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September 27, 2002
O'Reilly vs. Snoop Dogg
I was wondering when the crack investigative team at The O'Reilly Factor would uncover the unholy Snoop Dogg - Muppets union: "What the heck is rapper Snoop Dog doing in a Muppet Christmas special?! Should a guy who has also been in porn films, was recently cleared of a murder charge and has a past filled with violence, really be appearing in a program designed for little kids?"
Well, maybe not. But while considering the question, it helps to have as much information as possible. So here's some things to keep in mind:
The incident that led to Snoop Dogg's murder charge occurred in August 1993, when his bodyguard shot and killed a man. The prosecution said it was murder, the defense said it was self-defense. In February 1996, a jury found Snoop Dogg and his bodyguard not guilty of murder.
Snoop Dogg (real name Calvin Broadus) has also had several other brushes with the law. They include a 1990 arrest and conviction for possessing cocaine with intent to sell; a 1993 arrest (or possibly two arrests) for felony possession of a handgun, resulting in a $1000 fine and three-year probation in 1997; a 1998 citation for misdemeanor marijuana possession. According to Reuters, this last incident occured when "Broadus approached sheriff's deputies backstage at the Universal Ampitheatre to report an altercation with a group of four to six men after his performance at the Def Comedy Jam. Broadus told the deputies that one of the men had slapped him, then fled...It was while taking the report...that the deputies smelled marijuana on Broadus..."
Obviously Snoop Dogg has not been a model citizen his entire life. But unless I missed an arrest somewhere, it's been almost 10 years since he's been arrested for anything serious -- and his last brush with the law (the 1998 marijuana citation) occurred when he was acting like a responsible citizen (who happened to be high at the time) by reporting an altercation to a police officer. (UPDATE: Snoop Dogg was also charged with marijuana possession in October 2001 after his tour bus was stopped for speeding in Ohio. In May 2002, Snoop Dogg pleaded no contest and received a $250 fine and a suspended 30-day sentence.)
And yet how does O'Reilly spin his criminal record? He says Snoop Dogg was "recently cleared of a murder charge." A murder charge is a serious thing, of course, and time doesn't diminish its seriousness. But if you know the incident occurred in 1993, why not say that instead of "recently"?
Of course, the question still remains -- how the heck did Jim Henson Productions get the idea that Snoop Dogg would be an appropriate guest on "A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie"?
Well, maybe they watched the King of the Hill episode on February 25th, 2001. You know -- the one entitled "Ho Yeah" that featured Snoop voicing the character of a pimp named Alabaster Jones. Here's how O'Reilly's employer Fox promoted the episode on its website: "Tammi is a prostitute and everyone in town starts thinking Hank is her pimp. But real trouble ensues when her old pimp, Alabaster Jones, shows up looking for her..."
Why didn't O'Reilly complain about Snoop Dogg's appearance on King of the Hill? Well, for one thing, kids hate cartoons. Second, King of the Hill airs on Sunday nights at 7:30 pm, when kids are watching 60 Minutes. Third, it's OK for a rapper to portray a pimp, as long as he doesn't get a Pepsi commercial out of the deal. Fourth, it's not OK for a rapper to portray a funny, laid-back, affable guy who talk to frogs -- people might start thinking he isn't all bad...
One other final note about this infernal Muppet Christmas movie. What the heck is actor David Arquette doing in a Muppet Christmas special?! Should a guy who has also been in AT&T commercials, was recently a heroin user, and has a past filled with graffitti vandalism really be appearing in a program designed for little kids?
UPDATE: I haven't seen any news reports yet, but a message-board poster on another site reported that O'Reilly "got the movie CANCELLED. NBC pulled it because of O'Reilly discussing it on his radio show."
Posted by Greg Beato at 06:19 PM
September 26, 2002
The Human Touch
Obviously, Google News needs news to work -- and its value increases the more news there is. If it becomes so popular that it starts putting professional news operations out of business, then its own value decreases: who needs a super-powered news aggregator when there's only a few dozen, or even a few hundred, sources to aggregate?
