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Published: Sun, 26 Feb 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Sun, 26 Feb 2017 06:52:42 -0500


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 laughs aplenty in Patriot, but they're delivered at the mellifluous pace of old whiskey rather than the slam-bang of a Belushian beer can crushed against the forehead. There's plenty of slam-bang in Taken, NBC's distant prequel to the trilogy of films, but the result is less a buzz than a headache. Clive Standen, lately of the His[...]

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-making without having to take responsibility. It's all very messy for the press and the public to navigate. Should we spend hours explaining the contents of a leaked executive order on LGBT issues before finding out whether the administration is seriously considering it? When it turns out the administration doesn't approve the o[...]

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.)

Fake News: Finally Somebody Is Doing Something About It!

Thu, 23 Feb 2017 18:00:00 -0500

(image) The world is awash in disinformation being peddling by the "opposition" - uh, journalists. Surely it is past time for a steady hand to dispassionately evaluate "stories" appearing on websites, in newspapers and broadcasts. Fortunately, under the gloriously firm leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Russian Foreign Ministry has bravely stepped forward to shoulder this onerous task. Foreign Ministry disinformation specialists (after all, they should know fake news when they see it) will daily comb the internet for stories that fail to provide the appropriate "alternate facts." Such stories will be identified on the Foreign Ministry's Fake News website with a bright red "Fake News" label. The label is helpfully in English. Readers no longer have to figure out what's real for themselves anymore: The Russian government will do it for them!

According to Engadget, so far the the vigilant watchdogs at the Foreign Ministry have ...

...only attacked outlets in the US and the UK like the New York Times, Bloomberg, the Telegraph, NBC News and the Santa Monica Observer. As the ministry's spokeswoman Maria Zakharova explained to the government's own state-run RIA Novosti news agency, the site is intended to prevent the sharing of articles it believes are inaccurate.

"Here we will make an example of such propaganda dumped by various media outlets, providing links to their sources, and so on," Zakharova said. The site does not, however, explain why Russia's foreign ministry believes the articles are incorrect, it only provides the cryptic message "This material contains data, not corresponding to the truth" and a link to the original article.

In its report on the new Russian information initiative, The New York Times noted: "Seemingly borrowing a practice from President Trump, Russia appears to be labeling as fake any articles it dislikes." Surely that story is just ripe for a big red stamp!

Funding for Public Broadcasting Is Just 0.01 Percent of the Federal Budget. It Should Still Be Eliminated.

Thu, 23 Feb 2017 17:43:00 -0500

About 70 percent of federal funding for public broadcasting goes to subsidize the operations of about 1400 local radio and television stations that primarily just rebroadcast national programs to their surrounding communities. The money isn't primarily going to programming, which is why slogans like "Save Big Bird!" miss the point. If the Trump administration were to eliminate federal funding for public broadcasting, shows like Frontline, Nature, All Things Considered, and Fresh Air would survive. (As would America's favorite 8-foot yellow canary, who recently migrated to HBO anyway.) These 1400 stations—a vast, taxpayer-supported distribution network—are becoming increasingly unnecessary now that viewers like you can access NPR and PBS programming through the internet. As I argued in a recent video, federal funding is actually making it harder for PBS, NPR, and their affiliated content producers to fully embrace the Netflix-like approach to distribution that would best serve their audiences. Those who truly love Big Bird (and don't want to see PBS further cannibalized by media organizations with more robust revenue models) should favor eliminating federal funding. A common argument in favor of the status quo is that the $445 million devoted to public broadcasting amounts to just 0.01 percent of a $4 trillion federal budget. But just because something's comparatively cheap doesn't mean it's worth buying year after year. Writing for the Nieman Journalism Lab, Nicholas Quah makes an even weaker case for maintaining government support for public broadcasting. "Epstein may well be right that pulling federal funding might lead to more efficient and innovative outcomes," Quah writes in reference to my video. The problem is that "evolution necessarily yields losers:" [The argument] never really fully reckons with and takes responsibility of the human cost of the resulting layoffs, the organizational complexity attached to structural transitions, and the simple fact that evolution necessarily yields losers — which is fine if we're talking about markets distributing doorknobs, but totally sucks for markets distributing public goods like civic-oriented news, emergency signals, and supplemental forms of public education. Look, I'm as critical about the public broadcasting system's predisposition for inertia and its many, many, many problems as the next guy, but I'd much rather see a transition to the future that takes place under conditions of strength and volition, not one under unnecessary duress and survival. First of all, the local stations wouldn't disappear all at once without federal funding. Revenue and cost-savings through the recent FCC spectrum sale could keep even poorer rural stations up and running for years. And yet this "transition to the future," as Quah puts it, would eventually cause most to shut down, leading to some "duress." Quah should familiarize himself with one of capitalism's foundational theories, Joseph Schumpeter's concept of "creative destruction," which holds that the market process that brings an ever rising standard of living inevitably leaves some people worse off. The takeaway from Quah's piece: The case for maintaining federal funding for public broadcasting is to save—not Big Bird—but the jobs of the people who work in the industry. Watch "Why Government Funding Hurts PBS and NPR:" src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0">[...]

