Saturday, January 26, 2008

Bits N' Pieces

The "edited" version of the latest newspaper column is here. This is the version as originally written.

I’ve got a lot on my mind this week, so this week’s column’s a bit of a grab bag, with entertainment, politics, and my usual disdain for what passes for journalism these days thrown in:

  • If there’s ever been anything that illustrates up the lameness and absurdity of the 24 hour news cycle, it’s the way the press has handled the recent tragic death of actor Heath Ledger. That coverage perfectly illustrated what seems to be the current motto of the sensationalist press: “Get it Now, Get it First, Get it Wrong.” When the 28 year old actor was found dead in his New York apartment, numerous headlines blared that it was “an apparent suicide.” He died, the papers reported breathlessly, “surrounded by pills scattered on the bed.” A “rolled 20 dollar bill with drug residue” was found near the body. Then, lo and behold, much of the lurid detail reported by even such supposedly reputable news sources as the New York Times was balderdash, not to mention poppycock and ballyhoo. The NYPD reported there was no residue, drug or otherwise, on the bill (and one now wonders if was even “rolled up”). Prescription medications found at Ledger’s apartment were not “scattered around,” but instead were in their proper bottles, most of them in the medicine cabinet, with one bottle of sleeping pills in the nightstand. By the very next day, the NYPD coroner was leaning towards an accidental overdose, but, they admitted, they really didn’t know yet. Not that that will stop even the supposedly “legitimate” press from ill-informed and irresponsible speculation and pious attempts to find lessons in “facts” that aren’t really there.
  • On the positive side, it looks like someone in the campaign press has finally grown a spine. Unfortunately, the reporter who actually dared act like a reporter instead of a stenographer is being roundly booed even by some of his own colleagues. At issue is an exchange during a campaign photo-op in Columbia South Carolina by Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Romney, whose already well established gift for flip-floppery has now been augmented by a penchant for just making stuff up, asserted “I don’t have lobbyists running my campaign.” AP reporter Glen Johnson, sitting on the floor a few feet away, had apparently had enough. He interrupted to point out that Romney advisor Ron Kaufman, who’s described himself as a “top adviser” to the Romney campaign and who’s coached Romney for the debates, is indeed a lobbyist working for the Washington lobbying firm Dutko Worldwide. But, said Romney testily, he’s actually not the campaign manager, so he’s not “running the campaign.” Later, Johnson revealed the chairman of Romney’s policy committee, former Representative Vin Weber, is also registered lobbyist, as is adviser Jim Tallent, former Senator from Missouri. I’m sure the chairman of the policy committee doesn’t have anything to so with running the campaign, oh, no. I’ll bet Romney doesn’t even listen to the lobbyists all around him that he pretends aren’t there. The Romney campaign criticized Johnson for being “argumentative.” Even the Huffington Post’s media critic Rachel Sklar slammed Johnson for “heckling” the candidate, while admitting that everything Johnson said and later wrote was absolutely true. Apparently, some people feel the job of a reporter is to just sit there and take down whatever a candidate says and publish it without challenging obvious prevarication and the parsing of words. Frankly, I hope more reporters, whether they’re following a Republican or a Democrat, are willing to speak up when they hear the candidates spouting pure malarkey.
  • In other campaign news this past week, Fred Thompson announced he was dropping out of the race for the Republican Presidential nomination. It doesn’t seem that long ago that Fred was leading in the polls. Of course, that was before he was actually running. Fact is, the only reason Thompson looked like the guy who was going to save the Republican Party was that he wasn't any of the other gimps they already had running at the time. When he actually got into the race, however, people began to realize that, in the words of Dorothy Parker, there wasn’t any there there. Thompson always looked like an actor who was playing someone who was running for President, and doing a terrible job in the role. Maybe it was because no one had given much thought to the script. Thompson, unlike any of the other candidates, never managed to look like he was enjoying running. Of course this may be because "enjoyment" is not in his limited repertoire of expressions. Anyone who’s ever seen “Law and Order” could have told the Republicans that he wasn’t a good enough actor to fake it. Come on, be honest. Did you ever see him do anything but "gruff"?

See y’all next week.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Yes, That Is a Ukulele.

Tommy Emmanuel & Jake Shimabukuro playing "While My Guitar Gently Weeps".


