Friday, September 28, 2007

Vote Early, Vote Often

This is unbelievable. KEYE-TV in Austin, Texas did this story in May about the voting practices of state lawmakers. What they found was highly unethical and textbook illegal. I'm amazed this story didn't make waves on Reddit or Digg until now.


This actually took place in 2002, but I'm only finding out about it now through TV Spy's Shoptalk. Julius Hunter of KMOV-TV in St. Louis had a Howard Beale moment when he delivered a report on the funeral of a 6-year-old murder/rape victim and tagged it with an editorial riff.

From the Riverfront Times:
The video portion of the report ended with ministers asking the congregation to keep Casey's family in their prayers and the assemblage singing "Amazing Grace."

Then it was Hunter, back in the KMOV-TV studio, seated behind the news desk and facing the camera. Hunter intoned: "Twenty-four-year-old Johnny Johnson is charged tonight with first-degree murder, kidnapping, armed criminal action and attempted forcible rape. He made his first court appearance yesterday. Police say Johnson has admitted guilt in this despicable, heinous crime. He's being held tonight without bond.

"And of course we cannot convict Johnson without a trial -- he's innocent until proven guilty -- but can I just say," as he put his right hand over his heart and then extended his arm outward, "editorializing, which I can't do -- whoever committed the crime, this horrible, terrible crime, may he rot in hell."
The remark drew an overwhelming response, overwhelmingly positive.
Predictably, the audience loved it. Calls and e-mails poured into the station the next day. The first day's e-mail log tallied 63 backing Hunter's damnation and three opposed. KMOV's switchboard operator finally stopped keeping track of the calls.
I interned at KMOV in my college days, and I can tell you Julius Hunter is not one to have people sticking their heads out the window and screaming. He has earned his reporting and anchoring stripes and exhibited nothing but professionalism and kindness to everybody -- interns, reporters, producers, whoever.

He also prefaced his comments clearly as an editorial. Viewers don't mind commentary when you're up front with them. Last year, KOLD News 13's Kris Pickel offered an editorial remark after a report on a hit-and-run accident that killed a young boy. The driver was still at large and remains at large to this day. Her remarks, paraphrased: "I would like to talk to our viewers for a moment. We debated over using the interview of [the victim's young] brother. But we did it hoping that whoever did this will find it in their soul to come forward." It didn't have quite the sock of Hunter's statement, but the sentiment was there. I don't recall the response, but I'm betting it didn't hurt Pickel's street cred.

If you editorialize sparingly, carefully, and clearly, the impact is beneficial. Viewers want to know you're human. And it was Pickel who once told me, "When you stop caring, it's time to leave."

Iran, Iran So Far Away

From the reception Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad garnered this week, Darth Vader must have breezed into town. But our analysis reveals Ahmadinejad is this gene-pool milkshake of Borat, Yakov Smirnoff, Saddam Hussein and Victor Newman from The Young And The Restless.

MAHMOUD'S MOUTH. Mr. Iranian President put on quite a show at Columbia University, where he revealed his country is gay-free.

From Reuters:
"In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said at Columbia University on Monday in response to a question about the recent execution of two gay men there.

"In Iran we do not have this phenomenon," he continued. "I do not know who has told you we have it."
Our crack Lightning Round correspondent noted these additional words from Ahmadinejad: "We do not have relations with those people -- homosexuals. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time, never."

LOST IN TRANSLATION. People are still arguing over whether Ahmadinejad actually said Israel "should be wiped off the map." It comes down to the problems of translating Persian.

From The New York Times:
"Ahmadinejad did not say he was going to wipe Israel off the map because no such idiom exists in Persian," remarked Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan and critic of American policy who has argued that the Iranian president was misquoted. "He did say he hoped its regime, i.e., a Jewish-Zionist state occupying Jerusalem, would collapse." Since Iran has not "attacked another country aggressively for over a century," he said in an e-mail exchange, "I smell the whiff of war propaganda."
On the other hand...
But translators in Tehran who work for the president's office and the foreign ministry disagree with [those who say he has been misquoted]. All official translations of Mr. Ahmadinejad's statement, including a description of it on his Web site (, refer to wiping Israel away. Sohrab Mahdavi, one of Iran's most prominent translators, and Siamak Namazi, managing director of a Tehran consulting firm, who is bilingual, both say "wipe off" or "wipe away" is more accurate than "vanish" because the Persian verb is active and transitive.
That should settle the argument. But our expert translators at The Lightning Round international bureau point out we can't even spell Moammar Kadafi's last name right (Quddafi? Kadafy? Gaddafi?). So they've offered some other possible translations for that problematic Persian phrase:

* "I-10 in Tucson is a trap."
* "I wave my arms and clap!"
* "If I am a tree, I'm a sap."

ABU DHABIWOOD. We may be infidels, but the Arab nations eat up our films. Warner Brothers will spend billions to develop an entertainment center in Abu Dhabi, including a theme park. Money will also flow into Arabic movies, TV shows and video games. In return, Abu Dhabi will help finance production of WB films.

From the Financial Times:
Most of Hollywood’s ticket sales are now generated outside the US. In an effort to develop foreign markets, Warner and other studios are investing in local productions in China, Russia, India and elsewhere.

“We’re anxious not just to be exporters of American films, but to be partners and support local films,” said Barry Meyer, Warner’s chief executive.
And it sure beats having to work with the UN.

GOING NATIVE. Nike unveiled the first-ever shoe designed especially for Native Americans. The Air Native N7 is only available to tribes.

From the AP:
Nike designers and researchers looked at the feet of more than 200 people from more than 70 tribes nationwide and found that in general, American Indians have a much wider and taller foot than the average shoe accommodates. The average shoe width of men and women measured was three width sizes larger than the standard Nike shoe.

As a result, the Air Native is wider with a larger toe box. The shoe has fewer seams for irritation and a thicker sock liner for comfort.
I'm a Native Missourian. Does that count?

THE MILK CHOCOLATE MELTS IN YOUR MOUTH, BLOWS UP IN YOUR HAND. British spy agency MI5 tells us about a grenade disguised as a chocolate bar.