Why Government Funding Hurts PBS and NPR

Fri, 17 Feb 2017 15:20:00 -0500

If the federal government were to cut off funding for public broadcasting, the programs that so many of us cherish not only wouldn't disappear, they would have a better chance of surviving long into the future. In 1967, President Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act, establishing a system of government subsidies that hasn't changed that much in fifty years. The lion-share of federal money was allocated—not to pay directly for programming—but to go to independent public television and radio stations that were established in every corner of a vast nation. Their main purpose has always been to distribute national content to their local communities. About 70 percent of government funding went directly the local stations in 1967. Fifty years later, that formula hasn't changed much. 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. It's not just that these stations have become a waste of taxpayer money—they also present an obstacle to online distribution. The advent of podcasting, for example, was a singular opportunity for NPR to capitalize big on a new way of distributing its rich content. Today, NPR publishes several of the top podcasts, but in a concession to the stations, it forbids show hosts from promoting podcasts on the radio or from even mentioning NPR's popular smartphone app. Station opposition is also the reason that podcast listeners can't download episodes of NPR's two top programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Recently, some of public radio's most talented show hosts and producers have gone to work for private podcasting ventures. One reason to leave, says former-NPR reporter Adam Davidson, is that podcasters "have a creative freedom that NPR's institutional frictions simply can't allow." The fact is that without federal subsidies, the programs themselves could thrive. About 40 percent of funding for public television comes from private contributions (individuals, foundations, and businesses). For public radio, it's about 60 percent. Without the massive overhead cost of 1,400 local public radio and television stations, that revenue would more than cover the cost of producing the programs and then distributing them for free online. And yet fans of PBS and NPR might ultimately be even better served if they were to privatize and charge a monthly subscription fee—moving in the same direction as the rest of the media. (In this scenario, the PBS stations that produce national content, such as WNET and WGBH, would become production companies.) Either way, ending federal funding not only won't destroy the only thing that's worth saving about public broadcasting. It could very well be its salvation. (Disclosure: I was a producer at WNET, the PBS flagship station in New York City, from 2002 to 2009.) -------------- Produced by Jim Epstein; production assistance from Ian Keyser. Subscribe to our YouTube channel. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes.[...]