Even so, Google News could have a substantial impact on certain professional news operations -- namely, big ones with national or international presences that function themselves as aggregators (even if they're only aggregating the news that their widely deployed staffs assemble). Sites like CNN.com, USAToday.com, ABCNews.com, MSNBC.com -- i.e., sites that court daily, geographically decentralized, general-interest news consumers -- are theoretically the most vulnerable (along with pure aggregators like Yahoo.com), because they offer essentially the same functionality as Google News. But they're also amongst the best-branded, best-funded news organizations, so presumably they won't crumble too easily. Over time, though, it's probably likely that news organizations that actually generate news (rather than simply aggregate it) will grow increasingly specialized. USAToday.com isn't really necessary when smaller, regional operations are accessible via a single interface. To stay national or international, news organizations will need to start cultivating more emphatic brand values -- Foxnews.com (for enfranchised people who feel disenfranchised) and Nakednews.com (for perverts who want to stay semi-informed) seem better positioned than sites like CNN.com or MSNBC.com (where liberal bias may exist, but isn't explicitly marketed as a positive brand attribute).
And the news-bloggers, how will they fare? At first glance, they seem like unsuspecting brontosauri, happily stomping across the blogosphere even as the sky above them starts to darken. After all, as Jack Shafer wrote yesterday on Slate, "Google News software continuously crawls more than 4,000 Web news sources, looking for the most relevant articles from the most reputable sources." And while Comrade Reynolds may be able to equal that performance during the summer months, what about the fall, when school's in session?
In the end, though, I don't think Google News poses any great danger to news-bloggers either. In fact, if Google News really wants to succeed, it should probably hire some bloggers to flesh out its service. "Untouched by Human Hands" is the title of the Washington Post's piece on Google News. And the Google News site itself announces that "This page was generated entirely by computer algorithms without human editors. No humans were harmed or even used in the creation of this page."
But that's really the exact opposite of what people want these days. Blogs are popular because they're personal -- readers feel a connection with blog-authors that they don't feel with traditional media. They want their news man-handled like an 18-year-old beauty pageant winner at a convention of Bob Greene clones.
Plus, Google News is too efficient. It provides too many articles on too many topics. Algorithms are supposed to determine which of these articles you should spend your time on, but no algorithm can make the best choice every time. Human editors can't either, but they're much better at insisting they can.
Posted by Greg Beato at 04:15 PM
September 25, 2002
Word of Oaf: Bill O'Reilly vs. Ludacris
"I was single for a long time. I was all over the world covering wars and met thousands of women."
-- Bill O'Reilly
"I've got ho's in different area codes."
But the family also had enough money to send O'Reilly to private school, and then college (with a year abroad in England), and then college again. "You don't come from any lower than I came from on an economic scale," O'Reilly once told the New York Observer. "I fully realize that blacks in the ghetto, and all that, had a much rougher life than I had. But I started from ground zero. When I got out of B.U., I had not a nickel."
Here, you have to give O'Reilly his due: if you ask the average employer, "Hey, who are you most likely to hire -- a black from the ghetto, or a white guy with a master's degree from Boston University, the employer will reply, 'Whoever's got the nickel!'"
But is O'Reilly really the salt-of-the-earth type he plays on his very popular, very entertaining TV series? O'Reilly says his show on Fox News looks at "things from a blue-collar, workingman's point of view." To convey that view, O'Reilly says things like "corporate America, in my opinion, needs to rethink their responsibility to their country" and "I'm in the vanguard on television of our search-and-destroy mission about the elite media...They don't want to hear from [regular people]. They don't want to address our concerns..."
Interestingly enough, Bill O'Reilly is married to a woman named Maureen McPhilmy, vice president of DWJ Television, a company that specializes in producing commercials for big, rich, powerful corporate clients like Sun Microsystems and Kellogg's, and then passing these commercials off as genuine news stories on channels like Fox News. And, of course, O'Reilly makes a lot of money from one of the world's biggest media conglomerates to portray a regular guy -- $4 million a year, according to the Boston Globe.
So given the shaky foundation on which Bill O'Reilly's blue-collar, workingman's persona rests, his recent vendetta against 24-year-old Chris Bridges, aka Ludacris, is somewhat surprising. After all, Bridges appears to hail from relatively modest origins himself: he grew up in College Park, Georgia, a town of 20,000 near the Atlanta airport, where the median household income is $38,558. (O'Reilly famously exclaimed that his father, who retired in either 1978 or 1980 -- I've seen both listed -- never made more than $35,000 a year.)