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Quote of the Week

The essential difference between writing nonfiction and writing fiction is that the artist owns his vision, while the journalist can never really claim one, or at least not a complete one—because the real world is infinitely complex and ever changing. Art frees you from the infuriating unfinishedness of the real world.

-Mark Bowden

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Monkey Business

Latest Newspaper Column:

Did America nearly go to war with Iran because of a "Filipino Monkey"?

OK, maybe that does require some explanation.

As you may remember, there was a recent encounter in the Strait of Hormuz between five Iranian speedboats and a three-ship flotilla of U.S. Navy vessels. According to the Navy, the speedboats came within seconds of being blown out of the water.

The Navy's concern was not totally unfounded. In a 2002 war-gaming exercise, a simulated U.S. fleet in that crowded passage off the coast of Iran was devastated by a simulated swarm of Iranian attack boats, backed up by simulated cruise missiles fired from airplanes and from shore batteries.

When the scorekeepers tallied up the damage, Marine Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper, commanding the "Red" (enemy) team, had sent 16 "Blue Team" warships, including an aircraft carrier, to the bottom of the strait.

All of this happened on a tabletop war-game board and on computer screens, but the Navy did take notice. Certainly a videotape released by the Navy shows the speedboats acting erratically: zigzagging back and forth, crossing the wake of the trailing destroyer, and behaving like drunken yay-hoos on Labor Day weekend.

The weirdest moment, however, comes at the end of the tape. Suddenly, the video goes black and we hear a deep, strangely accented voice booming, "I am coming to you-u-u-u." Then, after the warship challenges the speedboats again, the same voice says, "You will explo-o-ode after two minutes."

Well, that was all some people needed. ABC News breathlessly reported the "face-off" with the Iranians and replayed the tape over and over, including the "threat" at the end. Fox News anchor Brian Kilmeade berated the Navy for not "blowing those Iranian speedboats out of the water." After all, he said, the Iranians had been "needling us for 20 years."

Hold on a minute, military sources said. We're not sure that those ominous transmissions were from the speedboats.

"We don't know for sure where they came from," Cmdr. Lydia Robertson, spokeswoman for 5th Fleet in Bahrain, told The Navy Times. "It could have been a shore station."

The Navy Times also noted that the voice is different from other transmissions known to have been coming from the speedboats and that, unlike those transmissions, Mr. "you will explo-o-ode" doesn't seem to have any wind noise or static in his mike. Others, including native speakers of Farsi, the predominant language of Iran, noted that the accent didn't sound remotely like an Iranian one. If you listen to it, what it really sounds like is one of those late-night horror movie hosts trying to sound scary and impressive.

Then it was revealed that ships in the Persian Gulf, including the Strait of Hormuz, are often subject to bizarre and usually profane radio messages from a mysterious prankster whom sailors have dubbed the "Filipino Monkey."

The Monkey, it seems, listens in on ship-to-ship or ship-to-air traffic, then leaps in like a bored kid with his dad's CB radio to heckle. Female voices on the air seem to draw his particular ire. One of his favorite tricks, The Los Angeles Times reported as far back as 1987, was to pretend to be from a ship being challenged, then to broadcast taunts aimed at provoking an attack.

"He used to go on all night long," Rick Hopper, a former cruiser skipper, reminisced to the Navy Times. "The guy is crazy."

If indeed, he is one guy. There have been so many spurious transmissions over the years that some have theorized there may be a whole barrel of Monkeys out there (sort of like the Dread Pirate Roberts from the movie "The Princess Bride").

Then, and only then, did the media start backing off on the hysteria. Fox news-bimbo Gretchen Carlson piped up to say that she remembers sitting in her office and hearing the voice and going, "You've gotta be kidding me!" Of course, she didn't mention this or express any doubts before other news outlets mentioned the Monkey.

It's a good thing our sailors are more careful in their assessment of the situation than our press or our politicians. Otherwise we might get into a shooting war because of some prankster. And we can ill afford another war right now, since the Iraqi defense minister has stated he'll need us bolstering his internal security until at least 2012, and they won't be able to defend their borders without help till 2018. (Looks like that "surge" really did the trick, huh?)

Maybe a little less saber-rattling from both sides and -- dare we hope? -- a little more willingness to express doubt on the part of our overly credulous news media is in order.