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November 08, 2002
When George met Alexandra
Like its primary subject, George W. Bush, the HBO documentary "Journeys with George" wears its ambitions lightly but relentlessly: for 79 minutes, it putts along little-engine-that-could style, determined to convert its coyness and its superficiality into something that passes for Something Meaningful about the current state of politics and news media...
Alexandra Pelosi, the documentary's creator, was officially on-board for Dubya's 2000 election run as a news producer for NBC. In that capacity, she worked behind the scenes, shaping the network's coverage of Bush's campaign, but leaving the on-camera appearances to other NBC colleagues. Of course, in these days of reality TV and insider-everything, staying behind the scenes is pretty much the best way to engineer your eventual close-up - and while Pelosi was fulfilling her duties as an NBC producer, she was also using a Sony camcorder to compile over 80 hours of footage of life on the campaign trail in its unofficial, unchoreographed, least consequential moments.
The result? George W. Bush as we've never seen him before. And: Alexandra Pelosi as we've never seen her before.
Which is simply to say, "Journeys with George" is a lot like Michael Moore's "Roger and Me," except that (a) unlike GM CEO Roger Smith, George W. Bush is surprisingly, persistently, annoyingly willing to appear on camera, and (b) while self-aggrandizement was but one of several fires fueling "Roger and Me," Pelosi seems mostly interested in establishing herself as a Michael Mooresque celebrity journalist, a folksy, unassuming, faux-na´ve truth-seeker who makes folksy, unassuming, faux-na´ve movies about her search for truth.
Thanks to these two factors, "Journeys with George" functions primarily as a romantic comedy, minus the Hollywood-caliber repartee. Pelosi stars as the cute 'n' kooky heroine: daughter of Democratic stalwart Nancy Pelosi, card-carrying member of the liberal media elite, she's looking for love in all the wrong (campaign) races. And George W. - he's the handsome stuffed shirt with a couple buttons undone, showing a flash of the cuddly teddy bear that lurks beneath.
Or does it? The great mystery of "Journeys with George" is the true nature of Bush's character. Cracking jokes, gobbling Cheetos, Bush comes off as charismatic and even occasionally witty (at least when his competition is Dick Cheney and Karl Rove). More importantly, it's clear that Bush is able to project warmth and candor without actually revealing anything about himself: he's certainly a shrewder political animal than many people believe. But there are some sad and fairly creepy strokes in this portrait too, and those are the ones that resonate. Various critics have described the Bush that appears in "Journeys with George" as "rather charming and quick-witted," and "a natural-born cut-up," but, in the end, what drives him isn't really charm or wit, but rather, the grim-grinned assurance that comes from having pumped servile hands for most of the last four decades. He knows that with his selling points (power, money, looks), he only has to supply the impulse toward charm and wit: as long as he does that, his star-struck audience will reflexively provide the infatuation and the laughter.
And, thus, his almost tic-like mugging for the camera, and his gruesome flirting with Pelosi. If Clinton was a slutty empath, trying to find soft, comforting mama-love in every tense, tawdry bout of Oval Office cigar-fucking, Bush is a classic fratboy narcissist. As he puts G-rated moves on Pelosi in the back of an airplane, his indifference to her is palpable: what gets his motor running is her interest in him, and his ability to make her acquiesce. At an earlier time in Bush's life, sex would have been the perfunctory proof of the equation: now, he seems relieved that all he has to do to mark his territory is plant a quick kiss on her cheek.
With alcohol, however, it's a different story. "These are my people," Bush says, nursing a fake beer as he watches a bunch of drunken reporters drain a bottle of tequila. In such moments, all those stories about the duty-bound First Son, reluctantly taking over the family business, seem wholly believable. Go on, George, you think, have a beer. Get plastered. You don't have to be the leader of the free world if you don't really want to...
At the same time, Bush deserves credit, because he appears to have tremendous impulse control. And even more importantly, he seems to completely accept, and perhaps even honor, the notion that you can't have everything. In this era of limitless entitlement, that makes him almost principled: he knows what the deal is - no drinking, no screwing around, and he can be President - and he doesn't look for loopholes.
Beyond this quality, however, Bush mostly remains a cipher. When Pelosi asks him why she should vote for him in the California primary, he tries to stitch together a few platitudes and jokes, but he looks as bored and anxious as a junior high school kid dealing with a surprise pop quiz. In this instance, there is no reason for Bush to be guarded, no reason to be cautiously politic - no reason to be anything except honest and straightforward. But Bush seems unable to meet that challenge, and as I watched him mug and squirm his way through a non-answer, a scene from another HBO documentary flashed in my mind. That one depicted a high-school student government election, with freshmen candidates whose primary campaigning technique consisted of offering candy to their classmates. Compared to Bush, however, they looked like genuine statesmen.