Great Balls of Fire, Sun Records Puts on a Show

Fri, 17 Feb 2017 15:00:00 -0500

The Good Fight. CBS. Sunday, February 19, 8 p.m. Sun Records. CMT. Thursday, February 23, 10 p.m. "All rock 'n' roll came out of Sun Records!" declares Jerry Lee Lewis in the opening moments of CMT's bopping new miniseries. Like a lot of things in Sun Records, it's not quite true, but you'll be too busy dancing to care. Sun Records rocks! Filling out the early-1950s birth certificate of rock 'n' roll is no easy task. Did the water break in Chicago, where Chuck Berry was underlining his tone poems about the lives of an emerging demographic, the teenagers, with a jangling guitar? Or Philadelphia, where Bill Haley was punching up western swing music with machine-gun saxophone lines? Or West Texas, where Buddy Holly's nerd glasses distracted parents from his ragged cries to their kids to rave on? Memphis, perched just above the Mississippi Delta at a strategic spot where icy bluesmen and hillbilly shouters were bound to collide, has as good a claim as any of them. And Sam Phillips, owner of the corner-store Sun Records, if not the father of rock 'n' roll, was surely its midwife. Phillips in 1951 cut what is perhaps the first rock 'n' roll record, Jackie Brenston's Rocket 88 (though fans of Wynonie Harris' 1949 Good Rockin' Tonight will argue the point unto death and beyond). He discovered and signed Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins, then eventually lost them all because his mom-and-pop business instincts never rose to the epic level of his artistic vision. Three generations past the rise of rock 'n' roll, the thrill of its rise—the most exciting cultural revolution in American history—is in danger of being forgotten in an age of fans who don't know who Paul McCartney or Wings are, much less that he was in a band before that. But Sun Records is more than up to the task of its tale. The 10-episode miniseries starts out in 1951, just as Phillips is turning away from a successful career as a radio-station engineer to concentrate on his bandbox recording studio. Moving away from his bread-and-butter business of taping funerals and weddings, Phillips starts encouraging musical acts he spots in the down-and-dirty clubs along Beale Street, the main artery of Memphis' black nightlife. But his efforts are met with relentless hostility by record distributors, radio stations, parents and even his own wife. "I swear I heard the heavens open up," he exclaims as he plays his newest record for his wife. Sniffs she: "Sounds like the gate to Hell to me." Intercut with Phillips' story in Memphis are scenes of simmering discontent from a restless post-war generation. In rural Arkansas, a teenage Johnny Cash is trying to escape not only the fields where his parents sharecrop, but the dead-end schools where the three R's are reading, writing and the road to Detroit in hopes of a job on an automobile assembly line. In Louisiana, an adolescent Jerry Lee Lewis and his priapic-TV-evangelist-to-be cousin Jimmy Swaggart are sneaking into whorehouses to ogle the girls and, in the process, inadvertently picking up a thing or two about jump-blues piano. Back in a public-housing project, shy high-school kid Elvis Presley's cultural tourism is taking the opposite direction: He's slipping away from sermons at his own church to listen to the gospel singing at a black congregation on the other side of town. And in Nashville, Presley's soon-to-be manager, carny barker Tom Parker, has hustled his way from a gig with nickel-a-peek dancing ducks ("You shoot 'em! You eat 'em! You chase 'em around the yard! You see 'em in the pool! But you ain't never seen 'em dance!") to promoting country crooner Eddy Arnold. The backdrops to the inexorable march of these characters toward a rendezvous with musical destiny are the racially constricted South, still strictly segregated right down to the water-fountain level, and the music industry, locked in its own straitjacke[...]

The Social Media of 1939

Fri, 17 Feb 2017 12:43:00 -0500

(image) In the first two decades of the 20th century, a new subculture embraced a new technology. Ham radio operators built their own transmitters, traded and modified each other's designs, negotiated complicated covenants that let them share the unregulated ether, and formed groups to enforce the rules. They battled the military (figuratively speaking) for the right to use the airwaves, and they invented broadcasting at a time when virtually everyone assumed that radio would be used only for point-to-point communication. They were often young, often anonymous, and often prone to pranks. They were the social media of a century ago, and you can draw whatever parallels you'd like between their subculture and the subcultures of today.

Before long the government would be regulating the airwaves, broadcasting would be professionalized, and the ham operators would be confined to their own segment of the spectrum, where the rules they followed became more strict. But on that reservation they kept their kind of social media alive. Here is an artifact from that middle period of amateur radio, after the anarchic early era but before it stopped seeming unusual to hear live voices from another side of the world: a 1939 "Pete Smith specialty" called Radio Hams.

