Saturday, December 15, 2007

Fred, Milo and me

When Milo Radulovich died last month at age 81, it brought back memories of Fred Friendly.

Friendly was my mentor and teacher 40 years ago. He also was instrumental in bringing fame and redemption to Milo Radulovich.

Fred was, as many know, Edward R. Murrow’s producer and alter-ego. Together they made the riveting “See It Now” documentaries of the “Golden Age” of television.

Among the most notable was “The Case Against Lieut. Milo Radulovich A0589839.” As the many obituaries for Radulovich pointed out, the documentary, which aired on CBS Oct 20, 1953, marked the beginning of the end for Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the “Red Scare” that ruined the careers of hundreds, if not thousands.

I won’t go into Radulovich case, which you can read about elsewhere. It was the story of a man terribly wronged by McCarthy, a power-mad, fear-mongering junior Republican senator from Wisconsin.

Murrow and Friendly set out, against considerable obstacles, to expose McCarthy and to undo the damage to Radulovich.

I was one of Fred Friendly’s students in 1968-1969 at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Wildly expansive in gesture, hulking, intense, Fred filled his classroom with an earnest, urgent ebullience. His loose-skinned face was huge and mobile. You could get lost in its gyrations as his broadcaster’s baritone voice ladled out war stories from his years with Murrow.

To make a McLuhan-esque observation: Fred was a “hot” persona working behind the scenes in a notoriously “cool” medium. The industry is full of people like Fred. Think of the Holly Hunter character in “Broadcast News.”

By contrast, print, a “hot,” “high definition” medium, is often managed by calmer, cooler types. Why this is the case, is a future topic.

In the film “Good Night and Good Luck” about Murrow and, to a lesser extent, Friendly, Fred is played by the strikingly handsome, made-for-the-screen George Clooney. Clooney may have been good for the film, but he was about as un-Fred Friendly-like as could be. I wanted to stand up in the theater and shout, “That’s not the Fred Friendly I knew!”

Early on in our time with Fred, he would screen the Radulovich documentary. He liked to tell us that the story offered up the perfect “little picture” to illuminate a larger problem. “Look for the little picture!” he would intone.

My field of emphasis at the school was broadcast journalism and so I spent considerable time in the aura of Friendly — and Murrow, as Friendly was the keeper of Murrow’s flame.

I was part of a four-student team that wrestled with a ungainly documentary project about two “normal families” who, of course, weren’t normal, largely because there is no such thing as a “normal family.” Our subject families were, of course, our “little pictures” exposing the larger reality of familial complexity.

In this pre-video-tape age, Karen, Mark, Bill and I worked in film. Cascades of rushes hung from ceiling clips. We lugged around what Fred called the “50-pound pencil.” It also required lights and sound equipment. Unobtrusiveness was out of the question.

Our project's inspiration was the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman, a master of cinema verité, who had made a series of acclaimed films starting with “Titicut Follies” and moving on through “Police,” “Welfare” and “High School.”

We discovered in the dimness of the cutting room, in the middle of long nights that Wiseman’s genius was beyond our dreams. But we were set on giving Fred his “little picture.”

The screening was to be before all of our classmates and the entire faculty in the school’s stately “World Room.” We had been up the night before struggling to match the sound track to the picture track. Because, like Wiseman, we had abandoned a narrator, we had no easy way to cover up the “lip flap” caused by the frame lag separating sound and picture. To make it work meant intricate, and as our deadline loomed, intense splicing.

We spliced to within minutes of the screening. The big room was filled with anticipation. The word was out that ours was a particularly ambitious undertaking.

The lights were darkened, the shades were pulled and the projector cast its flickering light on the screen. For a minute or two all went well. Establishing shots of comfortable Westchester County streets. A “wild” track of suburban sounds, the whoosh of sedans, distant birdsong, the slap of a delivered newspaper on a drive.

And then a frame froze on the hot projector lamp. Up on the big screen, the jammed image blistered to brown as the heat consumed it. Our “See It Now” moment incinerated before our eyes.

Fred, like an oracle, announced to the audience that “these things happen.” He liked the little he had seen, he said, and then he dispatched us to the editing bench to repair our little opus.

