Monday, August 28, 2006

Highland Fling

Great Scot! An entire weekend of merriment hosted by Bonnie Prince Charlie, Flora MacDonald and the family of We Make History.

Click any picture for a larger view. Many thanks to Michael Cynecki for the vast majority of these memorable photos!

The clans are gathering on the lawn of Northern Arizona University’s Old Main on a clear, breezy August evening devoid of monsoon rain. But like mist drifting in from the sea, our numbers grow. We are Jacobites summoned by Bonnie Prince Charlie, wary of a sneak attack by the British.

Lads and lasses in kilts and tartan frocks flow onto the green under the pines. Clan Scottsdale and Clan Phoenix are here. Aha… Clan Wickenburg! Clan Flagstaff! Clan Wallace marches in with brave hearts. Clan Prescott joins us!

I stand with Clan Southern Arizona in my red Royal Stewart tartan and sash. My highland shirt is one size bigger than necessary to ensure properly puffy sleeves. Royal Stewart ribbons jut from my kilt hose, filling out my trusty, ball-weathered buckle shoes. It’s ancestry-accurate on my father’s side. Not wanting to neglect Mother’s side of the family, I include a Cameron clan kilt pin, a tiny sword with a Gaelic inscription holding my sash together. And before you ask that question, be assured I’m taking appropriate defensive measures to protect my modesty.

I quickly see we are outnumbered, not in any military sense but in the lad-to-lass ratio. One clansman estimates 2:3 –- clearly encouraging math. Tomorrow, we march on London. Tonight, we march into the ballroom.

The Bonnie Prince calls us together, noting the British have failed to disrupt us, and leads the charge for the dance floor.

“Huzzah,” I say with gentlemanly restraint as we begin a silent march inside.

His Royal Highness wonders aloud where our enthusiasm is.

“HUZZAH!” I shout.

Ashurst Hall stands ready for the evening: wooden floors, tall windows, and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Angels on stage, led by Madame Becky. It’s the best ballroom I’ve set foot in yet, and it’s a full house.

The Bonnie Prince and Flora MacDonald begin the procession, as we all turn back the clock in our heads and hearts, from 2006 to 1745 as some eighty of us parade around the room, two by two, lad and lass, smiles in our faces, getting into the highland spirit.

“Welcome, welcome!” His Royal Highness calls out to us as we pass by with a bow.

A mixer follows the procession... one, two, three, four... into the center... one two, three, four... back out. A turn to my partner, a bit of fancy footwork, a few other steps, and pass through to the next partner. Cinch.

“Line up in sets,” comes the call for the next dance.

I’ve done it many times before, but seeking out a new partner still leaves me with a wee bit of trepidation. Couples take their places and the urgency builds. I know who I’m looking for -- a kind lass standing still on the floor, eyes searching. I approach a pair with such disposition.

“Are ye seekin’ a partner?” I ask with the best Scottish accent I’m capable of. She accepts the invitation, and I quickly honor her with a bow, which is quickly matched with a curtsy. I treasure these moments of respect.

A jig comes next, a time to show off some freestyle stepping. I decide to try a Highland Fling. It looks simple: one hand above your head, hopping with one foot back and forth behind your knee. I’ve researched it. I’ve practiced a little... well, as much as I can without bothering my downstairs neighbor... which isn’t much at all. I get out on the floor, cutting in as instructed and give it a try in front of a charming lass. I’m not going to win any highland dancing contests, but I’m satisfied it’s Scottish enough.

Everybody’s showing considerable dancing ability, especially on the reels. Just when I think I have them down, a new one comes along to challenge me.

It works like this on the floor: Madame Becky walks us through the figures in a dance. Then we do it. I can see we’re going to have a little trouble on this one.

It’s a twist on what I know as “stripping the willow.” The head couple’s lass swings down the line of lads, swinging her partner between others. The lad swings the line of lasses, swinging his own. Then lad and lass work their way back down the set again, swinging each other and the proper lines. A new head couple emerges, and we go through it again.

“Keep it reel,” the Bonnie Prince reminds us.

I’m so lost in the joy of the dance I have trouble remembering who swings who in what order. But partners joyously remind me. We clap in the line when we’re not swinging somebody. Some keep dancing and swinging after the music stops. I join an impromptu three-person reel in a corner. We’re all working up a considerable sweat. I’m glad that Highland shirt breathes.

“Ahhh, breeze,” I say as I cool down in front of those tall open windows, letting the nighttime winds replenish my spirit. I supplement it with a few cups of punch.

Now comes something that probably came to Scotland by way of the Bahamas: the Pineapple Dance. Two lines of lads and lasses form in front of three chairs. Three people sit at the front, one in the middle with a pineapple. If you have the pineapple, you either pass it to the person sitting to the left or the right of you, and then chasse (a.k.a. sashay) down the lines with the other person not holding the pineapple. The pineapple person moves to the center chair, people from each line move forward to fill in the empty chairs, and the game continues. The idea is for lasses to chasse with lads and likewise, but the realities of ratios soon catch up. A few hearty lads chasse with lads to roaring applause.

