Monthly Archives: February 2008

Blast from the past: Good riddance, Bob Knight

I’m ruefully embarrassed about maybe 70 percent of the things I wrote in my college newspaper from 1998 to 2002. Let’s just say I liked to write loooong, and once called Rancid’s Life Won’t Wait a “sprawling, intercontinental post-punk masterpiece” — whatever the heck that’s supposed to mean.

But tonight, after reading another of the many annoying encomiums to suddenly retired Bob Knight (typical gist: Sure the Texas Tech coach was a jerk, but what an old-school winner!), I dug out an old piece that’s among the 30 percent of less-embarrassing stuff. It’s an editorial I wrote for The Diamondback in September 2000, when Knight was fired as Indiana’s coach. I’m reproducing it here because even my 20-year-old self seems to have been more mature (if not a tad more naive) than the sportswriters who now, as then, ultimately excuse Knight’s idiocy for his wins. Even this column at SI.com, which ostensibly blasts Knight, is really just faulting him for quitting on the team. So hop into the wayback machine, do a little Wayne’s World dream sequence hand-dance, and check it:

*****

It took 29 years of looking the other way, acting out of greed instead of with maturity, and putting success ahead of common decency, but Indiana University’s powers-that-be have finally decided to grow up.

The school’s trustees stood up to men’s basketball coach Bob Knight on Sunday, firing him after years of condoning his inappropriate, offensive, hurtful and childish behavior to put a winning team on the court. The decision is a victory for college students nationwide, because in firing their living legend Indiana’s trustees had to stop looking at basketball as a business and Knight as their perpetual meal ticket, and put students’ interests above their own financial concerns. Continue reading

David Broder’s meaningless centrism

Washington Post columnist David Broder is at this point basically a joke among serious political writers and bloggers. To them, he represents the pointlessness and shallowness of a certain kind of mainstream newspaper political coverage: A mindset that fetishizes objectivity and even-handedness to the point of prizing, above all else, “bipartisanship” for the sake of bipartisanship regardless of the policies involved.

According to this mindset, the havoc wreaked by tax cuts, cronyism, and Republicans’ turning K Street into another arm of government were not the result of deliberate policies and practices by one party, but rather occurred because of “partisan gridlock,” because “Washington is broken.” Thus bipartisan action is always good, regardless of whether the legislation produced by such action is sound. (The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait is one of the best critics of this view, and his book The Big Con is a must-read for anyone interested in this sort of thing.)

Broder’s column Thursday about the recently enacted economic stimulus package is an almost comically perfect example of this shallow strain of argument. Continue reading

That worrisome Indy trailer

So the first trailer for Indiana Jones and the Blah Blah Blah Skull has been released. I can’t say I’m any less worried than I was before.

Vodpod videos no longer available. from movies.yahoo.com posted with vodpod
You don’t get any sense that this one has a story; plus Marian appears for approximately .23 seconds; plus witness Indy’s wisecrack when he lands in the truck. I hope I’m wrong, but after a recent re-watching of Temple of Doom (full report forthcoming!) I’m not getting my hopes up.

Why does the Baltimore Sun only have 5 reporters?

Once again, Slate’s TV Club does a nice job of cataloging the absurdities in this week’s Wire episode: McNutty’s ridiculous kidnap-the-homeless-man scheme; Omar surviving a five-story fall with only broken legs, which he can soon walk on; the editors’ successfully checking out a homeless Marine vet’s story in a couple of hours; etc.

But one thing they didn’t mention that annoyed me is how the show’s fictional Baltimore Sun apparently has the smallest reporting staff of any major metro paper in the country.

Remind me if I’ve missed any, but in six episodes we’ve been introduced to: the oily Stephen Glass wannabe; the hungry idealist (who we’re supposed to feel sorry for, for example, when she’s rebuffed yelling a question to police officers while they’re working a murder scene); the young black reporter who seems generally normal; the state courts reporter upset that there’s no federal courts reporter; and the bearded, well-meaning but average City Council/education reporter. (Also the smarter-than-Batman cops reporter-turned-editor who was fired or took a buyout.) At first I attributed this narrow focus to the limits of narrative television; they can focus on only so many characters before the story gets unwieldy.