Not that Pelosi ends up looking much better. Her movie's built on a romance, but the romance can't really go anywhere beyond the "Ick, I think I like him" stage - and that means there's a desperate need for something more to fill out the movie. Pelosi finds it in the servile skepticism of herself and her fellow journalists - to a man, they complain about the formulaic, controlled nature of newsgathering on the campaign circuit, with its endlessly repetitive schedule of photo ops and well-rehearsed non-events, but they do absolutely nothing to disturb the status quo they complain about.
When one reporter explains how the baloney-and-cheese sandwiches Bush loves are the perfect analogue to the man himself, it might seem partisan, especially to conservative truffle-pigs who start snuffling and snorting whenever they detect even the faintest whiff of liberal bias. In time, though, it's clear that such superficial Bush-bashing is really just a way to save face: these reporters are foot-servants to the Bush PR machine, they know they're foot-servants to the Bush PR machine, so they make jokes about the emperor's bad taste in shoes. But cut off his feet? No, their job is to shine his shoes (and maybe nip at a toe once in a while) and they know it.
Pelosi herself is Exhibit A in this process. At a press conference, she asks Bush a question about the death penalty. He responds testily, and then avoids her for a few days to reinforce the primary rule of the campaign (and journalism in general these days): access demands compliance. And Pelosi wants access - for her NBC work and her own project - so she complies. Instead of hard questions, or just even substantive ones, she asks goofy and trivial ones.
And, thus, even if you view "Journeys with George" as a condemnation of Bush, it's a pointedly toothless one. Take that moment where Bush has so much trouble telling Pelosi why she should vote for him: a true Bush critic would have gone in for the kill there, pressing him on his lack of vision, his inability to express whatever it is that he stands for most passionately. (If Pelosi had asked Clinton the same question, in the same informal, intimate setting, he might still be talking...)
Of course, you could say that Pelosi's lack of a killer instinct is a stab at objectivity: "Journeys with George" offers a portrait of Bush that is sometimes flattering, sometimes critical. But ultimately, "Journeys with George" feels more lazy and compliant than objective; Pelosi seems just as reluctant as Bush is himself to touch upon his plans for the country if he does win the election, his past political record, or anything else that might put him into any sort of context other than "the guy who keeps pressing his face into her camera."
Why is Pelosi so easily satisfied? Probably she realized that face-pressing was enough, that anything else, in fact, would be too much. Throughout "Journeys with George," reporters decry the manufactured moments of the campaign trail, the lack of anything real and substantive, but rarely does "Journeys with George" feel any less trivial than a George W. Bush staged snowmobile ride, or a stump speech delivered for the umpteenth time. It's "America's Funniest Home Videos" as campaign trail verite, occasionally illuminating but mostly just diverting.
And, ultimately, Pelosi proves just as facile as Bush. Why is she making a movie about his campaign effort? For the same reason he's running for president: they're both in a position to do so. Ambitious, aware of their marketability, eager to convert opportunity into power, even if they're not quite sure to what ends - they may never consummate their relationship physically, but Bush and Pelosi are soulmates, and like all great on-screen lovers, the perfect incarnation of their times.
Posted by Greg Beato at 10:42 AM
November 07, 2002
Thinking outside the box
Posted by Greg Beato at 12:36 PM
November 06, 2002
In heaven, adorable dead children fast-break on courts of whipped cream
Last week, Tony suggested to the LA Times that it hire him as a full-time blogger. I understand the reasoning behind the suggestion - money, a bigger audience - but at the same time, I also think that there's no better venue for Tony Pierce than tonypierce.com. Just the same way that there's no better venue for me than this one...
I'm like a broken record on this subject, but here I go again: as long as the web remains the world's biggest open-mike night, a place for a talented person like Tony to show off his talents until some corporate benefactor sweeps in and rewards him, the web will not be as great as it could be. Because what happens if the LA Times does hire Tony as a full-time blogger? To start with, let's say that they are promising him complete freedom to do whatever he wants - something they'd never actually promise - as long as he does it on some kind of predictable schedule. Things start off great, but after a while, some editor there will begin to resent the freedom Tony has, so he'll start making trouble in small ways. Then other things will crop up - an advertiser complaint, a reader complaint. They might not have any merit, but so what? Eventually, the Times will ask Tony to not use certain words, to write more about X and less about Y, to be, in short, an employee, under it editorial supervision.