Those chasses get wildly creative. We have the Strictly Ballroom style, twirling all the way down. We have the Highland Hoedown, with copious stomping. I find out soon I can’t get too fancy, because when I get to the end of the line, my buckle shoes slide at least two feet after the last leap. I nearly avoid ending up flat on my back with my kilt flipped up.

Now, let us give our feet a break and do some headwork. The prize drawing is upon us, albeit with a twist I recall from this gathering of pirates in Prescott. Books of Scotland, historic costume patterns, and Walker’s Shortbreads are up for grabs. But the Bonnie Prince hath decreed, you must be able to recite a fact Scottish, English, Irish or Welsh history, which includes “a name, a date and a specific place. Failure will mean a solo Highland Jig and a decision by the gathered clans as to whether ye may claim your prize!”

I have a fact ready, but I don’t get to use it. Several names are called. A few have done their homework. Many have not.


And so many jig in front of clans for ten seconds. Perchance they would rather dance? They perform admirably.

“HUZZAH!” I shout over and over again. Others pick up on the magic word and are repeating it after each dance now with hearty Highland fervor. We’re into our characters completely. My weak attempt at a Scottish accent is sounding more English than Scottish, but luckily, nobody accuses me of being a spy. And what loyal Englishman would attempt a Highland Fling anyway?

Still, I almost get into a scrap. Miss Becky asks for a volunteer to help her demonstrate a dance, and I step onto the floor. So does Robert The Bruce (aka Robert de Bruys). We are facing each other, Miss Becky to our sides.

“Duel! Duel!” a few clansmen egg on.

My rival playfully goes into his attack stance, importing some moves he picked up in the Far East. I assume my counter-stance with a few hand motions I picked up from Brigadoon. It’s going to be his Stewart-Jitsu versus my Highland-Kwan-Do. But before this showdown can even start, another clansman makes a sneak attack and steals the girl away. We stand too flabbergasted to fight.

No matter where we travel on the timeline, we always have room for some waltzes, a chance for me to seek and share a moment of beauty with a lass. I keep the steps to a simple back-and-forth.

I ask a lot of names during the course of the evening, and sadly, I remember few. But I always remember these moments -- grace, class, friendship, and respect in three-quarter time. They make up for so much I wish I could forget from my younger days.

And happily, the last dance is not the last word. The meeting of the clans continues back in the hotel room lobby. We’re still stoked from the evening, and we have to keep reminding ourselves to keep the chatter down before we all get the order to disperse. What would be more humiliating: a defeat at Culloden or La Quinta Inn?

Highland Blessings

Morning finds us picking up where we left off, breaking bread with friends and nourishing our souls in a poolside prayer service.

This is where the deeper meaning of We Make History comes through, as we share what we are thankful for, how God has touched our lives, and who needs our prayers the most -- our families, our schools, our nation. All of us are inspired to be servants using the gifts and talents we have.

I am reluctant at first to share my story, preferring to let other voices carry. So many other voices deserve to be heard. But as I listen to others and their stories of challenge and fulfillment in their lives, I have to question my own and remind myself of the answer.

“I probably work in one of the most depressing professions,” I share, touching on the big picture of journalism. “At times I ask, why do I do this?”

Why do this, when my heart has been opened after twelve years of hardening in a high-stress, high-burnout job? But I stay, I explain, because I have a chance to affect change, to uplift others, and to show respect. Leadership means leading. In the final prayers, tears roll down my eyes -- tears of joy and thanksgiving, of feeling blessed as I ask for the guidance to make the right decisions. Several people offer their words of encouragement afterward.

The weekend of Highland merriment concludes with a picnic and touch football in kilts. Nobody gathers dust on the sidelines.

“I know we want to win, but we’re a team, and I want to get everybody involved,” the Bonnie Prince proclaims as we switch up positions, running every play in the book in a low scoring, 14-7, fabulously defensive game. Some of our teammates will be playing for the NFL one day -- no doubt about it.

I think back now to that final dance of the previous evening, the last waltz where we all started in a circle and then broke off into couples. The lass next to me was a bit unsure of her waltzing ability, and she politely declined to continue with me.

“It’s all right,” I tell her with a smile. “I understand.”

I seek out another lass in need of a partner. But this time, I find none.

A row of several lasses are still waltzing in a line from our circle. Do I join them, or do I go it alone?

For some reason, I decide to go it alone -- a solo Highland waltz on the edge of the dance floor, still hoping to find some lass in need of a waltzing partner.

Sometimes, all of us feel we are dancing alone in life. But we’re never really alone. Not as long as we can enjoy these nights of grace and honor and then slip back into our other lives and times with the grace within us, even if some of those surrounding us don’t understand what we’re all about.

So my first stop after returning from Flagstaff is at work, where I surprise the weekend newsroom staff in full tartan with some extra Highland Chocolate Chip cookies I baked for the picnic. My compatriots enthusiastically devour them with thanks to the kilted baker, and I am uplifted.

Yes, this is why I do this.

