Sunday, August 12, 2007

TV: P(ure)BS

Last Thursday, we got calls from friends with PBS advising us that Senator Joe Biden, a 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, had come out strongly against the privatization of Iraqi oil in an interview on The Charlie Rose Show. Could we note a moment that actually mattered, we were asked? And how about showing a little Charlie Love while we were at it?

Biden's strong statements made it into Friday's "Iraq snapshot" and we've noted it here, at the top. But Charlie Love?

It seemed unspeakable but we figured what the hell, maybe he's on a hot streak. We'll give it a sample. He wasn't.

Friday, he did all but scream "For the HOUR!" with John Rigas. That, in and of itself, might not be a bad thing. Nor were we surprised that his introduction was so long winded. We were bothered that he repeatedly referred to "the tragedy." The tragedy. The tragedy.

As we know the story, John Rigas and his son Timothy were convicted in a court of law on eighteen counts and, reading over the convictions, we didn't find "guilty of the tragedy" in any degree among the charges listed. The eighteen counts were for fraud and conspiracy.

We're having a hard time believing that some day in the future, Rose will sit down at that ugly wooden table (disclosure, one of us has the same table in mahogany and uses it as a computer desk -- but in mahogany, not what appears to be pine) and talk to a convicted home burglar about his or her 'tragedy.'

First off, such a criminal isn't big enough to get booked on Rose's show. Second of all, even if they did, they'd be seen as common thieves. There is no difference in action, according to the public, court record, between them and the father and son Rigas. The only real difference is they were caught knocking over the equivalent of every home and residence in the tri-state area. But it's a 'tragedy,' Rose kept trying to convince the audience.

No, it's a crime. It's a crime that landed convictions. It's felony crime and Rose can try to pretty it up all he wants but we don't believe for a minute that if this hadn't been a millionaire family, he would have even bothered.

John Rigas? He's old. Maybe it was the way he was filmed or maybe he's just nuts. But he looked drugged or insane throughout the interview. (Which you can watch online here starting Monday.) How I Met Your Mother was not the first program to mention "crazy eyes," but they did a better job with it than anyone . . . until Rigas.

Watching, we wondered what the hell he was looking at and why the eyes seemed to frequently go off in opposite directions. Rigas was allowed to spin tales and Rose was buying each and every one while telling viewers that Rigas never was able to testify in his own trial.

Rigas wasn't able to testify in his own trial? Rigas elected not to take the stand. Let's get serious here, even if PBS won't, every defendant has the right to take the stand. No judge barred Rigas from taking the stand. He made the decision not to -- with the advice of his attorney. Had he wanted to argue his case in court, he could have.

But in court he would have been challenged and faced cross-examination. Much easier to sit down across from Rose and invent the most outlandish excuses when you know the host will never challenge a word you say.

Rigas was convicted of using the company as a piggy bank and his explanation there was a lot of nonsense. At one point he offered that he was buying future properties that would then be sold to the company (Adelphia). He was never questioned as to why he was doing that? If what he maintained was true -- no, we didn't buy it either -- then a responsible host might have pointed out that a CEO buying properties to sell later on to his own companies would raise eye brows as to whether or not he was using his influence to fleece the company by making a profit on the sales. The money in question is $2.3 million dollars. Rigas has told this fairy tale in the last few days (such as to USA Today) because he goes to prison (finally) this week and, unless he's found to be near death by a prison doctor, he'll likely be serving the full 15 years. The 2.3 million dollars, the $2,300,000.00, he likes to explain, wasn't all borrowed at once. It dates back to 1996. So a responsible host might have asked him why he was sitting on properties he intended to sell to Adelphia for six years?

A responsible host might have really probed about the golf course he was planning to build on his own property that would have cost shareholders an estimated $15 million dollars. There too, Rigas has an excuse. It wasn't going to be for him. It was going to be for the company. Just like the mythical properties he alleges he purchased to later sale to Adelphia, he asserts that at some point he would be turning over that parcel of land to the company.

He apparently had a very long range vision for when he was going to sale and when he was going to donate. And, if you could get past crazy eyes, maybe you could buy the fairy tale that an over 80- year-old man has all the time in the world to repay 2.3 million dollars and get around to donating land.