And who knows - maybe all of those things really wouldn't change Tony's work in any significant way, and he'd be getting paid, and he'd have a bigger audience, and the weight of the Times behind him...
But my guess is the end product eventually would be different than Tonypierce.com - less idiosyncratic, less daring, less Tony.
As great a tool as the web is for content creators, it's just as great a tool for content consumers. It lets us directly support the people whose work we like best, with very few layers of middlemen. Unfortunately, very few people take advantage of this opportunity.
In the realm of digital music, people say things like: "Of course, I'll buy digital music, as soon as the RIAA starts selling it." Or: "Of course, I'll buy digital music, as soon as there's a way to pay artists directly."
Well, in other parts of cyberspace, it's very easy to pay the content creators directly. Just hit that Paypal button. Or, when they create some ancillary product, like Tony is doing with his book project, buy that. So far, he's gotten pre-orders for 21 copies, which, given how hard it is to get people to pay for online content (or in this case, an offline version of online content), probably constitutes a best-seller.
But what if a thousand people bought Tony's book? Or two thousand? Or five thousand? If five thousand people bought his book, I doubt he'd be thinking about what the LA Times could offer him. Instead, he'd be thinking: "I control my own destiny! Most of the revenue my work generates goes to me, instead of some big media corporation. I'm the Ani DiFranco of blogging!"
Posted by Greg Beato at 09:19 AM
November 05, 2002
Back in blackface
Seeming First Amendment expert Eugene Volokh, in yet another post on the UT blackface incident: "[The University] seems to be threatening administrative punishment -- the message seems to be that if people engage in speech that is 'racial[ly] insensitiv[e],' the University may take action (for instance, by refusing to reinstate the organization) unless the speakers prove their 'commitment to uphold our expectations for civility, ethnic diversity and racial harmony.' Speakers who have dissenting views about what is racially insensitive (not just racists, but those who believe -- rightly or wrongly -- that it's OK for white people to dress up as the Jackson Five), or about what should constitute 'racial harmony' or respect for 'ethnic diversity' or 'civility,' had apparently better watch out." Volokh also remarks that a letter from UT's Loren Crabtree contained "not a word about free speech, and not a word acknowledging that students might have the right to express dissenting and even offensive views."
But look at this, from an article in today's Knoxville News: "Crabtree stressed that UT didn't take any direct actions against the fraternity because the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech would have protected fraternity members. Because the national organization is a private entity, however, Kappa Sigma was free to impose a suspension on its Knoxville chapter."
Also: Volokh now acknowledges that the only reason he keeps insisting that this was a Halloween-related incident involving a costume party of some kind is his own suspicion. "Note that the costumes were apparently not used on Halloween proper, though from the context I suspect that the party, about a week before Halloween, was a Halloween-themed party," he theorizes.
As I've already mentioned, none of the many articles on the incident that have appeared in the Knoxville News say anything about a Halloween party. This one describes the party as "an 'air guitar' competition." This one simply refers to it as "a party." This one describes it as a "fraternity party." This article in UT's student newspaper, The Daily Beacon, doesn't mention anything about a costume party or a Halloween party either. Nor does this one, which offers the most specific account of the incident I've read...
So was it a Halloween party or a costume party? Sure, it might have been. But from the published accounts of the incident, there's no reason to reach that conclusion.
Also, here's a couple more interesting excerpts. This one's from today's article in the Knoxville News: "Before the fraternity was suspended, UT hosted several meetings between the fraternity and black student leaders, Crabtree said. Talks broke down last week after several black students concluded that the fraternity's apologies weren't heartfelt and walked out of a meeting."
And this one's from the Daily Beacon: "Omar Jackson, a student who witnessed the blackface incident, thought the collective suspension of the organization was justifiable. Jackson said he and other black students were frustrated at the evasive and labored responses given by the fraternity members in a meeting Tuesday night. At the meeting, Kappa Sig executives expressed their regrets and referenced their written apology in The Daily Beacon. Jackson said the black community could not accept their apologies as sincere, because they felt Kappa Sig members fully understood the offensiveness of their actions."
So, a recap: UT hasn't taken any formal action against Kappa Sigma yet, because "the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech would have protected fraternity members." Also, before Kappa Sigma's national organization suspended Kappa Sigma, UT apparently tried to resolve the problem simply by having the fraternity meet with the students who complained about the incident.
And an ironic note: the members of Kappa Sigma, though championed by many as robust interpreters of free speech, apparently have nothing to say about the incident. The Knoxville News reports that "Kappa Sigma members haven't returned phone calls seeking comment." The Daily Beacon reports that "Kappa Sig refused to comment."
