Wednesday, November 29, 2006

When Race Is a Four-Letter Word


I was in a restaurant the other night with a friend, who happens to be African-American, when a stranger, who was white, came up and said,"Terrible about that Michael Richards thing."

He apparently felt compelled to apologize to every black person he saw for the former "Seinfeld" comic's infamous racist comments that were front page news recently.

It was an odd encounter but I had to give the stranger marks for his sincerely.Which is more than I can say for Richards, and his partner incrime, Mel Gibson.

I can't look into a person's heart to determine the goodness or evil that resides therein. But when actors Richards and Gibson apologized for their unrelated but equally virulent racist tirades, I didn't believe a word of it.

Oh, I believe they're sorry. Sorry they attempted career suicide.

But I have never heard anyone engage in the kind of rants these two mouthed who deep down inside didn't believe that race is a four-letter word.

Kramer blamed a black heckler for his tirade, saying he lost his temper. I've been mad at people who just so happen to be black. I've been mad at Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. I've been mad at Ward Connerly. I've been mad at Harry Bellafonte and Bill Cosby. I've been mad at Koby and Shaq.

But unlike Richards, I've never resorted to using cheap racial slurs or to yearn for the good old days when lynch mobs roamed the American countryside.

Hatred, pain and degradation aren't valid debating techniques. And if that's all you can resort to, you've already lost the battle.

Some of this boorish behavior is attributable to the anything-goes atmosphere at comedy clubs where you get can soar past the boundaries of taste, as long as the audience thinks you're funny. But Richards wasn't funny. In fact, he was scary.

``It's a first time for me to talk to an African American like that - that's a first time for me,'' Richards said earlier this week. But reports have surfaced that Richard also engaged in an anti-Semitic rant this year at a comedy club. That makes him at least a two-time loser and one whose excuses ring shallow.

Gibson was full of tequila when he laid blame for the world's problems at the feet of the Jews. But even that has become a crutch.

Gibson said that he has "battled the disease of alcoholism for all of my adult life and profoundly regret my horrific relapse." He added, "Please know from my heart that I am not an anti-Semite. I am not a bigot."

But, as Pliny the Elder wrote in AD77, "In vino, veritas", or "Inwine, there is truth". Meaning that Gibson's views weren't formed by Jose Cuervo.

His is what they call a non-apology apology. Bruce McCall, in a 2001 New York Times piece, defined the term as referring to "sufficiently artful double talk" to enable you to "get what you want by seeming to express regret while actually accepting no blame."

Besides, Gibson can be frightening when he's sober. After Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote that Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" would inflame anti-Semitism, Gibson told The New Yorker, "I want to kill him. I want his intestines on a stick. I want to kill his dog."

It is apparent that while Gibson may suffer from the disease of alcoholism, he suffers from the disease of prejudice as well.

I do not long for world in which we all wear the heavy coat ofpolitical correctness. But I do long for a world where Michael Richards and Mel Gibson and all those like them will look inward and resolve the issues that have left them bitter and hateful.

When they do, it will be a better world.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Hard to Digest


In a week devoted to eating, there were a few morsels left overfor a news hungry public to digest.

The first was the unholy alliance between Rupert Murdoch and O.J. Simpson who had teamed up in an attempt to bomb American culture back to theStone Age with ``If I Did It,'' an "imaginary confession" in which Simpson was to have described how he would have killed his ex-wife in a combinationbook/TV interview package.

The project caused such widespread revulsion that even Murdoch, no stranger to bad taste, had to pull the plug on it.

``I and senior management agree with the American public that this was an ill-considered project,'' explained Murdoch, whose News Corp. ownsboth Fox Broadcasting and the book's publisher. Of course, a dozen Fox network affiliates said they would not air the two-part sweeps month special, and numerous stores had either declined to sell the book or had promised to donate any profits to charity.

The bottom line is that no self-respecting advertiser would have participated in this travesty. And with no advertising, there are noprofits.

Just in case you thought Murdoch had suddenly grown some moral backbone.

After all, he oversees a network that has brought us such reality offerings as "Playing It Straight," in which a female college student was asked to sort through 14 men, most of them gay, to find the straight one who would be the love of her prime-time life, not to mention "My Big Fat Obnoixous Boss" and "When Animals Attack."