More recollections and pictures from this wonderful event!
More about the Jacobite Rising via Wikipedia.
More Life & Timelines Adventures

Friday, August 25, 2006

The Lightning Round:
Star Treatments, Poker Bits, And Divinity To Go

Phoenix is phlooded. Tucson trailers are tossed about by thunderstorms. And my private nightmare has Flagstaff turning into Loch Ness this weekend as throw myself full kilt into Highland revelry -- not that it would hurt, mind you, releasing my brain cells from the following items:

CRUISE CONTROL. All you really need to understand about Tom Cruise's firing from Paramount is that it's less about a star behaving badly than a studio behaving broke.

Paramount doesn't want to admit it's on the financial ropes. The studio, which has a reputation for being risk-adverse, has been struggling for some time. Studio chief Brad Grey was brought in to fix this, but hasn't yet. Roger Friedman, like many others, wonders why Par greenlighted Mission: Impossible 3 if Viacom topper Sumner Redstone was really that upset by Tom's couch-jumping, Scientology-spouting episodes.

War Of The Worlds grossed nearly $600 million worldwide on a $132 million budget, according to Box Office Mojo. This picture opened right after the couch incident. So far, M:I:3 has grossed nearly $400 million worldwide on a $150 million investment. That's hardly a flop.

The real story here -- one that will take time to unfold -- is what happens to all the projects Cruise's production shingle had in development with Paramount. If they get shipped elsewhere, Par could be sinking a liner full of cash, crazy Cruise money or not.

WHEN WILL I BE LOVED? Is Tucson native Linda Ronstadt singing to herself, "You're No Good?" She returned to the Old Pubelo this week for surgery and cancelled the rest of her concert dates for this year while she recovers.

From the AP:
Ronstadt’s agent, Shelly Schultz, would not provide details on the surgery the longtime performer underwent Tuesday in Tucson, Ariz., but said it wasn’t cancer.

“It wasn’t an emergency, but it came about rather quickly, so she decided to do it sooner rather than later,” Schultz said. “It’s surgery, it’s completed, and she’s fine.”
We at The Lightning Round find two curiosities in this: one, what is Ronstadt's agent trying to hide, and two, why was the singer willing to come back to Tucson from San Francisco?

The Golden Gate's leading daily claims she skipped town a year ago because of Arizona's "strip-mall culture and right-wing mentality." Apparently the hospitals here don't stink, and she still has a pad in midtown.

But why the blackout on her surgery? You can hear the rumor machine cranking up. My favorite wild speculative guess is she's unloading some ballast through either liposuction or... gasp... gastric bypass. We politely notice her figure has inflated over the years, yet the theory doesn't fit very well. Scottsdale is the place to go for gastric bypass, and liposuction shouldn't sideline you for five months.

If this is some embarrassing, late-night-joke-fodder condition, we understand. But Shelly, you know better than to gas up the machine. Too many people are willing to ride it.

I KNOW HE'S BLUFFING WHEN THE MOUSE POINTER SHAKES. Scientists say poker may be a better test of artificial intelligence than chess -- especially No-Limit Hold 'Em.

The Canadian Press quoted Michael Bowling, head of the research group that created a poker-playing computer:
"The nice thing about chess as a property of the game is what we call perfect information. You look at the board, you know where all the pieces are, you know whose turn it is - you have complete knowledge of the game," he said.

"But in the real world, knowing everything is just so rare. Everything we do all day long is all about partial information. So poker's much more representative of what the real world's like, and in that sense it becomes a much harder problem."
Especially hard: teaching a computer how to play with the chips. No, the other chips.

GRADED X. Get caught cheating at the College of Charleston (S.C.), and you'll get an "XF" on your grade card. So far, nobody's complained.

From The State:
The XF grade will remain on a student's transcript at least two years. After two years, if there are no additional violations, the student can petition to have the grade removed.

"It's our position that as long as you have a clear record, the X will come off," [Dean of Students Jeri] Cabot said, "but the F stays."
One educator blames easily available Internet term papers, rife for cutting and pasting.
Timothy Dodd, the executive director of the Center for Academic Integrity, said many high school students are no longer learning to write clear and insightful papers.

"Instead of writing, students are learning to compile," he said. Their writing "tends to be strands of regurgitation."
Hey Tim, I felt the same way about most of the essay tests I took in college. And I studied for those. I crammed facts into my head, spilled them out, and left them there on the page. It's not fair. Many things I learned in university aren't in my brain anymore -- especially my freshman American History class. I sweated through two "blue book" exams, two research papers, several quizzes, and tons of reading, fighting to earn an "A," and I did. But now, when I long to recall much of those facts, I have to go back to the books and notes... or Google.

"You're going to be damn proud of that degree when you get it," a psychology professor once said in class, referring to the work ahead of us first-years.

So I have no sympathy for cheaters. 'Tis better to have learned and lost than never learned at all.

DRIVEN TO GOD. We know countless prayers have been said behind steering wheels, especially on the L.A. freeways. But a church in Fresno is offering drive-through devotionals.

According to information supplied by KFSN-TV (no story link available, sorry), "God's Family Church in northwest Fresno has decided since many people don't like to go to church, they'll take to church to them."

A drive-thru sign hangs outside the church. People pull up to the prayer booth in their ride for blessings in the driver's seat.

Says Pastor Alex Maldonado: "End of the work week, people seem to unwind. We've found that, as you may know, people are fired more so on a Friday afternoon."

