Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Rough Language


IT was a beautiful fall day, a warm breeze wafting through the trees, a golden sun making its journey across a brilliant blue sky.

It was good to be alive.

So I took a deep breath of fresh air and, like millions of others of my fellow Americans, promptly ducked indoors to watch football on TV.

Before you jump to any conclusions, let me explain something about football. Despite grumblings to the contrary, you don't have to be a slack-jawed dimwit to enjoy the game.

Quite the contrary, football is theater, a four-act morality play on grass. There is good vs. evil, mano-a-mano combat, drama, truth, beauty, love - the whole nine yards.

So why in the middle of this extravaganza would I start thinking about oxymorons?

It was because a player was penalized for "unnecessary roughness."

I played enough organized football in my youth to understand that roughness usually decides the outcome of a game that has been described as controlled violence. There may be speed, skill and strategy involved, but the overriding aim is to put your opponent on his rear end. It's much easier to score that way.

So how can its violent nature be "unnecessary"? Talk about a classic oxymoron.

An oxymoron, a figure of speech that combines two normally contradictory terms, has been used for centuries in literature. Comedian George Carlin made them a pop culture staple with a routine that skewed "military intelligence" and "jumbo shrimp."

My personal favorite is a message I once saw scrawled on a Hollywood wall: "Anarchy rules."

But there are others that deserve a mention: airline food, athletic scholarship, business ethics, civil servant, government efficiency and porn actress come to mind.

Not to mention rap music, tight slacks, boxing ring, brief speech, common courtesy, customer service, free love, preliminary conclusion, fresh frozen and anything that is "new and improved."

Some might add "clever columnist" to that list, but we'll leave it alone for the time being.

Moving along to a completely unrelated topic, I read a story in the New York Post this past week that reflects on the state of politics as it is practiced in the United States in the 21st Century.

It involves Ann Coulter, the conservative (to put it mildly) columnist and hell-raising pundit who wishes death and destruction on all who disagree with her.

According to the Post story, "There's a good reason why the four authors of the upcoming book `I Hate Ann Coulter!' are remaining anonymous - they're afraid for their safety. `None of us want our real names in the hands of gun-toting, abortion clinic-bombing, self-proclaimed `wing nuts,' who follow Coulter,' one of the scribes tells us.

"Coulter , who called 9/11 widows publicity-loving `harpies,' is shown with a devil's tail and horns on the book's cover. It's only the second time in Simon & Schuster's history that an author's identity has been kept secret, the first being, `Go Ask Alice,' a teen drug addict's diary, published in 1971."

Maybe it's a publicity stunt. But why do I get the feeling it isn't?

All Saints Day

I don't know about you, but I sleep better at night knowing the Internal Revenue Service is on guard.

How else would we know about the goings-on over at All Saints Church in Pasadena - a place where, according to IRS watchdogs, an anti-war sermon delivered in 2004 constitutes campaigning for a candidate, an act so profound that it could cost the church its tax-exempt status.

I mean, just look at the kind of stuff the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints, tells his flock.

"We believe in transformation here - the transformation of those who worship together in order for each of us in turn to do our part to transform the world to be more like that dream God has for creation. A world that has not yet been but can and will be if we dedicate our energies to it. A world of healing, love and justice for all, a world of peace among peoples and nations and a world where every human being is fully alive without bigotry, violence, injustice, oppression, terrorism, war or torture."

Shocking? Inflammatory? Revolutionary? Dangerous? Let's get real.

All Saints, the largest Episcopalian church west of the Mississippi, has a reputation for social activism that stretches back more than 65 years. During World War II, its rector spoke out against the internment of Japanese-Americans. The Rev. George Regas, who headed the church for 28 years before retiring in 1995, opposed the war in Vietnam, championed female clergy and supported gays in the church.

So when the topic is war - in this case the war in Iraq - guess on which side of the issue the folks at All Saints are going to land.

But Regas, appearing as a guest pastor, apparently stepped over the line when he delivered a sermon entitled "If Jesus Debated Senator Kerry and President Bush." Though he did not endorse a candidate, he said Jesus would condemn the Iraq war and Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive war.

He also acknowledged in the same sermon that "good people of profound faith will be either for George Bush or John Kerry for reasons deeply rooted in their faith."

Nonetheless, his sermon has caused the IRS to bluster and bully in a way long associated with that particularly agency.

Activism in churches is as old as our nation itself. The Revolutionary War was nurtured in churches. So was the abolitionist cause. So was the civil rights movement. Conservative Protestants and Catholics have been in the forefront of the right to life movement for decades.

At which point do you separate the issues from the individuals? And beyond that, do we really want the IRS playing the role of free speech cop?

Some call the All Saints case selective harassment. But conservative churches as well as liberal ones have been investigated across the country by the IRS over the years.

