Sunday, May 27, 2007

TV: Friendly faces aren't who we meet

Can PBS sink any lower? That was our question long before Paul Farhi (Washington Post) reported Friday that neocon hate masking as a documentary was being distributed by CPB after PBS (in a rare show of defiance) refused to distribute it to public television stations across the country. As Jeff Chester observed to Farhi, "It appears that CPB's leaders -- prominent Republicans -- are engaged in a behind-the-scenes effort to secure an air date for a program appealing to their own conservative constituencies. Congress needs to investigate the corporation's own problems with fairness and balance." Or maybe it's time Congress just cut off funding all together?

We (Ava and C.I.) were lobbied by friends with PBS the last few weeks (as well as by strangers -- and one minor acquaintance -- in e-mails) as a result of "TV: The 'boys' are back in town" and "TV: Pigs and Prigs on PBS' NOW." Which led us to ask PBS friends, "Did you miss ' TV: Washington Weak'?" No, they hadn't. They happened to strongly agree with that.

But they were convinced we were missing "the value" of PBS. "The immense value," said one, all the rest stuck to the "the value" which suggests they worked really hard on their talking points. Time that, judging by what we sampled, would have been better spent working on things that make it to air.

They were particularly proud of a documentary and suggested we sample that. It's called The Blair Decade and as one of Christopher Guest's parody documentaries it's quite entertaining; however, the problem is that it wasn't meant to be played for laughs. Sadly, they are quite serious in this mockumentary.

If it's remembered historically for anything it will be for US Secretary of State and Anger Condi Rice's onscreen claim that, right before the illegal war started, Bully Boy phoned Tony Blair and told him if launching an illegal war looked as if it might be too much of a political liability for Prime Minister Blair, Bully Boy could handle the war without him. Condi pants, "I remember a phone conversation that they had. And Prime Minister Blair saying, ‘No, I told you that I'm with you, and I'm going to be with you'." Note that Condi heard both parts of the conversation. We're finding it hard to believe Bully Boy said, "Let me put you on speaker, Poodle," so we'll assume she was listening with Alberto Gonzales via a wiretap.

That's a rather astounding claim she's making and the fact that it has gotten so little attention may have something to do with it being delivered by No-One-Could-Have-Guessed Condi. Or it might have something to do with the way she delivered that and most of her bits. We honestly would have handed her a vibrator, asked her to excuse herself for a few minutes and then, after she reached the climax she seemed so on the verge of, rejoin us. Watching Rice babble at break-neck speed, in a high, keening voice, we felt we were seeing outtakes from a horror film entitled The Bride of Bully Boy. If you ever doubted Maureen Dowd (New York Times) reporting that Condi once caught herself as she was referring to Bully Boy as "my husband," watch that footage.

The only time she appeared cross was when noting that she didn't think it was such a good idea that Bully Boy noted his affinity to Blair by stating they used the same toothpaste (Colgate). Cut to clip of Tony Blair acknowledging Bully Boy's claims might lead to questions and rumors (as to how Bully Boy knew what toothpaste Blair used). Condi certainly seemed bitter as she recounted that incident.

Otherwise, she was humming and buzzing, perched on the edge of her seat, a Chatty Cathy chatting so fast you had to wonder (a) when she became so loquacious and (b) why she has to be repeatedly compelled to testify to Congress? Perhaps the next committee head should tell her that they need her in Congress for a tribute to the Bully Boy? We're sure she'd come flying down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Condi wasn't the only one sitting in front of the camera making baseless claims. Stanley Greenberg was on and presented as an expert on something other than losing electoral campaigns. He was billed as "Stan Greenberg" and we felt the more colloquial handle fit with the whole "Intimate Portrait: Elizabeth Taylor" approach of The Blair Decade. One minute Stan was dishing about how Blair told him Stan made his job harder (the 2000 presidential election -- which Stan raised no questions about), the next, hand on heart, Stan was telling the world that Tony Blair firmly believed their were WMDs in Iraq. It was like hearing tales from the dog walker about how "Liz" handled her marriage to John Warner. (And not even half as believable.)

Our biggest surprise with the on air personalities was Clare Short. Clare Short, who called Blair "reckless" as the illegal war was about to begin (March 8, 2003), offering 'misty, water-colored memories'? We were completely thrown by that until we made calls and found out Short had given the filmmakers considerable time, had spoken at length about the problems with Blair's tenure as Prime Minister, and was herself surprised to find her remarks edited down to simple soundbytes which all seemed to offer unconditional praise for Blair.