As for Simpson, he'd perform as a trained seal if the money was right. We all know he needs the cash so he can continue the hunt for his wife's killer, a search that appears to take place mostly on golf courses.

And finally, never underestimate the entrepeneurial instincts ofthe our fellow Americans. Even though Simpson's book was pulled off the market, a copy showed up this week for sale on eBay for $4000.

Meanwhile, back in Chicago, the Cubs, with much flourish, proudly announced they had signed free-agent outfielder Alfonse Soriano for$136 million over eight years. The team has spent $200 million on player salaries in the last week or so.

The thing to remember here is that the Cubs are owned by theTribune Co., the same folks who own and have been slowly strangling the life out of the Los Angeles Times, threatening to turn a once-proud paper into the Penny Saver.

Apparently, the boys back in Chicago favor runs over reporters and pitching over Pulitzers.

Despite an alarming decline in circulation at the Times, theTribune folks plan to cut back the staff even more, apparently deciding that the answer to an increasingly dissastified readership is to give them even less. Meanwhile, the employees at Times, which has achieved more success in the last five years than the Cubs have in the last 100, must wish they would have spent more time learning to hit a curve ball.

And let's hear it for Michael Richards, the comic who did the impossible this week. In one profanity-laced, racist rant, Richards made Mel Gibson look like Mahatma Gandhi.

Richards, who gaind fame as Kramer on the "Seinfeld" TV series, apparently didn't take kindly to a couple of hecklers during his stand-up routine at the Laugh Factory. He unleashed a tirade directed at the hecklers, whowere black, that was so vitriolic it would have made George Wallace blush.

His career in shambles, he apologized the next day. Next we can expect Richards to enroll in an anger management program, blame alcohol and claim he was molested by a priest.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Hard Times


I spent Wednesday commiserating.

I commiserated with Republican friends distressed by Democratic victories on election night.

I commiserated with friends at the Los Angeles Times whose immediate futures may be bleaker than the Republican Party.

The Republicans lost the battle because of the war. I guess that "shock and awe" strategy works both ways. But two years from now, the issues that shape the election could be completely different. And so could the outcome.

That is not to understate the enormity of what happened Tuesday night. The Republicans have been in charge of the House since 1994 and ruled the Senate for most of that period. And it ended with an alarming suddenness. Good-bye evangelicals. Welcome back Dixie Chicks.

The people have spoken. But the people's political memory is short. After all, the voters spoke just two years ago, sweeping Bush back into the White House.

And truth be told, the Democratic strategy at this point, especially concerning the war, is just as unclear as the President's. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, over at the Times, uncertainty also reigns. All you need to know about the Tribune Co.'s stewardship of the paper is that they chose tofire Dean Baquet, the LA Times editor, during election week, usually the most chaotic and stressful time of the year in the news business. This is tantamount to ejecting the pilot on final approach to LAX.

In the meantime, the Tribune folks, who also canned the publisher last month because he objected to further staff reductions, threaten more cuts at the paper at the same time its circulation is plunging. You don't save the Titanic by slicing another hole in the hull. But that seems to be the Tribune business model.

It takes a lot of people to cover an area the size of Southern California and maintain bureaus throughout the U.S. and the world. It also takes a big commitment and a lot of money. The last two are in short supply these days at the Times.

Perhaps it is inevitable. I worked for more than 30 years at the Times, a golden era when, under the leadership of Otis Chandler, the organization made money by the truckload and spent it just as fast.

That is not reality in this business. At another paper I worked for, we taped pencils back to back so we could continue to use them even as they became stubs, thereby delaying replacement costs.

Tribune executives complained that the Times was slow to realize the economic realities facing the business today. There may be some truth to that, a hangover from the free-spending Chandler days.

Even at the storied New York Times, a dissident investor is escalating a showdown, seeking steps that would lessen the Sulzberger family's control over the newspaper company.

Morgan Stanley Investment Management, which owns 7.6 percent of the company's stock and is unhappy with a long slide in its share price, submitted a proposal aimed at giving other shareholders more say in the company's operation and future.