Rigas maintained repeatedly that he was innocent and the wronged party. We honestly didn't know why he bothered. He was being interviewed by Charlie Rose, not Mike Wallace. It's not as though Rose even read the eighteen counts Rigas was convicted of, let alone hammered away at him the way Wallace would have.

The impression viewers were left with was that Rigas is a nice man who did a bad thing. There are plenty of those in prisons across the country. They don't get soft pats. There's a man in Texas who is about to face the death penalty for driving a car. We doubt Rose will interview him and so his case will never be termed "the tragedy" (although in Kenneth Foster's case, it actually is a tragedy and a travesty since he didn't kill anyone).

Rose as the last public defender to White collar criminals is all the harder to stomach when you contrast that approach with PBS' wretched summer series History Detectives. Could Rigas actually be innocent? It's possible. Corporations are gobbling one another up and some might have wanted to get their hands on the cable company Adelphia (Time Warner's already purchased some of the assets). But if that's the PBS approach, explain the case of Charles Pryor.

In a really bad segment, Wes Cowan demonstrated why some Anglos should never try to speak Spanish ("el paaaah SO!" for El Paso) while explaining that a cursory glance of the public record was all that was needed in order to label someone a criminal. Pryor shot film of Pancho Villa and exhibited it throughout the country. Pryor claimed to work for Associated Press. This would have been nearly a hundred years ago. AP has no record today of a Charles Pryor working for them. Pryor did shoot film of Villa, that's not in dispute. But based on the fact that American tourists watched the Mexican War of 1912 from the roof tops in El Paso and a few newspaper clippings that note Pryor was arrested and convicted, he's discredited as a colorful fraud.

Now Pryor's run in came because he was an independent film maker distributing his own films and the police were in the pockets of the studios in those days. So Pryor's only crime may have been being an independent. A court transcript might clear that up but why go to that trouble when you can go by a few brief paragraphs in a newspaper clipping?

Maybe if his last name was Rigas he would have received a fair hearing from PBS?

History Detectives is a fraudulent show. It is not about "history" in any real sense. It's Antique Road Show zooming in one object (three objects per episode). What you see on your screen is supposed to be the 'detectives' conducting investigations. The ugly truth is that before the cameras ever roll), they've already done the investigation. Or as one of the 'detectives' explained during an online chat at The Washington Post: "The research for one story takes about 4 weeks but sometimes the research may take months due to locations and dead-ends. We tape a show in 5 to 6 days."

Now if that aired on Fox, you might not bat an eye. But this airs on PBS and is presented as if you are watching a real time investigation when, at best, you are watching re-enactments. With, we might add, the homeliest cast of actors you could imagine.

Friends at PBS begged off when we questioned them about History Detectives in regards to public television's mandate ("Oh God, I'm hanging up!" was one of the more colorful replies) -- all save one who wanted us to "get" that it was a hobby show. Because it's a hobby show, we were told, the rules that might govern news or documentaries did not apply. We're guessing that's the same operating principal that allows them to repeatedly air those Suze Orman infomercials.

But, thing is, it's not billed as Hobby Detectives. It's billed as History Detectives and it airs on PBS each summer (this is the fifth summer) so people watching probably feel that what is on screen is actual reality. It's not.

We were on the road, we think in Arizona, the first time we saw History Detectives. (Or, as Cowan might pronounce it, aaah-raaaah-zo-NA!). It was late at night and we were flipping around for news on Iraq when we heard Elvis Costello's "Watching The Detectives" (a good song but not the strongest on My Aim Is True by any means) and stopped to see what the program was? What it was was offensive: Cowan speaking to a Hispanic male and exaggerating every syllable in "El Paso". A poster was found in the San Francisco home of a man. (He didn't speak to Cowan. His father did. Why? We have no idea.) The huge poster advertised "The Great Mexican War" and that set Cowan off on the equivalent of a Google search via snail-mail.

But we only thought we were offended by what passed for 'historical research' until the last curio was 'researched.' Nora Holt's autograph book had been discovered. This segment included something we'd see many times in other episodes" the White detectives (all but one is White) moving quickly past any on air expert attempting to note discrimination against African-Americans. Apparently that doesn't sell curios or bring in the audiences.