Soon the church plans to offer sides of coffee during rush hour. Will we then call the people manning the booth "Prayeristas?"

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Outta The Way, Ya Knuckleheads

I theorize testosterone manipulation may be the route to global harmony. Clay Thompson of the Arizona Republic thinks the solution is the Larry, Moe and Curly treatment.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Reel To Reel: Snakes On A Plane

"Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?" -- Indiana Jones

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson
Rated: R
Red Flags: Graphic Violence, One Mildly Pornographic Sex Scene In A Lavatory

Snakes On A Plane is the perfect title from a marketing standpoint. You know exactly what you're getting. Samuel L. Jackson knew too, so much he kept New Line Cinema from changing it.

When I first heard it, I thought, "that's the best they could do?" However, if you dig a little through monster/horror movie history, you'll find this lame title has precedent. A quick search of turns up flicks like The Giant Gila Monster, Bats, The Giant Claw, Mosquito, and that previous deadly snake flick, Anaconda.

All right, the title isn't that far-fetched. With Snakes On A Plane, you could go in one of several directions:

1) Straight Horror -- fill a plane with snakes and see if anybody survives to land the thing.

2) Action Horror -- same as #1, but with more explosions and at least one good gun battle with a Burmese Python.

3) Cheeseball Horror -- melodramatic screaming, lots of teenagers being bitten, lots of overacting and people struggling to pull fake plastic snakes off their necks.

4) Disaster Movie Parody -- something in the style of Airplane, but with snakes.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers decided to go for all four at once. Snakes On A Plane wriggles between horror and self-parody, a casualty of its own Internet hype, the buzz so pervasive New Line Cinema greenlighted re-shoots of some scenes, adding Samuel Jackson's now-classic line, "I'm tired of these m$&^#-ing snakes on this m$&^#-ing plane!"

We don't even get to see the snakes until nearly a half-hour into the picture, after getting some long set-up out of the way. FBI agent Nelville Flynn (Jackson) is on a flight from Honolulu to L.A., assigned to protect a material witness to a mob murder. The mobster wants to take the witness out using a crate of snakes set to release when the jet is far out over the Pacific. The intension here is to make it look like an accident, but it's the most contrived accident I've ever seen on a plane. Cyanide drops in the complimentary beverage would be more like it.

But summer blockbusters are not meant for strenuous mental dissection. They're meant to be enjoyed like a county fair thrill ride. But even on that count, Snakes doesn't measure up. Exotic snakes slither around and attack everything they come in contact with. But aside from the initial bitefest, the picture fails to deliver some sort of climatic snake showdown, something reminiscent of the Well Of The Souls scene in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. A scene where Flynn has to restart the air conditioning system after combing through the plane's cargo bay is filled with dangerous possibilities, as long dangling wires stretch all over the place... only those aren't wires, are they? Well, yeah, I guess they are. Bummer.

The film throws in some elements of the Airport films, where we're introduced to a host of passengers -- including a stuffy Brit, a Paris Hilton knockoff and two cute kids -- who are either going to get bitten, eaten, or saved. Or they're going to lead some sort of revolt. Here comes Flynn with the obligitory we're-all-in-this-together line: "Now you can stand there and be the paniced, angry mob and blame him, me and the government for getting you into this, but if you want to survive tonight, you need to save your energy and start working together."

Well they do, and they don't. It's all on our man Sam to let his charisma carry the picture. It does and it doesn't. We paid to see snakes on a plane, and we want more snakes!

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Lightning Round:
Everything But The Girl

As TV news hyperventilates over the JonBenet Ramsey case (again), we at The Lightning Round ask you in all kindness to devote some time to, ahem, "other news."

SANCTUARY. Immigration-rights activists: for your sake, for our sake, and for goodness sake, please don't turn Elvira Arellano into the next Elian Gonzales. Elvira is the illegal immigrant holed up in a Chicago Church, presumably thinking La Migra, like Count Dracula, is repelled by the cross.

Joel Fetzer, political science professor at Pepperdine University in California puts it mildly in an AP interview:
"If the government comes in, it's going to look very jack-booted fascistic. It would look very bad."
So if we can't send in the feds, let's send in Roy Warden: Mexican flag-burner, loud anti-illegal-immigrant activist, general boor.

If anybody's willing to go in and fetch Elvira, Roy's the man. Let's ask him. If he can't, that's even better. Hopefully it will drop the curtain on his angry-Anglo act.

LAY-ING WASTE TO JUSTICE. Lawyers for Ken Lay, now the Deadest Guy In The Room, are filing motions to clear his name and erase the guilty verdicts against him. If they're successful, Lay's estate may be off the hook for millions of dollars in restitution.

From the Houston Chronicle:
There is legal precedent that essentially states a defendant has not received final judgment if he dies before being sentenced and having the opportunity to appeal their conviction.
Some would say Kenny Boy did indeed recieve final judgment, only in a higher court. But it's unfathomable to me how any judge could wipe the slate clean when so many people lost so many thousands of dollars in the Enron collapse. Are they supposed to die too? Perhaps Lay's lawyers figure we shall all find our rewards in Heaven.

