Thank You, Don Pardo

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They don’t make them like Don Pardo anymore.

How many people not named Vin Scully spend 60+ years with the same employer, in or out of show business?

Don Pardo started his long career with NBC in 1944. Don was your typical “booth” announcer, reading commercials, station ID’s, promos, PSA’s, all of it live. He did news, too. Everybody remembers those first CBS audio bulletins by Walter Cronkite when President Kennedy was assassinated. On NBC, it was Pardo:

While most booth announcers toiled in semi-anonymity, Don became a face… as well as a voice… that attracted extra attention. Here he is with Bill Cullen on the early Price Is Right game show:

Of course, most of us over 40 (50??) remember Don’s voice opening Jeopardy every day, and host Art Fleming thanking him (in a little bit you’ll hear whose idea that was!)

In 1975 Don took that leap into semi-stardom on Saturday Night Live, holding forth every week in Studio 8H at NBC. But what you may not know is that he kept doing his mundane booth announcer duties at the same time (there are, after all, six more days in the week besides Saturday night!) Plus, as long as he was already in the building, Don took the elevator down to the 6th floor to front a news show I worked on for a while. At first, he was just an off-screen presence:

Eventually, Live At Five smarted up and put him where we could see him!

Don passed away on August 18th. He was 96. Back in 2006 he was interviewed for the Archive of American Television. (Here’s where you’ll find out where “Thank You Don Pardo” came from).

Oh, and one last thing.

Don, what advice would you give to aspiring announcers?

Yep. Thank you, Don Pardo!

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Six Flags. One Tweet

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A recent breaking story here in Los Angeles has stirred up an important debate about social media, the quest for the “exclusive” picture, and the bounds of propriety and civility.

On July 7th, four people were hurt when a ride derailed at the Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park. The accident was caused by a tree branch falling on the tracks.

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More than 20 people were stuck dangling in their seats for several hours, 40 feet above the ground, until firefighters could reach them.

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As news photographers arrived, one of them spotted a Tweet from someone claiming to be a trapped rider. The photog immediately Tweeted back, asking, “Do you have pics?”

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His request unleashed a wave of criticism, as Mediabistro points out:

“That tweet was quickly pounced on as an example of uncaring media interested only in getting those exclusive photos, with one person sending a mocking tweet, ‘Stay classy @NBCLA @KHOLMESlive. You haven’t been rescued yet, might fall, but u have pics bro?’ “

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If you work in the media, sooner or later you’re going to be called insensitive, callous, unfeeling, and a bunch of other names. We know that many of our viewers, listeners and readers look down their noses at us, even as they hungrily consume our product.

But in this case, do the critics have a point? Or are they overreacting?

When everybody has a phone/camera/internet device in his pocket, when picture-snapping has become so ubiquitous that folks photograph their lunch before eating it and “selfies” sprout faster than mushrooms, is it wrong to ask a presumed “victim” for pics? Did the photog cross a line?

Well, here’s the thing. That “line” was crossed a long time ago. Probably back in Ben Franklin’s day, when colonists first started reading newspapers. Only the tools have changed.

The job of a journalist is to get the story. All of it. Including the parts that may require doing things that leave a bad taste. Tweeting a request for a picture is exactly the same as knocking on a victim’s door or shoving a mic in his face and asking, “How did you feel?”

Tacky? Sure. Necessary? Let me ask you this: If somebody stranded on that Ninja rollercoaster did take a picture, perhaps looking straight down from his precarious perch, wouldn’t you want to see it?

Me too.

What better way to convey the actual atmosphere… what it was really like up there, trapped, scared, waiting for help. If we now have the sophisticated tools to enable that, honestly, how could we not ask for the picture? We’d be derelict in our duty.

I’ve been doing some informal polling of friends and colleagues on this. Most are fine with what happened. Here’s a typical response:

“I suppose some may think it’s a bit heartless… but frankly I don’t blame the photog.  He was just trying to get first (and maybe exclusive) photos for his station.  It’s nothing that editors, photogs, producers and news execs haven’t done for ages.  What’s the difference between that and CNN’s iPhone campaign – or the local channels here asking viewers to send in shots of breaking news?”

A former News Director in the L.A. market put it this way:

“The two aren’t mutually exclusive. You can seek the pictures/ story and give consideration at the same time. It’s important to remember that while some people don’t want to talk about what happened, many others do. It can even be cathartic for them to share what just happened.”