From their website:
It's made of steel with a thin covering of real chocolate. When the piece of chocolate at the end is broken, a strip of canvas is pulled out. After seven seconds the bomb explodes.
You wonder how many oompa-loompas died perfecting this one.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


At last -- a hoedown in my town! We Make History heads for Tucson to capture the boot-shaking flavor of rural America, granting me the chance to pay tribute to my heartland homeland.

As recounted by Christopher "Huckleberry" Francis (with apologies and tribute to Mark Twain)
Photographic Assistance By Michael C.
(Click any photo for a larger view!)

Memories of Missouri send me off into a dreamlike reminiscence: growing up in suburban Kansas City, finishing high school outside of St. Louis, and mentally toiling in Columbia for a journalism degree. Summer thunderstorms putting an Arizona monsoon to shame. Snow up to my knees -- or higher. Journeys back and forth on I-70 between old and new homes, with at least three hours to study the alternating green-and-amber hills of the countryside, plowed and lined with grain or dotted with cattle. Grain elevators. Lonely county roads dubbed "HH" and "Z." A humble town overlooked by a tall white water tower painted with an American Flag and the words "High Hill." Twice per trip the family car would cross the "Mighty Mo," and my eyes would fixate upon its gentle flow and tree-lined banks.

So when plans for a barn dance emerge in Tucson, I face a fundamental question: cowboy or country boy? I choose the latter.

* * *

I'm walkin' up to the hall in my best straw hat, overalls and kerchief. An' everybody's takin' me for a farmer. But I'm righ' thinkin' about a famous fictional Missourian.

"I'm thinking Huckleberry Finn," I say -- or Huckleberry Francis.

Now our host is thinkin' of a famous Kentuckian in that fine white linen suit an' hat. "Lord Scott just doesn't fit," he explains to us, saying "Colonel" seems more fittin' seein' as he hears this rumor that a relative is gonna open all these restaurants and such.

Everybody's samplin' the refreshments off to the side, standin' aroun' in their best duds -- string ties, ranch shirts, tailcoats, Stetsons and boots. Pretty fancy stuff, and all like that. But what I can' figure out is why everybody's so quiet. I know we gotta a lotta new faces, and maybe they're a bit shy, or maybe that's some doggone good punch. Anyway, no way are we gonna pull off one of these hoe-downs with everybody actin' like they're in church... oh that's right... they are in a church.

But Colonel Scott, he's still a little puzzled about everybody.

I try my best to offer some sorta explanation, real diplomat-like. "We are filled with anticipation of the joy yet to come."

Well, the Colonel thinks we oughta loosen our tongues and introduce ourselves, and he gets me to start off. Now dog my cats if I can remember more than a few names, but I can at least remember my own. So I start talkin' and it's kinda like when you see a wagon settin' off, the way it roll forward like and it gets faster. And then this kindly lady from Tucson and her family come in, and she starts talkin' and it's like this wind blowing across the fields, you know, how everybody starts smilin' and talkin' and such.

So we starts dancin', and the Colonel yells out "Give us air!" He and Lady Scott wave to part everybody in the crowd, beginning the promenade like we always do, and we got us some fine music from the Privytippers! I don't have to go very far to find my first partner. She's this young cowgirl who doesn't mind it if I gallop like a pony. So we go around and around and into a circle, in and out like that, with a hoot and a holler -- "Yee-haw!" Now this is how it's s'pposted to work. I figure them old Missourians shouted "yee-haw" if they were close enough to Kansas.

Next we do this mixer, and the kindly Miss Becky tells us, "Don't get to attached to that partner." And sure 'nuff, we mix everybody up. The Texas ranchers are over here next to the Arizona cowhands, and the prairie ladies are over there with the townsfolk. And I look real careful and I see this glint, like from a sheriff's star. I see there's this young deputy who must've moseyed up from Tombstone. And I'll be jiggered if it he, his sister and his mother ain't all packin' pistols. I get to thinkin' the Town Too Tough To Die is like the Town Too Quick To Draw. Oh golly gosh, what are they gonna do if I promenade a lady with the wrong arm in front?

You know my friend Huck Finn lived in a rain barrel, poor soul. So you gotta understand a few Missouri downpours likely soaked through his hat into the windmills of his mind. Well, I know what it feel like when your head don't work during the first line dance. I keep having to remember to swing my partner with my right hand -- my right hand.

I say, "I'll get it." I say, "I'll remember." He ain't here, but I keep hearing this Confederate Sergeant friend of mine, an' his voice keeps bouncin' around my skull: "YOUR OTHER RIGHT! JUST LIKE YOUR MAMA TAUGHT YOU!"

Doggone it, I keep using my right hand to keep my hat on. As soon as I put it back on my head, it wants off like a stubborn Missouri mule. But I'm real lucky 'cause my partner has more patience than any cowgirl I know.

"Whatever!" she laughs, and we keep on dancin'.

Now I gotta ask, is this a barn dance or a barn burner? You see, it got all hot after just two dances, and the ladies were fannin' themselves and the gents were wavin' their hats in front of their faces. So when we had the first break, that punch and water was flowin' like the rapids of the Niangua River. I could sure use that rain barrel right 'bout now.

So our host was able to get the air fixed, but it's gon' take awhile in such a big place. But he's makin' everybody happy: "The temperature has dropped three degrees!"

This one fine young lady, she teaches me a box step waltz. Now I'm thinkin' I already knows it, but she shows me I ain't been doin' it right all this time. It's a lot more fancy than what I figure to be a box step, and when I look at my feet on the floor, it don' look like no box at all. But that lady, she's such a good dancer. I'm so lucky she'd learn a boy like me to dance.

We all place ourselves for a quadrille, what them modern folk call a square dance. And now things are gettin' a mite bit complicated. Couple number one: joins up with couple number three, circle left and right, swing your opposite, swing your partner, promenade, and all like that. Now, go through it again with couple number two, and on and on.

That kindly lady I know from Tucson is chucklin' a little nervous. But 'ol Huck has seen worse.

"We can do this!" I tell her. "We'll be just fine!"

And she replies, "Your faith is boundless!"

So it all plays out like it should, more or less, with a few messed up swings and blown calls -- you gotta listen to the call now, y'hear? Not too shabby. How 'bout another? Second gent, swing the third lady. Oh dog my cats, that's the second lady. I just done messed up this square.

