Sunday, April 30, 2006

Reel To Reel: The Sentinel

How It Rates: **
Starring: Michael Douglas, Kiefer Sutherland, Kim Basinger, Eva Longoria
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Violence, Some Language

Aside from one promising plot hook, The Sentinel is remarkably mundane, even impotent at times. It has all the elements of a great political thriller -- sex, power, intrigue, and bursts of violence -- but it fails to thrill.

I am writing this review one week after seeing the film, testing my own theory of how forgettable this film is. The only scenes I can remember are those involving Kim Basinger (playing the First Lady) and Michael Douglas (playing a Secret Service agent), and even those scenes are cloudy in my memory. I think I remember them only because I wondered at those points if the film was going to turn towards Fatal Attraction. It doesn't. Maybe it should have.

The Sentinel presents an intriguing set-up: somebody in the Secret Service is plotting to kill the President -- somebody who doesn't resemble George W., if you have to ask. (He's two screens down on American Dreamz, in case you need directions.) The first couple is going through a rough patch: together in photo-ops, distant in private. And Pete Garrison, the Secret Service's pride and joy, is suspected of wanting to off the chief. He's got an enemy: ax-grinding investigator David Breckenridge (Sutherland), a man once under Garrison's wing. And Eva Longoria? She's always easy on the eyes as Breckenridge's partner, someone who's out to prove she's got just as much brains as body. Garrison ends up on the run from the very comrades he leads.

With all this, The Sentinel should sizzle, but it barely manages to fry. Perhaps the filmmakers didn't want an over-the-top thriller, and that's where they blew it. The film doesn't reach for that next level that takes it beyond the chases and gunfights we've seen before.

As for that relationship between Basinger and Douglas' characters, I saw another opportunity squandered. You can probably figure out what happens from what I've mentioned above, but how this relationship plays out is less than gratifying or even realistic, both in its execution and its effects. The whole film could have been structured around it, and it almost fades into afterthought. The Sentinel seems like it's the first draft of a better film, one that could have been doctored on the page before it got to the screen.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Real Minutemen Wear Tricorns

The Minutemen say they're not a hate group. That may be true, but KPHO-TV's Morgan Loew shows us hate groups are still getting into the group's patrols along the Arizona-Mexico border.

It's worse than what he found last year.

"Our" Anthem?

You don't tug on Superman's cape. You don't spit into the wind. You don't pull the mask off the 'ol Lone Ranger, and you don't mess around with the National Anthem... with apologies to the late Jim Croce.

You have no doubt heard -- or at least heard about -- the new rendition of the "Star-Spangled" banner in Spanish called "Nuestro Himno," or, "Our Anthem," which is intended to recognize immigrants seeking a better life in the U.S., but is perceived as the illegal immigrant anthem. Many Spanish-language radio stations are playing it. Many aren't. And many hispanics aren't happy about it. The kicker: this was all the idea of a British music executive.

We have a long list of re-interpretations and botched performances. Jimmi Hendrix's explosive electric-guitar version at Woodstock laced the anthem with an anti-war sentiment. Americans wanted to light a fire under Jose Feliciano when he put his own spin on it before a 1968 baseball game. Steven Tyler sang "home of the Indianapolis 500" instead of "home of the brave." And on a more respectful note, as KOLD News 13 pointed out, members of the Tohono O'odham tribe sang a version of the anthem at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in their language.

This new version goes even further, re-imaging the anthem for Spanish instead of translating it, and adding lyrics. Instead of "O say can you see, by the dawn's early light, what so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming," we have "The day is breaking, do you see it? In the light of the dawn? What we so acclaimed at nightfall." One verse says, "Freedom, we are equal./We are brothers, in our anthem." And another version in the works goes even further.

From the AP:
A remix to be released in June contains several lines in English that condemn U.S. immigration laws. Among them: "These kids have no parents, cause all of these mean laws ... let's not start a war with all these hard workers, they can't help where they were born."
Before you hyperventilate, I remind you we still have our original National Anthem, with the original lyrics. Nobody is taking that away from us. Nobody ever will.

But when you wave dozens of Mexican flags in marches of unity, and you rewrite the lyrics to the National Anthem, this defeats the message of the immigrant-rights movement. Its leaders want you to see all immigrants as Americans. Holding on to your heritage is wonderful and worthy of celebration. But when you pledge your allegiance, when you say you want to be a citizen, it's time to hoist the American Flag and sing the Anthem without taking liberty with the lyrics. The Library of Congress has a Spanish-language translation called "La Bandera." You can still be Mexican. You can still be American. Get over the fear that when you come here to live, when you become a citizen (or even if you don't), you are somehow magically and tragically cleansed of your cultural identity. And even white-bread folks like me, who were born citizens, celebrate our heritage.

"Nuestro Himno" is not an anthem. It is a political statement masquerading as an anthem. Under the First Amendment, sing it if you wish. But don't expect to score points with it. The immigrant-rights movement doesn't need an anthem. It needs a clear message, one that says to people, "we want to be Americans, and we want to be Americans legally. We want to work and be good citizens, and we will condemn those who tarnish us by crossing into the U.S. illegally or threatening our fellow citizens with terrorism." That's a lot of words. Why not write a new anthem for it?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The NYC Diaries- Day 6: Anticlimatic

You're supposed to end with some sort of big finish -- some overwhelming experience that defies your expectations and forever alters your perspective. Sorry, wish I could help you here.

I spent this final day checking out two of New York's musuems: The Museum Of The City Of New York, and the Museum of TV & Radio. The Guggenheim was also on my list, but unfortunately, that was closed. On to the backup plan.

The City of NY museum is low profile and well worth the $10 admission price. It's a great place to learn about the history of Times Square, Broadway, and New York City lighting. They also had an exhibition of cartoons from The New Yorker, something I enjoyed immensely.

When I got to the shipping exhibit on the second floor and started looking around, a docent stepped right up to me and started unspooling every fact in her head -- every fact. She told me of the Dutch settling New York (aka New Amsterdam), then the British, then a parade of others. She pointed out everything in the room and had at least three or four factoids to go along with it. She knew much more than I would ever want to know, but kindness halted me from interrupting her.

This is why: one of these days, when I'm done with producing newscasts, I have this retirement fantasy. I see myself moving to Virginia and becoming an historical interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg. I see myself living in the past, dressed in tricorn and breeches, leading people through the Governor's Palace, or maybe the Raleigh Tavern, or the Court House, or one of the myriad historic homes. I have appreciation for people who have an overflowing love of history and enjoy sharing it.

So after this fifteen-minute presentation, I liberated myself to the next floor.

My other major stop of the day was the Radio & TV museum, after a bus ride and some hunting to find the place. I thought it was on West 57th Street. It's on 51st. When I finally did find it, I had another problem: they don't take credit cards for admission and I was low on cash.

So now I have to locate an ATM. No way am I going to pay fees, so I need something from Bank of America. The nearest machine I can find is in the concourse of the Rockefeller Center. I found a Bank of America ATM branch down there.