But in this week’s episode, when the evil editor — who you can tell is horrible because, like Stalin, he wears hoity-toity suspenders — declares that all their resources will henceforth be devoted to The Homeless Problem, the saintly city editor is upset because he has to reassign … the oily dude, the idealist, the courts guy, and the ed reporter (the black reporter seemingly can continue covering other things, because he brings in a tip from another story that’ll probably end up trapping the fabulist). That is all.

First of all, no editor — even one who has as much sanctimony as he lacks a clue — would reassign his entire staff to one subject short of a 9/11 type catastrophe. But beyond that, a few episodes ago we learned that the Sun is closing down its foreign bureaus. Are we supposed to believe that a big metro paper that recently had its own foreign staff now has fewer reporters than the 20,000-circulation paper in New Hampshire where I had my first job? Is there really no one left to cover education or anything else after these four or five reporters have been reassigned?

Also, David Simon has complained about how newspapers don’t do a good job of covering society’s systemic problems, or simply can’t cover issues with such scope. Intent and method of coverage aside, is it so bad that the evil editor wants to cover the homeless more? Isn’t a major American city’s chronic homelessness a systemic social problem worth examining? Obviously throwing resources at a made-up story about a made-up serial killer isn’t the right way to do that, but the topic itself is presented as frivolous (e.g. Mayor Carcetti latching on because it’ll help him become governor). Seems like something worth covering along with, if not as much as, the problems in the school system.

Can we have some actual democracy, please?

Something is seriously screwed up in the way Americans vote for their presidential nominees.

Whether it’s because this campaign is a tight race for the first time in a while or something else, the byzantine ins and outs of the American election system have never been clearer and more frustrating than they are in 2008.

We’ve seen the two parties ridiculously kowtowing to Iowa and New Hampshire by stripping Florida and Michigan of delegates for leap-frogging those early states’ votes (and Hillary Clinton’s equally ridiculous, retroactive attempt to claim those delegates despite having already agreed to said kowtowing). And Barack Obama getting more delegates in Nevada than Clinton despite getting a smaller share of the vote. And the odd prevalence of caucuses. And Louisiana’s weird rules negating Mike Huckabee’s win on Saturday. And Texas’ upcoming primary/caucus hybrid. And the inexplicable “superdelegates.” And news of 49,500 ballots in Los Angeles County that can’t be counted because they were too confusing and were marked incorrectly. (This is all separate from the GOP’s usual obsession with voter ID laws, “voter fraud,” and other attempts to generally suppress voting.) Continue reading

McCain beats Obama! (In viral videos, that is)

Here’s a great response video/parody to that too-serious Barack Obama vid. Besides being a pretty hilarious takedown of John McCain, it also nicely punctures the overwrought atmosphere of the will.i.am. project.

Reading a book vs. Reading the Web

Over at Publishing2.0, Scott Karp wrote an interesting post exploring why he now prefers reading online to reading books. He has discovered that he prefers reading and thinking across the network rather than in a linear fashion:

When I read online, I constantly follow links from one item to the next, often forgetting where I started. Sometimes I backtrack to one content “node” and jump off in different directions. …So doesn’t this make for an incoherent reading experience? Yes, if you’re thinking in a linear fashion. But I find reading on the web is most rewarding when I’m not following a set path but rather trying to “connect the dots,” thinking about ideas and trends and what it all might mean.

His post reminds me a little of the discussion about video games vs. “linear” media. Some video game evangelists argue that games are superior to movies, books, etc. because only games allow players to choose their path and create the narrative and experience themselves. According to this argument, just as Karp finds “reading on the web is most rewarding when I’m not following a set path but rather trying to ‘connect the dots,'” gamers find video games more rewarding than other media because players don’t follow a set path but connect the dots however they want (within the confines of a game’s rules and boundaries).