"Bird in a cage, fly right in!" Miss Becky calls as we join hands and circle 'round a lady in the center. She does this happy little jig, like.

"Bird flies out, crow flies in!"

Now it's my turn, and there's all these hands around me. So I only gets to jig for a few little moments. But you oughta see my smile, 'cos I just done conquered this horrible old memory.

You see, I remember the last time I stood in the middle of a circle during a square dance. It musta been sixth grade gym class. I was this odd fella out in a dance they called "Ninepin." Now they done taught it on a day I was either sick or playin' hooky or somethin'. So there's this one part, where there's nine boys and eight girls, and they tell you to swing, and you're suppost'a swing any girl you could find. Only I didn' know that, and so all the other boys got themselves a girl and I done got nothin'. I was smack dab in the middle'a that circle without a pretty girl, and they were all dancing around me and laughin' and teasin' me, and I'm just standin' there crying 'cause I don't know what to do. I think that there had to be one of the saddest days of my life.

But anyhow, I'm all happy now and everybody's laughing with me, even if it took all those years. Yeeeee-haw and Hallelujah!

We do all these set dances, and I get all these pretty ladies to dance with me. But I'm never gonna forget the smile on this lady from Sierra Vista. She got a smile as wide as the Missouri River. But I gotta be honest, I might never'a seen she was wantin' to dance had her friend not pointed to her from behind her back. That's kinda sneaky, ain't it? I betcha' ol Tom Sawyer never danced with as many fine belles. Of course, he was too busy worryin' about Miss Becky Thatcher.

Hey Tom! You ain't never done the cookie dance, have ya? So here we go, sittin' in three chairs and passin' them cookie tins to one lady and waltzin' off with the other. It's real easy if there's a boy on one side of you. Otherwise, you gotta do what you haveta. We're just gettin' warmed up when the band stops playin.'

Everybody's right confused. I shout, "Encore, Encore!" and everybody starts shoutin' too. And bless their hearts, th' Privytippers give us a whole mess more.

We're gettin' along really well, but I keep wonderin' about this one dance, because I asked Colonel Scott if we were gonna do a Virginia Reel. And I forget exactly what he said, but I know he's got somethin' cookin.

"Ladies and gentlemen, find your partners for the Arizona Reel!"

He calls it from the stage, and 'cos there's enough people who know it, he doesn't have to teach us anything. Now I heard 'bout this. The way it goes is first corners honor each other and then second corners, do the same. And these corners do all these turns, and do-si-dos. But dog my cats if the Colonel doesn't start mixin' them steps up. I guess that's the Arizona part.

"And in Arizona we mix it up," he says.

Yeah, you right I mix it up. I mix up the reeling part. You see there's these ladies in the line left of me, and these ladies to the right, too, 'cos all these ladies are dancin' together. I don' have no idea why there aren't gents where the ladies are, but anyhow, I start swingin' the wrong line. But somehow I gets through it, and I keep wishing the Privvytippers will keep on playin' so I can do it again right.

But that Colonel, he's got some sly ideas.

"Swing your partners!"

And we do... and suddenly...

"Every man for himself! Free for all!"

All the lines break up and everybody starts jiggin' and twirlin', swinging and spinnin' around and promenading each other across the entire floor. It's on now! It's a hoe-down! Yeeee-haw!

We only got time for one more mixer before that last waltz.

"I learned a box step," I say to my partner, "but I don't think I want to try it out."

But nobody ever gets all uptight when I keep it real simple like. And that's really something, 'cos I can see all the young frontier boys and girls trotting across the floor like they in a St. Louis ballroom.

I reckon' it's time I turn my attention back to the pretty one in front'a me, I think. Remember to smile real nice for the lady. Make sure your hat's on tight.

See more memories from this historic first in Tucson!

NEXT: Dance & Dance Ability

Friday, September 21, 2007

Freshly Squeezed Constitution

We're not ones to lay guilt trips, but while you chugged down glass after glass of O.J. coverage this week, you probably ignored how your senators were trying to take away an asterisk next to the principle of habeas corpus.

GUANTANAMO DECAY (OR, ROT IN CAMP). The Senate narrowly defeated a measure that would have given "enemy combatants" the right to go before a judge and challenge why they're being held, a right that every accused criminal in the U.S. already has.

Before you call 911 to report an Al-Qaida sympathizer, hear this one out. This measure would not guarantee all combatants that go before a judge get out of detention. It merely gives them the right to ask. A court can still deny the release of a prisoner if the government produces evidence to justify it.

The Constitution is clear about this:
"The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it."
We at your Lightning Round understand the "public safety" principle. But we worry the feds are stretching the "rebellion or invasion" clause too far. Hey, if even The Juice can get a bail hearing, why not everybody?

WHAT'S THAT SMELL? A meteorite crash in Peru led to dozens of people falling mysteriously ill. Experts disagree on what's causing the sickness -- gas from the meteorite or something else.

From the Daily Mail:
But expert Ursula Marvin cast doubt on the theory, saying: "It wouldn't be the meteorite itself, but the dust it raises."

A meteorite "wouldn't get much gas out of the earth," said Ms Marvin, who has studied them since 1961 at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Massachusetts. "It's a very superficial thing."
The BBC raises another possibility:
Symptoms could well be caused in part by what is known as a Mass Sociogenic Illness (MSI).

There are countless examples of this through history and up to the present day.

Amid fears of a gas leak late last year for instance, dozens of British pupils were taken to hospital with nausea and other symptoms. However no gas or environmental cause was found, and doctors could establish nothing wrong with the children. It was ascribed to mass hysteria.

Meanwhile, the Belgian Coke scare of 1999 - when many said they fell sick after drinking contaminated cans - was also said to be an example of MSI when laboratory analysis showed levels of contamination were not high enough to cause any of the illnesses reported.
So that may explain the illness. But, phew... somebody go get a whole bunch of Glade sticks.

JOHN THE BAPTIST. Arizona senator and presidential candidate John McCain is straddling two Christian denominations: Baptist and Episcopal. He has attended a Baptist church in Phoenix for more than a decade, even though he grew up Episcopalian.

