics, or someone in charge of graphics in the control room can’t seem to find a better, more comfortably proportioned map. Thank God we finally see the edge of India or we would have panned all the way into the CNN snack room and vending machines. Geography lesson muddled, but complete.
Costello then intimated that it was break time, but before the commercials, she teased us with a look inside a flight simulator in Mississauga, Ontario, where CNN’s own Martin Savidge was standing-by (sitting, actually), and prepared to tell exactly what would have been happening in the cockpit of the missing airliner. Break time. It is now 9:23 a.m.
Back from break at about 9:26. Costello takes us to Martin Savidge inside that expansive simulator. This time, we are relieved that we will learn something. Plus, it’s cool-looking: lots of pretty green lights, and a few red ones. We learn that it is very easy to disable the transponder in a 777: this after a week of telling us that it is akin to brain surgery. Savidge turns a knob on the center console, a knob exactly like the ON OFF switch on the radio in the 1988 Pontiac Grand Prix I drove in college. A couple of clicks to the left and the transponder is now off.
Savidge also shows us how to punch in a signal on a small keypad that will alert air traffic controllers—just about everywhere—that the flight deck is under the control of someone unauthorized. Paradoxically, that maneuver is harder to perform and seems kind of deliberate. It’s like watching someone struggle with the buttons on an ATM machine. (“Excuse me, Mr. Cockpit Intruder, but let me punch in some non-random numbers here on this little keypad that looks like a security keypad!”)
This part of the CNN hour is actually illuminating to me, and I feel I have learned something. But time is running short. CNN has nothing to report and the whole day in which to report it. Costello takes us to Pamela Brown (no connection to the Pamela Brown who writes for Thursday Review), CNN Justice Department correspondent. More discussion, more conjecture. “Well, there is just so much we don’t know!” The conjecture borders on “blind” conjecture. Break time. It is now 9:39 a.m.
At 9:42 we return, and I am thinking that surely, surely, CNN can’t possibly sustain this for the entire hour. It goes on. Costello takes us to Barbara Starr, a highly competent Pentagon correspondent who has a track record of breaking great defense department and security stories. She has nothing, save for the same speculation that everyone else has already recycled for the previous 42 minutes. Still, she makes a game attempt to provide something.
At 9:44 another break, then, at 9:47, back to Carol Costello. This time she brings in Michael Brown, a former Under Secretary of Homeland Security. He is in a TV studio in Denver, and for several more minutes he and Costello trade theories and conjecture. “We just don’t have enough information.” On it goes. Another break, another return to the studio. More conjecture.
At 9:56 Costello says there is other news, and for the next 65 seconds she breezes through a rapid-fire run-down: that plane on the runway in Philadelphia with the blown tire; freezing temps and harsh, snowy weather in the Northeast; Wall Street concerns over the crisis in the Ukraine. Each vignette takes about 20 seconds.
Another commercial break at the approach to the top of the hour, and then, at 10:00 a.m., we are back at it. Association; then, some back and forth with Quest. There is lots of agreement between Quest and Cassidy: we just don’t have enough information; there are more questions than answers.
At 10:10 we go to David Gallo at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. By Skype he tells us “we just don’t have enough information.” He and Costello speculate anyway. After six more minutes, Costello dismisses Gallo, and we go back to Martin Savidge in that flight simulator where, we are told, we will get to relive those moments right before the plane disappeared from radar.
On it went—a more-or-less continuous cycle of speculation, conjecture, and random guesswork. We just don’t have enough information. There are so many unanswered questions. We’ve been lead down so many blind alleys. On and on.
Our plan at Thursday Review had been to monitor CNN for 90 minutes, at the most two hours. But now it had become fascinating to me–I am obsessed with their obsession. They adore this mystery.
At noon, and again at 1:00 p.m., the cycles began again, and repeated the same processes. The only small variables were slightly larger or slightly smaller search radiuses on those big maps, and a few new talking heads to replace the ones who left for lunch. By 1:15 p.m., Wolf Blitzer, now fully in charge of CNN’s main studio, was asking the same leading questions that Costello had asked four hours earlier. And by 1:56, when it was time to go again to the top of the hour break, we had again cycled through the exact same sequence of guesswork and speculation.