Bridges attended Banneker High School, a public institution where the student body is 97% black. At the age of 8, he exclaimed to his mother, "Mom, I love music and whether I am in front of a microphone or behind it, I will be in the music industry." In pursuit of this dream, his mom says, he obtained "internships in radio and entertainment law." Eventually, he turned an internship at an Atlanta radio station into a job as a producer there. At the age of 21, he bought his first house. At the age of 23, he created his own record label and produced his first album. Now, at 25, he's a platinum-selling artist.
I'm not sure if Ludacris ever had to suffer the indignity of having only two sports coats to wear to school -- according to the Washington Post, O'Reilly frequently cites his own memories of such hardship -- but I'd say that he certainly qualifies as a hard-working, self-made man.
On a certain level, then, you'd think Bill O'Reilly would recognize Chris Bridges, aka Ludacris, as a kindred soul. But apparently that's not the case: on August 27th, during the "Talking Points" portion of his TV show, O'Reilly described Ludacris as "a man who is demeaning just about everybody, and is peddling antisocial behavior." O'Reilly then blasted Pepsi for using Ludacris as a commercial pitchman: "I'm calling for all responsible Americans to fight back and punish Pepsi for using a man who degrades women, who encourages substance abuse, and does all the things that hurt particularly the poor in our society." A day later, Pepsi announced that it was discontinuing its ad campaign with Ludacris.
It's true that Ludacris is probably not the best choice to serve as spokesperson for a large corporation that wants to convey hipness in a completely safe, antiseptic, non-controversial way. In addition to penning some funny, clever rhymes, he writes lyrics like "Move bitch, get out the way/Get out the way bitch, get out the way/OH NO! The fight's out/I'ma 'bout to punch yo...lights out." And: "I gotta big weed stash, pocket full of cash/Just seen a big ol' ass, it's Saturday/Sticky, icky, icky, icky/Sticky, icky, icky, icky."
But of course it seems fairly unlikely that Pepsi planned to use any lyrics like that in its commercials featuring Ludacris. And while O'Reilly argued that Pepsi was "rewarding" Ludacris for rapping about "anti-social behavior," the truth is that it was rewarding him for being popular with the demographic it wants to reach.
So why focus on Ludacris? If O'Reilly truly believes that celebrities shouldn't be rewarded for their anti-social behavior, why not target someone whose commercial appearances actually celebrate his real-life misdeeds? One good candidate, as hip-hop commentator Davey D. has already pointed out: temperamental basketball coach (and rape enjoyment counselor) Bobby Knight, who was fired from Indiana University for habitually assaulting folding chairs and players, then hired by Clorox to smash dishes against a wall in a Glad trashbag commercial.
Or how about Tonya Harding? After she approved of her boyfriend's plan to cripple Nancy Kerrigan, O'Reilly's then-employer Inside Edition reportedly paid her $375,000 to appear on O'Reilly's show. Back then, he was so enamored of the concept of rewarding anti-social behavior with big money -- aka "checkbook journalism," the practice of paying people like Joey Buttafuoco to share their sins with the news media -- that he wrote a glowing op-ed piece about it for the New York Times.
And then of course there's Britney Spears, whom Pepsi has employed for some time now as a spokes-dancer, most memorably in that creepy, almost Lynchian spot where Bob Dole barked at his cock ("Down, boy!") while Spears did her standard Tribute-To-The-Ladies-Of-Hooters crotch-grinding. But even though Spears has helped introduce the Vivid Girl aesthetic to her millions of prepubescent fans, O'Reilly thinks her call-girl-next-door persona is just "immature and silly."
"I don't feel Britney Spears is a threat to the nation," he said on his TV show. "She may not be a good role model, but I don't think she's going to do any permanent damage to anybody, whereas [Ludacris] is."
So what is it, exactly, about Ludacris that makes O'Reilly think such dark, dark thoughts?
While O'Reilly acknowledges that the 25-year-old rapper is "not as bad as [genocidal Cambodian dictator] Pol Pot," he does believe that Ludacris is pretty darn bad. According to O'Reilly, Ludacris is:
Plus he "hurts children." Given Ludacris' status as O'Reilly Enemy #1, I expected to find quite a bit of information detailing his arrest record, his criminal past, and his nefarious plot to subvert American values by turning schoolchildren into violent Communist junkies. So far, however, I haven't found anything like that -- except perhaps for one or two mentions of a mysterious institution known as the Ludacris Foundation. Allegedly created to "provide gifts, grants, and scholarships to Foster Care Shelters, Stay-in-School and High School athletics programs, Book Drives/Reading and Art Appreciation programs and many other initiatives," it sounds a hell of a lot like a drug-and-prostitution ring to me.