From the AP:
In a June interview with McClatchy Newspapers, the senator said his wife and two of their children have been baptized in the Arizona Baptist church, but he had not. "I didn't find it necessary to do so for my spiritual needs," he said.

He told McClatchy he found the Baptist church more fulfilling than the Episcopalian church, but still referred to himself as an Episcopalian.

The Associated Press asked McCain on Saturday how his Episcopal faith plays a role in his campaign and life. McCain grew up Episcopalian and attended an Episcopal high school in Alexandria, Va.

"It plays a role in my life. By the way, I'm not Episcopalian. I'm Baptist," McCain said. "Do I advertise my faith? Do I talk about it all the time? No."
Later, Sen. McCain said what's important is that he's a Christian. This however, may not satisfy the faithful, whatever denomination they may be: Baptist, Episcopalian... or Republican.

Noted one commenter on the Rum, Romanism and Rebellion blog, "McCain will be the tooth fairy if he thinks it's what you want him to be." Your Lightning Round editor is not as cynical, having recently re-affirmed his faith in a non-denominational church after growing up Presbyterian.

But will McCain remain a Baptist? Or will his flexibility take him in yet another spiritual direction? Our office conspiracy theorist sees LDS missionaries deployed by Mitt Romney headed for McCain headquarters...

HEIL, NO! A federal judge has upheld the right of two New Jersey students to wear buttons featuring young Nazis to protest a school uniform policy.

From the AP:
The buttons bear the words "no school uniforms" with a slash through them superimposed on a photo of young boys wearing identical shirts and neckerchiefs. There are no swastikas visible on the buttons, but the parties agreed that they depict members of Hitler youth.
The students will not be allowed to pass the buttons out at school. However, the court said nothing about the arm salute.

THINK PINK. And now, fashion with class. When some twerps harassed a freshman student at a Cambridge, Nova Scotia school for wearing a pink shirt, two seniors decided to make pink the new black.

From The
They used the Internet to encourage people to wear pink and bought 75 pink tank tops for male students to wear. They handed out the shirts in the lobby before class last Friday — even the bullied student had one.

"I made sure there was a shirt for him," [Senior] David [Shepard] said.

They also brought a pink basketball to school as well as pink material for headbands and arm bands. David and Travis [Price] figure about half the school’s 830 students wore pink.

It was hard to miss the mass of students in pink milling about in the lobby, especially for the group that had harassed the new Grade 9 student.

"The bullies got angry," said Travis. "One guy was throwing chairs (in the cafeteria). We’re glad we got the response we wanted."
And your Lightning Round is glad too, for proving leadership, a little innovation, and a dose imagination can work glorious wonders.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Rather Litigious

Dan Rather is suing his old network for $70 million. He claims CBS made him a "scapegoat" for the flawed 60 Minutes report on President Bush's military service in Texas Air National Guard.

From the New York Times:
Mr. Rather, 75, asserts that the network violated his contract by giving him insufficient airtime on “60 Minutes” after forcing him to step down as anchor of the “CBS Evening News” in March 2005. He also contends that the network committed fraud by commissioning a “biased” and incomplete investigation of the flawed Guard broadcast and, in the process, “seriously damaged his reputation.”
The timing of the lawsuit perplexes me. If Rather thought CBS was breaching his contract, why did he wait more than a year after he left to go to court? A friend of mine hypothesizes Rather is suing now to mess with the GOP in the presidential campaign, bringing out the disputed documents on George W. Bush's service once again.

From an AP report:
Rather claimed in the suit that his departure was ultimately caused by Viacom Chairman [Sumner] Redstone, who found it best for the company to curry favor with the Bush administration by damaging Rather. An "enraged" Redstone said the newsman and anyone associated with him had to go, according to the lawsuit.
I remind you of this: we still don't know if the documents are forgeries -- only that they can't be authenticated. And if they are fake, we don't know who faked them. I'm disappointed with the failure of any investigation, inside or outside CBS, to get to the bottom of this. Rather maintains the story was true, but he also claims he was used:

From the Times:
By his own rendering, Mr. Rather was little more than a narrator of the disputed broadcast, which was shown on Sept. 8, 2004, on the midweek edition of “60 Minutes” and which purported to offer new evidence of preferential treatment given to Mr. Bush when he was a lieutenant in the Air National Guard.

Instead of directly vetting the script he would read for the Guard segment, Mr. Rather says, he acceded to pressure from [former CBS News President Andrew] Heyward to focus instead on his reporting from Florida on Hurricane Frances, and on Bill Clinton’s heart surgery.

Mr. Rather says in the filing that he allowed himself to be reduced to little more than a patsy in the furor that followed, after CBS — and later the outside panel it commissioned — concluded that the report was based on documents that could not be authenticated. Under pressure, Mr. Rather says, he delivered a public apology on his newscast on Sept. 20, 2004 — written not by him but by a CBS corporate publicist — “despite his own personal feelings that no public apology from him was warranted.”
That's the risk you take when you read copy constructed by others, in this case ex-CBS producer Mary Mapes. I'm still waiting to hear if she will stand in Dan's corner. She also claimed she was a scapegoat. But which goat has the longer horns -- the producer who pushed a flawed story or the anchor who read it?

My guess is Rather waited until now to avoid casting a shadow over his successor, Katie Couric, or his interim replacement, Bob Schieffer. We now know Couric is more than capable of casting her own shadows. I'm sure Rather also heard about the Eye's payoff to Don Imus, hinted to be at least $20 million but downplayed by network officials. You can't blame him for wanting a taste of legally-approved hush money.

What Gunga Dan expects to gain from this remains a mystery, since no amount of money will buy back a reputation. He's still working, anchoring a show on HDnet, albeit for a minuscule audience and a lot less cash. Maybe it's just good 'ol revenge. But it really doesn't matter. Even though I was disgusted with the way CBS treated him in the final months of his employment there, he would not be in this position had he simply used his reporter instinct and demanded to have more of a hand in what came out of his mouth.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

MSgt. Behling Vs. PODS, Continued...

Master Sergeant Bradley Behling e-mailed me yesterday with an update on his legal fight against PODS, after they mistakenly sold all his belongings from a storage container while he was serving in Iraq for only $300, according to a court document.