Smith, then famous and now forgotten, narrated dozens of short films in the '30s, '40s, and '50s, the bulk of which were comedies. There is some comedy here, but it's mostly serious—we even get a couple of deaths:

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Yes, it's kind of awkwardly made. (This was a common hazard in the Pete Smith series.) If you'd like to see a more lyrical piece of filmmaking about the Depression-era hams, you'd do better to watch the 1938 picture Love Finds Andy Hardy. Most of the movie is unexceptional, but—to quote my old obit for Mickey Rooney—"about an hour into the picture, there's a quietly engrossing amateur-radio sequence, a wonderful moment that belongs in the syllabus of any class on the prehistory of cyberspace." I unfortunately can't embed that series of scenes, but if you want to watch the whole film you can find it here.

Bonus links: I found that Pete Smith short via this essay at Ken Dowell's blog off the leash. Dowell's post also quotes my book Rebels on the Air, which includes a long discussion of the early days of amateur radio. But the bit he cites is on another subject: unlicensed community radio in northern Canada.

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

Refugee Rape Mobs on New Year's Eve Were a Hoax, Say German Police

Wed, 15 Feb 2017 09:52:00 -0500

(image) According to German tabloid Bild, a "rioting sex mob"—composed largely of Arab refugees—wreaked havoc on the city of Frankfurt during this year's New Year's Eve celebrations, groping and sexually assaulting dozens of women. The story quickly made an international splash. Now police say it's "completely baseless," an invention of Frankfurt restaurant owner Jan May and a woman identified as Irina A.

The original report claimed that at least 50 men, mostly thought to be refugees from Middle Hessia, overtook May's restaurant and others in a shopping area of Frankfurt known as the Fressgass. The men allegedly began robbing patrons, reaching under women's skirts, and worse in a sexual-assault free-for-all.

On Tuesday, Frankfurt police confirmed to the Frankfurter Rundschau that Irina had not even been present in Frankfurt on New Year's Eve. And interrogations of other witnesses led police to doubt the story in its entirety. They now believe the accusations were "without foundation" and "there were no... attacks by masses of refugees."

"Masses of refugees were not responsible for any sexual assaults in the Fressgass over New Year," police said, according to English-language Euro paper The Local. "The accusations are completely baseless." May and Irina are currently under investigation by police for making up the incidents, the paper says.

Meanwhile, Bild—a publication accused by Germany's left of routinely stoking anti-immigrant sentiment—published a statement on its website Tuesday saying the paper "apologizes expressly for the untruthful article and the accusations made in it. This article in no way met the journalistic standards of Bild." On Twitter, Bild Editor-in-Chief Julian Reichelt apologized and said there would be consequences at the paper.