But other than that, what?
Given that O'Reilly heads up the most popular series on the most popular cable news network, he must have plenty of investigative resources at his disposal. And given that the FoxNews corporate slogan is "We report, you decide," I can only conclude that O'Reilly and his reporters did the in-depth background check that one would expect any responsible news organization to do if it were planning to describe someone as a dangerous, subversive individual who hurts children. And since O'Reilly has made no mention of Ludacris' criminal record or anything like that, I can only conclude that his investigation didn't actually turn up anything too damning.
Except for Ludacris' aforementioned lyrics, that is.
But even there, O'Reilly sees things that don't really exist. Indeed, O'Reilly repeatedly characterizes Ludacris as a decidely emphatic prosyletizer: "Take narcotics. Abuse people. Punch people. Hurt people." But I couldn't find any lyrics where he explicitly encourages people to do any of these things. He talks about his own drug and alcohol use, his own violent exploits, and his own misogynistic treatment of women, yes, but such blustery boasting isn't the same thing as insisting to others that they should do the same.
More importantly, O'Reilly seems to betray no suspicions whatsoever that (a) Ludacris' lyrics aren't necessarily based in fact, and (b) Ludacris' lexicon isn't necessarily literal.
When a guest on O'Reilly's show asked him if any hip-hop figure might make an acceptable Pepsi spokesperson, O'Reilly replied "Chubby Checker." Surprisingly enough, Chubby Checker is still alive and still performing regularly, but of course he's not a hip-hop figure by any stretch of the imagination, unless that imagination simplistically equates black skin with hip-hop. So what does O'Reilly's answer say? That he has either a deep ignorance or a deep contempt for the genre, or possibly both.
So perhaps O'Reilly doesn't realize that a hip-hop lyric should not be automatically interpreted as a deposition: it can be fictional, hyperbolic, metaphorical. Ludacris is a character that Chris Bridges invented. Like many rappers, he rhymes in a deliberately over-the-top, hyper-aggressive way. And for the record, he's actually mostly known as a comic presence - more crazy, bugged-out prankster than thugged-out gangster. "I grew up watching Richard Pryor, The Three Stooges and Dolemite," he explained to one interviewer. "I've always been the funny dude in my crew, so I wanted to put that humor into my lyrics."
(Memo to O'Reilly: has anyone taught more children to be violent than the Three Stooges? You need to stop those guys!)
Now, O'Reilly might not think that lyrics like "Just keep on pissin me off, like a weak kidney/And you will find your family reading your obituary" are particularly funny. But does he really think Ludacris murders anyone who gets on his nerves?
To promote his own show, O'Reilly uses similar (albeit not as clever) vocabulary. One of his favorite adjectives to describe his work is "hard-hitting." He talks about "hammering" Alan Iverson and other public figures. In a Playboy interview, he says he "slapped around" Jerry Falwell on his show. In the same interview, he says he "smashed" Michael Kinsley when Kinsley visited "The O'Reilly Factor," and follows up with this anecdote: "When I went home to the neighborhood, people who saw the show came up to me and asked, 'How come you didn't punch him?' I had to explain that he was in Washington and I was in New York and I couldn't go through the camera. They said, 'We would have fucking killed him.'"
(Memo to Ludacris: Wanna know how to get Bill O'Reilly off your back? Just make sure you identify Michael Kinsley as your target whenever you write a violent lyric.)
Clearly a double standard is at work here. When Bill O'Reilly uses violent imagery to promote his persona, it's marketing. And when Ludacris does it, it's a subversive threat to American values.
Similarly, when Bill O'Reilly writes a novel that includes plenty of sex and violence, it's harmless entertainment. But when Ludacris writes a rap lyric that includes plenty of sex and violence, it's "dangerous" advocacy of a destructive lifestyle. In 1998, O'Reilly published Those Who Trespass, a novel that stars, in the words of its back-jacket promo copy, "a low-profile killer, brutally sadistic and maddeningly professional." The story is further enlivened by a "triangle of erotic suspense." In truth, there is little eroticism and little suspense in this brutally generic and maddeningly delusional book. But there are passages like these ones:
"Costello tasted the salty flavor of blood running in his throat...The assailant's right hand, now holding the oval base of the spoon, rocketed upward, jamming the stainless stem through the roof of Ron Costello's mouth. The soft tissue gave way quickly and the steel penetrated the correspondent's brain stem."
