Monday, June 30, 2008

The Sky Isn't Falling

COURTESY of the Associated Press, here's the latest missive from the Chicken Little school of journalism:

"Midwestern levees are bursting. Polar bears are adrift. Gas prices are skyrocketing. Home values are abysmal. Air fares, college tuition and health care border on unaffordable. Wars without end rage in Iraq, Afghanistan and against terrorism ...

"... a battered public seems discouraged by the onslaught of dispiriting things. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll says a barrel-scraping 17 percent of people surveyed believe the country is moving in the right direction. That is the lowest reading since the survey began in 2003.

"An ABC News-Washington Post survey put that figure at 14 percent, tying the low in more than three decades of taking soundings on the national mood."

Let's not bury our heads in the sand. Nobody is going to mistake this particular moment in time as America's golden era.

And while many are quick to blame George Bush, the Saudis, global warming or Kobe Bryant for the miserable state of things, let's get real for a moment.

While it's not the best of times, it's not the worst of times either.

Consider this era as described in an online history:

"What was once the land of opportunity was now the land of desperation. What was once the land of hope and optimism had become the land of despair.

"The American people were questioning all the maxims on which they had based their lives: democracy, capitalism, individualism ... the income of the average American family was reduced by 40 percent, from $2,300 to $1,500. Instead of advancement, survival became the keyword."
That, folks, was the Great Depression.

Unemployment rose from 5 million in 1930 to 13 million by the end of 1932. Unemployed fathers saw children hired for sub-standard wages. In 1930, 2.25 million boys and girls ages 10-18 worked in factories, canneries, mines and on farms. Children left school to support their families.

Kids in Appalachia were so hungry they chewed on their hands. The nation's suicide rate was at an all-time high.

Families split up or migrated from their homes in search of work. Shanty towns - constructed of packing crates, abandoned cars and other scraps - sprung up across the nation. Gangs of youths, whose families could no longer support them, rode the rails in box cars hoping to find a job. Victims of the drought and dust storms in the Great Plains left their farms and headed for California, the new land of "milk and honey," where some were stopped at the border.

And at the outset of the misery, Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon advised President Hoover that shock treatment would be the best response:

"Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate. ... That will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people."

Tough times? The toughest.

Then there was 1942. Hitler and Mussolini occupied most of continental Europe and many Americans believed England would soon fall. The Japanese were sweeping across the Pacific toward Australia. People on the West Coast feared an invasion, or at the least another Pearl Harbor. Nazi leaders were coordinating the "final solution to the Jewish question."

Fear? You bet.

The year 1968 was no walk in the park either:

Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were murdered in the prime of their lives. The North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive, changing the course of the war in Southeast Asia. American casualties mounted. Anti-war protests paralyzed college campuses. President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not stand for reelection. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago was marred by violent clashes between protesters and Mayor Daley's police force. Richard Nixon is elected president.

Chaos? Absolutely.

And now, polar bears are adrift? Costly gas? We've seen a lot worse. And survived quite nicely. I'm not prepared to write off America yet.

Or as George Easterbrook of the Brookings Institute put it, "Would you rather live as an average person in the United States of the present day or in this or any other nation at any time in the past? That question answers itself, and is a reason for fundamental optimism."

I am not a sportswriter. This is not a sports column. But I am a golfer. And as such, a word about Tiger Woods.

Let me get this straight. Young Eldrick wins the U.S. Open, arguably the toughest tournament of the year, contested on a course the length of the 405 Freeway with Brazilian-rain-forest rough, while playing on a broken leg with a torn ACL. In sudden death. After a 18-hole playoff.

They say Tiger is out for the year with knee surgery. Don't believe it. He's out for a lube and an oil change.

Because he's more machine than man.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The NFL and Other Fairy Tales

Hey diddle diddle
The cat and the fiddle
The cow jumped over the moon
And a guy with dough
Says believe it, it's so
The NFL will he here soon
- A fairy tale

BILLIONAIRE developer Ed Roski has unveiled plans to build a stadium right here in our very own San Gabriel Valley aimed at luring the National Football League back to Los Angeles, where it has been absent since 1994.

That's great news. It was also great news when similar plans were announced for the Rose Bowl, Hollywood Park, Dodger Stadium, the city of Commerce and various other schemes.

"I think this is important for Los Angeles, for the fabric of the city," said Roski, who along with Philip Anschutz built Staples Center. "The city has done real well without the NFL, and the NFL has done real well without the city. But I think it's important to have a professional football team in Los Angeles."

Roski controls the land necessary to build the stadium and already has a certified environmental impact report for the site, according to published reports.

The price tag: $800 million or so, which is cheap compared with other stadia being built these days.