U.K. Considers War on Leaks by Criminalizing Even Receiving Secret Gov’t Info

Tue, 14 Feb 2017 12:10:00 -0500

As the United Kingdom puts into place a law increasing the government's secret access to private citizen digital data, a commission is also making recommendations that could increase criminal penalties for exposing information the government wants to keep to itself. The Law Commission, an independent U.K. agency that puts together recommendations to reform the legal code, is in the midst of suggesting updates to the laws that monitor and punish leaks of sensitive government data. It just put out a massive report that among other things, recommends the possibility of increasing criminal penalties from a two-year maximum to maybe 14 years depending on the situation. It also suggests the idea that simply receiving sensitive information can be worthy of criminal penalties, not just disseminating it. And it warns against the creation of a specific statutory defense where those accused of violating the law could claim disseminating the government information was in the public's interest. The Guardian, the U.K.-based newspaper which broke the initial stories about the surveillance information leaked by Edward Snowden, noted that this seemed very much like an effort to target whistleblowers in the media in order to protect state secrets. In addition to the concerns about the recommendations, apparently the Law Commission is acting as though it had "consulted" media and civil liberties groups, but those parties say they just had what they thought were less formal discussions about it: The Guardian also held only one preliminary meeting with the government's legal advisers and was not consulted before being listed in the report. A spokesperson said: "The proposals to threaten journalists and whistleblowers with draconian punishment, combined with powers just introduced in the [2016] Investigatory Powers Act to surveil journalists without their knowledge, represent a further attack on freedom of expression. "We are surprised that a roundtable discussion with the Law Commission, which they billed as a 'general chat', has been described as formal consultation, and concerned that despite being told that we would be informed about the progress of these plans, the first we knew about them was when the law commissioner put pen to paper in the Daily Telegraph last week." Killock said: "This is a full-frontal attack, recommending criminalising even examining secret services' material. The intention is to stop the public from ever knowing that any secret agency has ever broken the law. The government is already stepping back a bit from the recommendations. This process began under the previous administration and was inherited by U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May. A source told The Guardian that it would not be the government's policy to attempt to punish journalists and public service whistleblowers. But the law to increase the surveillance authorities by British government agencies was entirely May's baby. She fought for it prior to becoming prime minister and essentially brought the Investigatory Powers Act with her. She is a surveillance state-supporting leader, and British citizens should be deeply suspicious of her intent when it comes to protecting their rights. Over here in the United States, in the wake of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigning over leaks of conversations between him and the Russian government, we have this tweet from President Donald Trump: The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N.Korea etc? — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 14, 2017 Trevor Timm today notes over at the Columbia Journalism Review that even with an administration in office for less than a month, leaks to the media are playing an important role in preventing some potentially dangerous policies or [...]

ShondaLand-style Drama Comes to CBS with Doubt

Fri, 10 Feb 2017 15:00:00 -0500

(image) Doubt. CBS. Wednesday, February 15, 10 p.m.

Now that Shonda Rimes' production company ShondaLand has completely engulfed and devoured ABC, the rest of television has been waiting to see who would be the next hapless, helpless mouse in the python's ruthless jaws. Now we know: ShondaLand will soon be sucking the video marrow from the crushed bones of CBS as the ghosts of Walter Cronkite and Jed Clampett shriek from their basement refuge.

Sure, technically speaking, CBS' new legal drama Doubt is not a ShondaLand production. But series co-creators Joan Rater and Tony Phelan, between them, have logged 14 years on the ShondaLand juggernaut Grey's Anatomy, and star Katherine Heigl is its prodigal daughter, returned to TV after frittering away her Grey's stardom in the whorish, un-Shondaized world of film. So go ahead, CBS, keep shouting that it's not Shonda until the only thing we can see of you is your toes frantically wiggling as they slide down the python's gullet.

That all said, you can do a lot worse in television than ShondaLand, as CBS has spent decades proving with its endless parade of CSI and NCIS clones. Doubt has its interesting moments, and Heigl, despite her recent run of box-office disasters (seriously, excluding people who accidentally walked into the wrong theater, is there anybody who saw One for the Money?) remains a capable and appealing actress.

Format-wise, Doubt doesn't differ much from any legal drama made since the days of L.A. Law. You've got a nobly idealistic transgender lawyer (transgender actress Laverne Cox, Orange Is The New Black), a quirky lawyer who got his degree while in prison (Kobi Libii, Madame Secretary), a cold-bloodedly pragmatic lawyer (Dule Hill, Psych), and an ambitious young lawyer (Dreama Walker, Gossip Girl).

The firm is bookended by Isaiah Roth (Elliott Gould), an aging '60s radical who still gets jailed for contempt a couple of times a week for screaming "Fascist!" at judges, and Heigl as Sadie Ellis, whose impressive legal skills do not include keeping her emotions in check.

The relationship between Isaiah and Sadie is much more complicated than it first appears. And it's complicated by the fact that she's falling for a client (Steven Pasquale, Rescue Me)—a do-gooder pediatric surgeon accused of killing his college girlfriend 24 years ago when they were teenagers—despite growing evidence that he might be guilty. Sadie's blithe confidence that nice people don't do bad things worries Isaiah, whose political commitment led him into a similar mistake with another client several decades ago, at great and continuing cost.