My general response to that argument is that giving players control isn’t inherently better; it just means players may be looking for something different than movie-goers. Continue reading

About those "failing" newspapers…

A couple of things jumped out at me in this New York Times story about the sorry state of newspapers. Richard Perez-Pena makes the case that while things have been bad for a while,

what is happening now is something new, something more serious than anyone has experienced in generations. Last year started badly and ended worse, with shrinking profits and tumbling stock prices, and 2008 is shaping up as more of the same, prompting louder talk about a dark turning point.

Most of the evidence is nothing new: circulation keeps dropping; print advertising is falling (especially real estate ads) and online advertising both doesn’t make up for that loss and isn’t growing as quickly as it was; “Job cuts have become all but universal.”

But then there’s this, about three-quarters of the way through:

Newspaper profits remain healthy, but they are dropping fast. For example, the newspapers of Media General, a large Southern chain, had a 17 percent operating profit margin last year, but the dollar amount fell 23 percent from the year before. The Gannett Company’s newspaper division, the nation’s largest chain, had a 21 percent margin, but a 10 percent decline.

Excuise me? I baking powder? Profits are healthy, Gannett has a 21 percent margin — and the fuss is about what now? You want real economic doldrums? Check out the auto industry. Ford lost $2.7 billion in 2007 and $12.6 billion the year before — and those aren’t just losses in market capitalization (that was probably a heck of a lot more), but $15 billion in actual money down the drain. Think they wouldn’t kill for that 21 percent margin? (Their 2007 margin: minus-6.8 percent.) Continue reading

Mario Party is not Meet the Spartans

In a recent New York Times piece, Seth Schiesel looks at 2007’s top-selling video games and finds that social and easy-to-pick-up titles are crowding out more complex and critically acclaimed stuff. His basic point — as anyone who has played Wii Tennis at a party could tell you — is pretty reasonable:

Paradoxically, at a moment when technology allows designers to create ever more complex and realistic single-player fantasies, the growth in the now $18 billion gaming market is in simple, user-friendly experiences that families and friends can enjoy together. …Put another way, it may be a sign of the industry’s nascent maturity that as video games become more popular than ever, hard-core gamers and the old-school critics who represent them are becoming an ever smaller part of the audience.

But taking a closer look at the numbers, his argument starts to break down. Continue reading

The irrelevancy of the nightly news

Caitlin Flanagan has a nice essay in the latest Atlantic about Katie Couric, the Today Show, and Couric’s failure as the CBS Evening News anchor. Flanagan does a good job of explaining why the fluffy-unwatchable morning shows actually mean a lot to a lot of people, and why Couric was so perfect for that role (the piece is ostensibly a review of a part-hit-job Couric biography). But the best part is Flanagan’s tidy put-down of the evening news:

That Katie has bombed at CBS is a testament, not to the existence of a glass ceiling, but to the fact that real revolutions are so thoroughgoing that they don’t just provide a new answer, they change the very questions being asked. … No woman needs to storm the Bastille of nightly news, because the form has become irrelevant: Oprah has immeasurably more cultural, commercial, and political clout than Charles Gibson and Brian Williams, and no young person is ever going to make appointment TV out of a sober-minded 6:30 wrap-up of stories he or she already read online in the afternoon.

That CBS and Couric didn’t realize this — and that newspapers have wasted so much ink (also see: Dan Rather’s fall from grace, Tom Brokaw’s retirement, etc.) discussing an irrelevant institution that few under age, say 58, care about — is as devastating an indictment of the news media as any stock-price or circulation drop.

Nerd alert!

I’m surprised to find that I subscribe fully to only one of the Onion A.V. Club’s “20 pop-cultural obsessions even geekier than Monty Python.

I stopped being a Simpsons nerd after circa season 10 (though I still have plenty of Milhouse in me), and my Magic the Gathering obsession lasted less than two years back in high school. Now if I quit my fantasy baseball league like I promised myself I’d do, I’ll be nerd-free!

David Simon as journalism’s Rip Van Winkle

I’ll have more to say about this season of The Wire, its misdiagnoses of journalism’s problems, and David Simon’s recent nostalgic column in the Washington Post. But for now I wanted to give my general response to Season 5’s Baltimore Sun storyline.