This two hour special was heavy on the gauze but short on the specifics. Blair, to listen to the narration, cured education, health care, democracy and, presumably, teenage acne. Now there was no way for the viewer new to the subject to evaluate any of that. For instance, away from the soft lights and treacly background music, many argue that Tony Blair's seriously damaged the British education system. So when making the claims about education (and they made assertions on that topic repeatedly), possibly a graph or interview subjects who didn't serve under Blair would be helpful? A graph could show the alleged progress Blair was responsible for and, indeed, define how progress was being measured because the special never noted if they were talking in terms of higher education, of graduation figures, of literacy, science or math programs, of . . .

But the narrator seemed to think just intoning repeatedly that Blair 'fixed' the education system was more than enough proof for anyone. Of course, the reality is that teachers are underpaid and overworked and considering striking. The UK Socialist Teachers Alliance issued the following statement this month:

The election of the Labour Government headed by Prime Minister Tony Blair, on the 1st May 1997 presaged changes to the world of Education in England and Wales which few working inside education had anticipated. Blair, describing himself and the politics he represented as "New Labour", declared that the priority for the incoming government would be "Education, Education, Education." However his policies represented a radical departure from the traditional notions of Education as a public service, publicly funded and locally administered which had dominated Labour Party thinking since its foundation at the beginning of the twentieth century and more especially since the 1940s.
The changes to Education, and to other areas of public services such as the Health Service, embraced and built on policies introduced during the previous Conservative (Tory) administrations of Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher (1979-90) and John Major (1990-97). Central to the strategy of Thatcher's government had been the policy of "Privatisation" -- the wholesale selling off to private companies of nationalized or publicly-owned industries and utilities, coupled with the dismemberment of sections of the public services. Private companies invited to run these newly acquired services would shift the emphasis from concerns for public welfare to the imperatives of finance, management and profitability. Whilst this was driven largely by the ideologically motivated neo-liberal monetarist policies of economists like Milton Friedman, their successful introduction into Britain required the political defeat of the longstanding adherence to "welfarism" and the "Welfare State" -- a concept that certain fields of economic and social activity should be informed by a desire to address people’s needs rather than notions of profitability and efficiency defined in narrow capitalist economic terms. This was especially true in the arena of Education.
To download the full article which is contained in Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies Volume 5, Number 1 (May 2007) ISSN 1740-2743 and will be a chapter within a forthcoming book Click Here

Now using the word "socialism," even in relation to England, is enough to give PBS staffers the jitters. So let's note a conservative news source because, on PBS, conservative translates as "center," Toby Helm and George Jones (Telegraph of London) reported this month on Gordon Brown's assertion that Blair did not provide "a 'world class' education system," characterizing "numeracy rates among young children as 'unacceptable' and declaring "It is unacceptable that we still have 150,000 children leaving primary school who aren't numerate." Rather a strong charge from Blair's heir-to-be. But hey, a pompous asshole intoned (in repeated narration) that Blair was an education success, so who should question off camera voices?

The special also offered a rather feel good and hazy look at Blair and his wife Cherie Booth's religion. We've never addressed their religion here nor has any community site because we haven't wanted to engage in the cheap shots that some feel their religion calls for. But if PBS thinks their religion is a topic, shouldn't viewers be informed of what those beliefs are because it wouldn't strike all American Christians as any strand of Christianity they're familiar with?

For instance, we don't think all American Christians would see "baptism" in what's described by Nick Cohen (Guardian of London):

During their stay at the Maroma Hotel, a pricey retreat on Mexico's Caribbean coast, Cherie Booth/Blair took her husband by the hand and led him along the beach to a 'Temazcal', a steam bath enclosed in a brick pyramid. It was dusk and they had stripped down to their swimming costumes. Inside, they met Nancy Aguilar, a new-age therapist. She told them that the pyramid was a womb in which they would be reborn. The Blairs became one with 'Mother Earth'. They saw the shapes of phantom animals in the steam and experienced 'inner-feelings and visions'. As they smeared each other with melon, papaya and mud from the jungle, they confronted their fears and screamed. The joyous agonies of 'rebirth' were upon them. The ceremony over, the Prime Minister and First Lady waded into the sea and cleaned themselves up as best they could.

Instead of exploring this or many other public examples, viewers are offered a flunky Pip exclaiming that Mr. Blair reads the Bible!

That tax payer money went to this crap may be the most offensive thing about the 'documentary.' In 120 minutes, The Blair Decade offered nothing of value other than announcing there's a new Leni Riefenstahl in the global village and their names are Anne Lapping, Rob Coldstream, Sally Brindle, Stephen Segaller and Paul Mitchell. They avoided interviewing anyone who didn't work for or with Blair, they avoided interviewing anyone who could provide context. They weren't interested in context and if any viewer questions that point, listen to the narrator declare at the end that Blair made England better in one of the most laughable uses of word choice you should ever hear in an alleged independent documentary.

