Sunday, November 20, 2011

They want us to pay for "White Rabbit" again?

If you had a good memory, and some ear for music, you might know just the right note to hit the button to switch tracks on an 8-track. The tune was just about over and you wanted to hear the first notes of the other one, and you’d learned just when to shift. If you were really good, you might know that hitting the track button twice would take you from the end of “Heart of Gold” to the beginning of “Old Man.”

On a cassette player, you learned when to hit reverse. On Patti Smith’s “Easter” I knew when to reverse it to hit the opening of “Because the Night.” I may never have heard that tape in the order it was recorded. I may never had heard the end of one side or the beginning of the other.

But it was never clear whether the 8-track or the cassette gave the user more control. It depended on the tape. It might be that when you reversed direction or switched the track at the end of “White Rabbit” you’d end up in the middle of some self-indulgent instrumental fueled by too much LSD and the fact that the guitar player really wanted to be playing blues. Or you might get a tune you liked.

And of course both gave you the freedom to listen to the entire tape at once, in order, without getting up to turn the record over. Just as the album had allowed the listener – this was before we were users or consumers – to hear six tracks in a row, maybe seven, a particular convenience if your 45 changer would only hold four at a time. But then the 45 had the convenience that if you left the arm up it would play the same record over and over, “Crimson and Clover” or otherwise, whereas with a 33 you had to get up and move the needle by hand, always creating a hazard of scratching the groove. To this day I expect “Magic Carpet Ride” to begin with “I like to dream-uh … dream-uh … dream-uh.” You could set a quarter on the tone arm to prevent that if the scratch wasn’t too deep.

Then came CDs and even the cheapest player – I owned it – would let you program the order of the songs. Or repeat one endlessly. Or put in more than one CD, in the upscale ones I didn’t own.

Through this all you had the contradictions. One singer used his fame and success to urge people to buy one copy of a book or a magazine and pass it around to all your friends to save paper, while his record company was trying to put a tax on cassette tapes to keep anybody from copying his albums, made from chemicals that filled up our senses a lot more than paper pulp, thank you very much.

And never mind the sound contradictions. Yes, albums sounded better, if for no other reason than the fact that 8-tracks were played mostly in the cabs of pickups.

But we lined up and switched media, because music is about keeping up, even if the best stuff was recorded before the Ford presidency, although I’m sure it’s not his fault. I have a tune from a Brewer and Shipley album that I bought from iTunes. I once bought the 8-track. I have the album in the attic, although it’s probably my sister’s. Three times that tune has been bought. And that’s Brewer and Shipley, ferchrissakes. If you follow the Beatles from mono single to stereo album to 8-track to cassette to CD to remastered CD to iTunes, you’re talking about millions of tunes paid for multiple times.

And that’s a trend that content providers want to keep alive as the Stones and U2 re-release remastered collections and somehow convince Rolling Stone they were good the first time. We’re supposed to buy them. Again. So Bono and Jagger won’t miss any meals.

And if you lifted the arm to hear a tune again, or memorized the track order on an 8-track, or programmed the order on a CD, not to mention if you’ve bought and rented movies on laserdisc, Beta, VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray, you may be tired of buying the media and the players again and again, and you may have a hard time understanding why the companies that bought up the record labels you grew up with need something called SOPA. That’s not a street name for Quaalude, mind you. You’re thinking about sopor, which was phased out because it made you stupid, but now the generation that remembers 45s, fondly or not, is eating Ambien like candy, but that’s another issue.

SOPA isn’t supposed to put you to sleep. It’s supposed to slip in while you are asleep, or so entranced by Casey Anthony and Lindsay Lohan that you might as well be. It will keep you from getting those funny youtube videos because the wrong song is playing in the background, and it will keep you from seeing cops pepper-spraying people because that website was shut down, and it may keep you from reading Jane Austen for free, because certainly nobody’s going to pay you to, and it’s not even designed to do those things. It’s designed to keep record company profits alive so they can pay royalties to Jagger and a living wage to some little guy in PR whose job is to design ads on cable stations that tell you it’s not about Jagger, it’s about the little guy, because the last thing they want is for the consumer to think he’s the little guy. You’re important, and the record companies are willing to pay all this money to keep your media safe. From you. Because you haven’t paid for it enough times.