Of course, Ed isn't going to pay the entire bill. He wants the NFL to cough up a $150-million loan and the promise of at least one Super Bowl.

And, typical of these exercises, he's already suffered a setback when opponents led by Los Angeles County supervisors managed to block an effort by the city of Industry to get millions of dollars in tax subsidies that could help lure a team to the area.

But Ed is soldiering on. Sort of.

After announcing his stadium plans, he told the editorial board of the San Gabriel Valley Tribune that it hinges on his ability to lure a team to town. If not, the stadium becomes a shopping center. Did you hear that, Rick Caruso?

For its part, the NFL has said in no uncertain terms that they find the proposal "an interesting possibility" which is what you'd tell a door-to-door salesman to get him off your stoop.

At the moment, the league is focused on working out its differences with the players union, improving its revenue-sharing system between clubs, and trying to get someone to watch the league-owned NFL Network.

I'm betting Roski is unwilling to wait in that line for very long.

In the meantime, I bet the folks at the Rose Bowl, which is short on tenants and cash, aren't particularly enthusiastic about a state-of-the art stadium a few off-ramps away.
Stay tuned.

Tim Russert would be embarrassed by the amount of print and air time his death has consumed.

A blue-collar guy from Buffalo, N.Y., who rose to become Washington bureau chief for NBC and the host of "Meet the Press," he earned a reputation as a tenacious but fair interviewer, one who earned respect and admiration from all sides of the political spectrum.

But four days after his death at the age of 58, Russert was still the lead story on NBC and some of its affiliates, even as much of Iowa reeled from flooding so severe that the damage is being counted in the billions of dollars.

As influential as Russert was, he remained a self-effacing guy who loved his family, his job and the Buffalo Bills in no particular order.

Now, he is being elevated by some to the pantheon of American heroes. One tribute characterized his passing as "the most noteworthy and untimely `public' death in the past 20 years."

Tim Russert was a newsman. He was not the story. He was not the president nor the pope. As a journalist, he was not Edward R. Murrow. He was not Ernie Pyle nor even Walter Cronkite.

And being "tough but fair" isn't a unique talent. It's required of anyone who enters the journalism profession, although some sadly fall woefully short.

The outpouring of emotion over Russert's death will undoubtedly exceed anything Bill O'Reilly or Keith Olbermann will receive.

But if you want to trivialize the man, continue covering his passing like the death of Anna Nicole Smith.

May Tim Russert rest in peace.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Put Up or Shut Up

SEVERAL years back, I had to go to a hospital for a procedure called an MRI.

If you're not familiar with it, MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging, a process that uses a powerful magnetic field, radio waves and a computer to produce detailed pictures of organs, soft tissues, bone and virtually all other internal body structures.

It's space-age stuff.

That's the good news. The bad news is that it requires you to be entombed for a lengthy period of time in a tube that provides scant inches of clearance. And while you're immobilized, the device in full operational mode sounds like someone is pounding on it with a sledge hammer.

This is no place for claustrophobes.

To ease the anxiety, technicians offer a set of earphones tuned to your favorite music style. I chose classical music for its soothing qualities.

Unknown to me and the technician, the classical station was conducting a pledge break about the time I was being squeezed into the tube. So I had to lie there like a canned sardine for an hour listening to a Greek chorus of pitchmen begging for money. Over and over and over.

I was reduced to babbling incoherence when they finally pulled me out.

I thought about this the other evening when I tuned into KCET, the local PBS television station, to check out a special featuring Frank Sinatra captured in his prime.

Advertised at two hours, it consisted of one hour of Frank interspersed with an hour of
pledge breaks.

Old Blue Eyes would have been Seeing Red.

Look, I'm a longtime fan and financial supporter of public television. While it's not what it used to be, it is still a refreshing change from commercial television, with its steady diet of mind-numbing reality shows and stupor inducing sitcoms.

I know money for public television is tight. Back in the 1990s, Newt Gingrich threatened to end government subsidies to public television which led to major funding cutbacks. Not to be outdone, the Bush administration has taken several runs at funding cuts as well.

But there's got to be a better way to raise money than these tin-cup begathons. The Sinatra concert at one point was interrupted after two songs by a radio "personality" and his wife, who carried on a stream of incoherent blather for 20 minutes.

Four songs after the pledge break, the happy couple are back, carrying on like carnival barkers for another 10 or 15 minutes.

It didn't make me take out my checkbook. It made me take out my remote.

I'm not alone. "The Simpsons" TV show once had an episode where Homer pledged $10,000 to end the pledge break just to get his favorite show resumed. Moments later, the PBS "Pledge Enforcement Van" arrives to collect the money causing Homer to flee.