The process continued from 2:00 to 3:00, almost entirely unchanged save for a gradual shift in the types of commercials as the afternoon demographics shaped the ad content.
At 3:38 p.m. I left the TV to work at my computer, and when I returned at 4:00 p.m. the same cycle was starting afresh. I moved my laptop to the room with the TV, expecting a break of some kind to other news. There was none. Again at 5:00 we began the process, but this time with only the tiniest shreds of new information. For example, around 5:10 p.m., CNN was able to report that there was now greater search effort by the U.S. and others in the Indian Ocean that had been reported six hours earlier. The search area might have to be widened once again to include the ocean west of the Andaman Islands and well into the Bay of Bengal, and that there may be an effort to look further south as well. Also, there were a few new quotes from the Malaysian authorities, but nothing beyond the fact that nothing was being ruled out.
In other words, all options and scenarios were still on the table. There is just so much we don’t know. And so forth.
By evening, the baton was being passed from one A-list anchor to the next. Anderson Cooper carried the cycle for an hour, then, Piers Morgan for another stretch. Same questions, same speculative answers, same blind conjecture. By 9:00 p.m., CNN had repeated the same cycle of activity, through dozens of experts and analysts, and another dozen of its own reporters, with virtually no forward movement for 12 solid hours.
“This just in.” “CNN breaking news.” “Barbara, what are you hearing at the Pentagon?”
By the time I sat down to eat my supper at 9:05, CNN had spent roughly 95% of its non-commercial airtime on the same story, with only a tiny handful of “other news” headlines, each of which would last only 15 or 20 seconds.
What makes that number more shocking is that there was nothing new to report in those 12 or 13 hours of continuous news coverage on the one subject, that of the missing jetliner. No new or genuinely useful developments entered into the story.
Another two hours of monitoring CNN on Saturday produced a marginally more diverse result. There were some items about the GM recall and the potential for massive legal action against the automaker. CNN has been consistently late to this story, and its tardiness showed on Saturday as they reported much of the same information already presented by CBS and NBC days earlier, and as they began interviewing some of the same key players whose faces we first saw on Monday and Tuesday on other networks. Then, the news cycle from 12 noon to 1:00 produced three quarters of an hour of discussion about the missing jet, and what was left was given over to a loose patchwork of GM, weather and sports. Then, at 1:00, the cycle began afresh. More speculation, more guesswork, more interviews with people who said things like “we just don’t have enough information…”
Nearly every bureau had been employed. Even Nick Robertson, CNN’s man in Jerusalem, was brought in for a bit of feedback on Saturday, again shedding very little new light on an already dim set of circumstances. Clearly, the missing plane has been seen nowhere over the skies of Israel.
CNN’s outright obsession with the missing 777—when viewed in the context of our content analysis—seems wildly distorted, and certainly out of proportion when compared to the thin, sometimes scant, new data from their “sources.”
But CNN’s near-total absorption in the mystery may reveal a demographic pattern which has long been at the heart of the sometimes bitter ratings wars between Fox News and CNN. Fox News, not-so-secretly regarding its niche as predominantly “American” in its focus (never mind that it is owned by an Australian), has been largely successful in portraying CNN as the “liberal” cable news source. And, by liberal, some Fox loyalists can easily make the short jump to “foreign,” or even “not American.” Fairly or unfairly, CNN has been slowly nudged in that direction (think of how with every return from break the anchor or principal personality will say “we welcome our viewers from the U.S….and around the world!”) Fox makes few such stabs at internationalism.
Further, Fox has shrewdly heightened the notion that CNN is part of an elitist manifestation of liberal, left-of-center narrative—an easily acceptable (some might argue reasonable) point of contention for many U.S. conservatives for decades. CNN-haters dub the news outlet “Communist News Network,” unfair of course considering its ownership by a huge media conglomerate with enormous profits.
For decades, newsroom infrastructures and cultures were often skewed toward the left, and many surveys and polls conducted throughout the 1970s and 1980s proved that such suspicions were largely correct. Reporting regarding the war in Vietnam and Watergate had a lot to do with the solidifying of that perception. Still, most journalists regarded themselves as neutral: reporter first, liberal second…and they often believed that their progressivism guided them only after they removed themselves from their studios or pushed themselves away from their typewriters at the end of the work day.