The cash machine took my card. And then it just plain took me... for 40 bucks.

Now in a regular bank, you can go to a teller and complain. But when there's no teller, what do you do?

A woman entered and sensed I was about to punch that ATM straight in the LCD.

"His ze cash machine nyot working?" she inquired in her Russian accent.

"Yeah, it just ripped me off."

"Hoh my Gott. Dyo you haff cyell phone?"

"No. I don't have one on me right now."

"I vas thinkink hof gyetting some money, but nyow I no do."

I found a guard who directed me to the Bank of America Branch down the street. The Customer Service rep in there directed me to the bank's toll-free number on the back of the card. They said the charge would reverse after midnight.

"The ATM knows it didn't give out money?"

"It sure does."

"What if it doesn't?"

"Then you can file a claim with us tomorrow."

For my money, that charge better well reverse.

Back at the Museum of TV and Radio, the most interesting feature is the library, where you can view classic episodes of TV you can't find on DVD, video or anywhere else. Non-members get two picks and one hour of viewing time. My pick: the infamous episode of Twenty-One where Charles Van Doren defeated Herb Stempel in a rigged game which would later become the flashpoint of the 50's quiz show scandals. This was dramatized in the movie Quiz Show, but seeing the original show is much more thrilling.

So here were are in Times Square again. Bright lights, big city. It's nearly time to go home, and I'm enjoying a last night on the town... maybe not doing anything awe-inspiring, uplifting or life-changing, but the atmosphere is everything. You won't find this in Tucson. You won't find this anywhere else.

Tomorrow, homeward bound and back to the real world.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The NYC Diaries- Day 5: Artistic Endeavors

Today's opening assignment: conquer Rockefeller Center. I took the tour that shows you around the Center, mostly the history and the artwork, which makes for interesting study if you're a fan of 30's art-deco. Because many parts take you outside, everybody in the tour group wears wireless headphones connected to a microphone on the guide, so you don't miss a word over the honking cars and idling buses. Slick. I tried to go for the NBC tour, too, but they were all booked up for the day. No matter. I've already seen CBS.

I'm making it a mission to eat in every Hard Rock cafe I can. I've been to the ones in Chicago, London, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Las Vegas, Washington D.C., Cleveland, and now, Times Square. I also had a brain lapse there and nearly left my camera bag behind. It's a tricked-up Case Logic haversack that doesn't make me look like a tourist. My feet were nearly out the door when I realized I didn't have it on and ran back for it. Whew.

The next stop: The New York Public Library. Books are not the main attraction. After studying a couple of special collections, including one on old maps of New York, I went and mooched some Internet access in the upstairs reading room. I had to apply for and get an access card, but it didn't take long, and the access was free.

Let me pause here to tell you how ridiculous the Internet access situation has been over the past few days. That first post from Saturday night cost $11 to publish, because the only Internet access I could find was in the Park Central Hotel's business center -- and that runs about 40 cents a minute. Fortunately, I found access Sunday night for 19 cents a minute. It only cost me about $5. Then I had that monster post on the CBS visit the next night which cost $15! Ouch. I can get 10 minutes of free time in the Yahoo! booth at the Times Square Information Center, but that's not going to cut it for the way I blog. To save time and money, I have been writing out these blog posts longhand and then typing them like mad whenever I can get access for reasonable money. I tried to make another post in the library but the connection went bad during the process and I lost it all. I'm not trying that again. Tonight, I'm typing this in from an Internet cafe on 42nd street which gives you four hours of access for five bucks.

After the library, I rode the subway up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and even though I had only about an hour and half to work with, I saw what I wanted.

One of the star exhibits there right now focuses on ancient Egyptian art. You'll see, among other things, a complete stone temple that has been carefully rebuilt inside the museum.

Go ahead, walk inside it. What's amazing is you can see early 1900's graffiti inside there!

In other rooms, you'll also see all sorts of jewelry, weapons, body armor, figures of gods, burial cloths and even a few toys. Remember the "Hounds and Jackals" game played during a scene in The Ten Commandments? That's based on an actual game, and you can see it here.

Good knight! One room features armor from Dark Age warriors and their horses.

Now, let's go up the way to the American Art sections. Get a map, whatever you do, because the entire museum is a maze.

My patriot persona is kicking in again. I counted at least three different paintings of George Washington, including the famous one of him crossing the Delaware. Unusually enough, you can take pictures of the paintings in these rooms. I didn't. That's right, I didn't. Some things need to be appreciated with the naked eye and not the camera lens.

I can't tell you anything about classical artwork to save my life. But walk up to some the paintings and you'll wonder how anybody could make something of oil and canvas look like Kodachrome. It staggers my mind. Great art is great art for a reason, and you don't need to be an art critic to figure that out. When I was in grade school in Kansas City all those years ago, the "Picture Lady" used to come around once a month. She'd show us a giant color copy of a classical painting and she'd talk about who painted it, where the real one was hanging, and what the artist was trying to say. We would see three paintings and then vote on which one we'd like to keep in our classroom for a week or so.

While I marvelled at the European artwork, the Dance of the Guards began. This end of day ritual is what we used to call a "soft close" when I worked at Six Flags Over Mid-America. The idea is not to announce, "The museum is closing in five minutes." Instead, the guards start directing people away from the outer edges of the Met, letting you browse but pushing you towards the door with the finesse of a prima ballerina. So even though closing time is 5:15, you may not be out the door until well after 5:30.

Central Park is right across the street. It's time for a walk. My feet really don't need any more walking with my Dr. Scholl's gel inserts wearing out. But I can't resist this. Everybody's jogging past me, wearing iPods and sweating it out. People walk dogs everywhere, often two at a time. You can actually make decent money as a dog walker, I hear. It's probably not enough to live on in New York, but it's money.

The movie shoot in Times Square continues tonight. Part of Times Square is blocked off again. That's squeezing pedestrian traffic outside the Giant Toys 'R' Us. One thing this town does not need is more congestion. But we'll tolerate it. Los Angeles tolerates it. Tucson tolerates it too -- even though we say we don't.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The NYC Diaries- Day 4: Life, Liberty, And The Pursuit Of A Tour Group

Click any picture for a larger view.

My thighs and feet ache for a bed. This comes after a comprehensive tour of Manhattan followed by a visit to the Empire State building.

The Manhattan tour covered a lot of the same ground as the ones I did on Sunday and I wonder whether I wasted money on those "loop" tours. But this one had two stops the other didn't -- the Statue of Liberty and the United Nations. It's that first stop that nearly got me lost. Our guide -- who we will refer to as "Z" to protect her identity -- led us on a Circle Line ferry trip to Liberty Island and Ellis Island. The problem was, she made an announcement I either didn't hear or she never made at all. The key words, unheard: Get off at the second stop, meaning Ellis Island.

We journeyed out there and I got a great look at Lady Liberty from the Hudson River. I rolled video, I snapped pictures. I got off at Liberty Island when the ferry stopped. This is where I walked right past Z, but did she notice? No. Did she say something to me in her Dr. Ruth-ish German accent? No. Did she stop me? No.