We were assured that there were other offerings worth viewing. "Charlie Rose really isn't that bad," we were told. So we waded in.

First, community newsletter Hilda's Mix is for all members but exists to serve the disabled members. As Hilda asked two weeks ago, where does PBS get off taking government funds and not providing transcripts of the programs online?

Some do. But Charlie Rose doesn't. PBS is supposed to be public television. Presumably it's now public website. Transcripts need to be made available. Americans who are deaf or have hearing disabilities see their taxes go towards the vast crapland that is PBS the same as anyone else. So PBS needs to get off it's lazy ass and start offering transcripts online. Hilda discovered that not all programs do when she caught the tail end of Charlie Rose three weeks ago. She questioned a point a guest was in the middle of making when she flipped on her television. Curious to see what the point actually was, she visited the Charlie Rose website. There was no transcript option. (There is none, we've checked.) Video was offered. Fine, Hilda thought, she'll read the closed captioning as she does when she watches over the TV. There was no closed captioning offered in the video.

Let's be clear, PBS serves the center-right. It's supposed to serve all Americans, but it only serves the center-right. We'll back that up shortly but for now let's note that our critique (and the millions of others -- see Robert Parry for one strong example) will be dismissed as a 'judgement call' (and PBS apparently lacks the critical ability to evaluate). That's fine, we really don't give a damn. We think PBS reveals itself to larger and larger numbers of viewers (and former viewers) each year. What's not fine, what makes our blood boil, is that created under a mandate for diversity PBS thinks they can get away without serving Americans who are hard of hearing, deaf or hearing disabled. That doesn't fly with us. And it shouldn't take us noting the fact that Charlie Rose (and every other public affairs program) should be required to post transcripts to serve all communities.

So we caught Charlie Rose and he wasn't as remembered at all. No, he was much worse. If you're a 'name,' the way to speak on Charlie Rose is to continue talking. He will eventually shut up and let you make your point. If you're not a name, as a set designer found out, he'll keep talking over you the entire time. He's fond of beginning his attempts to interrupt a guest by looking down at the table between him and the guest. When the guest is Lee Iacocca, the guest can continue talking, ignoring Rose's attempt to interrupt, and eventually Rose will shut his yap. It won't happen immediately, but silence will come.

Now if you're thinking Charlie Rose's interruptions are ever intended as an attempt to clarify a point or delve into an uncomfortable question, think again. Charlie Rose just loves to hear the sound of his own voice. We had no idea the show had gotten this bad but to those talking it up, we'd suggest you try to watching it and ask yourself why an interviewer feels his own personal recollections are so important that he needs to cut off a guest in the middle of answering the previous question? Or, more importantly, why anyone should give a damn what Charlie Rose experienced to begin with?

Iacocca was on to sell one thing and Charlie was buying because PBS always buys it: big business. You saw it in The Blair Decade as they applauded the privatization of England's schools and you saw it all last week. On Charlie Rose, you saw Charlie not even try to interrupt as Lee Iacocca revealed that the next president should be a manager. "He" should, Iacocca informed, know how to handle a payroll.

Watching, we wondered if 'he' should also know how to leverage a government bailout?

"The Pride Is Back" Iacocca is against the illegal war (along with roughly 70% of America which, to Iacocca's credit, he did note). Some of the left have taken that to mean that his every thought should be recorded, puff pieces linked to. We question their long term memories (or maybe just their knowledge base) but before the next lefty rushes forward to gush over Lee, we'd suggest they sample that interview.

First off, presidents don't do payrolls. Second of all, government isn't a for-profit business (though give the right a little more elbow room and it soon will be). Clinton didn't balance the budget (he did cut down on the deficit but Social Security is not part of the national budget, it's a trust, and shouldn't be counted as a budget asset). Nor should he necessarily have. Reagan didn't. Poppy Bush didn't and Bully Boy certainly hasn't. But the business types come along to scold government over deficits and any finer points are lost as Democrats adapt the attitude of "We will balance the budget!"

What do we have to show for that over the last three decades? Clinton did cut down on the deficit. Where were the people's programs? Balancing the budget saw the safety net get chewed through. And the 'accomplishment' didn't mean Bully Boy felt the need to avoid (or justify) spending much more than the government was taking in or creating record deficits.