SHAKES ON A PLANE. An extremely claustrophobic woman disrupted a flight from London to Washington this week, forcing it to land in Boston and forcing The Lightning Round to wonder what in tarnation she was doing on a plane in the first place with such a condition.

Catherine Mayo is now being held on a charge of interfering with a flight crew. And we're learning her problems stem well beyond the fear of enclosed spaces, according to the AP:
She was dressed in a Rolling Stones T-shirt, black pants and socks without shoes for the [court] hearing and was ordered held pending a detention and probable cause hearing next Thursday.

Her attorney, federal public defender Page Kelley, said Mayo was "just barely" lucid when they spoke. "She's got some very serious mental health problems."


Mayo's son, Josh, 31, described his mother as a peace activist and said she had been in Pakistan since March. She traveled there often since making a pen pal prior to Sept. 11, 2001, he said. The pen pal hasn't been allowed to visit the U.S., he added.
We can screen for bombs, knives, guns, incendiaries and detonating devices. But head cases are still getting through.

WHAT'S IN A NAME? SHAME! Rule #17 of The Campaign Trail: When stumping, don't use a word you don't know, especially when the microphone is on and the tape is rolling. And especially don't use the word "macaca" to describe the Indian-American man with the camera. Virginia Senator George Allen forgot to read the rulebook and he's having to apologize for his ignorance. "Macaca," by the way, can refer to a genus of monkeys.

With that in mind, The Lightning Round presents the offending moment via YouTube, uncut and un-spin-doctored so you can judge for yourself:

Senator Allen, you're not allowed to be a doofus. Rule #18: If you want to crack jokes on the Trail, make yourself the butt... or else see it kicked on election day.

BROTHER BRAWLERS. Some Buddhist monks aren't afraid to mix it up. A peace demonstration Sri Lanka nearly turned into a battle royal when hardliners and pro-peace friars got on each others' nerves.

From Reuters:
"They were saying we should go to war," said pro-peace monk Madampawe Assagee. "We like to listen to other opinions so we let them do that but then they started fighting and we couldn't control some of our people. They tried to make it a big fight but we settled it in a few minutes."
I'm not sure what Assagee meant by "we settled it," but man, those pro-peacers must pack some wicked right hooks.

WE'RE ALL ONE BIG HAPPY FAMILY. Turns out we all have famous ancestors. It's because the family tree of humanity has so many billions of branches, allowing just about anybody to trace their roots to a king or queen -- which kind of makes my longing to be a Viscount a relatively humble request.

What I know of my most recent ancestors is that they came from Scotland. Soon I shall celebrate my heritage in a grand and joyous manner. Stay tuned.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Francis The Quaker?

Unsure of your place in the spiritual world? Beliefnet offers the handy-dandy Belief-O-Matic, a 20-question test that matches your personal religious beliefs with the faith that best fits.

Here's my top six best spiritual matches, according to Belief-O-Matic:

1. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (100%)
2. Liberal Quakers (85%)
3. Unitarian Universalism (81%)
4. Bahi'i Faith (71%)
5. Orthodox Quaker (68%)
6. Reform Judaism (66%)

Fascinating results. I am a confessed, confirmed Presbyterian, a denomination with a fairly liberal outlook. The 85% Quaker match intrigues me, and that indeed might be a better fit -- except for their opposition to war.

Thanks to Berin Kinsman for the tip.

Newsfakers -- VNR Edition

The Federal Communications Commission is now asking dozens of TV stations how they used Video News Releases (VNR's) in their newscasts. These are free packaged reports already written, edited, and ready to air as if a reporter had done them. Many of them deal with health and consumer issues. Some are lifestyle features. But all of them are usually produced by a PR firm on behalf of a major corporation shilling a product.

Most stations never run them straight. Some "re-track" them, substituting the local anchor's voice or a reporter's voice for the canned announcer, perhaps rewriting some of the copy to sound less commercial.

Oodles of these handouts are on the news feeds every day. But before you accuse TV stations of selling out to corporate America, you need to understand the two main uses of VNR's:

Stock footage. Many stations chuck the promotional copy with a VNR and just save the footage if it can be used another time. A VNR on a stop-smoking pill may contain footage of people smoking in public or cigarettes being made -- something that may be handy for smoking stories in the future. Every VNR I've seen says, "this footage is for your free and unrestricted use." VNR footage is especially handy for medical stories where it's hard to get surgery video or shots of a particular drug.

Filling time. This is where VNR's get abused. Producers in small markets with more news time than resources to fill it will plug in one of these pre-packaged pieces. Morning shows are especially vulnerable since staffers are trying to fill at least 90 minutes of air time every day. CNN and the networks' feed services do a very good job of offering a lot of non-VNR material to producers, but VNR's often make it onto the air simply because no "other news" is out there. Desperation to make a deadline and fill dead air will drive you to do it.

One important point: stations are not paid to air VNR's. Nobody's pressuring them to air them. I get e-mail every day from groups hawking free footage or guest interview opportunties (mainly from book authors or partisan talking heads), all of which I politely ignore. Producers aren't on a mission to mislead the public or boost a company's stock.