I got off and looked for where the rest of the group was gathering... only I couldn't find them. Where were they? I gotta catch up with them! I ran all over Liberty Island looking for them... around the perimeter where people snapped photos of Lady Liberty from up close.

So busy was I, trying to get back with the tour, I didn't even stop to look up at her. Not once did I marvel at her. I had time. I could have taken it. But I panicked, and I was thinking about my next move. Should I wait or should I jump on the next ferry out? I decided the latter.

How could this happen? Obviously noboby else got off at this stop. Why would anybody not get off here? The beauty and patriotism of this island say it all. Were we just supposed to stay on the boat? I don't recall hearing that.

I caught the next boat out and rode it to Ellis. Gray Line's gonna hear from me, I fumed. I had my plan. If I can't catch up with the group, I'll get back to Battery Park on the boat and then either try to find the tour bus or go back to Gray Line and give somebody a talking-to, which is putting it mildly.

But a familiar face was in the line waiting to get on the boat chugging up to Ellis Island. Turns out it's the guy leading the bus that left on the tour before us, the one I got on and then had to get off of because somebody with Gray Line miscounted and left me no room.

"Sir, can I slip in with your group?" I asked. "I got separated from mine."

He looked mildly surprised.

"We don't have enough room on the bus, but we'll try to get you in. Were you with [Z]?"


"Oh, I think that's her over there."

He was right. I went over to her, and she was glad I made it back.

"Vhere vere you?"

"Where were you?" I said. "I got off at Liberty and didn't see you."

She said she'd told the group to get off at the second stop instead of the first.

"I didn't hear that," I said.

"I heard it," a man in the group said.

"Speak louder," I said, cupping my hands around my mouth, annoyed at why such a critical piece of information wasn't articulated enough, or at least more than once, especially on that ferry where it's hard to hear anything over the engine noise.

"Vell, vhat's important iz you're here."

I let it go, but I still wasn't happy about it. It didn't make sense to stop at Ellis if you only had one stop. The Statue Of Liberty was the money shot in my mind. And since the boat goes both places, why not take your time?

Our group was waiting for the next boat, having found the one about the leave full. So even though I technically missed the part of the tour on Ellis, I had time to make it up. Fifteen minutes was all I needed for a quick run through the Ellis Island Museum.

"At least you got to see Lady Liberty and we didn't," said the man who spoke up earlier about hearing Z's announcement.

Yeah, I did get to see Lady Liberty. But I still should've looked up, savored the moment, ignored the panic for 60 seconds. I'm supposed to be working on things like this in my life. What a time to forget.

We had a catered lunch in the upstairs room of a Chevy's Mexican restaurant -- only it was warmed up hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, and soda. Z, bless her soul, graciously ordered me a cheeseburger in my absence. All is forgiven.

However, some passengers grumbled about not getting what they ordered, since the sandwiches were delivered exactly to the number of people on the tour bus, about a dozen or so. You'd think they'd throw in an extra just in case. People like me can always take seconds, if nothing else.

The United Nations tour followed, and we saw more artwork than diplomatic work. I guess this is where the term "art of diplomacy" was born. The building sports colorful murals, colorful artwork, a fantastic sculpture made out of jade, and one piece containing the Golden Rule: "Do unto others, as they would do unto you." Not, "He who has the gold makes the rules." But we all know it's the latter more than the former in the real world.

We could walk into the General Assembly room because it was out of session, but we couldn't go into the Security Council chambers because some heavy-duty meeting was taking place on possible sanctions for Sudan.

The gift shop is something peaceniks and policy wonks can drool over. The UNICEF items are cute and serve a purpose, but I saw way too many snoozer UN reports for sale on various diplomatic missions and studies. Here's another curiosity: Both Bill and Hillary Clinton's autobiographies are for sale, but where's Jean Kirkpatrick? Where's Ronald Reagan? Where's George Bush 41? Let's remember, it's the first Bush who built the coalition to go after Iraq, which was authorized by a UN resolution. He did your dirty work. That's at least worthy of a softback.

The ground the UN sits on technically does not belong to New York, the U.S., or any country. It's in a no-country land. But the people here live in Diplomatland -- where people actually believe you can talk your way out of anything, study your way out of anything, and spend money to fix anything. Even the tour guides buy this. You drink enough Kool-aid, the sugar will overtake you. Cynical, yes. But let's be real. Talk's cheap. You wanna fight a terrorist? Bring more than your mouth.

Some uptown sights capped off the afternoon, including a quick stop inside St. John the Divine Cathedral. East Side traffic crawled because of rush hour and a doorman's strike. I nearly fell asleep on the bus through a couple of waits in the gridlock.

But the day wasn't done. I had to scale the Empire State Building, just like in King Kong. Getting there took longer than it should have because I mistook the Chrysler building for it. But when I got to the right place, the line was not too long. It took about an hour and fifteen minutes to make it to the observation deck. The view is spectacular at night, to say the least. I have lots of video of it but few still pictures. The digital camera blurs shots when I crank up the aperature control without putting it on a tripod. And I didn't have a tripod.

I grabbed a bite at the McDonald's in Times Square on the way back to the hotel. They're shooting a movie scene there tonight. I don't know what movie, but this particular scene involved two people dressed in huge white wedding dresses. Or maybe they're fairy godmothers? Or maybe they're ball gowns...

Monday, April 17, 2006

The NYC Diaries- Day 3 (continued): Too Low For Zero

Click any picture for a larger view.

Walk up to the former site of the World Trade Center, and if you don't know the backstory or somehow just beamed down to Earth, it would look like just another construction project in a city teeming with construction -- just another big hole in the ground. The Freedom Tower will rise here someday.

For now, crowds gather along the fence separating construction from curiosity, and as you mill around, pieces of the past come out to meet you.

Downstairs, in the WTC subway station, you see an art exhibit from children who lost a relative on 9/11. Colorful images of flags and the twin towers line a wall against a painted backdrop of clouds. One child draws an angel. Another, a firefighter's badge. Another draws a British flag: "Born a Brit, died an American!" I wander back upstairs.

Panels telling the 9/11 story hang on the fence in the odd hybrid of memorial and renewal. Several observation areas have been set up for the masses, who snap pictures and try to get the best view they can through the iron grating. I hardly see any workers. Maybe it's because it's the day after Easter. But I do see a steel cross they've erected.

I walk over to another observation deck. Memories of what happened the day the towers fell are creeping back now. I spot an anonymous note scribbled on a wooden pathway: "Yo, New York. I hope you are feeling better. I see that nasty scar is starting to heal... a... little... I will always pray for your losses. Stay strong. You are still the greatest city in the world. I love you."