Now it turns out the guy who sent that original Tweet hadn’t even been on the coaster. He was either making a sick joke or trying to deceive people and call attention to himself. Which brings up another point about these new and powerful tools. That’s all they are: tools. They can be used properly or abused. You can take a hammer, drive a nail into a two-by-four, and build a house. Or you can smash a window. Social media has made it possible to instantly spread the truth when evil people want to cover it up. It has also enabled some to tell flat-out lies, dress them up very convincingly, and show them to the world in seconds. We in journalism need these tools, but we also need to be extra careful and absolutely sure we’re not being played for fools.

Need a laugh? Visit The Groaners! and check out all the ridiculous words TV newspeople keep using, again and again!

Jorge Ramos Confronts Congress

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Was it a stunt?

Self-promotion?

Advocacy journalism?

Serious news?

Yes. All of the above.

Univision superstar and Fusion TV anchor Jorge Ramos flew to Washington, sat himself down at the regular, boring, mundane news conferences of the Congressional leadership, and raised his hand:

Most of the media played this up as Ramos taking on “big, bad Boehner” and highlighting the Speaker’s utterly dumbfounding reply that “trust” issues engendered by Obamacare are somehow the reason the House won’t pass immigration reform. Ramos counters, “What does Obamacare have to do with immigration reform??”

Less widely discussed was Ramos’s subsequent questioning of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. As you just saw, Ramos accused Reid of falsely “keeping hope alive” for immigration reform, and he pushed Reid to apply more pressure on President Obama to reduce family-splitting deportations.

I’m old school. I think a reporter should avoid becoming the focus of the story. I don’t think a journalist’s questions merit as much airtime as the interviewee’s answers (though I’ve worked with many reporters who insist on it!)  I’m also not fond of reporters calling attention to themselves, or presenting just one side of a story, reflecting their own personal point of view… what is now called “advocacy” journalism, an increasingly popular style these days.

But you know what? It was good television, well-executed, fun to watch… and a little inspiring too, observing a fellow professional who brings such passion to his job.

Yes, Ramos is opinionated, especially on the subject of immigration. He’s also won 8 Emmys, interviewed 4 U.S. presidents and dozens of Latin American leaders, covered everything from the war in Iraq to Hurricane Katrina, written ten books and championed Latino literacy. So when he takes a step like this, he’s neither some rookie angling for a quick ratings boost nor a naive ideologue uninformed of opposing views.

On the Rachel Maddow show, Ramos explained in more detail why he’s just as disappointed with the Democrats… and the President:

 

And why immigration is more than just another issue:

 

Nicely done.

 

Need a laugh? Visit The Groaners! and check out all the ridiculous words TV newspeople keep using, again and again!

They Got It Right

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In case you haven’t seen it yet, I want to share this video of  a Sioux Falls, South Dakota anchor reacting to the many complaints the station received when it broke into primetime programming to alert viewers about a tornado.

 

 

Shawn Cable, the meteorologist in that video, posted this note on YouTube:

“This morning my amazing co-anchor, Nancy Naeve, went on a rant about the nasty emails, calls and social media messages we received after breaking into the “Once Upon A Time” season finale.

“I don’t take the decision to break in lightly, but when there’s a confirmed tornado on the ground that is headed toward people’s homes, I break in. I don’t care what’s on.”

Bravo to them.

I’ve since become aware of other similar situations, including one where the last few minutes of “The Mentalist” was interrupted, and the station later said, “CBS won’t let us repeat it!” I don’t know what the CBS network policy is, but if they do in fact prohibit affiliates from replaying a primetime show, even in such extreme circumstances, that policy should change. The viewers should come first.

 

World’s Fair: A Family Affair

Many important things happened on April 22nd. The New York Yankees wore pinstriped uniforms for the first time (1915). The first Earth Day was celebrated (1970). Barbara Walters became the first female evening news anchor (1976). Johnny Carson announced his retirement from The Tonight Show (1991). My sister was born (not telling). And, exactly 50 years ago (1964), the World’s Fair opened in New York City’s Flushing Meadows Park.

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While not on the scale of my sister’s birth, I generally think of the Fair as a family event as well. For one thing, my brother was married there (I’ll explain). But the real connection comes from my mother. She couldn’t wait to take us! She was so excited! You see, it was going to be her second World’s Fair. When she was little, she attended the 1939 World’s Fair (this year marks its 75th anniversary), built on virtually the same piece of Queens, New York real estate, just a short walk from her childhood home. Time and again she would tell us about seeing the “Trylon and Perisphere,” the 2 iconic structures that together formed the ’39 Fair’s signature image.