As much as I would like to share his e-mail with you, he has kindly and understandably asked me not to, since he is still in ongoing legal negotiations with PODS. But here are some new developments and insights:

* MSgt. Behling tells me PODS has improved its offer to settle the case. I will not tell you the specifics because settlement negotiations are a game of chess. Any disclosure of an offer could be construed as a breach of good faith, or jeopardize anything already on the table.

* This is not a case of jackpot justice. MSgt. Behling tells me he is not trying to win the "lawsuit lottery," and his court complaint (a public document which he generously provided to me) bears this out. It does not seek a specific amount of money, but rather damages "in excess of $10,000" for each of the seven claims he makes against PODS plus punitive damages and court costs. I calculate the total claim at more than $100,000. That is well above the $64,000 estimated value of his belongings, but way below the $54 million claimed by a Washington, D.C. judge against a dry cleaner who lost his pants.

* This ordeal has created considerable turmoil in MSgt. Behling's life, and I know his children and family are caught in the halo of the strife. He has replaced what he can, but he tells me most of his wardrobe must still be repurchased, and you can imagine the financial strain he is bearing. Still, through it all, he is demonstrating the strength and honor of an effective leader. I am certain he will pull through this with his character intact.

His list of awards and commendations should serve as proof:
Bronze Star
Meritorious Service Medal (1 Oak Leaf Cluster-OLC)
AF Commendation Medal (1 OLC)
AF Achievement Medal (1 OLC)
AF Outstanding Unit Award (1 OLC)
AF Organizational Excellent Award (2 OLC)
AF Good Conduct Medal (5 OLC)
National Defense Service Medal (1 device)
Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal
Southwest Asia Service Medal
Iraq Campaign Ribbon
Global War on Terrorism Service Medal
Air Force Expeditionary Service Ribbon w/Gold border
Distinguished Graduate Airman Leadership School Class 96-D
Air Base Group Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) of the Quarter 1999
DET 3 AFFTC Wing Superior Team of the Year 2001
Air Base Group NCO of the Quarter 2002
Air Base Group NCO of the Quarter 2003
Distinguished Graduate Non Commissioned Officers Academy Class 03-7
DET 3 AFFTC Wing NCO of the Quarter 2003
Services NCO of the Year 2003
Mission Support Group NCO of the Year 2003
DET 3 AFFTC Wing NCO of the Year 2003
99th Security Forces Group 1st Sgt of the Year 2006

* I find parts of PODS' legal answer curious. If I read the court document correctly, they deny the "allegation" laid out in MSgt. Behling's complaint that PODS "treats your PODS containers with care and respect," and other statements regarding customer care. Yet I clearly found those statements on their website.

More than anything, this case raises a fundamental question: What does it really mean for us when we say, "We Support Our Troops?" I understand PODS has procedures for handling loss and protecting against fraudulent claims. They do not deny making a mistake. But given the enormity of this mistake and its impact, and the fact that it happened to somebody who is sacrificing for this country, I expect better. We all should.

Is PODS also willing to sacrifice, if it means swallowing a little corporate pride or taking a dent in the profit column? I am confident the company would not have gone broke by simply paying MSgt. Behling the $64,000 he computed. And thinking about it from the perspective of a PR person, it simply would have made good business sense. It would have sent a powerful message about corporate accountability. It is so easy for us to slap magnetic ribbons on the back of our cars. But do our actions back that up?

I'm no Vegas oddsmaker, but I'm willing to bet PODS racks up a legal bill of at least $64,000 in defending this lawsuit, if it makes it into a courtroom. It's sad to see that money go to lawyers when it could have gone to helping putting MSgt. Behling back on his feet.

Please continue to keep him in your prayers. FrancisPage will continue to follow developments in this story and bring you the latest.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Reel To Reel: The Brave One

Is happiness really a warm gun?

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Jodie Foster
Rated: R
Red Flags: Graphic Gunplay, Gunshots and Bloodletting, Language, Brief Sex

The Brave One is not a revenge film. It's a justice film that uses revenge as its implementation, which puts it more in line with Taxi Driver than Death Wish. Revenge films don't brood on moral ambiguity or self-identity. They kill people and like it.

It's a neat coincidence finding Jodie Foster in a movie that conjures up her Scorsese past while avoiding more than a touch of Charles Bronson. She plays Erica Bain, a public-radio essayist who walks around New York City with a microphone collecting sounds and thoughts which she disperses a la Gabriel Noone in The Night Listener. She's in a stable relationship with her boyfriend until they take an after-dark walk in Central Park and run into a pair of thugs who beat them senseless. Erica survives, but her boyfriend doesn't.

She comes out of a coma into a state of fear. She's unable to walk without thinking the next person on the street may be out to mug her. The police make no progress on finding the attackers, and Erica is treated like a patient in a waiting room at the station house. She decides to buy a handgun -- illegally, because she doesn't see herself surviving a waiting period -- with no firearms training. While grabbing a soda in a corner market, she gets caught in the middle of a stick-up and guns down an armed robber before he shoots her. From there, Erica realizes she is a different person, but who? She is a vigilante and still a victim. She guns down a couple of more thugs on the subway who try to rob her, but her demeanor is like a tiger ready to pounce. More bodies drop.

Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard) follows the string of killings with the smarts only one homicide gumshoe is allowed to have at a time in cop movies. Yet the prime suspect is right in front of him, having seen Erica when she was in the hospital and heard her on the radio. The two draw into a relationship of mutual anxiety and frustration, both of them ticked off at what police can't do or aren't doing in what Bain calls "the safest big city in the world." Much of the movie's tension hangs on whether Mercer will figure out the truth about Bain, or whether Bain will mess up and leave the clue Mercer needs to jail her.

A lot of people are going to tell you Foster's character has blood lust. I will tell you she is the reluctant assassin, somebody who lives two lives in one body and can't reconcile them. Consider carefully how she reacts after each homicide. Here is a soft-spoken radio companion capable of murder, but only because she needs to banish the memories of her own helplessness, fight her fear, and re-establish some sense of justice in the world. Killing is not a thrill for her, it's a coping mechanism. Mercer is a cop who's worked with the system long enough to know all the loopholes and technicalities, and he knows when he can exploit a few of them.

