Friday, August 01, 2003

How Hope Coverage Gives Me Hope

'Start by doing what's necessary,
then what's possible, and suddenly
you are doing the impossible.'
--St. Francis of Assisi

NBC's me-too political news summary ABC's "The Note," an exhaustive daily political news summary/background briefing paper is justly famous in political-wonk circles. Produced by the network's crack political unit of off-camera producers, and available on the web, it's packed with so many smart observations, solid reporting and links to other sources that it often influences the political zeitgeist, surely no easy thing in a world of smart print and online political mags such as The New Republic, The American Prospect and the Weekly Standard, among others. Now, belatedly, NBC has jumped into the fray with its own me-too product, called "First Read". Thus far (it's been around since July 1st) it seems pretty lame by comparison. My suggestion to NBC: scrap it, and put that considerable time and attention into something you can do well that isn't already being done better elsewhere. It's another reminder that the best products seep up from the bottom, often in an unplanned way. The Note, after all, began as a daily summary produced only for in-house ABC personnel. But it was so good that it quickly went viral, with copies passing all over the place. NBC's product, because it's a copy cat and consciously produced for a public audience from the outset, doesn't work. At least, not yet.

Pekar Gets Some 'Voice' Time. I'd have to guess that I'm in the minority on this, but I've always found Cleveland cartoonist Harvey Pekar pretty much a snore. I don't know whether it's all the dozens of awful local profiles that have been written about him over the years, his tiresome Yes-I'm-a-lowly-government-file-clerk-but-also-one-of-America's-leading-underground-intellectuals schtick or his impossibly boorish behavior on Letterman (okay, I don't like GE owning NBC either, but when a guy, Letterman, who no doubt didn't like it either, invites you to his house for some national publicity, I say just fricking bite your tongue and try to be somewhat thankful). Probably it's the combination of all three. Still, a large part of me does like and respect how he's stuck at it for so many years, and I'm quite looking forward to seeing his movie when it comes in two weeks to the Cedar-Lee. This week, the Pekar Publicity Machine grinds on, with this pretty interesting piece in the Village Voice. And speaking of the Cedar-Lee: god bless you Jonathan Forman. With the recent movement of the Coventry Madstone back to mainstream drek, the venerable one retakes its place as Cleveland's only true art house playing only thoughtful, intelligent films (well, in fairness, you have to include John Ewing's Cinametheque, but that's a little different animal). In the last few weeks, I've caught two movies at the C-L, The Swimming Pool, which was splendid and oh-so-erotic, and The Friedmans, which was simply stunning. In fact, the latter was a good example of how I've come to rely on the Cedar-Lee as a stamp of quality. I generally don't even bother checking reviews (when you do need to do that, Rotten Tomatoes is the place to go, cause it aggregates reviews from around the country) or otherwise reading up on a film. I simply know that if it's booked into the Cedar-Lee, it's going to at least be pretty good. And so a few weeks ago I stumbed into the Friedmans not knowing what it was about, only to be emotionally staggered by one of the most harrowing, perfectly told documentaries on possible child sexual abuse and family dysfunction I've ever seen. Stunned by what I'd seen, I wandered out of the movie and bumped into some old friends, who were in high spirits from a night out with the girls. I must have seemed like a zombie to them--they wanted to chit chat and gossip, but I was still trying to process what I'd just seen. Anyway, if you haven't yet seen it, go this weekend! And you might also think about signing up for Cleveland Cinema's email newsletter, "Sprockets."

Blonde Dumbshell. Who says there's no justice? Even conservatives are now embarrassed by Ann Coulter's over-the-top ranting. They're apparently worried that the Connecticut-bred dingbat's embrace of American history's third rail (touch it, and you die), Sen. Joe McCarthy, has made it too easy for the enemy to lump her in with more thoughtful conservative positions. In recent weeks, the Wall Street Journal and Andrew Sullivan have been among conservatives to blast her latest book. But I thought the best roasting of all was this magazine-cover parody in the Weekly Standard. Cable TV bookers, of course, can't resist her shrill bumper sticker bromiding, and she's apparently too dim to realize that people are laughing at her rather than with her. Meanwhile, though, be warned that Coulter is due to soon join the blogging world. A truly loathesome right-wing rag, Human Events, has left this placeholder for her.

Finally, a hopeful note about journalism. When Bob Hope died, it was of course no surprise that rivers of ink and acres of TV time were allotted to covering it. After all, it's an obvious story line, a century of joke telling, an American icon, yadda yadda. Still, for a lot of us I would guess, he represented something else: how tepid middlebrow mediocrity can often become enshrined as excellence in America. And yet, I came away impressed by how a number of outlets found an imaginative way to mark the occasion, delivering stories (and in one case a multimedia surprise) that, through compelling storytelling, actually made me care just a little about the man. Which is what journalism should be all about. I'd nominate this trio of stories for special attention on the Bob Hope front: This piece in one of my favorite webzines, Flak, by Chicago-based writer Claire Zulkey I've increasingly admired, part of a rat pack of 20-something sharpies who are doing some of the best writing, much of it online, in America. So I was surprised bordering on shocked that she would choose to write about this hopeless old fart Bob Hope. But she makes it worthwhile. AARP, the magazine of the American Association of Retired People, is of course all about covering old farts. And yet they found a truly compelling way of drawing online vistors into the story, with this great little Virtual Bob Hope cartoon app, a companion to the story "Fanfare for the Common Ham." And finally, British-based The Economist, which is simply one of the most splendid publications in the world and getting better all the time, delivers this gem of a send-off to the funny man. Thanks, guys, for reminding us that no subject is too mundane for those who bring some spark and imagination to them.


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