On another wall, a poem titled "The Road To Heaven."
While traveling along,
It's never too late
Take the road that leads to love
Not the one to hate
Hate is what took these buildings down
With love is how we'll remember those no longer around
Take the right road and you will see
How much sweeter life will be
The road may be uphill and strewn with stones
So get rid of the weight
And lighten the load
At the summit there is
A beautiful view
All of God's peace
Open to you
--A police officer, NYPD
I can't take this any more. I'm heading for heartbreak, just like the week of 9/11 when the emotion finally caught up with me several days after the terrorist attacks, all at once, like pouring out a bucket filled with water... or tears. I have to get out of here to preserve my emotions. On the way, I pass by another bit of graffiti wisdom: "The problem is not the problem. Your attitude towards the problem is the problem."

Attitude. Attitudes of others. Attitudes of people who dance in the street when 3,000 people are killed in moments. Attitudes of politicians who co-opt tragedy to settle unconnected scores. Attitudes of zealots who say they are ridding the world of infidels and who will not be satisfied, even in the tremendously unlikely event they are successful.

It's as mad as the words spouting from the mouth of a man who was riding three seats down from me on the subway to the WTC:

"The government dispatches squads if they detect somebody is happy."

"When all primary targets have been destroyed, the squad will move on to the next operational area."

He sings the "Imperial March" from Star Wars: "DAH-duhduh-DAH, duh-de-dah, duh-de-DAH!"

I walk nearly all the way to John's Pizza in Greenwich Village. Thin crusts, cheese and tomato sauce... heavenly... amazing... mmm.

The NYC Diaries- Day 3: The Address Is CBS

The CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th in New York City blends in so well with its neighboring high-rises you can forget it's there. A few satellite dishes on the roof and some banners for WCBS show from the street. I walk inside and inform security who I am, where I'm from, what station I'm with. I'm wearing my KOLD News 13 polo to look more official. The guard makes a call and asks for a photo ID. He points a PC camera at me and after two tries I have a sticker badge with a black-and-white photo worse than any mugshot I've ever seen.

A.J., the CBS employee serving as my guide, shows me upstairs after a short wait. I get a quick tour of the CBS Newspath operation, which provides video news feeds to CBS affiliates for use in local newscasts.

Banks of monitors are everywhere, on every wall, above every desk in the three main workspace clusters of the newsroom. Some TV screens are divided up into four or more screens to jam more incoming video into them. To the side is a dark mini-anchor desk, used for breaking news, health reports and business wraps airing on local stations' morning newscasts. It's also used on "Up To The Minute," CBS' overnight news program.

It's after 5pm, so most of the heavy lifting is done for the producers. The feed coordinators are staying busy, gathering stories from around the country and the world, editing them, and spitting them back out. I'm led over to where video is going out digitally into CBS Newspath Now, which sends video out via computer files to servers at each station instead of via tape.

"Thumbs up means it's ready to go," points out a technician. When the piece is ready, he clicks it and it starts feeding into the system as a stream of bits via satellite. Sometimes three or four stories are going out at a time.

Just feet away, other technicians are doing the same thing the semi-old-fashioned way, pushing video and soundbites onto a private satellite channel one story at a time. But they too have help from digital technology, using a computerized system that stores the video in a long "time line" file -- instead of a tape recorder -- even if it goes out the analog way.

I'm led into one of three control rooms I'll encounter in the course of the visit. This one is handling live shots for CBS affiliates. The Newspath manager showing me around talks about the correspondents who do these shots, how busy they stay, and how they're connected at the electronic hip to the producers in New York.

"So if you've got to change a track on a package" -- news talk for altering some narration on a reporter's report -- "you just do it here and they revoice it out there."

Yes, I'm told. "We can even send scripts to them via Blackberry."

"How much of their own copy do the correspondents write?" I ask. I already know what the answer is.

Not much, or nearly nothing. But as we both understand, it's not by choice.

"They're so busy with all these live shots, they don't get a chance to get out," I'm told. It's the producers who have to run down the latest information and soundbites because the correspondents are cranking out live shots to Erie, PA and Glendive, MT.

I run into a friend of one of the KOLD reporters who's coordinating news feeds. He calls the regional bureaus and they tell him what what stories they're working on. He pulls in the best stories from there, and also from what he can run down.

Now it's time for the big show -- the CBS Evening News with Bob Schieffer. A couple who work at a station in Spartanburg, SC join me as A.J. shows us onto the Evening News set.

As always, it looks smaller in real life. And just like KOLD back home, it's a working newsroom with computers and desks and writers plugging away in the background. A.J. explains how the set has evolved over the years through the Dan Rather era. But my eyes are zooming in on the man of the half-hour: Bob. He sits at a desk off set and to the left of the anchor podium, his back to us, busily tapping out words on the computer screen. A New York Daily News sits to his left, a water bottle to his right.

"Bob writes all his own pitches," A.J. explains to us. Or, he rewrites and tweaks what the CBS writers hand him.

The Executive Producer saunters over for a quick handshake. Rome Hartman is no strange name to me. I recognize it below the "Produced By" line on several 60 Minutes pieces. He's paid his dues much more than I'll ever afford.

We got into the control room. It's 45 minutes before show time, but Bob is busy with teases and pre-productions. Two directors are in the room along with two graphics people and a couple of others. Two people are in the audio booth on the side, surrounded by audio sliders on three sides -- nothing for the claustrophobic. Back in the control room, the graphics folks are loading items into the character generator and a "Thunder" -- a tricked-up electronic slide-store machine that handles animations as well as still frames. It's the one toy I'm envious of.

At least one hundred TV monitors are in the room, mostly by the directors, stacked high and wide. The ones in front show the outputs of the production switcher and the various effects units and character generators. Four monitors directly in front and angled towards them show the tape players. To the side, some thirty black and white monitors show what's coming in on every feed line available to the control room. Mostly, it's test patterns from L.A., Washington, other bureaus, other sources. Behind the directors and to the right of the graphics people sit the producers. A.J. says we can sit down there for now because those folks aren't in yet.

I see four more monitors in front of me at the line producer's position, along with a computer, a phone pad with gooseneck and many more intercom buttons than I would know what to do with.

"Wanna line produce this?" the associate director says to me, playfully.

"I'm game," I reply. I'm not one to step back from a challenge. "But there's too many buttons."

"Just don't touch anything."

"Of course. I know the rules."

I'm silent as the crew carries out the pre-game show. Bob does a bit for the newscast's opening tease, which will be assembled like a jigsaw puzzle from various bits sent in by reporters. The first take goes perfectly... almost.

"There was a video flash in that," somebody points out, referring to some footage playing in a monitor behind Bob. But they don't have time to do it again yet. They have to record another bit for the CBS website. After getting the error fixed, Bob does a "talkback" with a WCBS-TV anchor and another one for WCBS-AM. The lead story is on a drug breakthrough and Bob is excited.

With the teases out of the way, we now have a chance to meet the man who's all legend and little myth.

Bob walks over to us after we return to the set and shakes all our hands. He chats it up with the people from Spartanburg. They point out their Texas roots to the native Texan, talking about where they grew up, where they played baseball, where they went to high school. I feel outmatched.

"So what's going on in Tucson?" Bob asks me.

