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Published: Wed, 22 Feb 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Wed, 22 Feb 2017 23:19:11 -0500


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 straitjacket of Perry Como pop, busted-luck hillbilly ballads and monotonous cottonfield blues. Sun Records' nonstop soundtrack makes the point wit[...]

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 decisions from being implemented. Given Trump's dislike of the press, we should be concerned about any ideas from England to make punish[...]

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 trafficking." At that point, however, they had only made prostitution arrests, booking 22 people on prostitution charges on February 2. KHOU al[...]

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 to use fear to diminish support for important constitutional protections that value liberty over the security state. Worry less about wh[...]

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 everything is flying apart, that the center of Legion's world cannot hold. All of Hawley's magnificent visual skills would be for naught, th[...]

Thomas Pynchon, Sitcom Star

Fri, 03 Feb 2017 11:10:00 -0500

(image) Now that television is a certified High Art and Americans binge-watch densely woven intertextual narratives for fun, I wouldn't be surprised if you told me tomorrow that Netflix is releasing a 30-part adaptation of Gravity's Rainbow with an option for a second season. But when I settled in one Tuesday evening in 1993 to watch The John Larroquette Show, a short-lived sitcom about a recovering alcoholic managing a St. Louis bus depot, TV was a medium with more modest ambitions. So I was kind of surprised when, a couple minutes into the episode, it launched into an extended Thomas Pynchon joke. There were places I expected to see references to Pynchon's paranoid postmodern novels, but this was not one of them.

The full episode, called "Newcomer," doesn't seem to be online. (Or rather, it's online only in that cropped-and-slowed-down format that YouTubers use to avoid the copyright police.) But you can see that scene, and a follow-up sequence near the end of the episode, in the clip below. Pynchon himself signed off on the dialogue (which is a little "racially charged," as they say), and there are rumors that the famously camera-shy writer slipped onscreen as an extra. Probably false rumors, but don't let that stop you from searching for him as you enjoy a TV moment so strange that for years I thought I might have dreamed it:

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Bonus links: Pynchon later had two cameos on The Simpsons. Watch 'em here and here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.

A Wayward Order on Religious Freedom and LGBT Issues Makes for Confusing Coverage and Activism

Thu, 02 Feb 2017 14:01:00 -0500

Earlier in the week, the White House put out a statement that President Donald Trump is going to maintain President Barack Obama's executive order prohibiting federal agencies and federal contractors from discriminating against gay and transgender employees. So why are some people afraid this is just a big smoke screen? People might be a little confused at news reports that there's an executive order floating around the White House that does nearly the opposite of what they said they were doing—an order that blows big holes in discrimination policies in order to protect religious freedom. Prior to the White House's announcement on Tuesday that it would be maintaining the order, some media outlets had gotten their hands on something titled "Executive Order—Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom." Even after the White House announcement, civil liberties and LGBT groups expressed concerns about the possibility that despite what Trump declared, something was coming down the line that was going to harm their interests. Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and others even had a media teleconference Wednesday to express concerns about the contents of this semi-mysterious order. Wednesday evening The Nation finally published the executive order that had been circulated within the beltway, along with some analysis by legal and civil rights experts. It's a four-page, broadly-written, and pretty complicated order, both in what it attempts to accomplish and what its hidden consequences may be. There are parts of the executive order fans of religious freedom and freedom of association would support—it spells out that religious organizations (and individuals) cannot be forced comply with mandates to fund birth control or abortions, for example. But it also has some deep constitutional and rule-of-law issues. The order establishes that federal employees (and contractors) must be "reasonably accommodated" for acting or refusing to act in accordance to a set of beliefs outlined within the order. The very particular beliefs protected: Marriage should be reserved to heterosexual couples; biological sex is immutable (in other words, transgenderism isn't real); and life begins at birth conception and abortion is bad. This whole part of the order, then, establishes a particular set of beliefs that are protected by government order. It's not a "religious freedom" order at all. It's saying that the government will recognize and protect a particular set of religious beliefs, which is a violation of the Establishment Clause. It literally establishes a set of religious beliefs the government will give special preference to. Mississippi passed a law with similar carveouts last year. Its implementation has been blocked by a federal judge, for now. So after all that explanation, what is the real story here? Is this order legitimate? Is Trump going to sign it? The answers so far are that yes, the executive order appears to be legitimate and was circulating within federal agencies, but no, the Trump administration is not considering it. At least for now. A White House official told ABC News Trump has no plans to "sign anything at this time." The vague possibility hangs in the air, and so apparently gay and civil rights groups are continuing activism against an the executive order anyway and treating it though it's a Sword of Damocles about to fall at any moment. If these opening weeks of the Trump administration are an indicator, we are going to see a very, very leaky government. In most ways, this is great. It's awesome. Trump certainly doesn't appear to be a fan of transparency (at least not when it's ab[...]