One church in upstate New York lost its tax-exempt status in 1995 after running a full-page ad in USA Today in 1992 saying that it would be "a sin to vote for Bill Clinton."

But there's no debating that this episode is taking place under the watch of the Bush administration, whose re-election campaign sent a detailed plan of action to religious volunteers across the country asking them to turn over church directories to the campaign, distribute issue guides in their churches and persuade their pastors to hold voter registration drives.

If that isn't campaigning for a candidate, what is?

I suspect the 1954 law governing political activities by nonprofits was never intended to muzzle churches. Even if it had, religion in this country increasingly has a bearing on political affiliation, political values, policy attitudes and candidate choice.

To somehow attempt to regulate it is folly.

The doctrine of separation of church and state is not only intended to keep religion out of government but government out of religion as well.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Evening News


SOME years back, Jack Smith, my friend and colleague at the Los Angeles Times, described his bout with a particularly virulent flu bug.

As his temperature climbed and he became delirious, he believed he saw the face of God.
It was kind and round, accented with bushy eyebrows and a thick mustache. It radiated understanding and reassurance.

It wasn't until the fever began to break that Jack realized he was watching Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News.

To some, Cronkite was God. To me, it was more like having the news delivered by your favorite grandfather. He was wise and warm, and it was as though we sat on his lap and played with his pocket watch as he spoke. And in the end of his newscasts, the anchor they called “the most trusted man in America” left us with the feeling that maybe, just maybe, truth and justice might triumph.

Cronkite retired in 1981 and, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings notwithstanding, things just haven't been the same in Television Land. Network news ratings, while still healthy, have been in steady decline. Like it or not, television (and newspapers for that matter) are in a death struggle with cable, blogs, Web sites and whatever other technology du jour is popular.

Network news isn't exactly cutting edge. The formats are about the same they were in Cronkite's day. Unfortunately, the personalities aren't.

Over at NBC, we have Brian Williams whose made-for-TV good looks can't cover up a lack of charisma while a sense of foreboding and melancholy permeate his broadcasts.

ABC's situation is the stuff of Shakespearian tragedies. The popular Peter Jennings dies of lung cancer after he reportedly resumes smoking after 9/11. He is replaced with Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas. Woodruff is badly injured in Iraq. Vargas, about to go on maternity leave, abruptly resigns amid declining ratings. Out of these ashes rises Charles Gibson, a proper Princetonian whom the older demographic can relate to.

Which brings us to Katie Couric. CBS has not only elevated Katie to the anchor chair, she spent the last week appearing on almost every network show this side of “Survivor.”
There was Katie with her own prime-time special. There was Katie on “60 Minutes” As one wag remarked, maybe CBS stands for the Couric Broadcasting Network.

Her debut was the most anticipated and covered event since the unveiling of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes' baby Suri, which not coincidently was part of Katie's first newscast.
And it worked. Ratings were through the roof. But will it last?

This is not your father's evening news. According to Howard Kurtz, CBS has decided that by the time Katie comes onto their screen, the viewers will know the major stories. Therefore, they intend to work around the edges of the news.
This is either “in depth”' or a happy talk gimmick, depending on your point of view. So far, the presentation seems soft. But then again, that's the brand of soap that CBS is selling.

And speaking of gimmicks, let's hope the “free speech” segment at the end of the broadcast where professional blowhards like Rush Limbaugh can vent will be axed and soon.
And let's also hope critics will stop writing about what Katie is wearing and focus and what she is saying.

To me, Katie Couric has been a kind of journalistic Doris Day: neat, pretty and perky, but can she do MacBeth?

If she doesn't work out, there's always Rosie O'Donnell.
Robert Rector is a former editor with the Pasadena Star-News and Los Angeles Times.

Go Away


THINGS I grow weary of:

John Mark Karr: OK, I know this alleged creep confessed to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey but flunked his DNA test and now faces at best a misdemeanor charge of possessing child pornography. But can we let it go now? It seemed clear from the outset this guy's so-called confession was some sort of sick gesture. That didn't stop the media, especially the cable TV jackals, from force feeding it to us 24/7.

And they're apparently not done yet. Nancy Grace, CNN's so-called legal expert who presides over the underbelly of America with the personality of a bouncer at a biker bar, now promises to 'investigate the next step in the decade-old investigation, and what happens to Karr, who faces child porn charges in California.' And if that isn't enough, Nancy 'investigates the past decade in the JonBenet Ramsey murder case, from her death to a former suspect's alleged confession.'
And one more thing: What is it about Colorado DAs that causes them to step on a legal banana peel when faced with high-visibility cases? First, Kobe. Now, Karr.