Ninety-five percent of VNR's never make air on KOLD News 13. We a regularly use video releases from the Journal Of The American Medical Association (JAMA), but I put these in a different league than most VNR's because they're put out by a respected, credible organziation that's not out to sell something. However, when we use JAMA material, we don't use the pre-narrated packages they send out. We'll strip some video, harvest some bites, rewrite the copy, check the facts, and do it our way.

I have never run a straight VNR on my newscasts. I have used VNR footage in the past to compliment facts and reporting we've done on our own, but I can count on one hand the number of stories that relied on VNR footage in 12 years of producing. Most of the VNR's on the wires aren't worth airtime in the first place, and with so much going on in Tucson and the world they don't put a blip on my radar.

If the FCC wants to investigate how VNR's are making it into newscasts, they also need to investigate the staffing situations of the stations airing them and the experience of the people putting them on the air. Seasoned producers don't need no stinkin' VNR's. Newbies may need help learning how to avoid them.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Reel To Reel: World Trade Center

Hope survives.

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maria Bello
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Graphic Emotional Content (bring your Kleenex)

The opening scenes of World Trade Center depict pre-9/11 New York City like the post-9/11 metropolis I visited earlier this year -- a tall, proud, dedicated community in motion. As the five boroughs wake up, you are immersed in the glow of a great place unaware of the tragedy about to hit. When it does, you feel the despair, the hopelessness, the anger, the incredible sadness and the disbelief. But you are not robbed of hope. That is the core of Oliver Stone's latest film, which stands as a tribute to the police and firefighters of New York City.

The film recounts the true stories of John McLoughlin (Cage) and Will Jimeno (Pena), two Port Authority policemen sent in to evacuate the World Trade Center when the twin towers collapsed, trapping them for hours. They were two of only 20 rescued alive from the rubble. McLoughlin has been through the first WTC attack, somebody who can lead a team into the complex and save lives. But even he is caught off-guard by the scope of what's happening, admitting he has no plan as his men speed to the burning towers. Jimeno is the go-getter, the person who does the right thing because it's right, not without fear, but with a sense of duty and optimism.

For the better part of two hours, we share their moments trapped in the rocks and twisted metal, fires burning around them as the life fades from them. Here are two men fighting to stay alive, yet longing to close their eyes and rest to deaden the pain ravaging their bodies. Death is the easy way out. Death means leaving their families, their children. They must stay alive and keep talking to each other about the people they love and why they sacrifice for others.

McLoughlin's and Jimeno's families are brought into the story, suffering as much as their trapped loved ones do through the agony of doubt. TV screens around them replay the crumbling buildings and the people fleeing in terror, but no news of John and Will. Jimeno's wife is expecting, and we worry for the fate of the unborn. Eventually John and Will are rescued alive, but it's no Hollywood ending given the unbelieveable loss of other lives we know too well.

Stone spares us the kooky conspiracy theories or moral high horses of previous films and lets the story tell itself. Disturbing images of the burning Trade Center are unavoidable, but he spares us the most graphic pictures, instead presenting the events as seen through the people who lived them. Some may say this film didn't need to be made. They are wrong. The attacks taught us people never fail to come together in the face of tragedy. And while lives may be lost, others are saved -- and perhaps bettered -- because of it. Even the worst terror attacks can't destroy that.

I journeyed to Ground Zero during my New York City trip in April. Memories of the horrid day caught up with me again, along with the sadness. But as I looked out over this giant hole in the ground, I had hope. Someday a giant building will stand tall and proud over the city. It will not be another World Trade Center, nor will we want it to be. We will not erase the pain and death. We will not erase the hatred that spawned it. But we will build and we will live our lives, just like John and Will did -- changed lives -- but we will live them.

Friday, August 11, 2006

The Lightning Round:
In The Hole

The cops foil a huge terror plot. A chopper crashes into the Catalina mountains -- adding to the mess near Sabino Canyon, we might add. But the real talker story, the thing that's opening eyes across the Old Pueblo this Friday: Why the heck's Krispy Kreme closed?

HOT DONUTS NOT! KOLD News 13 broke the heartbreaking story to donut aficionados Thursday night. Krispy Kreme suddenly closed both its Tucson locations, shutting down its glazed-dough machines and laying off 55 employees.

I spoke to the chain's store director for Tucson, who happened to be at one of the locations when I cold called.

"We're doing some rumor control," I said. "Are you closing tonight?"

"We're done," was the reply.

He had gotten the directive at the last minute, as afternoon turned into evening: shut both stores down. He still hadn't broken the news to his family or kids.

No official reason has been given as we go to press early Friday morning. However, the director I talked to (whose name I'm not using because he wasn't speaking officially for the company), said the Krispy Kreme franchise had issues with "stability" in Tucson. Another source with inside knowledge confirms this, saying sales had not been living up to expectations.

So what went wrong? Perhaps Tucson is too healthy a community for fatty donuts. Perhaps the company misjudged demand. You wouldn't have known it from the night before opening day in December 2002, when people lined up all night (including a KOLD News 13 employee) looking to get their hands on the first dozen of dozens. Of course, The Lightning Round and KOLD News 13 will continue to follow this developing story...