Homicide is justifiable under the law when lives are put in danger. What counts as danger, however, is redefinable. Nearly every one of Bain's killings could be argued as self-defense by a competent lawyer. I doubt a jury would convict her. A jury refused to convict NYC subway vigilante Bernard Goetz on murder charges, after all. But if shooting people who try to kill us is supposed to make us feel safer or more secure, this film should erase those thoughts.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Sergeant Behling's Story

In this week's edition of The Lightning Round I told you about Air Force Sgt. Bradley Behling, who found PODS mistakenly sold all his stored stuff out from under him. KVVU-TV in Las Vegas shared his story, and I am impressed with Sgt. Behling's calm and reasoned determination in light of such a huge mess-up and PODS' corporate red tape.

His story was posted to SimHQ, a place for simulation game enthusiasts. Sgt. Behling responded with a posting of his own, which I have every reason to believe is legit. Read it and you see a portrait of a upstanding serviceman, one we should all be proud of, and one I am thankful is serving this nation. He lays out the entire story, but what struck me were these last sentences:
I returned from war and was awarded the Bronze Star for my actions in a combat zone. I currently possess a Top Secret security clearance making me part of an elite few people in the Air Force -- one does not get that by lying or by being an opportunist. I am only asking for what I lost. I can provide you with affidavits from my ex-wife, friends, supervisors, commanders, or whom ever you wish, but I can not let this hang over my head for another 12-18 months. Given the same set of circumstances I doubt that few people would have been as patient. I just can not continue to operate in the state of financial limbo that PODS has forced upon me. My job, my personal life, and the financial future of my family are suffering as a result of this and I can no longer tolerate any delay ... I was fiscally sound before I deployed and looking forward to retiring from the military in the next few years. Now my finances are in ruin, everyday brings more finance charges, and interest on bills I should never have had in the first place. This process has scarred me for life, and the $65,000 I would have been willing to settle for in January of this last year has grown because of those interest charges, and the lawyer I must now pay.
It absolutely floors me that Sgt. Behling has to pay for a lawyer. You would think some legal eagle would have the decency to take this case on pro bono. At the very least, it's a way of thanking our servicemen. Sgt. Behling has willingly put his life on the line for us in a war that not many people want anymore. That ought to mean something.

Sgt. Behling, a salute from a re-enactor soldier may be worth nothing militarily, but I'm saluting you. You deserve better. I pray you get it... along with your stuff.

Friday, September 14, 2007

We Detect A Cover-Up

Your Lightning Round editor-in-chief enjoys flying. He enjoys it even more given how sparsely he has the opportunity to head into the clouds. Heck, he even enjoys the SkyMall catalog. So that leaves us puzzled at why skimpy outfits are so much of a distraction when there's so much going on out the window.

UNFRIENDLY SKIES. Two women now say Southwest airlines forced them to adjust their attire, both of them flying through Tucson at one point.

From the AP:
Setara Qassim said a flight attendant confronted her during the trip from Tucson to Burbank, Calif., and asked whether she had a sweater to go over her green halter-style dress.

Qassim, 21, told KNBC-TV in Los Angeles that she was forced to wrap a blanket around herself for the rest of the flight. She complained that if Southwest wants passengers to dress a certain way, it should publish a dress code.
This follows the case of Kyla Ebbert, who says a Southwest employee confronted her about her clothes. She was forced to pull her skirt lower and her top higher.

AP writer David Koenig adds some interesting irony:
Southwest — which dressed its stewardesses in hot pants and called itself "the love airline" back in the 1970s — relies on employees to decide whether a passenger's attire may offend other customers, [spokesman Chris] Mainz said.
You have to wonder what they would say about a lad in a three-cornered hat. But seriously, your Lightning Round editor recalls a flight to St. Louis from Texas a few years back around Christmas time, where a man walked on and off the plane wearing a dalmatian costume. No one confronted him to my knowledge, leaving him free to fly, spots and all.
Lynda White, who teaches etiquette classes and calls herself "The First Lady of Manners," said many young people have gotten lax on what to wear and how to act — possibly influenced by Hollywood stars.

She recommends "business-casual" outfits for the plane because you might be seated next to a potential employer or business contact.
But what if you're seated next to a guy in a dog suit?

GONE. You serve your country in Iraq. You lay your life on the line. You come home, safe and alive, expecting to find your stuff where you left it. But somebody's sold it all.

That's why an Air Force sergeant stationed near Las Vegas is suing PODS storage. It mistakenly auctioned off his storage bin.

Years of military decorations that are gone, that are irreplaceable," [Sgt.] Bradley [Behling] said. "You can't get those back. Pictures of my kids, high school diplomas, and coin collection I collected as a kid until then -- I can't afford to replace them now."
PODS tried to settle with Sgt. Behling. They didn't say for how much, but it's a smart bet it was a lot less than the $64,000 Behling claimed after he itemized his possessions.
"We have questioned that because of the size of the container, not the content in it," Kevin Downs, a company manager, said. "It's not very feasible to fit that much cubic feet of items that he listed."

Downs said the company's insurance needs more proof to validate such a large payoff.

"We've asked Bradley to furnish us receipts, he's unable to do so," he said. "He said he had to go out to re-purchase items. We've asked him to provide us with those receipts, he's been unable to do so."
PODS wants paperwork. Fair enough. But Sgt. Behling says they were in the pod. And a question bugs us -- if PODS auctioned his stuff off, didn't somebody keep track of what was sold? Or was it just hocked out like a garage sale, cast to the public with no traceability?

So much for supporting the troops...

HEAD CASE. A study from a New York University professor says conservatives' and liberals' brains work differently.

From the Chicago Tribune:
In a study likely to raise the hackles of some conservatives, psychologist David Amodio and others found that a specific region of the brain's cortex is more sensitive in people who consider themselves liberals than in self-declared conservatives.

The brain region in question helps people shift gears when their usual response would be inappropriate, supporting the notion that liberals are more flexible in their thinking.
Already, you can hear the conservatives grumbling and snarling. But wait, let's look at the other side of the aisle:
Linda Skitka, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said it's possible that Amodio's liberals appeared more flexible than his conservatives because the population was skewed.