But for U.S. Republicans in general—and politically active, attuned conservatives more sharply—much of the work of mainstream reporters and producers has been shaped, consistently and demonstrably, by a deeply held set of leftist and progressive political beliefs embedded in the culture of traditional journalism.
CNN has, over time, lost many of its most important ratings battles with Fox. The majority of those ratings fights were won by Fox over a decade ago. In the early and mid-aught years, Fox opened up that lead over its competitor’s like CNN and MSNBC even further, and by 2008 was pulling in twice the viewership of CNN, and three times the audience of MSNBC. And despite CNN’s slight ratings gains during the election cycle of 2007-2008, Fox still maintained it’s 2-to-1 advantage. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, Fox now draws an average of 1.1 million viewers each night to its primetime programming. It’s overall ratings give it more viewers on any given day than the combined audience of CNN and MSNBC. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly has easily clobbered anyone CNN has attempted to place opposite him in the same time slot (though Anderson Cooper actually edged out O’Reilly in Friday hour of coverage of the missing jetliner). CNN has also conceded much of its hard-fought ground in terms of showmanship and stagecraft, eschewing “news” and traditional news-trappings in favor of glitz, glamor and a tit-for-tat acceptance of every electronic trick employed by the more aggressive Fox.
Finally, CNN has in many ways given up trying to maintain the perception (some might argue the illusion) of impeccable balance. Though it has been careful for years to maintain its position in the “middle” between Fox and the passionately progressive MSNBC (which can be even more vociferous than Fox on most days), Fox has taken too much of the forward ground. There are few on the Red side of the American political and cultural divide who will ever go back to CNN, for any reason. Those on the left, generally, have little patience even for CNN, and flock to MSNBC or other sources online (Huffington Post, for example) for information filtered through a center-left lens. The great divide, ever-widening as the internet’s freeform platform of blogs and mini-news services obliterate the gatekeepers once charged with maintaining the center of the national conversation, has left CNN poised awkwardly (and perhaps unfairly) on the left side of the chasm.
Further, CNN’s complete devotion to the story of the missing jetliner reveals much of its belief in a more internationalist approach, even anti-provincial, if you will. Fox News’ graphics and logos almost always show that little electronic flag waving, a not-so-subtle reminder to anyone flipping through the channels that they are watching an authentic American news source. CNN may have conceded (if, in fact, they ever had owned it) the high ground of being invented and developed in the U.S. heartland. Therefore, they go in search of audiences elsewhere. Domestic items—the apartment building explosion in Harlem, recent stress fractures in Obamacare as the deadline approaches, a vicious knife fight between the Senate, the NSA and the CIA over who is spying on who in Washington—became small local issues compared to the missing 777. And with an ever-widening search area now fanning out as far west as Iran and as far north as Mongolia, the international angle seems to the CNN to be the best turf to occupy—for now. Fox News, conversely, has not obsessed over the fate of that missing airplane, though their coverage has been as thorough as the circumstances of minimal new data would allow.
Like ABC during the early days of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the ensuing hostage crisis, CNN may be betting that they have the pulse of something bigger. Plus, maybe they are the right network in the right place at the right time. They were, after all, on the air when the Challenger exploded in 1986, and they were ingenious and tenacious enough to wrangle their way into a high rise hotel suite in downtown Baghdad for the start of the Gulf War. In January of 1991 the entire world watched CNN, electrified, when the voices of Bernard Shaw, John Holliman and Peter Arnett sent those live dispatches from room 906 of the al Rasheed Hotel. Maybe this time they have caught that same perfect wave. People love a good mystery, and the story of the missing 777 is loaded with possibility.
Still, it is hard to explain the sort of single-minded news cycles viewers experienced between Thursday and Friday of this past week, especially when so little information was coming in. In the absence of news, the once-great network became a repository of speculation, guess-work, conjecture, parlor games, and outright self-inflicted, unintended satire. Indeed, for many watching, CNN became a kind of parody of its former, sensible self.
On the other hand, CNN may be obsessed and crazy, but they may also be crazy like a fox (pun intended). Preliminary ratings by Neilson show that CNN had managed, by mid-week, to have regained ground long ago lost to Fox News. By Friday (the day we did our continuous analysis) they had briefly bested Fox News, and that night, for the first time in years, Cooper trounced O’Reilly.