UPDATE: The local Krispy Kreme franchise, Rigel Corp., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, closing all the Arizona stores and two in New Mexico. Obviously those "stability" issues ranged far beyond Tucson. However, Krispy Kreme's corporate offices are holding out hope the Tucson stores can reopen... but they're not saying when.

DROP THE DRINK. Heightened security measures following the bust of a terrorist plot ban you from carrying any liquids on board an airline, whether it's in your hand or your handbags. The chief concern is that even though the principal baddies are behind bars, a few suspects may still be out there, quite willing to blow up a British Airways jet with some explosive liquid in their shaving case, detonated by a remote-controlled iPod.

So much for bringing that Mentos-and-diet-Coke geyser kit on board.

We're glad the U.S. restrictions still allow MP3 players and laptops. In-flight magazines? You've gotta be kidding me. I stop after the SkyMall catalog.

The Lightning Round also wonders why checking liquids in your luggage is somehow safer than bringing them through the metal detector with you, where the kind TSA officials can shake out your toiletry toter, sniff a bottle and say, "You call this Herbal Essence?"

ANOTHER STRIKE. Most of those held in connection with the terror plot are Muslim, another step backward for moderate Muslims in America who are constantly scrabbling their way up the mountain of tolerance. USA Today reports the stress on Muslims is so bad, it's putting a serious dent in their collective mental health.

From the article:
In her new study of 611 adults, thought to be the largest ever done on Arab-Americans, they had much worse mental health than Americans overall. About half had symptoms of clinical depression, compared with 20% in an average U.S. group.
The article points out the anti-prejudice efforts of Islamic-American groups, but The Lightning Round insists more can be done.

We'll say it again for the record. American Muslims and the groups that speak for them need to do a better job of getting their message of peace out to the public. I will never forget a Muslim shopkeeper at Tucson's Foothills Mall in the days after 9/11. She wore traditional Muslim garb, but all over her cart, which normally carried jewelry, I spotted shirts saying "9/11: We Will Never Forget." On her long robe -- a red, white, and blue ribbon. You had no doubt where she stood.

AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH. It's not easy bein' green, not even for Al Gore. A USA Today editorial claims his lifestyle isn't as earth-friendly as you might think.

From the article:
Public records reveal that as Gore lectures Americans on excessive consumption, he and his wife Tipper live in two properties: a 10,000-square-foot, 20-room, eight-bathroom home in Nashville, and a 4,000-square-foot home in Arlington, Va. (He also has a third home in Carthage, Tenn.) For someone rallying the planet to pursue a path of extreme personal sacrifice, Gore requires little from himself...
And on the matter of paying a little extra on your utility bill to support wind energy:
[A]ccording to public records, there is no evidence that Gore has signed up to use green energy in either of his large residences. When contacted Wednesday, Gore's office confirmed as much but said the Gores were looking into making the switch at both homes.
Truth be told, it's hard for a lot of us to live green. I'm wondering when my apartment complex will move into the '90's with curbside recycling. Wind farms aren't even on the radar scope here. It's hard enough finding bio-diesel or E-85 fuel. We'll cut the former Veep a little slack this time, but we want to see propellers turning outside that mansion of his.

CRY, AND THE WALLS CRY WITH YOU. Scientists have come up with computer-generated, mood-sensitive artwork. It looks how you feel -- a step beyond Picasso's "blue period" -- by analyzing your expressions through a webcam.

From Reuters:
The painting changes from a dark, somber image to a brightly-coloured one as the viewer's expression alters from a scowl to a smile.
No word on whether mixed emotions will crash the system.

WE'VE GOT YOUR NUMBER. The Lightning Round follows up on our item from two weeks ago, when Floyd Landis first tested positive for too much testosterone. At the time, we theorized a ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone of 10:1 or higher in a urine sample was the stuff of the overwhelmingly buff superheroes or pro wrestlers. Turns out Landis' sample registered 11:1.

Don't make Floyd angry. You don't want to see him when he's angry...

Tuesday, August 8, 2006


Reuters just pulled a doctored photo of bomb-blasted Beirut and terminated its relationship with the phographer/hoax artist. The person who exposed this fraud, unfortunately, wasn't some Reuters photo editor but Charles Johnson, the same blogger who found problems with the memos aired on 60 Minutes II regarding George W. Bush's military service. I say "unfortunately," because this photo shouldn't have come within 50 light years of a wire service line.

The fakeness should've been obvious from the repeating patterns of smoke. I wonder how many pairs of eyes this photo went across before it hit the circuits. And I wonder if Reuters might terminate them too for failing to spot such a Photoshop farce.

It's not going to be very long before TV has its own version of this scandal, something way beyond electronically superimposing a reporter in front of the White House. I'm thinking Wag The Dog, where war footage is created in the CGI studio and beamed out to the rest of the world after some stringer slips it to a network guy claiming he just shot it in the West Bank.

CNN just created a new system for sharing viewer-submitted news footage. Nowhere on the front page do I see any warnings about the veracity of items. CNN editors review what comes down the pipe, I'm sure, but somebody somewhere is going to slip something phony past them, if only to make a point. It's been done in the print world. CNN has fallen victim to a fake news generator. And remember the infamous 2003 "Hunting For Bambi" hoax which sucked in KLAS-TV in Las Vegas and spread across the country through network feed services. And just last month, somebody faked a phone report.