Two or three days later, in a private screening for Fred, we ran the film flawlessly. It was ragged from reconstruction, but it displayed promise even in its over-reaching ambition.

Within a year or two of graduation, I decided that the 50-pound pencil wasn’t for me. I took up the two-ounce graphite version. No more late nights in the cutting room. Print allowed me to work on my own, free of lip-flap, intrusive lights and eye-glazing all-nighters bent over the splicer.

Bill and Mark went into television. Mark became a producer of the CBS evening news and later launched MSNBC. He died at age 51 of melanoma. Bill became a producer at ABC. When I saw him last, some 12 years ago, he was embittered by the state of television news and seemed to be looking for a way out.

A young teaching assistant who held our hands through repeated crises was Tom Bettag, who went on to play Fred Friendly to Ted Koppel’s Murrow on “Nightline.”

Karen and I went into print. Karen rose to the position of managing editor of “The Nation.” When I last heard from her this past summer was on a stint teaching journalism at the University of Nairobi.

I gravitated to the Northwest, where in one way or another I’ve tried to make a difference through writing, reporting and publishing. I am still looking for little pictures — and my own Milo Raduloviches.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Search for the missing

My friend and Hillsdale neighbor, Ann Bakkensen, has alerted several of us to a NOVA television program next Tuesday about those, including her father, who went missing in action in the Korean War.

Years ago, I wrote about Ann’s search for her father. Hers is a powerful story of determination and discovery. You can sense that in her letter to us. I hope many of you can find time to watch the program.

Here is what she wrote us.

Dear family and friends,

As many of you know, my father was an F-86 pilot and is MIA from the Korean War. Government information released in 1992 suggested that my father may have been captured by the Soviets when his plane was shot down. I have been researching his case since 1992, and have acted as an advocate for families of Korean War MIAs. I have also served as president of a national MIA organization and have traveled to North Korea as a member of a Defense Department delegation representing the interests of MIA families.

Here is a link is to a preview of the PBS NOVA show which will air this coming Tuesday, December 18. The show — “Missing in MiG Alley” — chronicles the efforts of the US government as well as MIA families, in trying to resolve the fates of missing F-86 pilots from the Korean War.

My father's case is featured in this show, and some of my interview will also appear in the program.
The fate of my father is still unknown, and I as well as my family have had to grapple with the unresolved nature of the case. But during the course of my work on the case, I have met some wonderful people who share a very private part of my life. (I know and have worked with most, if not all, of the people featured in this show.) And best of all, I have gotten a sense of who my father was. Many of you have heard me talk about working on my father's case.

If you are able to watch the show, you will be able to understand the situation a little better.

Best wishes,


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Thursday, December 13, 2007

A point guard named Burger King

We’ve become accustomed to the naming rights sell-off game.

So now Paul Allen is auctioning off the naming rights to The Rose Garden.


Allen, already a billionaire many times over, is hoping to reap millions by putting another corporate name in our faces.

Why are naming rights so valuable in marketing?

• We, the public, are forced to mouth the words “Wells Fargo Arena” (or Frito Lay, or Nike, or Adidas) every time we refer to the venue.

• The name gets mentioned repeatedly in the press. Every sports story, every sports broadcast, carries at least one mention.

• The “Rose Quarter” district, much of it belonging to the public, becomes the “Big Corporate Name” district.

• Freeway exit signs, again, owned by the public, become virtual billboards that we the people will receive zero compensation for.

We’ve seen the sell-outs take place around the country in less proud cities than ours.

But it’s here in Portland too. It started in the public sector where the proudly named Civic Stadium became a name-ad for Portland General Electric, PGE Park.

Now the Portland parks bureau is hiring a full-time sponsorship salesperson. Nike logos are on park basketball courts. Pepsi logos are on community center scoreboards. Piece by piece, the cash-starved public commons is being commercialized and privatized — and the public has grown increasingly accepting.

Of course several of us skeptics have suggested jokingly that Portland make the big re-naming leap and sell off “Portland.” Change the maps and road signs and call the place “Starbucks” or “Wal-Mart” or “Pepsi-Town,” all in exchange for a few million each year. Twenty years from now, we may all be Starbuckians or Pepsians.

But back to Allen and his Trail Blazers, who, according to The Oregonian, lost $25 million last year (the front office disputes the number but not the red ink).