Google SOPA. Watch a youtube about it while you still can. These people are serious, and they’ve always gotten away with it before.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Absence of Motion, a story that's not about Paul Newman

One of the best movies ever made about American newspaper journalism was a potboiler called “Absence of Malice.” And it had one major thing in common with “All the President’s Men.” It had somebody running up to a car. In the one movie, Paul Newman’s character ran up beside a car to find out who was following him. In the other, Dustin Hoffman ran to the corner where Robert Redford had stopped to pick him up. Neither scene had much to do with the plot of the movie, but both showed up in the movie trailers. In each case, the scene was used because somebody moved.

And there should be a law, and it should have a name, and it should be named after somebody who edits movie trailers for a living. It would say that in order to suggest or promise that somebody will actually move in a film about a profession where people talk on the phone and type, you’re going to have to pull something out of context.

Which is an expression newspaper reporters hate. Sometimes when a source says something was taken out of context, it means he wishes he hadn’t said it. But more often than most writers are willing to admit, it means the reporter didn’t get the full quote, or didn't get the meaning, or just didn't get it. And they’re going to fall back on the tape. “We’re gonna have to raise taxes.” Major lede. Pull quote. Political implications. Right there on the tape.

The source is pissed. But the editor sees the notes, knows the source wishes he hadn’t said it, plans to listen to the tape later if he has to, but it looks like the reporter has it right. Back the reporter and keep an eye on him or her. And destroy or file the tape, whatever the policy is, because unless there’s a suit, and there won’t be over a quote like this, nobody will ever have to listen to it again. The editor knows a dispute like this could always go either way, unless he or she just started yesterday, or works for the DNR.

Because reporters don’t just make things up. “If we go ahead with this project, we’re gonna have to raise taxes, and you know we can’t do that.” Reporter’s got his quote, and he didn’t want to be here anyway, because this meeting isn’t on his beat. He knows the gist of the story, of the project being discussed by the board or council or commission, because he’s read the clips, and they’re never wrong. Nut grafs don’t live and breathe and take root unless there’s something to them. And now you’ve got this guy wanting to raise taxes, and the TV’s there, damnit, so somebody will have to tell folks what really happened, so it’s time to start thinking about deadline because this one can’t sit and cook for a day. And just when you’re stuck in a meeting you don’t really want to cover you’ve got to deal with the problem of being distracted by a TV person. They are usually small, or at least thin, and they carry a huge amount of equipment, and even if they’re not attractive, although most are, you’re going to spend some time looking at them wondering how someone that small carries that much equipment. You are now anyway.

But the guy running up to the car is not the best thing about “Absence of Malice.” The best thing is when the Melinda Dillon character sits on her porch waiting for the newspaper to arrive, and she looks at it, and then she begins running from house to house in her neighborhood picking up all the newspapers so people can’t read what it says about her. Any reporter who can see that scene and can really get it is going to be a better reporter. Because what they have to get is that those few words they write about somebody might be the only words the vast majority of the people in her town ever read about her. And if the story’s not really about her, but she’s just a point that explains something else in the story, then there’s going to be even less there to add some body and nuance and character and context to the only thing most people will ever know about her. The only thing. That’s it. End of story. 30.

That’s something I’d often sum up by telling a reporter, “You’re going to write eight stories this week, but that person will only be in the newspaper once (in their life) (this year) (this month).” Too often the reporter heard how many stories he or she was going to write and stopped listening. There are 40 or so cars dropping kids off at the elementary school in the morning, and the people in each one know each other to talk to, and all the others know about one of them is caught up in those 300 words in the newspaper last week. The sanctuary of the church holds 800 people, and all that most of them know about the guy sitting over there with his family is what was in the newspaper. Dozens of people cross the parking lot every morning, and one day one of them notices another and knows it’s that woman who was in the newspaper.

And the source knows that. And maybe they’re proud of what was in there, or maybe they’re not. Maybe what was written could have stood another sentence of explanation, or maybe the source is relieved that the reporter didn’t ask just one more question. Maybe the source was the main course in the story, or a side dish, or maybe just a condiment whose moment of local fame comes from the editor asking for some more color in the story.