The conflict between idealism and reality runs through Doubt like a bright thread, sometimes restated in explicitly political terms. Sometimes the firm's lawyers seem to be giving their clients short shrift in deference to dubious leftist shibboleths about community. Is "snitching" really the word for testifying against a gang-banger murderer?

That piquant political dilemma, coupled with the increasingly jagged story line of Sadie's dubious romance, keep Doubt more watchable than it probably has a right to be. And what's the use of arguing, anyway? Forget it, Jake, it's ShondaLand.

All the News That's Fit to Fake

Tue, 07 Feb 2017 10:45:00 -0500

Ricardo Bilton, a staff writer at the Nieman Journalism Lab, read my book about the history of conspiracy theories and decided it might help put the current debate about "fake news" in perspective. So last week he interviewed me, and this week an edited version of our conversation went online. Here's an excerpt:

(image) BILTON: So you're optimistic about about media's ability stop fake news from spreading?

WALKER: I looked historically at some of these rumors that floated around in the early 1940s. There was, for example, this idea that blacks in the south were organizing to take over once World War II was over and Hitler would put them in charge. It sounds like the most absurd sort of fake news rumor of today. The thing is it wasn't being circulated online where someone could read it and then easily Google it or click over to Snopes to see the debunking. It was just being talked about face-to-face as a rumor, and that's how it spread.

So, yeah, I'm actually moderately optimistic, because the fact that everyone is talking about fake news and on the lookout for it shows there's more of an awareness of it and how people can be fooled. Obviously, tons of false stories are circulating, but it's easier than before to identify them, and debunk them, and counteract them. I don't know whether it's true that the debunking is doing the job, but the people writing the debunking stories are at least being somewhat empowered in a way they weren't before...

Bilton also asked about political partisanship's effect on people's willingness to believe false reports. After agreeing that yes, partisanship can fuel confirmation bias, I noted another force at work:

For a lot of people, the real assumption that they bring to the news, even beyond their partisan affiliations, is an expectation of a smooth narrative. They expect news stories to look like the movies or TV shows that they're familiar with. Even if they're regular journalism consumers, the stories they remember best are these well done stories that tell a compelling narrative and make them feel like they're watching a movie or TV show.

In reality, stories are messy and have real loose ends. That's the real bias that readers have to combat, and it's something that people in the media have to think about. Because, on the one hand we want to provide good, compelling narratives, but on the other hand, we don't want people to think they live in this world that's made up of these easy, compelling narratives. They don't.

To read the rest, go here. For more from me on "fake news," go here and here. And if you missed Joe Uscinski's recent Reason story about the fake-news debate, be sure to check that out here.