Meet the MSNBC Legal Eagle Who Proposes Destroying the Free Press

Wed, 01 Feb 2017 12:28:00 -0500

It's the early days of a presidency that has openly declared itself to be hostile to the media (and to be fair—the reverse is also true), and Ari Melber, MSNBC's legal correspondent and a lawyer, has what he thinks to be a brilliant idea—let's have the federal government get more involved in evaluating the legitimacy of news. I'm not a big MSNBC viewer, but I'm fairly sure that they haven't suddenly become big supporters Donald Trump's presidency. That's not what Melber is going on about. Rather, what Melber has suggested is that the federal government, particularly the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), can use its authority to protect consumers from fraudulent advertising claims in order to fight the existence of "fake news." He suggests that by classifying disprovable media claims as fraudulent, the government has the authority to intervene. "Fraud" is not considered protected speech. He makes the case in a piece for the New Jersey State Bar Association: To follow First Amendment precedents, the framework could limit the FTC to only regulating posted articles—not seeking prior restraints against future articles—and to only regulate businesses devoted to fraud news. Legally, a focus on deceptive businesses keeps the FTC in the ballpark of commercial speech, patrolling deceptive practices taken in pursuit of commerce. During the election, the most popular fraud news sites were launched by business people, often abroad, enticed by the market online for political news. They were trying to make money, not express any particular view. … Since these sites are clearly operating as businesses, it is logical to regulate their commerce and deceptive practices like any other business. A focus on deceptive businesses would also keep the government away from meddling with actual journalists or citizens exercising their right to lie while engaged in politics. Where to begin here. First of all most media outlets—whether legitimate or "fake"—are trying to make money, most were launched "by business people," and many are not trying to express any particular view. But some are. "Making money" and "expressing any particular view" are neither opposing choices, nor or they determinants of the validity of the existence of a media outlet. And that a media outlet might be a venture designed to make money doesn't mean it suddenly becomes exempt from the First Amendment protections that the government cannot censor the press. But that's just semantics (and frustration at people who work in the media who think they aren't already engaged in acts of commerce). The much bigger, so much more important issue here is what it would actually look like were a government agency to decide that it can use a tool to fight consumer fraud to monitor the legitimacy of news. We already saw what happened when the whole latest outburst about "fake news" happened during the election. People went looking for resources that separated "real" news from "fake" news and we ended up in a place where media outlets with heavily ideological slants were dumped in with media outlets that were deliberately making up stuff. You don't have to go very far to determine what could happen when a politicized apparatus (and every government agency is partly political) can have control over what can be defined as "fraud" when it comes to information. You don't even have to leave this site! Several attorneys general for states across the country have teamed up to go after ExxonMobil for its participation in the larger debate over climate change. They have decided to attempt to prove that ExxonMobil knew more about what was going on with the burning of fossil fuels and the environment and deliberately attempted to mislead investors and customers. They a[...]

Homeschooling Then and Now

Fri, 27 Jan 2017 16:05:00 -0500

(image) When the modern homeschooling movement started to emerge in the 1970s, many jurisdictions considered it a crime to teach your children at home. Today homeschooling is lawful in every state, albeit with different degrees of restrictions. That's one of the great victories for educational choice, and its impact is only increasing. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of homeschooled children has grown from 850,000 in 1999, when the center started to count them, to 1,770,000 in 2011, the last year for which it has done a tally.

We're long past the days when the stereotypical homeschooler was a hippie or a fundamentalist. They're still there, but they've been joined by many members of the American mainstream.

Here's an artifact from the days when homeschooling still seemed novel and strange. It's a 1981 episode of Donahue, and the guests include two homeschooling families and John Holt, a fervent critic of institutional education. Back then, if Holt's estimate on the show is accurate, there were only about 10,000 homeschooling families in the U.S. (That's families, not students. But even if each of those families had a dozen kids, it would still be a big jump from there to 1999's numbers.)