"Well, your spring is our summer, and our summer is hell," I reply, nearly stumbling over my words. I can't believe I'm talking to him, BOB SCHIEFFER. And thinking back on it, the weather is all that comes to mind -- when somebody just burned a Mexican flag in Tucson a week ago, which made national news? That's the best I can do?

But Bob is exactly the person in real life as on TV. He quickly recalls a story from Arizona.

"I was almost hit by a bus in Nogales."

He tell me it happened in the 1970's, when he was covering President Ford on a trip in Mexico and he almost didn't make the press bus. He had to run to catch it.

He also remembered a botched Spanish good-bye from the President: Hasta "lou-EE-go."

I wished we had more time to talk, but he had a newscast to do.

The 20 minutes before the newscasts is a crescendo of controlled chaos in the control room. Crew members feed graphics into the Thunder. Rundowns get inspected and double-checked. Directors make changes under the supervision of producers.

Nearly all the communication with people outside the booth is done through the panel buttons, including phone calls. Gooseneck microphones link up with phone pads. Mysterious voices float into the room and are answered with a touch. The one phone I hear ringing comes from a black, 70's Princess unit on the back wall. The graphics people use it several times.

"I need an Enron graphic, no cutline," says one woman. "They don't want a cutline!"

"I need a Mexico Bus Crash map," says one director. "We've just added a tell." It's a short story the anchor "tells" from the set.

"What kind of bus is it?"

"We don't know what kind of bus it is."

Ten minutes before the show, Bob is the calmest person in the operation, getting makeup done while the crew and producers hustle to get their acts together.

"How much longer on that Mexico map?"

Chris, the line producer, rushes in and jumps onto the computer at his position on the back bridge. He's mildly nervous.

"Lara Logan's piece is crashing," he says. He means it's still being edited with just minutes before air. "Literally, it's crashing. Her Avid [computer editor] crashed." And the piece has to be fed in from London.

Been there, dealt with that, I think.

"She may move to the top of the B block," Chris says, making contingency plans. But he also has to confront the possibility of the piece not making it in at all. Rome joins him in the booth about a minute later and they go over options, noting at least one other piece isn't ready yet either, and those can't be moved up to fill airtime until Logan's piece is ready.

This isn't Broadcast News, where a network staffer runs down a hall with a tape to get it on the air in the nick of time. Chris draws a line. "If she's not feeding by 6:31, she's not making show," or at least her slot. A link is set up to get Logan's piece in from London "hot," meaning the director would have the tape editor roll it from the edit bay in London instead of a device in New York to make deadline, if needed, instead of recording it first in New York.

Chris has another issue to deal with. I hear only one side of the conversation. "Is is airable? All right, all right." Issue resolved. I'm not sure, but it sounds like a video question.

Five minutes to go. Graphics checks their sequence. The conversations in the control room amplify and speed up, two and three at a time. But, saints be praised, Lara Logan's piece is coming in from London. A hot feed will not be needed. Neither will an alternate version of the headline tease, which makes no mention of the piece.

The newscast begins feeding out to affiliates with a countdown so control rooms across the country are ready. Then the open hits, and Bob begins the broadcast from the desk. A slight glitch hits -- so slight I don't even see it -- during the pitch to the first story. The crew will fix it for later broadcasts.

It becomes obvious who's focused on what with both producers in the room. Chris is focusing on timing. Rome is focusing on content. Chris worries about what "tells" might have to bite the dust if things run long. Rome suggests questions and ad-libs to Bob and talks with the reporters out live in the field.

Bob's ad-libs and questions are challenging Chris. He's 13 seconds over on time -- no sweat for me, but the beginning of a nasty problem in a tightly-timed network program. He kills two tells, giving him about 20 seconds back, but he needs to find more time in a later segment. He asks somebody to help him out with that.

Bob asks if he can ad-lib something after Lara's story, which included video she shot herself alongside troops in Iraq. Rome cautions him that time is tight. Bob ad-libs but keeps it short.

"Some of that video was shot by Laura, who happens to be pretty good with a camera."

Chris sees a story on the wire and phones a writer in the newsroom to do another tell that could make it into a west-coast broadcast.

Another glitch pops up. Bob comes back on camera after a reporter's story, but he doesn't start talking right away. Two seconds of panic later, he's talking. Ten seconds later, when the commercial break rolls, everybody's trying to figure out what went wrong.

"He had prompter, he had script," the director said, ruling out a technical problem.

The seconds tick down and the last report of the newscast airs -- a story of a soccer team made up of Iraqi children -- with precious little time to spare. That precious extra time is consumed by the director holding on the last shot in the story: a child wiping his eyes after a tough loss.

Bob quickly says goodbye and the show is done... for all of two minutes. He hustles back to the anchor desk to do the opening story again, live, for another feed of the newscast going on at 6pm to fix the glitch from earlier. Barring any major breaking news or any major changes in the stories in the first feed, the next program will be stitched together electronically using the live do-over and tape of the first feed. That feed will run again for the west coast, if there's no major updates or breaking news. Many times stories are spliced into the completed first feed.

A.J. led us out and we thanked her. I returned to the streets of West 57th, and about a half-hour later, and several blocks away, I saw two people being shot from a cannon outside the Ed Sullivan Theater for a taping of The Late Show -- something that seemed a lot less challenging than what I'd seen in the CBS News control room.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The NYC Diaries- Day 2: Give My Regards To Broadway

The Midtown streets are the quietest I've heard yet as I make my way down 8th Avenue to the Gray Line bus. It's 8:30 in the morning -- not too early, not too late.

It's a sunny Easter Sunday in the 60's, perfect for some sightseeing on top of a double-decker bus. We roll out of Midtown to the talking of Dominic, our guide, and into the Garment District. We round Madison Square Garden and head for the Empire State Building. The lines outside are insane. It looks like at least a four-hour wait. Dominic recommends we go at night, and not just for the view.

We come to the Flatiron Building. You probably know it from the Spider-Man flicks as the triangular building housing the Daily Bugle. We go into Greenwich Village, the place Dominic says to get good food cheaper and away from the chain restaurants. He recommends John's Pizza.

On to SoHo -- "South of Houston." That's pronounced HOW-ston for you Texans. It's the it place where loft apartments in cast-iron buildings go for insane rents. Chinatown and Little Italy roll by. City Hall and the Brooklyn Bridge pass. Lots of talking, lots of looking, and a few stops to hop off. But nearly everyone stays on. We come back up the lower East Side past the United Nations. The flags aren't flying in front.

"Cause they get lazy," Dominic says.

The tour ends off 5th Avenue because of the Easter Parade, which is already over. But now, it's more of a street party, and people are just milling about with the costumed characters, wearing their bonnets and bunny ears and wide-brimmed hats.

"Tucson says hello," I say to a couple in their Easter best who graciously pause for my video camera.

I spot a man in a fur-trimmed tricorn. Wonders never cease.

I don't have a lot of time to meet and greet. I have to get back to the Gershwin Theatre some four blocks away and try to score a ticket to Wicked. I'd heard one song on the "Martha" show. Michelle, my boss, also pitched it. I've seen The Producers at the movies and Phantom in London. It's time to go for something new, unusual and different.