At Slate’s TV Club conversation about Season 5, David Plotz annoyed David Simon by referencing brief conversations they’d had at parties in which Simon bitched about the Baltimore Sun. Simon criticized Plotz’s post, concluding: “The Wire’s depiction of the multitude of problems facing newspapers and high-end journalism will either stand or fall on what happens on screen, not on the back-hallway debate over the past histories, opinions passions or peculiarities of those who create it.” This is what I wrote to Plotz in a solidarity e-mail after Episode 2 or 3:

Fair enough. But so far his “multitude of problems” are a) Too many Stephen Glasses, b) Pompous idiot editors too dim to see the clearly telegraphed Stephen Glasses and disinterested in getting at the root of social problems, and at a distant third c) Corporate cost-cutting. That is all.

Forget that a plague of fabulists isn’t (to my knowledge) currently destroying journalism from within, and that the problem with real fabulists is they aren’t usually transparent fakers right from the start. This is his grand diagnosis of the ills of modern journalism?

How about, I don’t know, the Internet? Or hemorrhaging ad sales and circulation (partly or largely because of the Internet). Or figuring out how newspapers can appeal to readers and stay relevant in this new competitive-media world. Newspapers are going through their most dire period of upheaval in decades and he thinks the issue is too many fabulists?

The problem with his portrayal isn’t just that Simon’s fictional newsroom seems like a caricature of a mid-90s newsroom. It’s that, despite his response to Plotz’s TV Club post, he so clearly framed his fictional view based on his “past histories, opinions passions or peculiarities.” What a coincidence that his grand statement, via The Wire, on modern journalism’s failures happens to exactly coincide with his oftstated feelings about his former editors and how they dealt with (or didn’t deal with) a fabulist and stories about social issues at the Baltimore Sun 15 years ago.

Jeffrey Goldberg voices similar frustrations in his TV Club post today:

We were meant to be getting a sophisticated look at the demise of daily journalism, besieged by the Internet and by venal media companies. Well, what we’ve got is a newspaper edited by a pair of impossibly shmucky editors who seem, in 2008, unaware of the existence of the World Wide Web and who have in their employ a reporter who is doing something no fabricator, to the best of my knowledge, has ever done: manufacturing information about an ongoing homicide investigation. Put aside, please, the fact that said investigation is a sham as well; the reporter, Templeton, doesn’t know that. Is this what David Simon really wants his viewers to believe happens at major newspapers? Is he that blinded by hate for the Baltimore Sun?

For such a supposedly brilliant guy and show, it’s depressing that the answers to the last two questions seem to be yes, and yes.

How George Lucas will ruin Indiana Jones

It occurred to me, while reading the cover story on Indiana Jones 4 in the new Vanity Fair, that I haven’t watched the complete trilogy during my adult life. I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark on DVD a few years ago and have caught bits and pieces of Temple of Doom on its many syndicated showings over the years. But I haven’t seen Temple of Doom or Last Crusade in full since I was a kid.

I mention this because of a passage from the Vanity Fair story that should scare Indy fans even more than snakes terrify their hero:

While filming a 1993 episode [of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles] in which Ford made a cameo appearance, Lucas happened on something that gave him the idea for a fourth movie installment. He mentioned it to the actor, who wasn’t too impressed. Lucas later told Spielberg about his new concept, only to find that the director wasn’t so hot on the idea, either, although generally warm to the notion of a fourth film.But Lucas was adamant. It was this idea or nothing.

Great. Because we all know how well things turn out when George Lucas has brilliant ideas that nobody else likes but can’t veto because they aren’t George Lucas. Even Steven Spielberg inevitably bows to Darth Lucas’ power, it seems:

When Ford and Spielberg both rejected the idea, Lucas dug in. He hired screenwriter after screenwriter to make his MacGuffin the linchpin of a new Indy story. “So this went on for 15 years,” he says. “And finally we got to a point where everybody said, ‘Look, we’re not doing that movie.’ And I said, ‘Well, look, I can’t think of another MacGuffin. This is it. This works. I know this works.’ And then we stopped. I just said, ‘O.K.,’ and that’s about the time I started Star Wars again. But then Harrison was kind of interested. And I said, ‘I won’t do it unless we can have that MacGuffin. Without the MacGuffin, I will not go near this thing.’ ”

Needless to say, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the story of Lucas’ MacGuffin (i.e. “an object or goal that kicks the story into action and drives it to the third act”). No doubt the title is Lucas’ creation, too.