"We're not a very liberal country," she said. "We're more likely to find extreme conservatives in the U.S. than extreme liberals."

Skitka said there's ample evidence that ideologues on the far left can also be uptight.

"Extreme conservatives could be really rigid," she said. "Moderates should be pretty flexible. But if we go all the way to the left, they may look a lot like the extreme right -- rigid in their ideas."
Rigidly liberal? Behold the birth of a new oxymoron. Righties, please control your snickering. Please.

GREENHOUSE GAS. It's interesting to watch activists occasionally eat their own, or their neighbors, or Al Gore. And eating is exactly the problem here. PETA is going after the former veep.

From the Telegraph:
Citing United Nations research that the meat industry is worse for the environment than driving and flying, animal rights groups are directing a campaign at the former American vice-president's diet.

When he delivers a lecture on global warming in Denver next month, protesters will display billboards bearing a cartoon image of Mr Gore eating a drumstick and the message: "Too chicken to go vegetarian? Meat is the No 1 cause of global warming".
We at your Lightning Round note that PETA has stunk as a credible protest group for the last few years and is showing no signs of improvement. But still, it's interesting to watch.

GET 'EM YOUNG. Starbucks says it doesn't market to kids. And yet, too many kids are coming in with the grown-ups for them to ignore.

But [Starbucks spokesman Brandon] Borrman said Seattle-based Starbucks is considering whether to add new drinks or drink sizes that better meet the needs of kids or teens.

Right now, it only lists limited kids’ items, such as milk and hot chocolate, in a smaller size, while teenagers have the choice of adult-sized, and often heavily caffeinated, beverages. A 16-ounce Caramel Frappucino coffee drink, for example, has nearly three times the caffeine as a 12-ounce can of regular Coke or Pepsi.
We've warned you about sugar and kids. No need to add to the problem.

THE GAME WHERE NOBODY CAME. If the Washington Nationals played the Florida Marlins, and nobody saw it, did it really happen? We have our doubts after a Wednesday game where only a few hundred people dotted Dolphin Stadium in Miami.

From the Washington Post:
"It looked, actually, like an extended spring game," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said about the crowd at the stadium, which seats 75,000 fans for football games. "It was so sad, but we still got to play the game."
But given the basement status of both teams and the sparse attendance, you wonder whether somebody would've rather said to the crowds, "Hey, let's skip the game and hit the bar already!"

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Katie, Katie

After busting her behind in Iraq, Katie Couric hit the ratings basement again last week, drawing 5.5 million viewers, well behind Charlie Gibson on ABC, who drew 7.8 million.

CBS News President Sean McManus seems to be resigned to it all, according to the AP:
"We never expected it to do well in the ratings and it didn't," McManus said. "We knew that this was a long-term commitment to Katie and the show and we really felt it was important to establish our reporting there."
As if Lara Logan hadn't done that already, or somehow was incapable of doing so.

I feel for the CBS newsroom employees. The week in Iraq drew generally kind reviews, and a bunch of people slaved to pull it off, but people weren't watching -- or not enough people, we should say. Remember this: even on Katie's worst night, she's still beating Bill O'Reilly's numbers.

So why aren't people tuning in to Katie? My reasons remain unchanged from my previous analysis about her talents being misappropriated. I also maintain bailing out on her at this point would be a catastrophic mistake, one with no reward whatsoever except to smirking media critics, bash-bloggers and Katie-haters.

But the suits at Black Rock have to be shaking their heads and kneading their fingers. A light-news approach bombed. A hard-news expedition to Iraq tanked. What in the heck is it gonna take for us to get within a comfortable distance of Brian Williams and Gibson?

Time, perhaps. I have heard the argument that Dan Rather spent more than two decades wrecking CBS News. But I'm sure the CBS suits don't want to wait two decades more.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Craig's List Of Excuses

Sen. Larry Craig filed papers today to withdraw his guilty plea. Just check out some of his reasoning, as offered by the AP:
In a "state of intense anxiety" following his arrest, Craig "felt compelled to grasp the lifeline offered to him by the police officer" and plead guilty to the disorderly conduct charge in hopes the matter would not be made public, said the court papers filed in Hennepin County District Court.

The filing said Craig panicked and accepted the plea rather than seeking the advice of an attorney. As a result, Craig's guilty plea was not "knowingly and understandingly made," and the evidence against him insufficient to support the plea, the papers said.
So he didn't know what he was doing, and he didn't consult a lawyer. I ask, do you want somebody like this representing you in Congress?
Craig's three-page guilty plea includes acknowledgments that, "I understand that the court will not accept a plea of guilty from anyone who claims to be innocent," "I now make no claim that I am innocent...," and, "I did the following: Engaged in conduct which I knew or should have known tended to arouse alarm or resentment...." Craig signed the bottom of each page.
He made the plea. He signed the plea. It's a done deal. Obviously Sen. Craig does not realize he's working outside the Senate chamber, where there is no Motion To Reconsider to lay upon the table.
Motions to withdraw a guilty plea are usually heard by the same judge who heard the original case, usually at least two weeks after they're requested, court officials have said.
Somewhere, I can hear that judge laughing.

Reel To Reel: 3:10 To Yuma

It's about time for a good Western.

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Russell Crowe, Christian Bale
Rated: R
Red Flags: Graphic Gunslinging, Some Language

3:10 To Yuma fits neatly into that line of thought-provoking Westerns that started with Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. It offers some slice of concience hyphenated by gunslinging, although Westerns by definition are morality plays pitting good guys against bad guys. All that's really changed is the nuance.

This remake of the 1957 Glenn Ford film opens with Bale as Dan Evans, a struggling Arizona cattle rancher with a leg lost to the Civil War. He stumbles upon an armored stagecoach robbery led by notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Crowe). Wade is that enigma of a classic bad guy, somebody who enjoys sketching and reading the Bible, a person who's too smart to be wasting his life in villainy. Wade's gang is in the dictionary next to "ruthless," killing the armed guards, shooting a Pinkerton in the gut, and taking the money. However, it's not in Wade's nature to kill Evans, especially in front of his sons, so he takes their horses instead. Evans gets the wounded Pinkerton guard back to a vet in Bisbee -- which at this time is a freckle of the town Arizonans would grow to love. After alerting the law, Wade is captured inside a saloon without his gang or a fight.