The audience greets the guests with a mixture of interest, skepticism, and sheer fascination. (One woman accuses one of the families of operating a commune.) Phil Donahue, as always, has a ball hopping around and playing devil's advocate. And the video includes the ads from when the program first aired, so you'll also get to see spots for everything from The Muppet Show to the Barnum & Bailey circus (RIP):

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Bonus links: John Holt's one article for Reason, from way back in 1971, is here. The left/right alliance that legalized homeschooling is described here. And past editions of the Friday A/V Club are here.


National School Choice Week runs from January 24 through January 28 and features over 21,000 events involving almost 17,000 schools from all 50 states. Go here for more information about events and for data about how increasing school choice—charters, vouchers, educational savings accounts, and more—is one of the best ways to improve education for all Americans.

As a proud media sponsor of National School Choice Week, Reason is publishing daily articles, podcasts, videos, interviews, and other coverage exploring the ways education is being radically altered and made better by letting more people have more choices about learning. For a constantly updated list of stories, go to Reason's archive page on "school choice."

Stage and Screen Adaptations Launch in Lightweight Week of Television

Fri, 27 Jan 2017 15:00:00 -0500

Superior Donuts. CBS. Thursday, February 2, 8:30 p.m. Powerless. NBC. Thursday, February 2, 8:30 p.m. Training Day. CBS. Thursday, February 2, 10 p.m. In honor of your New Year's resolution to lose weight, the broadcast networks are rolling out a whole night's menu of Television Lite this week, fluffy spinoffs and remakes with minimal caloric intake. It may not be great TV, but it's arguably the best news for dieters since the FDA backed down from its threat to ban saccharine, The best of the bunch is probably CBS' sitcom Superior Donuts, an adaptation of the Tracy Letts stage play about a tattered old donut shop fighting to survive the gentrification of its uptown Chicago neighborhood. Judd Hirsch plays Arthur, the 70-something owner of the shop, which is so frozen in time that its jukebox plays vinyl records—or would, if it hadn't broken down a few decades back. When the gentrification threat hits Defcon 5 with the arrival of a Starbucks down the street, Arthur reluctantly hires his first employee: a street-smart black kid from the neighborhood named Franco (Jermaine Fowler, part of the troupe on TruTV's sketch-comedy Friends of the People). Franco promises that with a little guerrilla marketing, he can "help you bring this place into the 20th century." "You mean the 21st," corrects Arthur. Snaps Franco: "No I don't." Critics who thought the stage production of Superior Donuts was a little too sweet for its own good—and there were a lot of them—are likely to go into insulin shock at this one. In the play, Arthur was an ex-'60s radical whose occasional nostalgic musings about the age of Woodstock sometimes struck a bittersweet note of self-examination about why the world didn't get saved. But if Hirsch's character has any such wild card in his background, it's not on display in the pilot; passion, such as he has, is reserved for rants against the cronut, the macchiato and other modern debasements of the donut trade. Even the quirks of the small group of squirrely customers who keep the shop (barely) alive seem to have been bled out; a guy who carries around a portable fax machine needs aspirin, not Thorazine. Yet Superior Donuts is far from unwatchable. The snappy repartee between the crusty old white owner and his hustling young black employee may not quite draw the blood that the thematically similar Chico and the Man did, but it's not without its chuckles. And Fowler brings a madly exuberant charm to his role that marks him for future stardom. NBC's Powerless is a welcome lampoon of the comic-book superhero genre that may still develop some muscle, though for now it mostly should be called Punchless. It stars Vanessa Hudgens (Spring Breakers) as Emily Locke, the new director of research and development at Wayne Security, a not-very-profitable cog in the ubermachinery of Wayne Enterprises, which is owned by you-know-who. (If you don't know who, Powerless is definitely not the show for you.) Wayne Security's business is selling products that minimize the collateral damage of the various super heroes (all of them from the pages of DC Comics, which licensed the show; don't expect cameos from Spider-Man or Sailor Moon) rampaging around America, knocking down bridges and tossing trains over their shoulders in their brawls with the bad guys. But as Locke learns on her first day on the job, Wayne Security hasn't had a hit since sales of Joker Anti-Venom began lagging a couple of years ago, sending employee morale into a death spiral. Four of her predecessors as R&D chief have already been fired this year. "We'll do whatever you want until No. 6 comes along," says one employee in a tepid vote of confidence that's somewhat undercut when she lear[...]