Lucas’ obstinacy made me wonder: Is the original Indiana Jones trilogy really as good as I remember, or did Lucas pull a Star Wars Episode 1 on those too? Which got me further thinking: How does Indiana Jones stack up to the other great popcorn trilogies of the ’80s: Star Wars and Back to the Future (Star Wars [’77] and Back to the Future III [’90] don’t keep them from being ’80s trilogies.) So over the next couple months I’ll be rewatching those trilogies to see how they really hold up and compare to one another — and to see how obvious the Lucas Touch was before anyone had heard of Jar Jar Binks.

Here’s my initial ranking, based on my memories of the movies (and more recent Star Wars viewings):

1. Empire Strikes Back
2. Star Wars (A New Hope)
3. Back to the Future
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark
5. Back to the Future II
6. Temple of Doom
7. Return of the Jedi
8. Last Crusade
9. Back to the Future III

Freeze frame

This is awesome. It reminds me of in elementary school when we’d play some game in P.E. involving someone yelling “freeze” and everyone had to (obviously) freeze — and people inevitably would freeze in an awkward position, like with one leg lifted back and arms airplaning to the side, rather than just stopping in place. Alternatively, it reminds me of the usually useless clock “weapon” in Castlevania. Anyway.

Enough with the Super Bowl ads

Maybe it’s because I always have to work on Super Bowl night so don’t seen many of the ads, but I really wish we could do something to suffocate the manufactured hype about the commercials.

It’s not the ridiculous cost that bugs me, or the fact that Saatchi, Saatchi, and the Other Advertising Bigshots Whose Names Nobody Knows try so hard to make such an impression. It’s not even that newspeople recycle the same stories every year (Hey, look how much the ads cost this year! And hey, remember that 1984 Mac ad? And hey hey — the ads just ain’t what they used to be. Etc.), or that they’re giving loads of free advertising to a bunch of advertisements.

What’s really frustrating is this whole tradition/charade continues as though ads mean anything anymore. Not that ads can’t boost sales and drive traffic and eyeballs to desired places (not like that, you dirty devil). But in terms of cultural impact, commercials haven’t been more than a blip for a long time.

What’s the last ad campaign that became a cultural touchstone, inspired a widely used catch phrase, or that had any kind of cultural effect beyond a bunch of one-off chuckles? The Budweiser “Wassup” campaign comes to mind (I still semi-ironically try to revive that one). Ipod and iTunes ads, maybe, but that kind of impact is hardly what people are talking about when they imagine the “water-cooler” possibilities of Super Bowl ads (and please note the quote marks; I hate the “water-cooler” cliche even more than I hate Super Bowl ad hype).

I’m not anti-adverts. If it were up to me, American schoolkids would have to say “Set it — and forget it!” at the end of the morning Pledge of Allegiance. I like to add a whispered “From Calvin Klein” to half of my spoken sentences. But the idea that this would actually happen — that advertising is still so powerful in the Ironic Age that once a year it can shape the culture by multiple-$2.7 million fiat (fiats?) — doesn’t hold up.

UPDATE: Dan Hopper makes a similar point at Best Week Ever. My favorite part (though mostly unrelated to his main point):

This isn’t to say that this year’s ads weren’t garbage. Those parodies of “The Godfather” and “Rocky” were pretty topical, weren’t they? Why don’t we spoof “Duck Soup” while we’re at it? What about “The Great Train Robbery”? Or some of Thomas Edison’s wax cylinder recordings? And why stop at references to “Dick in a Box” and “Night At The Roxbury” when we could have the Church Lady hocking Dr. Pepper or Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford impression talking about Careerbuilder.com? Tons of untapped potential here, execs.