But money is not the only issue in Los Angeles. When the Tribune bought the Times several years back, the consensus among the troops was that the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes had just bought the Dodgers. We both played ball but at considerably different levels.

There was jealousy in Chicago, home base for the Tribune, especially when the Times won a slew of Pulitzer Prizes.

Now, the Trib has replaced a respected editor and publisher with a couple of guys from Chicago who probably needed a map to find the building.

There is a flicker of hope. Billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad and prominent investor Ron Burkle have submitted a bid to buy Tribune Co. But if that doesn't work, the Times will become a shadow of its former self.

And that's a shame, even if you think it is edited by a bunch of old lefties who worship Michael Moore and Ed Asner. That's because the Times lifted the level of coverage of other papers in its circulation area. We'll all be the poorer for its decline.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Race That Isn't


IF you live in Pasadena or Burbank, Glendale, Temple City or Monterey Park, you might not discover there's a Congressional election taking place in your neighborhood until you step into the voting booth next Tuesday.

You won't see much in the way of billboards, lawn signs, mailers or bumper stickers. There are no cable TV ads or campaign rallies. There's not a lot of media attention.

Yet Adam Schiff, the Democratic incumbent, is indeed running for re-election. And he's already won.

That's because Schiff is running in a "safe" district, one whose boundary lines have been drawn to protect the interests of the incumbent.

Schiff's 29th Congressional District is heavily Democratic. Much of that is due to demographic changes. In a nutshell, the Republicans have been leaving and the Democrats are moving in.

But thanks to redistricting, the 29th is so solidly Democratic now that Schiff's re-election is all but assured, short of a national-level scandal. Talk about job security.

Fortunately, the people of the 29th seem well served by Schiff, a centrist Democrat who spends a great deal of time pressing the flesh in the district and, when in Washington, avoiding extreme positions.

I know Republicans who are still smarting over FDR but will vote for Schiff.

As you can imagine, this tends to discourage highly visible, well-financed opponents. In this election, Schiff faces Jim Keller, a Libertarian; Lynda Llamas of the Peace and Freedom Party, William Paparian, a former Pasadena mayor who is running as a Green Party candidate, and William Bodell, a Republican.

Hardly the kind of competition that would have Schiff looking for a job in the private sector.

In the meantime, Schiff has raised more than $1 million for this election. Only Paparian with $23,135 has reported raising any money for his run. Bottom line: In the last election, Schiff won 65 percent of the vote. His closest opponent had 30 percent.

It seems odd that a country which embraces competition in business, in education, in sports - because it results in a better product - should ignore this mantra when it comes to choosing political representatives.

One result of that thinking is that in 2004, 85 percent of House incumbents won by landslide majorities of more than 60 percent. Only seven incumbents, out of 399 running, lost their seats.

And while I'm sure than many of these incumbents were re-elected based on their good deeds, a lot were returned because voters had no real choice.

According to Common Cause, advances in information and mapping technology have enabled a level of precision in district drawing that in effect, enables legislators to choose the voters they wish to represent and makes it difficult for voters to hold their representatives accountable. It also ratchets up the cynicism level of many voters.

For the record, this is a bipartisan bloodsport. I only mention Schiff because he is right here in our own backyard.

Republicans have had their own share of shenanigans. In Georgia, in the wake of taking control of state government in 2004, Republicans in 2005 redrew the Democratic gerrymander of 2005. They piously defend the proposed lines as more compact, but their primary motivation is clear: two more Republican House seats in 2006.

The bad news is that attempts at reform have failed.

Voters rejected Proposition 77 in last year's special election. The measure would have put redistricting in the hands of retired judges, who would have had to follow specific guidelines.

Much of the blame for that defeat can be placed at the feet of state legislators who promised a better plan when they campaigned against Prop. 77. Instead, their plan collapsed at the end of the session in a circus of finger pointing.

The state Legislature needs to try again. And if they don't, we need to encourage another try at the initiative level. Perhaps even a plan that confronts the problem from a national perspective.

It's as simple as this: If competition is a cornerstone of our society, it certainly ought to bring us better service from our elected representatives.