"She tried not to stare at his crotch, even though she saw movement there."
"Then he slipped here panties down her legs and, within seconds, his tongue was inside her, moving rapidly."
"He was speaking hushed tones, telling her how much he enjoyed her body, using words that in polite conversation would have been vulgar, but in this context were extremely erotic. His hands firmly gripped her buttocks."
"Silence circled the room like a starving turkey buzzard."
"These TV guys really are pricks..."
And it's true that in Those Who Trespass, after depicting numerous sadistic murders, and explaining how the victims did kind of deserve it (because they were mean!), O'Reilly is careful to dramatize the fact that Crime Doesn't Pay.
Nonetheless, his comments about his book's success clearly suggest that he knows it's not the triumph of law and order that his readers are buying: "[My publisher is] telling me to write another one quick. Kill more people!" he exclaimed to the Dallas Morning News with apparent glee. So far, killing people in print has been a profitable undertaking for him: Those Who Trespass has had several printings to date, and Mel Gibson is planning to turn it into a feature film.
Which is great for O'Reilly: I, for one, believe that people should be allowed to pursue all kinds of different projects, for different audiences and different venues, and with different standards of decorum informing them. O'Reilly has proven that he can do a Fox News broadcast without blurting out sentiments like "His hands firmly gripped her buttocks," so I think he should be allowed to write erotic murder fantasies about killing his peers in the media world if that's what makes him happy. And since Ludacris has demonstrated that he can in fact write a rap song without using the words "bitch," "ho," or "motherfucker," then I think he actually can function as a commercial spokesperson.
But I know there are a lot of people out there who aren't as open-minded as I am. And those people are probably wondering why it's OK for Fox News to employ a man who brags about "slapping" and "slamming" his adversaries, and also enjoys day-dreaming about ways to murder characters based on real-life people he has known, while it's wrong for Pepsi to employ a man who engages in similar literary transgressions. The answer is simple, however: in America, we expect far more moral accountability from our soft drink manufacturers than we do from the news media.
Posted by Greg Beato at 12:52 AM
September 24, 2002
Kazaa figures out better way to rip off labels, musicians, song-writers: "the new Kazaa allows searches by 'playlist,' letting groups of songs be downloaded as a single item. The company touts this as a way for people to share diverse lists of songs by different artists, while warning against trading copyrighted works. In reality, this new option provides a new, simple way to download albums all at once instead of song by song."
Actually, people probably use that feature as intended -- especially if people are making Billboard 100 playlists and things like that. Many downloaders insist they're not really interested in entire albums anymore -- they just want the two or three best songs on an album. But cherry-picking like that is work -- and downloadable playlists make it less work. What the record industry must realize is that they're now selling convenience, not music. Opportunistic thieves like Kazaa realize this, and are creating services that fulfill this mandate.
Meanwhile, record companies are striking deals like this one: "RioPort, a music technology company, will begin selling digital tracks from Warner Music Group artists. The agreement, announced Monday, will let RioPort sell more than 30,000 titles from Warner Music's catalog online for as little as 99 cents a song. Warner Music, a subsidiary of media giant AOL Time Warner, will let these singles be burned onto CDs or transferred onto portable devices."
Memo to record companies: selling songs one at a time, for too much money, is not the best way to leverage your considerable advantage in the digital distribution domain, nor is it the best way to give fans what they really want.
Posted by Greg Beato at 10:00 AM
Behind the (Digital) Music
Informative piece from Amy Harmon about the challenges that face digital music services like Rhapsody and Pressplay. One of the biggest challenges: negotiating contracts with publishers (i.e., the people who wrote the songs or now own the song's publishing copyright, not the labels).
Posted by Greg Beato at 09:39 AM
September 23, 2002
Married mediaphiles discuss corporate synergy. Conclusion: "Maybe entertainment executives should take a look at the new-urbanist principles -- not just the embrace of human scale, but also of sociability, of careful design, of the adherence to proven models while still allowing for calculated experimentation . . ."
Posted by Greg Beato at 09:43 AM
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