Here’s a way to get in the black, Paul. Why not sell off the names of the players? Why does Brandon Roy have to be “Brandon Roy” or LaMarcus Aldridge “LaMarcus Aldridge” when they could be “Wells Fargo” and “Burger King”?

Think of the great product names that you could slap on a star point guard for a cool million or two. “Key Bank,” “Frito Lay,” “Kettle Chips,” and “Fred Meyer,” “Chevrolet Malibu” are just a few that come to mind.

Game commentary would be peppered with brand mentions: “Fargo passes into Frito who dribbles over the Wild Oats mid-court line. Lay to Burger. He fakes. A high lob into Kettle. He swings right with a hook over Chevrolet (previously known as Kobe Bryant). It’s up and in! Rip Diet Coke!”

Come’ on, Paul, you haven’t even turned the ignition on in your money machine.

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"Padre" Art's legacies

The University of Portland, a Catholic school, has many priests, but only one, Father Art Schoenfeldt, who died at age 77 last Sunday back in Notre Dame, Indiana, was known as “Padre.”

I got to know Art when I taught journalism on the North Portland campus in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. He loved writing and writers, and when he heard I, a newcomer to campus, was a writer, he sought me out to offer a warm welcome.

In that brief initial conversation, I knew that Art, with his open, inquiring, cheerful way, was there to help if I ever needed it.

Others knew it too, which is why so many turned to him for counsel — and fondly called him “Padre.”

As my friend Brian Doyle, a writer and editor based at UP, put it in an Oregonian obituary, “Thousands of people trusted him with their hearts.”

Art was “Padre” in another way too.

During my time at UP, from 1986 to 1993, Art and his sister founded and endowed a writers’ series that brought famous writers to live and lecture on campus. The Schoenfeldt series was, and is, a great success and a bounteous gift to the campus community.

Padre Art's inspiring writers' series and trusted counsel are his great legacies.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Music video takes us back to the future

OK, so I’ve been on a toot about excessive screen time and video escapism.

Now I’m here to say that things are not all bad on the ubiquitous screens.

The other night my son, Evan, who has learned to graciously tolerate my rants about excessive screen time, had us over to his house to check out his latest video game.

He thought we might like it.

He introduced us to it by handing Diane and me toy guitars while Julie, his wife, settled in behind a set of small drums and he grasped a mike, at the ready to sing karaoke style.

We were about to be introduced to “Rock Band.” Or to be more exact, we were about to simulate a rock band with a major boost from the video game.

On the big flat screen attached to an X-Box, images of notes from a chosen tune paraded toward us. When they hit a kind of musical finish line, we “played” them by fingering a fret and thumbing a kind of strum lever on our guitars. In essence, we held guitar shaped musical controllers in our hands. If we hit the right fret and strummed on the beat, the advancing note bars would visually explode. Julie’s drumming and Evan’s singing were similarly directed and monitored on the screen. Meanwhile, the computer program kept score of our success rate, which would be revealed at the end of the song/game.

There are a lot of variables and settings (beginner, intermediate, expert etc.), in the manner of video games, but at its core, this was just flat-out, non-competitive, musical fun.

Sure, the music, most of it no more than 20 years old, wasn’t exactly what I would choose. If I have a guitar in my hand, I want the notes coming at me to be from a Herb Ellis or Joe Pass rendition of “Satin Doll” or “Straight No Chaser.”

But patience, jazz fans. “Rock Band” is certain to spin off a “Jazz Band.” This has the makings of a “cross-over” game — one that is about as far away from maiming and murdering as you can get.

We’re talking music here.

Not that performing to “Rock Band” is the same as actually playing an instrument. But it is simulated musicianship. Close enough on short notice. You start swaying and gyrating as you get into a stripped-down performance of even an unfamiliar tune.

Call it an amateur’s groove.

I predict great things for “Rock Band,” its rival, “Guitar Hero” and other musical video games no doubt in the works as you read this.

A piano sits in our living room, unplayed for the most part. It is an artifact from a time when friends and family gathered around and made music together. Way back then, the only music was the music you made. Then the phonograph came along, and we lost all of that.