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25 years later Mom looked forward to sharing that same thrilling experience with her own children, not to mention getting a few updated goosebumps of her own, at the sight of the T&P’s futuristic descendant, the Unisphere.

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As soon as we arrived, my brother Martin fired up his Ansco camera and started snapping:

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I loved the World’s Fair the way any grade school kid loves something  big, broad, fun, fascinating and totally different than anything he’s ever seen before (Disneyland in California was too far away and the Orlando version was yet to be built.) Two of my favorite souveniers were the bright red “Official Guide” to the Fair, which I kept, and re-read so many times, for years, and the one-of-a-kind World’s Fair Sunglasses (the lenses were shaped like twin Unispheres. You looked ridiculous, but who cared?) I marveled at the exhibits we were able to get into (a push-button telephone?! Wow!) and watched longingly the endless lines of people waiting to enter the popular spots like GM’s Futurama.

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I remember the giant ferris wheel sponsored by a tire company and shaped like… well, what do you think?

I recall Mom’s terrified expression when the cable car we kids talked her into boarding slowly began to climb (I think she was afraid of heights). Everything looked so pretty, so perfect, and even though the Fair was a temporary affair (a few months in ’64 and again in ’65) New Yorkers were promised that this new facility, constructed largely on swamp and landfill, would become a permanent City park, with some of its buildings re-purposed for future public use.

Those promises were kept, up to a point. The New York City Pavilion became the Queens Museum of Art. The Heliport was transformed into a popular catering hall, Terrace On The Park (where Martin’s wedding took place six years later). The Unisphere still stands. Everything else, though, was demolished, with one sad exception: The New York State Pavilion.

I say “sad” because this facility received neither a facelift nor a decent burial.

During the Fair it was one of the more noteworthy sites, with its three towers and circular, multicolored tent-like base, a perfect gathering place and an ideal spot for the best aerial view of the entire fairground.

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Today the pavilion is a stripped, cracked, rusted, decrepit shadow of its old self. Padlocked. Unused. Falling apart. The City says tearing it down would cost $14 million. Renovating it… twice that, at least. Hardly anyone wants to spend the money to do either.

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On this coming April 22nd, a small ceremony will be held there. The padlocks will come off. Hardhats will be issued to visitors, and it’ll be possible once again, to stroll through the New York State Pavilion and remember what it was like, back in the day. Perhaps the event will motivate more people to care about what happens to the building, perhaps not. I don’t attach too much sentimentality to it, and I think public money is more urgently needed elsewhere. It would be nice to see some kind of conservancy formed to raise private funds to either preserve and modernize the site, or quietly take it down, so the space can find a new life unfettered by tons of oddly-shaped, rapidly crumbling concrete and steel.

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Either way, I’m fine. Buildings come and go. Memories stay.

One more thing. Happy Birthday, Laya. We miss you.

In The Blink Of An Eye

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Journalists, perhaps more than others, seethe inside, whenever an evil regime co-opts the tools of mass media – instruments intended to help uncover the truth – and uses them to lie, mislead, and inflict harm. Certainly civilians look at these propaganda efforts with general skepticism and disgust. But for newspeople it’s personal, as if someone snatched the microphone out of our hands and crushed a victim’s skull with it.

So when a hero outwits the propagandists and gets the truth out, of course everybody feels good. Newspeople stand up and cheer.

Propaganda has a long and ugly history, not necessary to recount here. Instead, it’s fitting to tell the story of one man who found a way, under the most horrible of circumstances, to face down his tormentors and use their propaganda tools against them.

And he did it, literally in the blink of an eye.

Jeremiah Denton was an American POW in Vietnam. He was flying missions for the Navy when his plane was shot down in 1965. He would spend nearly 8 years in various prison camps, where he was repeatedly beaten, abused and threatened with death.

A few months into his captivity Denton was paraded before television cameras for a North Vietnamese propaganda film. He was asked about his treatment at the hands of his captors. As he sat there, he did something extraordinary. Watch:

There was nothing wrong with Denton’s eyes. He was blinking in Morse Code.

In his memoir, When Hell Was In Session, Denton explains:

“The blinding floodlights made me blink and suddenly I realized that they were playing right into my hands. I looked directly into the camera and blinked my eyes once, slowly, then three more times, slowly. A dash and three more dashes. A quick blink, slow blink, quick blink … .”

The word Denton spelled out, over and over again:

T-O-R-T-U-R-E.

