How Derek Jeter Made Me A Yankees Fan. Again.

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You’ll forgive me for interrupting the normally newsy content of this site with a few thoughts about … baseball. And the Yankees. One Yankee in particular.

A miracle may still happen, the club may yet snap out of its season-long hitting funk and win enough games to reach the playoffs. Old-schoolers like me who remember “pennant races” won exclusively by first-place teams, will swallow hard and celebrate nonetheless, should  the Not-Really-Bombers manage to scrape to the SECOND wild card berth… or Team Number 10 out of 30 to reach the postseason. Whatever.

It’s just hard to keep rooting for a club when you simply can’t connect with the players, or even care to remember their names. Such has been the case for two seasons, as a group of seemingly faceless mediocrities have played in Pinstripes. Last year we endured last-minute “Who’s he?” replacements for injured stars (not once all season did I see a fan in a Vernon Wells jersey). This year we’re subjected to aging veterans purchased at great cost but performing dramatically below expectations, as well as a new cast of virtual unknowns (Can you keep the Brians, Ryans, Brendans and double-Chases straight? I can’t).  Jerry Seinfeld likes to say we don’t really root for a team, “We root for the shirts!” Sadly, those shirts have become empty suits.

There are exceptions, of course, and none more exceptional than the shortstop we won’t be seeing much longer.

I’ve been a Yankees fan since the days of Maris and Mantle. I’ve watched the team lurch from Murderers’ Row to Mangled Mess, from “REG-GIE” to Rigor Mortis and back again. I stayed loyal as long as I could. But from the late ’80s into the early ’90s, I lost interest. Though the club still carried one or two noteworthies on the roster, the team played poorly. Worse, after the outsized, egomaniacal Billy Martin Bronx Zoo era, they seemed boring. Toss in the ’94 baseball strike and it was very easy to just dismiss the whole lot of them.

Then along comes Derek Jeter.

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Not by himself of course. He played with a bunch of equally eager and talented young players who wanted to win, and a sage-like manager who knew how. Suddenly the Yankees were champions again, and deliriously happy about it.

All the players were fun to watch. Jeter was special. We all have the same memories. Those leaps into the stands. The clutch hits (a home run in NOVEMBER??) The famous “flip!” What was he even doing there? (“I was supposed to be there,” he says, barely blinking). Jeter played hard. He played intensely, like it mattered more than anything else. Because to him, it did.

This was Old School. A reincarnation of the vintage Yankee ballplayers who set the bar higher and lived up to it. This was what I’d been waiting for, and I wasn’t alone. Fans wearing player jerseys? Go to any game, anytime. It’s wall-to-wall pinstriped 2′s.

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Others have written eloquently about Jeter’s character, so let me just point out a couple of things that make a difference to me.

First, his 20-year career took place during a rather ugly time, when many pampered-rotten superstars besmirched their respective sports by engaging in boorish, abusive, and at times criminal behavior. Steroids. Dog fights. Spousal abuse. The occasional weapons charge. Or simply mouthing off, or walking away, because the obscene fortunes they were paid to play a child’s game wasn’t enough, didn’t show respect.

Derek Jeter epitomizes respect.

Not a speck of scandal. Not a cross word about anyone. Actually, barely any words at all. But when he does talk, it’s about the game. Or his family. Or the fans. In careful, meticuloulsy non-controversial tones, always with gratitude. And respect. Addressing 50,000 fans after the last game in the old Stadium, there was no hooting or hollering, no “Listen Up!” no “I Can’t Hear You!!!” Nope.

They gave him the mic. And he said, “Excuse me…..”

Second, this so-called Farewell Tour (a term he hates, he says, because he wants to focus on winning, not leaving) we’ve been watching. Yes, Mariano Rivera’s long goodbye last season was moving and emotional, and Rivera went out with class, dignity, and one of his strongest seasons ever.

But Jeter is struggling, and he knows it. We all know it. Look, he was never Superman, and at 40 years old he’s not what he once was.

Still, there he is, nearly every day, playing as hard as ever (“You’re on the field maybe three hours a day,” he said recently. “Why wouldn’t you play hard?”) He runs out every grounder, sacrifices himself to advance runners, occasionally delivers a clutch hit, even manages to quiet those “no range” critics from time to time:


I just think there’s something sweet about watching a performer age, decline perhaps, but not give up.

I’ll miss him. I’ll miss watching him walk to the plate, accompanied, at his insistence, by a recording of the late Bob Sheppard. I’ll miss the way he readies himself in the batter’s box, stretching his right arm behind him, as if to say, “Give me a moment, please.” I’ll miss that slightly playful expression on his face when he jokes with the catcher, and how that vanishes when he faces the pitcher. I’ll miss the “DE-REK JEE-TER” chants by the Bleacher Creatures and how Jeter always tipped his cap to them from his perch at short. I’ll miss it all.

More than a couple of columnists say they believe Derek Jeter saved baseball, rescuing the game from the PED era. I don’t know, sounds a little grandiose. But here’s what I do know. Derek Jeter made me a Yankees fan, all over again. I’ll always be grateful to him for that.

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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!

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.