I got into the crowd lined up for a shot at the $25 front-row seat lottery. But I didn't make the list of 13 winners. My only hope is the cancellation line. I waited an hour and a half, struck up a conversation with several nice people and finally got my hands on a $110 orchestra-level seat five minutes before showtime.

The show and the seat were worth every dollar.

Wicked tells the story of Oz before Dorothy dropped in. The Wicked Witch of the West wasn't truly wicked, you see -- she was just born a wicked color of green. Snubbed by society and her family, she finally finds a friend in Galinda, her unlikely college roommate, the popular girl who we'll later see as the Good Witch of the North. Wicked spins a colorful and rich tale of rejection and loneliness coupled with a desire to stand for what's right, even if your good deeds go bad. The score is memorable, hummable, and the "No Good Deed" number is the showstopper. The production moves briskly. Kids who like Harry Potter will dig it because it hits on the troubles of growing up with a little magic here and there. My grade: A+.

I grabbed a bite of dinner at a deli off 7th Avenue. I asked for a boiled ham sandwich and the guy stared me cold in the face.

"On?" he challenged in accented English.

"White," I answered, sheepish. Non-New Yorkers like me who deal with Subway aren't used to this level of specificity.

Time for another tour: the nighttime one. Times Square is getting so packed you'd think they were dropping the ball again. But this time we head into Brooklyn after hitting most of the Midtown high points. You cross into Brooklyn over the Manhattan Bridge and you instantly know why many New Yorkers don't live in Manhattan. It's a lot cleaner, a lot more affordable. And there's fewer tourists. Having a bad tough-guy rap doesn't hurt either.

Locals wave at the bus from the street. They take pictures of us taking pictures. They know we're lifting the economy.

"I love New York!" screams a homeless man from a corner. "I love it so much I'm getting the hell out! I've been mugged too many times!"

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The NYC Diaries- Day 1: "If I Can Make It There..."

Click on any picture to see a larger image.

American Airlines flight 712 touched down ahead of schedule at LaGuardia. Now came the trip to the Park Central Hotel on 7th Avenue.

I had a voucher for ground transport, and half an hour after I showed up at the shuttle desk, a man in a bright blue jacket arrived, his scraggly brown hair combed over his balding head and matching his personality.

"You," he said pointing to a couple to my side. "To Washington Square. And you," he said, pointing to me, "Park Central Hotel." I caught a wink in his eye at the end of the sentence.

He tossed our luggage in the back and got things rolling with a growl at his dispatcher.

"You ask these people a question and then ten minutes later they call you back, " he said, merging into the congested LaGuardia traffic. "How long does it take to say yes or no?"

We rolled onto the freeway and into Queens, the driver alternating between pedal and brake with haste enough to sway us forward and back in the stop-and-go traffic. The scenery rolling by us could have been lifted straight from the title sequence of The Sopranos: red brick neighborhoods with flags flying outside doors and people sitting on porches, and other walking everywhere amongst sidewalk delis in the 80-degree April heat. One pedestrian caught me with my camcorder up against my face and waved cheerfully. Really, he did.

On the other side of the iron giant known as the Queensboro Bridge, we were in Manhattan. Thirty minutes later, I was checked into my room overlooking nothing but a central core of four-window lined sidewalls. At least I had an LCD flat-screen TV in the room.

The first stop: Times Square. The electrical heart of Manhattan with its towering billboards and neon signs is Las Vegas without the gambling. Hundreds of people walk every way, any way they can amongst the theaters, restaurants and ubiquitous camera shops. Lines for the TKTS Broadway show outlet stretched for at least two blocks down Broadway. No way was I going to stand in that. Not yet.

Police have a presence here trying to direct traffic and prevent accidents, but they are constantly overpowered by the multitudes who willingly sneak across on red lights whenever they can to the honks of taxis and limos.

"What, are you ignoring the lights now?" one harried traffic cop called out as a crowd walked through a red light on 47th Street.

Street hawkers run their game 24/7, pushing purses, hats, framed Broadway playbills and the iconic I-Heart-NY shirt. Scientologists got into the act today in the Square, offering a "free stress test" alongside copies of Dianetics, which had to be part of the deal.

I walked all over the Square, pausing once to send a video e-mail and shooting pictures while making sure nobody's trying to lift my wallet. I hear Times Square is one of the safest places in New York City, if not the nation. Everybody's probably too busy standing in line for Broadway tickets.

My stomach rumbled. They don't feed you much on planes anymore, and not for free. I'm lucky if I can do it during a layover. Around me are the franchised corporate-restaurant players: Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, TGI Friday's, Applebee's, ESPN Zone, and at least three McDonald's. However, I wanted a real taste of New York City.

I found it in a hole-in-the-wall called Bella Napoli off 7th Avenue. I walked in and craved a sausage pizza sitting behind the glass. One slice would not get the job done.

"Can you do this in an 8-inch," I asked the tosser behind the counter.

"Sure, I do that for you," he replied in an accent sounding more eastern European than Italian. "You got time?"

"I got plenty of time."

He invited me to sit down while he rolled up the custom pie.

My feet got a break and my ears got some entertainment, overhearing a regular tease the manager about the place's lone waitress and how he wasn't allowed to flirt with her.

"You want talk to her, you put a dollar in," said the manager, hinting at the tip jar.

"What is this," the regular grinned at me. "A dollar? She not married!"

"Oh come on, man," I said. "One dollar."

The pie came 10 minutes later, delivered to my table by the man who tossed it, and he insisted I eat first and pay later. "No, take you time."

That sausage pizza was loaded thick with sausage -- lumps of it. But it went down good. Now that's worth a dollar tip on top of the $8 I spent.

"I love you guys," the regular called out as I was finishing up. "You make best pizza in New York City."

And I had my first real bite of the Big Apple.

Central Park buzzed with walkers and children this evening, digging in the sand surrounding mazes of climbing equipment and swing sets on the south end. Hopefully nobody had to use the restroom -- it's fenced off.

I made a call to the folks in California as the sun set behind the Manhattan skyline. Thirty-four years old and my mom still shudders at me crossing the street alone. Wish you were here. Wish you could see this. I'm fine. I'm safe. I'll be careful.

A walk through the enormous green of Sheep Meadow required weaving around several simultaneous games of catch and frisbee tossing. Couple laid out in blankets, some in various stages of deep kisses. A swing through Columbus Circle and some more streetbeating and my feet surrendered.

Tomorrow we get formal. Tomorrow we start the tours.

Sunday, April 9, 2006

A Letter From Virginia

We Make History combines dance and drama in a period ball bringing ladies and gentlemen together as a nation tears itself apart.

Richmond, 1861

My Dearest Family and Friends,

I write you at a time of great uncertainty, tinged with the sadness of what may yet befall us. I will soon leave my home with my fellow Virginians in the defense of our liberties. Though I am proud to serve, I hoped never to see the day when I might have to spill the blood of my own countrymen to protect that which is dear to us.