Finally, consider this excerpt from the Daily Beacon: "'When asked why black face was necessary,' Omar Jackson, member of Alpha Phi Alpha said, 'Aneisha was told that 'it wouldn't be funny if it was white face would it?''"
Which brings up the question: is blackface funny? Here, I'll repeat something I already said in the comments section in one of my previous posts on this incident: on a campus that's something like 5 - 8% black and 90% white, I don't think blackface is very funny. However, if the frat guys were dumped into the middle of a primarily black neighborhood, I think that might have some potential for humor. In fact, forget the suspension - if the Kappa Sigs want to exercise their free speech, let them - in blackface, every night for a month, on the streets of East Knoxville...
Posted by Greg Beato at 03:52 PM
Flash Forward: Election Year 2004
George W. Bush pushing crippled grannies off stock charts. Tom Daschle wearing a creepy Tom Daschle mask and sticking metaphorical razor blades into the federal budget. At last, the web is finally starting to capitalize on its utility as a valuable campaigning tool.
In campaigns past, bandwidth limitations kept aspirations modest: early adopters talked about the web's potential to counteract the 30-second TV spot and reinvigorate the body politic on a grassroots level. Websites and email newsletters could deliver in-depth, targeted messages to voters that went beyond empty slogans and he-lied-she-lied mudslinging; candidates could establish real relationships with potential voters; rational discourse would rule the day and politics would seem like a really complicated, really boring homework assignment again, instead of the infinitely entertaining exercise in rabid, no-holds-barred politically correct hatred that it has evolved into over the last 30 years or so.
Of course, this year's crop of Flash-based campaign ads were badly produced, far too text-driven, and much, much too tasteful to really capture the attention of restless web surfers. In the realm of TV, political spots only have to compete with a few hundred channels at most, but on the web, candidates compete with porn, free music, and an endless array of other enchantments - so Flash ads that move slower than Jesse Helms after a pie-eating contest with Michael Moore aren't going to cut it. But at least the campaign consultants who've started sinking money into the creation of these web-only commercials finally understand what this medium's about: distraction, amusement, and provocation.
In subsequent elections, expect great things, especially as candidates and PACs start channeling money into the Internet as a way to sidestep the McCain-Feingold Act. Two years ago, the online animation industry (such as it was) crashed and burned after entities like Shockwave.com started paying Hollywood talent big money to produce content that there was no way to monetize. Venture capital quickly dried up, and the industry disappeared. But who needs venture capital when candidates and PACs have hundreds of millions of dollars of campaign contributions that they can't spend on TV? A silly Soundbitten prediction: whoever signs up Trey Parker and Matt Stone first wins the presidency in 2004!
Posted by Greg Beato at 10:14 AM
Online music sales plummeting?
From yesterday's Boston Globe: "Online shoppers bought $545 million in recorded music from US e-commerce sites during the first nine months of 2002, a 25 percent decline from the $730 million spent in the same period last year, according to ComScore Media Metrix, a Reston, Va.-based market research firm. The decline increased during each three-month period, from 12 percent in the first quarter to 28 percent in the second and 39 percent in the third. The decline was made all the more surprising by its sharp contrast to online shopping in general. Internet purchases of all goods from January to September reached $52.5 billion, a 41 percent rise from the same period last year and just shy of the $53.5 billion in e-commerce sales for all of 2001, Media Metrix said. Movies and videos were up 34 percent."
Online music sales declining 25% as online movie and video sales rose 34% - seems like a pretty big story, right? (Click here for the press release.) Especially if you believe that file-trading doesn't cannibalize music sales - this story offers a great opportunity to explain why such numbers don't matter, how they don't really reflect what's happening, how it's more evidence that the RIAA has simply alienated its customers, etc.
And, indeed, the Globe even gives fuel for that that fire, explaining that "Some large retailers said they have not seen any of the shrinking online music sales reported by Media Metrix, which compiles its research by monitoring the activities of 1.5 million representative Net users who have agreed to participate."
(Link via Snowdeal.)
Posted by Greg Beato at 08:46 AM
November 04, 2002
Leo the Pussycat
Have you seen this hilarious piece of journalistic oragami from US News & Report's John Leo, who never met a story he couldn't turn into a condemnation of liberal bias and political correctness?
He starts off by noting that the police stopped "the sniper suspects at least 11 times during the long manhunt but let them go every time." He then explains that this happened because, as Chief Moose told the Washington Post, "Everybody was looking for a white car with white people."