The reality is that government isn't a for-profit business and shouldn't conduct itself as if it was. Drop back to when Hurricane Katrina hit. If the US budget had been balanced down to the penny (it wasn't) and the federal government had no spare funds, it should have gone into debt to assist those in need because that's why government exists. There was Iacooca offering a little praise for Clinton (Bill) and the reality is the praise was worthless. Last week, in the war supplemental (SUPPLEMENTAL!), Democrats caved and gave over a $100 billion dollars for the illegal war and pork. Approximately $93 billion is to fund the illegal war. The United States, under Clinton, wasn't about to invest $93 billion more into our school systems. But Bully Boy can grab that and more for an illegal war. The point is the 'balanced budget' talk is crap and it's
past time Democrats stopped falling for it and thinking it made them appear 'responsible' or 'adult.' Government exists to meet the needs of a civil society and the only thing jumping on the 'balanced budget' bandwagon has ever done is lead to various (needed) assistance programs being cut.

Iacocca revealed that Tim Russert had just asked him if he's going to endorse Bill Richardson for president? That gossip tidbit passes for an informed discussion on Charlie Rose. He also revealed that Mitt Romney grew up in hollering distance of the Iacoccas. Listening to this and other tidbits we flashed back to earlier in the interview when Iacocca was saying that the media failed to address the real issues when discussing candidates. Iacocca should add his own name to the list of failures.

Iacocca, you hear from some lefties, is for health care! He was fuzzy on the show when it came to this issue and he appears to be for it largely because he wants to farm off Big Business' obligations. (Chrysler has a lot of retirees.) We're for health care. That doesn't mean we're for the same thing as Iacocca. We think every American should have their health care needs met by the government. Like Elaine, we believe instead of some new system (that would no doubt benefit insurance companies) being shoved through, Medicare should just be expanded to cover all Americans. Rose allowed Iacocca to drone on about Starbucks and to slam Hillary Clinton without ever asking any questions about how Iacocca would solve the healthcare crisis. (Iacocca didn't offer on his own possibly because he hadn't yet figured out how to offer a faux-folksy talking point on the subject.)

Slam Hillary? He offered that she screwed up health care. We feel that her proposal (though better than what America currently has) was a sell out but we doubt that's what Iacocca meant. But he offered that he could state clearly he wouldn't vote for Hillary. For such a supposed voice against the war, we found it strange that one failed policy attempt on healthcare over a decade prior (she could have learned from it -- we're not arguing she has, just tossing that out there) was his basis and not her public record on Iraq.

Iacocca droned on forever and that's because he's a 'name' and because he's Big Business. So Charlie Rose shut his yap in the midst of intended interruptions -- something we'd strongly suggest Rose do with all guests.

Big business is God.

That's the PBS point and it doesn't take the on air commercials to drive that home. Just watch the 'documentary' or Charlie Rose or NOW.

Would we, could we, give NOW another look? Friends begged with everying but "pretty please." So we did. We recently noted that we took a pass on re-reviewing The War At Home when a friend with the show asked, so mulitply that by 12 and you'll understand why we agreed to waste time on NOW with David Brancaccio. They get a link solely because they provide text, audio and video online which is welcoming to all online users (regardless of political persuasion). If they want kind words, they might try offering transcripts (not "Interview Excerpts") online as opposed to getting friends to call us and argue the case for them. (We are quite serious that transcripts need to be made available at all PBS public affairs shows.)

What did we get this week? As was noted at The Common Ills last week when an acquaintence of one of us (C.I.'s) e-mailed (the man doesn't know he knows C.I. from the man's Time Warner days):

NOW travels to Kenya to investigate an enterprising idea: franchising not burger and donut shops, but health services and drugs in rural Africa. American businessmen are teaming with African entrepreneurs to spread for-profit clinics around the country in the hopes of providing quality, affordable medical care to even Kenya's poorest people. But can they overcome obstacles like extreme poverty, corruption, cheaper fraudulent services, and long distances to establish a sustained solution to a chronic problem?

(For the record, NOW will not be noted at The Common Ills again unless it's broadcasting a feature on Iraq or providing must see programming -- on the latter, we'll get to that in a bit.)

Save us, Big Business, save us!

It was more worshipping of Big Business and at some point maybe one of these shows can address not only corporate welfare but the ever declining share of taxes corporations pay (while the taxes on individuals continues to climb)?

What stood out the most to us wasn't the Big Business glorification. (We'd already warned you where Brancaccio hailed from and what he's interested in.) What stood out, what alarmed us in fact, was that the rush to praise Big Business was so great that PBS was willing to humiliate a woman.