The Southern Pacific Railroad, whose payroll the Wade gang lifted, intends to take him on a long ride to a town named Contention, and put him on the 3:10 train to Yuma, presumably for a quick trial and a hanging. But they need more men and good shots. Evans offers to help transport Wade for $200, money he needs to save his farm. The journey to Contention tests both men's wills, exposing what scruples they have like cards on the table.

3:10 To Yuma is essentially a psycho-Western, albeit one with a couple of great gunfights. The picture reminds me a lot of 2003's Open Range, still one of the best and most underrated Westerns ever. That film gave us beautiful cinematography and punchy dialogue. This one gives us more grit and insight. Trying to describe it here is futile. Just see it for yourself.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Attention, Additives, And Attractiveness

We've all known for years about sugar's tendency to over-invigorate our youth. Now comes word of what else may have the wee ones bouncing off walls.

YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT. If the kids are rambunctious and devoid of attention, it may be food additives, according to British researchers.

From Reuters:
Tests on more than 300 children showed significant differences in their behavior when they drank fruit drinks spiked with a mixture of food colorings and preservatives, Jim Stevenson and colleagues at the University of Southampton said.

"These findings show that adverse effects are not just seen in children with extreme hyperactivity (such as ADHD) but can also be seen in the general population and across the range of severities of hyperactivity," the researchers wrote in their study, published in the Lancet medical journal.
By "general population," we wonder if he's talking about adults... including your Lightning Round editor-in-chief. To think all that Kool-Aid made me the overgrown kid I am today...

WELL, DUH. A needless study has only confirmed what we all knew. In the mating game, men primarily go for good looks. As for the ladies, they are more selective. All of this research was done by careful observations and queries before and after a session of "speed dating."

From the AP:
Women's actual choices, like men's, did not reflect their stated preferences, but they made more discriminating choices, the researchers found.

The scientists said women were aware of the importance of their own attractiveness to men, and adjusted their expectations to select the more desirable guys.

"Women made offers to men who had overall qualities that were on a par with the women's self-rated attractiveness. They didn't greatly overshoot their attractiveness," Todd said, "because part of the goal for women is to choose men who would stay with them"

But, he added, "they didn't go lower. They knew what they could get and aimed for that level."

So, it turns out, the women's attractiveness influenced the choices of the men and the women.
Your Lighting Round suggests another study, this time with ugly people.

CALDERON'S COMPLAINT. Mexican President Felipe Calderon said the U.S. is coming down too hard on illegal immigrants during his State of the Union speech. Mainly, he's upset about a new crackdown on the businesses that hire them.

From Reuters:
"The Mexican government will continue to insist firmly ... on the need for an integral immigration reform and the categorical rejection of the building of a wall on our common border," Calderon said to raucous applause.
We note this speech came after a meeting with poster-girl UDA Elvira Arellano, whom he promised to help obtain a visa for the U.S. It also came one day late because of "protests by leftist lawmakers." The way things are going, your Lightning Round thinks Calderon may need a visa for himself.

OOPS. The New York Post reports on a major boo-boo by CNN:
No wonder CNN gets its clock cleaned by Fox News. Two weeks ago, Anderson Cooper shot a pre-taped Hurricane Katrina special in New Orleans, but somehow the tapes got lost. According to our spy, "Anderson was on vacation in Europe last week when he got a call saying he had to fly back to the States and reshoot the entire special in New Orleans. The screw-up cost tens of thousands of dollars, and he was not happy. It was unbelievable." A rep for CNN said, "Yes, footage was lost, but he always had plans to be in New Orleans if needed . . . It was a great show."
A grueling solution, but better than one offered than a former tape editor we know: "We could draw pictures!" Wait a minute, though. Isn't the Post owned by News Corp., which owns Fox News? Uh, never mind.

INSIDE THE CLOSED CASE. And now, for those of you who wonder how a hard drive works, we present this expose.

Just don't try it in your PC.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Truth, Justice, And Larry Craig's Way

So Sen. Larry Craig wants a do-over. A little pep-talk from his colleague Arlen Specter, and now he has an A-list attorney looking into whether he can take back his guilty plea from that bathroom sex sting. And he may not step down from Congress after all.

All that's fine, if it were only two months ago, and if he hadn't pleaded guilty. But what's done is done, and the distinguished, disgraced Republican from Idaho should know it.

Larry Craig's motivations are simply mind-boggling. They fly in the face of somebody who should understand how the criminal justice system works, namely the presumption of innocence. Craig has vehemently proclaimed he did nothing wrong. Why didn't he have the guts to proclaim it two months ago, when his case went before a judge?

If Craig believed he was better off gaming the system by pleading guilty to a misdemeanor and thinking nobody would notice, he doesn't deserve to hold office. That strategy reeks of political spin-doctoring, something you would expect from a Washington slickster and not a statesman.

Even fellow Republicans are repulsed, according to The Politico:
"It simply defies reality," said a Senate GOP aide. "You can't make this up even if you are heavily medicated. The American people heard from Larry Craig that he would resign, and using the word 'intent' as a back door doesn't work with them."
Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether Craig was looking for action in a men's room or not. Instead of standing up, he rolled over at the crucial moment. He chose to obfuscate, sweep things under the rug, and cross his fingers. We send people to Washington to make tough decisions, and even though Sen. Craig would have still taken the pounding from critics, comics, and 24/7 news channels, at least going through a trial would have given him the chance to raise some reasonable doubts before both a jury and a national audience. I'm convinced he could have poked holes in the police case, if not gotten it dismissed. It could have been a powerful teaching moment.

Jackie Gleason, playing Sheriff Buford T. Justice in Smokey And The Bandit said, "What we have here is a total lack of respect for the law." Craig expected his case to evaporate like a sidewalk puddle, thinking it would get lost in the police blotter and nobody would care. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Now the only honorable thing for him to do is leave.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Turnabout For Telemarketers

Caller ID is useless against phone salespeople ("Unknown Caller"), so I'm back to the dark ages of screening via the answering machine. But here's something I might try next time, as suggested by Seinfeld: