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Published: Sat, 25 Mar 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Sat, 25 Mar 2017 15:40:07 -0400


Harlots Doesn’t Sell Out When Detailing Lives of 18th Century British Hookers

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 15:30:00 -0400

Harlots. Hulu. Available March 29. Somewhere in the vast terrain between the hooker-as-fairytale-princess fantasy of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman and the prim, grim Victorian sociology of Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Woman of the Streets lies Harlots, Hulu's odd but engrossing new drama about life inside an 18th-century London brothel. Screenwriter Moira Buffini, one of the five British women who produce, write, and direct Harlots, said in unveiling the project that the goal was "everything from the whore's-eye view." The result is that the women in Harlots are neither glamorous courtesans nor broken flowers, and their depiction is never erotic. There's plenty of nudity, of both sexes, but you've seen commercials for bladder medication that were sexier. The Harlots hookers don't make much money, but it's a living—and they regard the cops and and do-gooder moralists trying to close their house less as saviors than as a circling wolfpack. When a judge who's been asked to close the bordello as a public nuisance haughtily declares that "I grieve for the desperate women I have seen today who, faced with starvation, have sold their flesh," the prostitutes in the courtroom exchange looks laden with the unspoken question: "So you think we'll be better off in jail?" Harlots opens in 1763 with a prologue that claims a fifth of the women in London were hookers. That runs far ahead of police estimates of the day, but there's little doubt prostitution was a major industry. One of the show's early scenes, in which the women amuse themselves by reading their own notices in a Consumer Reports-style guide to the various local hookers and their skill sets ("one of the finest, fattest figures as fully finished for fun and frolick as fertile fancy ever formed...") is drawn from documented history. The brothel at the heart of Harlots is operated by Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton, nominated for an Oscar in 2002 as the troubled young immigrant mother of In America), a veteran of the trade whose virginity was bartered away for a pair of shoes at age 10 by her own mother. Margaret, buffeted by high rent and increasing graft demands by cops, hopes to get a much higher price for the maidenhead of her teenaged daughter Lucy (British TV actress Eloise Smyth). And she's playing the even more lucrative long game with slightly older but much more reluctant daughter Charlotte, who she's trying to place as an indentured consort to a wealthy nobleman. But her plans must be dangerously accelerated when cops raid her house, putting her out of business at least temporarily, and a rival madame (Lesley Manville of the British version of Law & Order) starts raiding her corps of whores. It turns out these two events are not coincidental. In a classic example of the regulatory-economics parable known as Baptists and Bootleggers, the other madame has been funding a decency group to attack Margaret's brothel and clear away the competition. That plot description sounds bleak, which is not entirely fair. Harlots burbles with the bawdy workplace humor of the hookers, from their theories about the sexual ontology of the reformers (the blind leader of the decency group, they speculate, lost her eyesight after putting her eyes out upon seeing her first penis on her wedding night) to, tart—heh-heh—remarks about job training. Told she must undergo instruction in cultural refinements, one of the women inquires, wide-eyed: "So, you will teach my cunny French?" The humor extends to the casting of Charlotte, the steely daughter resisting indenturement. She's played (quite well) by Jessica Brown Findlay, that sweet and gentle Lady Sibyl of Downton Abbey, whose death in childbirth so unhinged PBS cultists that the Washington Post ran a medical story explaining preeclampsia, the obscure condition that killed her, demanding an explanation of her inadequate treatment: "If Lord Grantham had listened to the country doc and sent his daughter to the hospital for a Caesarean section, would she have lived?" I'll buy a drink for the first one to write the Post asking if the preeclamp[...]

Are the 'Dishonest' Media Really Under-Reporting Terrorist Attacks? New at Reason

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 13:30:00 -0400

(image) "It's gotten to a point where it's not even being reported. In many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn't want to report it," asserted President Donald Trump a month ago. He was referring to a purported media reticence to report on terror attacks in Europe. "They have their reasons, and you understand that," he added. The implication, I think, is that the politically correct press is concealing terrorists' backgrounds.

To bolster the president's claims, the White House then released a list of 78 terror attacks from around the globe that Trump's minions think were underreported. All of the attackers on the list were Muslim—and all of the attacks had been reported by multiple news outlets.

Some researchers at Georgia State University have an alternate idea: Perhaps the media are overreporting some of the attacks.

Trump Budget Cuts: Real or ‘Reality’ Show?

Mon, 20 Mar 2017 16:00:00 -0400

Donald Trump ran for office promising to crush the Islamic State, end the influx of illegal immigration from Mexico, and stop the flight of American manufacturing jobs to China. Now that he's in office, he seems to be focusing on different set of targets: Public television's "Big Bird," poor old people who benefit from "Meals on Wheels," and history graduate students and scholars of the Founding Fathers who get grants from the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH). Some reports even had the Trump administration slashing funding for the Coast Guard. What's going on here? The Trump "budget cuts"—they deserve quotation marks, because no money has yet actually been cut—are best understood in the context of Trump's home city, New York. There, for decades, the mayor would propose draconian "cuts" to popular institutions like museums and libraries. The museums and libraries would dutifully rally their constituencies to fight against the proposed "cuts." And the City Council would intervene to restore the funding, winning the gratitude of those that had been targeted. This was widely and correctly understood as a kind of theater. No funding was genuinely in jeopardy, other than the personal funds of the taxpayers who wound up eventually footing the bill for the government spending. The mayor got to pose as fiscally prudent. The City Council got to claim credit for protecting the museums and libraries, which had never really been in danger. A 2010 New York Times article described it as "something of an annual budget ritual: Public libraries, always among the first city services to be threatened with substantial cuts in financing, are forced to face the abyss, only to be saved in the end, in whole or significant part." A 1998 article from the Queens Courier, a local newspaper in Trump's original home borough, quoted a City Council member, Archie Spigner, who said, "Cutting libraries and culture is a ritualistic maneuver between the Mayor and the Council. In my 25 years on the Council it has always been that way, whether it was a Democratic or Republican mayor. The Mayor proposes the reduction and the Council makes restitution. It's the reality of politics and I don't think the Mayor's serious." For Trump, it's a win-win maneuver. He lets small-government conservatives, many of whom never quite trusted him in the first place, believe that he made a good-faith effort to cut federal spending. And he lets the Republican Congress, which is up for re-election before he is, claim credit with centrist swing voters for sparing popular programs from Trump's budget axe. On the substance of it, there is a strong case for cutting or eliminating many of the targeted programs. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting warns about the risk to Sesame Street, but that program in 2015 made a five-season deal with HBO. HBO is a for-profit network that is part of Time Warner, whose deal to be acquired by AT&T awaits Trump administration antitrust review. The NEH trotted out, in its own defense, the president of Harvard, Drew Faust. Harvard has a $35.7 billion endowment. The NEH's total annual appropriation in 2015 was $146 million. Faust herself earned $1.2 million in compensation from Harvard in the most recently disclosed year, along with an additional $250,000 for her service on the board of Staples, an office supply retailer. She and her fellow star historians can probably survive okay without taxpayer help from NEH grants. This question—is it ritualistic theater, a kind of performance art, or is it real?—is one worth keeping in mind for all of Trump's initiatives, not just his budget. Is, say, the effort to repeal ObamaCare real? Or is it, like the budget cuts, an elaborate show? It's easy to be fooled. Some people thought Trump's entire presidential campaign was an elaborate act designed to fail. Then, he won the election. Even "failed" efforts can be successful in a way by changing the parameters of the political discussion. But caution and skepticism are nonetheless in order, both [...]

Tomi Lahren, Pro-Choice Conservative, Not 'Incoherent' on Abortion

Mon, 20 Mar 2017 12:30:00 -0400

Conservative starlet Tomi Lahren is facing a heap of backlash from her usual supporters after an appearance on ABC's The View in which she defended the decriminalized status of abortion. Lahren, who hosts a popular show (Tomi) for Glenn Beck network The Blaze and is a frequent guest on Fox News programs, said that as someone who "loves the Constitution" and believes in limited government she can't support the government "decid[ing] what women do with their bodies." "I'm pro-choice," Lahren admitted, calling it hypocritical to profess support for small government yet want to ban abortion. "I'm for limited government, so stay out of my guns, and you can stay out of my body as well." Contra Lahren's critics, this is a perfectly coherent position, and one that was once perfectly respectable within the mainstream conservative movement. There's only tension between believing abortion should be legal—which is all being "pro-choice" means—and the Constitution's prescription of "life, liberty, and property" protection for all if you believe that personhood begins at conception. But one needn't believe this, nor even be a Christian at all, in order to champion conservative political philosophy. And even if one does believe that abortion is an immoral practice, it doesn't necessarily follow that one must wish it banned completely. There are plenty of pro-life Americans who believe a blanket ban on abortion is not the best way to end the practice, given how black markets work. They instead strive to end abortion through changing hearts and minds, advocating better pregnancy-prevention methods, working to expand adoption options, and things like that. Again, this might seem horrific to people who believe that aborting an eight-week old fetus is the exact same as murdering a 2- or 20- or 80-year-old, but that's a matter of moral or religious perspective. Many others who believe abortion is wrong are simultaneously able to hold that it's not the same degree of wrong as ending a life outside the womb, or that the competing rights of pregnant women make abortion morally justifiable in some circumstances. Listen, I am not glorifying abortion. I don't personally advocate for it. I just don't think it's the government's place to dictate. — Tomi Lahren (@TomiLahren) March 19, 2017 These are all positions that can convey coherent internal logic and political/moral belief systems. You may think folks like Lahren—who says she is personally against abortion, even though simultaneously pro-choice—are wrong, and that abortion is always the gravest of transgressions or never so, but it's erroneous and unfair to brush aside their beliefs as simple stupidity, hypocrisy, opportunism, or cowardice. It's exactly this kind of reflexive dismissal of differing beliefs and moral gray areas that keeps us locked in the stupidest kind of culture war over abortion, one that manifests in it being the most important litmus test for acceptance into political movements on the right and left and results in a host of high-profile, symbolic battles that all lead back to the same status quo. Anyway, a lot of conservatives have been calling for Lahren's head since her View appearance, insisting it's an embarrassment and an outrage that such a pro-choice harpy could be a public face of Republicanism. As with Milo Yiannopoulos—who said all sorts of horrible things about women, Muslims, transgender people, etc., but was only ousted from polite conservatism after joking about pedophilic priests—it's telling (if predictable) that tepidly pro-choice views are the dealbreaker for the right with Lahren, while things like calling Black Lives Matter activists "the new KKK," referring to the Middle East as a "sandbox" that needs to be bombed, and defending the shooting of unarmed black men by cops never really rustled Republican jimmies.[...]

A Teen Train Robbery Movie for the Whole Family

Fri, 17 Mar 2017 15:05:00 -0400

Deidra & Laney Rob a Train. Available now on Netflix. Sydney Freeland's well-regarded but seldom-seen 2014 directorial debut, Drunktown's Finest, was a somber look at American Indian identity issues that intertwined the stories of three Navajos: a young guy about to wash out of boot camp, a promiscuous transgendered woman, and a girl raised by white adoptive parents. She's finally made a follow-up for Netflix, Deidra & Laney Rob a Train, and it seems to have come from the opposite side of the universe. Imagine a scruffy teenage version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made for the Disney Channel—funny with a streak of poignance, the violence appropriately muffled, and, of course, a happy ending, and you'll be close to the mark. This is not said with derision or condescension or any of the other qualities dearest to the TV critic's heart. Deidra & Laney won't remake the world, but it's a fun 90 minutes of television. The girls of the title are teenage sisters who (along with a much younger brother) find themselves on their own when their mother, Goldie, snaps during her shift at a big-box electronics store, hurling big-screen TVs into the parking lot while shrieking, "This is who I am!" There's no money for bail and, worse yet, Goldie doesn't want any; relieved to be free of the hassles of single-momdom, she's embracing the penal lifestyle. "A salad with every single meal!" she happily proclaims to the nonplussed kids. Yet life without parental supervision turns out to be anything but an endless slumber party. Bills come in, even though money doesn't, and prospects are few for a teenagers living on the ass-end of a hardscrabble little Idaho town. (And literally on the wrong side of the tracks, too—trains rumble past, just a few feet from their back yard, at all hours of the day or night.) And their long-absent father is no help, though he'll be happy to take credit for whatever solution they come up with. "I was a mess when you were little," he boasts. "That helped you to learn for yourself." Deidra, an honors student whose ability to launch an impromptu disquisition on free will vs. determinism has won the awe of her teachers if mostly the baffled contempt of her inbred classmates, tries selling homework, but there's not enough money in it. And nobody will take the girls seriously at the more traditional after-school job of peddling weed. With Child Protective Services making ominous noises about foster care, which would divide the kids into separate homes, Deidra and Laney decide to attempt something they've seen on TV—hopping the freight trains that run by their home and breaking into cargo containers. For the most part, Deidra & Laney takes a light, Robin-Hoodish tone, its grim scenario leavened with wisecrack black humor, as when the school guidance counselor promises Deidra any help she needs with college applications because it will boost the counselor's dreams of transferring to "an inner school that's much nicer than this one." Watching the girls drawing up train-robbing checklists from do-it-yourself YouTube videos is hilarious. And, interestingly, there's no trace of the identity politics that fueled Drunktown's Finest; if the fact that Deidra and Laney are biracial prompts the other kids' animus toward them, it goes unmentioned, unlike the fact that they're dirt poor and have a wastrel dad and a nutcase/jailbird mom. When a dark undertone does occasionally break through Deidra & Laney, it has to do not with ethnicity, gender or any other identity hot buttons, but battered kids paying the price for their parents' lousy DNA and worse choices. As Laney broods after being mousetrapped yet again by some old parental scandal, "I'm nobody because I'm meant to be nobody, and there's no point in trying." Replies Deidra: "You are not 'nobody.' You're a bad-ass who robs trains." The redemptive power of felonies may be a dubious proposition, but Deidra & Laney gets an enormous boost in selling it from t[...]

Vault 7 Versus Snowden: Why Was One Such a Bigger Story?

Thu, 16 Mar 2017 15:00:00 -0400

Last week Wikileaks finally released its much-hyped "Vault 7" data detailing the CIA's arsenal of hacking tools. The first tranche, consisting of 8,761 documents and attachments from an "isolated, high-security network" in the CIA's Center for Cyber Intelligence, reveals important information about the federal spy body's intrusion techniques, alliances with other government bodies, and internal culture from 2013 to 2016. These new details alone would be explosive. But the media's relative lack of interest in these major revelations makes this story even more curious. The CIA's hacking toolkit, while not surprising to those in the security community, should be downright paranoia-inducing for most Americans. Big Brother Really Is Watching According to the Vault 7 documents, the CIA can hack into most consumer devices, rendering even the strongest encryption techniques useless. Some of the CIA's techniques have been diabolical. For example, one exploit of Samsung smart TVs would surreptitiously spy on owners even though the device appeared to be turned off. Another, more chilling technique could be used to hack a smart car and send its driver careening into a fiery death on the road. Furthermore, the CIA's "UMBRAGE" library of foreign "fingerprints" can make it falsely appear as if other governments are behind its dirty deeds. Most of the conversation so far has revolved around the CIA's trove of "zero day vulnerabilities," computer bugs that are known only to the discoverer (which means that the software industry would have had "zero days" to patch them—get it?). Wikileaks itself has emphasized this dimension of the story: the first batch of documents was called "Year Zero," a title that might refer to the CIA's need to re-build its cyber-arsenal. While the data dump stops short of releasing the full code, the leak describes enough about the CIA's hacking techniques to render them functionally impotent. This is because software providers scrambled to patch up the vulnerabilities soon after they were made public. Assuming that most of the CIA hacks were in the leak, America's top international spy agency could be effectively powerless for the time being, at least in terms of hacking capability. This does not mean we should celebrate. The Wikileaks press release suggests that they were not the first body to get their hands on this cyber-arsenal, reporting that "the archive appears to have been circulated among former U.S. government hackers and contractors in an unauthorized manner." It is possible that hostile groups got their hands on these weapons first, which means that both our "enemies" and our "protectors" could have been hacking and spying on us with these methods for the past few years. Since Wikileaks has not released the entire database to the public yet, some of these vulnerabilities likely remain unpatched. As others have noted, the Vault 7 debacle serves as yet another reminder of the inherent folly in building government-mandated backdoors into secure systems or hoarding zero days to circumvent security. If powerful and capable groups like the CIA and NSA can't protect their cyber-arsenals, why should we expect others to manage it? A Tale of Two Leaks What has been most striking to me about this episode is the amazing lack of interest in the broader dimensions of the story. Compare reactions to the Wikileaks-enabled CIA leaks with reactions to the National Security Agency (NSA) leaks provided by Edward Snowden in 2013. In both cases, a notoriously secretive and powerful U.S. intelligence agency was unmasked before the world, expansive surveillance or intrusion techniques were laid bare, and the public learned of serious vulnerabilities in their privacy or their security (or both). Civil libertarians simultaneously cheered the revelations, while muttering that deep down, they knew it all along. But where the NSA leaks dominated headlines for months and stimulated executive a[...]

Trumpocalypse Reality Check: Government Spending This Century Has Grown from $3.2 Trillion to $7 Trillion

Thu, 16 Mar 2017 13:59:00 -0400

How is the political class responding to a Donald Trump budget blueprint that utterly fails to cut spending even while including many dramatic regulatory-state cuts that Congress will never, ever approve? With about as much sober perspective as you would expect: Reading through the Trump budget, I feel as the Romans must have felt in 456 AD as the barbarians conquered and ushered in the dark ages. — Nicholas Kristof (@NickKristof) March 16, 2017 Here is a helpful reminder for that side of your universe busy losing their shit: During this woefully misgoverned 21st century of ours, with its sluggish economic growth and serially disastrous wars, panics, bailouts, and stimuli, combined U.S. federal, state, and local government expenditures have zoomed from around $3.2 trillion in fiscal year 2000 ($4.5 trillion in today's dollars) to north of $7 trillion this year, according to Christopher Chantrill's useful aggregator During that time the U.S. population has grown from an estimated 281 million to 324 million, so even after adjusting for inflation, government spending has grown more than three times as fast as Census numbers. And yet here is the type of headline we will be reading all season long: "Trump's plan to dismember government." That, from CNN on Tuesday, was no mere headline hyperbole—here's the opening section from senior enterprise reporter Stephen Collinson: President Donald Trump plans to dismember government one dollar at a time. His first budget -- expected to be unveiled later this week -- will mark Trump's most significant attempt yet to remold national life and the relationship between federal and state power. It would codify an assault on regulatory regimes over the environment, business and education Italics mine, for future death-metal band names. Here are three iron rules of political-class reactions to any whiff of budget cuts: 1) Every previous budget ratchet will be ignored, yet taken as the minimum acceptable baseline. 2) If even 1 percent of a to-be-reduced bloc of spending can be described as keeping granny from starving to death, that will be precisely how the whole bag of money is characterized. 3) It will all be about the president, even though the president writes no budgets. This will be this century's third sustained round of media histrionics about the supposedly "annihilating" effects of "savage budget cuts." The first concerned the zombie-apocalypse of unsupervised skating and threatened (though never quite delivered) mass teacher-firings during the 2009-2010 state budget crisis. (Which was routinely blamed on brutal austerity instead of the massive spending run-up just before the financial bubble burst in 2008.) The second, in 2012-13, warned of the poisoned meat, reduced travel perks, and a generation's worth of lost science (no, really) resulting from the totally modest and all-too-temporary budget sequestration. After those two near-death events it's a wonder that we still know how to breathe. Trump's military boost will almost certainly be approved. His 25 percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency almost certainly will not. He's a historically unpopular president currently risking what political capital he has on a deeply (and rightfully) unpopular Obamacare reboot; you think that the congresscritters who are currently fleeing constituent townhalls like rats from an ice floe are prepping themselves to face down the next few months' of "Congress Rapes the Environment to Please the Rich" headlines? The net result, in an era when Congress doesn't even make budgets anymore and both parties are in thrall to debt denialists, is that the federal government during Trump's first year in office is likely to spend and borrow even more than he's proposing today. That is the real scandal, if one unlikely to break through the purple-faced rage of media hyperventilation.[...]

Even NPR-Loving Liberals Should Applaud Trump's Plan to Kill Federal Funding for Public Broadcasting

Thu, 16 Mar 2017 12:30:00 -0400

If the Trump Administration gets its way in ending federal funding for public broadcasting (see the budget proposal out today), it wouldn't spell the end of NPR, PBS, or the radio and television programs that many Americans cherish. The biggest impact would be on rural stations that rely on government dollars for a large share of their operating budgets. Several reporters have noted that these rural stations "serve" communities that skew heavily Republican, claiming irony. "[D]efunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting," the Washington Post's Callum Borchers writes, "would mean hurting the local TV and radio stations that a whole lot of Republican voters watch and listen to."(image)

We don't actually know how many Republican voters (or anyone for that matter) watch and listen to NPR or PBS in these rural communities because the networks keep that information private. If saving the rural stations is the main reason to maintain federal funding, don't taxpayers have a right to see multi-year ratings data? In a press release responding to the budget cuts, PBS merely cites its old talking point that public broadcasting costs each citizen just $1.35 per year. Just because something's comparatively cheap doesn't make it worth buying.

The notion of a television station "serving" a community is outdated. You don't hear Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu boasting that they "serve" one area of the country or another. As I argued in a recent video, the mean reason to end federal funding to these stations is that the media landscape looks nothing like it did in 1967, when Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act:

When the Public Broadcasting Act became law, maintaining a network of regional stations was the only way to insure that every American household had access to public television and radio content. Today, this decentralized system isn't necessary because it's possible to stream or download NPR or PBS content from anywhere in the world. As audiences moves online, the regional stations supported by the federal government are becoming unnecessary.

Watch the video:

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NYT Executive Editor Says Trump's Insults Help Media Keep Him Accountable

Sun, 12 Mar 2017 20:02:00 -0400

Is the press really the enemy of the American people? That was the tongue-in-cheek question that kicked off a live interview with New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet at South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi), the big annual technology and entrepreneurship conference happening this week. Several thousand people packed into the Austin, Texas, convention center early this morning to hear what one of the most influential figures in American journalism had to say about covering the presidency of a man who has not shied away from making blunt (and often factually dubious) attacks on his industry. Baquet didn't hesitate to call Donald Trump out for his flame throwing. "I thought it was an outrageous comment—of course we're not the enemy of the American people," he said. "That one is particularly troublesome, because 'enemy of the people' is a historic term in American literature and politics, and it implies a certain attitude toward us. Hopefully it does not imply a possibility that he would actually do things" to us. But Baquet also pointed to a silver lining from the perspective of the much-maligned "mainstream media." In the days after the election, he said, the Times was "getting criticized from the left and the right" for not realizing that Trump might win. But rather than be gracious in victory, the president-elect went on an insult offensive, describing the paper as the "failing New York Times" in a tweet that weekend. "I woke up Sunday morning," Baquet said, "and I felt like the whole tone of my emails shifted dramatically. Suddenly I started to get really supportive messages." And it wasn't just moral support. As Baquet's interlocutor, media columnist Jim Rutenberg, put it, "Every time Trump says 'you guys suck' or 'you're the enemy,' it's like ding ding ding ding, the subscriptions go up. Then we [in the Times newsroom] talk amongst ourselves and wonder if that's a job saved or can that stave off the cuts that are coming." It's no secret that the journalism industry is in a tough place, financially. Advertising and subscription revenue don't go nearly as far as they used to. Many outlets have had to shutter bureaus, lay off staff, merge with competitors, kill their print products, and so on. The Times itself introduced a paywall a few years ago in response to those changes. But Trump's attacks are, perhaps counterintuitively, breathing new life into the institution, Baquet suggested. "I will say that something amazing has happened—the rise in digital subscriptions, the rise in audience, the literal hundreds of thousands of people who have decided to pay for The New York Times after the election," he said. "It has changed our economics, and has made it so that we have to cover the stories that those people want us to cover, and that we want to cover too." Repeatedly during the hourlong session, the newspaperman said the climate Trump is fostering of antipathy toward the press has redoubled his commitment to digging in and holding the president accountable. "We are preparing for the story of a generation," he said. "I think the next two years are going to be a historic moment in the life of news organizations. The combination of the economic realities that are forcing their way in, a president who's leading a revolution in Washington and makes this the most compelling political story since the way the United States changed after 9/11, mixed in with this whole debate about what is a journalist—there are going to be 20 books written about the next two years in American journalism." "Yes," he continued, "I have to figure out a way to manage a changing reality in newspapers, which means The New York Times is going to be a little bit smaller. But we will do nothing to cut our ability to cover this presidency." Baquet painted this as an almost welcome shock for an industry that has been flounderin[...]

Feud Offers Delicious Fun Deflating Hollywood Glamour

Fri, 03 Mar 2017 15:00:00 -0500

Making History. Fox. Sunday, March 5, 8:30 p.m. Time After Time. ABC. Sunday, March 5, 9-11 p.m. Feud: Bette & Joan. FX. Sunday, March 5, 10 p.m. Last month, as the Oscars approached, Camille Paglia took to the pages of the Hollywood Reporter to mourn the loss of "the mythic grandeur of old Hollywood and its pantheon of celestial stars." Fortunately, their viciously overweening ambition, viperish appetite (and aptitude!) for malice and general capacity for epic bitchery is still with us in FX's Feud: Bette and Joan, producer Ryan Murphy's loving miniseries homage to Hollywood harridans. Bette and Joan, of course, are Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who for more than four decades were the Hatfields and McCoys of Hollywood, squabbling over men, money, roles and awards. Their scorched-earth war came to an end only with Crawford's death in 1977 and Davis' parting shot: "You should never say bad things about the dead, only good. ... Joan Crawford is dead. Good." Murphy, who's sliced and diced American culture in everything from the teenage twee of Glee to the racial Rashomon of The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, is an aficionado of old Hollywood, particularly its divas. (He once decorated his Laguna Beach mansion to resemble the infamous murder-scene beach house in Crawford's 1945 melodrama Mildred Pierce.) And he uses his note-for-bitchy-note recreation of the Crawford-Davis rivalry to construct a raunchy elegy to the milieu from which they came, in which the glamour that nostalgistas like Paglia celebrate was a facade covering a ulcerated mess of raging egos and rampaging ids, venal ambition, and whimpering neuroses. Feud's launching pad is the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the 1962 Grand Guignol tale of two aging and half-mad actresses whose careers were cut by an auto accident in which one (played by Davis) was driving and the other (played by Crawford) was left a paraplegic. It was the only film in which the two actresses ever worked together, and it happened only out of raw survival instinct. Davis and Crawford, though they had three Oscars between them, were well into middle age and could no longer find work in a Hollywood that was increasingly wielding youthful sexuality as a weapon against the relentless incursion of television. Crawford, financially battered by the death of her Pepsi-Cola executive husband, had been reduced to making a string of failed TV pilots; Davis was trying to launch a stage career, to harsh critical reaction. Despite misgivings all around, they teamed with a director whose own career was floundering. Robert Aldrich had developed a reputation as box office poison in the wake of his disastrous The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah (which among other problems had none of the lasciviousness the title suggested). Their vehicle: a macabre horror novel, the one genre that television, still held on a tight leash by the FCC, wouldn't touch. Just how dementedly awful things would get on the set was apparent even before shooting got underway. At a staged photo opp where Davis and Crawford were to sign their contracts, they pushed and shoved one another, each trying to grab the position on the left side of the table so her name would be first in the caption. From there, matters quickly descended into Crawford strapping a 50-pound weight beneath her clothes for a scene in which Davis had to drag her unconscious body from a room, Davis "accidentally" kicking Crawford's head as they shot a fight, and on into circles of Hell that Dante could never have imagined. Eventually the malice was so apparent that their attempts to play nice when reporters were around weren't fooling anybody. In one scene of Feud, studio mogul Jack Warner, who would distribute Baby Jane, snorts as he listens to their florid pledges of mutual love and respect at a damage-control press conferen[...]

Friday Funnies: Trump and the Press

Fri, 03 Mar 2017 07:00:00 -0500


President Oprah?

Wed, 01 Mar 2017 11:55:00 -0500

In a Bloomberg interview posted this morning, Oprah Winfrey allegedly hinted that she might run for president:

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I say "allegedly" because it's easy to read that as just a joke about the person presently in office. But it's not the categorical no that she was giving to the idea two months ago, and so Twitter is aflutter, as it so often is. Not that I'm complaining. If we absolutely must start speculating about 2020 this early, we might as well go weird.

Besides, it makes a poetic sort of sense. If I were prone to grand Hegelian theories of history, of thesis and antithesis synthesizing before our eyes, I'd expect an Oprah presidency. Her TV and business background would make her an outsider in the sense that Trump was, only more so; her race and gender would make her an outsider in the sense that Obama was, only more so. She even combines Obama's center-left politics with Trump's positive-thinking theology. If politics were poetry, it would be inevitable: In four years President O will be ordering drone strikes from the Oval Office couch. Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as The Celebrity Apprentice, the second time as an in-depth interview with Rhonda Byrne.

Either that or the Dems will nominate Al Franken, and Trump will get to battle Saturday Night Live in an actual election. Can't discount that possibility. If there's one thing that's clear in this surrealist soap opera we're stuck in, it's that the boys in the writer's room love cheap irony.

Postscript: Ha! Later in the interview Winfrey trots out that categorical no again. The Franken campaign breathes a sigh of relief.

I Spy Another Pair of Snoop-Focused Dramas

Fri, 24 Feb 2017 15:00:00 -0500

Patriot. Available now on Taken. NBC. Monday, February 27, 10 p.m. One of the axioms of the intelligence business is that moles can usually be found in pairs, lending one another support. Whether that's actually true in real life (since the Brits ferreted out Kim Philby and his buddies in the early 1950s, most spies uncovered in the West have been singletons), it seems ironclad in television: If you find a Homeland or a Man From U.N.C.L.E., then The Americans or Mission: Impossible will surely be lurking nearby. So it is that another pair of spy shows debut this week. Amazon's Patriot is a droll farce, an espionage version of Fargo. And NBC's Taken is what you might guess, a bloodless 17th-generation clone of the Liam Neeson films about a vengeful CIA veteran, "bloodless" of course being a metaphorical description of the show's spirit and certainly not its special effects. There's much that's odd about Patriot, starting with the fact that Amazon aired the pilot episode in 2015 and is only just now getting around to adding the other nine episodes. Add to that false start the utter disdain for punchlines by creator-writer-director Steve Conrad (He wrote the screenplay for the Will Smith comedy-drama The Pursuit Of Happyness), and the decision to cast the show with mostly unknowns, the single exception being Terry O'Quinn of Lost. Add that all up and it's a wonder that Patriot ever made it to the screen. Happily, it did. Patriot follows the misadventures of a family of CIA spies that's trying to buy an election in Iran; the CIA has feared the leading candidate since he ruthlessly trampled American competitors in Battleship tournaments as a teenager. The lead operative is family scion John Tavner (Australian television star Michael Dorman), who specializes in spying while working as a businessman rather than as a diplomat, a practice known as non-official cover, or NOC. But after a rough year during which, among other things, he shot a hotel maid he mistook for a foreign agent, John's approaching terminal burnout. He's taken to performing folk songs about his intelligence missions at coffee houses—imagine Burl Ives singing about overthrowing the government of Guatemala—and his skills have dulled. He can barely pronounce some of the jargon he must use while posing as a petroleum engineer, much less understand them, and his approaches to both friends and enemies lack a certain finesse. His recruiting pitch to a potential agent, standing in front of a urinal, starts out, "Can you not pee for a moment?" John's family is loyally supporting him in hopes his melancholy will lift. Dad Tom (O'Quinn), the head of the CIA, pushes for more tasteful decoration of the safe houses his son must use, while amiable if mildly cloddish brother Ed (Michael Chernus, Orange Is the New Black), a newbie congressman who still dabbles in the spy game, dispenses helpful career tips. "Keep it safe," he advises as he hands John a suitcase full of money to buy the election. "We can't just send more bags. It's not the 1980s." Banter and repartee are almost completely absent from the relentlessly deadpan Patriot, and to the extent that it has punchlines at all, they're usually delivered by a camera rather than a character. A tense scene that starts with a character's eyes intently studying a video pulls back to reveal it's a YouTube do-it-yourself clip on how to fashion a hangman's noose with which to kill yourself. A panning shot of the homicide bullpen of the Luxembourg police department, which has been tasked with investigating some of John's murders, shows desks filled with nothing but women—it's the dumping ground for affirmative-action female hires, because nobody ever gets murdered in Luxembourg. There are laug[...]

Trump Vs. Leaks May Be More Important Than Trump Vs. Press

Fri, 24 Feb 2017 13:40:00 -0500

When your boss calls you out in public for gossiping about company business: The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security "leakers" that have permeated our government for a long time. They can't even...... — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 24, 2017 find the leakers within the FBI itself. Classified information is being given to media that could have a devastating effect on U.S. FIND NOW — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 24, 2017 Those tweets from President Donald Trump this morning come on the heels of a CNN report that the FBI had refused a request from the Trump administration to publicly push back against previous news reports that associates of Trump's were in contact with Russian officials during the campaign. The White House rejects that characterization and says that FBI representatives came to them to say the news reports were wrong. What the administration asked, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said, is for the FBI to publically state the truth. It's all part of complicated, messy three-party conflict between the administration, leakers or whistleblowers (depending on how you feel about them) within the intelligence community, and the media reporting on all of it. After Trump tweeted out the complaint about leaks this morning, he shifted oddly into accusing the press of making up the sources he had just accused the FBI of being unable to control in his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference today. To wit: [T]hey have no sources, they just make 'em up when there are none. I saw one story recently where they said, "Nine people have confirmed." There're no nine people. I don't believe there was one or two people. Nine people. And I said, "Give me a break." Because I know the people, I know who they talk to. There were no nine people. But they say "nine people." And somebody reads it and they think, "Oh, nine people. They have nine sources." They make up sources. A little later he said: They shouldn't be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody's name. Let their name be put out there. Let their name be put out. Mind you, the Trump administration, like previous administrations, wants to use unnamed sources in the media when it serves its purposes. Indeed, in this very FBI story, the administration was asking for FBI officials to talk to the reporters "on background" to push back on the claims that there were communications with Russian officials. So even though Trump this morning was complaining about leakers, just hours later he's saying that the media is just making up sources. It's not necessarily contradictory—one could believe both of these things depending on the situation or story—but in this case these two complaints seem to be about the same controversy. The Washington Post report about now ex-National Security Adviser Mike Flynn being in contact with Russian officials claimed nine sources. And Flynn resigned over all of this. Obviously Trump is full of crap when he says he knows who the media is talking to or he wouldn't be complaining about the FBI's inability to stop leaking. If he knows who the press talks to, he can just go tell FBI Director James Comey, can't he? But that's not really the point. As several of us have pointed out at Reason, the Trump administration is probably going to be the leakiest in modern history in ways they're not able to control. This is good because it will help keep the administration from operating in secret. It also can potentially be a problem as overly powerful, overly connected, and largely unaccountable bureaucrats and intelligence operatives use the adversarial relationship between Trump and the press to try to influence leadership and decision-mak[...]

Remix Culture Meets the Scolds

Fri, 24 Feb 2017 09:30:00 -0500

(image) These days the internet is littered with political remix videos, but they were still novel when Don Was made "Read My Lips" in 1992. So PBS aired the item—which dinged President George H.W. Bush for breaking his no-new-taxes pledge, among other complaints—and then invited a pair of eminences to discuss this strange new thing they'd just witnessed.

The video itself is only mildly interesting—it may be an early political remix, but it wasn't the first and it's far from the best. But the roundtable is pretty amazing to watch today. Bill Moyers opens, in his TV-for-people-who-say-they-hate-TV way, by asking what "happens to the political sensibilities of young people watching a political discourse like that." The publisher of The Hotline replies that the video "debases the process"; the dean of the Annenberg School for Communication calls it an "invitation to cynicism that I think is very unhealthy." And they both go on from there, condemning in advance the entire media landscape of 2017. I'm not sure 1992 has ever felt as distant as it does while I'm watching this:

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(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)