For many months, I have prayed for an amiable solution. But that hope is no more. My beloved country is tearing asunder as a flag left to flail in the fiercest winds. Yet I write to you on the heels of most joyous ball, sponsored by the 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry, a night of song and dance with the finest ladies and gentlemen of the state complemented by visitors from both north and south.

I attended in full uniform, the work of a harried seamstress in Williamsburg steeped at the foot of a mountain of work. She did not fail her task of creating a fine garment of yellow and gray with buttons shining brightly in the sun. But I do believe she overdid herself, as my first communications with Captain Scott revealed.

“Colonel Francis!” he greeted.

I ranked higher than I realized. But if I am called to a higher duty, so be it.
When the festivities began, the Belles of Virginia were presented to us, the finest young ladies of the state. One by one, a member of the 1st Virginia escorted them before the crowds. The line of elegance extended beyond my vision. Here, I noticed the gentlemen were most desirably outnumbered.

These charming women had the honor of selecting their first partner. All I could do was smile, hold my breath, and hope for the best while my heart cried out, chose me! Choose me!

A beautiful lady approached. We honored each other and the evening began with a promenade followed by a few ring and line dances.

But as we were enjoying the evening, some disturbing news arrived of deteriorating relations between the states of the north and south. Anger was consuming both sides. Yet my fair state of Virginia had elected to remain in the Union. Perhaps peace would not elude us.

With that hope, the dancing resumed with more sets and circles and a few waltzes here and there. You will forgive me if I cannot remember the grandiosity and yet simplicity of each one, but I am indebted to a young lady who taught me a box step. She led and I followed. “You are a quick learner,” she complimented.

I had many compliments myself for the dozens of ladies I encountered. I felt it my duty to always caution that I was not the greatest waltzer, honesty being something I hold dear, but my partners were all gracious and not put off at all by simple steps from someone who desired above all to be a gentleman.

More bad news arrived. Fort Sumter had been attacked. President Lincoln was demanding troops to quell the Confederacy. We were being asked to attack our brethren, to invade our own lands. The question of secession was inevitable now. We would have to make a choice.

Our host did his best to lift our spirits in the midst of this crisis, noting that even in the dark days of the Revolution, President Washington found time for diversion in dance.

“Enjoy yourselves, enjoy your company,” Captain Scott said.

The highlight of the occasion was upon us now: the Virginia Reel. I had danced it before but still felt uneasy. This could either be delight or disaster. But it was the latter, and I am much obliged to the Virginia Belle who clarified a confusing step for me with one sentence: “You’ll always swing on this side.” Stripping the Willow, as they say, was never easier.

So our musicians began to play and we reeled. And we reeled. And we reeled some more, again and again, around and around, swinging each other, swinging our partners, swinging through the sets, progressing through at least a dozen changes in the head couple before I stopped counting. The band kept at it, and lost in our enjoyment, we could have reeled all night. We could have reeled all the way across Virginia, across the Potomac into Maryland. Then we could reel into Pennsylvania and on to New England, all the way through New York, Massachusetts and Maine. We Virginians will show those Yankees how to dance!

A lady recounted for me the Drop Dead Reel -- one where the musicians keep playing as long as somebody can still stand. The number only ends when everybody’s either off the floor, or lying on it.

“I don’t know whether to call that pleasure or torture,” I responded in shock.

“I think it is a little of both,” she replied.

The talk turned to the fate of our nation and our worries as the hope for an amicable solution faded by the minute. She hoped the people of Virginia would make the right decision.

“I think they already have.

Not long after I uttered those words did we receive more news. The question of secession would be put to a public vote so Virginians could voice what their hearts were telling them. They were, as we were, learning of more animosities, blockades and aggression by the North.

Word of the rising tension was so unsettling I broke rank as I introduced myself to a new partner.

“Captain Francis, uh, Colonel Francis,” I stuttered. “Excuse me. The news has left me quite shaken.”

But as much as we worried, as much as we longed for another way out, we found the time for more merriment, more waltzes and more reels. One dance called “Chase The Squirrel” found me playfully pursuing a lady about the set only to find her chasing me back.

So much beauty surrounded me I did not know what to do when seeking out another partner for a waltz. Two ladies stood a few feet away, beautiful as Heaven would allow. The music began, and without a partner, I began to sway back and forth on my feet, unable to stand still even without a dancing partner. I sauntered toward the pair… whom would I ask?

“Colonel Francis!” Capt. Scott called to me. “Why are you waltzing by yourself when such beautiful ladies are before you?”

My feet halted. “Sir, they are so beautiful, I am filled with indecision.”

“Close your eyes!” he ordered.

He twirled me around a couple of times and directed me to point.

“Open your eyes!”

Before the tip of my finger was my choice: a charming lady and a better dancer than she gave herself credit for.

Our host relayed another dispatch. The votes were tallied. Virginia would secede. In some counties, the vote was unanimous. We had made our choice, but now came the challenge. We learned the first Virginia blood of this conflict had already been shed. Peace had failed, but a new nation may yet thrive, one honored with a song.

“Then here’s to our Confederacy,
Strong we are and brave,
Like patriots of old we’ll fight, our heritage to save.
Rather than submit to shame,
To fight we would prefer
So cheer for the Bonnie Blue flag
That bears a single star.
Hurrah! Hurrah! For Southern rights, hurrah!
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag
That bears a single star.”

My thoughts return once more to the duty before me. I know not all of you will agree with the choice I have made, but I hope you at least recognize the circumstances. I believe with all my heart we are a nation of undeniable liberty. Those who seek to deny us our rights as citizens, as human beings, do not understand the foundations of this great land. Did not we choose freedom over tyranny one hundred years ago? Did we not resolve to build a nation grounded in justice and guided by those rights given to us by our Creator?

But in the sum of all events, I find the most peculiar irony and a thread of hope. Whatever happens in these next few months, I will never forget the friendship and fellowship of this evening’s celebration, filled with many more memories than I can mention here. A slice of my heart tells me we could patch a great many conflicts with more occasions such as this. Happiness should chase anger away, making room for reason, which if left to blossom shall yield a harvest of reconciliation.

It is an absurd thought, I know, for some of you. But I must keep hope alive. We have passed beyond the crossroads. The road we have chosen will lead us to either redemption or suffering. And I can only pray God will give us the strength to carry out our duties as soldiers and as patriots. My future may be undetermined, but my heart is resolute.

Yours truly,
Col. Christopher Francis

A Postscript From Mesa

We entered in costume, in character, 145 years later, near the stroke of midnight. The scattered patches of diners at the In-N-Out perked up. They may have hesitated to swallow for an instant. One snickered while others smiled.

“Arizona just seceded from the Union,” one person explained to a puzzled stranger on the way out.

“We’re from a Civil War ball,” another said to the young man behind the counter as he stared at all the Confederate uniforms and hoopskirts.

I always love it when present meets past, especially when I’m still submerged in my historic persona. The ball may have ended half an hour ago, but I couldn’t drop my southern accent.

“Could I have a number one, please, sir?” I drawled out.

At one point during a waltz, my partner asked me if that accent was real.