Exaggerated. But not by much.

Sinatra is not the only victim of performance interruptus. It seems that nearly every prime-time show on KCET recently has been chopped up by pledge breaks.

Over the years, a parade of Grade B (or worse) celebrities have been brought in to hawk the benefits of membership. They work cheap. And it shows.

So what to do? One exasperated blogger suggested that they have the pledge break at the top of the show, then warn viewers that show won't be aired unless the fundraising goal is met. At least it would create some dramatic tension.

Why not a Jerry Lewis-style telethon? How about shorter, commercial-length pledge breaks? Why not just sell more commercial time?

As for me, I came up with my own solution. Tape or TiVo it, then watch it, fast-forwarding through the pledge breaks.

That's easier on the eyes and ears. But not on the conscience. You'll sleep better if you send your local PBS station a hefty check once a year.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Give Me a Break

ONCE around the news cycle:

I'm declaring a moratorium.

After witnessing the most protracted presidential primary in recent history, a race largely characterized by which candidate had the goofiest pastor, I'm suffering from political fatigue.

I'm tired of John McCain, the presumptive anti-Bush. I'm tired of Barack Obama, whose campaign seems to have a flat tire. Or two. I'm tired of Hillary Clinton's ego. And I'm really tired of Bill Clinton.

I will attempt for two weeks not to listen to any political news, read any bloggers, watch any talk shows, discuss any candidate while waiting for my head to clear.

To do this, however, I will need Hillary Clinton's cooperation. That seems like a stretch right now. Rather than concede, Hillary is showing all the grace and dignity of a 2-year-old who, being told it's bedtime, reacts by holding her breath and flailing her arms and legs in an attempt to postpone the inevitable.

In mid-snit, she has reportedly told Democratic Party officials that she is "absolutely ready" to discuss the vice presidency.

I'm sure those are just the kind of character traits Barack Obama is seeking in a running mate.

Let's face it, her offer seems disingenuous. The Clintons are drawn to power like flies to a ribroast.

While Hillary brings unity to the Democratic Party, vice presidential candidates seldom decide the outcome of an election. How many votes did Joe Lieberman, John
Edwards or even Dick Cheney contribute?

Wake me when the campaign focuses on the real issues.

Meanwhile, back at the airport, we learn from Bloomberg News that airline executives are thinking "out of the box" in an attempt to stop the bleeding caused by high fuel costs. One of their bright ideas: treat passengers like freight.

Imagine this scenario: You arrive at the counter ready to board your flight and you are confronted by two scales.

One is for your bags, the other is for you. The price of your ticket will depend upon the weight of both. This would be great news for jockeys, fashion models and small children. Not so good for offensive linemen, women pregnant with twins and beer lovers.

While the scale proposal is still in the development stage, airlines are aggressively looking for ways to cut costs.

US Airways is replacing meal carts with models that are 12 pounds lighter. They've also eliminated glassware in first class in favor of lighter plastic cups.

American Airlines is pulling in-seat phones and investing in lighter silverware for business class passengers. I read that the airline is even considering eliminating in-flight magazines to lighten the load.

American, whose former CEO Bob Crandall once bragged that he saved the airline $40,000 by removing olives from first class dinner salads, has formed "Fuel Smart Teams" charged with continually searching for ways to save energy.

I can only imagine where this will end. Subway straps instead of seats? Charging by the mile like a taxi?

Stay tuned. Airline travel isn't going to get any better.

I couldn't let the week pass without raising a toast to Bo Diddley, the legendary rock figure who died this week at the age of 79.

When I was a youth, one of my first jobs was delivering newspapers in north Glendale. It was what we charitably called a throwaway paper. That means it was tossed on your lawn or doorstep, whether you wanted it nor not.

My route was in an area called College Hills, which is just as daunting as it sounds. With two large bags packed with newspapers strapped to the handlebars of my bike, I tried to cover a territory that would have taxed Lance Armstrong.

After delivering the paper twice a week, I would then visit every house on the route and try to collect a subscription fee for a product my customers never asked for.

The pay: $1.25 a week.

When the boss handed me my five quarters, I took off on my bike to the record store downtown. There, I purchased a record for the first time in my life. It was "Bo Diddley" by Bo Diddley.

I don't remember where I had heard it, but I had to have it. Its "shave and a haircut, two bits" beat struck a chord somewhere deep in my soul.

I raced home and played it so many times that my parents threatened to exile me to a tent in the back yard.

But when I played the flip side, "I'm a Man," a song of astounding raw sexual energy disguised as four-bar blues, my mother raced into my room and told me never to play it again.

I knew I was onto something good.

Here's to you, Bo. Thanks for the beat.