No Super Bowl Sex-Trafficking Hordes in Houston

Tue, 07 Feb 2017 08:30:00 -0500

In the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, the usual cabal of activists, government officials, and click-hungry hacks in the media began their annual process of entirely fabricating an epidemic of Super Bowl-related sexual violence. Once upon a time, the (wholly unsubstantiated) rumor was that domestic violence spiked during big sporting events like the Super Bowl, but for the past decade or so the hysteria has coalesced around sex trafficking. To hear the hysterics tell it, thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of sex-selling women will flock like cockroaches to cities where sports-fans gather, and only some will be there willingly; the rest, including many children, are trucked in by opportunistic pimps and traffickers. As ample people have pointed out—see these pieces from author and sex worker Maggie McNeill, theology scholar Benjamin L. Corey, sports writer Jon Wertheim, and journalist Anna Merlan, for starters, or check out this 2011 report from the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women—there's not a shred of evidence to support this rumor about sports-related spikes in sex trafficking. Any examinations of actual arrest data in Super Bowl cities shows no corresponding spike in sex trafficking, compelling prostitution, or any other similar charge—despite the verifiable spike in law-enforcement and media attention to the issue. Sometimes we see spikes in the number of women arrested for prostitution, but this could be attributed as much to an uptick in vice stings around Super Bowl as an increase in local prostitution levels (and is, regardless, not the same thing as a spike in sex trafficking). Super Bowl 2017 was held in Houston, which sits in Harris County, Texas. Each day, the county posts its previous 24-hours worth of arrests on the Harris County Sherrif's Office (HCSO) website. The arrest report for February 6, 2017, contains more than 11 pages of arrests, including 12 for prostitution, a lot of DUI and driving-on-a-suspended-license charges, some marijuana possession, several assaults, theft, forgery, driving without a seatbelt, one "parent contributing to truancy," and a few for racing on the highway. The February 7 HSCO arrest log shows three arrests for prostitution. But neither reveals a single arrest for sex trafficking, soliciting a minor, pimping, promoting prostitution, compelling prostitution, or any other charges that might suggest forced or voluntary sex trade. The Houston Police Department (HPD) does not post arrest logs online, and I unable to obtain any numbers from them directly. I spoke with HPD's public affairs office Monday morning and was told someone would get back to me once the vice department had tallied the numbers, but I have yet to get a response. But the public affairs officer also pointed me to the Harris County District Clerk's Office, which contains case information for people arrested by all in-county police departments, including HPD. Between the Saturday before the Super Bowl and the Tuesday morning after, no criminal complaints were filed against anyone for sex trafficking, soliciting a minor, pimping, promoting prostitution, compelling prostitution, etc. Falcons and Patriots aren't the only teams at the stadium today- we're proud to work #SB51 with @HoustonPolice @HCSOTEXAS #partners — FBI Houston (@FBIHouston) February 5, 2017 Searching police statements and Houston media likewise turns up no post-Super Bowl mention of sex trafficking, though the subject made plenty of news just before the big game. "As Houston starts to party, there are extra eyes on the crowds," KHOU news reported Thursday after talking to HPD Chief Art Acevado. "Undercover officers are looking for everything from prostitution to human traffic[...]

Trump’s Belief That Terrorist Attacks Have Been Concealed Has Implications Beyond Media Feud

Mon, 06 Feb 2017 17:15:00 -0500

Today in eye-popping comments by President Donald Trump: In a speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, Trump said terror attacks have gotten so bad that the media is not reporting it. This is a deliberate choice by the media, he seems to argue, to mislead people. From The Hill: "It's gotten to a point where it's not even being reported," he told a group of senior commanders. "And in many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn't want to report it." The president implied that media organizations have an ulterior motive to bury coverage of the attacks. "They have their reasons and you understand that," he said. Trump provided no evidence to back up his comments. Terror attacks both at home and abroad often spark blanket coverage on cable news networks, newspapers and online outlets. These comments are immediately being cast as the latest salvo in Trump's war on the media. Stephanie Slade noted this morning Trump's Twitter blitz against negative polls that indicate popular opposition to his leadership so far. While Trump's obsession with the media's portrayal of him may have influenced these comments, it's probably more important to take a step back and take a look at the bigger picture here. We should worry less about the implications on a free press here and more about the implications on other civil liberties. Trump has consistently argued that the world is much more dangerous than the data represents to those who pay attention. The White House website pointed out its law enforcement section that murders jumped 50 percent in in 2015, but ignored that they dropped in 2016. His immigration crime and terror fear-mongering is heavily influenced by the idea that there are unforeseen threats. Trump's response to having his executive action overruled as an abridgement to due process is to claim that the judge responsible is putting "our country in such peril." If something "bad" happens (and something bad is ultimately going to happen at some point because security is not a perfectible thing), he says it will be the judge's fault. Damon Root noted on Sunday Trump's attack on judicial review. Trump is using a belief that the world is hostile, violent, and dangerous to justify measures that ignore the constitutional restraints that give people protection from too much government power. To insist that we are in danger is to give credence to an argument that we must take any measure to become more safe, protections of the Fourth and Fifth Amendment be damned. The data doesn't support the argument that the United States is in an increasing amount of danger. Implicating the press as having an active, conspirational role in concealing threats is a way to rhetorically get around that barrier. Ironically, many Americans believe they're in more danger of crime than they actually are and that's because the media covers violent crime and terrorism so much and so extensively. In an even further irony, to the extent that crimes are concealed from the public, it can frequently be the result of secrecy or spin from the government itself, not the press at all. It wasn't the press responsible for trying to present the Fort Hood shooting by Nidal Hassan as "workplace violence." (One my more frustrating experiences as a small town newspaper editor was having to explain to people that journalists actually have little leverage at making government agencies give up information at the snap of our fingers, regardless of what the open records laws say.) When we look at Trump's war with the press, it's easy but also superficial to worry just about the implications on free speech. The effort to suggest that there are more terrorist attacks than have been reported by the media is an attempt [...]