When this scandal comes, I'm not going to be surprised. Saddened, yes. My job is hard enough without having to wonder whether our viewers think we're making it up.

Saturday, August 5, 2006

Phoning It In

Memo To Aspiring TV News Producers: Don't ever do this: fake a report over the phone.

Amazingly, all parties involved appear to be keeping their jobs -- for now.

Reel To Reel: The Night Listener

When truth is stranger than fiction.

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Rory Culkin
Rated: R
Red Flags: Strong Language, Mature Themes

Describing more than a snippet of plot of The Night Listener would drain the fuel from this film's suspense engine. It's the kind of film Alfred Hitchcock would have directed, where horror is suggested and not shown.

Williams plays Gabriel Noone, writer and public-radio storyteller struggling with the words coming out of his mouth. His HIV-positive partner has left him and dried up his creative juices. A friend lends him a manuscript from a sick 14-year-old (Culkin), who details a sickening childhood of sexual abuse, and Noone is entranced by the story. He soon gets a call from the boy, who happens to be a fan of Noone's show.

But something isn't right about the boy, his story, or his mother (Collette). That's where the suspense begins and my plot summary ends. Instead, let's focus on Robin Williams, who demonstrated the ability to play troubled, slightly creepy people with emotional depth in One Hour Photo and Insomnia. You realise this isn't a film about a boy; it's about a man consumed by a story, much like last year's Capote. Pursuit of the facts leads Noone onto paths that will either reward or destroy him.

Effective suspense plays upon us knowing nothing more than the principal character caught in the intrigue but allowing us to guess several ways out. The film handles this beautifully. We are allowed to absorb and think about the story as Noone encounters it, and the film does not send up needless flags or dramatic sidebars to underscore tension. Less is more. Silence is golden. And nothing sells like a good story.

Friday, August 4, 2006

The Lightning Round:
Dictators, Inebriators, The Songs Behind Alternators

Nothing keeps the press pressing like the good 'ol rumor and scandal machine. We'll play along to be good sports, but we must admit this: after four days of drenching rain over the weekend here in Tucson and another soggy mess today, we're too busy building an ark to float the boat of the endless news cycle. Closed lips sink ships.

CASTRO'S GASTRO. Is he dead or alive? Or just spouting propaganda by proxy? His inner circle says he's fine, but The Lightning Round asks this: why doesn't Fiedel Castro just show his ugly, bedridden, post-intestinal surgery mug and shut down the speculation shop?

One harkens back to the Evil Empire days of the former Soviet Union, when western authorities often counted the number of days since high-ranking Russian commies were seen in public. We also remember Soviet president Konstantin Chernenko, who was near death when he was dragged from his hospital bed to a ballot box for elections in 1985.

Castro claims stress brought it all on. We're hearin' you there. Holding to hard-line red dogma is getting tougher by the day. Still, we think it's to the point where Castro's stomach can't even stomach himself anymore. Or maybe it's all those cigars over the years.

MAD MEL. Ask Mel Gibson's friends about his alcoholic anti-semitic arrest outburst, and you'll hear them rationalize it as the liquor talking.

From the L.A. Times:
"Is he an anti-Semite? Absolutely not," [Jodie] Foster said. "But it's no secret that he has always fought a terrible battle with alcoholism. I just wish I had been there, that I had been able to say, 'Don't do it. Don't take that drink.' "
Even with copious apologies by the accused, we're still not convinced. Intoxicating beverages tend to bring out the junk people hide in their intellectual attics. Mel has tried to get out from the shadow of his father, a Holocaust denier. Passion Of The Christ stirred the pot until it made so much money the bucks lapped any bigotry. And now booze brings the old suspicions back.

Yours truly is truly afraid of what potent potables could do to him, which is why in social situations he stops at two Mike's Hard Lemonades, and then chases that with copious straight Coca-Cola. I find alcohol makes me more poetic than combative, but I'm not putting that to the test... especially behind the wheel.

CAR-EOKE. More than two-thirds of respondents in a Pew Research Center study admit belting out a few tunes behind the wheel.

The rest of us are glad for auto glass.

DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY. A national group is trying to put some weight behind Arizona's new law requiring the flag and Constitution be displayed in all public classrooms. They want the state's universities to require students take one U.S. history course in order to graduate.

Fair enough, but only if our lawmakers take one too. Call it remedial education. In all fairness, though, I remember only fragments of what I learned in my college American history course, the one that busted my rear end my Freshman year. I still have two full notebooks to remind me, ones that have come in handy on at least one of many excursions along the timeline.

Still, if it gives students a little more respect for the Constitutional rights, maybe it will be harder for future governments to take those rights away in the name of the War on Terror.

SPEAK YOUR MIND. When Katie Couric's rejiggered CBS Evening News debuts in September, it will include a regular opinion segment entitled "Free Speech," described as "a segment of opinion and commentary from a wide range of Americans."

From the CBS press release:
This original segment is intended to create a candid and robust dialogue among viewers about issues important to them, their families and the nation.
With rabblerouser radio, blogs, Fox News, The Daily Show and Mel Gibson, who suddenly decided we have a dearth of talking points?