Dr. Z: It appears that whenever the Chrysler automotive corporation finds itself sinking slowly out of sight, it turns to its chairman to bail out the boat.

First, there was Lee Iacocca, whose 'If you can find a better car, buy it,' led the Detroit automakers in a Buy American crusade.

Iacocca was perfect for the job. A square shooter who made eye-to-eye contact, he could sell ice to Eskimos and was the kind of guy you'd follow into combat.

Now, Chrysler is pinning its hopes on Dieter Zetsche, the respected CEO of DaimlerChrysler, the folks who bring you Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler products.
But instead of the straight-from-the-shoulder approach of Iacocca, Zetsche, or Dr. Z as he is called, has been made into a commercial buffoon, a second-rate comic act who bounces soccer balls off his head and makes house calls to tout German engineering by proclaiming, 'After all, ve invented the automobile.'

Next up: Dr. Z, dressed in lederhosen, piles into a Chrysler minivan with an oompah band and motors off to Oktoberfest.

If this cartoonish campaign isn't lame enough, it is repeated so often on television that I leap for my remote control whenever it comes on. Auf Wiedersehen, Dr. Z.

And speaking of commercials, my hat is off to the makers of Head On, the headache remedy whose ingenuous ad campaign will actually give you a splitting headache.
It's really quite simple. Against the backdrop of a woman who appears to be applying deodorant above her eyebrows, an irritating voice repeats over and over, 'Head On, apply directly to the forehead.'

It makes my eyes water.

But if it does give you a headache, I suggest you take a couple of aspirin.

Dr. Dara Jamieson, director of the Headache Center of New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, told CBS news that 'the only thing distinctive about this product is its commercial. There's nothing in the ingredients that would treat headaches ...'

The NFL in L.A.: It is telling that the first NFL game that USC's Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Matt Leinert saw in person was the first one he played in with the Arizona Cardinals.

When you don't have a pro franchise in town for more than a decade, that's what happens: a generation that wouldn't know a Saint from a Seahawk.

Isn't the clock about to strike midnight on this deal? Isn't it a slam dunk that pro football will return to the Coliseum within the next two years? Hasn't this dance gone on long enough?
Not necessarily. Joe Scott, a former columnist with the Herald Examiner and Times, an astute observer of the passing parade, writes:

'Both Paul Tagliabue, who retired last month, and Roger Goodell, the new commissioner, have each supported such a return. But putting a team back in Los Angeles, while on Goodell's agenda, is not the owners' immediate concern.

'His daunting assignment from the 32 owners,' the New York Times Judy Battista wrote in a recent analytical story, 'is to resolve complex money issues: a revenue-sharing solution and structure a new collective-bargaining agreement with the player's union.'

'The festering question confronting the Los Angeles and Anaheim groups is this: Does it makes economic sense for NFL owners to spend up to $800 million to build a new stadium given the tension between the haves and the have-nots.'

It appears to be easier to negotiate a nuclear arms agreement with Iran than it is to seal a deal with the NFL.

I, for one, will sit this dance out.

Sinners and Saints

YOU never quite know what stories will touch a nerve and whose nerve will be touched.

I wrote recently about Barry Minkow, the boy wonder carpet cleaning entrepreneur turned felon turned preacher and fraud investigator, who showed up recently on "60Minutes" as the poster boy for reformed criminals.

To make a long column short, I said that for all his remorsefulness and alleged good deeds, the new Barry still didn't quite pass the smell test.

Some readers agreed. Others accused me of anti-Christian bias. And at least one member of the criminal-turned-saint community felt compelled to respond at length.

That would be Sam E. Antar, who, like Barry Minkow, found himself up to his eyebrows in fraud some years back. Here's what he had to say:

"I was the former Chief Financial Officer of Crazy Eddie (a New York area consumer electronics retailer) who helped mastermind one of the largest securities frauds uncovered during the 1980s," Antar writes.

"Like Barry Minkow, my crimes hurt many people economically, many of whom have still not recovered today. I committed my crimes with full knowledge of the harm I was causing others and later only cooperated with the government out of fear of a very long prison sentence.
"I write the above, to give you insight into the heinous character to my early years of life, not to boast about my criminal past but to provide you some insight as to how Barry Minkow has inspired me to turn my life around...

"... After I was finished with the Crazy Eddie criminal and civil cases upon learning about Barry Minkow, I began to emulate him. I decided to help the accounting profession, the government and anti-fraud professionals in efforts to fight white collar crime.

"In the last two years alone, I have taught at over 20 college campuses, professional groups, and government organizations about white collar crime. I have 18 speaking appearances scheduled in the next 9 months alone. All my appearances are without charge or reimbursement for any cost.