It was the first real confirmation that North Vietnam was mistreating the POW’s. Of course everyone had suspected it. Now we knew, thanks to that silent message heard loud and clear around the world.

In that same film Denton defied his captors’ demands that he denounce the U.S. He clearly and proudly expressed his support for America. North Vietnam didn’t try using him again.

When the POW’s began to come home in 1973, Denton was among the first to emerge, and he spoke on behalf of his fellow freed prisoners:

In 1980 Denton was elected to the U.S. Senate, representing the state of Alabama. He was a staunch Conservative and Reagan loyalist, and in his 1982 State Of The Union address, the President pointed him out:

Denton passed away Friday, March 28th, about 41 years after getting off that plane and saying, “God Bless America.” He was 89. Whatever your politics, he’s worth remembering.

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After The “Vote” In Crimea

Everybody knows a version of the old joke about Election Day in the Soviet Union:

Ivan enters the polling place, is handed a folded piece of paper, and instead of simply dropping it into the ballot box, he opens the paper, and is promptly scolded by a Communist Party official:

“What are you doing, comrade?”

Ivan replies, “I want to see who I’m voting for.”

“You fool!” retorts the official, “Don’t you know this is a secret ballot!

Funny, yes. But aren’t you also just a wee bit sad for the millions of Soviet citizens who had to live this for real?

Well, Crimea river.

Admit it. You’re impressed by RT’s production values. State-of-the-art studios. High Definition graphics. Cosmopolitan-accented anchors and reporters. Live remotes! As slick as anything you’ll see in the US.

Until you listen carefully to what’s actually being said.

What’s amazing is how they do it with a straight face. Actually, with a smiling face, exuding such enthusiasm for a “Join Russia” vote of 97 percent, in a region that’s only 60% ethnic Russian (what happened to all the ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars?) with a ballot that did not include an option to retain the status quo (critics described the choice offered as, “Join Russia Now” or “Join Russia Later”). Descriptions of celebrations, citizens talking about “the best day of my life,” and hand-picked “International Observers” (Google their names. Interesting reading) proclaiming how fair this election was. No mention of 20,000 troops in blank uniforms (Ukraine’s constitution forbids Russian soldiers based in Ukraine from leaving their barracks) suddenly everywhere, including polling places.

If it had happened in the US, no one would be smiling. Every reporter on camera and every politician and pundit who could find a microphone would be talking… probably shouting about voter fraud, ballot box stuffing, intimidation and corruption. 97 percent doesn’t happen in a democracy.

Strip away RT’s high-tech trappings, and what do you get?

Well… you get this:

Earlier this month, Kim Jong Un’s party got 100 percent of the vote, with a 99.9 percent turnout. Proof, says North Korea, that theirs is the most popular government in the world.

By the way, in his last election, Saddam Hussein also received 100 percent of the vote. Other regimes that have benefited from similar lopsided tallies (thanks to Slate and William Saletan for the numbers): Azerbaijan (85 percent), Kazakhstan (91 percent), Belorussia (93 percent), Turkmenistan (97 percent), Syria (98 percent), and Chechnya (99 percent).

Much has been written about the reasons dictatorships even bother with elections. Ego plays a role. So do more sinister motives. Pyongyang is said to use elections as a kind of unofficial census, keeping tabs on the population, making sure everybody is where they’re supposed to be, and not trying to defect.

What fascinates me, a media guy, is how some regimes try so hard to make the rest of the world believe their manufactured version of events. One wonders how clueless to Western sensitivities they must be. Some are more tone deaf than others. The English language North Korean video is plain silly.

But the RT piece on Crimea is scary.

RT, part of state-owned Russian television, is aimed squarely at Americans, and their agenda is clear. Contrast the happy, upbeat tone of their Crimea story with their take on our 2012 Presidential election. It sneaks up on you, about a minute-and-a-half in:

Like I said, scary. That piece clearly took a lot of time and effort to produce. And certainly, it’s possible to point to flaws in the US system and find vocal critics only too happy to appear on camera.  But let’s always remember the fundamental difference between US elections covered by US media, and Russian elections covered by RT.

Warts and all, ours are for real.

 

Quitting On The Air

Forget “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover.” Let’s talk about “Three Ways To Leave Your Job.”

I’m guessing you’re just like me when it comes to resigning. Making the decision to quit can be painful, but once you’re there,  you start thinking about the best way to go about it. “Never Burn A Bridge” echoes in your head. Very carefully, you try to orchestrate a quiet, private session with the boss, laying out your reasons, hoping to exit on at least civil, if not entirely pleasant terms. Sometimes it works out, sometimes not.