Related Thursday Review articles:
Of Showmanship & The News; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 7, 2014.
How to Zuck Up the News; Thursday Review staff report; December 29, 2013.
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By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor
(Originally posted February 18, 2014) After a nearly 40 year stint on the west coast, where the Tonight Show was filmed and hosted in beautiful downtown Burbank, California, the newly retooled and remodeled show—now over 60 years old–was televised again in New York City, the town where it had been hosted generations ago by Steve Allen and Jack Paar.
The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon premiered on Monday, February 17 to what NBC hopes to be wide viewership, acceptance and high praise. To judge from the first installment with Fallon, the iconic show may be entering in good standing with its new incarnation after the previous 22 years under the comedic leadership of Jay Leno.
The Monday debut was approachable, direct and at times dazzling. It was also very funny, the key attribute for the rollout of a show so heavily watched by mainstream audiences and TV industry types.
Fallon began with a personal, somewhat humble introduction, praising his parents (his mom and dad were in the audience), and recognizing the great distance he had travelled from his small town upstate New York upbringing and his start on the equally iconic comedy show Saturday Night Live. Fallon introduced himself as “your host…for now,” a reference not lost on audience members or viewers who have followed the long, sometimes troubling saga of NBC’s love/hate relationship with Leno.
Fallon also introduced the new Tonight Show house band, an eight-man Philadelphia-based jazz-swing-soul-rock combo named The Roots, the same band that had been with him in his previous run as host of Late Night.
This week’s debut show, which did not slow down after his heartfelt and seemingly genuine opening, also included some pretty upbeat and upscale moments, among them a hilarious and well-choreographed musical sketch in which Fallon and Will Smith give the audience a brief, humorous history of hip hop dance moves.
There was also an energetic rooftop musical performance by U2, shot with precarious and vertiginous ingenuity atop the GE building at 30 Rockefeller Center, a few floors above where the Tonight Show digs are now located among NBC’s offices and television studios. Later, U2 band members came back into the new studio to visit with Fallon and perform one more tune, this time an acoustic set.
During the show Fallon pointed out that the new space—smartly decked out with tall blue curtains, deep, glistening wood paneling and an elaborate wood-grained model of the New York skyline behind his conservative desk, is the same studio used decades earlier by Jack Paar and Johnny Carson before the show moved to westward to Burbank in 1972.
After settling in at his new desk, Fallon also joked that the old friend who had once bet him $100 that he would never be the host of the Tonight Show, now owed him that C note—whereupon actor Robert De Niro entered the stage and dropped a one hundred dollar bill onto Fallon’s desk. Much to the delight of the audience, De Niro was followed by a procession of other stars, each handing him $100, and the cameo appearances included New Yorkers Joe Namath, Rudy Giuliani, Lady Gaga and Sarah Jessica Parker. Joan Rivers, once a frequent substitute host for the Tonight Show in Johnny Carson’s day, also made an appearance to pay her “debt,” as did Stephen Colbert, who—in lieu of a $100 bill—dumped a large bucket of copper pennies onto Fallon’s desk and shoulders, and into his lap.
“Welcome to 11:30, bitch,” said Colbert.
The multi-talented Fallon seemed genuinely thrilled to be the show’s new host, and indicated he understood the pressure he was under to please the audience and attract and retain newer, younger viewers. Fallon’s generally positive track record with SNL, and later at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, in the increasingly crowded world of late night TV entertainment has led NBC to bank heavily on the success of the newly revamped show.
NBC hopes to regain the high ground in the ratings war in the post-11:00 slot, now populated by shows those of like David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, Arsenio Hall and others—all of whom have developed their own dedicated followings.
Jay Leno, who took over after the retirement of Carson in 1992, gave his last performance as host of the Tonight Show a few weeks ago, and in an emotional goodbye he thanked his fans and those who had worked with him for so many years on the show. He also wished Fallon luck on the show. Leno’s contract with NBC would have taken him through the fall of this year, but he agreed to an early buyout equal to one year’s salary.
Most viewers who watched the new show rated Fallon’s performance a success. And now NBC crosses its fingers in the hopes that ratings remain solid.
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