“I’ll leave that to you to decide,” I grinned. Why spoil any illusion? If you want to believe it’s real, by all means believe!

Our conversation put us back in the present day, but in a nation still divided -- this time by illegal immigration. We talked about the upcoming march in Phoenix. We talked about immigrant rights. We talked about solutions.

Should we grant amnesty or deport them all? Should we implement a guest worker program? Should we go after the businesses that hire them? Should we put pressure on Mexico to eliminate the corruption and poverty at the root of the problem?

I don’t think we found a sure cure. Everybody could at least agree on that.

In another time, this talk could have lit the fuse of war. But at our table, you couldn't even light a match as we talked thoughtfully and amiably about the issues.

As I write this, our Arizona Attorney General and a U.S. Attorney are asking the Federal Communications Commission to investigate a comment by a Phoenix radio talk show host. That host suggested one way to solve the illegal immigration problem was to randomly shoot illegal immigrants on one night every week. Such “rabble,” as it might have been called in another time, can only lead to violence, the attorneys say. I fear we’ve been down this road before.

Click here for more photos and reflections of this amazing evening!

Yes, you too can take part! Click here for more about We Make History.

LIFE & TIMELINES -- more of my journeys:
If You Can Walk...
Both Sides Then: Caught In The Middle Of "The Battle Of Winchester"
Come, Let's Be Merry!
"You Look A Little Too Happy To Be Here."

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Anger Of A Stranger

A month ago, I told you about Elisa, a wonderful 18-year-old girl who died in a car crash. I told you about her outstanding talent as a mariachi singer, something sure to bloom into bigger things for her. I told you about her loving mother and father. I told you about the house full of relatives mourning for her, a number that grew to include myself. I told you of my tears.

And then today, a toxicology report from the Pima County Medical Examiner's office floored me. According to test results, Elisa had cocaine in her system. She also had the legal limit -- 0.08 -- of blood alcohol content.

I wondered if this report could be talking about the same person, the one who practiced her stage technique in front of a mirror in her room, who sang so proudly for millions, who learned Spanish to perfect her craft. It simply didn't fit.

We reported the disheartening follow-up to the tragic story on the 5pm, 6pm, and 10pm news. Between the early shows and the late one, I took a couple of phone calls.

The first caller, identifying himself as a friend of the family asked us how we could report this? How could we do this to the family?

I said I'm sorry, but we can't ignore things like this. We have an obligation to the truth, which is what our viewers expect of us, and sometimes the truth hurts. We can't leave out a part of a story just because it makes somebody look bad.

He says we hadn't done this sort of thing with other people.

"Who?" I asked. Name names. He couldn't.

The guy was beginning to get on my nerves. The more he talked, the more he implied I didn't care about the family.

"Have you ever lost a child?"

He pushed me over the line. I lost a good friend, a reporter, to a train accident, I said.

"I talked with her father. I talked with her mother, sitting on the bed in [Elisa's] room!"

So I bloody well knew about loss!

We went back and forth. He continued to complain about how we could do this to the family. I apologized, but I also got madder as he didn't see my point.

"What do you want from me? Do you want me bleeding on the set on my knees? What do you want?"

Business became personal, because the story became personal. This is the reason you're not supposed to get personally involved with stories, but I already crossed that line two months ago. Now this guy was pushing my buttons, slapping me with the white glove and challenging my professionalism. I wasn't going to let him get away with it.

Fortunately, I was calmer when Elisa's father called. He echoed the same sentiment, in a more civil way. I explained why we made the decision we did, and I offered to run a statement from him. He didn't think it would matter, but I kept asking, and finally I got one to run with the story on the 10pm news. Right after viewers heard about the drugs and alcohol, they heard these words from her father:
"Alisa is with our Lord in Heaven and nobody can harm her now. We are people of faith and the love and support that the community has shown us will never be shaken or watered down."
Anger still smolders inside me.

I'm angry with myself for getting angry.

I'm angry with people who think they know how the TV news business works when they don't know a thing. I'm angry with people who simply assume we care more about a good story than about the people behind them. It's a gutless, stereotypical charge, one easily believed by the masses without any serious thought. It's getting old.

I'm angry with Elisa's parents. According to her father, they heard Elisa had used from the detectives. Maybe they didn't know until after the night I interviewed them, but the least they could've done was own up to the truth. They ignored the opportunity to put a moral on the story: this is what happens to you when you drink and do drugs and drive.

And I'm angry with Elisa. She was blessed with a loving family and a growing talent. She had opportunities. And yet, somewhere in this picture she chose to do coke. She chose to drink and drive. Did she feel invincible? Did she think she was too successful in life to lose?

I will never understand why people who have everything in the world going for them abuse alcohol and drugs.

Both callers tonight said she made a mistake. "Have you ever made mistakes in your life?"

Forgetting your anniversary is a mistake. Smoking dope is a decision made consciously. That alcohol and coke didn't get into her system by accident. She made the choice. Before that deadly night in February she surely heard a variant of the "just say no" message multiple times. And if her parents, her teachers and her friends didn't tell her that, shame on them all.

As I explained to her father, most people will remember Elisa for her gifts to the world. We would all rather remember the way she lived rather than how she died. I'll remember it, too. But I'll also remember her life didn't have to end like it did. She cannot be held blameless for it. And if she were sitting in front of me now like her mother did two months ago, I'd have only one question for her.


Saturday, April 1, 2006

Reel To Reel: Inside Man

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster
Rated: R
Red Flags: Strong Language, Strong Violence

When I heard Spike Lee was directing this bank-heist film, my first reaction was, "He needs to top off his bank account." His last few major films, including 25th Hour, She Hate Me, and Bamboozled won some crix picks but didn't sell tix.

But if you're gonna sell out, do it with some talented company: Denzel and Jodie are good enough excuses. Together, they make a messy action flick work, even though it's still a mess.

Denzel plays New York city detective Keith Frazier, a cop doing his best under that good 'ol worn-out plot device: the cloud of corruption. It's his lucky day as he's called in to work negotiations on a bank robbery hostage situation. Clever-minded thug Dalton Russell (Owen) is demanding the Dog Day Afternoon special: buses and planes to escape. Some food would be nice. How about pizza?

We know almost from the start Dalton isn't after money. We get reassurances it isn't halfway through the picture, largely because of Madeline White (Foster), an icy woman who works part-time in the blackmail and bribery trade when she isn't hawking real estate. Turns out Dalton is after something in a safe deposit box. And that something could be potentially embarassing to the owner if it sees the light of day. White comes in to cut a deal with Dalton.

Inside Man emits a cool, intelligent aura, largely because of Washington's and Foster's performances. Cool and intelligent don't get you everywhere, though. The movie's problem is it telegraphs its moves two and three reels away. By nature of the picture's structuring and flashback sequences, you're constantly on guard for the big plot twist. When it comes, you're not taking a hard left turn but simply merging into traffic.

Maybe Lee knew that when he read the script. And if so, he should be glad he's got Denzel and Jodie working for him.