"Am I a Boy Scout? Is Barry Minkow a Boy Scout? I cannot speak for Barry Minkow. However, I believe he would share my thoughts. When I am asked about my uncompensated speaking appearances I always warn audiences not to think of me as a Boy Scout. In today's business world we should never assume anyone's good intentions. For anti-fraud professionals the assumption of good intentions is a professional hazard.

"Likewise for reporters like yourself. Your profession requires professional skepticism too. However, why single out Barry Minkow just based on his past? The difference is that Barry Minkow is not being investigated, under inquiry, or under government scrutiny for what he is doing today in putting his life together and setting a positive example for others to follow in turning their lives around...

"Barry Minkow is trying to make amends for a past he cannot erase. He is setting an example for others like myself the turn our lives' around and become positive forces for good in our great country."

I wish both these gentlemen well in their new careers. After all, reformed car thieves advise cops on crime prevention. Ex-burglars give homeowners security advice.

But, in my mind as well as others, they will be forever dogged by their pasts. Minkow cost his investors more than $100 million. Antar not only defrauded the public out of multiple millions, but he also helped investigators send his family members to jail while he walked.

Both thumbed their noses at a country that was built on an honest day's pay for an honest day's work.

What is the rate of recidivism for greed? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, I hope Minkow and Antar are walking the straight and narrow. As Oscar Wilde once said, it is "remorse that makes one walk on thorns."

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Case Study in Skepticism


IF your mother tells you she loves you, check it out ..."

That was the advice given by an old city editor to young staffers many decades ago, back in the days reporters wore hats in the newsroom and kept a fifth of Old Inspiration in their desk drawers.

It was his way of injecting a healthy dose of skepticism into the work of his young charges.

I was reminded of that the other day while watching a "60 Minutes" piece on Barry Minkow, the businessman turned felon turned preacher who got his start right under my nose in the San Fernando Valley in the 1980s.

When our paths first crossed, I was working on the city desk of the Los Angeles Times Valley edition, and Minkow, a high school kid, was running his own carpet cleaning company, Zzzz Best, out of his parents' garage in Reseda.

It was a good story: Energetic young entrepreneur finds gold in the stain game.

Indeed, the story got even better. Minkow's company grew to include 1,400 employees and had begun to specialize in insurance restoration business. He starred in his own TV commercials, extolling the superiority of Zzzz Best. And we followed it each step of the way.

Life was good for young Barry. He received favorable press, portrayed as a role model. Mayor Tom Bradley declared a Barry Minkow Day. He appeared on Oprah. He lectured in business schools and contributed to Narcotics Anonymous.

He had a Ferrari Testarossa adorned with Zzzz Best personalized license plates and lived in a mansion in Woodland Hills. When he took his company public, it was valued at more than $200 million.

It sounded too good to be true.

Dan Akst, the same reporter who earlier had written glowingly of Minkow, began to hear talk about credit card fraud. Using a dose of skepticism that the old editor would have admired and following the paper trail, Akst wrote an article in May of 1987 that carried the headline "Behind `Whiz Kid' Is a Trail of False Credit-Card Billings."

The next day Zzzz Best stock lost 28 percent of its value. By the time the scam was fully revealed, investors had lost more than $100 million. The following year, Minkow was convicted on 57 counts of fraud and sentenced to 25 years in jail.

In between, we learned that Minkow's real talent was not cleaning carpets but raising capital by any means necessary. According to published accounts, he arranged burglaries in order to collect insurance money. He borrowed $2,000 from his grandmother and then stole her pearls. When he needed cash in 1984, he forged $13,000 worth of money orders from a Reseda liquor store.

He opened a merchant's account at a local bank, which allowed him to accept credit card payments. For the next few years, whenever he needed money, he would add bogus charges to his customers' credit card accounts and receive ready cash from the bank. If a customer complained, Minkow blamed the forgeries on crooked employees, paid up and carried on.

Minkow served just under seven-and-a-half years, most of them at Englewood Federal Prison in Jefferson County, Colorado. During his early prison stay in San Pedro, before his trial, Minkow became a Christian. He earned a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees in Church Ministries from Liberty University, which was founded by Jerry Falwell. In 1996 he earned a Master of Divinity, also from Liberty.

Since 1997, he has served as the senior pastor of San Diego's Community Bible Church. Minkow also is an executive at the Fraud Discovery Institute in San Diego, which he helped found, where he investigates the same kind of crime he perpetuated and works with law enforcement.

Now he tells "60 Minutes" that he spends his time ministering to his parishioners, uncovering white collar crime and repaying his debts. He's written a book called "Cleaning Up," and his agent is negotiating with several production companies to film his life story.

Minkow says that "there's this great phrase in the Bible: `When the man's ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies be at peace with him."'

Perhaps. But I remain skeptical. Just like the Barry of old, it all sounds just a little too good to be true.