Legion Breaks from Its Comic Book Roots with Hallucinogenic Weirdness

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

APB. Fox. Monday, February 6, 9 p.m. Legion. FX. Wednesday, February 8, 10 p.m. No television network rolls the dice with more abandon than FX. Originally conceived as a way to wring a few last nickels out of Fox's massive library of old action movies and television series, FX went rogue early the new millenium, offering up a steady stream of envelope-shredding programming that was as unhinged as it was excellent. Killer cops as heroes! Enema slapstick! Self-fellatio! So when FX announced it was embracing television's obsession with comic-book super heroes, you knew there'd be a catch. And Legion is a big one, in every sense of the word, a rollicking psychedelic trip of a show that washes over you like a vat of Ken Kesey Kool Aid. Splashy, free-associative and generally as nuts as its schizophrenic characters, Legion is as delirious and dazzling as television gets. Legion is based oh-so-loosely on the Marvel Comics character David Haller, a minor character in the X-Men comic-book family, so tangential that Marvel's studio gladly licensed him away rather than hanging on to him for one of its own films. And, on paper, you can see why. Dogged by hallucinations and fearfully violent temper tantrums since early childhood, Haller has been in and out of mental hospitals his whole life. His latest stay (in an institution with the suggestive name Clockworks) has lasted five years and shows no sign of ending, and Haller is increasingly resigned to a life of over-medication and locked rooms. That is, until a new inmate, pretty blonde Syd Barrett (the TV series Fargo), shows up. Though Syd's particular neurosis (she can't stand to be touched, even slightly) is not exactly conducive to romance, they quickly become a couple. Syd, however, is frustrated by Haller's acceptance that he belongs inside the hospital. "What if your problems aren't in your head? What if they aren't even problems?" she challenges him. What if "that's what makes you, you"? It's difficult to explain in any detail what happens after that without major spoilage of surprises that writer-director Noah Hawley has gone to extraordinary lengths to create. Suffice it to say that Haller does have some extraordinary powers, though it remains unclear whether they're the cause or the result of his derangement. Whichever is the case, they make him the object of multiple conspiracies, at least one of them lethally hostile, and the action rolls along at a quickening pace. There's another very good reason to not explain too much: There's a good chance I'd be wrong. Even more than the delusional cybervigilante Elliot Alderson of Mr. Robot, Haller is an unreliable narrator. The lurid, paranoid hallucinations that frequently detour or derail his train of thought make it nearly impossible to be certain what's real or true at any given moment. When a crowd of milling mental patients suddenly assembles into a Bollywood dance number, is that a schizophrenic's symbolic speech? A religious epiphany? Or just unglued synapses firing off in random patterns? Haller's disordered mind is interwoven into nearly every frame of Legion; hazy memory fragments dissolve into delusions and then dreams. Voices speed up, slow down; things break and crash; memories unspool, then abruptly rewind. Entire characters may be hallucinations. Watching Legion is fascinating, and at times, enervating. Hawley's liquid camera work and stutter-step editing effortlessly track the course of Haller's meandering thoughts; a wall turns into the top of a ping-pong table into another character. And everything from the show's wardrobe to its vehicles to its soundtrack is full of purposeful anachronisms that lend an almost subliminal sense that eve[...]