Nora Holt was the first African-American woman to receive a masters in music -- the show noted and then played her off as a dilettante who was casually a part of the Harlem Renaissance and did a little composing. That's not reality. She was co-founder of the National Association of Negro Musicians, a radio host, wrote for Amsterdam News (as well as The Chicago Defender which was the only paper mentioned in the show). All of that was more or less dropped to focus on the curio: an autograph book filled with signatures of famous people, such as Woodrow Wilson. And the 'detective' was really hung up on how Holt could have gotten the signatures, not were they authentic.

At one point, we wondered if the 'detective' thought Holt was a washer woman from Queens? The 'detective' appeared completely unaware of the fact that Holt was wealthy before her fifth marriage -- possibly because her other husbands didn't work for the White Charles Schwabb and the 'detectives' are always looking for the big roller brush to White wash everything.

In the process, they create more problems. It was decided the autographs were genuine and that they had been collected, except possibly one or two, by her husband Joseph Ray who worked for Schwaab -- or maybe even someone else!, hold on for that -- and the half-stated reason for this 'conclusion' appeared to be that "captains of industry" wouldn't mingle with an African-American woman. (Apparently not even long enough to sign an autograph.) That's how you get questions like this one by the 'detective': "was, was she African American? And how did she happen to have access to people like this in 1921?" If it's still not clear, once the autographs are judged authentic, the 'detective' mused, "How and why did this African-American woman collect all these signatures?" As opposed to doing what? Picking cotton?

Herb Boyd attempted to bring up the issue of racism by noting "There was a notion that art would be a way to deal with racism. We can't do the political thing, we can't do the economic thing, we can't get the place in the academy, so we'll take the stage. And so you have this here, just a preponderance of artistic explosion." As though he'd just spoken in tongues, the 'detective' ignored everything he'd just stated to ask, "Where's Nora in all this?" For the record, Schwaab was always "Schwaab" or "Charles Schwaab" when the 'detective' named him, never "Charles" or "Charlie." Possibly if Nora Holt had been a "captain of industry," PBS could have treated her with a little less familiarity and a lot more respect?

But the best/worst was yet to come. Nora Holt's fifth husband was African-American so we both knew he wasn't going to get any credit. Turns out Charles Schwaab, the White Charlie, sometimes collected autographs. Most likely, the 'detective' explains to the owner of the curio and the audience, Schwaab got the autographs (give or take one or two) and presented it as a gift (a bonus?) to Joseph Ray who then passed it on to Nora Holt.

This was based on . . . Well conjecture. Because the 'detectives' aren't historians. They're glorified appraisers. Two are actually billed as such (with one of the two also being billed as an "art historian") while the other two are from the fields of architecture and sociology. (The architect was the one hunting down Nora Holt.) Not one genuine historian among them. If you want to know tax values, see an appraiser, if you want history, avoid them like the plague.

Though Nora Holt was a leading figure in Harlem and a wealthy woman, the idea that she might be able to collect autographs of famous White people ("WHY?" asked the 'detective') was just too much for the appraiser. Apparently, a wealthy woman like Holt was not able to travel outside of Harlem and certainly no "captains of industry" could venture into it, according to PBS. Strange, we've never heard of The Great Wall of Harlem.

Speculation Appraisers would be a more honest title. Acting surprised at the thought that Nora Holt might be African-American (when the 'detective' knew that weeks before) is as phony as everything else about this summer eye sore. But it's the rampant racism repeatedly on display that really irks.

If Nora Holt had these autographs, PBS informed viewers, they were collected by someone else and, at story's end, wouldn't you know it, they were collected by a White man. There's no proof of that. There was no real proof to calling Charlie Pryor a small time crook. But PBS is happy to run with it when the person in question is not a millionaire. When, like John Rigas, they were, they get the Charlie Rose treatment. It's a "tragedy" that Rigas is a White collar criminal who bilked millions from shareholders and got convicted of it 18 times over. It's "history" that an African-American woman couldn't collect her own damn autographs but needed a White businessman to do it for her. That's how 'reality' plays out on PBS and it's pretty disgusting.

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