Morning finds the reporter, like Frost’s breeze in “Wind and Winter Flower,” already one hundred miles away. The source may feel as cool as Paul Newman. He or she may feel just brushed by the breeze. Or they might be running from lawn to lawn picking up the newspaper and wondering who you see about taking something back.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Julie and the Mayor

There is a woman working in the Charlottesville Old Navy who would look just like Jodie Foster if her hair were not black. I noticed her and knew I could do a couple of things. I could stalk her around the store until I figured out who she looked like, or I could ask her if she’d ever been told she looked like someone famous. She reacted with the appropriate embarrassment and said, yes, that actress in “Silence of the Lambs.” I saw it then, and would have figured it out except for the hair.

It made me think of Julie, who did look like Jodie Foster, light hair and all, or at least she did when she had the hair cut to just past chin length, except nobody ever noticed it. Maybe it was because she wore her hair longer when she was at the newspaper, or maybe it was because she was so self-possessed that she could mirror Elvis’s claim, “I don’t sound like nobody.” Or look, in her case.

Julie was technically beautiful, but it was rarely an issue on the job. She tended not to let it be. There was never a hint of acknowledgement in anything she did. If it was an issue – a problem – it was someone else’s.

That someone else, as it turned out, was the mayor of one of the small towns that speckle Rockingham County. Julie had gone to cover the town council meeting and as she entered the council chambers, the mayor greeted her by walking by her and swatting her on the ass. Not to put too pretty a face on it, he sexually and physically assaulted her in a way that said he thought he could get away with it or he was too old and ignorant to know there was anything wrong with it.

Julie came back from the meeting either stunned or amazed or shaken, and maybe a little of all three. As she told me about it, I realized that there was something missing from her tale, something that I still expected then, in the early 1990s, something I would almost certainly have seen ten years before. There was absolutely no sense on her part of having done anything wrong. Her attitude, blessedly, was that it was her ass, and he had touched it, without permission, while she was working.

Ken, the managing editor, was going out of town the next day, so I wrote up a memo for his boss, the general manager, Dick. My best memory is that I just ran through the options, from helping Julie push a criminal case, to what I saw as the very least, a story on the front page of the paper.

It’s hard for me to say that they didn’t do anything. Partly because then I have to admit I didn’t resign, and partly because they did do something. They wrote me up, slipped a letter of reprimand into my file, for two things. One was going over the managing editor’s head to the general manager. The other was for what they saw as exaggerated and inflammatory wording in the memo to Dick. Because they didn’t think it was an assault.

But I didn’t resign, partly because I had a family, partly because they hadn’t met my standards. I had decided a couple of years before, when we were still actively covering up a series of sexual assaults on delivery boys, that I had to be better prepared, to decide in advance how much I could stand. In this case, I had decided I was going to resign if either Ken or Dick asked what she was wearing. And they at least didn’t meet that standard. Eventually they would fire me, for complaining about Julie’s assault and a number of other issues they saw as equally annoying and showing equally faulty judgment. I should have left by then, because I kept coming up with the standards. I started too many days telling myself if they stop short of such and such a level of idiocy on this issue, I won’t quit. I can keep working. Because I loved the job when those two were out of the building.

Ken went on to be the oldest man ever to play college basketball, without ever realizing it was a stunt. He was serious about it. Dick left his profession in disgrace after being caught selling news stories. I don’t know if he was still teaching his class in business ethics at the time.

The class apparently didn’t include assaults. At least not in this case. Because that’s not what they thought it was. Mink called me into his office to show me the letter of reprimand, and to explain to me what I was obviously too dumb to understand. “Dick said it wasn’t an assault,” Ken explained, condescendingly. “The mayor was just trying to cop a feel.”

I remember laughing, and I remember that Ken had no idea why I was. He didn’t get angry, or seem offended, and actually smiled with me. He had opened up a door, and stepped through a time warp from a 1950s sitcom, and didn’t know he was standing in 1993. He had no idea where he was, or what the world was like, only that in the insulated comfort of the Daily News-Record newsroom, he could say something like that and be safe from any hint that the world had changed for the better and that ten years later, in that same newsroom, someone would be fired for sexually harassing a fellow employee. But in 1993, the mayor was just trying to cop a feel.

We didn’t agree that I would be the one to speak to Julie. It never came up. Ken and Dick didn’t think there was any need to tell her anything. The issue was settled, and there was no need to do anything else. But I will always be grateful for one thing about Julie’s angry response. “You mean they’re not going to do anything?” she asked, and I felt a sense of relief that she had said “they.” Not that the story was all about me, but by then, to the bosses, it was. I was the one in trouble.

Julie wasn’t in trouble. They figured she was young, and just didn’t know any better.