That's what appeared to happen. A woman visiting a clinic was put on air. She didn't speak to the camera, she didn't appear to want to be on camera. She was discussed -- by Branciccio and her doctor -- and we thought it was rather disgusting that, so eager to sell Big Business is PBS, they would humiliate a poverty stricken woman. But that appears to be exactly what they did.

[Added: This went up an hour ago and we've already received one phone call from a friend at PBS disputing this point. We asked ___ what we'll point out now: Is PBS authorized to reveal medical conditions? The poverty stricken women has malaria. We know that not because she shared it -- she avoided speaking and she obviously didn't even want to be on camera. We know that because the doctor and Brancaccio discussed it. If Big Business thinks 'medical ethics' means "We pay for it so we can disclose whatever the hell we want," we'd suggest someone call the AMA immediately. We'd also suggest that dishing on whether or not the woman will pay her bill crossed a serious line. ___ agreed that maybe we had a point. We'd say the "maybe" in that sentence was unnecessary.]

Washington Week? One friend working the phones (repeatedly) in the last weeks offered, "You can get in another Gwen Ifell zinger! You know you want to." Well far be it from us to pass up an easy punchline. Click here for video archives and click here for transcripts (the show that began airing Friday in some markets will post its transcript on Monday). Now maybe it's the fact that Washington Week, online, serves the fully physical capable community, the hearing disabled community and the sight disabled community (video also offers audio -- something many couples in this community with a blind partner appreciate), but we didn't feel the need for a Gwen Ifell joke.

What stood out the most from the half-hour chat and chew was Linda Robinson who writes for US News & World Reports. She'd just returned from Baghdad again (the Green Zone) and she wanted viewers to know she'd spoken to many average Iraqis. The fact that this took place (she's been to Baghdad at least five times prior) was apparently so momumental that she had to stress it repeatedly. She then went on to quote . . . Iraqis? David Petraeus tells us that US troops can't leave Iraq. We were confused. Not that he'd be on board with the Bully Boy but we weren't aware he was Iraqi. Imagaine that, Bully Boy's turned over the US military to Iraqi leadership. Who knew?

The reality is that Petraeus is an American. The reality is that for all of Robinson's useless chatter that she'd spoken to average Iraqis, and knew what they wanted, when it was time to actually quote, she turned the US military. Well, that no doubt makes those heavily guarded visits a little more comfortable for Robinson . . . even if it fails to informs Americans.

We finished our PBS journey with Bill Moyers Journal which featured the amazing Maxine Hong-Kingston for the hour. (Moyers provides transcripts, audio and video. Whatever else, right or wrong, his site fulfills the mandate for diversity.) In February (see "TV: Aftermath leaves an aftertaste") we noted, "Ourselves, we'd love to see a guest spot by Gloria Steinem, Maxine Hong-Kingston or Robin Morgan where the women are gathered and questions about identity and wants and needs are explored." That came closest to being explored on Moyers' program. (And note to NOW, that sort of thing, Iraq related or not, would get attention from this community.) Hong-Kingston was on to discuss issues of war and peace and the workshops that produced Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, published by Koa Books (noted many times at this site but for an excerpt see " Editorial: The importance of supporting the war resistance" from last October). As Laura Flanders (whose program RadioNation with Laura Flanders begins broadcasting Sundays at one pm EST starting today) has rightly noted, the media leaves women out of the discussions of the Iraq war so we will give Moyers credit for having on Hong-Kingston when there were many other ways to go. The way he went produced what should be an Emmy nominated program. If it's already aired in your market visit Bill Moyers Journal and you can read, watch or listen to what was an amazing hour of broadcast televsion.

So that's one out of five programs and for those "The glass is one-fifth full!" types, we'd suggest you watch the 'special' on Memorial Day if you still can't absorb what a crapland PBS has become. You'll get hacktor Gary Sinise (whose water Bob Herbert was carrying not all that long ago), you'll get Natalie Cole (because Lake Tahoe was booked?) and you'll get Diane Wiest (because when Dick Wolf fires you, what else is left but public television?). You'll get a lot of pomp and crap-umstance meant to make your skin glow over the death toll in Iraq. Ourselves, we prefer Carly Simon's take on Memorial Day:

And how the valley smoked
As he crossed Route 25
With his cymbals and his shattered crown
Leaving all alone
His eyes fixed on the ground
And he didn't even turn around
So strong was the message
And he fell into the shallow sky
And was swallowed
Well they bellowed
And they hollered
And they threw each other down
Down in this valley
This cruel and lovely valley
Well it should have been an alley
In some low down part of town
-- "Memorial Day," words & music by Carly Simon, off 1979's Spy


Note: Wally and Cedric coined the phrase "Secretary of State and Anger" as applied to Condi Rice.
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