Things can get complicated, however, when matters of conscience are involved; if, for example, you feel your employer is doing something improper or at odds with your personal values. Here’s where many folks decide they need to do more than just leave. They endeavor to send a message.

Then, of course, there is a third category. That’s when you cultivate such an outsized self-image that you seriously believe your newly-unemployed status is major news, and with enablers like YouTube readily available, it’s pretty easy to indulge that ego of yours:

So, what should we make of Liz Wahl? (and Abby Martin, but I’ll get to her in a minute).

Ever since Ms. Wahl resigned on the air at Russia Today to protest the invasion of Crimea and RT’s handling of the story, a debate has raged over her real motivations, her state of mind, her politics, her knowledge of Ukraine or lack thereof, RT’s true nature, and on and on. No need to rehash most of that now. For the record, though, here’s how she did it:

Whether you believe this is a Category 2 (conscience/message) or a Category 3 (ego indulging) or some combination of both, the episode started me thinking about other times a public figure, or someone with access to a public forum, has made a deliberate decision to not go quietly.. and why they do it.

Turns out, it happens a lot. Jack Paar walking off The Tonight Show in 1960 is perhaps the best-known example. He was upset with NBC and with some newspaper columnists:

Another late night leave-taking happened in 1968 when Regis Philbin exited The Joey Bishop Show, only to return a week later. Philbin now says it was a stunt engineered by Bishop, but for a long time, Reege kept up the charade:

By the way, sometimes it’s the boss who finds the mic or the camera first. Or the phone. Like AOL’s Tim Armstrong firing Patch’s creative director, right in the middle of a conference call, for taking a picture. Or, more famously, radio icon Arthur Godfrey canning singer Julius La Rosa, after a song:

Lower down the media food chain, the aforementioned YouTube is chock full of, in my opinion, very juvenile on-air personalities waiting for the mic to go hot and the camera to roll before giving a verbal middle finger to the media company/snake-in-a-suit/clueless boss who put them on TV or on the radio in the first place. Anchors. Disc Jockeys. Sportscasters. Most of them predictably allude to a litany of mistreatments, slights, contract impasses, followed by heartfelt goodbyes and thank-you’s to the loyal viewers/listeners, etc. etc. There are even a handful of folks who get up out of their anchor chairs, walk off the set, and never come back. I won’t repost those videos. Those guys are just crybabies and not very interesting.

Probably my favorite public exit based on principle took place away from the cameras, even though the perpetrator could have easily found a few reporters only too happy to record him (and it wasn’t long before they did).

When President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, Ford’s brand new press secretary and friend of 25 years, Jerald terHorst, quit. He wrote a letter. Not exactly a private heart-to-heart with the boss, but on the other hand he didn’t call a full-blown news conference, either.

Look, I’m willing to concede that ego very likely figures in even the most noble and principled public resignations, and that the biggest egotists may also sincerely believe they’re doing something high-minded and right. We humans are multidimensional creatures and there’s a lot going on in our incredibly complicated minds.

So when Liz Wahl quits on camera, I’m glad she exposed RT for what it is, but not so glad she immediately became the cable news flavor of the month, appearing on one talking head show after another. I have decidedly less warmth for, and am considerably more wary of her colleague Abby Martin, who criticized Vladimir Putin but stayed on the job. Martin’s previous pronouncements on everything from 9/11 to Israel make one take anything she says or does with several grains of salt.

And speaking of staying on the job, I have to address the 800-pound pair of suspenders in the room: Larry King.

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Did you know Larry has two shows on RT? And, at least so far, he has no intention of leaving? He explains it this way:

“I don’t work for RT. It’s a deal made between the companies (RT and OraTV in which King has an equity stake). “They just license our shows.”

“It would be bad if they tried to edit out things– I wouldn’t put up with it. As long as they don’t, as long as they’re carrying stuff critical of them, I’ve got no problem with it.”

King is splitting hairs. He makes money by appearing on RT, he’s a big part of their PR campaign, and the fact that they haven’t censored him yet is hardly justification for contributing to an entity most observers agree is a state-run propaganda machine.

After he left CNN but before his shows began airing on Russia Today, King gave this interview to an RT reporter:

 

King’s “It” guy has invaded a neighboring country, lied about it, and brought the world to the brink of a new Cold War. King should sever his relationship with RT, yesterday.