At this point, Leo delivers a shocking revelation about police procedure in this country:
Next, Leo explains how liberal journalists do their dirty work:
OK, now, in the interest of "fairness," I'm supposed to tell you that another possibility exists: maybe the journalists didn't really have any control over what the experts were telling them. Maybe they were simply reporting what the experts were saying. And maybe there really weren't that many experts who were emphatically saying that the sniper was, in fact, "an angry white male." As the Daily Howler has already shown, very few media reports ever used that phrase. And maybe when experts did suggest that the suspect was likely to be a white male, they usually qualified their speculation in some manner, saying things like "You don't want to exclude any race, any ethnicity because there is always the aberrant behavior" or "Despite a common perception, no one group has a monopoly on serial killings, according to the FBI."
Next, in the kind of synergy that makes old-fashioned echo chambers look inefficient, Leo rolls up his sleeves and reports on what another columnist, the Chicago Sun-Times' John O'Sullivan, pulled out of Mark Steyn's hairy assumptions:
Next, Leo declares that when a criminal suspect is revealed as non-white, the press loses all interest, and cites the Atlanta child murders of 1979-1981, the more recent church burnings story, and the Unabomber, who in Leo's mind attains honorary non-white status because he was "a killer from the far left." But Timothy McVeigh, Leo explains, got all kinds of press, just because he was "a white, right-wing bomber." And the fact that McVeigh killed ten times as many people as any of the other criminals Leo mentions? Nope, that had nothing to do with how attention the media gave the story...
Also, are Leo's contentions even true? Did the media lose all interest in the Atlanta child murders? The church burnings? Was there really a substantial number of supportive, "let's-understand-the-Unabomber" stories, as Leo insists? I don't have the time or money for an exhaustive Lexis-Nexis search, but wouldn't it have been nice for Leo to give at least a few specific examples to support such sweeping statements?
Next, Leo says: "Police seemed to avoid announcing clues that the killers might be black or Muslim."
And here, I almost agree with him...
But, first, a summary of what actually happened:
On October 7th, the snipers left a note that read "Mister Policeman, I am God." On October 10th, the media began reporting the contents of this note: for some reason, many of the initial press accounts said that the note read "Dear Policeman, I am God." Still, many other accounts, like this one that appeared on the BBC home page, or several that appeared in the Washington Post on October 10th (no links available), used the correct "Mister Policeman" terminology.
On October 19th, the police found a second note that included the phrase "For you Mr. Police," the commonly used hip-hop phrase "Word is bond," and an illustration depicting five stars. But the contents of this note didn't appear in newspapers until October 26th, two days after the suspects were arrested. Of course, one explanation for that is the note's first few lines, which read: "For you, Mr. Police. Call me God. Do not release to the press."
Still, some questions to ask include: in the case of the first note, why did some newspapers use the "Dear Policeman" phrase? Is that how the police initially released the information, or was it a journalistic error or deliberate change? If the police initially released the information like that, what was their reason for doing so? If some reporters deliberately made the change, what was their reason for doing so?
And, in the case of the second note, one wonders: would there have been a way to release information to the public about it in a way that did not antagonize the sniper even further? And how exactly did the police interpret the phrases "Mr. Police," "Mister Policeman," and "Word is bond"? That is, did they internally believe that these things were pointing toward a foreign-born and/or non-white suspect? And if they did, why did keep that information private?
Getting real answers to these real questions would be a valuable journalistic pursuit, and one that a columnist for a major newsweekly probably has the resources to pull off. Because such an endeavour would require actual effort, however, Leo simply publicizes the vague postulation of the online publication Newsmax:
Now that we know Malvo is Jamaican, it's easy to say that the phrases "Mr. Policeman" and "Mr. Police" are, in the words of Leo, "thought to be Jamaican expressions."
But you know what? "Mr. Policeman" is also a phrase that turns up in free-verse tributes to valiant cops and Irving Berlin lyrics. If the phrase were so obviously identifiable as Jamaican before Malvo was arrested, then how come Leo, Andrew Sullivan, Mark Steyn, Michelle Malkin, Jonah Goldberg and every other blowhard super-sleuth weren't making the Jamaican call after the phrase appeared in the Washington Post on October 10th?
And if these Holmesian geniuses didn't make the connection, is it really fair to suggest that a bunch of lunk-headed cops should have done much better?
As for the second sniper note, well, questions remain about the police's handling of it, as noted above. But instead of taking on the police department and asking hard questions, Leo finishes up by taking on political correctness and making easy generalizations:
Posted by Greg Beato at 08:19 AM
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