It may not be quite the same, but “Rock Band” and other music video games may be taking us back to a time when music-making brought us together.

Here’s to that.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Media metaphor list grows

The media metaphor list is growing again.

As reported here, yesterday, my PTA contact at a Portland elementary school decided that my January presentation should carry the title “Restraining Order: Protecting Your Child from Media Abduction.”

But the person preparing the flyer came back today with a lead that introduced a new metaphor, even as the circular retained the old title.

The draft began, “Is Your Child Becoming a Media Junkie?”

Media that invite excessive, indiscriminate use equated with drugs, abductors, “other parents.” We are building quite a list of metaphors.

Like the notion that some media are similar to “the other parent,” the idea of media as an addictive drug has been around a long time. It goes back 25 years to Marie Winn’s “Plug-in Drug,” which referred only to television. The most recent edition includes a discussion of computers.

All of the metaphors are useful in teasing out the nature of an obsessive, thoughtless relationship to media, whether we are parents, teachers or children.

The drug analogy, of course, leads us to applying language of addiction to a pathological relationship with media. It works well.

For instance, among the signs of drug addiction are these:

* Change in friends.
* Hanging out with a new group.
* Reclusive behavior - long periods spent in self-imposed isolation.
* Lying about behavior.
* Deteriorating family relationships.
* Deteriorating health.
* Changes in behavior and attitude.
* Decrease in school performance.

Some others that come to mind are denial, embarrassment, lack of moderation, secretiveness, disinterest in others and real-world responsibilities.

I’m beginning to think that I may get the parents' discussion going by sharing the several metaphors of excessive media consumption with attendees — abduction, addiction, a competing parent.

Which is most apt? Which is most helpful in directing us to solutions? What are those solutions?

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Issuing a restraining order on media use

I received an invitation today to give a media literacy presentation at a Portland elementary school.

Each time I give my presentation (under the auspices of Media Think), I try to tailor it to the needs of the audience.

According to my PTA contact, the school's parents are particularly worried about the proliferation of media in the lives of their kids. For instance, the cell phone/text messaging/cyber-bulling issue has arrived in their elementary school.

After we settled on details via e-mail, my contact asked me for a title to use for publicity.

Coming up with a title is always a revelation. After I dispensed with the prosaic “What to do about Media in your Child’s life” and “Smart media decisions for your child,” I explored some new metaphorical territory about media and its impact on families.

The idea of media being "the other parent" has been around. James Steyer used it as the title of his book about media and kids. But I sensed that the parents had deeper concerns than competing “other parents.”

No, for them, media are actual abductors. Their kids are being enticed away from family. The role models aren’t “other parents” with quasi-parental concerns. Rather the role models are aliens with values diametrically opposed to parental ones: violence, cyber-bullying, hyper-sexuality, crudeness.

So I played with “Protecting your child from media abduction” and “Is your child a media run-a-away?” I also considered with the judicial term “Restraining Order” to suggest the seriousness of the problem and the need for strong measures to combat it.

I confess I worried that the idea of media abduction might be too strong, so I decided to simply throw it in with a mix of suggestions for my contact to choose from.

My contact wrote right back, “I think I like a combo: ‘Restraining Order: Protecting Your Child from Media Abduction.’"


Together we have arrived at a new, more urgent way of looking at media’s influence on kids. The metaphor suggests criminality (enticement, abduction). And that suggests new, tougher approaches (restraint, restraining order).

The school’s invitation was more than an invitation to give a presentation. It turned out to be an invitation to explore new ways of understanding a growing problem and finding a solution.

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

Christian candidates?

I hope that at some point the Republican presidential candidates will realize that millions of Christians as well as those of other faiths deeply resent the verbal pillorying of those good and moral people who have chosen to have no religious belief.

The candidates, who loudly proclaim their Christianity, need to be reminded that Christ was very clear that love should be unconditional.

Indeed, we might well question whether candidates who ostracize and marginalize the non-religious are Christians at all.

I don’t say that to criticize them as much as to state a fact for them to consider.

They obviously don’t believe they are being hypocritical, but many of us believe they are — and we vote.

Voters should demand that these candidates, given their avowed adherence to Christ’s teachings, speak and act on them.

If doing so costs them the Republican presidential nomination, so be it.

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